With sun-splashed beaches, scenic hiking trails, world-class museums, and unending eateries, enjoying the best of San Diego is a snap. More to the point, it doesn’t have to cost a penny. Some of the region’s best sights, most delicious bites, and finest cultural institutions are free or cheap. To boot, hotels all over town cater to families and a range of budget needs and tastes.
Reasonable Hotels in Mission Valley
Centrally located Mission Valley is a stone’s throw from the San Diego International Airport and home to several reasonably priced hotels. You’ll be in striking distance of the beach, downtown, and many must-see neighborhoods and attractions. Check out hotels in this area.
Fun and Free
All of San Diego’s beaches and bays are free and open to the public, as are many of Old Town State Park’s historic buildings. For a dose of art and culture, head to Balboa Park. You’ll find the wonderful Botanic Building, Sunday and seasonal concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the Timken Museum — all free of charge. For nature lovers, San Diego offers a host of beautiful trails and miles of pathed bike path that only require wheels and comfortable shoes to enjoy. For more great ideas, check out this list of 25 fun and free things to do around town.
Make a beach outing into a day trip by bringing along some grub. Savor the view (and the high-flying action) from Torrey Pines Gliderport and Black’s Beach, to name one dreamy area. In Point Loma, the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a gateway to secluded bluff-lined beaches. Some coves there offer the rare chance to have a slice of the California coast all to yourself. Pack a lunch and bring a blanket to Ellen Browning Scripps Park in La Jolla, on the cliffs above one of most picturesque coastlines in the world.
Get a low-cost dose of the natural world at the Living Coast Discovery Center, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps and any of San Diego’s famed botanical gardens. Head to La Jolla Cove to get a glimpse of dozens – if not hundreds, depending on the time of year — seals in their natural habitat. Just remember to stay at least 20 feet away. San Diego is also home to several wildlife preserves and miles of wetlands to explore free of charge. Plus, these areas happen to be in the Pacific migratory flight path.
San Diego was made for stretching your legs in the sun. Grab a bike and pedal on the 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway, bike-friendly boardwalks, or the many roads and trails adored by cyclists. Lessons and rentals of surfboards or paddleboards are always an option, too. Whether you want calm waters or waves, there’s a place to find either, any day of the year.
Boat on a Budget
For under $5, climb aboard the Coronado Ferry for its scenic 15-minute jaunt to the island within San Diego Bay. Once there, rent a bike and tour the charming neighborhoods or visit the historic Hotel Del Coronado.
Stroll a Pier or Boardwalk
There’s never a bad time to grab an ice cream or refreshing acai bowl and stroll along one of San Diego’s pedestrian-friendly piers or boardwalks in Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Oceanside and elsewhere.
Join the Community
San Diegans are an active bunch you can join for yoga classes on the beach and in parks. Slow things down a notch with meditation at the Self-Realization Fellowship Encinitas Temple. This is one of many locales offering free or cheap guided or solo meditation.
Cheap Eats and Happy Hours
San Diego’s best bites are found at every price point from homegrown eateries locals swear by. Get authentic New York-style pizza by the slice at Hillcrest’s Bronx Pizza. For bahn mi and other Vietnamese submarine sandwiches, hit up the beloved K Sandwiches. When it comes to tacos and burritos, the choices are endless. But you can’t get any more old-school or delicious than the family-run Las Cuatro Milpas, a stone’s throw from downtown. In North Park, The Friendly has built a following around its nostalgic Dirty Flat Top Burger (priced at a budget-friendly $6). Even higher-end restaurants often have great budget deals. Happy hours provide a chance to eat at some of the city’s best restaurants, and at far lower than full price. Look for happy hours and discounts at spots like Mister A’s, C Level, The Grass Skirt, Lion’s Share, Blind Lady Ale House.