Heading to San Diego soon? Our 3 day San Diego itinerary + guide is full of the best places to stay, how to get around, the best tacos and food, things to do, and so much more!
San Diego is hands down one of our favorite larger cities in the United States. With beautiful beaches and scenery, great neighborhoods, a laid back vibe, nice parks, and awesome FOOD (the most important criteria!), it’s hard not to love San Diego.
We have been thankful to visit the city twice together and on both visits we have fallen in love with this city. During our trips we have gone for hikes, tried local coffee shops, eaten tons of tacos and unique local eats, seen stunning architecture, and enjoyed the coastal views. And have loved every second!
San Diego is definitely a place that we could spend months in and never get bored. However, if you’re like us and do not have months to spend, we’re excited to share this 3 day San Diego itinerary full of delicious food, coffee shops, and fun things to do to help you prioritize your limited time in the city.
In this guide we’re listing a variety of options, so that no matter what your food and activity preferences are, you’ll be able to craft the perfect San Diego adventure!
Looking for more ideas of things to do in California? Check out the rest of our California guides:
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About San Diego
San Diego is California’s second largest city (by population) and is located on the Pacific Ocean, just miles from the border of Mexico. The city is known for its sunny weather, beaches, delicious food, parks, museums, and so much more.
With mountains as well as the ocean, the city and surrounding area offers a wide variety of scenery and activities to enjoy and because of its proximity to Mexico, the city has a lot of Mexican influence, which provides a cultural experience while in the city.
Note: San Diego is located in the Pacific Time Zone, so if traveling from Arizona, keep this in mind, as some months of the year (the summer) Arizona and California will be the same time, but other months (the winter) they will not.
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
When to visit San Diego
There are many reasons to love San Diego, but the weather is definitely near the top of the list! With super mild temperatures year round, it’s always a good time to visit San Diego.
The winter months may a bit chillier at the beach, but if you want to visit some parks and walk around town, the weather will be magical, especially if you live in a colder climate.
We have visited San Diego in both January and February and the temperatures were amazing, with highs in the upper 60s to low 70s! On both trips we did have one day with rain, so be prepared to maybe experience some rain, as they do get more rain during the winter months. However, we think rainy days are the perfect days to go on a food tour in the city.
The summertime in San Diego is the ultimate beach weather. The days are warm enough to lay out, but not too hot that you’ll sweat to death. But this is a busier time to visit, so the crowds and prices will be a bit higher.
If you want lower crowds and prices, but still warmer weather, we suggest visiting during the spring and fall. The evenings can be a bit chillier, so make sure to pack layers!
Getting to + around San Diego
San Diego is located in the very southwestern tip of California, right on the border of Mexico’s Baja California and close to Arizona, as well as other popular spots in California, making it a very convenient city to visit. Here is how to get there, depending on your mode of transportation.
Flying to San Diego
A huge perk about visiting San Diego is that the airport is right by downtown! In fact, it’s so close that you’ll get to see planes flying low over the city, which we thought was really cool!
The San Diego International Airport (SAN) is less than 4 miles from downtown San Diego and is a great airport with many nonstop domestic flights from most cities in the United States, so flying to and from San Diego should be pretty easy.
And the best part? With the airport being that close to the city, you’ll get to start your vacation right away!
Driving to San Diego
If you’re already in California and want to visit San Diego, here’s how long you can expect to drive from nearby popular areas:
Los Angeles, CA: 2 hours (120 miles)
Palm Springs, CA: 2 hours (139 miles)
Joshua Tree National Park: 2.5 hours (164 miles)
Las Vegas, NV: 5 hours (332 miles)
Phoenix, AZ: 5-5.5 hours (355 miles)
San Francisco, CA: 8 hours (502 miles)
Note: these times are without much traffic, so make sure to add a little bit of extra time in case you get stuck in that famous California traffic.
Getting Around San Diego
San Diego is one of those cities where you could rent a car, but you could also get away with public transportation or Uber/Lyft. It really depends on how far you want to go!
We suggest looking at the ride sharing app’s fare estimator tools (Uber, Lyft) to see how much you’d expect to spend when getting around town to see what will be the best option for you.
We have visited the city in both our previous small SUV and our current Sprinter Van and didn’t have much of an issue finding parking in the city. Sometimes we had to drive around a bit, but we always found a spot!
Where to stay in San Diego
It’s no secret that we love Airbnb! Not only is it usually more affordable than a hotel, but it allows you to experience a city and its culture like a local. And it’s no different for San Diego! San Diego has tons of cool and fun neighborhoods to stay in that will give you a true taste of the city.
- Tiny, Relaxing California Style Central Guest Home (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This guest house near Balboa Park is beautiful inside and would be a great little getaway for a couple.
- 1925 Hillcrest Cottage (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This is where we stayed on our first visit. It is a simple spot, but accepts pets (which was a great perk) and was close to many places on this guide.
