The Perfect 2, 3 or 4 Days in San Diego Itinerary

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by Maggie Turansky


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With so many things to do (and almost guaranteed great weather to do it in!), planning the perfect 2, 3 or 4 days in San Diego itinerary can seem a bit overwhelming.

San Diego is one of the most wonderful cities in the entirety of the United States. With countless things to do, perennially beautiful weather, and a laid-back lifestyle that is instantly infectious, San Diego is one of the most the best places to visit in California.

This itinerary will ensure that you get the most out of your trip to this dynamic coastal city whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a longer vacation — the only problem is that it’s sure to make you long to return!

How Many Days in San Diego?

If you’re in the beginning stages of planning your trip to San Diego, you’re likely wondering how many days you should spend in this Southern California city. San Diego is kind of the ultimate tourist destination, especially when compared to Los Angeles, with a seemingly endless array of things to do, so really no matter how long you’re able to spend here, you can ensure that you will always be occupied.

However, there is such a problem as spending too little time in San Diego! The city is massive and full of great activities and if you try to cram too much into too short a time period, you’re likely to burn out and exhaust yourself — not a recipe for a good holiday!

If you only have, say, 2 days in San Diego, then make sure to pace yourself and prioritise what you’d like to see. The 2-day itinerary in this article covers some of the highlights of central San Diego but omits any beach time, so if that’s what has drawn you to the city, then make sure to prioritise what you’d like to do.

Spending 3 days in San Diego or more is ideal as it will allow you to cover a lot of ground, see some sites, but also enjoy some time on the beach — and San Diego has a number of amazing beaches that you don’t want to miss!

If you have time for a 4-day itinerary, then you’re really in luck. This is the ideal amount of time to spend in the city as it allows you to really explore but also gives you a bit of time to relax if that’s what you’re after.

You honestly can’t go wrong if you want to spend more than 4 days because there is just so much to do in the city and the surrounding area. If you have more than four days, you can venture further afield, spend more time on the beach, or even take the time to visit cool places like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park!

Downtown San diego
Downtown San Diego

Getting To & Around San Diego

San Diego is home to its own international airport and, though small, it serves numerous airlines and has countless direct connections to many US cities, making San Diego an easy destination to reach from the majority of major cities in the United States.

If you’re coming internationally, it’s likely that you will end up flying into Los Angeles. San Diego is about a 2 to 3-hour drive from LA and there are lots of interesting places to visit along the way. The two cities are also well-connected by train in about three hours.

Once in San Diego, it’s easiest to get around the city if you have your own car, but it isn’t entirely necessary, especially if you only plan on spending time in the downtown area.

This area is easy enough to get around on foot and the extensive San Diego Trolley System can take you, inexpensively, to most places a bit further afield. Especially if you’re following the 2-day itinerary in this article, you may not need a car to be able to enjoy it to its fullest.

Trolley station in San Diego
Trolley Station at Civic Center in San Diego

If you’re keen to venture outside of the downtown area, even to the beaches, then having a car in San Diego is going to prove the most convenient way to get around.

If you’re planning on renting a car before heading to San Diego, we suggest using Rentalcars.com to find great prices. The platform aggregates deals across many major car rental companies and saves you time and money when it comes to hiring a car.

2, 3 or 4 Days in San Diego Itinerary

If you only have two days, spend them exploring some of the highlights of the city. Day 1 concentrates on the sites in Downtown San Diego where day two brings you to Balboa Park, which is chock-full of some of the best of San Diego attractions.

If you’re planning on visiting many of San Diego’s fantastic attractions, consider investing in a San Diego Go City Pass. These city cards can offer up to 50% savings on many attractions across the city and can be an incredible value for money if you visit even just a handful of places.

Day 1 – Explore Downtown

Spend your first day in San Diego exploring the dynamic downtown area. There is so much to see and do in Downtown San Diego that you’re sure to be entertained and having fun all day long.

San Diego Maritime Museum

Start your day along the harbour at the San Diego Maritime Museum. Historically, San Diego has been a very important port and you can learn all about its seafaring history at this super cool museum.

Situated on San Diego Bay, the maritime museum is home to a number of different ships that you can tour and learn about how they worked and functioned back in the day. Visiting this museum is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in San Diego.

The most famous of the ships at the museum is the Star of India, an iron-hulled ship built in 1863 that sailed from Britain to India and New Zealand before being acquired by the US to haul salmon from Alaska to California. This ship is fascinating and really worth exploring.

