I’ve always had a soft spot for San Diego and its picturesque beaches, small city vibes, close proximity to Los Angeles, Mexico, and the nearby escape of the dessert via Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Not to mention the dizzying array of restaurants in San Diego, including Mexican food, and as much fresh seafood as you can eat.
If you’re visiting America’s Finest City, 3 days would allow enough time to see all the main sights, but in truth 5 days would give you more time to explore and not feel so rushed (you are on vacation after all). Here’s my ideal San Diego itinerary for 5 days, but feel free to mix and match to suit your time schedule and personal taste.
When is the best time to visit San Diego?
With year-round ideal temperatures, you’re bound to get some good weather no matter when you go. That being said, summer time can be a pain, since the city is crowded with tourists and hotel prices are at their peak. Beware of the uber-popular Comic-Con in July, where hotel rooms are sold out well in advance and it feels like the city’s population has doubled.
In May, and especially June, the weather can be overcast due to the coastal fog that locals affectionately refer to as May Gray and June Gloom. Shoulder seasons like March to May, and September through October can be good times to visit, where you can enjoy the sights without having to deal with the crowds. The rainy season is during the winter, where it can get chilly, especially at night. Not ideal if you are planning to spend the majority of your San Diego trip at the beach.
Day 1: Balboa Park
Regarding top things to do in San Diego, this city park is a great place to begin your introduction to the city. You can easily spend a day here, especially if you go to a museum or two, and definitely if you stop by the sprawling San Diego Zoo.
What to see:
A good place to start is at one of the park’s most popular landmarks: the Botanical Building and the adjacent Lily Pond. Inside the Botanical Building, wander around the impressive collection of plants that include orchids, ferns, and other tropical plants. Make your way over to the California Tower (located in the Museum of Man), where you go up with a tour to see an aerial view of the park and the city beyond.
Afterward get your dose of art at the San Diego Museum of Art (The Timken Museum of Art is a good alternative and free to boot) or if you’re more science-oriented the San Diego Air and Space Museum has a solid collection of aircraft and space vessels, along with engaging commentary on their significant roles in WWII and the Space Race.
To see local artists and their work, head over to the Spanish Village Art Center. The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages is left over from the 1935 Expo to promote cultural awareness, and every Saturdays and Sundays the cottages open their doors to teach visitors about different cultural traditions from their respective countries.
The San Diego Zoo, is worth visiting once if you have the time (and energy), since it can easily take up half a day or more. As someone who isn’t the biggest fan of zoos, it was reassuring to know that this zoo has an emphasis on education, conservation, and preventing extinction. Definitely worth it if you have kids or just want to get up close and personal with critters at one of the country’s best zoos. Get there right when it opens up to avoid fighting the massive mid-day and afternoon crowds for a prime viewing spot at animal enclosures.
What to eat:
For in-the-park dining, The Prado At Balboa Park is a good choice for lunch or dinner with a casual patio to enjoy your burgers and fish tacos on. It’s very popular, so make reservations ahead of time. Azuki Sushi Lounge in nearby Banker’s Hill, promises fresh fish, creative rolls, and enclosed patio seating. Make sure to make reservations ahead of time as well, because it can get busy.
Café Bassam, also in Banker’s Hill, is a great spot to grab a bagel for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch, and wash it all down with one of their specialty drinks like an iced Vietnamese coffee.
Day 2: La Jolla
Famous for its panoramic waterfront views, this upscale San Diego neighborhood is a popular choice for spending a day by the ocean and mingling with the local sea life.
What to see:
The biggest draw is La Jolla Cove, a scenic stretch of coastline that has a walking path along the water and where you can spot the smelly, but loveable seals. Scripps Park is located right next to the cove and is ideal for stopping to take a break on its grassy field or have a picnic at one of the provided picnic tables with a hard to beat view.
Get even closer to the ocean by heading to the La Jolla Underground Park, a small protected beach where you can snorkel, scuba dive, or just admire the tide pools. If you’re up for a bit of adventure the Sunny Jim Sea Cave is the only sea cave in California that is accessible by land.
Explore one of the numerous La Jolla Tide Pools, which you can read more about here. To learn more about the local sea critters, head over to the Birch Aquarium. For a more land-based activity, Prospect Street is ideal for window-shopping and prime people watching at a place known as the Rodeo Drive of San Diego.
Where to eat:
George’s Ocean Terrace is a local favorite that boasts great views from their outdoor patio, alongside a menu that features California cuisine like grilled octopus and fish tacos. Reservations recommended. For a more casual meal, The Taco Stand is a popular stop for consistently delicious tacos. Get the Baja fish taco and you’re all set.
Day 3: Little Italy/Gaslamp Quarter/Seaport Village
Today is the day where you will join the tourist masses and see some of San Diego’s top sights located in downtown and the waterfront.
