No-Cost Fun in San Diego, California - My Family Travels

San Diego's temperate climate, rich history, ethnic culture, and art offer budget savings for family travelers.

California’s second largest city of San Diego attracts year-round visitors with 70-miles of beaches along the Pacific Ocean, access to the Anza-Borrego Desert and views of the Laguna Mountains. It’s no secret the city’s 4,200 square-miles of temperate climate and coastal beauty isn’t necessarily celebrated as a popular budget destination getaway. But like any contemporary city worth its salt, San Diego offers plenty of no-cost fun for the frugal traveler at heart.

Nature and the Great Outdoors

The bluffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve (858/755-2063, 12500 North Torrey Pines Road, San Diego CA 92037) are located within San Diego city limits, but still remain one of the wildest and most rustic stretches along Southern California’s coast. Watch for hang gliders and paragliders sailing the currents accompanied by seabirds, pines, and unspoiled beaches. There’s 8 miles to choose from, or hit them all for an especially adventurous day at the reserve. Stop by the visitor’s center for maps or take a free, guided walk on weekends and holidays at 10am and 2pm.

Whether you’re a window shopaholic, have kids looking to play outdoors, or a husband wandering off to play with the latest gadgets, you can please everyone with a visit to Seaport Village (619/232-7616, 849 West Harbor Drive, #D, San Diego, CA 92101) with over 50 shops, 17 eateries, and outdoor recreation. Keep your wallet tucked away while perusing the shops, watching the ships along the marina, and looking for fish at the lagoon.

Flying kites is a favorite pastime that kids never seem to outgrow. Just look at the number of adults flying their own creations in the fields of Mission Bay Park‘s Tecolote Shores (619/276-8200). With nearly 4,600-acres of aquatic playground, there’s plenty of room for everyone. Bikers and joggers can also explore more than 20 miles of scenic trails near the shoreline.

Lather up with sunscreen and grab your swimsuit, San Diego Beaches are all open to the public for a day of free swimming, body surfing, sandcastle building, and seashell collecting. You can also get a glimpse of local marine life and curious sea lions playing along the shores of La Jolla and Cove. The clear waters and temperate climate also make for ideal snorkeling conditions.

Enjoy mystery and moonlight under the stars at one of San Diego’s most popular phenomenon: the Grunion Run. During summer months, thousands of small fish swim ashore to mate and bury their eggs in the sand before catching a ride back out to sea on a wave. Try Mission Beach for a close-up view, and be forewarned that little ones might have all kinds of questions afterwards on the facts of life. But chances are they’ll just think it’s cool to see the fish right up on the sand.

During summer, you can catch live music and entertainment at the House of Public Relations in Balboa Park (619/239-0512, 1549 El Prado, San Diego CA 92101). Their popular lawn programs are held every Sunday through the summer with ethnic song and dance. Before you settle in for an evening of music and a picnic, take a free visit to the Botanical Building and outdoor gardens.

Go stargazing with the best of the San Diego Astronomy Association at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (619/238-1233, 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101). You can foster your child’s inner astronaut with a free visit on the first Wednesday of every month. Watch while “Gazin’ with the Experts” sets up their collection of huge telescopes and offers guests a complimentary view of the planets, moon, and stars.

The world famous San Diego Zoo (619/231-1515, 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, CA 92112) honors children during the month of October with free admission for those 11-years and younger. Currently, the first Monday of October is Zoo Founders Day and offers free admission to the public. Crowds are usually more intense on free days, so try to get there early to beat the late risers. Stop by the Children’s Zoo, Tiger River, Sun Bear Forest, and Reptile Forest.

Step Back in Time

If you’re an architecture buff, trick the kids into going on a historic tour of Victorian architecture by telling them it’s where Wyatt Earp use to get into trouble. The 16½-block historic Gaslamp Quarter (619/233-5227, 614 5th Ave., Ste E, San Diego, CA 92101) houses an inspired collection of turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture and old gas lamps right downtown. Start your tour at Fourth Avenue and E Street, at Horton Plaza and end at Fourth Avenue and F Street. You’ll fare better during the day when the crowds haven’t hit the evening hotspots yet. There are also unique and funky boutiques, cafes, and restaurants to duck into if you’re in the mood to splurge.

Pay homage to San Diego’s Mexican heritage at State Historic Park (800/777-0369, located at San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street in San Diego) where flamenco dancers entertain and international shops open their doors to guests. Take a self-guided tour through the park’s historic buildings including the blacksmith shop, San Diego’s first newspaper office, the city’s oldest schoolhouse, Casa de Estudillo, and Casa de Machado y Stewart. All the museums in the state park are also free, and there’s plenty to choose from.  If you have grown kids, try the nearby Tequila Museum for an insider’s look at this popular spirit. Or venture to one of the most haunted spots in the country, The Whaley House.

The kids will hardly notice they’re partaking in a history tour with the colorful murals at Chicano Park (1970 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113) symbolizing San Diego’s Mexican and Chicano history. There’s even murals painted by local grade school children to depict their own interpretation of their city’s history.

Get a taste of San Diego’s historical legacy with a stop in the century-old gold mining town of Julian (760/765-1857, 2129 Main Street, Julian, CA 92036). Located in the Cuyamaca Mountains, you can pick up a map from the Chamber of Commerce and take a self-guided walking tour and splurge for a slice of their homemade apple pie made with fresh apples from their orchards.

Arts, Culture, And More

The Museum of Contemporary Art (619/234-1001, 1001 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101) offers art lovers free admission on the third Tuesday of the month at its La Jolla and downtown facilities. Or stop by the first Thursday of the month for their TNT (Thursday Night Thing) at their downtown galleries. You’ll get to meet San Diego artists and learn more about visual art installations, live music, dance, and performance pieces.

The U.S. Olympic Training Center (888/OLY-TOUR, 2800 Olympic Pkwy, Chula Vista, CA 91915) offers free tours of its training facility where the best athletes around the world have trained. The155-acres complex lies adjacent to Lower Otay Reservoir in San Diego County and houses archery, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, field hockey, rowing, soccer, softball, tennis, track and field, and triathlon. Each year approximately 4,000 athletes come to the year-round, warm-weather climate in Chula Vista to train.

Adults or families with grown-kids can take a drive through North County’s wine region and stop for a free wine tasting at Southern California’s oldest operating winery, Bernardo Winery (858/487-1866, 13330 Paseo Del Verano N, San Diego CA 92128). Just 25 miles from downtown San Diego, you can relax and tour the grounds, nearby artist shops, and enjoy live jazz on the patio.  If you need an excuse to imbibe, just tell the kids the winery is on your history tour, it’s been operating since 1889.

The New Children’s Museum (619/233-8792, 200 West Island Avenue, San Diego, California 92101) offers free admission on the second Sunday of every month. Their interactive galleries, ongoing weekly programs, and Childsplay exhibit are all designed to engaged children and families through learning and fun. Children get hands on experience with paint, clay, paper, wood, and found objects, so prepare to get a little messy.


For more information on no-cost attractions in San Diego, or for printable coupons to the city’s hot spots, visit or call 619/236-1212.

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