San Diego is known for its picturesque beaches, relaxed attitude, and close proximity to Los Angeles, Mexico, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Not to mention the diverse selection of restaurants in San Diego, including Mexican food, and as much fresh seafood as you can eat. It’s one of my favorite Californian cities, and I make any excuse to go down there. If you’re visiting America’s Finest City, 5 days is an ideal amount of time to explore the city, and not feel rushed. Here’s an ideal 3 day San Diego itinerary, that you can mix and match to suit your schedule and personal taste.
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3 Days In San Diego
Start in the city’s largest park, home to many museums, cafes, an indoor botanical garden, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
Day 1 – Balboa Park
This lively city park is a great place to begin your San Diego itinerary. 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. Before you go inside, grab brunch at StreetCar Merchants in nearby North Park for fried chicken and waffles. 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 tropical plants.
Afterward, make your way over to the California Tower (located in the Museum of Man), where you can go up with a tour (make a reservation beforehand) to see an aerial view of the park and the city beyond. Get your dose of art at the San Diego Museum of Art (The Timken Museum of Art is a good alternative and has free admission) 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 prime viewing spots at animal enclosures.
Food notes: 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 cozy (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 an ideal area for spending a day by the ocean and mingling with the local sea life. 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 adorable sea lions. Scripps Park is located right next to the cove and is perfect for stopping to take a break on its grassy lawn 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 about the local sea critters, head over to the Birch Aquarium. For a more land-based activity, Prospect Street is great for window-shopping and prime people watching at a place known as the Rodeo Drive of San Diego.
Food notes: George’s Ocean Terrace is a local favorite that boasts great views from their outdoor patio, alongside a menu that features California seafood cuisine like grilled octopus and fish tacos. Reservations are recommended. For a more casual meal, The Taco Stand offers consistently delicious tacos. Get the Baja fish taco and you’re all set.
Day 3 – Gaslamp District
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. 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.
Food notes: 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. Another solid option is Rock Steady in nearby Grant Hill, where you can get your fill of Jamaican comfort food like jerk chicken and curried goat.
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.
Additional Day Option 1- 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 picturesque beach towns of North County. 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 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.
Food notes: 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’re craving seafood, Fish District in Carlsbad offers classic fish and chips that go well with a cold beer or ahi tuna poke bowls for a taste of Hawaii.
Additional Day Option 2-Coronado Island
This charming island is the perfect opportunity to slow down and enjoy the relaxed ambiance of this resort town. First things first, head to Coronado Beach, where you can take off your shoes and walk along the pristine, gold-flecked sand. 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, the main drag 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 and costs $5 per ride.
Food notes: For breakfast, stop at Clayton’s Coffee Shop on Orange Avenue, where you can get buttery French toast and spicy chorizo breakfast burritos. Lobster West is the place to go for lobster rolls and New England clam chowder.
Related post: 7 Best Beaches In San Diego
Alternative Things To Do In San Diego
- Spend a few hours at Ocean Beach – if you looking for a beach that is not as quite lively as Pacific Beach, this is the place to go and watch some of the cities happiest pups frolic on the beach. Afterward go to Sunnie’s for fish tacos and breakfast burritos.
- Experience some of SD’s top breweries – SD is known for its numerous micro breweries and it can easily be made into a day of brewery-hopping. Some favorites are Chula Vista Brewery, Karl Strauss and Ballast Point.
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 mid-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 are good times to visit, where you can enjoy the sights without having to deal with the crowds. It rarely rains in Southern California, but when it does it’s during the winter through the spring, and it can get a bit chilly during this time, especially at night.
Getting Around San Diego
The best way to get around is by renting a car at the airport, especially if you plan to go on day trips to beach towns up north. There are plenty of ride share options for going out at night or if you want to avoid the hassle of parking in areas like downtown. There is also the Trolley that connects the eastern and southern areas of the city with downtown and stops at places like Seaport Village, and the Gaslamp Quarter.
Where To Stay In San Diego
Central neighborhoods like the Gaslamp District, Little Italy, and downtown are ideal for a home base for San Diego, especially if you don’t have a rental car. Be aware of major events like Comic-Con which happens every year in mid-July, and cause hotel prices to go up and sell out quickly.
This fun boutique hotel is great if you want to stay in the middle of it all in the lively Gaslamp Quarter, which has a wide selection of restaurants, bars and clubs. Amenities include beach cruiser bikes, afternoon snacks, and a local shuttle. A light grab-and-go breakfast is included.
This boutique hotel features individual suites with kitchenettes and is a great option if you want to stay close to Balboa Park (as in right across the street close) and away from the bustle of downtown, but still close enough to reach with a quick drive. There is plenty to do in the nearby neighborhoods of Hillcrest and Little Italy, including restaurants and bars.
In a central downtown location, this luxury hotel is worth the splurge. Beautiful amenities include an outdoor pool, a rooftop terrace, full-service spa, 3 bars and 3 restaurants/lounges. The hotel is walking distance to Seaport Village, the USS Midway Museum, and the Gaslamp District.
What are your favorite San Diego sights?
Updated February 18, 2020