San Diego, a Californian city known for its beaches, parks and sunny climate. I have been traveling to San Diego for months at a time for several years now. Why? Because San Diego is beautiful! Whether you are into surfing and other water sports, into hiking or more into history, arts and museums, San Diego will keep you entertained.
Sure, if it’s your first time to California you might not want to miss San Francisco and Los Angeles, but please don’t skip San Diego. In just a short visit you can definitely get a good taste of this city.
What to see & do on a short trip to San Diego
1. Stroll along the Mission Beach Boardwalk
San Diego has some really nice beaches. If you want that typical Californian experience of walking along the boardwalk while local Californians on skateboards, roller skates and beach cruisers pass you by, then this is the place to be! With some of the most gorgeous vacation homes in San Diego on one side and the wide, sandy beach on the other side, every time I come here the same thought crosses my mind: yes, this is the California you see on TV!
I normally start at Belmont Park; a small, historic oceanfront amusement park, well worth checking out if you are visiting San Diego with kids. From there I follow the boardwalk North, all the way to Pacific Beach. Along the boardwalk you will find plenty of cafes and restaurants so if you want to stop for a drink or a bite to eat there are enough options!
Tip: If you have the time, also check out Mission Bay, which is just a few blocks behind the boardwalk. Walk up to Catamaran resort if you want to stop for a drink in an almost island-like resort setting.
2. Check out the USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway Museum is a maritime museum in downtown San Diego. The USS Midway, America’s longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century, has been turned into a museum housing an extensive collection of aircrafts. It offers a wealth of information about the US Navy and many of its aircrafts. And I have to say, even though I am not a major fan of the military nor the navy, I really enjoyed visiting this museum. It has been set up incredibly well and is both educational and entertaining. Do use their self-guided audio tour. It will help you to understand a lot more about the aircraft carrier, the different aircrafts and what the Navy has done over the years.
And, while you are there, you can even try your hand at flying in their flight simulator! One thing I learnt that day: I would make the world’s worst fighter pilot!!
If you are visiting San Diego with kids the USS Midway Museum is definitely a fun and educational place to visit.
Tip: The museum closes at 5PM and because there is so much to see and do I definitely recommend getting there in the morning.
3. Have a coffee or a good glass of wine in Little Italy
Little Italy is one of my favorite parts of San Diego. It’s a cute, more pedestrian friendly neighborhood with a (slight) Italian feel to it. If you are looking for a good wine bar, close to authentic Italian food or a good Italian deli, then this is where you should go! I love just walking down India Street in the late afternoon or early evening to soak up the atmosphere.
Or even better, if you happen to be in San Diego on a Saturday morning, check out Little Italy’s Farmers’ Market! It is one of the larger Farmers’ Markets and my favorite! It is located on West Cedar Street, from Kettner Boulevard to Front Street.
Tip: Little Italy is also one of the more upmarket neighborhoods in San Diego so you won’t find many cheap eats here. It also has a much nicer vibe in the evening than during the day so unless you are going to the Farmers’ Market I recommend checking out this part of San Diego in the evening.
4. Dine & Party at the Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is a lively downtown neighborhood, known for its wide selection of restaurants and good nightlife. 5th Avenue forms the heart of the Gaslamp area and with all its clubs and bars it tends to attract a younger crowd. The Victorian architecture here gives it a more historic feel and makes it a very charming area.
Although the Gaslamp Quarter definitely comes alive in the evenings, it still has plenty to offer during the day. With numerous shops, the large Horton Plaza shopping mall and plenty of options for breakfast, lunch or coffee, I also enjoy coming here during the day. Additionally there are various theatres in this area offering great music and shows.
I love the energy of the Gaslamp Quarter, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. And even though I probably like San Diego so much because it has such a laid back, coastal town feel, the Gaslamp Quarter definitely does add something to the experience for me. It’s the one part of town that reminds me I am actually in a large city with the hustle and bustle that comes with city life.
Tip: Parking here can be difficult so be prepared to either pay a lot to park in a garage or drive around for a while to find cheaper metered street parking. Especially on Friday and Saturday night you might want to take an Uber or Lyft instead.
5. Explore beautiful Balboa Park
You can’t miss Balboa Park on a short trip to San Diego.
