Secrets to Visiting San Diego on a Budget

Got San Diego paradise on your mind for a winter getaway? If you want San Diego sunshine on your shoulders and sand beneath your toes without crazy Southern California prices, we’ve tracked down some of the best San Diego has to offer without adding too much to your already bursting holiday budget. Read on for great money-saving tips, then follow your fancy no matter what type of travel you’re after.


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Photo: Photofinish 2009 via Creative Commons

Classic Sightseeing by the Sea
If perfect ocean views are what you’re after, but you don’t want to get wet, here are some suggestions for some superb days in San Diego.Instead of a pricey harbor cruise, catch the ferry from Broadway Pier downtown, north of the USS Midway to Coronado which offers a lovely afternoon year round. Take in the terrific skyline view as you enjoy the 15 minute ride that even landlubbers can savor. In Coronado, have a casual bite, ride a bike, or peruse the Farmer’s Market mid week, or enjoy free, live music most weekends at the Coronado Landing. Cost: Round-trip ticket: $9.50.

A walk around La Jolla Cove is completely free and offers some of the most stunning ocean views that can be found anywhere. In addition to the beautiful view, visitors can watch harbor seals and sea lions bask at the Children’s Pool, take a short walk to Sunny Jim’s Cave, and check out some cool, free public artwork.

While Seaport Village is known for its many shops and restaurants, your family can plan a day at this popular bayside spot without spending a dime. Take a scenic walk along the bay and check out the boats, birds, and turtles. Afterwards, enjoy the grassy areas for picnicking and kite flying. And if you feel inclined to join the fun, you can pick up a kite at the Village Kite Shop. Don’t leave without visiting 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)


For the Outdoor Adventurer: Torrey Pines Hiking
If taking in the view is more exciting when you sweat, and outdoor adventure is what you seek, we’ve got you covered. The Torrey Pines State Reserve offers a variety hiking trails for adults and kiddos, complete with gorgeous views of the ocean. Explore a great tracking trail with your young hikers where kids can look for animal tracks as they hike. If you decide to take on this adventure, be sure to check out the Reserve’s website for tracking tips and sample paw prints. Keep in mind that the Torrey Pines State Reserve does not allow food or drink (except for water) on the hikes, and dogs need to stay home. Cost: Free (There are minimal charges if you chose to park your car at the Reserve.) San Diego is also home to several kid-friendly hiking trails too.


Photo: James Blank

Cabrillo National Monument
Winter is the perfect time to explore tide pools with low tides occurring during daylight hours and Cabrillo National Monument Park’s tide pools are the perfect place for families. Young oceanographers will love the hike to a world where they can discover crabs, mussels and bat rays. Be warned: you will need shoes with traction to scramble down rocks and your feet will get wet. Make sure you wear shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy and dirty.

The park is a beautiful spot with cliffs and ocean views, so be sure to have a camera with you. While at the park, don’t miss exploring one of the most spectacular views of the city from the viewpoints near the visitor’s center The lighthouse is also worth a visit to see life from a historical perspective . If you have the time, take one of the free walking tours offered by rangers and gain an insider’s view of about endangered coastal habitat and local wildlife. Walking tours are led by rangers each Tu at 10 a.m., and Fri. at 1 p.m. Cost: $5 parking fee.

San Diego Shores
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean there aren’t great San Diego beach days to be found. We’ve dug up some perfect beaches that are fun for the whole family. After a day of adventure, take in the quiet moment of an awesome sunset. See if you can spy the green flash.


Photo: Howey91 via Tripadvisor 

For the Art Enthusiast: Balboa Park
Looking for a day of art and culture? Check out Balboa Park’s many treasures. While Tuesdays are only free for city and county residents, there are some great deals to be found in the park for all. Each Wed., Th., and Fri. through the end of January 2016, the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts is offering its patrons a Pay What You Wish admission program.  Just pay what you think is a fair price or what you can afford and admire the museum’s intriguing exhibits.

Botanical Beauty
The Botanical Building is always free and interesting with its carnivorous plants, touch and smell garden, and gorgeous ferns, palms, and orchids.  Just outside you’ll find the lily pond with koi and turtles to spot with little ones. Toss a blanket on the grass, sprawl out, and enjoy this terrific spot for a picnic. Afterward, capture a perfect photo among one of the park’s many archways.  The magnificent architecture provides the perfect backdrop for family photos. The Botanic Garden is open Friday through Wednesday, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Closed Thursdays and holidays).


Photo: Chris Radcliff via Flickr cc

Art and Friendship in Balboa Park
Wander through the colorful Spanish Village Art Center and enjoy handmade craftsmanship of local artisans from watercolors to glass blowers as you listen to live buskers play the violin or guitar. Window-shop or find a unique and worthy one-of-a-kind souvenir with San Diego flair.

Not only is admission to The Timken Museum free every day, there is a free docent led tour offered daily. This small art museum is a worth a short wander for wee ones. Just across from the Timken, grab a great local beer and light snack or meal at Panama 66 with the Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden as your backdrop. Sit in the bar and drink in the music in the evening or wander through the garden with the kids and lounge on comfy patio furniture.

Cup of tea more your style? Head over to The Japanese Friendship Garden‘s Tea Pavilion for lovely sunlit patio dining on the cheap. You’ll find noodles, rice bowls, and light sandwiches on the menu, all for under $8. Stroll through the beautiful garden with its waterfalls and bridges for only $8. Kids under 6 are free!


Photo: Debbie K. via Trip Advisor

For the San Diego History Enthusiast
Like to seek out a bit of history when traveling? Wander through San Diego’s historic Old Town and revisit San Diego’s past for free. The Seeley Stables with its stagecoaches, and real Iive donkeys as well as the blacksmith demonstrations are always a hit with little ones. You’ll always find live entertainment such as mariachis, dancers, and hosts dressed in period attire ready to give tours every day at 11a.m. and 2 p.m. 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. Hungry? Grab a family-friendly happy hour on the lovely, spacious patio of The Cosmopolitan Restaurant. Cost: Free

San Diego is home to the first California Mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala.  First built in the 1700’s, the mission’s huge property with its well manicured gardens is a beautiful and peaceful place to take some photos. The self guided tour starts with a visit to the Visitor Center/Gift Shop (open 9-4:30 daily) where you can purchase tickets and get a map and a scavenger hunt handout for the kids which encourages the whole family to be on the lookout for highlights such as the bell tower, statues, artwork, and fountain. While on the grounds, learn about the local Native American Kumeyaay tribe through its replica ewaa, or native living space. Cost: $5 for adults

The Maritime Museum on San Diego’s harbor offers a short, fun day of exploration. Spend a couple of hours climbing down into a real submarine and climbing aboard the world’s oldest active sailing ship, The Star of India. Be on the lookout for special events. Family day on Nov. 22 offers free admission for kiddos and fall crafts to keep them busy. Special cannon battles are sure to draw attention during select weekends in Dec. and Jan. Cost: Family pack of tickets $43 for 2 adults and 2 kids.

What are your best tips for enjoying San Diego on a budget? Tell us in the Comments below.

— Cherie Gough


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