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Best Things To Do in San Diego

AOL PICK from our Editors
San Diego's attributes and attractions are all about the outdoors. Even when you're appreciating fine art or the theater, you're surrounded by gorgeous gardens, sweet-smelling jasmine, and tropical breezes. Nature's charms are so varied it's hard to appreciate their many forms in just one visit. After all, how much surfing, swimming, snorkeling, biking and walking can a body take? A lot, actually, especially when fun is enhanced with education and plenty of opportunities for scenic breaks. You'll find the best things to do in San Diego near the surf, sand and sun. For those with children, there's no shortage of family-friendly attractions, from Sea World to the famed San Diego Zoo. And if, like us, you simply want to sit on the beach and relax, then San Diego is the place for you.

Cabrillo National Monument

Neighborhood: Point Loma
The most awesome panoramic view in San Diego can be had from a rocky promontory 400 feet above sea level at the tip of Point Loma. From its heights, you can see the Pacific, San Diego Harbor, Coronado and south to Mexico. Atop the park, the Cape Cod-style Point Loma Lighthouse served as the southernmost Pacific Coast beacon in the U.S. from 1855 to 1891. You can’t climb the tower, but can peek into the rooms. For a good overview of the military presence in San Diego, check out the observation deck's charts of military ships and aircraft based along the point and across the bay at the North Island Naval Air Station. If you love learning about marine life, one of the best things to do in San Diego is to watch the slide shows about the whales and tide pools which are presented throughout the day in the auditorium. Between December and February, you might see the annual migration of gray whales as they pass Point Loma on their way from the Bering Sea to the lagoons of Baja, Calif.

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Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Neighborhood: La Jolla
A pioneer and leader in oceanographic studies, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography claims a tree-filled cliff above La Jolla Shores. If you are a budding marine biologist, or simply love nature, be sure to check out the Birch Aquarium, one of the top things to do while in San Diego. The institute' aquarium has stunning views from an outdoor tide pool displaying starfish, urchins, anemones and crabs like those found on San Diego’s beaches during low tide. Inside, more than 60 tanks are filled with lobsters, octopus, eels, sharks and all sorts of fascinating creatures. The Kelp Forest, a giant live exhibit of one of nature’s more impressive habitats, is home to leopard sharks and minuscule camouflaged kelp fish. The Jelly Tanks showcase mesmerizing moon, lion mane and purple-striped jellies. The aquarium runs field trips to tide pools, and snorkeling excursions. The bookstore caries far more than fish-themed tomes—we never leave empty-handed.

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Birch Aquarium at Scripps  

Old Town

Neighborhood: Old Town
Full of shops, restaurants and, most importantly, history, Old Town San Diego is where the Golden Coast got its start. For the history buffs, visiting the Old Town should be on their list of top things to do while in San Diego. On July 16, 1769, Father Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Diego de Alcala on a hilltop and unknowingly founded what would become the state of California. Today the Junipero Serra Museum stands near the site of the original mission, overlooking what was once a small community that is now transformed into the Old Town State Historic Park. Various tours take place through Old Town, but the park is easy to navigate if you’re keen to explore on your own. Visit Fiesta de Reyes, the vast plaza that combines a depiction of what the original community would have looked like with the Mexican festivity of mariachi bands. Check out the San Diego Sheriff’s museum and the Colorado House, which houses the Wells Fargo museum and stagecoaches. When you’re ready for a break, sit on the patio at Cafe Coyote to enjoy una cerveza while working up your courage to visit the haunted Whaley House, built on the site of Old Town's gallows. Witnesses have reported the appearances of at least four resident spirits including that of Yankee Jim Robinson, who was hung from the gallows in 1852.

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The Embarcadero

Neighborhood: Embarcadero
Downtown's skyline ends at the Embarcadero promenade edging San Diego Bay. The waterline is filled with yachts, historical watercraft, cruise ships and ferries, and the sidewalk a jumble of sightseeing pedestrians and office workers on lunchtime breaks. The Embarcadero's scenic walk begins at Date Street on North Harbor Drive and runs south for about 20 blocks to the San Diego Convention Center. The soaring sails of the 1893 Star of India, the world's oldest active sailing ship, dominate the collection of historic vessels at the Maritime Museum (619-236-1212). Nearby, tour boats depart for cruises around San Diego Bay and ferries gather passengers for rides across the bay to Coronado (the cheapest way to get out on the water). Gleaming white cruise ships rise several stories above the Cruise Ship Terminal at the B Street Pier. Right across the street, the International Visitor Information Center is a great resource for maps and brochures. The massive gray USS Midway, centerpiece of the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, looms above the sidewalk and is a great place for kids to burn off energy while climbing seemingly thousands of steps on the carrier and checking out the historic aircraft lined up on the deck (619-234-9153; http://www.oldtownsandiego.org). The adjacent G Street Mole’s lawns sport 16 bronze figures facing a sculpture of Bob Hope entertaining the troops, along with other public art pieces in the waterfront park. A farsighted developer staked out 14 acres of prime waterfront land in 1980 to create Seaport Village, a shopping and dining complex with a shingled replica of the Mukiltea Lighthouse in Everett, Wash., an 1895 hand-carved Broadway Flying Horses Carousel, and 54 curio shops (619-235-4014). A cluster of cafes suits all tastes—we typically split up, order what we want and gather at a picnic table with a water view. Mimes, jugglers, balloon sculptors, magicians and fire painters offer further entertainment on the long grassy jetty thrusting from the boardwalk shopping zone into the bay. With so much variety it should be no surprise that the Embarcadero is one of the best things to do in San Diego.

