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9 of the Best Free Family Activities in San Diego

Escape the house for some family fun without busting your budget
Family holding hands walking up to a free concert at Balboa Park's Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego
Courtesy of Balboa Park

After San Diegans pay the “sunshine tax” to enjoy mild weather year-round and easy access to some of the top beaches in the nation, budgets can be tight for family fun—but how many more times can you really go to the playground? Luckily, making family memories doesn’t have to be pricey. Whether your crew is looking for history, art, wildlife, or play, you can find experiences for the whole gang to enjoy without breaking the bank. Here are nine of our favorite free family activities in San Diego.

San Diego's Balboa Park which is home to various museums, parks, and other free family-friendly activities
Photo Credit: Cole novak

Stroll Through Balboa Park

The Spanish Colonial Revival architecture alone is enough to inspire, but throw in the magnificent gardens and top-notch museums, and it’s no wonder this park is considered the “crown jewel” of San Diego. A must-see is the lily pond outside of the Botanical Building (the century-old structure is closed for renovation until 2025). Other garden favorites are the Kate O. Sessions Cactus Garden and the Trees for Health Garden, which teaches visitors about medicinal plants. Peek at some artwork without paying admission prices at the Timken Museum of Art and on the commons level of the Mingei Museum. On Sundays at 2 p.m., enjoy a free organ concert at Spreckels Organ Pavilion, home to one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world, now 110 years old. 

Plan-ahead tip: The Visitors Center offers free tours at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and architectural tours at 11 a.m. on the first and third Friday. If those times don’t work, you can book a custom tour and request a particular focus (history, horticulture, or architecture).

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve park and hiking trails at sunset, a family-friendly things to do in San Diego
Courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Hike Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve 

Feel the ocean air and explore rugged coastline under the shade of the rare Torrey Pines at this 1,500-acre La Jolla reserve. At low tide with some resilient hikers (at least 4 or 5 years old), you can trek the 2.5-mile beach trail loop. Start at the parking lot at the base and follow the road to the top (your best chance for a restroom break). Take one of the trails out to the cliffs and down the steps to the beach, then finish the jaunt on sand back to the parking lot. Pack sunscreen, water, and snacks, and keep your hands free to carry your shoes (and kids’ sneakers) across the sand. If you need a stroller-friendly route, park at the top and explore out-and-back trails and ocean views. The reserve offers free guided walks on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 10 a.m.

Plan-ahead tip: California public library card–holders can rent free vehicle day-use passes for participating state park units, including Torrey Pines. Depending on the library, the pass is good for up to two weeks, so you won’t have to spend your time hunting for street parking.

San Diego's Waterfront Park in downtown featuring a playground for kids and small pools with fountains
Courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies

Splash Around at Waterfront Park

San Diego Bay views and a central location make this urban splashpad a favorite for families year-round. On 12 acres beside Pacific Highway, Waterfront Park features grassy lawns, spray fountains, reflecting pools, colorful sculptures, and a modern playground, all of which will entertain kids for hours. Pack for this park like you would the beach—umbrellas, sunscreen, blankets, towels, swimsuits, and snacks—and enjoy not coming home with a car full of sand. (Note: Downtown parking can be tricky and pricey, but there is an underground lot below the park.)

Plan-ahead tip: Gather blankets, jackets, and some treats and cart the kids to Summer Movies in the Park on some Friday evenings in May through October. Check the park website for other events year-round.

Exterior of the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego's Balboa Park
Photo Credit: Cole Novak

Explore a Museum

On Tuesdays, Balboa Park offers free admission to a rotation of museums for San Diego County residents. On the first Tuesday of the month, touch real fossils and rocks from prehistoric Southern California at the San Diego Natural History Museum. On the second Tuesday, peer into the Apollo 9 command module, flown in space on a 10-day mission in 1969, at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. On the third Tuesday, see if your kids can identify the 20 koi by name at the Japanese Friendship Garden. The flagship location of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla also offers free admission on the second Sunday and third Thursday of the month. Inside, view pop art and contemporary landscape exhibits; outside, tour the impressive sculpture garden.

