I had heard San Diego was a military town but it didn’t hit me until I saw copies of the Navy Dispatch next to the Union-Tribune and LA Times. A military newspaper! If you have any military ties, ask for discounts everywhere. Most museums post the military perks they offer, but remember to ask before you buy anything.
Free tram ride – one of my favorite things to do was hop on a free tram ride through Balboa Park, which makes two loops around various museums and park sights. My driver and tour guide Kathy had so much fun telling stories about the park, which is bigger than Central Park (1,200 acres v. 860 acres) that her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. Each tram loop is about 15 minutes and you can go ’round as many times as you wish! The hub is in the center of the Prado at the Plaza de Panama, but they make various stops throughout the park. Note, a second tram driver was not nearly as entertaining as Kathy.
Spreckels organ pavilion – every Sunday at 2p.m. there is a free organ concert, rain or shine. The pavilion is in the center of Balboa Park.
Botanical Building – The garden inside Balboa Park is always free to visitors. I saw many orchids inside the arched wooden structure and a beautiful pair of birds of paradise, above.
Timken Museum of Art – This Balboa Park gallery of masterful European, Russian, and American works is always free. 619-239-5548.
Walk along Harbor Drive – The 1.5-mile stroll along San Diego’s waterfront from Ash Street to the Convention Center is studded with public art, cool boats, and many vendors. There is plenty to see, like this over-sized swordfish, even if you do not pay to go into any of the ships that have been turned into museums.
Rent bikes – Wheel Fun on Harbor Drive rents bikes for $10-$15 an hour or $22-$45 for a full day. Military and airline employees can get a 20% discount if they ask. Other tourists may be able to negotiate a slight discount in the slow winter season or mid-week. Rent bikes downtown you will get a better rate at the San Diego Bike Shop, which charges $10 for the first hour and $5 for each additional hour up to $25 a day. A two-day rental is $45.
USS Midway Museum – Admission to the museum is steep with adults paying $17 and seniors 62 and up paying $13. Students are $11, retired military members are $10, kids age 6-17 are $9, kids 5 and under are free. Active members of the military are free. Admission includes a self-guided tour in English, Spanish or Japanese. 910 N. Harbor Dr. 619-544-9600.
Maritime Museum – Tour 5 historic ships, including a submarine, at the northern end of Harbor Drive. Adults are $14, seniors 62 and older are $11, active military w/ID are $11, children 6-17 are $8, children five and under are free and members are free. 1492 North Harbor Dr. 619-234-9153.
Watch airplanes land – The San Diego airport is so close to the city that you can see airplanes coming in for landing from many vantage points. The best one I found is at the corner of Albatross St. and Ivy St., a neighborhood that is apparently inured to jets roaring overhead at regular intervals. The southwest corner has a full view of the runway, which is lit up at night. A good activity with kids.
Free museums – Many of the museums are free one Tuesday each month, including the Rueben Fleet Science Center, the Museum of Man, and the Museum of Art. Read the complete schedule of free days. Note, some of the museums are only free to residents of San Diego County and active military members, including the Model Railroad Museum, Natural History Museum, Japanese Friendship Garden, Air & Space Museum, Automotive Museum and Hall of Champions Sports Museum. Call ahead to confirm.