Amazing 3 Day Itinerary San Diego

San Diego is one of my favorite places in Southern California. With amazing beaches, great weather year-round, and plenty to do, a trip to San Diego is always a good idea! This itinerary will have everything you need to plan a perfect trip.

I recently spent a week in San Diego when traveling for my cousin’s wedding (I had been twice before this), and I have crafted this amazing three day itinerary for San Diego based on all my previous trips. I include options for different days depending on what you’re interested in, cost, tips, and more! 

Table of Contents

palm trees in san diego

Overview of 3 Day Itinerary San Diego

San Diego is one of the top destinations in Southern California, known for its beautiful beaches, pleasant climate, and various attractions and cultural landmarks. I’ve been to Southern California more times than I can count, and I can see why it’s so popular!

Itinerary Overview

This itinerary will give you ideas and options for different days of the trip. Choose what suits you and your travel style best!

Day 1: Breakfast, Morning in Old Town San Diego, Lunch at Lucha Libre, Afternoon in Balboa Park, Dinner in Little Italy

Day 2: Breakfast in La Jolla, Kayaking through Sea Caves in La Jolla, Lunch in La Jolla, Early Afternoon La Jolla Coastal Walk or Shopping, Late Afternoon Hiking in Torrey Pines or Point Loma, Evening in Gaslamp

Day 3: Coffee, Relax at a Spa or Bike the Coast, Lunch, Afternoon Beach Time, Dinner with a view

Average costs

The average three-star hotel in San Diego is $291. Activities start at around $20 for a museum and go up from there. Most tours range from $60 to $200.

Our Costs:

  • Hotel: $75 a night (timeshare presentation got us a steep discount on three nights!)
  • Flight from DC: 14,000 points (with the Southwest Companion pass)
  • Activities: Gifted by Go City Pass and Everyday California
  • Food: $60 a day
view of highway and downtown san diego

How to Get to San Diego

By Air

San Diego International Airport (SAN) is the city’s primary airport. It is well-connected to major cities across the United States and several international destinations. You can reach the city center by taxi, rideshare, shuttle services, or public transportation from the airport.

TSA lines can get extremely long at SAN, so I recommend leaving yourself plenty of time on your return flight to make your flight. We had about a two-hour wait while we were there. Thankfully, we had TSA pre-check and missed the line!

By Car

San Diego is accessible by several major highways, such as Interstate 5 (which runs from San Diego to Los Angeles and further north to Seattle), Interstate 8 (which runs east to west), and Interstate 15 (which runs north to south inland through Las Vegas and further north). 

The drive from Los Angeles to San Diego along Route 1 in CA takes much longer but is really scenic. It’s a great option if you leave at the right time to avoid traffic (think off-peak hours) and want to see some coastal views!

By Train

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner offers a scenic route along the coast, connecting San Diego with Los Angeles and other coastal cities. The train arrives at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego.

By Bus

Several bus companies operate routes to San Diego, including Greyhound and Megabus. They offer services from various cities in California and beyond, with stops at the Greyhound Bus Station or other designated locations. I recommend avoiding coming by bus if you can or at least traveling at off peak times. Traffic can be terrible in Southern California.

two men and woman in balboa park san diego

Tips for Visiting San Diego

  1. What to wear in San Diego: While the weather in San Diego is mild year-round, temperatures vary throughout the day. It’s best to bring a light jacket or wear layers to keep yourself comfortable, no matter the time of year!
  2. What to bring: Even if it feels mild, the sun can be intense, so bring a hat and sunscreen. You’ll also be walking often, especially when visiting places like the San Diego Zoo and La Jolla, so wear comfortable walking shoes!
  3. Getting around: For downtown San Diego, public transit is well-connected, but it’s best to rent a car or drive to San Diego.
  4. Book in advance for top attractions and tours: For popular attractions like the San Diego Zoo, booking tickets in advance can save you time and sometimes money. You can get the Go City Pass, which includes over 60+ attractions, at a discounted rate. 
  5. Early Start: Begin your day early to avoid crowds at major attractions and enjoy cooler temperatures.
  6. Beach Etiquette: Respect the local beach rules, such as no alcohol, glass containers, or smoking. Also, be mindful of rip currents and always swim near lifeguard stations.
  7. Respect Wildlife: Whether visiting tide pools, hiking trails, or the zoo, always respect local wildlife and follow guidelines to avoid disturbing animals. Never touch animals, and keep a safe distance!
cape rey hotel san diego

Where to Stay in San Diego

There are a lot of cool places to stay in San Diego to choose from! We chose to stay outside San Diego on our latest trip at the Cape Rey Carlsbad Beach and really enjoyed it. If you’re looking for something outside San Diego, it’s a great option. Below are a few places in San Diego to consider.