When I first went to Balboa Park I expected just a large park: lots of green areas, trees, walking paths and probably a fountain or two. Oh how wrong I was! This was probably one of the first times the European in me was confronted with the fact that almost everything really is bigger in America…
Balboa Park is what they call an urban cultural park. It holds 17 museums and cultural institutions, multiple performing arts venues, restaurants, lovely gardens, and many other creative and recreational attractions, including the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Yes, if you really want to explore all of this during your trip to San Diego you might have to extend it!
But, even if you only have a few hours you will definitely enjoy exploring Balboa Park.
6. Consider visiting San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Even though I am not the biggest fan of Zoos and caged animals, the San Diego Zoo does so much in the field of conservation and research that I made an exception here. Both the Zoo and the Safari Park are operated by San Diego Zoo Global, whose research center is dedicated to preserving and protecting rare and endangered wildlife and habitats. Throughout the Zoo you will find information about how they are helping endangered animals. And although it’s hard to determine exactly how much they achieve and how much harm they may do to some of their caged animals, their work sounds actually quite impressive.
At the San Diego Zoo you can find over 3,500 rare and endangered animals and it offers a prominent botanical collection with more than 700,000 exotic plants. You could easily spend a full day here and if you are traveling to San Diego with kids this will surely keep them entertained!
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is an expansive wildlife sanctuary that is home to more than 3,000 animals. Over half of the park’s 1,800 acres (730 hectares) have been set aside as protected native species habitat. Their safari tour is great and almost makes you feel as if you are actually in Africa.
The one thing I really didn’t like about the Safari Park were all the extra charges. Tickets to the park aren’t cheap to begin with and to then find out inside the park that most of their fun activities cost extra was very disappointing. From riding a hot air balloon to numerous safari options, all come at a hefty fee. But, if you do want to splurge, you can even pay to spend a night camping inside the safari park!
Tip: While the San Diego Zoo is located in the center of San Diego, the Safari Park is about a 40 minutes drive north of town. And although I prefer the Safari Park over the Zoo, during a short trip to San Diego the Zoo might be the more convenient option.
Click here for a discount on San Diego Zoo tickets.
7. Go for a hike and enjoy the views at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is located between La Jolla and Del Mar. If you enjoy hiking and beautiful views of a more rugged part of Southern California’s coastline then definitely include Torry Pines on your short trip to San Diego.
Located on the cliffs above Torrey Pines State Beach, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a 1,750 acre (710 hectares) reserve. It is dedicated to preserving the Torrey Pine tree and other indigenous wildlife in its native environment. The rugged, unspoilt nature so close to the city really is lovely. There is a visitor center you can’t miss once you walk up the hill and a large map with all the different trails. I enjoy taking the Beach Trail which winds along the cliffs offering breathtaking views and ends up on the beach.
The trails range from very easy to moderate so it’s a very suitable activity for all ages. See if you can spot a fox, a skunk or a raccoon. And, if you are really lucky and happen to be here during whale migrations, you might even see whales from the cliffs!
I love coming here early in the morning for a quiet walk to get the blood flowing and feel energized for the rest of the day. Or I go at the end of the day to watch the sunset from the cliffs which is absolutely gorgeous! The reserve does close right after sunset so you won’t be able to hang around for too long.
Tip: Park on the road outside the reserve to avoid paying for parking. If you walk into the reserve there is no entrance fee.
8. Say hi to the seals & sea lions at La Jolla Cove
If you ask me, this is the most fun thing to do in San Diego! Around La Jolla Cove, which is a small cove with a tiny beach, you will find countless seals and sea lions. They laze around, soak up the sun and swim around the cove. So what I recommend is: swim with them!! Bring your mask and snorkel (or buy or rent them in La Jolla), brave the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean and I guarantee you will have an experience you’ll never forget! Of course keep some distance and don’t try to touch the seals and sea lions. But, as long as you let them be and just quietly float around them, they will most likely come to you, check you out and you can see them swim, play and interact with each other.
One thing to be aware of: these animals stink! Or ok, their poop does. There are so many seals and sea lions in this area that you will smell them from far away. It can get really bad which, if you ask me, is just an extra reason to put on a mask and snorkel and get in the water with them!
Tip: La Jolla is home to the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world. Every summer they can be seen right off of La Jolla Shores beach. So if you happen to be there at the right time of year, take your mask and snorkel to La Jolla Shores beach and see if you can spot some leopard sharks. They are easily frightened so just float around and make minimal movements to get close to them. August and September is peak season, but if you are lucky you can see them as early as June and as late as December.