Also in the collection include the Californian, a beautiful tall ship and the HMS Surprise, which is known for its movie appearances in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander.

Star of India at the San Diego Maritime Museum
Star of India at the San Diego Maritime Museum

USS Midway Museum

Another museum on San Diego Bay is the USS Midway Museum and this is another great way to learn more about San Diego as an important Naval base.

Often lauded as one of the top museums in the entirety of San Diego (and there are a LOT of museums in the city!), this museum is actually based on a former aircraft carrier that you can tour and learn more about how an aircraft carrier functions.

In this museum, you can tour the ship itself and see everything behind the scenes, but you can also check out the aeroplanes and even try your hand at a flight simulator!

Both the Midway Museum and the Maritime Museum are excellent places to visit for both kids and adults alike because they’re interactive and educational.

USS Midway
USS Midway

Little Italy

From the Midway Museum, you can easily reach cool and trendy Little Italy on foot, and this is a great area to grab a bite to eat for lunch! Traditionally home to a number of Italian immigrants to San Diego, this area is now one of the most trendy neighbourhoods in the entire city.

Packed with both traditional Italian shops and delis, there are also ultra-hip restaurants, cool boutiques, awesome gastropubs and so much more.

Little Italy is definitely a neighbourhood worth exploring for a little bit as it is incredibly pedestrian-friendly and packed with cool things to see, do and eat! If you’re interested in exploring the culinary history of this cool area, check out this Little Italy food tour!

Seaport Village

Looping back toward the bayside area of downtown, it’s time now to head to Seaport Village.

This is an outdoor shopping centre that is situated directly on the water and it is packed full of restaurants and cool shops. This is the perfect place to pick up some fun souvenirs from your trip to San Diego!

Though there are certainly lots of shops in Seaport Village that shill mass-manufactured tourist souvenirs, there are plenty of local shops where you can pick up unique things as gifts or as mementoes from your trip to this lovely Southern California city.

Seaport Village, in San Diego, California.
Seaport Village

Gaslamp Quarter

And finally, it’s time to head into one of the most iconic and well-known areas of San Diego’s downtown, the Gaslamp Quarter.

Comprising about sixteen city blocks, this area is known for being home to historic, Victorian-era buildings and the eponymous gaslamps, this district is known to be the foremost nightlife area of San Diego.

There is a lot of history in this picturesque and walkable district, especially considering it fell into complete disarray in the mid-20th century and became synonymous as San Diego’s red-light district.

Starting in the ’80s and ’90s, the district saw some new investments and a resurgence and is now a thriving and safe area of downtown San Diego and home to many iconic landmarks, including the massive Petco Park — home of the San Diego Padres!

The Gaslamp Quarter is ripe for exploring and, if you’re not travelling with kids, it’s also one of the best places to go for a night out in the city. If you’re interested in the culinary scene of this neighbourhood along with learning a bit about its not-so-savoury past, consider going on this food tour of the Gaslamp.

Gaslamp sign San Diego
Welcome to Gaslamp!

Day 2 – Visit the Attractions of Balboa Park

On your second day in San Diego, it’s time to head to Balboa Park. Home to beautiful gardens, seventeen museums and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, you can easily spend days in Balboa Park and still not see it all.

San Diego Zoo

If you’re an animal lover or travelling with kids, no visit to San Diego is complete without heading to the incredible San Diego Zoo. As the most visited zoo in the entirety of the United States and considered by many to be one of the best zoos in the world, the San Diego Zoo is a place that you could easily devote an entire day to.

Famous for being one of the few zoos in the US that have successfully bred Giant Pandas (the two pandas that used to call the zoo home, however, have now been repatriated to their ancestral home in China), the San Diego Zoo is home to 650 species and more than 3,500 animals.

With exhibits spanning the entire globe, the zoo has the most koalas outside of Australia, and everything else from monkeys to elephants to polar bears.

So, if you are an animal lover, you absolutely can’t miss the San Diego Zoo.

Koala in San Diego Zoo
Koala in San Diego Zoo

Visit the Museums

Balboa Park is also famous for its many museums housed within the area and if you and your family aren’t keen to visit the zoo, then make sure not to miss one or two of the many museums located within the park.

My personal favourite museums include the Air & Space Museum, the Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Natural History Museum, however, there are countless others that encompass everything from science to art and you’re sure to find a museum that suits your own interests.

If you want to visit the zoo and the museums in Balboa Park, this is where the San Diego Go City Pass can come in handy and end up paying for itself, as many of these attractions are included in it.

