The Best Cheap Things to Do in San Diego for the Frugal Visitor
There's more to San Diego than its world-famous zoo. Here's a guide to experiencing what is often called America’s Finest City without going into debt.
I lived in San Diego for four years — my last two years of college and two more years working full-time entry-level jobs. I was in a desirable location by young-adult standards, so I know a thing or two about saving money in this Southern California city. While I lived there, I found quite a few great, cheap things to do in San Diego:
Cheap Things to Do in San Diego
Aside from the defense and biotech industries, one of San Diego’s main economic drivers is tourism. Visitors flock to the city and spend millions of dollars every year. Beware! Those wonderful tourist experiences will just make your wallet lighter.
Avoid tourist traps like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. Instead, you can find many cheap and free things to do in San Diego if you have the wheels to get to them.
To start, there are the seals at La Jolla Cove. And if you want to indulge in a kayaking or paddleboarding there or in Mission Bay, be sure to see what the different rental and tour companies have to offer. And don’t feel bad about trying to negotiate a lower price by playing one against the other. You’re especially at an advantage when you have a bigger group — say four or more — to use as a bargaining chip.
(As a financially savvy recent grad in San Diego, I bought deals on Groupon more than a few times. If you’re someone who doesn’t feel comfortable negotiating or just likes finding bargains, check it out!)
You can also drive out east on Interstate 8 to Cowles Mountain — the highest point in the city — to take in its panoramic views. If you’re truly outdoorsy, venture to Potato Chip Rock. Pro tip: Everyone hikes the steep 7.5-mile route to this site, which takes four-plus hours round-trip. Since you’re just doing this for Instagram, park on (the much steeper) Highway 67 and hike just 40 minutes up a paved road to get the same picture.
If you’re more interested in seeing the ocean, rent a DecoBike or take a run along Mission Beach. That way, you can see the beautiful homes and picture-perfect sunsets. There are plenty of volleyball courts on the beach if you’re in the competitive spirit. For the thrill seekers out there, Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma offers you the chance to cliff jump into the Pacific Ocean.
Nightlife on the Cheap
The Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego is a mecca for tourists. The annual San Diego Comic-Con takes place at the convention center in this area. There are expensive hotels, overpriced bars, and nightclubs that are happy to take your money. Not that these aren’t fun, but the city has more affordable options.
Pacific Beach attracts more of the young, mid-20s crowd and is known for its lively bars. I lived in this area, and I found the nightlife to be completely reasonable price-wise. Watch out for long lines at popular bars like Backyard and the Local.
My two personal favorites were further east of the beach, on Garnett Avenue. Barrell Republic lets you pour your own beer.
It’s like a self-serve wine bar, but with 40 different taps of craft beer! You pay for what you drink and can pour as much as you like.
On Sunday afternoons, I would hit up Iron Pig Alehouse, where they serve happy hour half-off menu items like a pulled pork sandwich and local craft beers.
North Park, another favorite area of the 20- to 30-year-old crowd, has tons of microbreweries. It’s also considered more of a hipster scene. True North is the most popular bar there. That said, you can drop in to the Belching Beaver brewery or the Coin-Op Game Room for good times, as well.
West of North Park is Hillcrest, a vibrant neighborhood with great bars and restaurants that is the center of San Diego’s LGBT-plus scene. San Diego Pride is held here every year in July, and all are welcome.
The downtown area is not just home to the Gaslamp Quarter. This East-Village neighborhood is by Petco Park, where the Padres baseball team plays. Mission Brewery is an excellent place to have an affordable, quality beer or two before a day game. Also worth a visit is Basic Pizza, a pool bar that turns into a dance floor at night.
Southern California isn’t known for its public transportation, and San Diego runs true to form. However, there is the Green Line trolley, which takes you downtown and out to Mission Valley. There you’ll find some good shopping at Fashion Valley mall
Traffic in San Diego is really bad during rush hour, so using a service like Uber is better than driving yourself. That’s your best bet for getting around the city quickly.