San Diego is a busy destination and can get very busy. That means restaurants get full, and you will need to make reservations. Planning your vacation in advance is the best way to make sure that you make the most out of your well-deserved and hard-worked vacation days.
The problem is, however, where to start and what to book. What are the best tours and activities to choose from in this southern Californian city? What to do in San Diego? At Avoid-Crowds.com, we believe in planning your vacation before you leave and booking your activities smartly. We want to avoid mass tourism while still visiting beloved destinations.
Avoiding mass tourism means skipping tourist traps and making the most out of your limited time. One of the things we want to avoid is waiting in line or going on massive tour groups. We believe in buying your tickets in advance and joining small tourist groups. That way, your impact on the local community is favorable while you get the best value for money.
In San Diego, there are a few activities most people will have on their itinerary. We will cover those activities in the ‘San Diego essentials.’ Beyond the essentials, we will propose some alternative tours and activities to give you a more unique and possibly even more authentic experience while in Southern California.
This post includes affiliate links on which we could earn a commission. We use the proceeds of these commissions to fund our crowd predictions.
All tours and activities
San Diego Essentials: the not to miss Excursions and Activities
We start our overview of San Diego’s best tours and activities with the basics. These are the ‘must do’ or ‘essential’ activities. Where possible, we propose skip-the-line or ‘fast-track’ passes to make sure you optimize your time on vacation. We believe that the time you spend waiting is a waste of your quality and valuable vacation time.
Right in the heart of San Diego, you can find the USS Midway. This massive aircraft carrier was commissioned at the end of the second world war and used to be the US Navy’s largest aircraft carrier. Nowadays, it serves as a museum that gives you full access to the aircraft carrier as over 60 well-restored fighter jets are located on the ship’s flight deck.
San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo is one of the world’s best. The world-famous San Diego Zoo is home to over 4,500 rare and endangered animals. You can experience different areas like the Polar Bear Plunge, Elephant Odyssey, and other areas at the zoo. The 100-acre San Diego Zoo is known for its naturalistic habitats and unique animal encounters.
The zoo is ‘an urban paradise for all ages’ and is a must-see in Southern California. Winding paths through the tropical oasis of a botanical garden bring you to the zoo‘s rare and fascinating animals, including koalas, Galápagos tortoises, tigers, eagles, flamingos, great apes, and more.
Did you know that San Diego has become one of the world’s best whale watching locations? The southern Californian city is home to whales, dolphins, and sea birds and features one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines. On this cruise, you can enjoy live educational narration from captains and trained naturalists employed by the Natural History Museum. Watch blue whales and dolphins in comfort on a large, fast, stable boat!
You can take this cruise during any month of the year! Gray Whales migrate winter-spring from feeding grounds in Alaskan waters to calving lagoons in Baja California, and back. In summer, the legendary Blue Whales, the largest animals on Earth, commonly feed off-shore of the San Diego coast.
You may also spot Fin, Blue, Humpback, and Minke whales during the summer whale watching season. Additionally, you’ll often see pods of Dolphins, including Risso’s, Common, Pacific White-Sided, and Bottlenose Dolphins. Your captain will also highlight other wildlife such as Sea Lions, various fish like Mola Mola (Sunfish), and different marine birds such as Herons, Terns, Pelicans, and Gulls.
Join the Hop-on Hop-Off Tour of Old Town San Diego at any of the tour’s 11 boarding points and visit more than 100 exciting points in Coronado and San Diego at your own pace. You can begin at any time of the day and listen to the entertaining narration of the onboard conductors along the way. San Diego is known as America’s Finest City, and as you explore the sights of Old Town and the scenic coastline, you’ll see why. Opt to begin your tour at the Old Town San Diego State Historical Park, where you’ll see original adobe homes and artifacts from the earliest Mexican settlements.
