I adore San Diego in winter! With plenty of sunshine and a temperate climate, San Diego makes a great year-round winter destination…even as a staycation for locals. But, as a local, I love the fewer crowds, stunning sunsets, and unique activities that only winter can offer in California.
Here are my top recommendations:
Things to Do in San Diego in December
1. Go Whale Watching
Don’t miss the migration of the 20,000 gray whales moving from Alaska to the warm waters of Baja in Mexico. They make one of the longest migrations of any mammal anywhere!
It’s about 10,000 miles round-trip between their feeding grounds in Alaska and the warm waters in Baja where they mate and give birth.
See them just off San Diego’s 20 miles of coast between mid-December and April in California.
If you’re in search of free whale-watching opportunities, try San Deigo’s Birch Aquarium or bring your binoculars for possible sightings from Cabrillo National Monument.
But to get up close and personal with a whale fluke or breech, book a whale watching tour. It’s one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.
And what could be better than heading out on a replica of the historic sailing schooner that won the America’s Cup in 1951?!
This schooner moves under the wind power of its sails and offers guaranteed whale sightings and a “no sickness” guarantee!
(Lack of a whale sighting or sea sickness guarantees you a second cruise free.)
You can check prices and availability on a San Diego whale watching tour here.
Where to Stay in San Diego
La Valencia is a Mediterranean-inspired retreat with vintage luxury and oceanside views in the cute seaside village of La Jolla north of downtown. Check prices and availability here.
Or check out my list of the very best stays in San Diego and my list of unique vacation rentals in upscale La Jolla.
How to Get Around
You’ll want to rent a car if you’ll be heading beyond the downtown area to the beautiful North County beaches, to the Convoy area for Asian food, or to explore La Jolla.
Check prices on car rentals here.
The San Diego trolley costs $2.50 for a one way ride and can be a great way to explore downtown. You can even load a Compass card online for prepaid fares. Check out trolley routes and schedules here.
Visiting top attractions? Get 55% off with the Go San Diego Card.
2. Check Out San Diego’s Parade of Lights
If you’re in search of things to do in San Diego in December, check out the Parade of Lights.
On two separate nights in December, a procession of more than 80 boats dressed up in festive, twinkling holiday lights glides its way across the bay before it turns towards the island of Coronado where it can be seen from the Ferry Landing.
For 48 years now, the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights has been a beloved local holiday tradition sponsored by the Port of San Diego. And it’s free.
The parade usually starts at 5 pm. It begins at Shelter Island, passing by Seaport Village and the San Diego Marriot and Marina about 90 minutes later.
But arrive early! This beautiful event typically attracts about 100,000 viewers.
Top spots for viewing: the Maritime Museum of San Diego on the Embarcadero and the Ferry Landing on Coronado.
3. Enjoy Stunning Winter Sunsets
San Diego’s sunsets are memorable any time of year, but winter is even more special.
I’ve lived in Encinitas, in coastal San Diego for nearly 30 years now and I’m struck anew every winter at the predictability of a drama-filled colorful sky at sunset in winter.
(Check out other superb sunset destinations in So Cal in my post on best weekend trips from San Diego.)
Why? We’re just a bit closer to the sun in San Diego in winter due to the sun’s orbit and that makes winter twilight last longer.
Light passes through more air layers, bending the light. Plus, warm air is trapped under colder air, sometimes delivering a “mirage” effect.
Whatever you do, be sure to watch for the famous “green flash.” You’ll spot it at the last moment just before the orb of the sun disappears before the horizon.
There’s no shortage of excellent vantage points in San Diego. But favorites include Torrey Pines State Park, George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach, Mount Soledad, and Balboa Park.
Or for an epic San Diego experience, book a sunset sail! Sure, you’ll need a jacket after the sun goes down (but you will in summer anyway).
There’s really nothing like watching the sun reflect off the San Diego skyline, turning all the glass a deep gold.
You can check out prices and availability on a sunset sail here.
What to Pack for San Diego
Pack layers! Even in winter, there is plenty of warmth and sunshine.
However, your day may start out with overcast weather until the fog burns off the coast giving way to brilliant California sunshine.
Don’t forget to pack:
• Turkish towel
• Lightweight rain shell
• Packable cooler
• Flip flops
• Down jacket
See my favorite travel products here.
4. Go Ice Skating by the Sea
Ice skating in San Diego? It’s another one of San Diego’s best-loved winter traditions!
Every year for about six weeks between late November and early January, the iconic Hotel Del on the beautiful island of Coronado off the coast of San Diego hosts outdoor ice skating.
The Hotel Del has been famous ever since Marilyn Monroe appeared in the movie Some Like It Hot way back in 1959!
Located beachside, the rink offers unmatched views of the Pacific. You can rent skates there.
And while you’re at it, consider booking an afternoon Christmas tea at the hotel or staying for a sunset drink.
You can even reserve your own rink-side lounge for up to six people for holiday-themed libations and full food service.
Even if ice skating is not your thing, consider a day trip over the Coronado bridge to explore this lovely island.
Take the ferry and enjoy a local guided walking tour of this unique place.
You can check out the guided walking tour of Coronado here.
5. Visit Old Town
Old Town has been the heart of Old San Diego since 1769. It’s a great place to wander gardens, browse specialty shops, sip margaritas and otherwise experience San Diego’s rich Mexican influence.
Summer in Old Town can be crawling with tourists which is why it makes such a perfect place to visit in winter.
Authentic Mexican restaurants abound here…one of the reasons it’s also a great place for a food tour.