This iconic Colonial-style hotel opened in the 1940s, attracting young Hollywood visitors such as Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. It recently underwent a complete renovation, including five food and beverage spots, updated historic rooms, and an absolutely stunning pool. Located in North Park.

Palihotel San Diego

Palihotel reimagines the historic Hotel St. James, initially built in 1912; this vibrant and bustling mainstay is located in the heart of San Diego in the Gaslamp Quarter. They feature 122 guest rooms with a preppy, nautical-inspired charm, a new restaurant (French spot that is so cute), and a guest-exclusive roof deck offering daily social hours and the best views of the city. 

The Shoal Hotel La Jolla 

The Shoal at La Jolla Beach is just around the corner from the best surf spot in San Diego, Windansea Beach. The beach is a five-minute walk from here, and you’ll enjoy relaxing at their heated outdoor pool year-round. La Jolla Cove has numerous restaurants, galleries, and boutiques, and in La Jolla Village, this world-class destination awaits. 

Day 1: Downtown San Diego and Balboa Park

On the first day of the trip, you’ll explore downtown San Diego and learn about this fantastic city! There’s plenty to explore here, and you’ll love learning about it.  

Breakfast at Perry’s Cafe

Perry’s is a classic breakfast spot with great food, but they also do Mexican breakfast foods well! They serve classic, hearty, well-done breakfasts. They also have a big outdoor space.

walking in old town san diego
entrance to old town san diego

Morning in Old Town San Diego

From there, head over to Old Town San Diego to learn about the history of San Diego and get a glimpse into the past.

Old Town San Diego, known as the birthplace of California, is a historic neighborhood that offers a charming glimpse into the past. You’ll find restored adobe buildings, museums, and shops that showcase life during the Mexican and early American periods. Some of the museums and exhibits here are free, and there’s a lot to do, especially for families.

The area is also home to several Mexican restaurants and shops that fill the air with delicious smells! Mariachi bands often perform, and performers in period clothing walk around, answering questions and sharing the history of this area.

With colorful markets, historical reenactments, and unique boutiques offering fun souvenirs and Mexican goods, Old Town San Diego provides an immersive and entertaining experience celebrating the city’s cultural roots and diverse history!

Lunch at Lucha Libre

Not too far away, we’re getting a San Diego classic… a California burrito! Stop for lunch at an iconic California burrito spot called Lucha Libre

If you’re not familiar with California burritos (I wasn’t before visiting!), they traditionally include French fries, carne asada, guacamole, pico de gallo, and cheese wrapped in a tortilla.

Lucha Libre has been featured on several different food shows and is absolutely delicious! They’ve got a few locations you could stop at between Old Town San Diego and your next stop—Balboa Park.

botanical building san diego
walking in balboa park san diego

Afternoon in Balboa Park

Balboa Park, often called the cultural heart of San Diego, is a sprawling urban park that offers a blend of natural beauty, architectural grandeur, and rich cultural experiences. 

Balboa Park is beautiful and spans over 1200 acres, so spending a ton of time here is easy. The park has gorgeous architecture and is home to various museums and gardens to explore. Below are a few options (all included in the San Diego Go City Pass).

Things to Do in Balboa Park

  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • Fleet Science Center
  • San Diego Natural History Museum
  • San Diego Zoo
  • Botanical Building (currently closed for six months)
  • Japanese Friendship Garden
  • Museum of Us
  • Numerous walking paths and gardens shaded by towering trees

While there, I’d recommend the San Diego Zoo; it really is worth it! You could spend an entire afternoon just visiting the zoo. However, I’d add a visit to a history or art museum if you have time. We chose to visit the San Diego Museum of Art, which took about an hour to walk through and enjoy. It was nice to be able to pop into as many places as we wanted, thanks to the Go City Pass!

little italy in san diego

Dinner in Little Italy

Once home to San Diego’s tuna industry and generations of Italians, Little Italy continues the tradition of excellent Italian food in the heart of downtown San Diego. This neighborhood has plenty of cute restaurants, art galleries, and boutique shops to check out. The neighborhood is also home to one of the city’s best farmers markets, the weekly Little Italy Mercato (Saturday from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm and every Wednesday from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm).

Spending an evening in Little Italy will be quieter and offers some award-winning restaurant options like Juniper & Ivy, a Michelin-recognized restaurant that features dishes showcasing seasonal ingredients. For something more traditional, check out the family-owned and operated by the third generation Mona Lisa, which has been on the block since 1973.

After dinner, check out the Carousel Bar for some fun drinks to end the evening! This immersive restaurant includes a bar built inside a beautifully decorated rotating carousel built in 1881. 

Pro-tip: San Diego has a pretty decent happy hour sceneMany restaurants and bars offer great happy hour deals on food and drinks, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. This can be an excellent way to enjoy great food and drinks at a lower cost!

