When I tell people that I grew up in San Diego and call it home, they respond almost exactly like this every time: “It’s so beautiful there!” followed by “but it’s so expensive!”
I’m not going to lie to you- San Diego deserves its reputation as an expensive city. Prices have definitely gone up over the years. However, it doesn’t mean that everyone living there is a millionaire. There is a lot to enjoy in San Diego on a budget!
As a native, I am going to fill you in on what there is to enjoy in San Diego on a budget (after all, I grew up there when I was young and didn’t have much money to my name). Also, I’ll give you the tips and tricks that I use to minimize my expenses when I come home to visit.
How To Get In & Around San Diego
On A Budget
Flying Into San Diego:
Over the years, I’ve discovered that the San Diego airport is (usually) not a very cheap airport to fly into.
We have one airport option [SAN] and if you can snag a ticket into it for a good price then great! You’re cooking with grease!
However, if that ticket is looking a bit pricey, consider flying into LAX (or Santa Ana, Burbank, Ontario or Long Beach) and then rent a car and drive into San Diego (approx. a 1-2 hr drive)
On your drive in, you will have the added benefit of passing by many of our lovely Southern California beach cities: Dana Point, Del Mar, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Oceanside, etc.
Depending on when you arrive, there may be some traffic on the drive into SD. If so, you can stop and explore one of the cities mentioned above or simply be patient. After all, traffic is known to be part of the So-Cal experience.
Getting Around San Diego:
RENT A CAR!!
Why? you ask…
- The public transportation system in San Diego is practically nonexistent (& SD is designed to be car-friendly)!
- San Diego is a large city.
If you depend on car service (like Uber or Lyft), taxis and/or public transportation, you will limit yourself from seeing a lot of what San Diego has to offer.
- If you’re planning to see and do a lot of things, renting a car will likely save you money in the long run.
If you plan your whole trip around taking Uber for example, you should expect multiple trips per day and will end up spending a lot of money.
Where To Stay in San Diego
On a Budget
To save money, I recommend Airbnbs over hotels.
- To stay centrally, find a place in Mission Valley or Hillcrest
- To stay cheapest, look for places in North or South Park, Rolando Hills or Normal Heights
- For a buzzing yet relaxed nightlife, stay near Pacific Beach
- To splurge, stay near Downtown (aka the Gaslamp District or Convention Center)
If you absolutely prefer hotel living, check out these recommendations for cheap hotels in San Diego by another native.
If you love travel, read:
Tips From Above-Average Travelers: 28 MUST HAVE Travel Items
Things To Do In San Diego
On A Budget
The great thing about a trip to San Diego is the city by itself is a destination. With great weather year round and an assortment of beaches, you don’t need to come with any plans in particular.
On the other hand, I definitely understand wanting to fill your time with some adventure and local attractions.
Here is a list of the best things to do in San Diego on a budget! Here you will find activities that are fun and free and activities that can be done on the cheap!
FREE THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO
- Relax on a BEACH or two (La Jolla Shores, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Coronado)
- Find (& pose by) all the WALL MURALS Here’s a scavenger hunt to find all the murals here.
- Explore BALBOA PARK (which is in my opinion, the underrated heart of Diego)
Home of museums, botanical garden, walking/running trails, the zoo, Japanese Friendship Garden, the international cottages, the Rose Garden and more!
- Visit SEAPORT VILLAGE:
Features a pier, restaurants, street performances, a carousel and cute little shops. My favorite is the hammock store; I go in every time!
- Take in the city by walking along the SAN DIEGO HARBOR
- Take a HIKE!
> Cowles Mountain (probably the most popular hiking spot for locals)
> Mount Woodson aka Potato Chip Rock (the best picture op!)
> Torrey Pines
- Find adventure at LAKE MURRAY:
Great for jogging, picnics and fishing
- Visit a FARMERS MARKET near you:
Lots and lots of great farmers markets are available all over San Diego county. See a full list here.
- Challenge yourself to complete THE 7 BRIDGE WALK
CHEAP THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO
- Drive up north to Temecula for wine country: check out Groupon for cheap wine tastings
- Rent Bikes on: the Mission Beach or Pacific Beach boardwalk, Coronado Island, Fiesta Island
- Ride the Rollercoaster at Belmont Park
- Visit the Birch Aquarium at Scripps
- Explore the Cabrillo National Monument
- Rent a Kayak in Mission Bay
- Discover the Maritime Museums
- Take a pic at the Carlsbad Flower Fields (from March to mid-May)
- Tour an Olympic Training Center (website)
- Hop on, hop off the Old Town Trolley Sightseeing Tour (website)
What To Eat in San Diego
On a Budget
In my mind, this is how you prove that you actually visited San Diego.
“Were you in San Diego = Did you eat Mexican food?“
Do not leave without visiting a good taco shop. They’re everywhere and they are cheap! You can easily get full for $5.
For a taco shop experience that is popular with high reviews, try Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop. I like to keep it real by eating at my neighborhood taco shop (they haven’t failed me for 20+ years).
Wondering what to get?
Try California Burritos, Carne Asada Fries or Rolled Tacos
Let’s just say I’ve only ever been able to find them in San Diego.
Some other San Diego Cheap Eats:
For budget meals, I would shy away from eating in the Gaslamp or La Jolla. Conversely, Hillcrest and Pacific Beach have many many great places to eat yummy food for cheap.
- For Brunch, try: Snooze A.M. Eatery (long lines!) or BCB Cafe
- For Burgers (esp. if you’re new to the West Coast), try: In & Out
- For Japanese Food & Ramen, try: Tajima
- For Sushi, try: Sushi Diner in Clairemont
- For Fish Tacos, try: Oscars Mexican Seafood
- For Hawaiian Food, try: Leilani’s Cafe
- For Vegan/Plant Based Options, try: Evolution Fast Food
awesome bean burger there!
As you can see, a trip to San Diego is definitely not out of reach. Even if you’re on a budget, there is lots to do!
Have you visited San Diego? On a budget?
What was your favorite thing that you did there? Comment below!
For more about budget trips, read how I did Paris for 7 days (Flight, Food, Lodging, Activities & Transportation) for <$1000!!