Sunny beaches. Snorkeling. Watching a vermillion sunset over rugged cliffs and sea caves while listening to the barking of sea lions. That got a bit specific, but hey, welcome to San Diego, the country’s most southwestern city and the perfect place for a weekend getaway!
San Diego is nicknamed America’s Finest City for its beaches, zoo, strong Spanish and Indigenous culture, and sunny weather year-round. And as Ron Burgundy from Anchorman describes it, San Diego is classy – but it is also cultural, artsy, historical, and naturally beautiful. But we’ll let the breathtaking views, iconic sights, and never-ending food options speak for themselves!
San Diego is pretty much paradise, so it might be hard to leave after your weekend in San Diego is over, but this extensive guide will tell you how to make the most out of your San Diego weekend getaway.
We tapped a local and San Diego enthusiast, Rio Villa, who has crafted the perfect guide to spending three days in San Diego! Rio is a twentysomething, Filipina-American world traveler who was born and raised in San Diego. After teaching English abroad in Barcelona, Spain she STILL decided to return to San Diego! Today she’s sharing her love for her favorite city in the world with the ideal 3-day San Diego itinerary. Take it away, Rio!
Psst: Planning more Californian adventures? …. Check out some of our other posts for inspiration!
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San Diego Travel Tips
Before you throw on a wetsuit and hop in a VW van to roll down Highway One all the way to San Diego, here are. a few tips to help you plan your trip.
When to visit San Diego?
San Diego is a desert, but with the coast climate comes pleasant weather year-round. An ideal time to visit San Diego is in spring and fall, where the temperature generally ranges from the mid-50s to the high 60s. But it stays pretty cloudy and foggy through the spring, and these months are surprisingly chilly – so be sure to pack your layers, especially during “May-Gray” and “June-Gloom.”
Autumn has similar temperatures, meaning it’s warm enough to celebrate Thanksgiving at the beach if you are so inclined!
If you’re hoping to soak up the sunshine, the hottest weather in San Diego is from July to October, and the direct sun and heat can be pretty overbearing. Most days in summer are in the 90-degree range, so keep that in mind for your visit!
And in the winter, you can escape the snow for the sunshine: it’ll never get much colder than 50 to 60 degrees in San Diego.
Travel Tip: Craving fall vibes? Right near San Diego are two of the best places in California to visit during the fall! In Temecula you can enjoy the wine country harvest, and Julian is a charming mountain town known for its apples. Take a look at all the details in our guide to fall in California.
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Getting around San Diego
I recommend renting a car or taking a road trip to San Diego. If you have a car, you won’t be limited to where you can go and how much you can see. You only have 3 days in San Diego so I want you to make the most of your trip!
Public transportation is available, but I don’t recommend relying on it for your trip as it would take too much time. However, I have included walking instructions wherever possible so that you can save on gas and be environmentally friendly.
As for getting to the city, we have a centrally located airport, the San Diego International Airport, with plenty of car rental options and a train station.
The city is a two-hour drive south from Los Angeles, a three-hour drive from the Arizona border, and is right next to Tijuana, Mexico.
- Travel Tip: Booking a car rental? We recommend using Kayak to price-compare car deals and dates to save money (so you can spend more on food during your trip #letsbehonest)
Is 3 days in San Diego enough?
Yes! San Diego is a paradise that you could spend forever in, but this itinerary gives you the perfect way to spend three days in San Diego. Once you have a taste for this amazing city, you’ll be inspired to plan your next trip and see even more the next time around!
If you do have extra time, visit the beautiful mountain town of Julian and the Anza Borrego Desert. Locals like taking the challenge of starting at the beach in the morning, driving through the mountains by midday, and ending up in the desert to see the stars by night.
There are also wonderful hiking trails to the east like Potato Chip Rock and Stonewall Peak. We’ve got more suggestions in our Southern California hiking guide!
Save money on your San Diego weekend getaway
Although we included plenty of budget-friendly activities in our San Diego weekend getaway itinerary, several of the best things to do in San Diego sadly aren’t free.
Enter the Go San Diego Pass, which includes a TON of the best San Diego activities for a bundled price, including entrance to the San Diego Zoo, a Belmont Amuseument park pass, snorkel gear and kayak tours in La Jolla, whale watching tours, and more.
You’ll be able to pick a pass by number of days or by number of activities. To give you an idea, a 3-choice Explorer Pass lets you pick 3 activities for $90, while a 3-day All-Inclusive Pass is $199. There’s a bunch of overlap with the activities we recommended in our itinerary.
- If you pick an Explorer Pass and select the San Diego Zoo and Belmont Amusement Park, the pass more than pays for itself and you’ll STILL get to choose one other activity, like jet-ski rentals, kayak or paddle-board rentals, a whale watching tour, or a tour of PETCO park.