Explore the Gardens

Balboa Park is also home to some incredibly beautiful botanical gardens and if you’re looking for a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, spending time exploring these gardens is the perfect antidote!

Some of the most beautiful gardens include the Japanese Friendship Garde, the Australian Garden, the Alcazar Garden, the Desert Cactus Garden and the beautiful Botanical Building. Take the time to wander (you can even do a walking tour of the area!) and enjoy the plant life and beautiful landscaping of these gardens — you won’t be sorry!

Balboa Park Gardens
Balboa Park Gardens

Day 3 – Enjoy the Beautiful Beaches

If you’re spending three days, it’s time to hit the beach! There are countless beaches in San Diego that all have different things to offer travellers.

Depending on your travel style, pick one beach area to spend the whole day in or take the day to explore the little towns and nature surrounding San Diego’s three main beach areas! For those who aren’t too interested in the beach, you can also use this time to explore Old Town San Diego.

Pacific Beach

The northernmost beach on day three, Pacific Beach is a beautiful, wide expanse of sand and is one of San Diego’s most beautiful beaches. Located just south of La Jolla and a bit north of Mission Bay, Pacific Beach is about a 20-30 minute drive from downtown San Diego, depending on the traffic.

The beach at PB is arguably the main attraction here and it is one of the most beautiful in the city. However, the town around it also has some nice attractions and maintains a classic, Southern California vibe.

There are lots of cool shops, restaurants and cafes that are worth popping into and, of course, you can’t go wrong with splashing around in the Pacific while here.

Mission Bay

Mission Bay is arguably San Diego’s most popular beach area and it really isn’t hard to understand why. The expansive Mission Beach is wide and beautiful, with calm enough waters that make it the perfect place to try your hand at surfing. There is also a great boardwalk area that is lined with various restaurants a surf shops.

Another major attraction of Mission Bay is Belmont Park, a classic seaside amusement park complete with a picturesque wooden roller coaster, countless other rides, arcades and more — the perfect place to entertain both young and old alike!

There are also some great restaurants in MB and the main attractions are very family-friendly, making this beach a great option for those with young kids as everyone is sure to be entertained here!

Belmont Park in Mission Bay
Belmont Park in Mission Bay

Ocean Beach

If you’re looking for a more laid-back vibe on the seaside, then you can’t go wrong with Ocean Beach. A beach suburb located about fifteen minutes from Downtown San Diego, you would be forgiven if you feel as if you’ve been transported back to the 1970s when wandering through this cool area.

This is one of the least touristy of beaches included on this itinerary and it is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for a more local, mellow vibe rather than bustline Mission Bay or upscale Pacific Beach.

OB is famous amongst surfers and has some great surf spots and it is also home to some great, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, as well.

All in all, Ocean Beach is the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for mellow, hippie vibes.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Located in Ocean Beach just a bit south of the beach itself is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a perfect place to head if you want to, well, watch the sunset.

These dramatic cliffs jut into the Pacific Ocean and provide absolutely stunning views. It is also a very popular area for more experienced surfers as there are large waves at the base of the cliffs.

There are also countless walking trails where you can meander along the cliff edges trying to seek out the perfect view, or you could opt to climb down the steps to the beach area and search for sea creatures in the many tide pools. If you’re fortunate enough, you may see some of San Diego’s many sea lions frolicking in the waves!

Watching the sunset at Sunset Cliffs
Watching the sunset at Sunset Cliffs

Cabrillo National Monument

A bit further afield along Point Loma from Sunset Cliffs lies the Cabrillo National Monument. Boasting many walking trails, tide pooling opportunities, and the potential for excellent views of the entirety of San Diego’s downtown area all the way to the Coronado Bridge.

Here you can also visit the historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse and, at low tide, climb down to the sea and hunt for cool sea creatures in the tide pools. This is the perfect place to visit in the city of San Diego if you want to get a bit off the beaten tourist trail and experience some of the best views of the city.

Day 4 – Explore the surrounding area

If you have a full 4 days, there are numerous different options that you could follow. All of these options lie quite a bit further afield from downtown San Diego and each option should have an entire day devoted to it.

Coronado Island

The first way you could spend day four of your San Diego itinerary is to visit the lovely Coronado Island. Located across San Diego Bay and accessible via the iconic Coronado Bridge, this island is home to a charming downtown area, historic architecture, and the famous Hotel Del Coronado.

