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San Diego in 3 Days: The Perfect Itinerary

San Diego in 3 Days: The Perfect Itinerary

While perfect weather and idyllic beaches make San Diego one of the most desirable cities to live in for Americans, it’s often skipped by tourists when they visit the West Coast.

I almost made the same mistake when I came to California for the first time years ago. I wanted to live in Los Angeles but due to some complications, my school was only able to transfer me to San Diego so I decided to give it a go anyway. Little did I know that I was going to make San Diego my base later in life. San Diego turned out to be a pretty fun place with plenty of things to do.

For tourists, it could be the perfect place for a weekend getaway so here is my proposed itinerary for San Diego in 3 days.


Itinerary for San Diego in 3 Days

3 days is a great length of time to spend in San Diego if you’re visiting for the first time as you can see all the main sites without being too rushed.

Of course, if you have more time there are countless things to do in San Diego (or the whole of Southern California) and I have included some bonus suggestions in the itinerary below for you as well.

San Diego can also be a great stop on a full road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway. I have another itinerary specifically for that trip too!

Day 1: Downtown and Seaport

Morning – Little Italy Market

If you’re visiting San Diego for the weekend, on Saturday morning you should head to Little Italy for the farmers market

Over 40 vendors will happily let you try samples of cheeses, bread spreads, cookies, and fresh juices and of course, you can also bring some home. Trust me, even if you think you can resist and not sample anything, you most likely will. The market is especially worth your time if you’re a foodie.

After your brunch at the market, you’ll be stuffed so you can take your time to explore San Diego. San Diego’s renovated turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture is home to boutiques, art galleries, specialty shops, and more. 

little italy san diego

Afternoon – USS Midway, Balboa Park & Zoo

Time for a little history! The USS Midway Museum is a naval aircraft carrier museum located on an actual ship (the USS Midway) which was the longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century in America. 

The ship remains as it was during active duty and you can walk all through the different parts of it. What’s more, there are actual aircraft onboard which you can climb into and flight simulators to try. 

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Afterward, take the afternoon to discover Balboa Park, a huge park just minutes north of downtown San Diego. 

balboa park san diego
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This park, ranked among one of the best in the world, offers a lot of venues, botanical gardens, stunning colonial architecture, and even the biggest zoo in the US (San Diego Zoo). If you decide to go to the zoo give the wombats (my favorite animal) a hug from me!

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Evening – Point Loma sunset

End an action-packed first day of exploration by relaxing at Point Loma to watch a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean. 

Located just 15 mins west of Downtown, Point Loma is the perfect place to say goodbye to the day surrounded by beautiful sandstone cliffs. If visited in the winter, you may even spot gray whales here. 

Sunset Cliffs is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike to watch the sunset so bring a picnic and enjoy the atmosphere. 

And if you want to continue the party back in town, on 3rd and 4th streets there are a lot of bars where you can let your hair down after a whole day of sightseeing.


Day 2: La Jolla

Morning – Seals and Kayaking 

Today we are heading north to the affluent town of La Jolla as there are a lot of things to do for both adventure seekers and those wanting to just sunbathe on the sand.

With 17 miles of coastline, San Diego gives you a lot of beaches to choose from but La Jolla Cove is famous for its many sea lions that chill out on the rocks during the day. If you’re lucky you can walk up quite close to them.

la jolla seals

Once you’ve had a friendly welcome, it’s time for some adventure. Another popular activity at La Jolla Cove is kayaking among the sharks in the caves. You can join a tour of the 7 caves where all the gear is included and a guide with show you the way.

Don’t get scared, sharks in San Diego are leopard sharks and their mouths are smaller than an orange, so even if they wanted to bite you they couldn’t even grab your finger. They’re actually very cute so a close encounter is highly recommended!

But if kayaking sounds a little too much, you can also simply hike around above the beach and watch paragliders throwing themselves from the cliffs.

Once you’re done with the beach, head to La Jolla village and find a nice restaurant overlooking the ocean. La Jolla has a lot of places to eat so it’s not a problem to find a good lunch spot. 

san diego beach
Play with some furry friends!
Play with some furry friends!

Afternoon – Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

After lunch, it’s time for a little more exercise. Still in La Jolla, head to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Here you can explore 1,750 acres of coastal wilderness featuring beautiful pine forests and sandstone canyons. 

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Set on the cliffs above Torrey Pines Beach, there are countless hiking trails to explore here for all levels of experience, all with breathtaking views. 

