Frugal San Diego: Free Things to Do in the Emerald City

Frugal San Diego: Free Things to Do in the Emerald City

San Diego has many attractions and historical sites. Some require money while others do not. Here are 28 free things that you can do and still have fun.

It's a fact—you do not need money to have fun. There are so many things that can be done at no cost that if we should sit down and think about them, we would be amazed at how long the list becomes. San Diego, California, is a very big place that people visit every year, spending lots of money to get things done and enjoy themselves. If you really want to ease up on your budget, then pay attention to the following free things that you can do in San Diego.

1. The Beaches

There are many public white sand beaches in San Diego that you can visit with the entire family. You can have fun all day swimming, building sand castles, playing beach ball, jogging on the sand, surfing, or taking a tan. You can visit Mission Beach, Carlsbad Beaches, San Onofre, Ocean Beach, Del Mar Beaches, Jolla Beaches, and Point Loma Beaches. More information and the location of those beaches can be found at: http://www.sandiego.org/what-to-do/beaches.aspx.

2. Cabrillo National Monument Park

The Cabrillo National Monument Park is referred to as San Diego’s only true National Park. It allows visitors to delve into the rich history and culture of the area along with its natural resources. There are many things to see in the Park itself. While strolling at your own speed, check out the "Age of Exploration" exhibit, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, the Military building, and Whale Overlook. You will also be able to see over three hundred native plants that are beautiful and captivating.

Contact Information:

Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92106
Phone: (619) 557-5450
Fax: (619) 226-6311
Website: http://www.nps.gov/cabr

3. Public Parks

San Diego has 20 spacious and beautifully landscaped parks that the public can visit. You can sit and have a picnic, lie under a tree and read a book, play Frisbee with family and friends, rest and relax, or just meet up and chat with old friends. The parks that you can include in your travel plans are Cesar Chavez Park, Dunes Park, Fifth Avenue Landing Park, Chula Vista Bayfront Park, Portwood Pier Plaza, Chula Vista Bayside Park, Tuna Harbor Park, Embarcadero Marina Park North, Chula Vista Marina View Park, Lane Field Park, Spanish Landing Park, Grand Caribe Shoreline Park, Pepper Park, Coronado Landing Park, Ruocco Park, Harbor Island Park, Coronado Tidelands Park, Shelter Island Shoreline Park, Point Loma Marina Park, Embarcadero Marina Park South, San Diego Bayfront Park, and Portwood Pier Plaza. For more information on each park, visit: https://www.portofsandiego.org/recreation/get-park-info.html.

4. Bird Watching

Many people love to watch birds in their natural habitat and there is no better place to do that in San Diego for free than at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. It is a 1,740 acre reserve that boasts thousands of America’s rarest pine trees, sandstone canyons, wildlife, and awesome views of the Pacific Ocean. Journey along eight miles of trails, namely the Guy Fleming Trail, Razor Point Trail, and Beach Trail, and take in the beauty of the area. Look out for the birds as you go hiking and beware of poisonous snakes. You can get more information on the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve at: http://www.sandiego.org/articles/parks-gardens/torrey-pines-state-natural-reserve-park.aspx.

5. Seeley Stable Museum

Located at the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, the Seeley Stable Museum is a wonderful place to go if you want to get a glimpse into the days of the Wild West. You can learn about the man whom it is named after, i.e. Albert Seeley, and gain some insight about the stagecoaches of California. You will feel like a part of history when you look at the coach, wagon, and buggy displays; observe the maps that outline the routes stagecoaches used to take; the history of the cattle industry; displays of Indian crafts; and more displays on the outside. There is also a replica of the Yuma and San Diego stage stop that, along with the rest of Old Town, burned down in the 1872 fire. Admission to the museum is absolutely free.

Opening Hours:
9am - 5pm, 7 days a week

Contact Information:
Address: 2648 Calhoun St, San Diego, CA 92110
Website: http://www.letsgoseeit.com/index.htm

6. Casa de Estudillo

Casa de Estudillo, or Estudillo House, was built between 1827 and 1829 by soldiers of the Presidio of San Diego after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. Casa de Estudillo is one of the oldest surviving structures from that era and has been used as a town hall, chapel, museum, and shelter. Since 1968, it has been a part of the California State Park System. Since then, it has been restored as a house museum that features furnished rooms, a dining room, a big courtyard, and chapel. This piece of history is another place that you can visit for free while on your sojourn in San Diego.