Plan-ahead tip: Certain months of the year, the Old Globe offers free, one-hour behind-the-scenes tours for ages 8 and up (registration is required).

Gold Rush town of Julian, San Diego featuring the historic main street
Courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority

Learn About Julian History

Julian is more than the home of delectable apple pie—this 1870s gold rush town in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego is also packed with history. Pick up a map from the local chamber of commerce, then breathe in fresh mountain air as you navigate the self-guided walking tour. Start from Julian’s town hall and finish at Pioneer Cemetery.

Plan-ahead tip: Julian maintains a lively year-round calendar of community events, like a Sasquatch scavenger hunt and stargazing nights. Check the online calendar to take advantage of family-friendly activities.

Chicano Park murals underneath the Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan a free activity for families
Courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

View the Art at Chicano Park 

In Barrio Logan, a hub for Mexican-American culture in San Diego, lies this National Historic Landmark. It contains more than 100 massive, vibrant artworks, the largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world, painted onto the Coronado Bridge’s concrete pillars. The colorful murals are the showstoppers of this seven-acre park, but if that won’t hold your kids’ attention for long, bring some snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables, walk through the gardens, and then let them go wild on the playgrounds.

Plan-ahead tip: Print out a map of the murals to identify them as you tour.

Aerial view of La Jolla Cove, a free thing to do with family, featuring sea lions and the ocean at sunset
Photo Credit: Cole Novak

See the Sea Lions at La Jolla Cove

Fair warning: They stink, literally, but watching a raft of California sea lions bark at each other all day among picturesque sandstone cliffs is a SeaWorld-level experience, minus the price tag. A short distance away are the equally fascinating Pacific harbor seals, who have now taken over Children’s Pool Beach. Dip your toes into the small beach area at La Jolla Cove, then enjoy the sunset from the picnic tables or the grass at the adjacent Ellen Browning Scripps Park.

Plan-ahead tip: If you have your own snorkel gear (and strong swimmers in the family), La Jolla Cove is famous for its snorkeling—it’s even part of the San Diego–La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve. On good visibility days, you’ll see garibaldi, guitarfish, sea stars, and anemones.

Kids playing at Mission Bay Park in San Diego, a popular destination for free family-friendly activities
Courtesy of Expedia

Play Outside at Mission Bay Park 

Hike, bike, frisbee, swim, and more at this expansive, 4,600-acre waterfront park. Mission Bay is a paradise for active families—it features a marked 12-mile paved path for a leisurely ride or run, plus plenty of grass to set up a volleyball or badminton net. Crown Point is a popular spot for volleyball games, and Tecolote Shores is where the kite-flyers go. Playgrounds and picnic tables dot the entire park, almost all within sight of the water.

Plan-ahead tip: Bring Fido along for the adventure—the sand dune–covered Fiesta Island has an off-leash dog beach.

San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park featuring a family on a hiking trail near Mission Gorge

Discover Mission Trails Regional Park

Your first stop at this 8,000-acre park should be the Mission Trails Visitor and Interpretive Center, which features a beautiful outdoor area overlooking Mission Gorge. Meander through the cultural, historical, and natural exhibits to learn about the local wildlife and the Kumeyaay, the indigenous people who once lived there. Then grab some trail maps to explore the 60-plus miles of trails. Don’t forget sunscreen!

Plan-ahead tip: Time your visit for the park’s volunteer-led free nature walks. The walks include a variety of emphases, from wildlife tracking to bird watching and park geology, all on specific days each month.

By Bethany Mavis

Bethany Mavis is a writer, editor and aficionado of hiking, crafting and thrifting. She is an adjunct professor in journalism at Point Loma Nazarene University, and she lives in Escondido with her husband and three daughters.

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