San Diego is known as America’s Finest City for a reason. It’s a universally popular travel destination, and on the bucket list for many in terms of cities to visit in the United States.
It’s all you can imagine from a city in Southern California: palm tree-lined streets, beach boardwalks and an abundance of choice when it comes to fish tacos and authentic Mexican cuisine.
But it’s also a more laid-back destination than its neighbors, Los Angeles or anywhere in Orange County. San Diego’s a little gentler, with less traffic, and accessible for any traveler, whether you’re looking for a couples vacation or a trip with the family.
As you plan a trip to San Diego, check out this San Diego itinerary to make the most of your visit to this spectacular California city.
This post will cover all you need to form a three day itinerary for your San Diego travel plans. If you don’t have three days to visit the city you can trim a few items to create the best trip for you. Here you’ll find:
- How to Get to San Diego
- The Best Time to Visit San Diego
- 5 Awesome Things to Do in San Diego
- 4 Things to Eat or Drink in San Diego
- 3 Recommended San Diego Hotels
- 2 Perfect Instagram Spots in San Diego
- 1 Insider Tip From a San Diego Local
You can also skip ahead using the table below.
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San Diego Trip Planning
Visiting San Diego is a truly wonderful experience. The city is often overshadowed by the other major cities in California, but once you travel to San Diego you’ll see just how special the city is on its own.
How to Get to San Diego
As the city is a popular destination for tourists, you should have no trouble finding a direct flight there from major transportation hubs around the country. It’s more tricky finding a flight on a budget. Try to avoid school breaks and holidays, and the longer you’re able to watch flights for deals, the better.
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San Diego is also accessible via Amtrak if you’re interested in a journey by train and are already in California. The Pacific Surfliner will take you on a very scenic journey along the coast from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to San Diego’s downtown train station.
Once you’re in the city, you’ll be best-served with access to a car. Downtown San Diego has a system of trolleys and buses, but they won’t take you everywhere and they don’t run all night. If you’re enjoying the nightlife of the Gaslamp Quarter, public transportation may not be available after midnight and definitely not between 2am and 3:30 am. If you’re looking to get anywhere outside of the city limits, a car will allow for the most flexibility.
The Best Time to Visit San Diego
San Diego is beautiful year-round. You may encounter what the locals call “May Gray” and “June Gloom” in those early summer months, but any haze you’ll get in the mornings burns off by midday.
August will be the warmest month, and January the wettest, but really, if you find a good deal to head to San Diego, you’ll likely have a great time no matter the month. Those seeking desert wildflowers will want to visit in the early spring, around mid-March.
5 Awesome Things to Do in San Diego
There are so many must see San Diego attractions – it’s hard to fit them all in one visit. These five items offer an overview of the best places to visit and things to do in San Diego. Again, you can easily fit these in a San Diego 3 day itinerary.
If you have more than 3 days in San Diego, you can travel at a slower pace or dig deeper into our recommendations. For example we offer you several of the best beaches in the city, so use your extra time to explore them all.
1. Visit Balboa Park
There is a blend of free and paid activities in Balboa Park. The people-watching is free, as is – mostly – the sidewalk entertainment from the magicians, tumblers and caricature artists who take advantage of a built-in audience in the park to pass a hat around at the end of a set.
There are a number of trails across the 1,200 acres in the park that will take you away from the crowds who linger on lazy weekends. Spend some time wandering in the free botanical and cactus gardens, marvelling at how big those desert plants can get.
As far as paid activities, San Diego’s best museums will be found here. From the Museum of Us – formerly known as the Museum of Man – to the San Diego Natural History Museum, or theNAT. Every San Diego museum offers something special for visitors.
>>> READ NEXT: Tips For Getting the Most From a Visit to The Museum <<<
Families won’t want to miss the San Diego Zoo. While the pandas are gone, the zoo is world-renowned for both its exhibits and its conservation efforts. CLICK HERE to book skip-the-line tickets with instant confirmation.
