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How to enjoy an affordable visit to San Diego, California

Written by Fiona

December 28 2019

Southern California’s laid-back, sun-drenched charm is encapsulated perfectly in San Diego. This charming city is the antidote to LA’s glitz and glam and makes the perfect relaxed holiday destination. Surfers and sun-worshippers flock to the 70 miles of gorgeous Pacific coastline, while the bustling port of San Diego and the charming districts of Little Italy, Old Town and the Gaslamp Quarter offer a delightful variety of wonderful experiences. 

Lovely as San Diego is, a SoCal holiday is rarely a cheap experience. However, there are thankfully a whole bunch of ways to make your visit to San Diego affordable, keeping everything within a budget. From cheap eats to free sights and experiences, with a little forward planning, you can have a fantastic, exciting holiday without breaking the bank.

Take a look at these hints and tips for a rundown of some of the best affordable things to do in this delightful Californian paradise.

Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s most famous landmarks – and for good reason. It is a beautiful gem, including 1,200 acres of picturesque gardens, wonderful museums, memorials, sports venues and the San Diego Zoo. Even if the entry fees to some of the museums might be off-putting, just walking or cycling around this marvellous green space is an absolute treat.

Harper’s Topiary Garden

Harper’s Topiary Garden. Credit: Mike Souza

The labour of love that is this fascinating and bizarre little slice of weirdness started over 20 years ago. Edna Harper began to trim the hedges, plants, flowers and bushes into weird and wonderful shapes (initially to control her neighbour’s honeysuckle!), and her garden now has more than 50 creatures made from carefully pruned vines, creepers and greenery, including a dinosaur, a buddha, an armadillo and several elephants.

Sunset in San Diego.

25th Street Musical Bridge

What started as a public safety initiative to prevent schoolchildren from tumbling off the side of this high bridge has morphed into a musical piece of public art. Tubular bells fixed along the railings now form a musical palindromic piece known as the Crab Carillion, composed by Joseph Waters, which can be played by passers-by.

Mexican street food

San Diego’s Mexican-American heritage and its proximity to the USA’s southern border can be felt throughout the city, but most strongly in its cuisine and food scene. This is an absolute godsend for the thrifty traveller because it means that fresh, delicious and authentic Mexican and fusion Mexican-American food is available everywhere, at truly excellent prices.

Try carne asada or street tacos from a range of superb food trucks, such as Mariscos Nine Seas in South Park (in the Target parking lot!) or Kiko’s Place in Normal Heights.

Craft beer tasting

San Diego has a booming craft beer scene and is one of the USA’s most inventive and productive centres when it comes to artisan ales. There are hundreds of breweries dotted around the city, some huge concerns like Stone and some like the Escondido Brewing Company, which is so tiny it could almost fit in your garage.

The best thing about small breweries is that beer tastings are usually really cheap and even sometimes free. The master brewer will be your guide to a new world of creative, exciting beer-y goodness that is an excellent if blurry way to spend an afternoon.

Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

Credit: Spifferella

San Diego’s famous “wiggly bridge”, the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge was built in 1912 to provide a pedestrian crossing of the deep trolley-car ravine known as Kate Sessions Canyon. It’s a fascinating piece of architecture and engineering.

The lightweight construction means that it sways and swings in response to high winds, and even just footfall, making it quite the adrenaline rush too. The experience can be a little hair-raising, but the gorgeous view of the downtown skyline makes it all worthwhile. 

Heritage County Park

Just a stone’s throw from the Old Town district, the amazing Victorian Village at Heritage County Park is a step back in time. Dedicated to the conservation of San Diego’s Victorian history, the gorgeous grassy park is home to seven remarkable Victorian structures all restored to their former glory, including several original homes and San Diego’s first synagogue.

A haven of peace and tranquility, the houses are best viewed from the outside, although you can enter several in the form of a museum, a bed and breakfast and a shop for porcelain dolls.

Go to the beach

San Diego’s coastline stretches long and lazy and is full of jaw-droppingly beautiful golden sand beaches. A day at the beach comes completely free of charge, so pack your bathing suits and head out for some sun, sea and sand.

Mission Beach offers a youthful vibe, as well as one of the last seaside wooden roller coasters in the country. La Jolla offers stunning views and reclining seals on the sand, while North County is a surfer’s paradise.

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