If you've only got 24 hours to spare, start at Balboa Park, the cultural heart of San Diego. Stick to El Prado, the main promenade, where you'll pass by peaceful gardens and soaring Spanish colonial revival architecture (Balboa Park's unforgettable look and feel date to the 1914 Panama–California Exposition). Unless you're a serious museum junkie, pick whichever of the park's many offerings most piques your interest—choices range from photography to folk art.
If you're with the family, don't even think of skipping the San Diego Zoo. You'll want to spend the better part of your day there, but make an early start of it so you can head for one of San Diego's beaches while there's still daylight. Kick back under the late afternoon sun and linger for sunset. Or wander around Seaport Village and the Embarcadero before grabbing a bite to eat in the Gaslamp Quarter, which pulses with nightlife until last call (around 1:40 am).
Alternate plan: Start your day at SeaWorld and wrap it up with an ocean-view dinner in La Jolla.
The one-day itinerary also works for the first day of an extended visit. If you're staying in North County, though, you may want to bypass the zoo and head for the San Diego Safari Park, a vast preserve with huge open enclosures. Here, you'll see herds of African and Asian animals acting as they would in the wild. It's the closest thing in the States to an exotic safari. Not included in the general admission—but worth the extra cost if it's in the budget—are the park's "special experiences": guided photo caravans, rolling Segway tours, mule rides, and the Flightline, which sends harnessed guests soaring down a zip-line cable high above earthbound animals.
Another North County option for families with little ones: LEGOLAND in Carlsbad. Note: the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Safari Park, and LEGOLAND are all-day, wipe-those-kids-right-out kind of adventures.
Your first day was a big one so you might want to ease into your second with a leisurely breakfast—and there are some great places to eat in the city—followed by a 90-minute tour aboard the SEAL Amphibious Tour, which departs from Seaport Village daily. The bus-boat hybrid explores picturesque San Diego neighborhoods before rolling right into the water for a cruise around the bay, all with fun-facts narration.
Back on land, you can devote an hour or so to Seaport Village itself, a 14-acre waterfront entertainment complex with around 50 shops and more than a dozen restaurants. Meant to look like a harbor in the 19th century, Seaport features 4 miles of cobblestone pathways bordered by lush landscaping and water features.
From there, stroll north to the Embarcadero, where you'll marvel at the Maritime Museum's historic vessels, including the Star of India (the world's oldest active sailing ship), Berkeley, Californian, Medea, and Pilot.
Explore San Diego's military might at the USS Midway Museum, aboard the permanently docked aircraft carrier with more than 60 exhibits and 25 restored aircraft.
Spend the rest of your afternoon and evening in Coronado, a quick jaunt by ferry or bridge, or walk a few blocks north to the Gaslamp Quarter, where the shopping and dining will keep you busy for hours.
Sure, it's fun to dip those toes in the sand and saunter through one of the world's most incredible zoos. But don't overlook San Diego's somewhat underrated performing arts scene. It's extremely easy to add a theater performance or a concert to any of the four days described here. Some of the city's top performance venues are in Balboa Park (Day 1), downtown (Day 2), and La Jolla (Day 3).
If you plan to tour more than a couple of museums in Balboa Park, buy the Passport to Balboa Park, which gets you into 14 attractions for just $49, or the Passport to Balboa Park Combo Pass, which also gets you into the zoo (it costs $83). You can buy these at the Balboa Park Visitor Center (619/239-0512 www.balboapark.org).
Locals complain about public transportation as often as they complain about the price of fuel, but the Trolley and the Coaster are a hassle-free way to get to foot-friendly neighborhoods up and down the coast. Public transportation saves you the headache of traffic and parking, and includes free sightseeing along the way. You can head almost anywhere from the historic Santa Fe Depot downtown (don't miss the cutting-edge Museum of Contemporary Art next door to the station).
Set out early enough, and you might snag a parking spot near La Jolla Cove, where you can laugh at the sea lions lounging on the beach like lazy couch potatoes at the Children's Pool. Then head up one block to Prospect Street, where you'll find the vaunted La Valencia hotel (called the "Pink Lady" for its blush-hue exterior) and dozens of posh boutiques and galleries.
Head east to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location, which impresses as much with its ocean views as it does with its world-class collection of artwork. MCASD's Museum Café is a casual but elegant spot for a light lunch.
If you're with kids, skip the museum and head for La Jolla Shores, a good beach for swimming and making sand castles, followed by a visit to the Birch Aquarium and a fresh bite to eat at El Pescador Fish Market, an always-crowded lunchtime favorite.
Once you've refueled, head for Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Your reward for hiking down the cliffs to the state beach: there are breathtaking views in every direction.
If you're with small children, the trek might prove too challenging, but you can still take in the views from the top.
For dinner, swing north to Del Mar —during racing season, the evening scene is happening—or, for families, head down to Ocean Beach for a juicy burger at the surf-theme Hodad's.
Start the day with a morning visit to Cabrillo National Monument, a national park with a number of activities. Learn about 16th-century explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, take a gentle 2-mile hike on the beautiful Bayside Trail, look around the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and peer at tide pools, which teem with sea life (remember: look but don't touch). Find out if low tide is in the morning or afternoon before planning your itinerary.
After Cabrillo, hop in your car and head to Old Town, where San Diego's early history comes to carefully reconstructed life. The Mexican food here isn't the city's best (leading contenders for that honor are Las Cuatro Milpas in Barrio Logan and Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista, both too out-of-the-way for most tourists). It's true that the Old Town restaurants aren't even particularly authentic, but they're definitely bustling and kid-friendly, and frosty margaritas make an added incentive for grown-ups.
After that, spend a few hours exploring whatever cluster of neighborhoods appeals to you most. If you like casual coastal neighborhoods with a youthful vibe, head to Pacific, Mission, or Ocean Beach, or venture up to North County for an afternoon in Encinitas, which epitomizes the old California surf town.
If edgy and artsy are more your thing, check out the hip and ever-changing neighborhoods in Uptown, where you'll find super-cool shops, bars, and eateries.
You can easily fill four days or more with every imaginable outdoor activity, from swimming, surfing, and sailing to hiking, golfing, paragliding, and stand-up paddling. San Diego is an athletic enthusiast's heaven—unless you're a skier, that is.
In winter, adjust the itineraries to include more indoor activities—the museums are fantastic—as well as a whale-watching boat tour.
In summer, check local listings for outdoor concerts, theater, and movie screenings, the perfect way to relax and enjoy a warm evening outdoors.