What to see:
The Gaslamp Quarter is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is filled with colorful history from when it was a sailor’s port town with plenty of gambling halls and saloons. This area was revitalized starting in the 1970s and although it might be touristy, it’s worth taking a walking tour by the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation to learn about its rich and rowdy past.
After you get your fill of history, walk over to Seaport Village, a charming shopping area on the waterfront, where you can buy souvenirs. The USS Midway Museum is a short walk on the Embarcadero, where you learn about life on a Navy aircraft carrier. Make sure to stop at the giant Unconditional Surrender Statue (better known as the kissing statue) before you go to the museum.
Where to eat:
The food around the Gaslamp District unsurprisingly tends to be overpriced and mediocre, but you can head a bit inland to Little Italy, where you can get memorable paninis and gelato at Pappalecco (one of my absolute favorite cafes in the city) or Italian deli sandwiches at Mona Lisa Italian Foods. For dinner, go to Karl Strauss Brewing Company, to sample a flight of local brews and order from a menu that rivals the drinks and includes plenty of great vegetarian options.
Day 4: North County
There are many quick road trips from San Diego you can take, including a 30-minute drive up the coast where you can explore the scenic beach towns of North County.
What to see:
The ritziest beach town of them all is Del Mar, home of the Del Mar Horse Races and where you can spend an afternoon at the picturesque Del Mar Beach. Nearby Encinitas has a decidedly more relaxed feel than its upscale neighbor, where you can spend a lazy afternoon at Swami’s beach or go further inland to see the impressive collection of plants from around the world, at San Diego Botanical Gardens. Head to Carlsbad for the famed LEGOLAND California, as well as the more serene Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch, where fields of vibrant blooms are on display from March to May every year.
Where to eat:
Try Café Secret in Del Mar for delicious Peruvian lomo saltado or ceviche. The Himalayan Kitchen in Encinitas serves up excellent garlic naan and lamb momos if you want something more spice-oriented. If you’re craving seafood, Fish District in Carlsbad serves up classic fish and chips that go well with a cold beer or ahi tuna poke bowls for a taste of Hawaii.
Day 5: Coronado Beach
Saving this charming island for last day, it’s the perfect opportunity to slow down and enjoy the relaxed ambiance of this resort city.
What to see:
First things first, head to Coronado Beach, where the pristine, gold-flecked sand will lure you right in. If you want to get fancy you can rent lounge chairs for the day from the nearby Hotel Del Coronado. Whatever you do, make sure to walk around the hotel property and admire its wooden Victorian beach resort style (one of the only surviving examples in the country).
A quarter mile down the beach from the hotel is the sunken SS Monte Carlo, which you can see during low tide. Take a walking tour of historic Coronado from the Coronado Historical Association, or rent a beach cruiser and take in the island at your own pace. Wander down Orange Avenue, where there are one-of-a –kind boutique stores.
There are two ways to get to Coronado. The first is via the sky-high Coronado Bridge that boasts spectacular views of the sailboats on San Diego Bay. The second option is by Coronado Ferry, which gives you a front row seat to San Diego’s skyline and allows you to bring your bike for free. The ferry departs from either Broadway Pier or the San Diego Convention Center.
Where to eat:
For breakfast, stop at Clayton’s Coffee Shop on Orange Avenue, where you can get a buttery French toast and spicy chorizo breakfast burritos. Lobster West is where to go for lobster rolls and New England clam chowder.
Where To Stay In San Diego
The International Traveler’s House Adventure Hostel San Diego in Little Italy is a great choice for those looking to save on accommodations, but not skimp on amenities. Guests can chose from single sex dorm rooms to private rooms. A complementary breakfast is provided every morning, along with helpful recommendations from staff on places to see nearby. Best of all, this hostel has a built in social life, hosting events every night.
One of my favorite hotels that I’ve stayed in is the Best Western Plus Island Palms Hotel & Marina. It’s located on Shelter Island and has a beautiful view of the Bay and is also removed enough from the center that there’s some quiet, but close enough so you can easily drive to Balboa Park and the waterfront in 15-20 minutes.
The Staypineapple at Hotel Z, is a fun boutique hotel if you want to stay in the middle of it all in the Gaslamp Quarter. Amenities include beach cruiser bikes, afternoon snacks, and a local shuttle.
If you want to go all out and stay in a central location in downtown, the Pendry is a luxury hotel that is worth the splurge. It’s has an outdoor pool, a rooftop terrace and is walking distance from Seaport Village, the USS Midway Museum, and the Gaslamp District.
The Inn at the Park is a great option for your San Diego trip if you want to stay close to Balboa Park (as in right across the street close) and away from the bustle of downtown. The suites are spacious, there’s a great rooftop deck for watching the sun set over the city, and it’s a quick drive to the downtown area.
What activities and sights would be on your San Diego itinerary for 5 days?
Photo source: Carlsbad Flower Fields