From sunshine and sand to history and hiking, there's plenty to experience in San Diego on a budget! In just one day, you can hit some of the country's best beaches, learn about San Diego's important place in America's history, and take an unforgettable hike along the rugged, beautifully preserved coastline.
True, most of California isn't exactly known for its affordability (looking at you San Francisco), but rest assured that San Diego is full of free activities and cheap eats – if you know where to look. Read on for our top recommendations to help you visit San Diego on a budget.
San Diego on a budget: Know before you go
San Diego has incredible weather year-round
In fact, it actually made both our lists for the best places to visit in July and the best places to visit in October. But it's still a good idea to bring a light jacket - San Diego's temperate climate means that even on the sunniest days, it can still get chilly at night, especially with the ocean breeze.
Visiting with family? Look for discounts and promotions
Consider taking advantage of money-saving offers like the Go San Diego Pass or Kids Free San Diego, which allows kids to eat, play, and stay for free at over 100 hotels, attractions, and restaurants all October long.
It's the birthplace of California
That's right, there's a lot more to San Diego than killer waves and sunny days. It's a hotbed of cultural and historical significance. You can even trace California's origins back to Old Town San Diego.
May gray, June gloom
Thanks to a thick layer of fog that rolls in from the ocean and hangs over the city, May and June are often (but not always) the cloudiest months in San Diego. For the best weather and sunniest days, aim to visit San Diego between July and September.
Free and cheap things to do in San Diego
Explore Balboa Park's countless attractions
Balboa Park is San Diego's cultural epicenter and probably its most popular attraction. This sprawling park is absolutely packed with things to do and see, including 17 museums and nearly 20 themed gardens. Highlights include the San Diego Zoo and the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Hit the beach and soak up the serene San Diego sun
Most beachgoers will first find themselves at either Mission Beach or Pacific Beach. They're part of the same shoreline but offer different experiences – Mission is the calmer of the two, while Pacific is home to more amenities and a vibrant nightlife scene.
Take a city break at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Though it's situated within San Diego city limits, Torrey Pines Reserve remains some of the wildest, most rugged stretches of land on the Southern California coast. Within its 2,000 acres, you'll find ample hiking trails, rare Torrey Pine trees, and a beach area. The admission fee is $10-$25 per vehicle (demand-based pricing).
Get a feel for San Diego's Seaport Village
Understandably, San Diego's history and culture are directly tied to the water. Experience the connection for yourself on a walk through Seaport Village, a waterfront shopping and dining area that is perfect for coffee sipping, souvenir shopping, oyster slurping, and sunset ship watching. It's also a stone's throw from the USS Midway Museum, dedicated to America's longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century.
Travel back in time in Old Town San Diego
Old Town is home to many colonial age buildings, including the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park, recognized as the site where California began.
The historic center proudly displays its roots, with some of the most authentic Mexican food north of the border, and live mariachi bands in the streets. You'll also find some of the city's best shops and restaurants in this area. Wander open-air shops at the Old Town Market Place and browse the merchants' handcrafted wares.
Take the Coronado Ferry across the bay
For under $5, Coronado Island is one of the best things to do in San Diego on a budget. Just 15 minutes away from the mainland, it offers a whole new view of the city.
Once on the island, you can rent bikes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards - or set off on your own to explore the charming neighborhoods and sandy beaches on foot. The shops and restaurants have something for every budget, and the views of San Diego are unbeatable.
Don't miss the historic Hotel Del Coronado. Built in 1888, The Del has played host to royalty, celebrities, and various U.S. Presidents over the years.
Stroll the boardwalk
San Diego is home to many pedestrian-friendly piers and boardwalks, all with stunning ocean views. Try Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach or Mission Beach - or ditch the crowds and find your own!
Where to stay in San Diego on a budget
HI San Diego Downtown
Hostelling International has locations worldwide, from Vancouver to Vietnam. The San Diego outpost of this international hostel group is unpretentious and homey. Located in the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter, this might be the first hostel we've seen that offers Tempur-Pedic® mattresses, even in the dorms. And don't forget about the free breakfast.
Stay Classy Hostel
Stay Classy's mission is to fill the gap between backpacker hostels and overpriced hotels and they're certainly giving both a run for their money. Decorated with elegant and modern furnishings, Stay Classy's dorms swap uncomfortable bunk beds for stand-alone beds surrounded by 3 walls and a curtain.
Situated only a block from the ocean, location is the name of the game at Beach Haven. The rooms are bright, airy, and beach-themed in a way that's much more tasteful than grandma's vacation house. For travelers looking to save money by cooking, rooms with kitchens are available.
The Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows
The Lafayette is an iconic mid-range boutique hotel that gives you an unmatched taste of old San Diego. Open since 1946, this retro spot has an onsite bar, steakhouse, and poolside cabanas for rent.
Cheap flights to San Diego
Recently, Dollar Flight Club members have saved between 70-90% on cheap flights to San Diego. On average, our members spent $186 on their tickets and saved over $130 per ticket. Here are a few samples of cheap flight deals that Dollar Flight Club members have received recently.
New York City (JFK) to San Diego (SAN)
Price with Dollar Flight Club: $174
Average Price: $300
Dallas (DFW) to San Diego (SAN)
Price with Dollar Flight Club: $70
Average Price: $225
Minneapolis (MSP) to San Diego (SAN)
Price with Dollar Flight Club: $202
Average Price: $320
Where to eat in San Diego on a budget
Kono's is a cozy surf-themed spot in the heart of Pacific Beach that's beloved by locals thanks to the affordable breakfasts with generous portions. Get the breakfast burrito.
The Taco Stand
The Taco Stand is a local chain inspired by the taco stands of nearby Tijuana, Mexico. 3 locations within San Diego.
Hodad's is a small family-owned chain that's famous for delicious burgers but even more famous for its exceptional onion rings. Locals swear by the Guido Burger, topped with Pastrami, Ketchup, Pickles, Swiss Cheese, Grilled Onions & Spicy Brown Mustard – all for under $10.
Lourdes Mexican Food
A small chain that's famous throughout San Diego not for its tacos or burritos but for its authentic chicken soup!
Located in the North Park neighborhood, The Friendly is a hole-in-the-wall diner with some of the best cheap eats in town. Try their signature $5 dish, the Dirty Flat Top Cheeseburger, which comes topped with garlic aioli, caramelized onions, and a fresh slice of American cheese.
Start planning your trip to San Diego
A visit to this sunny oceanside city doesn't have to hurt your wallet! There are plenty of free things to do if you're visiting San Diego on a budget, from exploring city parks and the historic downtown to wandering the gorgeous beaches and feeling the sand between your toes.
BY: ZACH ANDERSON, CONTENT MARKETING & FLIGHT EXPERT
Zach is a digital marketer, copywriter, and flight deal expert at Dollar Flight Club where he helps 1 million people travel more. As a digital nomad, he is deeply passionate about location independence, Thai food, and helping others see the world affordably.