The Ultimate San Diego Bucket List
Been there, done that? No, you haven’t. Whether you’re a native or a newcomer, we’ve got 50 things (in no particular order) every San Diegan must do. Now, get started!
How San Diego are you?
How many have you done? Check ’em off and total!
0-10: You must be new here. Welcome, friend!
11-20: Official San Diegan.
21-40: You could start a tour guide business (or work at SDM!).
41+: You should run for mayor!
1 Ride the Giant Dipper at Belmont Park.
Mission Beach’s wooden roller coaster has been around for 91 years, but this to-do only takes a minute and 45 seconds to complete.
2 Take your kids to the MCAS Miramar Air Show.
You’ve seen nothing until you’ve seen the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels fly in formation. And no, watching the F/A-18 Hornets while sitting in traffic on the 805 doesn’t count. September 23–25, 2016.
3 Visit the Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Take in a view of the Pacific from a totally different vantage point as you paraglide above Black’s Beach. Feeling a little phobic? The view as a spectator can be just as breathtaking.
4 Play in or watch the Over-the-Line Tournament.
The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club hosts its 63rd annual tournament this summer on Fiesta Island. The three- to four-inning batting game is free and open to the public. It’s a rowdy San Diego tradition.
5 Make a splash at the Marine Room’s High Tide Breakfast.
On select dates, the water explodes against the La Jolla restaurant’s windows. It’s just enough to momentarily distract a person from her Grand Marnier Chocolate Brioche French Toast. $38 per person; January 10, February 6 and 7.
6 Visit the USS Midway.
The aircraft carrier served in the Cold War and is now a maritime museum. From the flight deck, visitors can see panoramic views of the bay, Coronado, Point Loma, and beyond. While you’re at it, head down the street to the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship.
7 See a show at the Belly Up or Casbah.
Big and respected names perform at these intimate, storied venues. This month: Paula Cole and Ladysmith Black Mambazo!
8 Go whale watching.
Every winter, gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja to breed. At nearly 50 feet long (babies are 16 feet!), these graceful creatures are a sight to behold.
9 Drink a Mai Tai at the Bali Hai.
These infamous cocktails are served in one of San Diego’s most beautiful waterfront settings. But sip with caution. One and you’ll forget your troubles. Two and you’ll forget your name. Three and you’ll forget... your clothes.
10 Catch a lobster.
Why? Be-“claws” they’re delicious! California spiny lobster season runs from late September through mid-March. Be sure to get a fishing license and lobster report card beforehand, and know the legal limits (only a certain amount of hoop nets and lobsters are allowed per person; size is also regulated). The “bugs” are nocturnal creatures, so go at night.
Next level: Cook a lobster in your kitchen.
11 Ride the Surfliner to L.A.
There’s something romantic about traveling on a rail so close to the beach. The Amtrak ride is $37 one way and far more scenic compared to other stretches such as NYC to Boston.
12 Explore the tide pools at low tide.
Not only do we have marine life in our backyard, but we’ve got world-renowned scientists to illuminate it for us. Take a guided tour with Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. January 9 and 23, February 7 and 20.
13 Tour a craft brewery.
The county is home to more than 100 breweries—support the industry, support San Diego.
Next level: Brew your own beer.
Next next level: Grow your own hops.
Expert level: Open a nanobrewery.
14 Sing along with Rick Lyon at the Imperial House.
Rick who? If you don’t know, then you must venture to the Imperial House in Bankers Hill on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night. Bring your dancing shoes.
15 Practice yoga on the beach.
Swap a playlist of ocean sounds for the real thing. Get your downward dog on while soaking in ocean views along Coronado, Pacific Beach, and other coastal locales. Just remember to pack SPF and sunglasses. For locations, check scenicyoga.com.
16 Bike the bay or Coronado’s Silver Strand on a Beach Cruiser.
Feel the wind in your hair and brake for beautiful sunsets.
17 Compete in a triathlon.
San Diego is the birthplace of the modern triathlon, after all. Other iconic races: La Jolla Rough Water Swim (100 years old), the Carlsbad 5000 (world’s fastest 5K), and the USA Half Marathon San Diego Invitational (the first “qualifiers only” half marathon).
18 Hike Potato Chip Rock.
You’ve seen your friends brag about it on Facebook; now it’s time to claim the glory for yourself. Climb Poway’s steep Mount Woodson trail to the iconic “Potato Chip,” a precariously thin slab jutting out over the canyon. Weekend waits for the money shot can be lengthy. Make sure you lend your camera to someone who knows how to keep their thumb out of the picture.
