San Diego is a big city that has a small town feel with perfect year round weather, making it easy to understand how this gorgeous SoCal city became the 7th largest in the United States. San Diego stole my heart in February 2018 when I visited for the first time as an adult, so I was grateful to return for 5 more days before the start of my Semester at Sea voyage last month.
One of the things that stands out to me most about San Diego is the laid-back culture mixed with the active urban vibes which really gives the city a strong sense of place. Where LA is hectic and bustling, San Diego is busy yet chill. San Diego offers opportunities to have fun for any type of visitor thanks to its miles of beach coastline, interesting history and attractions, amazing weather and of course, delicious cuisine.
From downtown to natural scenery to neighborhoods, my 3 day travel itinerary of San Diego will make sure that you visit all the best things that San Diego has to offer!
Day One: City Life
Morning: USS Midway Museum
Admittedly, I am not the most patriotic person in the world so it might come as a surprise that I visited the a military museum during my 3 days in San Diego, but it’s true! San Diego has been home to a large contingent of the armed forces, predominantly Airforce and Navy, for nearly a century and it is a strong part of the local community, so it is worth exploring if you are remotely interested in American history.
The USS Midway Museum is located along the waterfront directly west of Little Italy, the next stop on this 3 day itinerary of San Diego. The Midway is one of the few decommissioned aircraft carriers open to the public and is certainly an interesting stop. Obviously the museum is presented from a pro-military perspective so take everything with a grain of salt as there is often much more to the story than is presented. You can take self-guided tours through the living quarters, flight control towers and the brig of the Midway for a close-up view of what life is like for service members of the US navy.
Afternoon: Little Italy
Little Italy is one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Diego, dating back to the early 1900s when it was a fisherman’s outpost for Italian immigrants. It has since grown to over 50 square blocks! San Diego’s Little Italy is the primary culinary neighborhood in the city and is an ideal spot to grab some lunch (or dinner if you lose track of time!).
Eating your way through Little Italy is at the top of my must-do list in San Diego!
You can certainly expect to find fabulous Italian restaurants, but there are plenty of other options to choose from if you aren’t feeling Italian. Ironside Fish and Oyster is a stunning art deco meets modern industrial restaurant with excellent happy hour options, while Crack Shack offers a more casual yet trendy vibe with their fried chicken sandwiches which you can eat on their massive patio while playing bocce.
If you’re looking for something a little healthier, Herb & Eatery is a farm-to-table inspired spot that offers coffee, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods through the day along with an adorable gourmet market for unique gifts. For a truly exceptional dining experience, don’t miss dinner at Top Chef winner Richard Blais’s restaurant Juniper & Ivy.
Not just for foodies, Little Italy also offers numerous boutiques and galleries to explore (or stave off your food coma!). I loved all the cute women’s clothes at Vocabulary, and Vitreum is perfect for gifts like ceramics and succulents. Boomerang for Modern is a gorgeous home decor and interior design shop where you can get some serious inspiration and Stroll is another good clothing boutique for the perfect bohemian beach look!
Evening: Gaslamp District
I wouldn’t blame you if you wound up spending the night in Little Italy given the copious assortment of awesome eateries, but in case you want to explore another area of San Diego, the Gaslamp District is a great choice. The Gaslamp District is another name for San Diego’s “downtown” and is the perfect spot to end your first day in the city.
This area offers the best options for nightlife in San Diego with plenty of live music and bars to explore. Encompassing a roughly 16 block radius, the Gaslamp district has traditional Victorian architecture mixed with trendy construction to create a unique mashup of styles. If you didn’t find the food you were hoping for in Little Italy, then Gaslamp is your next best choice with several fine dining spots and rooftop bars to choose from.
For hyper local and fresh food, Searsucker is a stunning, cavernous restaurant in the heart of the Gaslamp District. We loved their ahi tuna poke and caesar salad. Puesto is a popular, upscale taco spot near the waterfront with an ala-carte taco menu that will leave you wanting more! If you’re looking for more of a bar vibe, there are plenty of breweries in the Gaslamp such as barleymash, Rustic Root or Half Door Brewing Company that are all worth a visit.
Day Two: Natural Scenery
Morning: Coronado Island
Located on San Diego’s southwest side, Coronado Island welcomes thousands of visitors per year thanks to their miles and miles of stunning beach coastline. This is one of the best beaches in San Diego because of its flat, wide profile and perfect, soft sand. You can start your day with a walk along the water’s edge or bike along the paved walking path instead.
One of the most famous landmarks in San Diego is the Hotel del Coronado, a historic (and haunted!) hotel located on Coronado beach, which is a perfect place to visit on second day of your 3 day itinerary in San Diego.
While you could stay at the Hotel Coronado, for what I’m sure is a lovely stay, most people can’t afford the price tag of this 5 star property. So if you still want to see this essential landmark, consider going on their hotel tour, sip a cocktail at their beach bar Del Beach or enjoy their Sunday brunch. The brunch is rated one of the best in the city, You don’t need to be a guest at the hotel to attend and you can enjoy the grounds and stunning scenery afterwards!
