San Diego is one of the most fascinating cities along the entire Pacific Coast Highway, with no shortage of things to do whether you want a family vacation, a romantic getaway or a cultural city break.
San Diego retains its California west coast charm, has some good beaches, excellent whale watching opportunities, a host of very varied and very enjoyable museums, and some of the best wildlife attractions in the whole United States: SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
If you're wondering when is the best time to visit San Diego, check out this calendar of San Diego events for a list of things to do when in San Diego.
Visitor Center, 1549 El Prado. Tel: (619) 239-0512
Undoubtedly one of the finest city parks in the USA with not only its gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, but also museums, theaters, golf, tennis, swimming pools, velodrome and many other recreational facilities. See our separate page devoted to getting the most from visiting Balboa Park.
San Diego's downtown nightlife quarter can trace its history back to 1867, when it was founded. In those days and during San Diego's Gold Rush days in the 1870s, the Gaslamp Quarter was notorious for the many dubious pleasures that were available there. In the 1900s it was known as the Stingaree District, allegedly because it was as easy to get stung here as by a stingray in San Diego Bay. It's not quite so wild and dangerous today, being now a national historic district of old houses, restaurants and nightclubs, and the place to be for Mardi Gras in San Diego.
1492 N. Harbor Drive, Embarcadero
This nautical museum covers six ships, including the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley and the 1863 Star of India tall ship. Some are replicas, and that of the 19th-century revenue cutter, the Californian, takes to sea, mainly at weekends.
The Midway Museum
910 N. Harbor Drive, Downtown
One of San Diego's surprising big draws is the fascinating self-guided tour round the USS Midway, the navy's longest-serving aircraft carrier. It saw duty for 47 years from 1945-91, and at 1,001-feet-long it was the largest in the world for the first ten years of its life.
Mingei International Museum of Folk Art
1439 El Prado, Balboa Park
Enchanting permanent collection and visiting exhibitions covering toys, textiles, ceramics, costumes, paintings – anything that can be described as 'folk art', from all over the world. The name of the museum is Japanese for the 'art of all people', and it's a delightful and ever-changing display.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
1001 Kettner Blvd, Downtown
This is the downtown San Diego branch of the main Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego – La Jolla, and is housed in what was the old railway station's baggage building. After a recent renovation it now holds rotating shows in its four galleries, and arts events in its new contemporary art space. (And don't forget to visit their other branch in La Jolla.)
Museum of Photographic Arts
Casa de Balboa, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
Arguably the best photographic museum in the United States, with a collection that includes great names like Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Changing exhibitions cover both the history of photography and challenging contemporary works, with a movie theater that shows cinema classics.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
2001 Pan American Plaza, Balboa Park
Dozens of real aircraft and some replicas fill every inch of room here, covering the history of flight from the earliest days through to today's space race, including the Apollo 9 space capsule. It's a popular family favorite, with plenty of hands-on activities.
San Diego Automotive Museum
2080 Pan American Plaza, Balboa Park
The history of cars and motorcycles from the late 19th century right through to today's more famous models. There are also changing exhibitions and live events, so you might want to check the program before planning a visit.
San Diego Hall of Champions
2131 Pan American Plaza, Balboa Park
Videos, photos, memorabilia, computer displays on sports from basketball and baseball to skateboarding and, of course, surfing. An activity area gives visitors chance to try some activities for themselves.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Casa de Balboa, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
Contains the largest indoor model railroad in the world, and even if you're not an enthusiast the size of the scale-model tracks and the accuracy of the California and San Diego terrain is mind-blowing.
San Diego Museum of Art
Casa de Balboa, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
San Diego's main art musuem is a shining example of how to make art accessible to people. As well as works by masters like Rubens, Goya, Giotto and El Greco, it has computers that enable you to design your own tour of the collection and make your own prints. There's a lovely outdoor Sculpture Garden, and the permanent collections have particularly strong coverage of European Art, Californian Art and Asian Art.
San Diego Museum of Man
1350 El Prado, Balboa Park
Housed in the California Building, which has become a symbol of San Diego and featured in the Orson Welles movie Citizen Kane, the Museum of Man features art and crafts from the Native Americans of the Southwestern region, from native peoples in Mexico and Central America, and from South America.
San Diego Natural History Museum
1788 El Prado, Balboa Park
Over 7.5 million items are held here, from dinosaur models and fossils to live creatures, lectures and large-screen movies.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
15500 San Pasqual Valley Road
Allow at least a day to explore these 1800 acres where over 3500 animals live in natural habitats, helping the Park's work to preserve endangered species. From Australian rain forests to the African plains where the Lion Camp is a popular attraction. Don't miss the Kilimanjaro Safari Walk, the Kilimanjaro Safari Walk, the Hidden Jungle and Condor Ridge, which has helped save Californian condors from extinction. In fact, don't miss anything. You're sure to want to return.
San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park
The San Diego Zoo is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest zoos, and not be be missed by anyone visiting the city. It covers over 40 acres where about 4000 animals live in conditions that are as close to natural habitats as possible. From the steamy Asian rain forest of Tiger River to the icy Polar Bear Plunge, and from the Children's Zoo to the Giant Panda Research Station, San Diego Zoo deserves at least one day of your time, and probably two to do it justice.
SeaWorld San Diego
500 Sea World Drive, Mission Bay
Another of San Diego's full days out for anyone who loves animals, SeaWorld San Diego covers 189 acres and combines entertainment shows, theme park rides and conservation programs like the Manatee Rescue. Arrive early for shows like the spectacular Believe, which features Shamu the Killer Whale, and don't miss the Shark Encounter.
Timken Museum of Art
1500 El Prado, Balboa Park
It would be easy to sip this tiny building but you'd be missing the gems inside which include works by masters including El Greco, Rembrandt and Rubens, as well as a fine collection of Russian icons.
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To help you in choosing your Pacific Coast Highway hotel, guesthouse, inn, bed-and-breakfast, resort, motel or other accommodations, we've prepared our Pacific Coast Highway Hotels Guide. In it we do mini-reviews of accommodations along the Highway, from Seattle to San Diego, through Washington, Oregon, and California.
In all there are over 200 hotels listed, complete with 8 pages of color maps showing the towns where our recommended hotels can be found. There are both alphabetical and geographical indexes, helping you plan your journey.
We also include color photos of all the hotels that are our Personal Favorites. Here's the link to read more about our ebook guide to Pacific Coast Highway hotels.
The 2018 edition of our Hotels Guide is available for the Kindle, with maps and photos in color, if you have a color reader. You can buy it in the US Kindle Store and in the UK Kindle Store and around the world.
If you want a paperback edition of the 2016 guide with only black and white photos and black-and-white maps, it costs $6.99 at the US Amazon Book Store and £4.99 in the UK Amazon Store.