Feel a sense of history at the Hotel del Coronado.
If you haven’t been to the Del (and really, we can’t believe that you haven’t), here’s a short list of must-do’s:
19 Brunch in the Crown Room.
Yeah, it costs $93 per person, but if you drink enough mimosas or Bloody Marys (they’re bottomless, by the way), you’ll feel a lot less pain when you get the bill at the end.
20 Rent a cabana on the beach.
Simply the chicest way to enjoy the beach that has consistently been voted one of the best in America. (No need to be a guest.)
21 Snap a photo by the Christmas tree.
No one does holidays better than the Del, with its 100,000 twinkling lights. The tree in the lobby is always a stunner, with a special theme each year and a collectible ornament.
22 Ice-skate on the beach.
That’s right. During the holidays, the Del has a skating rink right next to the sand, with views of the crashing waves. Take that, East Coast!
23 Climb the California Tower.
It’s been off-limits to the public since 1935, but last year, the building opened its doors to commemorate the Balboa Park centennial. Forty-minute tours run 10 times a day. Reservations—and your camera—are a must.
24 Go apple picking in Julian.
The season typically runs from September to mid-October. Afterward, stop for a slice of Dutch apple pie at the Julian Pie Company. If you miss apple picking season but visit in the winter, you might see snow! Editor’s pick: Fruit bars at Dudley’s Famous Bakery in Santa Ysabel.
Learn more about Julian in our Neighborhood Guide.
25 Cruise the Cliffs.
You’ve seen images of Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in movies about surfing and California too many times to count. Now it’s time to get out and enjoy them in person, whether on foot, bike, or board. Go at sunset—they got their name for a reason.
26 Kayak La Jolla Cove.
Companies like Bike and Kayak Tours and Everyday California will take you through several caves in La Jolla, where you’ll see leopard sharks and more.
27 Watch a show under the stars.
Enjoying year-round outdoor concerts and theater are an added perk of San Diego’s great weather. Venues include Humphreys Concerts by the Bay (stellar musical acts in an intimate setting), the Summer Pops (surprisingly extensive wine list, plus fireworks), Moonlight Amphitheatre (picnic beforehand and watch a musical in your sleeping bag), and the Old Globe’s annual Shakespeare Festival in Balboa Park (Wouldst thou have the attention span for this? Verily!).
Next level: Hop in a dinghy or kayak and listen to a concert for free in the bay beside Humphreys. That’s how the locals do it!
28 Bet on a horse at the races.
It’s not really about Bing Crosby or the hat contest or getting loopy on the double Del Margarita. It’s about the thrill of cheering on your horse from last place to first. You don’t have to bet a lot—wagers start at $2.
29 Say a little prayer at the Mission.
Known as the “Mother of the Missions,” the Mission Basilica de Alcalá is California’s first church and the oldest of the state’s 21 missions. It also marks the birthplace of Christianity and Catholicism on the West Coast. The main building and its surrounding grounds are beautiful and rich with history. Light a candle for someone in need.
30 Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Old Town.
As if we needed a reason to down a birdbath margarita. Contrary to popular belief, this date commemorates Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla—not their Independence Day.
31 Eat a fish taco at the original Rubio’s on Mission Bay Drive.
Thanks to Ralph Rubio, who reportedly brought the dish up from San Felipe, we enjoy fish tacos aplenty today. Pay respect with a visit to his first restaurant, which opened in 1983.
32 Hike Torrey Pines.
In case you haven’t heard: the rare Pinus torreyana is found in only two places in the world—in La Jolla and on Santa Rosa Island, off the Santa Barbara coast. But it’s the ocean views that never fail to wow locals and their out-of-town guests.
33 Stroll through the U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge and Dimensional Art Exposition.
Every Labor Day weekend, sand artists from around the world create sculptures out of 300 tons of sand on the B Street pier.
34 Gorge yourself at the Westgate Hotel’s Sunday brunch.
This is no ordinary brunch. Held in the opulent Le Fontainebleau room—think crystal chandeliers and Versailles decor—this white-tablecloth affair includes unlimited Champagne, crêpes, pastries, fresh seafood, and more for $50.
35 See a pre-Broadway show at La Jolla Playhouse or The Old Globe.
Newsflash: The theater scene in San Diego is top-notch. When you hear people whisper that a show is going to New York, buy a ticket and go see it. Shows that started here and went on to Broadway fame include Into the Woods, The Who’s Tommy, and Jersey Boys.
