What to Do in San Diego, California, on a Short Trip

Are you looking for fun things to do in San Diego? Scroll down to find some of the best places to visit and a wide range of activities in San Diego.

San Diego is 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 visiting California you might not want to miss San Francisco and Los Angeles, but please also plan a short trip to San Diego. In just a few days you can definitely get a good taste of this city.

What to Do in San Diego

1. Stroll Along the Mission Beach Boardwalk

what to do in San Diego

things to see in San Diego, California

San Diego has some really nice beaches and no trip to San Diego is complete without checking them out.

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!

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!

Strolling along the boardwalk is definitely one of my favorite free things to do in San Diego!

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. Go to 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 learned 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. You can buy skip-the-line tickets here, to get in faster.

3. Have a Coffee or a Good Glass of Wine in Little Italy

things to do in San Diego on a short trip

what to see in San Diego on a short visit

Little Italy is one of my favorite parts of San Diego and a place not to miss if you visit 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, (almost) 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

when visiting San Diego you have to check out the Gaslamp quarter

Gaslamp quarter is one of the main places to visit in San Diego

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.

Also Read: 10 of the Best Rooftop Bars in San Diego

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 mainly 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.

There is a fun walking tour called the ‘Brothels, Bites and Booze walking tour‘ if you want to learn more about the Gaslamp Quarter or go on a segway tour to explore downtown San Diego!

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 when you visit 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 San Diego trip you might have to extend it!

But, even if you only have a few hours you will definitely enjoy exploring Balboa Park and it really should be on your list of things to do in San Diego.

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’ll 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 don’t like about the Safari Park are 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, they 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.

Book you skip-the-line tickets in advance to save time! You can book them for the San Diego Zoo here or the Safari Park here.

7. Go for a Hike and Enjoy the Views at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines is one of the main attractions in San Diego

What to do in San Diego on a short trip: hiking at Torrey Pines

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 add Torry Pines to your list of things to do in San Diego.

Located on the cliffs above Torrey Pines 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.

The rugged, unspoiled 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 hiking 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

What to see on a short trip to San Diego: La Jolla seals & sea lions

If you are traveling to San Diego you have to see the seals and sea lions!

If you ask me, this is one of the most fun things 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.

I have been snorkeling all over the world, including places like the Caribbean and the Maldives, but this snorkeling experience is definitely one of my all-time favorites!

One thing to be aware of: these animals stink! Or ok, their poop does. There are so many seals and sea lions here 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: if you are looking for fun activities in San Diego I can highly recommend this kayak tour of La Jolla’s caves. It’s also a great way to see the seals and sea lions!

Check Out the Leopard Sharks Too

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

What to do in San Diego on a short trip: visit Coronado Island

What to see & do on a short trip to San Diego: 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 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’ll find what the island is most famous for: the iconic hotel del Coronado and the long sandy beach.

Hotel del Coronado

What to see and do on a short trip to San Diego: go to 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’d look at Coronado Beach from the air, you’d 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

If you ask me what to do in San Diego, a visit to Old Town is one of the first things that comes to mind.

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!

what to do on a short trip to San Diego: surfing lesson

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 and wonder what to do in San Diego, head back to the beach and take some surf lessons!

You can book surfing lessons in La Jolla on this website.

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!

Tip: if you love beaches and a laid-back vibe, consider a day trip to Catalina Island

Activities in San Diego

I hope I have been able to show you there are plenty of things to do in San Diego!

But, if you are looking for more activities in San Diego, I have two further tips:

1. Get the San Diego Card to Save Money

With this card you get free admission to over 35 tours and attractions in San Diego.

You can buy a 1-day pass or choose from several multi-day options, depending on how long your San Diego trip is.

2. Check Out Get Your Guide for a Wide Range of Activities in San Diego

From sunset cruises (my personal favorite!) to walking tours, brewery tours, and many other fun activities in San Diego.

Check out some examples below or click here for a full list of activities in San Diego.


Final Tips For a Trip to San Diego

final tips for a short trip to San Diego

1. 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 option.

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. Rentalcars.comWhat to Do in San Diego, California, on a Short Trip is a good option to compare prices and book online.

Alternatively, you can book a hop-on-hop-off tour to explore San Diego without a car.

2. How Many Days Do You Need in San Diego?

I would say if you decide to visit San Diego, stay for at least three full days. It might not be as popular as Los Angeles or San Francisco, but there are plenty of fun things to do in San Diego.

And, if you decide to plan a trip to San Diego, also read:

And check out my other articles about California

Enjoy your trip and I hope I gave you some inspiration for what to do in San Diego!

Map of What to Do in San Diego

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San Diego is a beautiful city in Southern California, which is often overlooked by travelers. But if you visit California I highly recommend spending at least a few days in San Diego! And these are 11 fun things to do in San Diego - a practical travel guide with map. #SanDiego #California #visitSanDiego

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Sanne Wesselman

Author: Sanne Wesselman
A traveler, wanderer, digital nomad, and entrepreneur. Owner of marketing company A to Z Marketing.
I spend most of my time living and working abroad and use this website to share "the good, the bad and the ugly" of traveling and living abroad. Visit the About Me page for more info.

11 thoughts on “What to Do in San Diego, California, on a Short Trip”

  1. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and La Jolla Cove seem to be wonderful options to get closer to nature in San Diego. I had no idea there were seals in that part. 2-3 days sounds good for exploring the area.

  2. I just returned from a short trip to San Diego – and I wish I’d read your post before my trip. We missed out on the La Jolla sea lions, the Mission Boardwalk, and Balboa Park. Each of those makes a return trip to San Diego look like fun.

  3. Almost all the places sound like spots I’d like to visit when I get to San Diego. Love the name of the Gaslight District. Despite living in California for over 5 years, I never made it to San Diego ;-( Hope to get a chance to visit over the next year or so!

  4. You cannot imagine how bad I feel about not having read your post before. I went to LA last March, and I visited a wide range of the area, but because my Lonely Planet travel guide, was not saying very much about San Diego, I thought it was not deserving a visit. So I missed visiting Balboa Park, that you mention in your article, and that I would have loved to visit if only was mentioned in the guide. Is an amazing place to visit, and reflect exactly what I need to find when I am visiting a place to take some relax. Next time, I will take information just on the web, or at least in a better travel guide.

  5. We just came back from a trip from the US and San Diego was somewhere we thought of visiting but did not due to time constraints. I actually had no idea there was so much to do there, I knew they had an awesome zoo but there seems to be so much more.

  6. Coronado strikes me like one of those old resort towns along the New England coast. I didn’t know about the dunes but I’ll be sure to have a closer look next time I visit.

    Thanks & happy continued travels!

  7. I’ve only ever had very short visits to San Diego but it’s still a super fun place to visit – I would like to visit Balboa Park as I missed it last time! Now that I live in Arizona, a weekend drive to San Diego is not out of the question 🙂

  8. Yes, SeaWorld is still there but it has been getting a lot of bad press in the past few years (rightfully so if you ask me). What they have been doing to animals is just not right and now that we are all aware of that I highly discourage people to go there. There are many better things to do in San Diego 😉

  9. I went to San Diego almost 6 years ago and I think I missed out on a lot of these places! I can’t remember clearly the names of many places that I went to but I do remember going to SeaWorld. I do not see a mention of that in your post – is it still there?

  10. Have stayed near the Gaslight Quarter on business and always love what San Diego has to offer. I’ve always found it to be a very manageable city. thanks for the overview.


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