25 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.
The following suggestions for free activities and events are sure to capture the imagination and lift the spirits of visitors to San Diego during the upcoming winter months.
Join the festivities during Balboa Park December Nights, a two-day holiday celebration of food, entertainment and fun on December 6 (3 p.m. to 11 p.m.) and December 7 (12 p.m. to 11 p.m.). The numerous museums and cultural institutions in Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, open their doors free of charge from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Festivities in the park include carolers, live music, holiday light displays, theater and dance performances and delicious foods from around the world. Also, be sure not to miss the “Whoville” decorations in the plaza in front of The Old Globe theatre, which are on display November 16 – December 28, to coincide with the theatre’s annual holiday production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
Witness a tradition that began as a gift to the children of San Diego in 1947- the Annual Mother Goose Parade on November 24 in the East County city of El Cajon. The largest parade in San Diego County, the event features floats, clowns, Santa Claus, marching bands, equestrian teams and celebrity appearances.
Whale watch from the shores and cliffs of Point Loma, as California gray whales migrate south to the warm water breeding grounds off the coast of Baja, California. Spectators can catch a spectacular show during December through April when these majestic mammals pass through the waters off San Diego’s coastline.
Be part of a grand Holiday Celebration on December 6 in Coronado with a festive parade along Orange Avenue, the lighting of a 75-foot Christmas tree, holiday music and a fireworks show over Glorietta Bay.
Enjoy free organ concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park beginning at 2 p.m. each Sunday in October and November and on Dec. 1. The Organ Pavilion features the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, where organists play holiday favorites, waltzes and show tunes from the organ’s monstrous 32-foot lead alloy pipes.
See Old Town State Historic Park decked out for the holidays during Holiday in the Park on December 14 and enjoy holiday treats, activities and extended shopping hours, along with strolling carolers. On December 15, watch the 62nd Anniversary Las Posadas, a centuries-old tradition in which actors reenact the biblical journey of Mary and Joseph through the town of Bethlehem.
Head over to Seaport Village for the festive Surfing Santa at Seaport Village event on November 30 from 1-5 p.m. Hang-ten with Santa and enjoy a lively parade down the Seaport Village boardwalk, along with music, stilt walkers, kid’s crafts and photo opportunities of family and friends surfing with Santa.
Spread some holiday cheer at the La Jolla Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival on December 8 in downtown La Jolla. The event includes marching bands, floats, equestrian units, vintage automobiles and an appearance by Santa Claus.
Drive to the mountain town of Julian in San Diego’s rural East County for a warm mug of hot apple cider and a delicious slice of Julian’s legendary homemade apple pie. On Saturdays, stroll through the quaint neighborhood streets and enjoy the sounds of wandering Christmas carolers and a living nativity scene.
Cheer on the participants of the 50th Annual North Park Toyland Parade on December 7. Enjoy marching bands, floats, vintage cars, dance groups, beauty queens, city officials and Santa in this popular community celebration. The parade is followed by a holiday fair behind the historic North Park Theatre.
Take a walk along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline, home to 33 unique beaches, all free and open to the public. Stake out a free fire pit or explore the tide pools in Point Loma, Ocean Beach and La Jolla when the tide is low to see some of the magnificent creatures of the sea.
Visit the village of La Mesa from 5 to 10 p.m. on December 13-14 for Christmas in the Village . Enjoy Santa, street performers, carolers, carriage rides, live music and other entertainment for the whole family.
Bring the family to the SoNo Park Chili Fest on December 1 and celebrate the holidays with the residents and restaurants of South Park and North Park in a chili cook-off. Sample chili in hand-spun ceramic bowls, shop for holiday gifts from local artisans and enjoy free live music, kids’ activities, gourmet food trucks, a beer garden featuring local craft beers and more.
Enjoy watching the Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade on December 8 in downtown San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. Owners and their dressed-up pets march down the decorated streets of the neighborhood and end at a Pet Expo featuring an awards ceremony for best-dressed pups and more.
Take a drive to the top of Mt. Soledad in La Jolla for a panoramic view of the city all spruced up in holiday decoration. Along the way, enjoy all the beautifully decorated homes in this exclusive community.
Drive to the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego’s East County 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.
Gaze up at the massive balloons during the Big Bay Balloon Parade, the country’s largest balloon parade, on December 30. Floats, balloons and marching bands are just some of the offerings in this colorful holiday parade that takes place along San Diego Bay in downtown San Diego.
Enjoy the twinkling waters of San Diego Bay and more than 100 private boats decorated with holiday lights for the 42nd Annual Port of San Diego Parade of Lights on December 8 and 15. Great views are available on land from Shelter Island, Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Marina Park and Coronado’s Ferry Landing.
Ring in the season in East County’s Chula Vista with Third Avenue’s Holiday in the Village . This pedestrian-friendly holiday event occurs December 7th from noon to 5 p.m. and includes carolers, mariachis, game booths, inflatable rides, cookie decorating, a petting zoo, pony rides and photos with Santa.
Experience a white Christmas in San Diego after making the scenic, one-hour drive to the top of Mount Laguna in San Diego’s rustic East County. Sled down mountain slopes, build snowmen and have snowball fights (weather conditions permitting).
Delight in the festive gatherings of the Mission Bay Christmas Boat Parade of Lights on December 14. Over 100 brightly illuminated powerboats and sailboats parade along Mission Bay; the parade ends with a fantastic fireworks show at 9 p.m. above SeaWorld San Diego.
Experience a magical evening of holiday celebrations on December 7 at the California Center for the Arts Escondido during the annual Holiday Tree Lighting and Winter Wonderland. Enjoy seasonal music and Victorian carolers, a visit from Santa, free art activities and treats, a spectacular light show and real snow! Also celebrate “Christmas Across the Galaxy” during the 63rd Annual Christmas Parade on December 14 in the city of Escondido.
Celebrate holiday cheer on December 14 during Christmas in the Park in North County’s Old Poway Park. The event features a tree lighting ceremony, visit from Santa, train rides, live music, theatre performances, food, treats, crafts and more.
Join the San Diego North County community of Carlsbad for two Holiday Tree Lighting Festivities. On November 29, Santa Claus will light the Christmas tree at 6 p.m. at The Forum shopping center in Carlsbad. On December 1 from 2 to 5 p.m., Santa returns to the Village Faire Shopping Center for photos, coffee, cookies and entertainment, followed by tree lighting ceremony.
Come out and cheer the Encinitas Holiday Parade along the historic 101 Coast Highway in San Diego’s North County. The parade is preceded by a tree lighting ceremony and 5 p.m. and the nearly 100 floats and entries roll along the 101 starting at 5:30 p.m.