Authored by Heather Hopkins
Best known for its beautiful beaches and parks and its near-perfect weather, San Diego is a popular destination along the southern Californian coast. With opportunities for wildlife viewing as well as a range of cultural, natural, and historic attractions available, you’ll never be at a loss for things to do.
There are many incredible experiences in San Diego for those with a large budget, from hot air ballooning with an ocean view to incredibly delicious and innovative dining scene. However this is a fantastic destination for the budget traveler too, and there are just as many incredible experiences for those who don’t want to spend their life savings.
The following is a budget guide to San Diego from my local point of view; things to do that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, while still getting the full San Diego experience.
Things to Do in San Diego on a Budget
If you’re on a budget you’ll also want budget accommodation. Search this map to find hotels & Airbnbs in San Diego before you start planning your itinerary:
There are a lot of great things to do in San Diego. You can spend a day at the San Diego Zoo and another at the Safari Park. You can rent kayaks and paddle the San Diego Bay, take the kids to LEGOLAND, peruse museums at Balboa Park, explore the USS Midway and the Maritime Museum, and spend a day shopping and dining in Old Town.
That said, these are all popular tourist attractions, and admission is not cheap. Your entrance fees will quickly add up if you try to take everything in. Prioritize one or two, picking which are most important to you. You can spend the rest of your time enjoying popular local activities which are free or very cheap. Here are a few suggestions:
Hit the Beach
San Diego has 17 miles of coastline, so the beach is a popular way to spend the day. Whether you’re interested in swimming, surfing, whale watching, playing volleyball, or sunning, the beaches here are consistently ranked among the best in America.
There are nice beaches all over the county, but my suggestion is to head up to North County, which in my opinion has the best beaches in the county.
A popular way to end the day is by watching the sunset from the beach and then striking up a bonfire at one of the many public fire pits. Be sure to get there early, as both locals and visitors claim the fire pits quickly.
Balboa Park … On a Budget
Balboa Park is a must-see when you’re in town, but if you add up entry into all the museums in the park, it can get expensive pretty quickly. Luckily, there are many experiences throughout the park which are free.
Exploring the park itself is free of charge, and there are all kinds of street performers and interesting people out and about while you’re enjoying the beautiful scenery.
There are plenty of walking trails and gardens all over the park, as well as the Timken Museum of Art; a small art museum with a great collection and free entry. There is the Spreckles Organ Pavilion which hosts free organ concerts on Sundays, and if you’re visiting in March-October, check out the International Houses on Sundays.
Kayaking or Paddle Boarding For Less
There are places to rent kayaks and paddle boards all over the county. Local tip: check Groupon and Living Social before you go.
Carlsbad Lagoon is always offering discounts on these kind of sites, and you can often find a two-hour rental for $25. This includes two-person kayaks, so if you’re traveling with somebody, you can split the cost and spend two hours paddling on the water for practically nothing.
Experience the Hotel Del Coronado Without Spending a Fortune
The Hotel Del Coronado is one of San Diego’s iconic sights. One night at the hotel, however, will cost you a small fortune, and even dining in the restaurants will give you a serious case of sticker shock.
You can still enjoy the hotel’s beautiful ambiance without throwing your life savings though. Head on over to the Sun Deck Bar and Grill, snag a table with an ocean view, and order a drink.
The drinks are expensive, but you’re paying for the experience, not the alcohol. Drink it slowly. Relax. Soak in the atmosphere. Laugh because you didn’t spend $100 on dinner but you got to hang out at the hotel anyway!
San Diego is a city full of outdoor enthusiasts, and we San Diegans love our outdoor activities! Why not do as the locals do and go on a hike?
We have several really cool trails around the area. A few favorites of mine are Iron Mountain, Mount Woodson (also known as “Potato Chip Rock”), and my personal favorite, Torrey Pines.
If you have a little extra time, also check out Annie’s Canyon Trail in Solana Beach, which is a short but awesome hike through a super narrow canyon. After hiking, you might try staying at nearby San Diego RV parks and campgrounds. Happy trails!
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Photo credits: Featured photo by Bill Dickinson. San Diego Aglow Pinterest Image by Justin Brown. Pinterest image Paddle Boarding in Coronado by Daniel Cruz Valle. Windansea beach by Michael Foley. Sunset beach & Paddleboarding by Nathan Rupert. Torrey Pines by Mike Procario.