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20 Free things to do in San Diego this winter

From traditional holiday parades and festivals to the migration of California gray whales along the Pacific coast, a visit to San Diego during the winter offers a wealth of free, fun and festive experiences. Visitors to the region can escape overcast skies and the wintry cold for San Diego’s brilliant sunshine and temperate climate and enjoy diverse wintertime experiences with a Southern California twist.

Balboa Park in the winter

The Lily Pond and Botanical Building at Balboa Park. Photo credit: Manny Cencieros

These free activities and events are sure to capture your imagination and lift the spirits of visitors to San Diego during the upcoming winter months.

Check out these terrific free ideas for the whole family!


On the shores and cliffs of Point Loma, you can watch gray whales as the migrate south to their breeding grounds off the coast of Baja, California. You’ll be treated to a spectacular display between December and March. Don’t miss it!


Head out to the Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade to see the show and peruse the free expo, where you and your four-legged friend can pick up your complimentary goodie bag before getting a bite at one of the area’s pet-friendly restaurants. Participating in the parade costs $15, but watching is free!


Enjoy free organ concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park beginning at 2 p.m. each Sunday. The Organ Pavilion features the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, a San Diego landmark for over 90 years, where organists resound holiday favorites, waltzes and show tunes from the organ’s monstrous 32-foot lead alloy pipes.


See Old Town State Park decked out for the holidays during Holiday in the Park on December 15. During this special evening, all the shops in the park will be dressed to their holiday nines and open additional hours for holdiay shoppers. You’ll be treated to wandering carolers and other special holiday treats.


Take a walk around Balboa Park and discover its beautiful architecture. The park has a variety of free offerings, including free admission to select museums on Tuesdays and tours of the park and its spectacular gardens.


Head over to Seaport Village for the festive Surfing Santa at Seaport Village event on November 24. Hang-ten with Santa and enjoy a lively parade along the Seaport Village boardwalk, live music, stilt walkers, kid’s crafts and photo opportunities of your family and friends surfing with Santa.


Drive to the mountain town of Julian for a warm mug of hot apple cider and a delicious piece of Julian’s legendary homemade apple pie. Stroll through the quaint neighborhood streets and enjoy the sounds of wandering Christmas carolers and a living nativity scene (dates to be announced).


Explore the tide pools in Point Loma when the tide is low to see some of the magnificent creatures of the sea. Point Loma tide pools are located just south of the tip of Cabrillo Point.


Take a walk along one of San Diego’s 70 miles of beaches, all free and open to the public. Collect seashells for decorating special holiday gifts or just enjoy the magnificent Pacific Ocean.


Enjoy free museum days almost every Tuesday in December at two fantastic Oceanview museums. The California Surf Museum and Oceanside Museum of Art, located within walking distance of one another, are celebrating the season of giving with Free Museum Tuesdays.


See the marching bands of the competing Poinsettia Bowl go head to head on Fifth Ave. in the Poinsettia Bowl Gaslamp March just before the game. Just get there early enough to snag a seat on the Gaslamp patio to watch the battle royale.


Enjoy the twinkling waters of San Diego Bay and more than 100 private boats decorated with holiday lights for the 41st Annual Port of San Diego Parade of Lights on December 9 and 16. Great views are available on dry land from Shelter Island, Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Marina Park and Coronado’s Ferry Landing.


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


Drive to the 600,00-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to marvel at wildlife and a kaleidoscope of colorful flowers amidst the desert warmth. Anza-Borrego is located just two hours from San Diego via Highway 78 and Interstate 8.


How about a parade?! Get in the holiday spirit with Chula Vista’s Annual Starlight Parade, featuring carolers, holiday cheer, floats, drill teams, marching bands, classic cars, children’s event and a visit from Santa.


Watch runners compete in San Diego’s oldest marathon during the scenic Carlsbad Marathon & Half-Marathon on January 27 along the Pacific Coast. (Registration for the full and half marathon are open now if you’d like to compete, which unlike watching the race isn’t free — doesn’t really seem fair, does it?).


Experience a white Christmas in San Diego when you make the scenic, one-hour drive to the top of Mount Laguna. Sled down mountain slopes, build snowmen and have snowball fights (weather conditions permitting).


Enjoy complimentary horse-drawn carriage rides in downtown Escondido during an array of holiday celebrations and events. Carriage rides run between Grand Avenue and Juniper Street (dates and times to be announced).


Celebrate holiday cheer with Christmas in the Park – Poway. The event features a tree lighting ceremony, visits from Santa, train rides, live music, theatre performances, food, treats, crafts and more.


Warm up this winter at the SoNo Park Holiday Fest, featuring local restaurant competing in the annual chili cook-off. Bring your family to sample fresh chili served in hand-spun ceramic bowls, check out the work of local artisans, hear live music and more. (Dates to be announced.)

More things to do in San Diego

Free Activities in San Diego, CA
Dining in San Diego, CA
Cocktails/Wine Bars in San Diego, CA

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