One day in San Diego is just enough time to experience some of the city’s best features. Be forewarned though, getting a taste of this southern California gem will likely have you planning a return trip, as the laid-back lifestyle and beach scene here are addictive.
From world-class beaches and surfing opportunities to intriguing museums and delicious culinary adventures to fuel it all, San Diego has something to appeal to every interest. Outdoor exploits abound. Visit the iconic San Diego Zoo, paddle your way through picturesque La Jolla Cove, or head for the local hiking trails with your camera.
Discover the best way to spend one day in San Diego with this ultimate itinerary.
8 a.m.: Eat Breakfast With a View in La Jolla
Kick off your incredible 24 hours in San Diego with a visit to one of the most beautiful neighborhoods. You’ll find breakfast options to satisfy any cravings in La Jolla, all while enjoying the gorgeous California coastal views.
For a sit-down breakfast and a classic La Jolla panorama, go for a table at Caroline’s Seaside Cafe by Giuseppe. The terrace is an optimal choice, although there’s not a bad seat in the house. Favorites include the pancakes, short rib hash and eggs, and the house-made bagels.
If a grab-and-go breakfast is more your speed, stop by Sugar and Scribe Bakery and take your meal out to the patio, or towards the ocean to gaze at the views while you eat. This classic San Diego bakery is known for its pastry bar and fresh breads, both made onsite.
Once you’ve had your fill, walk off your breakfast with a stroll along the coastal path. Starting at either The Cave Store, or at Prospect Street, the Historic Coast Walk Trail is a favorite of locals. The path winds along the bluffs, past caves, sea lions sunning on the rugged shore, sandy beaches, and viewing platforms.
Marvel at the views over the La Jolla Bay and on a clear day, the San Diego skyline. Along the way, make sure to take notice of the ecological reserve with interesting flora and fauna, too.
Pause and take photos at picturesque Goldfish Point; you might even spot some kayakers paddling on the water. Make sure to venture down into the mystical Sunny Jim Cave too, and afterward, browse The Cave Store for souvenirs.
A stop to greet the local seals and sea lions is a must, too. A large colony of these animals can be viewed at Point La Jolla at La Jolla Cove and the Children’s Pool. If your visit coincides with low tide, explore the famed tidepools at La Jolla Shores. Spot marine life such as crabs, mussels, sea anemones, and clams, to name a few.
10:30 a.m.: Visit The San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park
No trip to San Diego is complete without visiting iconic Balboa Park. Location of the zoo, botanical gardens, a carousel, and 17 museums, this destination should be on every traveler’s San Diego bucket list.
The world-renowned San Diego Zoo sprawls over 100 acres, with more than 12,000 animals and a plethora of thrilling experiences. A trip to the zoo is much more than a fun activity; tickets help to support the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the organization’s conservation efforts, too.
Although visiting this wildlife park could easily be an all-day affair, it’s possible to view a large selection of your favorite animals or participate in one of the tailored programs within a few hours.
Since it’s almost impossible to see all 650 species of wildlife in one day, choose sections of the zoo to visit based on the animals and their habitats that you’d most like to see. Head Down Under to the “Australian Outback” and view adorable koalas, and to the “Lost Forest” to see gorillas, hippos, and curious monkeys.
Observe polar bears in the “Northern Frontier” and giraffes and rhinos in the “Urban Jungle.” Penguin fans should head over to the “Africa Rocks” section where you can watch entertaining penguins bustling around.
African birds, leopards, and baboons are other highlights from this portion of the zoo. For an overall tour that covers 70 percent of the zoo, embark on the Discovery Tour. This guided venture will provide a fun and informative experience of the zoo in about an hour.
1:30 p.m.: Eat Your Way Through Little Italy
All that wildlife viewing will have worked up an appetite; luckily you won’t be too far from your next stop in Little Italy. This walkable San Diego downtown neighborhood is known for its amazing culinary and beverage options with an Italian flair and the lively atmosphere will sweep you off your feet.
