Downtown & Beyond
It doesn't cost a penny to stroll around the Gaslamp Quarter, which brims with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings, along the Embarcadero (waterfront), or around the shops at Seaport Village or Horton Plaza. And don't forget: Walkabout International offers free guided walking tours and Centre City Redevelopment Corporation's Downtown Information Center gives bus tours one Saturday a month.
If you'd rather drive around, ask for the map of the 52-mile San Diego Scenic Drive when you're at the International Visitor Information Center on the Embarcadero (at Broadway).
The murals in Chicano Park (tel. 619/563-4661; www.chicano-park.org), painted on the support system of the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, are a colorful road map through Mexican and Chicano history. South of downtown (exit Cesar Chavez Pkwy. from I-5), the 70-plus murals represent some of San Diego's most important pieces of public art. For visibility and safety's sake, plan your visit during the day. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's two downtown spaces are free to everyone 25 and under; for those who have to pay, your ticket will get you into MCA's La Jolla museum for free, if you visit within 7 days. Both the La Jolla and downtown museums are also free every third Thursday from 5 to 7pm.
You can fish free of charge from any municipal pier (that is, if you bring your own pole). A fishing license is not required.
Promenading along the park's architecturally rich pedestrian thoroughfare (which is often lined with street entertainers), lingering in the meticulously maintained gardens, or hiking the park's trails are all free to do. Balboa Park also offers a handful of free attractions and activities, including: the Botanical Building and Lily Pond, House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, the Timken Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion hosts free 1-hour Sunday afternoon organ concerts at 2pm year-round, and free concerts Monday through Thursday evenings in summer. Several free tours of the park are available; they leave from in front of the visitor center. The San Diego Zoo is free to all on the first Monday of October (Founders Day), and children 11 and under enter free every day during October.
Old Town & Mission Valley
Explore Heritage Park, Presidio Park, Old Town State Historic Park, or El Campo Santo. A 1-hour walking tour of the state park is conducted twice daily, and frontier reenactments are staged Wednesdays from 10am to 4pm. There's free nightly and weekend entertainment (mariachis and folk dancers) at Fiesta de Reyes, and the Old Town Market, 4010 Twiggs St. (tel. 619/260-1078), has costumed storytellers and a small museum. The free William B. Kolender San Diego County Sheriff's Museum, 2384 San Diego Ave. (tel. 619/260-1850; www.sheriffmuseum.org), traces the evolution of the department and its equipment since the first San Diego officer pinned on a badge in 1850. Renovated in 2010, the Mormon Battalion Historic Site museum, 2510 Juan St. (tel. 619/298-3317), is slick, high-tech, and free. It relates the story of the more than 500 men and women, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, recruited by the U.S. Army in 1846 to help fight the Mexican-American War. The battalion marched from Iowa to San Diego (nearly 2,000 miles), and its resulting maps and trailblazing helped open the way for westward expansion. And yes, you'll get a dose of religion along with the tour. Mission Trails Regional Park, offers hiking trails and an interpretive center.
Mission Bay, Pacific Beach & Beyond
Walk along the beach, the boardwalk, or around the bay -- it's good exercise and there's a nonstop parade of colorful characters. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the Ocean Beach Pier or the Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach.
The half-mile Coast Walk between the La Jolla Cove and Children's Pool is San Diego at its most beautiful. Dabble in the tide pools along the way and enjoy the harbor seal colony at Seal Rock and the Children's Pool.
It's also fun to meander around the campus of the University of California, San Diego, and view the Stuart Collection (bring a pocketful of quarters for the hungry parking meters). The main branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is always free to those 25 and under; a paid ticket will get you into the downtown spaces for free (within 7 days). MCASD's museums are also free every third Thursday from 5 to 7pm. The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library is also free to browse through.
Watching the hang gliders and paragliders launching from the Gliderport near Torrey Pines is always a blast. For another great vista, follow the SCENIC DRIVE signs from La Jolla Boulevard to Nautilus Street, leading up to Mount Soledad and its 360-degree view of the area.
Drive across the toll-free San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and take a self-guided tour of the Hotel del Coronado's grounds and photo gallery. A walk on beautiful Coronado beach costs nothing -- nor does a lookie-loo tour of the neighborhood's restored Victorian and Craftsman homes.
At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, 2800 Olympic Pkwy. (tel. 619/656-1500 or 619/482-6222; www.teamusa.org), you'll find some of the world's top amateur athletes honing their skills in a variety of sports, including soccer, volleyball, swimming, BMX, and track and field. On the western shore of Lower Otay Reservoir in Chula Vista, this is one of three United States Olympic training centers. It's open year-round and self-guided tours are available Tuesday through Sunday, 9am to 4pm; guided tours are offered Saturday at 11am. Visitors can watch a short film about the Olympic movement then check out the highlights of the 150-acre center. To get there, take I-805 S. to the Olympic Parkway exit, and then go east about 8 miles until you reach a sign directing you to the Copley Visitor Center.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.