Day 2: La Jolla, Coastal Views, and Hikes

On day two, we’re exploring the wildlife and beaches that San Diego is so well known for. This day’s itinerary is filled with lots of adventure!
 

Breakfast at Shore House Kitchen

To start your second day, start in La Jolla Shores at Shore House Kitchen. This is a great spot for grab-and-go coffee and pastries, but they also have a full breakfast and brunch menu, so you have options here depending on your style. I tend to go for a small/light breakfast while I’m traveling.

kayaking in la jolla
kayaking in la jolla cove with everyday california san diego
inside la jolla sea cave

Kayaking through Sea Caves in La Jolla

La Jolla, often referred to as “The Jewel” of San Diego, is a picturesque coastal community known for its wildlife and as one of the most picturesque spots in San Diego.

La Jolla is home to a wide variety of sea life, including sea turtles, sea lions, dolphins, whales, and many different fish. There are four different micro-habitats. Each habitat has unique characteristics that give other animals the resources to thrive and call our underwater park their home.

One of the best ways to experience the wildlife here is to head out on a kayaking adventure with Everyday California.

Our sea cave kayaking with them was outstanding! We saw sea lions, dolphins, and lots of fish. The whole experience was a lot of fun and definitely a bucket list item. I would recommend spending your morning adventuring with them!

A kayaking tour in La Jolla is also available on the Go City Pass.

the cottage la jolla san diego
sandwich from cheese shop san diego

Lunch in La Jolla

For lunch, choose one of the following options, depending on what you did for breakfast and how hungry you are! On my last trip, we spent two days exploring La Jolla, and these two spots ended up being our favorites.
 
1. The Cottage: amazing brunch here, especially the French toast!
2. Cheese Shop: Mom-and-pop shop sells specialty cheeses, homemade sandwiches & cookies in a quaint, retro nook
la jolla cliffs san diego
la jolla beach coastal walk in san diego

Early Afternoon La Jolla Coastal Walk or Shopping

After you’ve grabbed some food, spend some time in La Jolla. There are many boutiques, shops, and art galleries to stop in. You could also choose to see more of the beautiful coastlines.

From La Jolla Shores, you can stroll along the Coastal Walk Trail to take in the views of La Jolla Cove. This is a picturesque spot with really amazing tide pools at the end of the trail and plenty of sea lions you can watch basking in the sun or going for a swim.

On the Coastal Walk, you’ll also see the famous La Jolla Sea Caves and can stop in Jimmy’s Cave to see one from a different perspective than kayaking! The lines can be long here, so be warned that this will take some time.

Pro tip: If you want to explore the tide pools, make sure you visit during low tide. Getting to the pools is dangerous during high tide, and the water is higher.

Hiking in Torrey Pines or Point Loma

Later in the afternoon, head out on an actual hike! Both Torrey Pines and Point Loma are great places for a hike. It all depends on what you’re most interested in seeing and doing! Below is more about each place to help you make a decision.
torrey pines nature preserve beach
hiking in torrey pines san diego

Option 1: Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines, located in La Jolla, San Diego, is a stunning coastal area renowned for its natural beauty and unique ecosystems. Home to the rare Torrey pine tree, this area offers a blend of picturesque landscapes, diverse wildlife, and recreational opportunities.

The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a protected area that preserves the natural habitat of the Torrey pine, one of the rarest pine trees in the world. The reserve features:

  • Hiking Trails: Various trails offer breathtaking views of the coastline, rugged cliffs, and serene beaches.
  • Flora and Fauna: Native plants, including the Torrey pine, wildflowers, and sage scrub, and wildlife like mule deer, rabbits, and numerous bird species.
  • Visitor Center: Information about the reserve’s natural and cultural history, with exhibits and guided tours.
  • Beach: Just below the cliffs of the reserve, Torrey Pines State Beach is perfect for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing.
cabrillo national monument light house san diego
point loma tide pools san diego

Option 2: Point Loma 

One of Point Loma’s key attractions, the Cabrillo National Monument, commemorates the landing of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast in 1542. The National Park Service manages it and has limited hours, so ensure you enter with plenty of time left, as it closes at 5 pm.

  • Historic Exhibits: Displays about Cabrillo’s expedition and the early history of California.
  • Old Point Loma Lighthouse: A restored lighthouse from the mid-19th century with exhibits about maritime history.
  • Tide Pools: Accessible tide pools where visitors can explore marine life at low tide.
  • Panoramic Views: Spectacular views of San Diego Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the downtown skyline.

The other key area of Point Loma to visit after is Sunset Cliffs. This coastal park features rugged cliffs, sea caves, and stunning sunsets. It’s a popular spot for:

  • Walking and Hiking: Trails along the cliffs offer dramatic ocean views.
  • Photography and sunset: Ideal for capturing scenic landscapes and ocean vistas.
  • Picnicking: Areas to relax and enjoy the natural beauty.
  • Sunset: Watch the sunset, bring a picnic, and eat here for dinner if that’s your vibe over Gaslamp.