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The Embarcadero  

SeaWorld San Diego

Neighborhood: Harbor Dr.
Created in 1964 by four UCLA students, SeaWorld San Diego was the first of three SeaWorld parks (the others are in San Antonio and Orlando) and has grown into San Diego's most popular tourist attraction. The park's star, the black and white orca "killer whale" called Shamu, began splashing screeching onlookers in San Diego in 1965 and quickly became SeaWorld’s main highlight. The whale shows (San Diego has seven orcas that take turns in Shamu Stadium) have continued ever since, halting only after serious accidents, including the February 2010 death of a whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando. Three days later, Shamu was leaping and splashing once again, proving the show (a huge moneymaker) must go on. Families flock to SeaWorld as one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids. Once is enough for this spectacle, however, and we prefer watching playful emperors and gentoos at the Penguin Encounter, graceful lionfish in the Aquarium de la Mer, and blacktip sharks swimming overhead in see-through tubes at the Shark Encounter. SeaWorld's thrill rides are mildly amusing; the best of the lot is the landmark Skytower's 100-mile aerial views past the city to snow-capped mountains. Parents get a break as kids pose with Elmo and Big Bird at the Sesame Street Bay of Play and tentatively touch starfish and sea urchins in the interactive California Tide Pool. Given the steep admission fee (about $60 for adults), it's worth staying late to watch special night shows and fireworks from May to September.

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La Jolla Cove

Neighborhood: La Jolla
Craggy sandstone cliffs edge this pocket of aquamarine water where bright orange garibaldi, iridescent pink and blue neons, and silvery swarms of smelt swim in an underwater preserve. For those who love to enjoy nature, La Jolla Cove is one of the best things to do in San Diego on a beautiful day. On sunny afternoons when the underwater visibility reaches 10 to 15 feet, the sea’s surface is covered with human bodies, snorkels and fins. Get there early, as the tiny beach fills quickly, and nearby parking spots are claimed by 10AM. Scuba divers hang out at the patch of grass above the stairs to the beach, near the showers and restrooms. The flat-topped rocky ledges framing the south side of the cove are popular spots for photographers, sunset worshipers and explorers examining pools of water for a glimpse of a sea anemone or hermit crab. Weddings in this idyllic spot are extra-special—as long as the bride and groom don't mind the applause from perfect strangers. Washington palms line sidewalks along Ellen Browning Scripps Park from La Jolla Cove to the Children’s Pool, framing lush lawns that cool bare feet.

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La Jolla Cove  

San Diego Zoo

Neighborhood: Balboa Park
With the largest zoological membership in the world, the San Diego Zoo is home to 4,000 rare and endangered animals housed in 10 different ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to Arctic tundras in a 100-acre swath of Balboa Park. The zoo also has one of the largest endangered species research centers in the world, with scientists working in 35 countries, and is home to endangered and rare plants from throughout the world. The San Diego Zoo always tops the list of best things to do in San Diego and constantly makes the list of must-sees in this beautiful city. It takes hours to give the zoo its due; start early and pose for a family portrait sans ice cream and mustard stains by the flamingo pond at the entrance. Afterward, grab seats atop the tour bus and cruise the zoo's impressive hills in comfort as you get a grip on the layout. We've yet to cover it all in a day, but we never miss the gorilla troop, the Tiger Forest buried in jasmine and ginger, and the underwater views of river hippos. Walk downhill through the cool, shady Owens and Scripps aviaries and stop for lunch at the Treehouse Cafe (try the tri-tip sandwich). Once fortified, you'll be able to better tolerate the ever-present lines at the Giant Panda Research Station, home to five Giant Pandas. After the requisite oohs and aahs, ride the Skyfari Aerial tram back to the plateau near the entrance. Save plenty of time for browsing through the excellent shops, where we like to search for safari gear, books and gifts year-round (you can enter the shops without paying the zoo admission fee). If you have time, travel about 40 minutes north to the zoo’s San Diego Wild Animal Park, where rhinos, gazelles and giraffes roam almost free in a realistic African environment. Note the park will be renamed Safari Park in 2011.

