San Diego is a prime example that laid-back vibes don’t necessarily mean laid-back costs. As a year-round destination, the sunshiny west coast city is notoriously pricey. But it’s beachy charm, fun-loving mood, and delicious tacos still make it worth it. You’re not cheap San Diego, and I’m not even mad.
You can still have that kicked-back, chilled-out SoCal experience without spending all of your money, you just need to know where to go — there are even hidden nooks where free exists. Here’s how to MacGyver your money while exploring the San Diego area. And yes: there will be tacos.
1. Taco Tuesday
This might be the most obvious deal to take advantage of in SoCal, and for good reason: at Mitch’s Seafood the fish tacos are so fresh you could slap them, but are so cheap you won’t. Wash it down with $1.50 Tecates and toast to your saved pennies. If you can manage to look up from your tacos, take a moment to appreciate the harbor view they came with, too.
2. Coast the coast
Head outside of the San Diego box to explore some of the northern coastal towns like Oceanside, Encinitas, and Solana Beach. By default, it’ll be a touch cheaper outside of the city, and there’s even a Coaster train that stops at various towns between SD and Oceanside. Just strolling the streets of the northern hamlets is enough to keep you entertained.
3. Throw a picnic
Instead of going to yet another restaurant, save some dough by hitting up the Wednesday farmers market in Carlsbad (3-7 PM) and then head to the beach for the sunset.
4. Swing it
Channel your inner 8-year-old and search for the secret swings in La Jolla. Word of mouth and social media have turned these elusive swings into a San Diego scavenger hunt. They’re mysterious, they’re fun… they’re swings! They appear randomly in various locations around the La Jolla area, usually overlooking the shores, but just when you think you’ve nailed down the location of one, it’s likely to have been removed. The original swings were removed by the city, but people have kept it going as a not-so-well-kept secret. Beware: they will send you on a wild goose chase, and when you do find one, your legs may not be long enough to use them. (I may or may not be speaking from experience.) They are an ever-changing fixture in the area, but even if you don’t luck out and find one, you’ll be exploring some gorgeous scenery regardless. You can find clues by searching the #secretswings hashtag on Instagram.
5. Hang in PB
Despite my deepest desires, this does not, in fact, stand for “peanut butter.” As a close second, Pacific Beach is a beachside neighborhood with happy hour deals-a-plenty. You can explore this surf ‘hood and the next door Mission Beach area for the day on beach cruisers for $15 from Cheap Rentals. Add a basket to tote your belongings for an extra $2. If you get thirsty from the biking, cruise over to Cass Street Bar and Grill.
6. Sushi Deli
Late night sushi and buckets of beer are just some of the highlights from the aptly named Sushi Delis 1-3. With (you guessed it) 3 locations, you can’t miss it. Each month there’s a featured special, and $2 Sapporo pints are all day every day. Oh, and I think the “all you can eat and drink” specials on Saturday and Sunday afternoons speaks for itself.
7. Art appreciation 101
The murals of Ocean Beach are an outdoor museum in their own right. This requires zero dollars, just walk the streets of this artsy community and check out all the murals for yourself.
Hob Nob Hill has (almost) bottomless mimosa brunches for $12. Print out an old-school coupon from their website for $2 off any entrée item, and SCORE. Grandma-sized portions and an old-timey diner counter await just outside Balboa Park, a San Diego staple. Balboa Park is free, except for the museums, zoo, and certain special events.
The Baked Bear will leave you drooling. For under 5 bones, customize an ice-cream sandwich with various combinations of homemade cookies, ice cream, brownies, and the kicker, doughnuts. The only requirements for this venture are a passion for sweets and pocket change.