Next level: See a Without Walls production by the La Jolla Playhouse. Imagine blindfolds, scavenger hunts, and a totally immersive theater experience.
36 Ride in a hot air balloon.
2016 may see the end of San Diego ballooning as we know it. Because of land development and the outlawing of balloons in public parks, launch and landing sites are dwindling fast. Only a few companies, like Panorama Balloon Tours and Sky’s the Limit, are still in operation. Up, up, and away!
37 Drink a Whaler at La Valencia.
The La Jolla hotel, known as the “Pink Lady” or “La V” to locals, serves a boozy milkshake called the Whaler at the hotel’s first-floor Café La Rue.
38 Walk across the Coronado Bridge.
Pedestrians are only allowed on the bridge once a year, during the Navy’s annual Bay Bridge Run/Walk in May. All skill levels are welcome to participate in the four-mile trek, from time-chipped competitors to moms pushing strollers. No matter how fast you go, don’t forget to take in that amazing view.
Next level: Bike the bridge, during the annual Bike the Bay in August.
39 Take a surfing lesson.
Because the first thing anyone outside of California asks when you tell them where you’re from is “Do you surf?”
Next level: Teach your dog to surf.
40 Watch the grunion run.
Twice a month during spring and summer, silver grunion leave the water to spawn on the beach. It happens during a two-hour window late at night. At peak times, it looks like there are millions of fish shimmering on the sand.
41 Eat Swedish meatballs at December Nights in Balboa Park.
Despite the ever-increasing crowds, we still think the Swedish meatballs and glögg at the event formerly known as Christmas on the Prado are worth it. Don’t miss the Christmas tree decorating contest!
42 Witness a Red Tide.
When algae blooms big-time, it creates a blue glow in the ocean waves on warm summer nights. Blow your mind with bioluminescence!
43 Walk across the border.
With Mexico just 16 miles from downtown, it’s a crime against culture not to venture to Baja for excellent food, shopping, and wine. Take the trolley to San Ysidro—or park in one of the hourly lots—and simply walk through the revolving doors. (Don’t forget your passport!) The line back into the U.S. can vary from easy to expletive-inducing, but there are churros in the queue!
44 Drive to Borrego Springs.
Stay at La Casa del Zorro, the famed inn once owned by the Copley family and visited by U.S. presidents. The recently renovated property is still as charming as ever.
45 Spy a giant panda at the zoo.
Our giant pandas, on loan from China, are super cute and endangered. Go first thing in the morning, on a weekday—otherwise you’ll have to wait in a long line. Tip: In the early springtime, there are always lots of babies on display.
Next level: Get a tax- deductible season pass.
46 Grip it and rip it on a PGA golf course.
The north and south courses at Torrey Pines Golf Course offer stunning ocean views and are home to the PGA Tour’s annual Farmers Insurance Open. Walk the greens where so many of the greats have also tread, preferably before the drought makes everything brown.
47 Play disc golf at Morley Field.
If your swing and/or pocketbook aren’t up to par, try tossing a Frisbee into a metal net. Walking the course is great exercise, and at $3 or $4 a day, it’s much cheaper than real golf. This is one the whole fam, including the pups, can enjoy.
48 Enjoy a meal at Mister A’s.
It’s a San Diego institution 50 years in the making. And oh, that view! Go for happy hour. The truffle fries are divine, the martinis are heavenly, and the view is the same (maybe even better) from the deck where HH is served.
Next level: Get a reservation on Valentine’s Day.
49 Walk to the end of the Ocean Beach Pier.
It’s the longest concrete pier on the West Coast. Although it’s a little dirty and smells like fish, standing at the end feels like standing in the middle of the ocean.
50 Do the holidays nautical style.
Every December, local boat owners deck their decks and cruise the bay during the annual Parade of Lights. Anyone is welcome to participate, but it’s also fun just to watch. The Coronado Ferry Landing and Shelter and Harbor islands provide great vantage points. Bring hot cocoa and a lawn chair.
For extra credit (but it should be required!)
» Learn how to drive in the rain.
Next level: Learn how to drive in El Niño.
» Hike or run up Cowles Mountain.
Next level: Get over your fear of snakes.
» See a Padres, Chargers (unless they leave us), Gulls ($2 beers!), Sockers, and Aztecs game.
Next level: Attend them all in one year.
» Learn conversational Spanish.
Next level: Go to Mexico and speak to locals.
Photography by Robert Benson, Justin L’Heureux, Paul Body, Shutterstock