Start your Little Italy experience at the Piazza della Famiglia, the historic heart of this charming district, complete with an intricately tiled, tiered fountain. Stroll the pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets lined with authentic Italian restaurants, breweries, and wineries.
Sample bites at the Little Italy Food Hall, and bring some of your favorite items home after a stop in Mona Lisa Italian Foods. If you happen to visit the neighborhood on a Saturday, you’ll catch the tail end of the farmer’s market (Little Italy Mercato).
A culinary tour is a fantastic way to explore the neighborhood with a knowledgeable and local guide who can lead you to the best spots. Learn to eat like an Italian, sampling the alluring flavors of northern and southern Italian cuisine, sipping wine varieties, and sampling craft beers and cocktails, or feast on wood-fired pizzas while learning about the history of this favorite food.
A tour is the best way to learn about this amazing district of San Diego and is sure to fill up your stomach as well as your heart.
4:30 p.m.: Shop in Old Town
Step back in time to San Diego’s origins in Old Town. The city’s oldest neighborhood and California’s first European settlement in the entire state has much to offer by way of museums, historic points of interest, dining, and shopping.
Marvel at the Mission-style architecture that pays homage to the city’s Mexican heritage. As you stroll through the area, you’ll have the opportunity to see historic landmarks such as The Whaley House, Old Adobe Chapel, and the Mormon Battalion. Old Town is also the perfect spot to peruse the boutiques within the area and stop for a happy hour drink al fresco.
Venture through Old Town State Park within the neighborhood, where you can learn about the area’s history through various educational sites. Uncover collectible souvenirs throughout the shops here in the park as well as in Main Street Village.
Old books, Indian jewelry and art, textiles, hand-blown glass, and silver, and many other artisan products are on offer while shopping in the area’s myriad quirky boutiques. Another great stop for shoppers is within the Bazaar del Mundo, a collection of shops with more unique and hand-crafted items for home and personal use from all over the world.
Your shopping excursion isn’t complete without a cocktail or mocktail at one of the Old Town watering holes. The neighborhood is known for live mariachi music and a vibrant atmosphere, best embraced from the patio of one of the famous eateries. Treat yourself to one of Casa Guadalajara’s giant margaritas or choose from one of Cafe Coyote’s 100 tequila brands.
6 p.m.: Watch the Sunset at Mission Bay Beach
Stretch your legs on San Diego’s famous boardwalk. The two-mile long Mission Bay Boardwalk is an ideal spot for a sunset stroll along the beach. Watch surfers tackle the waves, kites flying high above, beach volleyball games, and fishermen casting the lines off the Mission Bay jetty. Bike rentals are also available if you prefer to cycle your way along the boardwalk.
Whatever you choose, this destination is a quintessential San Diego experience. You’ll have a front-row seat for Mother Nature’s evening show as the sky fades to burnt orange and the sun dips below the horizon.
If you have time, hop on the wooden roller coaster in Belmont Park along the boardwalk and catch a thrill. Starting in South Mission Bay and working your way north will position you perfectly to end your day in vibrant and hip Pacific Beach.
8 p.m.: Enjoy Authentic Tacos in Pacific Beach
Round out your amazing day in San Diego with a stop in the neighborhood of Pacific Beach. Order a classic fish taco and check out the booming craft brewery scene as you unwind and reflect on your fun-filled day. You can’t go wrong at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood just off Mission Boulevard, known for delicious fish tacos; if you want to try the favorite, get the Tacos Especial, stuffed with shrimp, smoked fish, and scallops.
Wash down your tacos with some local craft beers. Try Pacific Beach Alehouse Kitchen & Brewery’s award-winning brews like the Slomo Saison and Law Street Lager. Sip from the second-floor deck where you can watch the hustle and bustle of Pacific Beach from above.
At Amplified Ale Works Kitchen and Bar you’ll be treated to a fine selection of lighter beers like the Golden Strong Ale and American Wheat. Last, the SD Taproom has a focus on craft beer local to San Diego and offers a wide array of brews to sample on their inviting patio.
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