Summer in San Diego means the kiddos are home and there’s never a storage of activities for families. But let’s face it: There are only so many trips to the beach one can take and nobody wants to break the bank visiting indoor attractions that require cash. To beat summer boredom and stay on a budget, fill your summer bucket list with our picks for the best free (or almost free) things to do in San Diego.
Photo: Edward S. via Yelp
1. Attend an outdoor summer concert. Gather your friends, a picnic dinner, and balls or bubbles for the kids, and enjoy an evening dancing to great live music during a free evening concert in the your neighborhood.
3. Go on a search for hidden treasures. Did you know many of San Diego’s beloved treasures are right in front of us -– the beach, the zoo, and dozens of parks and garden? Find a message in a sand dune or a Little Free Library. Or how about a hidden topiary garden?
4. Fly kites, window shop, wander along the bay and watch the ships going by at Seaport Village. This waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment complex is open from 10 a.m. to -9 p.m. daily. You can listen to live music in the food court every day, or pack a picnic and enjoy the free summer concert series.
5. Watch a movie under the moonlight. Check the free movies in the park calendar and start marking your calendar. Pack a picnic dinner, grab some popcorn, blankets or chairs, sit back and enjoy a movie.
6. Check out not one, but two, historic San Diego ranch houses. The Los Peñasquitos Ranch House is the second oldest standing residence and was built in 1823 by the recipients of the first Mexican land grant in San Diego County. Take a hike around the area, then check out the goats, chickens, veggies, and have some fun in the large open spaces for playtime. Then head to “Carlsbad’s Sleeping Beauty” to see the Leo Carillo Ranch House and prance with the peacocks and play on authentic ranch and farming equipment. Don’t forget to pack a picnic!
7. Go on a geocaching treasure hunt. Create an account at geocaching.com and head out to find caches. Just remember to always leave a little something if you take something out.
8. Have an old-fashioned beach bonfire. Grab the family and friends, blankets, firewood, and all the makings for s’mores and have a bonfire at one of the beach. Fire pits are available on many San Diego beaches, including Coronado, La Jolla Shores, Mission Bay, Ocean Beach and Oceanside. Get there early and grab a great spot on Fiesta Island or Crown Point to watch the Sea World fireworks.
9. Enjoy a movie for $1 with Regal Entertainment and Reading Cinemas summer movies. For nine weeks on Wednesdays and Thursdays this summer, select kids movies are just $1! Check out the full movie schedule for times, movies and participating theaters.
10. Get some energy out while climbing at a beach-side playground. There are many beaches in San Diego that also have playgrounds right on the sand including Fanuel Park, Bonita Cove, La Jolla Shores, Oceanside Harbor, and Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas.
Photo: Elizabeth Silva
11. Check out the ducks at a local lake, have a picnic and go for a walk at one of the many spots including Poway Lake, Lake Miramar, and Chollas Lake Park.
12. Go tidepooling and exploring in the rocks when the tide is out. Kids may see starfish, crabs, fish, shells and coral. Check the tides.info before heading out to ensure you are going to be there at low tide. Popular tide pool locations include Cabrillo National Monument, La Jolla Cove, Swami’s in Encinitas, and Tourmaline on the north side of Pacific Beach.
13. Visit one of the many nature centers around town. They’re free to visit and kids will learn about native wildlife and vegetation. Some offer free kids camps over the summer, most have guides available for nature walks and also offer special events. Some of our favorites are San Elijo Lagoon, Batiquitos Lagoon, Tecolote Canyon and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
14. Clean Up the community. Volunteer with I Love a Clean San Diego and clean up the community. They have regular events at a variety of locations around San Diego where the whole family can get involved. Be sure to check out their calendar for upcoming events.
15.Explore and play at one of San Diego’s two children’s museums! Located downtown near the Gaslamp district, the New Children’s Museum offers $1 admission on the second Sunday of every month with thanks to Target. If you have a San Diego County library card, you can also check out New Children’s Museum passes for free. The San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum is located in Escondido and focuses on hands-on science, art and world culture.
Photo: Conrad R. via Yelp
16. Sign up the kids for the Kids Bowl Free summer program. Little bowlers will enjoy up to two free games a day, all summer long.
17. Splash around in the San Diego Waterfront Park. The 12-acre park is just a stones throw from the bay and is decked out with tons of innovative ways to entertain kids including a splash pad, water fountain and slide. It’s the perfect way to spend a summer day in San Diego with kids. Not close to downtown? Check out these other splash pads and parks, many of which are free!
18. Gaze at stars in the park. On the first Wednesday of each month at dusk, the San Diego Astronomy Association sets up telescopes west of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center on The Prado for free public sky viewing.
19. Take a swim at a community pool. These family-friendly pools have splash zones and play areas safe for little kids, and full-sized pools for the ones that want to stretch their fins. They are throughout San Diego and don’t break the bank at only $2 per kiddo.
20. Read and have fun at your local library. Visit your local library and borrow a book, take advantage of free events, and stay for story time. And don’t forget to sign up for the summer reading program so you can keep brains working and earn cool prizes (like free museum passes).
21. Explore art at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is always free to visitors 25 and under, and is free for everyone on the third Thursday of every month from 5 – 7 p.m. The sculpture garden is open to the public from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.
22. Ride on a Chula Vista Live Steamer. For a donation, your little train lover can take a ride on the second weekend of each month with thanks to the wonderful volunteers of the Chula Vista Live Steamers from 12 – 2:30 p.m.
23. Visit the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. Learn about Chinese history and culture. It’s free for kids and admission for adults is only $2.
24. Take a free tour of the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center. Guided tours are available Saturday at 11a.m. and self-guided tours are available daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
25. Check out the amazing animals of Mission Bay. You and your little ones can get up close and personal with birds and a few seals. Take a routine trip to the bay — and your cool parent factor — up more than a few notches with this free outing.
26. Pick some local produce at a farmers market. One of the many perks of living in San Diego is having year-round access to a bounty of local fruits and vegetables. There are kid-friendly outdoor markets all around town to enjoy this summer.
27. Have some outdoor fun at Santee Lakes. This hidden gem in East County offers a piece of serenity mere minutes from San Diego. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic, a great place to feed ducks, pedal a boat, fish or even camp in a beautiful floating cabin. There’s also a sprinkler park that’s only $3 per kiddo ($6 to park).
28. Volunteer as a family. San Diego has a bunch of cool and unique volunteer opportunities that will inspire and delight. We’re talking about a lesson on river bugs, protecting wild birds, planting a sustainable garden, walking for cancer, or even Feeding America!
29. Visit a college campus. You don’t have to have a high schooler to check out a local university. Colleges like UC San Diego and San Diego State have so many amazing statues and beauty around the university, and the campus itself is perfect for walking. Not only is this activity a great way to teach kids about education, but it’s also free!
30. Get artsy and crafty. Many stores like Lakeshore and Michael’s offer weekly crafting activities that are either free or only a few dollars. Kids can unleash their creativity for a few hours and you don’t have to spend money stocking up on art supplies.
Download your copy of the County of San Diego Program and Activities Guide, which is free and published three times a year. It’s full of events (both free and almost free) that are happening in county parks and recreation areas.
What are your plans this summer? Let us know below.
— Leah Singer