25 Free Things to Do in San Diego

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SDBalboa ParkFrom traditional holiday parades and festivals to the migration of California gray whales along the Pacific coast, a winter family vacation in San Diego offers a wealth of free and fun things to do with kids. Some are good all season, while others are one- or two-day special events.

1.     Whale watch from the shores and cliffs of Point Loma, as California gray whales migrate south to the warm water breeding grounds off the coast of Baja, California. Spectators can catch a spectacular show during December through April when these majestic mammals pass through the waters off San Diego’s coastline.

2.     Mt. Soledad Take a drive to the top of this mountain in La Jolla for a panoramic view of the city all spruced up in holiday decoration. Along the way, enjoy at the beautifully decorated homes in this exclusive community.

SDHolidayBowlParade3.     Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Drive to this 600,000-acre park in San Diego’s East County to marvel at wildlife and a kaleidoscope of colorful flowers amidst the desert warmth. Anza-Borrego is two hours from San Diego via Highway 78 and Interstate 8.

4.     Mount Laguna. This is the place to have a white Christmas in southern California. Take the one-hour drive to the top of Mount Laguna in San Diego’s rustic East County. Sled down mountain slopes, build snowmen and have snowball fights (weather conditions permitting).

5.     Julian Drive to this mountain town for a mug of hot apple cider and a delicious slice of Julian’s legendary homemade apple pie. On Saturdays, stroll through the quaint neighborhood streets and enjoy the sounds of wandering Christmas carolers and a living nativity scene.

6.     Balboa Park Take a walk around the park to see its beautiful architecture and spectacular gardens. “Whoville” decorations will be on display in the plaza outside of The Old Globe theatre November – December 31, coinciding with the theatre’s annual holiday production of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

7.     Stroll 70 miles of beaches and tide pools in Point Loma, Ocean Beach and La Jolla when the tide is low to see some of the magnificent creatures of the sea.

8.     Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. These free organ concerts begin at 2 p.m. each Sunday. The Organ Pavilion features the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ.

9.     Mother Goose Parade. This annual event started in 1947 as a gift to the children of San Diego. Today it is one of the biggest parades of its kind in the country and the largest single-day event in San Diego County. The Nov. 18 parade will feature floats, clowns, Santa Claus, marching bands, equestrian teams and celebrity appearances.

10.  Surfing Santa at Seaport Village Hang 10 with Santa on Nov. 24 and enjoy a lively parade along the Seaport Village boardwalk, music, stilt walkers, kids’ crafts and photo opportunities of your family and friends surfing with Santa.

11.  Holiday Celebration on December 2 in Coronado will include a festive parade along Orange Avenue, the lighting of a 75-foot Christmas tree, holiday music and a firework show over Glorietta Bay.

SDHoteldelCoronado12.  Balboa Park December Nights. This two-day holiday celebration of food, entertainment and fun on December 2-3 includes free admission to the museums and cultural institutions in Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park. Festivities include carolers, live music, holiday light displays, theater and dance performances and foods from around the world.

13.  50th Annual Starlight Parade Chula Vista’s December 3 parade features carolers, holiday cheer, floats, drill teams, marching bands, classic cars, a children’s events and visit from Santa.

14.  Holiday Tree Lighting and Winter Wonderland. Dec. 3 at the California Center for the Arts Escondido. Enjoy seasonal music and Victorian carolers, a visit from Santa, free art activities and treats, a spectacular light show, and real snow! Then make “A Tribute to Heroes” during the 61st Annual Christmas Parade on December 10 in the city of Escondido.

15.  Tree Lighting Festivities, December 4 at the Village Faire Shopping Center in Carlsbad. Enjoy children’s crafts, cookies and cider, entertainment and pictures with Santa Claus. 

16.  SoNo Park Holiday Fest This December 4 event features a chili cook-off. Visitors can taste chili in hand-spun ceramic bowls, shop
for holiday gifts from local artisans and enjoy live music, kids’ activities, gourmet food trucks, a beer garden featuring local craft beer and more.

SDJulianApplePie17.  La Jolla Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival This December 4 event in downtown La Jolla includes marching bands, floats, equestrian units, vintage automobiles and an appearance by Santa Claus.

18.  Christmas in the Village. Enjoy street performers, carolers, carriage rides and entertainment in the village of La Mesa on December 9 and 10.

19.  Old Town State Historic Park Decked out for the holidays, this park is the home of Holiday in the Park on December 10, complete with holiday treats, strolling carolers, activities and extended shopping hours. On December 11, visitors can watch the 61st Anniversary Las Posadas, a centuries-old tradition in which actors reenact the biblical journey of Mary and Joseph through the town of Bethlehem.

20.  Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade on December 11 in downtown San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter features owners and their dressed-up pups.

21.  40th Annual Port of San Diego Parade of Lights Enjoy the twinkling waters of San Diego Bay and more than 100 private boats decorated with holiday lights on December 11 and 18. Great views are available on land from Shelter Island, Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Marina Park and Coronado’s Ferry Landing.

22.  Christmas in the Park – Poway on December 10. The event features a tree lighting ceremony, visits from Santa, train rides, live music, theatre performances, food, treats, crafts and more.

SDJulianwinter23.  Mission Bay Christmas Boat Parade of Lights on December 10. Over 100 brightly illuminated powerboats and sailboats parade along Mission Bay; the parade ends with a fantastic fireworks show at 9 p.m. above SeaWorld San Diego.

24.  Poinsettia Bowl Battle of the Bands in the Gaslamp Quarter on December 19. Held two days prior to the annual Poinsettia Bowl, which is played in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, bands representing the two Bowl football teams line up at opposite ends of Fifth Avenue in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and face-off in an old fashion battle of the bands.

25.  Big Bay Balloon Parade Gaze up at the massive balloons during the country’s largest balloon parade on December 28.