Many folks spend their time in San Diego on the beach. If you’re thus inclined, you’ll enjoy some of the best sand and surf in the country. More energetic types, however, will find plenty here to satisfy sightseeing urges.
Day 1. Start with the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park in the morning. It would be easy to spend your entire visit to the Balboa Park at the zoo — and if you’re traveling with kids, you may have little choice in the matter — but at least walk down El Prado with its rows of architecturally interesting structures. El Prado is an easy walk from the zoo, or a five-minute drive south on Park Boulevard. If you have the time, visit one of the park’s museums or other attractions — the top choices include the Mingei International Museum, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Museum of Art.
Day 2. Start downtown at Seaport Village; after browsing the shops catch a ferry from the Broadway Pier to Coronado. From Coronado’s Ferry Landing Marketplace board a bus going down Orange Avenue to see the town’s Victorian extravaganza, the Hotel Del Coronado. Back in San Diego after lunch, stroll north on the Embarcadero to Ash Street; if you’ve returned from Coronado early enough, you can view the Maritime Museum or the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, if it’s open. If it’s whale-watching season, skip the trip to Coronado, tour the Embarcadero in the late morning. Another option is to spend the entire day with Shamu and the gang at SeaWorld of California.
Day 3. If you set out early enough, you might get a parking spot near La Jolla Cove. Watch the sea lions lounging on the beach at the Children’s Pool and then head inland one block to Prospect Street, where you’ll see the pink La Valencia hotel and a clutch of tony shops and galleries; this is also a good spot for an ocean-view lunch. Walk east on Prospect for a spin through the Museum of Contemporary Art, and then retrieve your car and head back into town on Interstate 5 to the Gaslamp Quarter, where you can explore the historic streets and perhaps stop by the adjacent Horton Plaza shopping mall.
Day 4. Begin with a morning visit to Cabrillo National Monument. Have lunch at one of the seafood restaurants on Scott Street, and then head over to Old Town (take Rosecrans Street north to San Diego Avenue) to see portions of San Diego’s earliest history brought to life. If the daily schedule lists low tide for the afternoon, reverse the order to catch the tide pools at Cabrillo.
Day 5. If you’re traveling with young children, make Legoland California in Carlsbad your main destination for Day Five. En route to North County stop off at Torrey Pines State Park. If you’re not going to Legoland, take Interstate 5 north to Del Mar for lunch, shopping, and sea views. A visit to Mission San Luis Rey, slightly inland from Oceanside on Highway 76, will infuse some history and culture into the tour.
Only in town for two or three days? Here’s a mini-tour for the uninitiated:
Start your first day early with a morning visit to San Diego Zoo. In the afternoon stroll along El Prado, and stop into the museum of your choice. On your second day, head downtown to Seaport Village. After browsing the shops, catch a ferry from the Broadway Pier to Coronado, and board a bus going down Orange Avenue to see the Hotel Del Coronado. Back in San Diego after lunch, walk north on the Embarcadero to Ash Street; if you have time, you can explore the Maritime Museum. Spend the morning of your third day shopping in the Gaslamp Quarter, and in the afternoon head to La Jolla for a walk on the beach, dinner, and a sunset.