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

The park is home to around 3,000 of America’s most rare pine trees which only grow in two places (here being one of them). 

Two great trails to try here are the Guy Fleming Trail which is an easy 0.7-mile loop with ocean views. Or the Razor Point Trail which is a more difficult 1.4-mile track with dramatic ravines and ocean viewpoints. 

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Evening – Harbor Cruise

End another action-packed day back in San Diego with a beautiful evening harbor cruise. There are a number of different lengths and types of cruises available to you but each one offers a unique view of the city in the perfect dusk light. 

You’ll see many of the famous landmarks you may have walked by on foot, sail under the Coronado Bridge, and even have the chance to spot sea lions and whales. 

I recommend this 2.5-hour dinner cruise or this 1-2 hour cruise if you’re short on time. 

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Seaport Village

Day 3: Coronado Island or Mission Beach Boardwalk

For your final day, you have a choice. If you still have plenty of energy and are looking for one last adventure, we’re heading to Coronado Island.

Alternatively, if you prefer to relax for your last day in San Diego, spend your time enjoying the boardwalk at Mission Beach. 

Option 1: Coronado Island

Coronado Island is one of the poshest areas of the city and probably has the most beautiful beach in San Diego: wide, sandy, and only moderately crowded.

You can take a ferry to Coronado from Seaport Village, downtown, right after you try one of their delicious freshly baked cookies. It’s a cute little place that will make you feel like Alice in Wonderland even if just for 5 minutes.

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When you reach Coronado Island you can rent a bike to get to the beach and see the famous Hotel del Coronado

This historic Victorian beach resort is the second-largest wooden structure in the United States and it was a temporary home to many famous people in American history. It’s definitely worth a stroll around!

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Option 2: Mission Beach Boardwalk

There’s a little bit of everything along Mission Beach Boardwalk including shops, water activities, Sea World, and even an amusement park. 

The best way to enjoy Mission Beach Boardwalk is simply to wander along at your own pace, stopping at anything that takes your fancy. 

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If you’re feeling adventurous you can even take surf lessons or rollerblade along the path. 

The boardwalk follows the entire coast on both the bay beach and ocean beach side of the peninsula so you also have your choice of waves if you want a relaxing dip or waves to play in. 

End Your Day with a Drink or Two

To celebrate your last night in Sand Diego, why not enjoy a drink (or two) in the classic San Diego way? 

If you’re looking for a lesser-known bar in San Diego, I recommend the rooftop bar at the W Hotel. Why do I recommend you to go to a hotel? Simply because it’s the only bar that has a rooftop beach and it won’t break your budget.

However, if you plan your weekend in San Diego in advance you can try an alternative bar. By making a reservation at Noble Experiments you’ll be told to go to a specific location if there’s an event happening. When you arrive, you’ll be taken through the neighborhood bar via a secret door or a bathroom to get to a special secret bar.

If you’re a young wild soul and these options don’t seem crazy enough for you, head to Pacific Beach. If you’re visiting San Diego on a Wednesday you might even participate in a goldfish race. How cool is that?


Recommended places to stay in San Diego

Hotel Del Coronado – The best place to stay on Coronado Island. Some consider it haunted.

Hilton San Diego Bayfront – A luxury hotel with a beautiful outdoor pool.

La Jolla Cove Suites – If you prefer to stay in La Jolla that’s the right spot.

Enjoy San Diego! If you have any questions drop me a message in the comments below!

Regis Kahn

Sunday 27th of March 2016

This is a great article Anna! What about green hotels and vegan places to have fun?

Anna

Sunday 27th of March 2016

Yes actually! There are many vegan restaurants in Hillcrest :)

Winederlusting

Thursday 3rd of December 2015

San Diego is one of the only other cities in the world I'd consider living. I had a very similar itinerary when I went earlier this year, except spent a good amount of time in Ocean Beach. The seafood in La Jolla and the hiking by the cliffs in Torrey Pines won me over!

Greig

Small Town Washington

Wednesday 2nd of December 2015

I haven't been to San Diego yet. It looks like a great place to walk the beach. Did you find any great signature tequila drinks there?

Anna

Wednesday 2nd of December 2015

Tequila drinks hmmm... not really, but Tijuana is like 20 minutes away :D

Rob Taylor

Wednesday 2nd of December 2015

Yes! San Diego is amazing. I think you made a good list for just two days. I think it's key to spend the morning at the beach, most definitely.

Tiana

Wednesday 2nd of December 2015

Looks like a good time! We go down every month for a few days

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