- With the All-Inclusive Pass, you’ll get a ticket to the San Diego Zoo, entry into as many museums in Balboa Park as you can handle, and spend a day snorkeling in La Jolla or riding rides at Belmont Amusement Park – all of which are included in our itinerary. You’ll need to squeeze in as much as possible to make the All-Inclusive pass pay for itself, but it’s definitely doable.
We’ve included a little note in our itinerary if an activity is included on the Go San Diego pass, so if you’re on the fence, keep an eye out for those below!
Where to stay in San Diego
Chill vibes, sunsets, and biking down the boardwalk to the sound of Slightly Stoopid or reggae playing in the distance is quintessential San Diego, so I highly recommend finding a cute vacation rental or hostel in one of San Diego’s beach neighborhoods: Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, or Ocean Beach!
- Travel Tip: For vacation rentals, we prefer to book using VRBO – they’ve got lower fees and better support than Airbnb, and we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.
Where to Stay in Mission Beach
Mission Beach has an amusement park, energetic bars, and plenty of delicious restaurants to fill you up. From sunrise to sunset, the lively boardwalk is full of biking locals, laid-back surfers, and vendors selling elote, or Mexican corn-on-the-cob.
This strand is flanked by the ocean on one side and the expansive Mission Bay on the other, and is truly the best area in town for water sports! We’ve included a few activities in Mission Bay in our weekend itinerary, so this is a great option to base yourself for your trip.
- This Bayfront Beach Escape boasts incredible views of Mission Bay and is a short walk front the ocean. In addition to its proximity to the water, this apartment is within walking distance of restaurants and bars.
- This adorably beachy bungalow is an amazing home base for your San Diego vacation. This spot has been beautifully remodeled and is a short walk from the beach. Make sure to enjoy some west coast sunsets on the outdoor deck.
Where to Stay in Pacific Beach
About a mile up the coast from Mission Beach is Pacific Beach, a popular area for young nightlife and beach bars that stretch along the main road of Garnet Avenue. Garnet Avenue also leads straight to the pier with an awesome view of the coast!
- This spacious and affordable apartment is located in the heart of Pacific Beach. Beaches, restaurants, and bars are all close enough to walk to. If you’d rather stay in, enjoy cooking in the newly remodeled kitchen or make use of the grill and private balcony.
- For a fun, bright, and funky spot, stay at this little Mexican-style house. This Pacific Bay retreat features a patio, grill, and some serious Baja style. Find everything you need nearby: shopping, restaurants, beaches, and entertainment.
- The TH Beach Bungalow Surf Hostel is a great way to make new friends, and take in the ocean as you’ll be right on the boardwalk! This eco-friendly hostel features BBQ facilities, a garden, and a shared lounge, as well as a daily free continental breakfast, and you can lounge in one of the many hammocks and watch the waves roll in!
Where to Stay in Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach is quintessential California with its strong hippie presence, meaning you may find yourself in a hula hoop dance circle or a smoke sesh – but only if you head to the grassy area at the end of Newport Avenue where they hang out. Newport Ave is full of different food options and hostels, complete with crystal, bead, and smoke shops. It’s also got a Dog Beach if you’ll be bringing along your furry friend!
You’ll also be close to the tide pools right next to O.B. Pier, the longest pier in San Diego. And a short drive south brings you to Sunset Cliffs, one of the best spots to see the sunset, which can get crowded with locals if it’s an especially beautiful day. So bring your blanket and picnic early to find a spot!
- This super-cute beachy vacation cottage is just 2.5 blocks from the beach and is bright, colorful and spacious! It also has a fabulous, private deck where you can sit, relax, and enjoy the ocean air.
- This Contemporary Cliffside Gateway is modern and clean and is located on a bluff overlooking the beach and tidepools below. The beachside patio is only about 50-feet from the condo, so you can have stunning views just steps away!
- The Samesun Ocean Beach is an adults-only hostel that is painted in bright, psychedelic colors with some really cool and funky decor. They do offer private rooms as well, and the shared living spaces are an excellent way to make new friends!
- If you need a dog friendly spot, this cute beach cottage has a fenced in, grassy backyard and is a short walk from the Dog Beach. Just make sure to bring a crate if you plan to leave your pup alone!
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San Diego Itinerary: Day 1
Saturday | Educational and Historical
Let’s hit the heavy hitters on the first day, since you can’t come to San Diego and skip the world-famous San Diego Zoo or its next-door neighbor Balboa Park!
Breakfast at The Mission or Coffee at Better Buzz
Wake up bright and early for breakfast at The Mission in Downtown San Diego on your way to the zoo. Because of its popularity and super-delicious American and Mexican dishes, it can get busy on a Saturday morning so get there early to be seated quickly!