9. Take the ferry to Coronado Island
Going to Coronado Island feels like going on a one day vacation to me: it has this perfect resort town feel to it.
Coronado isn’t actually an island though, but it definitely does feel like one. It is connected to the mainland by the Silver Strand, a long isthmus that runs south of the island and connects it with Imperial Beach.
You can easily drive to Coronado via highway 75 but if you want to make it into a fun full day activity I recommend taking the ferry. It’s a scenic 15-minute ferry ride that will take you from either the Broadway Pier or the Convention Center to the Coronado Ferry Landing. The Coronado Ferry Landing is a cute, small, waterfront area with shops, cafes and restaurants. Even if you don’t take the ferry it’s worth stopping here to have a wander around and enjoy the view towards downtown San Diego.
Rent bicycles at the Ferry Landing to explore the island or just walk to the other side of the island, which will only take you around 30 minutes. There you will find what the island is most famous for: the iconic hotel del Coronado and the long sandy beach.
Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado was built in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The hotel was a destination resort before the term existed, attracting a wealthy clientele from the Midwest, East Coast, and Europe. These guests, who arrived with their own servants in tow, generally stayed for months at a time. Nowadays the hotel, which is still one of the most expensive hotels in San Diego, is open to the public. You can walk through it, read about its history and famous past guests, have lunch at their restaurant and check out their shops. The hotel is rumored to be haunted by ghosts, the most notorious of which is Kate Morgan. After her lover betrayed her, she allegedly committed suicide in the hotel in 1892, and her spirit continues to haunt the hotel.
After you have seen the hotel, go to the beach or check out the shops and restaurants along Orange Avenue. Do put your feet in the sand before you leave though, because the sand on Coronado is supposedly some of the softest sand in southern California.
Fun fact: if you would look at Coronado Beach from the air, you would notice that the large sand dunes next to hotel del Coronado spell the word “CORONADO”. These were created by one of the city’s employees back in the 1980s. The ocean had washed ashore so much seaweed that he didn’t know what to do with it. He decided to pile it up, cover it with sand, and spell out the name of the island. When walking past them you would never have guessed these dunes spell a word but now that you know you might just be able to see it…
Tip: The ferry from Broadway Pier starts running at 9AM and departs every hour on the hour. The ferry from the Convention Center start running at 9.25AM and departs every 30 minutes. The last ferries leave Coronado at 9.30PM to Broadway Pier and 9.40PM to the Convention Center (10.30PM and 10.40PM on Friday and Saturday). Price: $4.75 one way.
10. Learn about San Diego’s history at Old Town
Old Town San Diego marks the site of the first Spanish settlement on the U.S. West Coast. It’s now a fun, well maintained neighborhood that features 12 acres of Mexican heritage and historical sites, colorful shops, early-California-style restaurants, museums, a theater and the restored Cosmopolitan Hotel.
many preserved historic buildings and museums commemorate the early days of the town of San Diego from the period of 1820 to 1870.
Old Town is the place to visit if you want to learn something about the history of San Diego. Or, if you just enjoy a Mexican atmosphere and good Mexican food. It might look a little bit artificial if you compare it to other historic sites in countries with a much longer history, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable!
Tip: Visit the San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site. It’s a fun, interactive museum that teaches you about how the Mormons came to the West Coast and helped build San Diego. And even better: it’s free!
11. Learn to surf!
Despite all the developments and San Diego being California’s second largest city, in many ways it is still a laid-back surfers town. So, if you do have some time left on your short trip to San Diego, head back to the beach and take some surf lessons! Or if surfing isn’t really your thing then try sailing, parasailing or go on a relaxing sunset cruise. But whatever you do, don’t miss out on San Diego’s beautiful coastline and incredible sunsets!
Final tips for a short trip to San Diego
Rent a car! Like most cities in the USA public transport isn’t great. And although nowadays Uber and Lyft are good alternatives, if you want to see and do as much as possible during your stay in San Diego, renting a car is probably the cheaper options. There are numerous car rental agencies at the airport, but do rent a car before you arrive since most agencies charge more when you book at the airport. Carrental8.com is a good option to compare prices and book online.
If you haven’t been here yet, I hope you will plan at least a short trip to San Diego. And maybe you will fall in love with the city just like I did and end up coming back year after year!
Map of What to See & Do on a Short Trip to San Diego
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