Opening Hours:
10am - 5pm, 7 days a week

Contact Information:
Address: 4000 Mason St., San Diego, CA
Website: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/Estudillo_House.html

7. Mount Soledad

Mount Soledad is one of the most famous landmarks in San Diego. This 824-ft (251-mile) mountain has its eastern and northern slopes mainly in La Jolla while Pacific Beach has the southern slope. On the top of the mountain is the Mount Soledad cross. You can drive to the top of the mountain to enjoy wonderful views of San Diego and its coastline. The routes to the top of Mount Soledad go clockwise and start in Pacific Beach. You will travel on Soledad Mountain Road, Variation (Pendleton Street and Beryl Way), Cardeno Drive, La Jolla Mesa, Muirlands, Upper Hillside, Variation (Soledad Ave), and Via Capri. This is a fun and adventurous way to explore parts of San Diego for free.

8. United States Olympic Training Center

Get a first-hand glimpse of the United States Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, San Diego’s second largest city. Opened in June 1995, the Center sits on 155 acres of land next to the Lower Otay Reservoir. As a training center, there are facilities for cycling, archery, tennis, beach volleyball, soccer, triathlon, rugby, various winter sports, and other Olympic events. People from all around the world visit the Olympic Training Center annually, leaving with the feeling that they were a part of history in the making.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm
Closed Sundays

Contact Information:
Address: 2800 Olympic Pkwy, Chula Vista, CA 91915
Phone: (619) 656-1500
Website: http://www.teamusa.org/about-the-usoc/training-centers-and-sites/chula-vista

9. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Located on the eastern side of San Diego County, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest state park, spanning an area of 600,000 acres. It has 500 miles of unpaved roads and hiking trails that give you a wonderful glimpse of the California Desert. The park has lots of cacti, palm groves, and wildflowers that come up from the ground after winter rains have fallen. Some of the animals that you may encounter include golden eagles, iguanas, roadrunners, mule deer, and kit foxes. The park can accommodate trailers and campers up to 35 feet long. The hearing impaired can also enjoy their stay at the park as listening devices are available for them in the visitor center.

Opening Hours:
9am-5pm, 7 days a week

Contact Information:

Address: 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Phone: (760) 767-5311
Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638

10. San Diego Velodrome

If you are into cycling, you can visit the San Diego Velodrome. Just stop by to see if they are open and have a seat. It is, however, best to call first. You can watch cyclers in training and support your favorite team or individual cycler.

Contact Information:

Address: 2221 Morley Field Drive, San Diego, CA 92104
Phone (voicemail only): (619) 786-0648
Website: http://sdvelodrome.com

11. Old Town

Take a tour of Old Town, the location of historic sites that add to the lure of San Diego and where you will learn about the history of San Diego. Some of the exhibits and entertainment that you can check out include Cygnet Theatre, Old Town Saturday Market, Mormon Battalion Historic site, Whaley House, Old Town Model Railroad Depot, State Historic Park, and Old Town Trolley Tours.

Contact Information:
Address: 2802 Juan Street #12, San Diego, CA 92110
Website: http://www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com

12. California Grunion Run

From March to August each year, people come to San Diego for the annual open-season Grunion Run. You have to be 16 or older and and have a fishing license to catch grunion, a small fish that swarms the beaches once a year to spawn. It is illegal to catch them otherwise. Grunions are caught by hand and no holes should be dug to catch them. Even though open-season is now closed, you can look forward to next year when it opens in March. Simply visit the website to see the next scheduled Grunion Run.

Contact Information:

Address: California Department of Fish and Game, Marine Region, 4665 Lampson Avenue Suite C, Los Alamos, CA 90720

Website: http://www.seecalifornia.com/sports/fishing/california-grunion-schedule.html

13. Children's Pool in La Jolla

The Children's Pool in La Jolla is a great place to carry your children to see sea lions and seals in their natural habitat. They will be delighted to observe numerous harbor seals basking in the sun on Seal Rock. Public restrooms are available for your convenience. You will also enjoy a 360-degree view of La Jolla and the Pacific Ocean. You can even watch the sunset in the evenings. The cost to access the pool is free.

