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  • Elaine Sison

22 Budget-friendly San Diego activities and places to eat under $15

Updated: Jan 13

Whether you're a local on a budget or a visitor looking to experience the best of the city without splurging, here are 22 budget-friendly activities and eats in San Diego, all for under $15. All estimated pricing for activities and places to eat are based on when writing this article. Pricing may change at the discretion of the activity, eatery, or the season. 


 

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San Diego activities under $15


1. Cabrillo National Monument and tide pool exploring

Cost: $10 - $20


Cabrillo National Monument tide pools

Cabrillo Lighthouse at San Diego.


Before you get at me for this option exceeding $15, let me explain. The $20 entrance fee covers visitors in each private non-commercial vehicle. Whether you have 1 to 5 people in the same car, it will still be $20, making Cabrillo National Monument a budget-friendly San Diego activity! The entrance pass is valid for 7 consecutive days and gives you access to the Cabrillo lighthouse and the tidepools to see the sea mini-ecosystems. Make sure to check the time when the tides are low so you can access the tidepools and be sure to wear sturdy shoes as it can get slippery! I wore Converses onto the wet rocks and slipped a few times.


Travel tip: The “America the Beautiful” national park pass also covers the Cabrillo National Monument entrance fee. If you plan on visiting at least 3 national parks or national monuments this year, the National Park Pass will be a good pass to consider to save money.


2. Wander through Balboa Park

Cost: Free - $12 


Stroll through Balboa Park, where you can enjoy 1,200 acres of 17 museums, gardens, theaters, and recreational spaces.  While some museums may charge an entrance fee, many offer free admission on select days or hours for San Diego residents each month. Entrance to the park is free where you can still walk through to see the beautiful architectural buildings with plenty of photo opportunities. 


Parking: Several parking lots within Balboa Park, but consider peak times and major events. I’ve been to Balboa Park several times and I’ve been mostly lucky, but it also depends if any large events are happening in the area too.  



3. Find zen at the Japanese Friendship Garden

Cost: $12* - $14 


Japanese Friendship Garden - budget friendly activity in San Diego

Within Balboa Park, this beautiful Japanese garden contains 12 acres of plants and florae native to Japan and San Diego. The Japanese Friendship Garden offers a place to educate and engage visitors about Japanese culture and the community. The garden is curated and designed to create peace and calmness, making it a great family-friendly activity or a budget-friendly date idea.


With valid ID, students, seniors, and active military can get discounted admission for $12


4. Ocean Beach Pier

Cost: Free


Take a walk along the iconic Ocean Beach Pier. Enjoy the ocean views, watch surfers, and catch a glimpse of dolphins or sea lions if you're lucky.


5. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Cost: Free


Experience breathtaking sunsets at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Pack a picnic and enjoy the view from the cliffs or come during low tide and explore the tide pools where you can find sea anemones, little crabs, and starfish. Going down to the tide pools can be a bit steep so wear the proper shoes to avoid slipping.


Parking: Street parking is available



6. Hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve 

Cost: $10 - $25 per vehicle to park or you can try to find free parking along the highway.


Torrey Pines coastal trail at sunset in San Diego

Torrey Pines is the most beautiful hike in San Diego as there are maintained trails along the cliffside with views of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve hiked Torrey Pines during sunset and in the afternoon, and each time felt like a different experience. It’s a heavily trafficked trail, so you might want to come before 9 am or late afternoon before sunset.


Note: No pets and food are allowed along the trail to help wildlife stay healthy in their habitat.


Girl watching sunset coastal cliff views at Torrey Pines, Sani Deigo


7. Annie’s Canyon

Cost: Free


Girl standing in Annie's Canyon, San Diego

A 1.5-mile easy hike through San Diego’s only slot canyons makes this an interesting and unique hike. If you get claustrophobic with tight spaces, this might be something to stay away from. It can get busy during the weekends, so I suggest coming on a weekday. I came on a weekday during golden hour and only saw 2 other people on the trail.


Reminder: Please keep this place better than you leave it by leaving no trace by taking out anything you brought in.


Parking: Free street parking



8. Stroll through Seaport Village

Cost: Free to window shop or cost of food varies


Statue and USS Midway by the waterfront in San Diego

Seaport Village offers a waterfront shopping and entertainment experience along the San Diego harbor. This is a cool place to stroll through, do some window shopping, and grab some bites.


9. Get panoramic views of San Diego’s skyline at Centennial Park

Cost: Free though you might find metered street parking


Skyline view of the San Diego cityscape at Centennial Park at sunset.

With an expansive lawn and plenty of benches, set up a picnic and enjoy the skyline view of the San Diego skyline. This is a wonderful place to relax, read a book, and just hang out. This is a convenient place to stop by if you are heading to Coronado.


Tip: While you’re in the area, grab coffee at Trident Coffee located a mile down the road on Orange Avenue, where they offer 8 specialty cold brews on top and keto protein donuts and gluten-free baked goods. 



10. Explore the bustling food market and boutique stores at Liberty Station

Cost: free or price varies


Liberty Public Market sign in San Diego

Liberty Station used to be a Naval training facility in the 1920s that got revitalized into an area for local boutique art, restaurants, bars, and a food hall with a variety of cuisines. Make sure to stop by Pigment, a husband-and-wife duo that focuses on cute home gifts, plants, and pottery curated by local artists and vendors. Notable restaurants I recommend in Liberty Station are: 



11. The Cave Store 

Cost: $10/adult and $6/youth


Outline of a face in the sea tunnel inside Sunny Jim's Sea Cave in La Jolla

From the outside, it looks like a souvenir store, but what lies inside the store is a century-old bootleggers tunnel that leads to a sea cave. The sea cave was built in 1902 and has since been named Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave. Visitors can do a self-guided tour that shouldn’t take more than 15-30 minutes. You will descend 145 steps down the tunnel and return the same way, so be sure you and your group are comfortable doing the stairs. The Cave Store is located in La Jolla, so you can easily make a pit stop here while you are in La Jolla. 