As the second-largest wooden structure in the United States, this Victorian-Era beach resort is absolutely beautiful and worth exploring even if you’re not staying at the hotel.

Coronado Beach is also, arguably, one of San Diego’s nicest — a vast expanse of sand with fairly calm waters, making it perfect for families. Coronado is also the perfect place to rent a bicycle and pedal along the seaside promenade and enjoy the lovely beachy vibes. You can also get great views of the San Diego skyline from Coronado Island, as well.

Those who want to do more than wander around the hotel or lounge on the beach may like this walking tour of historic Coronado. Or, if you just want to enjoy the beach from a distance, you can take a 2-hour cruise that goes past Coronado.

Coronado Beach is a great way to spend day 4 of your San Diego itinerary
Coronado Beach

La Jolla

If you want to be a bit more active and explore one of San Diego’s most beautiful suburbs, then head a bit further north to explore the beautiful La Jolla area. Known for its dramatic cliffs, sea caves, great restaurants and expensive real estate, La Jolla is an elite neighbourhood but also absolutely gorgeous.

On any given day, you can see people paragliding from the iconic cliffs or kayaking in the waters below. This is the perfect place to explore San Diego from the water’s edge and to check out the sea caves and wildlife that live there.

Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding through La Jolla Cove are popular activities in the area and you can choose to do a two-hour guided kayaking tour to explore the sea caves or take a surfing lesson.

La Jolla is also home to the well-regarded Scripps Aquarium, where you can check out endemic sea life while staying nice and dry! Nearby, you can also visit Torrey Pines State Reserve, which has a number of great hikes and gorgeous views if you still want to be a bit active.

Day Trip to Baja California

If you’re looking for a complete change of scenery, then consider going on a day trip south of the border to lovely Baja California, Mexico! It is incredibly easy and fun to head to Mexico for a day and you have the opportunity to sample some of the best gastronomy in the world! For example, this full-day tour of Baja California packs a lot if you’re short on time!

Tijuana makes for an incredibly easy day trip as you can reach the border crossing at San Ysidro easily from the San Diego Trolley system and walk across the border in just about ten minutes — just make sure to bring your passport! Alternatively, you can take this intro to Mexico organised tour!

If you’re interested in heading further afield, you can easily hop on a bus to Ensenada, a lovely seaside city about an hour south of Tijuana. Ensenada is famed for being the birthplace of the fish taco and the fresh seafood in the city is second to none.

And finally, if you’re a wine fan, then you may be interested in touring the vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe, located just inland from Ensenada. This area grows some fantastic wine and you can opt to go on a guided tour or drive yourself there — just make sure that your rental car allows you to cross the border!

One day in Ensenada
Delicious fish tacos in Ensenada!

Where to Stay in San Diego

Urban Boutique Hotel – Situated in cool and trendy Little Italy in the heart of downtown San Diego, this boutique hotel is a great place to base yourself in this Southern California city. Located within easy walking distance of many major attractions, they have numerous rooms available to suit all kinds of travellers. 

Hotel Del Coronado – One of the most iconic hotels in the country and not just San Diego, if you’re looking for a luxury stay in San Diego, you can’t go wrong with the Hotel Del. This hotel is not only absolutely beautiful and historic, it is situated on the lovely Coronado Beach, as numerous fantastic restaurants on site and also boasts countless other amenities that are sure to make your stay a great one.

Private Rental – Another popular option in San Diego is a private rental. There are countless properties available such as this charming studio in Pacific Beach that is super close to the beach.

California Dreams Hostel – If you’re travelling to San Diego solo or on a tight budget, this hostel is an excellent choice for you. It is located in Pacific Beach close to numerous attractions in San Diego. They have both dorm and private rooms available and great common areas perfect for meeting other travellers. 

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Diego!

The iconic Hotel Del Coronado
The iconic Hotel Del Coronado

Planning the perfect San Diego itinerary isn’t always an easy task with so many things to do in the city. Whether you’re planning a quick weekend in San Diego or have longer to devote to the city, you’re sure to fall in love. Follow these tips to ensure you have an excellent trip to San Diego!

Are you planning to visit San Diego? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

Comments

  1. HI Maggie,
    Great info provided in your blog.
    I plan to travel in Feb 12-17 to San Diego for Business trip and with few days available with me, I would like to spend time exploring San Diego and Maybe do a quick trip to LA. I may have 12th Feb late afternoon & Feb 13th half day & 17th Full day & 18th Half day
    Any suggestions. Kindly share, will be helpful.

    Reply

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