I love the homey feel of this restaurant, which the owners built into a turn of the century house, as well as their support of local initiatives like Mama’s Kitchen and Dining Out for Life.
I recommend ordering their blueberry pancakes or soy chorizo (the vegetarian version of pork sausage) and eggs to experience that American-Mexican fusion of this hybrid city on a plate. Plus their plating is so aesthetic!
Prefer a morning coffee over a full meal for breakfast? Try Better Buzz in Mission Beach or Point Loma (closest to Ocean Beach accommodations) to support local San Diego coffee makers. They have a range of outstanding seasonal drinks like their Pumpkin Spice Chai, my personal fall favorite!
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Explore the San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo has been around since 1916 and is world-famous for its conservation efforts, scientific research, and endangered species breeding and rehabilitation programs (learn more here.)
Although many zoos and animal attractions are less than ethical, with a focus on profits and visitors and unhappy animals cooped up in small enclosures (for instance, another San Diego staple, Sea World, which we do NOT recommend visiting) the non-profit San Diego zoo prioritizes animals, conservation and research.
Species of animals are able to live together in protected settings close to their natural habitats, rather than in small, species-specific enclosures. Through the San Diego Zoo’s work, 44 species have been released back into the wild and scientific research about animal behavior and health have impacted animal conservation efforts worldwide.
Because of the sprawling animal habitats, the zoo itself is huge, covering about 100 acres, with over 4,000 animals and 600 different species. You’ll feel teleported to the jungle with thousands of exotic plants towering over you as you walk through bird aviaries and hidden paths; or to the plains of Africa at the Elephant Odyssey; or the forests of Asia while watching the red pandas eat bamboo!
You will probably not catch a glimpse of every animal, so map out a route with your must-see animals. The best way I save time at the zoo is by taking the Skyfari Aerial Tram, a gondola ride connecting the back of the zoo to the entrance that also provides a birds-eye views of the animal exhibits. The park is also friendly for guests in wheelchairs with many elevators and escalators around the park.
- Travel Tip: The San Diego zoo is popular, so pick up a skip the line ticket in advance to avoid wasting any time queuing! Your entry ticket is also included with an all-inclusive Go San Diego pass.
Lunch in Balboa Park
Grab a snack between exhibits at the zoo, but save lunch for one of the restaurants near your next destination, Balboa Park. It’s a very short walk south of the zoo with some fantastic (and affordable) restaurants to pick from:
- World Beat Center: This arts center has hosted multicultural events for decades like the annual Earth Day celebration, bringing international and local artists to San Diego’s food and art scene. Eat at their World Beat Cafe for vegan international soul food like their African Peanut Coconut Curry made of veggies, coconut milk, and turmeric with fried plantains on the side! See the art exhibits on display while supporting a local Black-owned business.
- Japanese Friendship Garden Tea Pavilion: Sit and enjoy a bowl of spicy Japanese Curry or warming Udon Noodle Soup while admiring the garden below that symbolizes friendship with San Diego’s sister city, Yokohama, Japan. In the gardens you can see koi ponds, cherry blossoms, sukiya-style Japanese architecture, and stone steps crossing over a quiet stream.
- Panama 66: My favorite place to eat in the park! This open-air eatery is located at the San Diego Museum of Art, complete with a sculpture garden and live music! They are known for their gourmet sandwiches, like their signature Waygu Beef Burger served with Cheddar, Ancho Remoulade, Butter Lettuce with Pickle Slices and Pickled Onion. They also have a huge craft beer selection, and trying local beer is a must since San Diego is one of the cities with the most breweries.
Getting to Balboa Park from the Zoo
From the Zoo entrance, follow the sidewalks to the right when you exit. After a short 2 minute walk, you will see the beautiful structures of Balboa Park!
Tour Balboa Park’s Museums, Trails, and Gardens
Balboa Park is 1,200-acre park with Italian-Renaissance style columns, Spanish-colonial style facades, several theatres (including one modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London), sprawling gardens, and plenty of outdoor cafes giving it an undeniably European feel.
Balboa Park, and its nearly 200-foot tall iconic emblem the California Tower, was built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, a promotion of San Diego as the first U.S. port for those crossing the Panama Canal. The park is a local favorite spot today, as a place to take in culture, grab a bite to eat, and to capture the perfect photo opportunity.
You have a bunch of options to spend your afternoon at the park, but my recommended route is a stop at the botanical garden, and then pick a couple of museums to visit, or sit and get lost in an afternoon play! Each is close and within a few minutes walk.
Stopping at one of the many museums or art exhibits is a great way to avoid the midday sun while also enjoying international art. Below are my recommendations, but there are plenty of other museums at Balboa park to explore! (Psst: Free entrance to many of these museums is included with a Go San Diego all-inclusive pass.)
