3 Days in San Diego: Everything You Should Know
San Diego is a huge city filled with outlying suburbs, a bustling downtown area, and fantastic attractions. Your 3 days in San Diego could include getting to know the San Diego Bay area or becoming mesmerized at the best spot to see the stunning San Diego skyline. Plan to get a taste of some of the major attractions and areas so you have a feel for the culture and vibe of this southern California city.
San Diego is the place where cultures collide to make it a unique and exciting city to visit. With Mexico only a stone’s throw away (don't miss trying authentic Mexican food), you will get caught up in discovering the intricate history of the area and its people. Spend your 3 days in San Diego exploring Balboa Park filled with 17 museums and art galleries and also the San Diego Zoo.
Visit the historic Gaslight Quarter, 16 blocks of wonderfully restored Victoria-style homes and buildings. Head to Mission Beach for a morning or afternoon of fun in the sun and then explore Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores. To round out a perfect day of relaxing on the beach head to Sunset Cliffs to see one of San Diego’s vibrant and iconic sunsets.
If you have time, organize a day trip to Coronado Island, including the famous Hotel Del Coronado. Beach towns, like Ocean Beach, are worth a look too. Consider rounding out your 3 days in San Diego by checking out the USS Midway Museum then head to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserves for a few hours of outdoor fun. No matter what your likes or dislikes are, you will definitely find plenty to keep you busy during your stay in San Diego.
Traveler tip: With 3 days in San Diego, you'll no doubt be rushing from place to place. If your backpacks or large day bags start to slow you down, look for San Diego luggage storage. It's a convenient way to stow your stuff while you see the sights. Pick your belongings up at the end of the day and head back to your accommodation.
San Diego Itinerary – Day 1
Morning: Museum hop at Balboa Park
Balboa Park is only about two miles from the city center in downtown San Diego and is full of interesting and fun things to see and do, including 17 museums. The park covers 1,200 acres and is always an active hotspot for fun such as hiking, biking, picnicking, and of course museum hopping. The Botanical Building, while not a museum, is a great place to start your tour of the park. It is one of the biggest lath structures in the United States.
Those who love art will want to visit the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego Museum of Art, and even the Mingei International Museum. Families will find the San Diego Model Railroad Museum great fun. The Museum of the Man and Fleet Science Center are also lesser-known museums that you will want to check out.
One of the more popular museums is the San Diego Air & Space Museum which showcases the naval heritage of not just the city but the United States. Learn about the development of air and space travel from the 20th and 21st centuries. You will even get to see the Apollo XI Space Pen and the balloon that was flown in 1783 by the Montgolfier Brothers.
Another popular gem in Balboa Park is the San Diego Natural History Museum with five floors to explore. The huge dinosaur bones are a particular favorite with children as are the interactive exhibits throughout the museum.
Afternoon: Explore the San Diego Zoo
You will want to stay in Balboa Park and spend time at the San Diego Zoo. The zoo is over 100 acres and is one of the biggest zoos in the United States. It also has over 3,500 endangered or rare animals including giant pandas, elephants, koalas, and polar bears. Stroll along the Tiger Trail, Monkey Trail, or Hippo Trail to learn more about the species that call the zoo home.
You will not want to walk the entire zoo so take advantage of the guided bus tour and the Skyfari aerial tram giving you a breathtaking birds-eye look at the various exhibits and animal enclosures below. Sit down and enjoy an animal encounter or show and duck into a few of the 4-D theaters to watch some interesting educational films.
Night: Dine in Balboa Park and discover the Gaslamp Quarter
Head to the heart of Balboa Park and check out the courtyard with some of the best dining choices in the park. Prado at Balboa Park offers delicious entrees including seared duck breast and quinoa along with creative cocktails that will help you relax. You can also dine at Albert’s Restaurant located inside the San Diego Zoo.
Food trucks also tend to congregate at Balboa Park, and you can usually find a long line of them on the Plaza de Panama. You can find anything from authentic Mexican street food to Italian pizzas to sweet treats. In the summer, every Friday sees a pop-up food court and a mind-boggling amount of food trucks.
When you are looking for terrific nightlife and entertainment, the Gaslamp Quarter is 16 blocks of fully restored Victorian-style homes and buildings. You can stroll along and check out the art galleries and shops.
The Horton Plaza, an outdoor shopping center is a good place to find essentials you may have forgotten to pack or even pick up a few interesting souvenirs. The Gaslamp Quarter plays host to several events throughout the year, so you may even visit during a fun and interesting event such as Comic-Con or the Rock and Roll Marathon.
