The skyline of Downtown San Diego on a clear day, as visible from Coronado Island.

The target of major revitalization projects, Downtown San Diego is developing as a major shopping, entertainment and residential district. Image from Pixabay.

Two zoos, SeaWorld, museums, historic sites, beaches, golf, shopping, pro sports. The list goes on and on of things to see and do in San Diego, California’s playground within driving distance of campus. Here are 10 top attractions.  

San Diego stands out among America’s metropolitan areas in its stunning variety of things to see and do. It’s a great place for visitors of every lifestyle, age range and budget – and it’s all only a two-hour drive (traffic permitting) from Cal State Fullerton.

Here are 10 things to do in Orange County’s southern neighbor.

  1. The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park

Consistently ranked among the top zoos in the world, the original San Diego Zoo, founded in 1915, houses more than 3,700 animals of 650 species and subspecies in Balboa Park; the Safari Park in Escondido, a 30-minute drive north of San Diego proper on I-15, gives visitors a chance to see flora and fauna from around the world in its natural habitats. Cal State Fullerton students are eligible for discounted tickets at both locations.

  1. SeaWorld San Diego

One of America’s premier theme parks has been a magnet of controversy in recent years as activists have prompted park officials to pay closer attention to the well-being of its aquatic wildlife. If a visit to SeaWorld is in line with your values, you’re entitled to discounted tickets as a Fullerton student. It’s an easy drive – take I-5 south and exit Sea World Drive.

  1. Cabrillo National Monument

The Cabrillo National Monument, founded by order of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, commemorates the beginning of modern West Coast history, memorializing Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who explored the California coast in the service of Spain in the 1500s. The monument includes living history demonstrations, audiovisual materials and a gift shop. Visitors can also explore the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which warned ships of the rocky peninsula during the second half of the 1800s. Nearby tide pools offer a chance for visitors to explore the fragile coastal ecosystems. Admission to the monument grounds, open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., is $10 per passenger vehicle.

Victorian steamships lie docked in the San Diego Harbor at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

From Victorian steamships to Cold War submarines, visitors can explore the world’s shipping heritage at the San Diego Maritime Museum, which has expanded from just three ships to a fleet of 11 vessels over the past 15 years. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

  1. San Diego Maritime Museum

This is my personal favorite – the museum has grown from three ships when I was a child to 11 vessels, including the Star of India clipper ship, two submarines, the official tall ship of the State of California and two Victorian steamships. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (extended hours to 9 p.m. during summer), admission is $16 for adults, with discounts for children, seniors and military veterans. Located along San Diego’s downtown waterfront, parking is available at metered spaces.

  1. Little Italy

California’s premier Italian ethnic enclave features great food (including gelato ice cream and cannoli desserts), retail shops, bocce ball and regular events throughout the year. Located in the middle of downtown, parking is a bit of a challenge. Thankfully, there are public transportation options. Visitors to Little Italy are within walking distance of the San Diego Maritime Museum and the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego’s nightlife headquarters.

  1. Old Town San Diego

Containing 230 acres, this historic district marks the birthplace of California – the first permanent Spanish settlement on the West Coast. Visitors can explore historic buildings, enjoy great Mexican food and mariachi dancers and buy Mexican and early California-themed souvenirs. Come on the weekends and enjoy the Old Town Harney Street Market, an artisans’ bazaar featuring handmade jewelry, glass, pottery, clothing and woodwork. To reach the district, take I-5 south to the eastbound I-8. Exit on Taylor Street.

  1. The Earliest California Missions

San Diego features two of California’s original 21 Spanish missions. The oldest, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was founded in 1769 – seven years before the United States was established as a nation. This mission is open to the public daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The mission is accessible from either I-5 or I-15 freeways via Friars Road.

Further north, Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside is considered the “King of the Missions,” since it is the largest of the mission structures. Built in 1798, it is open daily to visitors. Admission is $7 for adults, with senior, military and children’s discounts. This mission is off of Highway 76 between I-5 and I-15. The nearby beaches are a great value – there’s plenty of free parking, along with miles of sand and the longest wooden pier on the West Coast.

  1. La Jolla

It’s technically part of the City of San Diego, but it feels like a Mediterranean beach town in Italy. La Jolla (Spanish for “the jewel”) features the Sunny Jim Cave Store, a gift shop that opens to the ocean; idyllic beaches; fine dining; and high-end shopping. While resented by some of the locals due to a burgeoning population, visitors will be thrilled by the sea lions. Their bark will remind Cal State Fullerton students of the alarm on campus during evacuation drills.

Daniel Coats sitting next to a snoozing sea lion in La Jolla, California, on Super Bowl Sunday 2016.

The author sits near a sea lion in La Jolla on Super Bowl Sunday 2016.

  1. ARCO Olympic Training Center

The Olympics are this year, so why not visit the site where some of America’s athletes will train for the world’s largest games? The ARCO Olympic Training Center is a 155-acre complex with facilities for sports such as track and field, soccer, cycling, rowing, archery, beach volleyball, tennis, archery and canoeing. Guided tours are offered every Saturday at 11 a.m., with self-guided tours daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Team USA Shop sells Olympic-themed memorabilia. To reach the training center, take the southbound Highway 125. Take a left (east) on Olympic Boulevard.

  1. Las Americas Premium Outlets

For decades, San Diego prided itself as an international city – only minutes from the Mexican border city of Tijuana. That reputation has suffered in the last decade, as security concerns have kept many visitors away from Mexico. Whether or not you choose to visit Tijuana, you can enjoy shopping and dining right on the border at the Las Americas Premium Outlets, an off-price retail and dining center within view of the massive Mexican flag that marks the international boundary.

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