Parking: metered parking; it’s a busy area so parking will be difficult in La Jolla.


12. La Jolla Cove

Cost: Free


La Jolla Cove in San Diego at sunset.

sea lions relaxing at La Jolla Cove.

Head to La Jolla Cove to observe seals and sea lions sunbathing on the rocks. It's a fantastic spot for nature lovers and photographers and the best time to see them is mid-May to December. The photos shown were taken in mid-December and there were tons of seals! Please respect the sea lions and view them at a safe distance (of at least 50 yards) to avoid stressing out the wildlife. La Jolla Cove is a popular tourist area in San Diego, so parking can be difficult.



Affordable eats in San Diego:

1) Lucha Libre Taco Shop

Cost: $5 - $10

Indulge in delicious and affordable tacos at Lucha Libre Taco Shop, known for its vibrant wrestling-themed decor and flavorful Mexican street food.


2) Hodad's

Cost: $8 - $12


Grab a mouthwatering burger at Hodad's in Ocean Beach. This local favorite offers generous portions at reasonable prices.


3) The Balboa South

Cost: $11 - $14 per sandwich/burger


Looking for a more classic burger? The Balboa is your local dive bar, serving up classic burgers and beers. You can’t go wrong with the Original Balboa burger for the classic juicy burger taste. Some locals swear that The Balboa has the best classic burger in San Diego.


4) Bale French Sandwich

Cost: $5- $6 per sandwich

The quality, portions, and price are amazing for this Vietnamese sandwich and boba shop. Located in a shopping plaza in Mira Mesa, this is a hidden gem that serves the best banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) in San Diego. The baguette is crispy and the portion is unbeatable for the price. 

Tip: This is conveniently located next to H Mart and Lucky Seafood Market where you can shop for all Asian groceries as well. The only place you can get Asian groceries in San Diego happens to be in Mira Mesa. 


5) Tacos El Gordo

Cost $2 - $4 per taco


Delicious Adoboda (marinated meat) taco with pineapple slices.

Taste authentic Tijuana-style tacos at Tacos El Gordo. These street-style tacos are both affordable and a must-try when you’re in San Diego. I only get the Adobada (marinated pork) option at Tacos El Gordo because it has the best flavor. I don't bother getting any of the other meat options, but I encourage you to try different options if it's your first time. They have three storefronts in Gaslamp, Chula Vista, and Otay Mesa. The location in Chula Vista is the original location and some locals swear that the original location tastes the best. The ordering experience is unique at these locations, where they have several lines based on the type of meat you want, so if you want carne asada, then you get in the line that serves only carne asada.


6) The Taco Stand

Cost: $3 - $4 per taco

Visit The Taco Stand for mouthwatering tacos, including options for vegetarians. The vibrant flavors won't disappoint. My personal favorites are the carne asada and the battered fish options.


Al pastor taco at The Taco Stand in San Diego.


7. Oscar's Mexican Seafood

Cost: $6 - $12


Seafood tacos at Oscars in San Diego

Savor affordable and delicious seafood dishes at Oscar's, known for its fish tacos and ceviche.


8) Prince Street Pizza

Cost: $5.75 - 6.50 per slice

Two slices of square pizza from Prince Street Pizza in San Diego.


Originating from New York, Prince Street Pizza is popular for its square pizzas. Be prepared for a wait in line in the evenings and at lunchtime while you are in the Gaslamp neighborhood. 


Tip: The Gaslamp area is best visited for nightlife where entire roads will be blocked off for the partygoers. It can be a ghost town during the day. 



9) Parlor Doughnuts 

Cost: $2.45 - $3.45 per donut


Two sweet doughnuts from Parlor Doughnuts

Parlor Doughnuts is in Oceanside (45 minutes North of San Diego). I love them for their quality ingredients with keto, vegan, and gluten-friendly doughnut options. 


Looking for a closer donut shop to central San Diego? Donut Bar is dubbed “The Gold Standard of donut shops” and has been featured on A&E, Food Network, Travel Channel, & Cooking Network. I tried this many years ago, but will need to go back and try it again. 


10) The Crack Shack 

Cost: $9.50 - $13 per sandwich

The Crack Shack offers a generous portion-sized fried chicken sandwich that is crispy and juicy. San Diego has opened several fried chicken storefronts in the last few years, but The Crack Shack remains #1 on my list. As of 2024, they have three locations in Southern California (Costa Mesa, Encinitas, and San Diego), Las Vegas, and Utah. 



Budget-friendly San Diego hotels by neighborhood:

San Diego Neighborhood

Hotel name

Parking

Midway Area

Included

Pacific Beach

Included

Old Town

Yes, but at a cost

Mission Valley

Yes, but at a cost

Little Italy

No

La Jolla

Free self-parking

La Jolla

Yes, but at a cost

The cost of these hotels will vary based on the season you visit. For the cheapest hotel rates in San Diego, the best time to visit would be from January to February when there are fewer tourists.


Have you done other budget-friendly activities and eateries in San Diego that are worth sharing? I would love to hear about it!



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Elaine is a California Bay Area native who now lives in San Diego, CA as a remote marketing project manager by day and a travel content creator.

Elaine created PureTrips for adventurers who are looking for travel guides and hiking tips to create memorable experiences.

Keep exploring.

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