Afternoon: Balboa Park
Located in the heart of San Diego, Balboa Park is a must-see destination in the city dating back to the 1800s. The 1,200 acre park is a perfect place to start your 3 day San Diego travel itinerary because it offers a little something for everyone to enjoy. Balboa Park is home to countless walking paths, several museums, botanical gardens, and even the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Many of these attractions are free to visitors, so if you’re on a budget, Balboa Park is the perfect place to explore because you can see a lot without spending a dime!
Parking inside the park is expensive and sparse, so I recommend parking somewhere along Balboa Drive and then walking across the Cabrillo Bridge along Prado Drive to enter the park. One thing that stood out to me about Balboa is the Spanish-style architecture. It is unexpected yet beautiful, inspired by the Spanish maritime explorer who the park is named after.
Many of the main attractions in Balboa Park are along the Prado, including my favorite, the Botanical Gardens. Home to 2,000 varieties of plants, the scenery inside the garden is beautiful! I stayed inside snapping photos for almost an hour, even the domed building itself is rather small. There are so many nooks and crannies to discover!
Evening: Sunset in La Jolla
La Jolla is a small seaside neighborhood on the north end of San Diego which has become famous for its rugged coastline, stunning sunsets and of course, the sea lions. It is a popular spot for sunset, so be sure to get there a little early for ideal viewing (and parking).
Nearly all the attractions in La Jolla are natural scenery, including Tide Pools, Caves and the Cove which stretch along a 3 mile stretch of coastline so it’s easy to kill a few hours before the sun goes down. I loved seeing the tide some in and out, trapping little critters in the tide pools for easy viewing. For some food after the sun goes down, don’t miss a stop at Galaxy Taco. Their margaritas and blue corn tortillas are excellent with an adorable little patio to enjoy.
Day Three: Neighborhoods
Morning: Barrio Logan
For your last day in San Diego, you’re going to explore a few of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city. I recommend starting in Barrio Logan, a traditionally hispanic neighborhood located along the water on the city’s south side. This was one of my favorite areas in San Diego because it has such a palpable local culture which is very visible through countless street art murals that spread all around the neighborhood.
Begin your day with a drink at Por Vida, a cool neighborhood coffee shop, and then wander through Chicano Park. This park makes use of reclaimed space from under the San Diego-Coronado highway overpass, offering an endlessly changing assortment of street art murals. Painted by a variety of Chicano artists from San Diego and beyond, this park really tells the story of the neighborhood and the identity of its hispanic residents. I was so moved by the murals and loved seeing community groups gathering in the park for weekly get-togethers.
Once done at the park, you can make your way south along Logan Avenue to discover a few local shops and restaurants, including the well-known taco joint SALUD. I wrote all about Salud and other San Diego taco spots in my write-up of the quintessential taco places to try.
Afternoon: Shopping and Snacking in North Park
North Park is the next neighborhood to explore while traveling in San Diego because it has a delightful mix of coffee shops, cute boutiques and yummy restaurants that can easily fill an entire day. It’s fun to just wander around and discover adorable spots, but I’ll give you a few recommendations to get you on your way.
For food, I would recommend doing one of my favorite things—bourdaining! Named in honor of Anthony Bourdain, the act of bourdaining means that you bounce around between different restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, etc to try 1 dish from each spot. This way, you get a sample of all the best spots in the area! Some of my favorite spots in North Park include Nomad Donuts for creative doughnut creations, City Tacos for authentic yet delicious tacos, Urban Solace for a more upscale vibe and Holsem Coffee for some solid cold brews and baked goods.
As for shops, two spots that you can’t miss in North Park are Pigment and Artelexia. Pigment is a home and garden shop that is impeccably merchandised with stunning displays and a grammable selection of items throughout the store. You can find perfect gifts for kids, family and really anyone on your list! Artelexia feels like you’ve stepped into Mexico, offering an array of Mexican treasures such as embroidered pillows, recipe books, painted pottery and much more. The inside of the shop features a stunning Frida Kahlo mural that was actually painted by a friend of a friend!
Evening: Ocean Beach
When in San Diego, you feel guilty missing even a single sunset so head out to the beach again for your last sunset in San Diego. This time, you’ll watch the sun go down in Ocean Beach, a laid-back beach neighborhood that is full of quirky people-watching and cozy beach restaurants.
If you didn’t already know this, California is definitely a dog place and the beaches tend to be pretty dog friendly so you will certainly see some pups pouncing in the waves if you sunset in Ocean Beach. They are supposed to be in the dog-beach area, but during my visit there were plenty of people not following that rule.
At the end of Niagara Avenue, you can walk onto the Ocean Beach Pier for a truly spectacular sunset view. It will be crowded, but it’s fun to meander through the crowds leisurely enjoying a little snack or ice cream treat. If the pier isn’t your thing, grab a few picnic snacks and eat on the beach. Personally, I got It’s Raw Poke Shop for take out to eat on the beach and it was the perfect dinner!
Whether you are in San Diego for 1 day or 1 week, this city is sure to steal your heart with its perfect weather, beautiful natural scenery, adorable neighborhoods and delightfully delicious restaurants.