Contact Information:

Address: 850 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: (619) 235-1169
Website: http://www.sandiego.com/beaches/childrens-pool

14. Saturday and Sunday Concerts

If you are into Rock and Roll, Pop, Rhythm and Blues, Big Band, Top 40, Jazz, Reggae, Disco, and Country music, then you will have a great time every Sunday at East Plaza Gazebo in Seaport Village. The Sunday Concert Series are free and each week a different band or entertainer will tickle your ears with their old and new songs. The show starts at 1pm. If you cannot make it on Sunday, then schedule Saturday for some more great live music at Upstart Crow CoffeeHouse in Seaport Village where the talented artistes and musicians of San Diego come to treat their fans with swooning melodies and songs. The show starts at 7pm. The entire family can come along on any of the days for an evening of musical fun and enjoyment. When you get hungry, there is a nearby eatery where you can purchase some food. Depending on how long you stay, there is a parking fee, a cost that can be reduced if your parking ticket is validated after you purchase something at one of the restaurants or shops in Seaport Village. For more information on who will be performing each Saturday and Sunday, check out Seaport Village’s events calendar at http://www.seaportvillage.com/events-calendar.

Opening Hours:

September – May: Daily from 10am - 9pm
June – August: Daily from 10am - 10pm

Contact Information:

Address: 849 West Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 235-4014
Website: http://www.seaportvillage.com

15. Friday Night Liberty

Friday Night Liberty occurs every first Friday of the month at the National Training Center at Liberty Station in Point Loma. The time for the event is between 5pm and 9pm. It is referred to as a “free, fun, and fresh art experience.” There are numerous exhibitions on display that captivate the mind and get you thinking. The exhibitions are hosted in various Building and Barracks on the NTC at Liberty Station complex. To see what is scheduled to be shown, visit the website listed below. A few of the galleries and studios that you can visit include the San Diego Comic Arts Gallery and IDW, Billie Hamilton Studio/Gallery, and The Hot Spot Pottery Painting and Candle Making Studio. If you like to watch dancing on stage, you can view the Malashock Dance ensemble perform well-choreographed excerpts from artistic director John Malashock. They are joined at times by The Junior Company who also perform great dance routines. The performances generally start at 6pm and 7pm. The Friday night “liberating” experience is one for the entire family.

Contact Information:

Address: 2640 Historic Decatur Road, San Diego, CA 92106
Phone: (619) 573-9300
Fax: (619) 226-1496
Email: info@ntcfoundation.org
Website: http://www.ntclibertystation.com/what.php

16. Summer Movies in the Park

San Diego is truly a fun place to watch movies. The good thing about it is that you do not always need money to watch movies, depending on the time of year that you visit. During the summer months, locals and visitors alike can gain free admission to “Summer Movies in the Park,” a series of outdoor, free movie screenings that are held in local park facilities. So, depending on where you are, you will have to locate the park where the movies will be shown. You only need to take along jackets, blankets, and a chair, along with some cash to buy food from vendors on site. Just remember that you will not need any money to see the movies. The program is made possible through the collaborative efforts of numerous cities in California and the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation. But the event is not all about movies either. There are games and other activities that take place before the movies start rolling on the big screen, so try to be early.

17. County Administration Center Waterfront Park

County Administration Center Waterfront Park, or simply Waterfront Park, is the latest open space craze in downtown San Diego. Both visitors and residents alike come there every day to cool off under the waters sprayed through jets from an interactive fountain into the air when the days get hot. There are a number of spaces in the park that can accommodate private and public events like festivals and family recreation. Other features of the Waterfront Park include several picnic areas, large grassy areas, and a play zone for children. Areas that you can reserve areas include the Promenade, Themed Gardens, Civic Greens, Terraces, and Plazas. The Waterfront Park is a fun, free way to have fun and stay cool while enjoying the outdoors. It has been a hit especially with children who frolic for hours under the cool falling waters. Adults also have as much fun, ducking in and out of the spouted waters or just sitting at the edge of the fountain while allowing mists of water to fall on them. The next time you are in San Diego, make sure to go downtown and experience the alluring appeal of Waterfront Park.

Opening Hours:

Monday – Sunday: 6am – 10pm

Contact Information:

Address: 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 232-7275
Website: http://www.sandiegocounty.gov/parks/Waterfrontpark.html

18. Tidelands Park

As the largest park in the San Diego area, Tidelands Park spans a total of 22 acres. The park features recreational areas that include a playground and baseball fields as well as a small sand beach that has a fishing pier, pedestrian paths, and boat access. That is a lot of space for outdoor activities, the perfect space for the entire family to have fun for free. Children can play on the swings, grown-ups can play volleyball, and everyone can run along the along the coastline on the pedestrian path. You can have a picnic on the lush green grass or come and watch the sun set over the horizon. Amenities at the park include bike paths, play equipment, picnic tables, and restrooms. Special events, like weddings and receptions, are permitted with a maximum occupancy of 3,000 people. Tidelands Park is a must-visit when next you are in San Diego.