To really learn about the birthplace of California, check out the Tequila, Tacos and Tombstones Walking Tour.
It’s 2 1/2 hours of learning about the bullfights, political events, and pistol shooting matches that took place in the plaza here in the run up to the Gold Rush.
You’ll also get ghost stories as you visit San Diego’s oldest cemetery and taste-test your way through four restaurants.
You can check prices and availability on the Old Town food tour here.
Read more on USA travel in winter:
• Best places to go in December in the USA
• Best places to travel in November in the USA
• Warm places to visit in January
• Warm vacation spots in February
6. Get a Korean Massage
My visit to Aqua Day Spa last winter was my first experience with an Asian massage and I’m sold! It’s a wonderful experience for a winter day.
Located in San Diego’s area for all things Asian—on Convoy Street in Kearney Mesa—this is not your typical tourist experience.
For under $100, you get an oil massage and body scrub plus a day pass to the steam room, whirlpool, and cold plunge pool. If you’re modest though, this might not be the experience for you.
While spas are separate for women and men, there’s not a lot of privacy and you should know the massage tables are all located together in one room…making it likely that your massage will take place with others of the same gender nearby.
If you’re adventurous, this is one of my top San Diego insider tips!
Afterward, duck into nearby RakiRaki for incredible ramen, Friend’s House for delicious Korean comfort food or Spicy City for epic Chinese fare.
7. Go Wine Tasting
Did you know that California’s wine tasting scene originated in San Diego? Yes, indeed.
For decades, there were just a handful of wineries here, including one of my favorites: Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo, about 25 miles north of downtown San Diego.
But a few years back, regulations changed and boutique wineries sprung up all over. Today, the wine scene in Temecula is hopping. In fact, it’s downright frenetic in the summer so winter is a great time to go for fewer tourists.
Still, it’s a 90-minute drive north from downtown so consider a tour that picks you up and transports you to Temecula and back after tasting at a few wineries.
You can check prices and availability on a Temecula wine tasting here.
What I’d recommend even more, however, is a day trip south of the border for wine tasting in the incredible Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico.
You can do it as a day trip or stay overnight at a beautiful B&B or hotel.
If you’d rather skip the driving in Mexico, it’s also super convenient to do a day trip on a tour.
For example, you can be picked up at your hotel, transported over the border (bring your passport!), escorted to several family-owned wineries, enjoy a hacienda-style meal and be back in San Diego within nine hours.
You can learn more about a day trip tour to Valle de Guadalupe here.
Full disclosure: I have only visited Valle de Guadalupe independently. However, I find tours by Get Your Guide to be high quality around the world.
Bonus idea for a San Diego day trip: Plan a spa day in Tecate at Rancho La Puerta.
8. Ride the San Diego Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley
I love to take hop-on hop-off bus tours on my travels around the world. It’s a great way to get an overview of a new city with the flexibility of jumping off when something catches your eye.
Here in San Diego, we have the trolley for that! Choose your own adventure by getting on and off as often as you like at the 10 included stops.
The trolley takes you to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the USS Midway, Little Italy (I recommend stopping for Italian sub sandwiches at Mona Lisa here), and the Gaslamp Quarter, among others.
You can get your San Diego trolley tickets here.
9. Visit the Museums in Balboa Park
Balboa Park may be best known as home to the San Diego Zoo to tourists—it’s one of those famous U.S. places—but there is so much more than that to see!
It’s a 1200 acre park full of gorgeous gardens and walking paths at well as 17 fabulous museums. And on the first Tuesday of every month, entrance is free!
From the Fleet Science Center and San Diego Art Institue to the San Diego Museum of Man and Japanese Friendship Garden, there’s truly something for everyone to love at Balboa Park.
(Look for the new Comi-Con Museum coming soon.)
If you’re visiting in December, be sure to check out Balboa Park December Nights when the park comes alive with twinkling lights, holiday performances, and unique food and drink.
10. Eat at Liberty Station
I’m always on the hunt for a great food hall! (Time Out in Lisbon was one of my all-time favorites.)
So you can imagine my excitement when Liberty Station—which features dozens and dozens of San Diego’s best restaurants—opened a few years ago.
From sushi and specialty cheeses to ramen and a French bakery, Liberty Station has it all. Great cocktails too.
In fact, your biggest challenge will be choosing what to get!
The good news is that you will likely be giving the massive summer crowds a miss here if you swing by for lunch or dinner. There’s a great patio area to enjoy on a sunny day.
11. Hike Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines State Park near La Jolla is a treasure! It’s named for the beautiful Torrey pine trees here.
And it’s the perfect spot for winter hiking. It’s, of course, fabulous any time of year and especially with spring wildflowers, but again, it’s crowd-free in winter!
Plus, parking in winter is far easier too. You will actually find a spot in the lot at the bottom of steep hill at the south end of the beach or even by the trailheads (unheard of in summer).
In the park itself, there are dozens of trails. For a big pay-off with panoramic views in a short loop, try the Guy Fleming Trail.
Or descend all the way to the beach on the Beach Trail (and then walk the beach all the way back to the parking lot). You cannot go wrong here!
This is just one of San Diego’s beautiful beaches.
San Diego in December and January are ideal.
Is San Diego cold in winter? Nope! While it’s not as warm as Hawaii, it’s still an excellent destination for a winter escape from the frigid temps plaguing the rest of the country.
San Diego weather in December averages a high of 66 degrees and low of 49 degrees with four days of rain. In short, December weather in San Diego is beautiful!
While winter is rainy season in San Diego, that typically means a few days of showers here and there with plenty of brilliant California sunshine in between.
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