San Diego Itineraries

One Day in San Diego

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. Unless you’re a serious museum junkie, pick whichever 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 afterward 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.

Alternate plan: Start at SeaWorld and end with an ocean-view dinner in La Jolla.

Four Days in San Diego

Day 1

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 Zoo Safari Park. Here, you’ll see herds of African and Asian animals acting as they would in the wild. Not included in the general admission, but worth it, are the park’s "special experiences"—guided photo caravans, behind-the-scenes tours, and the Flightline, a zip line soaring above the animal enclosures.

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-the-kids-out adventures.

Day 2

You might want to ease into your second day with a leisurely breakfast, followed by a 90-minute tour aboard the San Diego SEAL Tours, which departs from Seaport Village and Embarcadero 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, a 14-acre waterfront shopping and dining complex. Meant to look like a 19th-century harbor, 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).

Explore San Diego’s military might at the USS Midway Museum; the permanently docked aircraft carrier has more than 60 exhibits and 29 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.

Day 3

Set out early enough, and you might snag a parking spot near La Jolla Cove, where you can watch sea lions lounging on the beach 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.

If you’re with kids, head for La Jolla Shores, a good beach for swimming and making sand castles, followed by a visit to the Birch Aquarium and a bite to eat at the popular El Pescador Fish Market.

Once you’ve refueled, head for Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, where you can hike down the cliffs to the state beach with breathtaking views in every direction. (If you’re with small children, the trek might prove too challenging.)

For dinner, swing north to Del Mar; during racing season, the evening scene is happening.

Day 4

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. Find out when low tide is before planning your itinerary.

After Cabrillo, head to Old Town, where San Diego’s early history comes to carefully reconstructed life. Old Town's Mexican restaurants aren’t the city's best, 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.

Alternatives

You can easily fill four days or more with every imaginable outdoor activity, from swimming and surfing to hiking and stand-up paddleboarding. San Diego is an athletics-enthusiast’s heaven—unless you’re a skier.

In winter, include more indoor activities—the museums are fantastic—as well as a whale-watching trip.

In summer, check local listings for outdoor concerts, theater, and movie screenings.

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