The fun and culture of San Diego can be yours for free if you know where to look. We show you how to fill your days with new adventures and explore the city without emptying your wallet. Read on to find out where the best things in life really are free (or super cheap) in our idyllic city.
photo: Beth Shea
1. Take a Hike!
Beautiful Mission Trails offers a few flat, family-friendly trails to explore and a state of the art visitor’s center with gorgeous views. At the visitor’s center, you and the little ones can make some track rubbings, look at animal specimens and explore the history of the Kumeyaay Indians with hands-on exhibits that feature Native American toys, tools and living quarters. An educational Family Discovery Hike is offered every fourth Sunday at 3 p.m. Cost: Free.
The San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve is one of the largest coastal wetlands in San Diego County. The nature center and interactive museum is a great spot to introduce the kids to native plants and wildlife, lagoons and watersheds. The Nature Center loop trail is perfect for pint-sized hikers. The mile-long loop provides close-up views of the salt marsh habitat with lots of opportunities to spot birds, insects and lizards. Enjoy special events like Family Fun Days the first Sunday each month with guided walks and crafts and get into nature. Cost: free.
Torrey Pines also boasts a variety of tree-lined trails with breathtaking ocean views.
photo: Viv Lynch via Flickr
2. Feed the Ducks at a Local Lake
Located in Scripps Ranch, the Lake Miramar Reservoir is a popular spot for bicycling, jogging, walking, rollerblading and picnicking. A paved, 5-mile walkway encircles the lake, which means you don’t have to worry about traffic and cars on your hikes. The lake is also full of entertaining ducks and geese. For even more fun, there’s a quiet pond filled with ducks located adjacent to the Scripps Miramar Ranch Library (located just down the road from Lake Miramar). The library’s used bookstore sells duck food for $1 that you can use to feed the birds. The library is even open Saturdays, from 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Cost: free.
Santee Lakes is a lovely east county destination ideal for biking, fishing, or lounging and feeding the ducks. With 5 lakes and plentiful playgrounds, you’ll find the right fit for your brood here. On hot days year round, splash in the spray ground with plentiful picnic areas and clean restrooms nearby. Cost: Parking $3/weekdays. $5 weekends. Sprayground $2/kid. Day fishing permit $6-9.
photo: San Diego Natural History Museum
3. Cultural Experiences in Balboa Park
Balboa Park’s awesome museums are free for San Diego residents every Tuesday. The museums that offer free admission vary by week, so make sure you check the website listing to plan your trip. Along the Prado, you’ll also find buskers in the park showcasing their musical talents. It’s a fun way to explore new music for free. Near the Air and Space Museum, find the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre. For only $5 per person, your family can experience a live show that’s short and sweet. Check for shows labeled “Preschool” on the theatre’s calendar for your littlest show goers. Afterwards, sit with a picnic on a grassy knoll and watch the many planes that fly by on their way to the airport. Cost: free on select Tuesdays. Puppet show is $5 per person.
photo: Art Produce
4. Inspire Budding Artists
Head to North Park for a community art class at Art Produce. Held each Saturday from 2- 4 p.m. this drop-in program is perfect for creative kids to try a variety of techniques. Classes are led by professionals who help young artists experiment with an ever-changing array of materials such as paint, pencils, clay, found objects and more. While there, explore the beautiful urban garden and art gallery. Cost: Pay what you can.
Just under the Coronado Bridge lies Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. Vivid, lively murals depict aspects of San Diego’s Mexican-American heritage including mythology and immigration. Kids especially love the Children’s Mural, which represents drawings and paintings from kids that attended two local elementary schools. Chicano Park is a great place to give kids an art lesson. Visit the park’s interactive website to explore the murals’ history and artists before your visit. Cost: free.
photo: Beth Shea
5. Find History and Adventure at Cabrillo National Monument
Kiddos can become young oceanographers and Junior Rangers when they visit Cabrillo National Monument. First, head to the visitor center and ask for a “Just for Kids” newspaper. Little explorers will learn about history as they tour the highlights of the Monument and then earn a Junior Ranger badge. Afterwards, enjoy the majestic views and the lighthouse or take a hike down to the tide pools. This is a great place for the family to discover crabs, anemones and other sea life. Be warned: your feet will get wet. Be sure to wear shoes that can get muddy. Cost: $10 entrance fee.
