San Diego is known as America’s finest city and a favorite destination for families and college students. With our ideal weather and all the amazing attractions, it’s not a surprise that two of the local public universities, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and San Diego State University (SDSU), have been in America’s top ten schools with the most applications the past few years.

Prospective students can also visit these other major universities in the area: University of San Diego (USD), California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM) and Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU).  If you are planning a San Diego college tour or a trip here to visit schools, there are many other things to do in San Diego to turn your college visits into a mini-vacation.

Hotel Del Coronado from the water
Hotel Del Coronado from the water, image courtesy of Mary Solio

Explore Beaches and Coastlines 

End a day of college tours with some beach time and sunset viewing along any portion of San Diego’s 70miles of coastline. UCSD is near La Jolla Cove and shores and PLNU is by Sunset Cliffs. Visit iconic boardwalk piers found in Ocean Beach, Imperial Beach and Oceanside. Cross the bridge to Coronado Island and see one of the city’s most iconic structures, Hotel Del, and its nearby beach, which is consistently ranked, as one of the best in America. 

You can spend some time at Belmont Park while visiting Mission Beach. This is San Diego’s only beachfront amusement center with a rollercoaster, rides, bumper cars, eateries and shops.  

If you’re up for some water activities, kayaking, sailing, surfing, wake boarding, jet skiing are readily available to do. Most beaches have rental facilities and vendors offering lessons. College students will put San Diego schools at the top of their list after spending some time at these beaches.

Shop and Dine Around Downtown

The downtown area is a hub of activities and entertainment options. It also has two of the best neighborhoods to eat some delicious food. Little Italy offers plenty of pizza, pasta and gelato options as well as a weekly farmer’s market. The historic Gaslamp Quarter has over 100 eateries plus many trendy shops, theaters and art galleries.  

Meander around Seaport Village and its boardwalk surrounded by unique shops and restaurants with waterfront views. Nearby is San Diego’s Embarcadero with historic ships like USS Midway and the Star of India to visit and many public art to admire. Don’t miss stopping at the Waterfront Park with an interactive splash fountain and one of the best places to relax, enjoy the bay views and have a picnic. 

San Diego skyline
San Diego skyline from the water, image courtesy of Mary Solio

Take a Tour

One of the best ways to get to know San Diego is through guided and narrated tours which provide some insights into the area’s history and culture. The green and orange trolleys offer 12 Hop On/Hop Off stops at many attractions like Coronado Island and Balboa Park along the 25-mile loop. 

Visitors can also see San Diego on sea and land during a 90-minute narrated tour in an amphibious vehicle/Hydra-Terras. The SEAL tour spends 30 minutes on the streets and an hour cruising San Diego Bay. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see a variety of wildlife and some of the top attractions like the Point Loma Submarine Base and Shelter Island.

Learn at Old Town

Want to see California’s birthplace?  Visit Old Town State Historic Park which was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the state. There are several museums and original and reconstructed buildings around the park including San Diego’s first schoolhouse. Learn something during living history activities and demonstrations that include quilting, carpentry, blacksmith and other 19th century activities.  

There are over 100 shops selling unique items. It also has 32 restaurants and many serve delicious andauthentic Mexican food. You can even see the ladies at Cafe Coyote making tortillas. There is a street market on Saturdays and usually entertainment at the Fiesta de Reyes stage on weekends.  

The Whaley House is considered as America’s most haunted house. Visitors can take a tour or if you are even more fearless, do a night tour. See the seven beautifully restored Victorian homes at the nearby Heritage Park Victorian Village.

Balboa Park Botanical Building
Balboa Park Botanical building, image courtesy of Mary Solio

Walk Around Balboa Park

Known as America’s largest urban cultural park and the “jewel of San Diego”, Balboa Park is a can’t miss attraction. It is a beautiful place to walk around filled with well-manicured gardens, trails, theaters, pavilions and over 16 museums. The colonial architecture, left from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, almostmakes you feel like you’re in Spain.

Want a quick tour around the world? The House of Pacific Relations, International Cottages has 32 houses, each representing a nation and visitors can stop by to learn more about their history, culture, food and traditions.

The Spanish Art Village has over 200 artists and you can see them working at their studios and buy uniquepieces. If you’re visiting during Spring, don’t miss the cherry blossoms at the Japanese garden and all theblooms inside the botanical building which is the centerpiece of the park.

Go Whale Watching/Sunset Cruising

Another great way to see a different perspective of San Diego is from the water. One of the most popular is cruising the big bay especially during sunset or with a dinner cruise.  It’s a relaxing way to see some of the attractions like the military vessels on the Navy shipyard or sailing under the Coronado Bridge and even spotting some sea lions and seals along the way. 

Thousands of Pacific gray whales go past San Diego during their annual migration from Alaska to BajaMexico’s calving lagoon. Whale watching cruises are the best way to see these majestic creatures offshore. If you’re visiting during spring months, you may be lucky enough to see the whales with their calves. You’re most likely to see dolphins, sea lions and seals too.  

The whale-watching cruises usually have naturalists on board the vessels to learn more about the whales and local wildlife. Many of the tour companies also offer guarantees of whale sightings or you can go on another cruise for free.

Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument, image courtesy of Mary Solio

Discover Cabrillo National Monument

Named for the first European explorer to set foot on America’s west coast, Cabrillo National Monument is an area filled with nature, culture and history. Stop at the visitor’s center to make the most of your visit to the park through exhibits and ranger talks.

Don’t miss going inside the restored Old Point Loma Lighthouse which shows how the light keepers and their families lived in the 19th century. The park also has a scenic 2.5-mile bayside trail for some of the best views of San Diego and to spot whales during migration time in the winter months. The rocky intertidal zone is one of the best places to find a variety of marine creatures during low tide. 

Pose for the Gram 

Since you will be traveling with teens, stopping at Instagrammable and Snapchat worthy spots may be on the agenda too. There is no shortage of places with beautiful backdrops in San Diego from the beaches, scenicBalboa Park, murals and many street art installations.

These are some of our favorites: 

  • Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
  • Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier at La Jolla Beach
  • Carlsbad Flower Fields (only open during March to May)
  • Botanical Building and Lily Pond at Balboa Park 
  • Greetings from San Diego Mural in North Park by Belching Beaver Brewery
  • Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown San Diego
  • Giant Kissing Sailor Statue aka “Embracing Peace” by USS Midway 
  • Spruce Street Suspension Bridge 
  • Oceanside Harbor and Pier
  • Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island

More College Visit Information

If you are visiting San Diego as part of a college tour, here are some other articles that you may find helpful.