The Perfect One Day San Diego Itinerary

San Diego is one of the top destinations in Southern California, known for its beautiful beaches, pleasant climate, and a variety of attractions and cultural landmarks. I’ve been to Southern California more times than I can count and can see why. While we will only scratch the surface with one day in San Diego, it gives you the chance to see some of the top highlights in the city! 

Often referred to as having one of the best climates in the United States, San Diego enjoys mild temperatures year-round, with plenty of sunshine. You’ll want to spend most of your time outside exploring this gorgeous city! Here’s how to spend one day in San Diego.

Table of Contents

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: The sun can be strong, even if it feels mild so bring a hat and sunscreen with you. You’ll also be doing a lot of walking, especially when visiting places like the San Diego Zoo and La Jolla, so wear comfortable walking shoes!
  3. Getting around: Because you have just one day and things are spread out, it’s best to rent a car or drive to San Diego for just the day.
  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 you’re 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!
  8. Spend more than a day: I know, this itinerary is for one day, but there’s some great day trips from San Diego and plenty of things to do to fill at least a 3 day itinerary! Consider spending more time if you can.

Morning

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

If you’re arriving early, grab an early breakfast at either the Cottage (amazing breakfast here, especially the french toast!) or Shorehouse Kitchen (great for grab and go coffee and pastries). 

From here, 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 and plenty of sea lions you can watch basking in the sun or going for a swim.

You’ll also see the famous La Jolla Sea Caves from here and can stop in Jimmy’s Cave to go inside one! The lines can be long here so be warned this will take some time to do.

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.

Choose an Adventure in La Jolla

Then, it’s time for an adventure! There are many different options for adventurous things to do in La Jolla that I’ll outline below. 

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

Activities in La Jolla:

  • Sea kayak tour into the caves
  • Rent a surfboard
  • Go snorkeling
  • Rent a paddleboard
  • Whale watching

You can find options included through the Go City Pass, or if you don’t get the pass, head to Everyday California! They offer rentals and tours in La Jolla that are so much fun. 

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Museum outfit from Rent the Runway (get 30% off with this link)

Mid-Day

After spending the morning in La Jolla, stop for lunch at an iconic California burrito spot called Lucha Libre. A California burrito includes (traditionally): 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 La Jolla and your next stop – Balboa Park.

From there, it’s time to head to 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 it’s easy to spend a ton of time here. The park has beautiful architecture and is home to a variety of museums and gardens to explore. Below are a few different options (all included in the San Diego Go City Pass) to choose from.

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 6 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! Plus one history or art museum. 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!

Late Afternoon

In the late afternoon, there are a few different things you could choose to do, depending on what you are most interested in! You really can’t go wrong here, but with just a day, it’ll be important to prioritize the things that interest you most.

For the History Lovers: Old Town San Diego

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. 
 
There are also several Mexican restaurants and shops here which fill the air with delicious smells! Mariachi bands often perform and performers walk around in period era clothing answering questions and sharing about the history of this area. 
 
Colorful markets, historical reenactments, and unique boutiques with fun souvenirs and Mexican goods provide an immersive and fun experience to celebrate San Diego’s cultural roots and diverse history!
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For the Beach Lovers: Coronado Island

If you love the beach and want to spend more time outside during your one day in San Diego, head over to Coronado Island via the Coronado Bridge. Once there, you can visit the iconic Hotel del Coronado, which opened in 1888, take a stroll along the wide sandy beach, and maybe even take a dip in the ocean.

Another popular thing to do on Coronado Island is rent jet skis or take a harbor cruise. You’ll get to know the history of San Diego on a cruise and take in the views! You can do this through a company like GetYourGuide or both jet skis/harbor cruises are included with the Go City Pass

This is a really relaxing way to spend the afternoon or even early evening! Nearby, Centennial Park offers San Diego skyline views so consider making a stop here as well. 

Dinner and Drinks

After your fun day exploring, its time to head to dinner and drinks! Depending on what you’re looking for, there are a few different areas of San Diego I’d recommend checking out for an evening.

Option 1: Gaslamp Quarter

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

Try a meal at one of the popular restaurants like 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 cozy atmosphere. If you’re interested in Tequila and Mezcal, try Metl!

Option 2: Little Italy

Once home to San Diego’s tuna industry and generations of Italians, Little Italy continues the tradition of amazing 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 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and every Wednesday from 9:30am to 1:30pm).

Spending an evening in Little Italy will be more quiet and offers some award winning restaurant options like Juniper & Ivy, a Michelin-recognized restaurant 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 scene. Many restaurants and bars offer great happy hour deals on food and drinks, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. This can be a good way to enjoy great food and drinks at a lower cost!

Planning a one-day trip to San Diego? Explore the city's top highlights, from stunning beaches to history, and make the most of your visit!
Planning a one-day trip to San Diego? Explore the city's top highlights, from stunning beaches to history, and make the most of your visit!

I hope this post has given you a ton of ideas for how to spend one day in San Diego! There’s so much to do and explore here that you’ll have a fun day no matter what.

Meghan

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