Hop on or hop off at 11 convenient stops: Old Town State Historic Park, Maritime Museum of San Diego/Star of India, San Diego Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Marriott Marquis & Marina, Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park/San Diego Convention Center, Barrio Logan, Coronado/Orange Avenue, Balboa Park and El Prado Museums, Little Italy
Gold Pass includes: Old Town Trolley Hop-On Hop-Off Tour, Admission to the Whaley House Museum
Platinum Pass includes: Old Town Trolley Hop-On Hop-Off Tour, Admission to the Whaley House Museum, Admission to the San Diego Maritime Museum/Star of India, Discounts on the Maritime Museum Harbor Tours
Unlike the whale watching cruise, this cruise is focused on the local community and points of interest. During the one or two-hour cruise, you will see the sights of San Diego Bay on a fully-narrated cruise. Pass by Seaport Village, Shelter Island, Coronado Island, Point Loma, and Cabrillo National Monument, among other notable points of interest, while taking in beautiful skyline views.
Choose between a 1-hour cruise of either the North or South Harbor, or book the 2-hour cruise, which includes both. San Diego’s North Harbor cruise takes you past historic ships in the Maritime Museum, Harbor Island, North Island Naval Air Station, and Shelter Island.
The South Harbor route includes sightings of the Coronado Bridge, the U.S.S. Midway Aircraft Carrier, the U.S. Navy Surface Fleet, and the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. As you sail, keep a lookout for wildlife such as blue herons, sea lions, and pelicans
Listen as your professional crew provides commentary about the rich local and military history, points of interest, and facts about San Diego Bay. This sightseeing cruise showcases local environmental conservation efforts through video clips and onboard displays.
San Diego Alternative and special tours and activities
If you have more time in San Diego, we recommend going off the beaten path and trying some activities that go beyond the standard package. All these activities are hand-picked by Avoid-Crowds.com and have stellar reviews.
Paddle to the seven caves of La Jolla and go into the Clam’s cave, which is the largest cave on the tour. See the local marine life on the tour, including sea lions, harbor seals, Garibaldi, leopard sharks, and the occasional dolphin.
Take a lesson before the tour begins and grab all the necessary kayak equipment. The tour takes place in the La Jolla Ecological Reserve. There are 3 different habitats in the La Jolla reserve, and on your tour, you will have the chance to paddle to all three – the rocky reefs, sandy flats, and kelp beds.
Join us on a tour of the Gaslamp Quarter, and we’ll tell you about the infamous Stingaree District, once a center of scandal and debauchery. We’ll walk along streets that featured 120 brothels at one point and served as one of Southern California’s major red-light districts.
On our Brothels, Bites, and Booze Tour, you’ll hear tales from the past that are funny and some that are hard to believe! During our 2.5-hour excursion, you’ll see how this area has been restored and is now home to San Diego’s primary nightlife and dining destinations. The Gaslamp Quarter now features more than 100 restaurants and bars.
We’ll take you to some of the best restaurants in the area so you can taste a variety of popular ethnic cuisines and some alcoholic beverages as well! Most guests find that the samples on tour are pretty filling and are at least as much food as a complete meal. You might want to eat no more than a very light snack before the tour – or nothing at all!
Interact with marine animals at a safe distance and spend the day on this beautiful reserve with experienced snorkel experts to guide you. You will see marine life such as sharks, exotic fish, dolphins, seals, turtles, and many sea life swimming amongst them. With four microhabitats to swim through, you will find various underwater flora and fauna. With a small group, you’ll get a much more intimate experience of life underneath the water, with one of our guides and local lifeguards accompanying you while you swim.
Be the captain of your own private Duffy boat for the afternoon as you cruise along the smooth waters of San Diego’s beautiful Mission Bay. Bring your family along for a spectacular day on the water. Enjoy your own music, food, and drinks to specialize your experience.
You may encounter some local wildlife, such as sea lions, migratory birds, and even dolphins. At 21 feet with room for up to 10 guests, the Sun Cruisers are the best choice for your Mission Bay outing. With no boating license required to operate this eco-friendly water cruiser, everyone can come along. Duffy Boats are as easy as driving a golf cart and going 5-6 mph. Glide through the calm waters of Mission Bay at your own pace.
Each Sun Cruiser comes equipped with pillows, tables, and a built-in ice cooler for any snacks or beverages you bring along. There are enclosures to protect in the case of unpredicted rain and a sound system with Bluetooth to connect to your device.