Opening Hours:

Monday – Sunday: 6am - 10:30pm

Contact Information:

Address: 2000 Mullinex Drive, Coronado, CA 92118
Phone: (619) 686-6200
Website: https://www.portofsandiego.org/coronado-tidelands-park.html

19. Surf Dog Competition

No, it is not a typo. The heading really says “Surf Dog Competition.” In fact, the full name is “Unleashed by Petco Surf Dog Competition.” It has been an annual event for the past decade that is sponsored by Petco where dogs take to the waves and surf alongside their two-legged human friends. If you want to see it for yourself, admission is free. In fact, if you have a dog that can hang 20 and paddle on the waves, you can enter him for free! Other activities that take place on the day include a kid zone, vendor booths, dog adoptions, free photo booth, food trucks, off-leash play area, and beer garden. Take the entire family along to enjoy all the action. Since it is an annual competition, you have to check the website listed below to see when the next competition will be held.

Contact Information:

Address: 2 Elder Avenue, Imperial Beach, CA 91932
Website: http://www.sandiego.org/events/sports/unleashed-by-petco-surf-dog-competition.aspx

20. Meet Famous Authors

Are you a bookworm who just cannot get enough of reading novels? Have you ever wanted to meet the famous authors who write the novels that you love so much? Now is your chance to get up close and personal with famous authors for free in La Jolla at Warwick's bookstore. They hold free question and answer sessions every month with some of the greatest literary masters the world has ever known. After meeting them, you can go back home and boast to your friends how you met so-and-so! Imagine how envious they will be of you. No worries though as you can let them know how they too can meet famous authors and no longer feel left out. To see who is coming next, check their events calendar at http://www.warwicks.com/event.

Opening Hours:

Monday – Saturday: 9am – 6pm
Sunday: 10am – 5:30pm

Contact Information:

Address: 7812 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA 92037
Website: http://www.warwicks.com
Phone: (858) 454-0347

21. Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve

Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve, located in East County, is a park that is spread over 190 acres and is surrounded by seven man-made lakes that can be used for picnics, fishing, boating, and camping. If you park outside and walk into the park, you enter for free. You and your family can have a fun-filled day doing activities that everyone will enjoy. Carry your bike and take it for a spin, have a picnic on the grass, or rent a boat and go out on one of the lakes to do some fishing. There are also seven playgrounds where children can play and have an adventure. They will be especially pleased with the “Sprayground” where they can cool off on those hot summer days, and they can have an adventurous time on Boulder Island. You, your family, and friends can also do RV camping (you will have to pay a parking fee) for a few days on the lakefront. If you just want to see the sights, you can take a leisurely walk along the lake. Throughout the year, Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve also hosts a number of special events for your enjoyment. The memories that you create at Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve will last a lifetime, so come along and have some fun.

Opening Hours:

November – February:
Monday – Thursday: 8am – 5pm
Friday – Sunday: 6am – 5pm

March – September:
Monday – Thursday: 8am – 7pm
Friday – Sunday: 6am – 7pm

October:
Monday – Thursday: 8am – 6pm
Friday – Sunday: 6am – 6pm

Contact Information:

Address: 9310 Fanita Parkway, Santee, CA 92071
Phone: (619) 596-3141
Website: http://www.santeelakes.com

22. Laughter Yoga

If you are into Yoga, then this will put a twist into your whole experience. Join free Laughter Yoga classes in Balboa Park on Saturdays and Sundays. Classes on Saturdays start at 9:30am and those on Sunday start at 1:30pm. Classes start with gentle stretching followed by playful exercises that cause laughter. Lots of breathing exercises come in-between with the exercise ending with everyone laughing at funny stuff like noises they make or whatever else tickles their fancy. A relaxation period follows. Laughter Yoga classes are for everyone, regardless of your age. Carry the entire family to one of the classes for great laughs without the need for comedy or jokes. For more information on the location and other important information relating to Laughter Yoga classes, visit the following websites:

Saturday Laughter Yoga: http://www.laughteryoga.org/english/club/club_info/2635
Sunday Laughter Yoga: http://www.laughteryoga.org/english/club/club_info/2601

23. Adam’s Avenue Street Fair

Adam’s Avenue, in the community of Normal Heights, San Diego, comes alive each year with the annual Adam’s Avenue Street Fair. It is a free two-day musical event that is held annually during the last weekend in September. It has hundreds of acts on multiple stages, featuring numerous artists playing different genres of music. Other features of the event include beer tastings and beer gardens, exotic foods, over 300 arts and crafts booths, and giant carnival rides.