Visitors interested in more animal activity will want to tack on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido, about 30 miles north of the Balboa Park zoo.
2. Explore San DIego's Old Town
Get a taste of local history – and some delicious and authentic Mexican food while you’re there – in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood.
Stroll through Heritage Park for restored 1800s-era Victorian homes, explore the city’s mission history at the Junipero Serra Museum, and go on a ghost hunt on a Whaley House tour, the site of which is also home to San Diego’s first theater.
Not far from the Old Town you can also visit a gem of San Diego tourism – the USS Midway Museum. The iconic aircraft carrier is open daily and offers flight simulators and restored planes. CLICK HERE to book tickets online.
From the museum you’re also a short distance from Seaport Village, a waterfront promenade for boutique shopping, entertainment and outdoor dining.
3. Relax on the Beaches of San Diego
San Diego’s beaches are as diverse as they come.
If you’re looking for the most well-rounded experience, with access to amenities after you’re done swimming and sunbathing, cross the bridge into Coronado, with views of the historic Hotel del Coronado no matter where you put your towel down.
La Jolla offers opportunities for wildlife spotting, with seals regularly sunbathing at both La Jolla Cove and the Children’s Pool, in addition to boutique shopping on La Jolla’s main streets after if you’re fancy.
Pacific Beach is the quintessential boardwalk beach, popular with surfers and a younger set looking for cheap eats after a day at the beach. Keep your eyes peeled for skateboarding bulldogs while you’re here, a common occurrence.
If you’re near San Diego’s downtown, consider hanging out by the bay, with sandy inlets, calmer stand-up paddleboarding, and views all the way to Coronado.
You can even use the beaches as a jumping off point to do some whale watching off the coast. A number of tours set sail from various piers and ports in San Diego.
Browse availability and rates of these great Miami experiences on GetYourGuide.
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4. Head Outdoors to Torrey Pines
Whether you’re looking for some of the best hiking opportunities in San Diego county or just like a great view, you shouldn’t miss out on Torrey Pines, a scenic coastal community about 15 miles north of San Diego.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve offers hiking trails at all skill levels with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. The Guy Fleming Trail is a short loop of less than a mile to multiple lookouts, and, if you’re lucky, migrating gray whales. For more of a workout, the Beach Trail will take you down to, naturally, the beach, with an opportunity for sunbathing and an opportunity to catch your breath at the bottom.
Torrey Pines is also home to the popular championship golf courses at the Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course, if you’re interested in hitting the links on your trip.
5. View Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, the first Franciscan mission in San Diego, dates back to 1769, which is impressive enough. The fact that it’s still in operation today and relatively off-the-beaten path on most San Diego itineraries makes it all the more special.
Visitors to the mission grounds will not only be treated to one of the city’s oldest historical structures, but some of the most impressive landscaping you’ll find in San Diego. Take some time to take in the magenta flowers and giant cacti, and don’t leave without a visit to the meditation garden.
4 Things to Eat and Drink in San Diego
Besides the things that you must see in San Diego, there’s a lot more waiting that you must eat and drink! Here’s a rundown of food and drink items that you need to experience in San Diego.
1. San Diego Fish Tacos
San Diego is known for fish tacos, and for good reason. They’re delicious. Whether you get them beer-battered, fried to a crispy crunch, blackened or grilled, the fish is always fresh.
For a more substantial taco, head to Blue Water Grill, where the menu changes daily based on the catches of the day. Mitch’s Seafood is another great option for views of Point Loma, and, sometimes, a sea lion or two looking for free nibbles from the fisherman who dock here.
2. Craft Beer
San Diego is a hub of the craft beer movement, with more than 150 breweries now calling San Diego home.
If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, head to San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, where you’ll be able to fashion a brewery crawl without ever needing to step foot into a rideshare.
Picking the best brewery in San Diego is a tough call, but highlights in the North Park neighborhood’s main stretch down 30th Street include Fall Brewing Company and the Belching Beaver North Park Tasting Room.