- Coastal Cottage with Farmhouse Style (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This cottage has a great patio and a gorgeous interior!
- Sunny and Relaxing 1BR Apartment (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This apartment is located right in Little Italy, so you’ll never be far from some good eats!
There are tons of hotel options in San Diego, ranging from chains, to resorts, to more local, boutique spots. Here are a handful to check out!
- Hotel Z
- Hotel del Coronado
- Hotel Indigo
- Manchester Grand Hyatt
- Moxy San Diego Gaslamp Quarter
- Humphreys Half Moon Inn
During our latest visit to San Diego we stayed at the Tijuana River Valley Campground, which is a brand new campground with campsites (no hookups) and yurts right by the border of Mexico.
It is super nice, wasn’t busy during our visit, affordable (we paid $80 total for 3 nights), had some trails and a cool nature playground, and paid showers.
While not in the heart of the city, was relatively close to the main attractions. The only thing to note is that you will hear helicopters flying over the majority of the day, but they never kept us up at night.
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3 Day San Diego Itinerary
It’s impossible to see the entire city of San Diego in three days, but if that is all you have, this San Diego itinerary is full of our favorite things that we did (and ate!) during our multiple trips to the city. We’re including some options for activities and restaurants that way you can craft this itinerary to fit your own preferences.
Looking for even more ideas of things to do? Check out our “if you have extra time” section below!
- Kickoff your San Diego adventure with acai bowls for breakfast at Northside Shack. This is a grab and go spot and we recommend walking down to Shoreline Park to eat your acai bowl and enjoy water and city views.
Rather have a more traditional breakfast? Hash House a Go Go and Breakfast Republic are popular choices!
- Grab coffee at Communal Coffee, which is a coffee shop, flower shop, and gift shop rolled into one. It is such a beautiful coffee shop and basically Kathryn’s version of heaven. We suggest trying their latte flight and getting at least one floral drink…you are in a flower shop afterall!
- Spend a few hours wandering around Balboa Park. This is a 1,200 acre park that is home to 16 museums, a zoo, gardens, and more! While we personally have not paid to visit any museums, we have always just loved walking around and seeing the ornate architecture.
You could easily spend a whole day at this beautiful park, but some spots that we suggest visiting in the park are the Spanish Village Art Center (free), Botanical Building (free), the short Palm Canyon Trail, which has 450 palms (58 species!), and walking by the California Tower, which you can pay $30 (non-members) for a tour inside.
And if you visit on the weekend (especially a Sunday), we suggest checking out the House of Pacific Relations – Hall of Nations, which has cottages that represent 32 cultures. On Sundays they have different events with dances, music, and food from these countries.
- For lunch head to Ocean Beach and have lunch at Hodad’s Burgers, a famous burger spot with massive burgers and a cool interior, OR at Mike’s Taco Club to try either a California Burrito, which is a flour tortilla loaded with carne asada, cheese, pico/salsa, guacamole, sour cream, and most importantly, FRENCH FRIES! They also make some awesome Carne Asada fries!
- Walk around the Ocean Beach area and enjoy the beach for a bit. They have a great pier that you can walk on and watch surfers.
- Visit the Cabrillo National Monument, which is managed by the National Park Service and costs $20 per car (unless you have the America the Beautiful Pass). This monument honors Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who arrived at San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542 from Europe and is said to be the first European to step foot on the West Coast. The park has a sculpture of him, a lighthouse, tide pools, and great coastal views, as well as shares history about 16th century exploration.
- Watch the sunset from Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, which is just up the road from the Cabrillo National Monument and is FREE to access.
- For dinner, eat TACOS! There are so many spots we could recommend, but our top picks nearby would be:
Kiko’s Place Seafood, which is a mariscos truck that serves up a delicious baja style fish taco, with fried white fish, cabbage, and a white sauce. They also are said to have great ceviche too! Note: they close around 8 PM, so if you visit in the summertime, you may want to go before sunset.
City Tacos, which is not your traditional Mexican street taco joint, but more of a creative taco shop and we highly recommend their MexiCali taco, which has steak and mashed potatoes. They also have some unique salsas for your tacos and jicama to enjoy (pro tip: squeeze some lime and then shake some Tajín on top of the jicama…so good!)
Looking for something a bit nicer? Buona Forchetta in South Park is a solid Italian spot. Try to get a reservation if you can!
- First things first: breakfast! We suggest Kono’s Cafe for breakfast burritos by the beach (or you can visit one of the spots we suggested on day one). Afterwards, grab coffee at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.
- Head to La Jolla for the rest of the morning and afternoon. This is a beautiful town along the coast and has some of the best coastal scenery in the area. While here, see the sea lions and seals at Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove. We always love hearing their noises and watching them play with each other!
We also suggest relaxing at La Jolla Shores Beach, a mile long beach with lots of sand to lay out on. And if you’re up for a bit of an adventure go on a kayaking tour with La Jolla Kayak or check out the La Jolla Caves!