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PETCO Park Baseball Diamond

Neighborhood: Embarcadero
The baseball diamond at PETCO Park is right across the street from the waterside convention center at the Embarcadero. The Padres take to the field from March to October; tickets are available in advance or for same-day purchase. Our advice—bring a blanket and go for the cheap $5 tickets to sit on the lawn at the Park, which serves as a neigborhood park during non-event hours. Tours of the park are available from April through September; check the schedule at http://sandiego.padres.mlb.com. Fortunately, there's a trolley stop right there so you can ride back into Downtown.

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PETCO Park Baseball Diamond  

New Children's Museum

Neighborhood: Embarcadero
Across the street from the Embarcadero, the New Children's Museum is one of our favorite haunts, filled with fun hands-on exhibits including the 2D Crayon Physics computer game that shows kids' drawings turning into physical objects, Teen Studio silkscreening workshops, and the Octopus bubble fountain where kids make their own bubble blowing tools. With so many fun activities the New Children's Museum is one of the top things to do while visiting San Diego with your family.

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Mission Bay Park

Neighborhood: Mission Bay
The Army Corps of Engineers created this playground for all ages after World War II as a safe waterway between the San Diego River and the sea. Half land and half water, Mission Bay's 2,436-acre panorama of lawns, playgrounds, coves and beaches is now San Diego’s community park. Fans of personal watercraft favor Fiesta Island; fishing boats and yachts moor in Quivira Basin, and sailors and kite boarders congregate at Sail Bay. Volleyball tournaments, birthday parties, weddings and corporate events draw crowds to ample lawns all around the park's shores. We like Crown Point for family picnics, and the paths near East Mission Bay Drive for speed walking. Swings and slides abound on the grassy hills by the Information Center off I-5 and near Fiesta Island. Concessionaires rent everything from Catamarans to beach cruisers at resort hotels edging the bay. We recommend visiting during the week as parking can be horrendous on summer weekends. Sea World, the bay’s most famous tenant, contributes fireworks to the outdoor show on summer nights.

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Mission Bay Park  

The Boardwalk and Belmont Park

Neighborhood: Mission Beach
Mission Beach's boardwalk and Belmont Park are reminiscent of the Jersey shore, complete with screams from the historic wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, the aroma of hot dogs, cotton candy and the occasional illicit substance, and a toned-down, carnival-like ambiance. This being SoCal, however, the park also offers surfers the chance to tackle Bruticus Maximus, a 10-foot man-made wave at the hugely popular Wave House bar, restaurant and water wonder. We prefer the Flow Rider, a continuous manageable wave that you can ride on one of their flow boards. Of course, you could always hit the real surf on the other side of the concrete boardwalk, which runs 3 miles from Belmont Park to Pacific Beach.  Bicyclists and pedestrians have separate lanes on the walkway; cops on beach cruisers enforce an 8-mph speed limit. Since an alcohol ban hit the beaches in 2009 the boardwalk scene has grown calmer, but there are still plenty of young partiers in bikinis and thongs hanging out at rental houses, bars and hotels bordering the boardwalk, and plenty of sand volleyball games and family gatherings on the beach.

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Balboa Park

Neighborhood: Balboa Park
Balboa Park, sprawling over 1,200 acres of canyons and hilltops just east of Downtown, is the largest urban cultural park in the country with more than a dozen museums, two live theaters and the award-winning San Diego Zoo. Many of the best things to do in San Diego are clustered in this vibrant area. We're forever indebted to naturalist Kate Sessions, known now as "the Mother of Balboa Park," who planted pine, palm and eucalyptus groves in the park's rugged canyons and filled hilltops with flowering jacarandas, birds of paradise and tropical gardens. Her landscapes endured through two 20th-century expositions, one devoted to international culture and the other to raunchier attractions including a nudist colony and Sally Rand's fan dancers, and the gardens remain among the park's finest free attractions. We treasure the Alacazar Garden with its pretty tiled benches and fountains, and the wood-lath Botanical Building filled with towering tree ferns and delicate orchids. The Lily Pond outside the building was used as a pool for injured vets when the U.S. Navy took over the park during World War II. The pond, restored and filled with colorful lilies and koi, is surrounded by lawns perfect for al fresco lunches (BYO to avoid pricey park restaurants). Ornate Spanish-Colonial palaces constructed for the expositions line the El Prado pedestrian promenade; the San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Museum of Man are especially worth visiting. Located on lawns behind the museums, The Old Globe Theater has sent several new plays to Broadway, including “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Full Monty,” and it’s a joy to watch “King Lear,” “A Midsummer Night's Dream” and other classics during the theater's outdoor summer Shakespeare festival. Don't miss the free Sunday afternoon concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, where the resident organist performs on one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs.

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