From hop-forward brews and authentic cuisine to a variety of beach scenes and pristine green spaces, America’s Finest City offers an experience for every visitor. Even if you’ll only be in town a short while, daytime stimulation abounds. This guide reveals the best touristy and non-touristy options, helping adventurers of all types decide how to spend a day in San Diego.
All set? Let’s begin!
Your day adventure in San Diego should include many things, but the beach is non-negotiable. Your options include the fun and party-friendly Pacific Beach, the busy sliver of Mission Beach, hippie-centric Ocean Beach, Blacks Beach (read: nude beach) in La Jolla, Imperial Beach or Coronado Beach. While you might find the water unbearably cold to splash around in, rent a wetsuit and learn to hang ten. San Diego beaches provide great surfing waves but at a size still suitable for a novice. Or you could find a good vantage point in the sand and people watch the day away.
Daycay fun at Belmont Park
Located in the Mission Bay area, this fun amusement oceanfront park dates from the early 1900s and its roller coaster was built around the 1920s. Stroll around, grab something to eat, enjoy some rides, and play some of the exciting carnival games.
Stroll the Gaslamp Quarter
While this historic neighborhood is known for its old-fashioned gas lamps, the main reason tourists come to the Gaslamp Quarter is for the downtown buzz; restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels fill the 16.5 block neighborhood. The Keating Hotel is one such option that’ll have you in the heart of the Gaslamp and positioned to explore.
Explore Seaport Village
After a stroll through the Gaslamp, continue to the waterfront and Seaport Village. The waterfront stretches all the way from the Convention Center to Little Italy, where you’ll find a superb water park. A walk along the waterfront is lovely by itself but if you don’t feel up to it, pedicabs are available. On the way you’ll see the USS Midway and the popular Unconditional Surrender statue, which commemorates the end of WWII.
In the heart of Seaport Village, you’ll expectedly find some fresh catch, along with a broad mix of shops and talented street performers. As you near Little Italy you’ll come across the Maritime Museum, which holds one of the biggest collections of historical sea vessels in the U.S. The museum features Star of India, a pirate-looking ship (the oldest one still in existence) that sailed around the world 21 times. Wow!
Enjoy Balboa Park, museums, and the San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo is not only a world-famous home to thousands of animals, but it was also a pioneer in building cageless, open-air exhibits for them. You’ll find the zoo right in the center of Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre sprawling space that marks the center of the city.
Boasting of museums (such as Veterans Museum, Museum of Man, Natural History Museum, Museum of Art, Model Railroad Museum, History Center, Mineral and Gem Society, Automotive Museum, Air & Space Museum); theaters (The Old Globe, Junior Theatre, Starlight); gardens (Japanese Friendship Garden, Cactus and Succulent Garden, Zoro Garden, Palm Canyon, Desert Garden, Alcazar Garden, Australian Garden); and tons of gorgeous architecture, Spanish colonial that shows its brilliance all year round, Balboa Park should be on every traveler’s agenda.
Eat Yourself into a Nap
Sitting on the border of Mexico, it’s no wonder San Diego has some of the most authentic Mexican cuisine in the country, including mouth-watering fish tacos. However, the city offers plenty of other diverse options that will have any foodie unanimously bowing for approval.
From the casual must-tries like burger mecca Hodads, food-and-brew Pizza Port, and Hawaiian-Japanese fusion brunch spot Leilani’s, to more elegant scenes like Italian wine bar Ambrogio15 and all things seafood, steak and crab at Truluck—San Diego satisfies all types of palates at various price points. Hungry for more? Head to the repurposed old Naval training base at Liberty Public Market in Point Loma to sample local delicacies and stroll around.
Discover La Jolla
Be sure to visit La Jolla during your San Diego daycation. Between seals and sea lions to cormorants, pelicans, and (of course) friendly seagulls, you’ll see lots of cute animals around. It’s important to understand that their space must be respected in order to keep them safe and healthy.
Surrounded by the ocean and backed by Mt. Soledad’s steep slopes, La Jolla certainly deserves its reputation for awesome views. Admire the natural beauty, check out the lovely boutiques, greet the sun, and even engage in an outdoor activity. You can jog, swim, scuba dive, hike, or even rent a kayak and venture in various caves along the shore.
Head to Cabrillo National Monument & Point Loma
Cabrillo National Monument celebrates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to step foot on the U.S. west coast. Enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the San Diego skyline and if you’re lucky, watch migrating grey whales through the many binocular viewpoints. Finish by checking out Point Loma’s amazing old lighthouse.
But the neighborhood of Point Loma is no slouch, either. In fact, it was recently rated as one of the hottest neighborhoods in the U.S, according to Lonely Planet. Check out the beautiful homes, idyllic views of the city and coast, and of course, eat the fresh seafood that’s brought to shore daily. Other attractions include the Women’s Museum and the aforementioned Liberty Market.