Contact Information:

Address: Adams Ave, San Diego, CA 92116
Phone: (619) 282-7329
Email: info@adamsavenuebusiness.com
Website: http://www.adamsavenuebusiness.com/event-info/adams-avenue-street-fair/

24. CityFest Night

CityFest Night is an annual, one day celebration of community spirit and play through arts, music, foods, and crafts that is held in the heart of Hillcrest under the Hillcrest sign. Over 100,000 people attend the festivities each year, a mix of both locals and visitors. The celebration includes live music, hundreds of vendors, activities, games, and a beer garden, just to mention a few. Some of the activities include carnival rides, a petting zoo, dunk tank, and a kid’s pavilion. The festivities generally get under way at 12pm.

Contact Information:

Address: 5th Avenue and University Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103
Phone: (619) 299-3330
Website: http://fabuloushillcrest.com/events/hillcrest-cityfest/

25. Free Games Thursdays

The Clairemont Library is a great place to carry the children every Thursday between 4pm and 5:30pm because that is when they host Free Games Thursdays. Children from ages 3 and up will have lots of fun playing games like Monopoly, Chess, Candyland, Battleship, Checkers, Yahtzee, and Backgammon, just to name a few. Parents can also come along for the fun.

Contact Information:

Address: 2920 Burgener Boulevard, San Diego, CA 92110
Phone: (858) 581-9935
Email: weblibrary@sandiego.gov
Website: http://www.sandiego.gov/public-library/index.shtml
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/clairemontlibrary

26. Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla

If you are someone who loves geography, then a visit to the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla would be fun for you. Michael Stone, Founder of the museum, states that the goal of the museum is to create an appreciation and awareness for the politics, history, artistic beauty, and geography of the unique maps and atlases in the museum. The museum has original European maps that date back to the fifteenth to mid twentieth century. You have to call to schedule a guided tour. A wide range of activities are also being planned for young children who are in school. The activities will help to spark their interest in geography as they learn about maps and atlases, as well as some history along the way. Admission is free.

Opening Hours:

Monday – Tuesday: Closed
Wednesday – Thursday: 11am – 4pm
1st and 3rd Saturday: 11am – 4pm
Sunday: Closed

Contact Information:

Address: 7825 Fay Ave, Suite LL-A, La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone (toll free): (855) 653-6277
Website: http://www.lajollamapmuseum.org/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MapMuseum

27. Yoga Classes

Many people love Yoga or would even like to learn how to do it. The drawback for many people is their inability to find the money needed to take the classes. If money is your problem, fret no more because there are some free Yoga classes being offered in La Jolla. Lululemon Athletica is the venue for those classes. The store sells high-end stylish Yoga athletic wear and accessories in addition to offering the free Yoga classes. Classes go for an hour from 9am to 10am. This is a great way to stay fit for free.


Opening Hours:

Monday – Saturday: 10am – 8pm
Sunday: 10am – 7pm

Contact Information:

Address: 7835 Girard Avenue, La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: (858) 459-4407
Email: lajolla-store@lululemon.com
Website: http://www.lululemon.com/stores/us/san-diego/lajolla

28. Access Free Wireless Internet

Many people are on the go and carry their smartphones, tablets, and laptops with them. Not everyone has a data plan, so those persons will need somewhere they can go to access the Internet. If you are one such person, you can access free Wi-Fi in almost 200 locations in San Diego. From motels to plazas to banks to restaurants, stores, libraries, and Starbucks, you will be able to find somewhere that provides the free Internet access that you need. For a list of all the free Wi-Fi hotspots in San Diego, go to http://www.openwifispots.com/citylist_free_wifi_wireless_hotspot-San_Diego_CA.aspx.

Why spend money unnecessarily when you have all those free things to do in San Diego? They are fun, relaxing, and entertaining, and you will feel satisfied that your visit was well worth it. At least on your next visit you will know exactly where to go and what to do.

Lead image via John Ryan Seaman on http://www.freeimages.com.

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