Learn more about 5 San Diego tide pools here.
photo: Beth Shea
6. Spend a Weekend Afternoon at Old Poway Park
Located in the heart of Poway, Old Poway Park has everything for a perfect weekend: trains, good food and a place to run around. The Hamburger Factory Restaurant features Old West decor and down-home delicious pancakes, biscuits and hamburgers. After breakfast or lunch, you can hop aboard the train that runs on weekends alongside the park. The train staff is even dressed in vintage clothing. Check the train schedule online for times. Be aware that the train doesn’t run on the second Sunday of each month. There’s plenty of green grass for kids to play and spaces for you to picnic too. Make a day of it and explore the replica historic schoolhouse and blacksmith. Cost: free/($1-$3.50 per person for train rides).
7. Check out the Sanford Children’s Library
Have you been downtown to check out San Diego’s beautiful Central Library? If not, put this on your to-do list with the kiddos. The library’s Dr. Seuss murals and thousands of books make it a fun, inviting space for kids. Park in the underground lot and get validation for the first two hours. You’ll find the Children’s Library on the first floor. There, make time to enjoy one of the many programs it offers. Beyond story time, there’s everything from a chess club to a LEGO creators club. You’ll find kid’s activities every day of the week. Explore other floors to enjoy views from the dome terrace and sculpture garden. Check the calendar to plan for your trip. Cost: free.
photo: Beth Shea
8. Spot local wildlife at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla
If your kids are begging to see seals and sea lions (but you’re not keen on breaking the bank at Sea World), head to the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. Every day hundreds of harbor seals and sea lions hang out at Seal Rock, which is located just north of the beach. You can glimpse the seals bathing, basking in the sun and sometimes even giving birth to a seal pup! Public restrooms available at the beach. Cost: free.
photo: Beth Shea
9. Hit the beach
From stretches of shimmery sand at Coronado’s Silver Strand to a ride on the Big Dipper at Mission Beach’s Belmont Park to boogie boarding near the cliffs of Torrey Pines and making waves in Del Mar, nothing is more iconic than a beach day here in San Diego. Want to explore a new beach this summer? Check out our guides to the best local beaches for the kids and your pooch. Cost: free.
photo: Beth Shea
10. Enjoy Beautiful Seaport Village
While Seaport Village is known for its many shops, bookstores and eateries, your family can plan a day at this bayside hot-spot without spending a dime. Take a scenic walk along the bay and check out the boats, birds, ducks and turtles. Stroll to the perfect photo op with the famous Unconditional Surrender statue. Afterwards, enjoy the grassy areas with a picnic and fly a kite. And if you feel inclined to join the fun, you can pick up a kite at the Village Kite Shop. Don’t leave without taking a ride on the antique carousel. It runs daily and is only $3 per ride. Cost: free (there are parking fees if you choose to park on site or bring coins for the meters).
11. Discover a New Farmer’s Market
San Diego is home to more than 50 farmer’s markets throughout the county taking place every day of the week. Take the kiddos to shop for local, seasonal produce and see the variety of crops grown in the county. Additionally, nearly every market has different food vendors, balloon artists and face painters to entertain the kiddos. Plan to spend an hour walking through one of the markets and bring a few dollars for a treat. Cost: free (but bring money if you plan to buy items).
photo: Old Town San Diego
12. Get a Taste of Historic Old Town
San Diego’s historic Old Town is a perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon. The park has more than 17 historic points of interest. The Seeley Stables with its many old stagecoaches and real Iive donkeys as well as the blacksmith are always a hit with little ones. You’ll always find free live entertainment such as mariachis, dancers and hosts dressed in period attire ready to give tours. At the Visitor’s Center pick up a copy of an Old Town Map & Dining Guide and try out the kid’s history hunt. Before you leave, be sure to stop by the Old Town Mexican Cafe where you can watch fresh tortillas being made right before your eyes (but bring some money because you’re sure going to want to buy a few!). Cost: free.
What are other cheap or free ways to enjoy San Diego? Tell us what your family does!
— Cherie Gough