Evening in Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter is a historic, lively neighborhood full of restaurants and bars. At night, there are also a lot of popular clubs here. This area is more touristy and caters to out of towners. However, there are many beautiful places to grab a drink and food, so it’s still worth mentioning here as an option! After all, if you’re reading this, you are a visitor!

Try a meal at one of the popular restaurants, such as Gaslamp Fish House for seafood or Cafe Sevilla for amazing tapas.

For bars, try out Ginger’s, an underground escape from the active nightlife found on Gaslamp’s hottest corner of Fifth and Market with a variety of Gin and Vodka drinks and a cozy atmosphere. If you’re interested in Tequila and Mezcal, try Metl!

If you want something fun to do in Gaslamp for the evening that isn’t a bar, consider a tour! Below are a few options:

view of coast from point loma san diego

Day 3: Beaches and Relaxation

Now that we’ve explored, we’re taking day three to relax a bit! Spend some time just chilling on your last day with some of these great activities.
 

Coffee Shop Breakfast

There are lots of great coffee shops in San Diego; depending on where you’re staying, choose an excellent coffee shop where you’re at. Below are a few I like by neighborhood:

  • Selva Coffee House (Point Loma)
  • Bird Rock Coffee Roasters (La Jolla, Bressi Ranch, Little Italy, Torrey Pines, Morena, Pacific Beach)
  • Superbloom (Mission Bay)

Relax at a Spa or Bike the Coast

We’re back to options! If you’re looking for a fully relaxing day, choose a spa, or if you want a little adventure, bike along the coast! More on both options below.

four moon spa carlsbad near san diego
entrance to four moon spa near san diego

Option 1: Relax at a Spa

One thing you’ll notice when researching San Diego is there’s no shortage of incredible and unique spa experiences. Choose a spot to relax and enjoy your last morning of three days in San Diego. Below are some unique and beautiful spas:

  • Four Moon Spa (amazing massages, salt soaks, and sound bath meditation)
  • The Spa at Estancia La Jolla (lush gardens and Mediterranean vibes)
  • SpaTerre at Kona Kai Resort & Spa (unique spa treatments like Ayurvedic oil massage or a Javanese massage with a cooling yogurt rub)
  • Spa Kingston (massages include a rose petal foot soak, warm neck pillow, and your choice of water, Champagne, or tea)
carlsbad state beach cliffs near san diego

Option 2: Bike Tour or Rentals

If you’re looking for some more views and something a little more active, consider joining a bike tour or renting bikes on your own. Both are great options and can be found north of San Diego along Carlsbad Beach and up to Oceanside. You can also find several bike rentals on Coronado Island.

Take in coastal views, get out of the city, and take in the fresh sea air! Bike rental option is included in the Go City Passor choose an option below:

Lunch

You must get seafood while in San Diego, so head to Fish 101 after your morning for some fantastic local seafood. We loved the oysters and fresh fish here. They have two locations to choose from, and you’ll love the relaxed atmosphere.

carlsbad state beach with surfers

Afternoon at the Beach

End your time in San Diego with a visit to the beach. There are plenty of great beaches in San Diego to spend your time at, so it’s all about choosing one that you would enjoy or are close to, depending on where your morning ended. If you want more adventure, take a surf lesson or rent a board at the beach! Surf board rentals are included in the  Go City Pass.

Here are a few beaches to choose from:

  1. Coronado Beach: Iconic Hotel del Coronado, wide sandy shores, gentle waves.
  2. Mission Beach: Boardwalk, Belmont Park amusement park, lively atmosphere. Good for surfing!
  3. Pacific Beach: Vibrant nightlife, popular among young people. Good for surfing!
  4. Ocean Beach: Dog-friendly, relaxed vibe, Ocean Beach Pier
  5. Solana Beach: Quiet, family-friendly beach, shopper’s mecca known locally as “The Avenue with Everything.”
evening by firepit at bar near san diego
dinner drinks on beach near san diego

Dinner at the Beach

After spending your day on the beach, end with a perfect sunset and end to the trip! There are lots of great spots for dinner near the beach. Choose a place near your stay or an extra special spot with a view! Here are a few:

Other Options for Your 3 Day San Diego Trip

Plan your perfect San Diego trip with this 3-day itinerary. Explore the beautiful beaches, attractions, and cultural landmarks.
Plan your perfect San Diego trip with this 3-day itinerary. Explore the beautiful beaches, attractions, and cultural landmarks.

I love visiting San Diego, and I hope that you will, too! This three-day itinerary is filled with my favorite spots and some of the coolest things to do on a trip. I hope you love San Diego as much as I do!

Meghan

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