Reflect at Sunset Cliffs
Just north of Cabrillo National Monument are the Sunset Cliffs, which stretch to the start of Ocean Beach. Depending on the tide, you might be able to walk out to the charming sea caves created from years of erosion. If high tide, no worries, grab a beverage and a reflective state of mind high above as you watch the waves continue to uniquely carve the cliffs.
Old Town Is Waiting for You
Settled by the Spanish in 1769, San Diego’s old town is the city’s oldest neighborhood. Nowadays, this place is an adorable historic district sprinkled with markets, restaurants, eateries, and shops.
Old Town is home to an abundance of significant buildings such as The Mormon Battalion, Altamirano-Pedrorena House, Casa de Estudillo, Seeley Stables, Colorado House (Wells Fargo History Museum), Whaley House, Robinson-Rose House, and many others. Each has its own captivating story, like The Whaley House, said to be the most haunted home in the United States.
Walk across the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge
The Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge is one of the longest self-anchored pedestrian bridges worldwide. Admire the awesome views of the city’s Bayfront and downtown. The bridge was built in 2011 and is easily accessible by elevators and stairs.
Let Barrio Logan Inspire
Need a dose of inspiration and creativity? Barrio Logan is the place to go. One of the oldest neighborhoods in San Diego, Barrio Logan used to serve refuges of the Mexican Revolution. The neighborhood itself originally butted up to the bay. Then came World War II, which caused over half of Barrio Logan’s original land to come under the jurisdiction of the San Diego Port Authority and the United States Navy.
If that wasn’t enough, the construction of the I-5 freeway went through the neighborhood’s heart, all of a sudden shrouding it under large concrete support pillars.
But the neighborhood persevered and among various expressions of art, is home to Chicano Park, which presents colorful murals (on those very same support pillars), sculptures, and architectural art paying homage to the neighborhood’s cultural heritage. Chicano Park was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
Check out Coronado Island
Once you’ve checked out the beautiful murals under the freeway in Chicano Park, get on that same freeway and take the Coronado Bridge to Coronado Island. Once you arrive, enjoy the views of downtown San Diego, admire the houses, and visit the famous Hotel Del Coronado. Also known as ‘The Del,’ this hotel was built in 1888 in the wooden Victorian style of American architecture and is a national historic landmark.
For a small fee, you can even enjoy some of the property’s facilities for the day, including the spa, pool, salon, and fitness center. Of course, you could also just lounge the day away on the beach under an umbrella.
Take a hike at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve
When we’re talking about hiking in San Diego, it doesn’t get better than Torrey Pines. With miles of hiking trails that take you along the rugged cliffs down to the beach, this is a great park to explore. The Razor Point is one of the overlook spots with astounding sceneries all around.
Fancy Some Art at UCSD’s Stuart Collection
Here you’ll find numerous large-scale outdoor art installations that you can check out. The most famous ones include the Fallen Star, a house looking like it’s teetering on the engineering building’s edge, and the rock bear.
Sip Local Brew in the Craft Beer Capital of the U.S.
Some call the ‘City in Motion’ the craft beer capital of the U.S.A. — a potentially dangerous combination of qualities if San Diegans weren’t so chill.
Among the heavy hitters in San Diego Country that beer connoisseurs may be familiar with include Ballast Point, Stone, Green Flash, Karl Strauss, Coronado, Pizza Port, and Mission.
However, in total more than 150 breweries call San Diego home, so don’t put pressure on yourself to “try them all.” Map out your top five and go from there!
History lesson at Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá
Mission San Diego is a great place to learn about the area’s history, to admire the eye-catching gardens, the old bell tower, and the chapel.
After your visit here, you’ll feel relaxed and happy that you saw the very first Franciscan mission in California, which dates back to 1769.
Quick stops at Spruce St. Suspension Bridge and Harper’s Topiary Garden
These two attractions are right next to each other and both of them are fun, quick spots to check out. Harper’s Topiary Garden is a nice collection of manicured plants in plenty of different shapes, objects, and animals.
The historic Spruce St. Suspension Bridge was built in 1912 and traverses a steep canyon in the Banker’s Hill neighborhood. Conquer your fear of heights when you visit on a windy day!
You wondered how to spend a day in San Diego, and we gave you more than a few avenues to explore. So what are you waiting for? Get out! Explore!
Have an extended layover in San Diego soon? Make the most of your time and explore without your luggage when you book a convenient San Diego day room with HotelsByDay. Or just relax for a few hours, that’s cool too.
Feature image: Unsplash
Beach: Christina Winter
Balboa Park: Chris Jimenez
Sea lions: Monica Volpin
Point Loma Lighthouse: Brandon Smith
Hotel Del: Nightowl
Mission Brewery: Tim Bounds
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