San Diego Itinerary – Day 2
Morning: Hang out at La Jolla Shores
Day 2 of your 3 days in San Diego should be filled with fun in the sun while you hit some of the best beaches. Located only about 12 miles from downtown San Diego, La Jolla Shores is a popular place for families to go and relax. With its gentle surf and abundant marine life, it is popular for locals and tourists and the best part is that it is free.
If you get bored hanging out at the beach, head across the street to the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve. There are two artificial reefs that were created to attract marine animals. The perimeter of the reefs is marked with buoys and you cannot fish or collect seashells in that area. La Jolla Cove is one of the best places to see the sea lions.
Afternoon: Move to Mission Beach and Pacific Beach
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are connected by one big shoreline and are popular for locals to hang out. Because they are close to several attractions, Mission and Pacific Beaches attract a lot of tourists. The beach and water are not pristine but still is a great place to spend time, stretch out on the beach, or catch a few waves.
Head up to the boardwalk for refreshments, gear rentals, and shopping. You will have to contend with skaters and cyclists along the boardwalk, but you will enjoy exploring just the same. The Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster, is one of the stars of the boardwalk and a National Historic Landmark.
Night: Dine near Mission Beach before the sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
After an afternoon at Mission Beach and Pacific Beach head over to Saska’s, the original steakhouse which has been in business since 1951. Hand-cut steaks are the star of this restaurant but the prime rib and shrimp cocktails or Alaskan king crab legs are definitely worth the steakhouse price.
The best way to end day 2 is by watching the color explosion of a San Diego sunset at the legendary Sunset Cliffs. The cliffs are located next to the Cabrillo Monument which is another thing to cross off your list.
Bring your camera and snap breathtaking photos as the sun dips down into the ocean. You can easily reach the cliffs by taking the iconic trolley from downtown to the Old Town Transit Center and then hop on the 35 bus to Sunset Cliffs.
San Diego Itinerary – Day 3
Morning: Visit the USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway Museum is a must-see during your 3 days in San Diego. The longest-serving aircraft carrier in the United States was officially retired and turned into a unique museum experience. The USS Midway Museum saw over 225,000 sailors come on board; this is just one of the fun facts you will learn when you visit.
There are 60 exhibits on board as well as 29 fully restored aircraft. Some of the aircraft saw service in World War II, the Korean War, and Operation Desert Storm. Ask for the audio tour while you take a self-guided walk through the museum; it will give you better insight into what you are seeing and will learn so much more.
Stroll along and check out the engine room, the sleeping quarters of the crew, the jail, the flight deck, and the primary control room. The flight deck is four acres long and is a massive sight to see. Check out the flight simulators and then grab a bite to eat at the on-site café before heading out to explore more.
Afternoon: Fun at the Maritime Museum of San Diego
Keep the maritime fun going with a trip to the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Spend the afternoon enjoying hands-on experiences while getting a closer look at San Diego as lively seaport. Tour the fully restored vessels including old-time sailboats to submarines and even get to check out the Star of India, the oldest active ship in the entire world.
After spending time in the museum, sign up for a boat tour on one of the museum’s boats. You can request a specific boat or take whichever one comes available first. The Californian is a part of the museum’s nautical experience and is the official tall ship of California. Old Town San Diego is a fun place to spend time.
Night: Explore Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and dine at the Lodge at Torrey Pines
While you will not get to see everything the Torrey Pines Natural Reserve has to offer, you will like seeing the oceanfront reserve and several Torrey Pine trees, the rarest pine tree in the United States. You will be able to check out one of the last salt marshes in SoCal. There are even waterfowl refuges.
Take a hike along the Guy Fleming Trail, which is a 0.7-mile hike and looks out over the ocean. There is also the Razor Point Trail that is 1.4 miles and is a great place to see more of the reserve. If hiking along the rougher trails is not for you, a stroll along the Torrey Pines Beach may be just the thing.
There are two dining options when you finish exploring the reserve and are ready for dinner. The A.R. Valentien is an elegant fine-dining restaurant that may not be suitable if you have been out playing all day and are a little disheveled. But if you plan ahead and bring along a change of clothes, you can feel refreshed and enjoy a wonderful meal.
The Grill at Torrey Pines is a more relaxed and laid-back setting where you can kick back with a local craft beer and hang out with friends on your last night in San Diego. The outdoor patio is a fantastic place to watch the sunset and be warmed by the fire pits when the sun dips low in the sky.
San Diego Any Time of Day
When you visit San Diego, you will want to have a plan in place so you get to see several great places including Coronado Beach and the Pacific Ocean. Checking out San Diego's highlights is a good way to go about your exploration of the city.
You will miss seeing the Joshua Tree National Park and the Point Loma Lighthouse if you follow our plan exactly, but that just means you need to spend another day in San Diego so you can see those sites and so much more!
Still planning your visit to San Diego? Check out these guides for more ideas!