Looking forward to something fun and exciting to do in San Diego on your off-time? Besides having a vibrant nightlife, thanks to its location by the ocean, San Diego offers plenty of exciting and affordable outdoor activities. You can actually see swimming orcas, the rarest pine tree in America, Spanish Renaissance architecture, and even a giant Koala, all in the same day! Check out our student guide on the best things to do in San Diego.
If you’re an international student in California, the place with some of the most beautiful campuses in the US, and you choose to visit San Diego and get to know the city better, one thing is sure: you can’t get bored even if you try. Although it’s a modern city with skyscrapers, it is in no way lacking amazing natural parks and resorts with gorgeous beaches and beautiful hiking trails. To this mix, you should add the historic Gaslamp Quarter, deliciously-smelling Little Italy, the famous San Diego Zoo, and the iconic Balboa Park with its amazing museums and gardens. If you’re thinking about activities, the coastal city has numerous opportunities for water sports, like surfing, sailing, and kayaking. Or, you could seek adventure at SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, and the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
There is nothing new in saying that the USA is one of the most popular destinations for international students; in fact, many students think the US is the Holy Grail of higher education. And California has many excellent universities, three of which are in San Diego itself:
- University of California, ranked 20 in international rankings
- San Diego State University, ranked 501 in international rankings
- University of San Diego, ranked 1001 in international rankings
Have a look at the map below if you’re among the lucky students who attend one of these universities and see how far the main attractions are from your campus.
Red markers are universities, blue markers are the locations we discuss in this article.
Where to visit in San Diego
1. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is the green heart of San Diego, a cultural and recreational oasis spread over 1,200 acres. Balboa is the largest urban park like this in the United States and offers a unique blend of nature, museums, cultural institutions, exotic animals and vegetation (at San Diego Zoo and Safari Park), and many different fun or educational activities.
Here are Some of the things you can visit here (there is something for every interest):
- Comic-Con Museum
- Fleet Science Center
- Institute of Contemporary Art, San Diego
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- San Diego Air and Space Museum
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- San Diego Mineral and Gem Society
- Museum of Us: an interactive museum exploring what it means to be human.
- Centro Cultural de la Raza: focused on Chicano, Latin, and Indigenous art and culture.
- Palm Canyon: a walking trail through a tropical oasis containing 450 palms.
- Zoro Garden: the place where a nudist colony used to live but now is transformed into a butterfly garden.
- San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
With its numerous museums, theatres, and performance venues, Balboa Park is a hub for arts and culture. So this is an absolute must-see for Art, History, and Science enthusiasts.
->> Close to the University of San Diego and San Diego State University
2. San Diego Zoo
Inside Balboa Park is the San Diego Zoo which is no regular zoo but a wildlife alliance preoccupied with the well-being and protection of wildlife. The zoo is not only one of the most fun things to do in San Diego but also a leader in wildlife conservation efforts, and spanning over 100 acres, the zoo takes care of over 14,000 rare and endangered animals, from more than 700 species of animals in a naturalistic environment designed to replicate their native habitats. The Zoo also cares for over 700,000 individual plants.
When you visit, you can take part in special experiences like Nighttime Zoo, Discovery Cart, or Crazy about Cats tour, as well as visit the San Diego Safari Park. There are guided tours, behind-the-scenes encounters, and up-close interactions with the animals or the specialists taking care of them. What’s more, the zoo also organises trips to different locations around the globe where you can further explore the amazing wildlife of our planet.
->> Close to the University of San Diego and San Diego State University
3. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
This coastal park is an area of pristine wilderness situated inside the city of San Diego. A protected area, the reserve has stunning cliffs with panoramic views of Torrey Pines State Beach and a lagoon that serves as a crucial habitat for migrating seabirds. As you walk along the Torrey trails, you have chances to spot skunks, racoons, coyotes, foxes, and bobcats, as well as plenty of cacti and the Torrey pine – an endangered pine species that only grows in San Diego and on Santa Rosa Island. The coastal beauty of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is hard to forget, and if you love the outdoors, you must come here.
If you go, make sure to remember cliff collapse and rockslides happen frequently, so you should stay away from the bottom of the cliffs. The safest time to walk the beach is 2-3 hours before or after high tides because then there is more sand between the cliffs and the waves.
->> Close to the University of California San Diego
4. San Diego Downtown & the Gaslamp Quarter
The Downtown, along with the Gaslamp Quarter, form the beating heart of San Diego. This is the business centre of the city and a hub of activity, exciting entertainment, dining options, culture and historical architecture. Here you’ll find trendy bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops.
Also, some of the main attractions include:
When you reach the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll recognise it straight away because of its well-preserved Victorian architecture.
Little Italy, where you can taste some authentic Italian food or coffee.
5. La Jolla
La Jolla, which means “the jewel” in Spanish, is a beautiful coastal community stretching over 11 km along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Here, you can find rugged cliffs, hidden coves, and golden sandy beaches. As for activities, surfing at all levels, kayaking, swimming, snorkelling, or simply observing colourful fish, seals, and even dolphins or sea lions are all possible. Spending the day at La Jolla Cove is one of the best free things to do in San Diego.
La Jolla Village, on the other hand, offers many exciting opportunities for shopping and dining. The streets look charming and have art galleries, boutique shops, and great restaurants.
La Jolla is one of the most beautiful places in California. Whether you’re a student who loves outdoor adventures, soaking in the sun on a pretty beach or loves a cultural experience and a taste of local art, you’ll find something in La Jolla’'s coastal lifestyle.
6. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Do you like history? Then you should definitely see San Diego State Historical Park and bear witness to the birthplace of California. Yes, that’s right. This is like a living history museum where you’ll find a well-preserved historical district which recreates the 19th-century Mexican pueblo and early American settlement.
The park is home to five original adobe buildings (houses made of earth and other organic materials), museums, restaurants, and unique shops. What’s more, you can also enjoy music, play with the burros (domestic donkeys) and even visit a functional blacksmith shop.
7. Mission Trails Regional Park
If you enjoy hiking and being in nature but want a change from the coastal views, try Mission Trails Regional Park, where you can walk amongst hills, canyons, and vast open spaces, populated by wildlife. There is a lot to do in the park, from walking trails to horseback riding and fishing or riding a bike around Lake Murray.
The park is a perfect escape from city life where you can enjoy some tranquillity and that awesome feeling of exploring and having an adventure in the great outdoors.
Things to consider when exploring San Diego
Budget & safety tips
- Be ready for the sun – there is a lot of it. Don’t forget your sunscreen, hats, water, and sun-friendly clothes.
- Give yourself more days to enjoy everything, but if you only have one or two days available, then choose whatever attracts you more, but don’t try to fit in everything because it will be overwhelming and just won’t work.
- For a student-budget-friendly trip, avoid bank holidays or big event days (unless you’re going for that event particularly) when the city is too crowded, and hotel prices are considerably higher.
- Have a look at these student discounts for students at the University of California, including at Balboa Park Museums.
- Student discounts at San Diego Zoo
- Check on Yelp to see what restaurants, entertainment centres, and more offer student discounts in San Diego
- See travel discounts for students at San Diego State University
How to get around the city
- San Diego is not as well connected as other cities by public transport, so if you can, renting a car is the best way to get anywhere you want in the city. You can check car renting options on Momondo.
- Not as flexible, but definitely a budget-friendly way to travel in the city is by bus. You can see routes and scheduled departure times on Moovit.
- Use the platform Rome2Rio to plan any destinations, short and long, and see the best options to get there (including the fastest and the cheapest)
- Check all public transport options in and around San Diego on the city’s official website.