3. San Diego's Celebrity Chef Moment
San Diego wasn’t really considered by foodies as a destination for unique and trailblazing cuisine until recently. Celebrity chef Richard Blais changed all of that when he set down roots in the city to open Juniper and Ivy, his answer to fine dining that somehow seems casual at the same time. It could be the not-so-secret off-menu item, the “In-n-Haute Burger.”
His more casual fried chicken eatery The Crack Shack is an ode to all things chicken, both the actual chicken and the eggs. Don’t miss the chicken oysters, dark meat morsels that have been pickling in brine for who knows how long before hitting the plate.
Fans of the Top Chef circuit will also recognize Brian Malarkey, who seems to add to his San Diego restaurant portfolio every few years. His latest is Animae, is a little bit Asian, a little bit California, and a lot of all kinds of other cuisines. It works, as does the opulent decor inside the restaurant.
4. Authentic Mexican Cuisine
San Diego’s proximity to Mexico is evident in its authentic Mexican food offerings. Tacos El Gordo, a Tijuana-based chain with locations throughout the city, is always a good bet for their pork adobada. The Tahona Bar in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood is a bit more modern, and popular for their mezcal cocktails.
3 Places to Stay in San Diego
1. Hotel del Coronado
If you want to stay somewhere iconic, it doesn’t get better than the Hotel del Coronado. This historic, if potentially haunted, hotel is likely in every photo you’ll take while beaching on Coronado.
2. The Lafayette Hotel
For visitors looking for something a bit less touristy, if still historic, The Lafayette Hotel has been operating as a boutique hotel in the city since the 1940s. It’s a little bit retro, but perfect for easy access to Balboa Park and San Diego’s funky central neighborhoods.
3. Hotel Circle: Mission Valley
If you’re on a budget, and don’t mind a short drive to the city’s highlights, consider staying in what is known as the Hotel Circle in San Diego’s Mission Valley. You’ll find all of the hotel chains you’re likely accustomed to, at a lower cost than you would downtown or near the ocean.
2 Best Instagram Spots in San Diego
Can you even go to San Diego without making your social media followers jealous? Of course not! So here are the two must capture instagram spots in San Diego.
1. The Botanical Building and Lily Pond
Balboa Park’s Botanical Building and Lily Pond is one of the most-photographed spots in San Diego, and has been delighting visitors since 1915.
Balboa Park is full of tourists looking for that perfect shot of the lily pond and lagoon, particularly on the weekends and in the summer months. Head there early, before any brunch plans, for your best chance for unobstructed views.
You’re also likely to get a different shot of the pond when you visit San Diego at a different time of year. The flower displays out front are seasonal.
2. The Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier
The view from below this pier in northern La Jolla is an iconic San Diego photography spot. Angle things right, and you’ll be able to see right through the pillars, far out into the Pacific Ocean.
The pier is a great place to visit for a sunset, both for the colors you’ll capture dancing along the water and the fact that it’s just a beautiful place to watch a sunset.
1 Insider Tip From a San Diego Local
The best part of reading a city guide from a local is the offbeat recommendations and insider tips. Here’s what only the locals know about San Diego.
Explore San Diego Farmers Markets
If your San Diego vacation allows you to do some cooking at your accommodations, take advantage of the city’s plethora of fresh ingredients to make meals you wouldn’t be able to at home. There is likely a farmer’s market happening on every day of the week in and around the city, giving visitors and locals opportunities to taste the best that San Diego has to offer.
The best of those will be the Little Italy Mercato, held every Saturday. You can even pick up some fresh sea urchin there if you’re feeling brave.
Now You're Ready to Plan a Trip to San Diego
With all of these things to do, San Diego hotel recommendations and tips on food, drinks and instagram – you’re all set. Start planning your San Diego itinerary and let us know how your trip turns out.
Agnes is the regular person behind Travel on the Reg, a place for people who travel regularly and in a regular fashion. She is currently living the dream in San Diego, America’s finest city.