- Grab lunch at The Taco Stand. They get VERY busy (we waited at least an hour in line!), but they make your food right after you order and you get your food very fast AND it’s delicious, which helps make up for the long lines.
- You must go to Bobboi Natural Gelato for a post-lunch dessert! This gelato spot is about as authentic Italian as it gets. We LOVED the pistachio flavor, but every flavor we tried was creamy and delicious.
- Drive a little north of La Jolla and explore Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This almost 2,000 acre reserve offers a beautiful mix of green Torrey Pine trees (one of the rarest native pines in the US), bright blue water, golden sand, and badlands. It is gorgeous! But there are a few things to know before visiting for yourself:
- Dogs are NOT allowed.
- It costs between $15-$20 to park inside the reserve (the price varies on what day of the week). However, you can park outside of the reserve along the beach and walk in for FREE, which is what we did.
- The reserve has set hours, opening at 7 AM and closing right at sunset.
- You can drive to different spots and walk to overlooks or hike all around, which is what we did. We hiked the Torrey Pines, Guy Fleming, EB Scripps Overlook, Red Butte and Razor Point Loop, which took us to most of the main overlooks, as well as down to the beach in around 4 miles.
- Do NOT walk on the beach close to high tide. The beach can become inaccessible. Make sure to check the tide schedule in advance to avoid getting in a dangerous situation.
After (hopefully) an incredible California sunset, get more tacos for dinner at Duke’s (one of our favorites from Hawaii…get the hula pie!), Oscar’s Mexican Seafood (are you sick of tacos yet? We hope not!), or one of the spots we mentioned on day one that you have yet to try.
- For breakfast, head to a local Mexican spot called Las Cuatro Milpas or venture a bit south to Ed Fernandez Restaurant Birrieria, which is a bit of a trek, but holy cow is it worth it! Their quesatacos de birria are phenomenal!
And if you’re unsure what birria is, it’s a traditional Mexican dish from Jalisco and is marinated and stewed goat or beef (Ed Fernandez uses beef). Make sure to get some consome (the stew) to dip your tacos in!
- Grab coffee at one of the coffee shops in Barrio Logan. We went to Cafe Moto, which was a cool spot (don’t forget to visit their coffee roastery and museum behind the cafe!), but Cafe Virtuoso and Por Vida also look amazing!
- Spend a few hours relaxing at Coronado Beach. While you’re there, make sure to visit the famous and historic Victorian Hotel del Coronado.
- Head a little south of San Diego for lunch at Tacos el Gordo. This is one of our favorite taco shops EVER and totally worth the drive! We recommend their adobada tacos and also their loaded fries. We know we have suggested a lot of taco spots, but this is our #1 must visit in San Diego!
- For the rest of the day you have some options.
Option #1: If you like beer, check out some of San Diego’s breweries! We have heard that Ballast Point and Modern Times are both good, but since we don’t drink, we can’t personally recommend any breweries.
Option #2: Spend a few hours exploring the USS Midway Museum! The museum costs $26 per adult (less for kids, seniors, and military) and is something at the VERY top of our list for next time.
The USS Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century. It was commissioned 8 days after the end of World War II and was the largest ship in the world until 1955. She operated for 47 years, including in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.
While in the area, make sure to get a photo with the famous kissing sculpture!
Option #3: Check out Old Town San Diego, which is the oldest neighborhood in San Diego and is where the first European settlement was. Here they have museums, restaurants, and historic sights.
- Head to Little Italy, which is an Italian neighborhood that at one time had 6,000 Italian families that called it home. While the area has lost some of its Italian culture, it still is one of our favorite areas to explore in the city.
While here, grab dinner at one of the delicious spots in the area. The Crack Shack is a great quick and cheap option for fried chicken, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto or Landini’s Pizzeria for classic Italian, and Barbusa or Bencotto are nice, more upscale options.
- If you have any energy left, grab drinks at False Idol or make your way to the Gaslamp Quarter, a lively area with lots of restaurants and bars. We hear Noble Experiment is a very cool spot, but make sure to get a reservation!
If you have extra time…
- Visit the famous San Diego Zoo
- Go to a San Diego Padres baseball game at Petco Park
- Enjoy the views and have a picnic at Kate O. Sessions Park
- Northgate Market-This Mexican grocery store is a DREAM and has a salsa bar with massive tubs of amazing salsas. Highly recommend stopping here to buy some snack foods!
- Explore the beach towns north of San Diego: Carlsbad, Encinitas, and Oceanside
- Hike up to Iron Mountain-5.2 miles, 1,102 ft elevation gain. We tried this hike and got poured on and had zero views…who knew it rained in San Diego!
- Hike to Potato Chip Rock-7.6 miles, 2,106 ft elevation gain. The rock at the top really does look like a potato chip!
- Spruce Street Suspension Bridge– A quick little stop and not for those afraid of heights!
- For those with kids, go to Legoland! I have super fond memories of going here as a kid.
Ready to visit beautiful San Diego?
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