- The Museum of Us: The Museum of Us is a cultural anthropology museum that explores the human experience from multicultural perspectives to spark dialogue, self-reflection, and human connections. From monsters and cannibals to the origin of race and racism, you’ll leave this unique museum with a better understanding of what makes us alike as humans, what makes us different, and what makes us unique in our universe. (Included in Go San Diego Pass)
- The Botanical Garden and Lily Pond is one of the most photographed areas in the park and can’t be missed! Inside, there are about 2,100 tropical plants and seasonal flowers including cycads, ferns, orchids, and palms. And admission is free!
- Visit the Fleet Science Center for hands-on science activities! Check out the Sun, Earth, Universe Exibit, developed in collaboration with NASA, for a peek into the secrets of space. The Space Gallery also features a virtual reality “transporter” that allows you to walk on the moon, dive in the ocean, and even travel back in time. You’ll feel like you’ve really left the planet — without ever leaving the building.
- Museum of Photographic Arts: A recent exhibit was “Out of the Shadows: Contemporary Chinese Photography,” featuring works by many contemporary Chinese artists who had never exhibited in American museums prior. Much of the museum’s collection focuses on photojournalism and social documentary photography. (Included in Go San Diego Pass)
- San Diego Art Institute: Visit for experimental exhibits like virtual reality and Forging Territories: Queer Afro and Latinx Contemporary Art. The SDAI works to promote local contemporary art and to make art accessible to more people. (Included in Go San Diego Pass)
- You can also turn Balboa Park into a giant game board on a small-group, interactive scavenger hunt. Combine the thrill of the race with a sightseeing tour of this popular San Diego destination!
- Catch a weekend matinee at one of the country’s biggest regional theatres, The Old Globe Theatre. Built in 1935, the theatre is an homage to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, but has 3 stages: a proscenium, a theatre in-the-round, and an outdoor stage. They produce contemporary plays as well as traditional and experimental takes on Shakespeare.
Before you leave the park, get caffeinated and grab an afternoon coffee at the Prado Perk Coffee Bar, designed after the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Order a tres leches latte or a matcha tea latte, both of which are decadent and delicious!
Have an Italian dinner in Little Italy
As the day cools off and you’re ready for a hearty dinner, take a short drive to Little Italy, a popular neighborhood nestled between downtown and the harbor. Italian fishermen and their families settled in this area in the 1920s, giving you authentic Italian food like Filippi’s Pizza Grotto.
The street is lined with eccentric bars and trendy restaurants that exude the smell of warm bread, lit up by market lights and the Little Italy neighborhood sign!
The Little Italy Food Hall also gives you multiple indoor food stalls to choose from and an outdoor plaza with tables and chairs. Locals’ favorite here is Ambrogio15, which serves Milano-style pizza made with organic Italian flour－I love their vegan mozzarella! Snag a table outside, catch some live local music and catch a beautiful sunset over the harbor!
Local favorite restaurants and bars in Little Italy:
- Ironside Fish & Oyster. Some of the best oysters in town! You’ll pay $3.25 each, 6 for $18, or 12 for $34. The interior design of this 1920s building is inspired by the local fishing and metal industry, the name coming from the previous business, Ironside Metal Works.
- Ristorante Illando. This is a quiet and classy traditional Italian restaurant on the second floor overlooking India Street. Definitely order the lobster ravioli and a cannoli for dessert when you eat here.
- Craft and Commerce. We love their unique interior design (warning, it includes taxidermy decor) and craft cocktails. This gastro-pub serves dishes like bone marrow and some of the best burgers in town!
- Waterfront Bar and Grill. This is one of the most popular bars because its food and drink prices are lower than most in the area! Order some wings and play an arcade game like pinball while you’re here.
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Dance the night away to salsa and bachata music
If you’ve still got energy, head downtown to Cafe Sevilla to dance salsa and bachata!
San Diego has a large Latinx population and a Spanish and Mexican Heritage, and you’ll see that strong influence throughout Southern California.
Salsa originated in Cuba and Puerto Rico and was popularized in New York City, but “West Coast Salsa” is different than you’ll find anywhere else! Bachata dance and music comes from the Dominican Republic and has a slower, sensual rhythm.
Venues like Cafe Sevilla and Tango del Rey, with gorgeous Spanish and Middle-Eastern interiors, usually hold a salsa and bachata class around 8 or 9PM included with your entry fee.
After that comes social dancing, where you may get asked to dance or can practice your new moves with your partner! No matter your level, you’ll love the twirling, foot patterns, and hip rolls. The vibe is contagious, inviting you to let loose and move your body, and most come here to dance versus to drink!
San Diego Itinerary: Day 2
Sunday | Beach Day
After all the walking and dancing you did yesterday, today is about relaxing at the best beaches in San Diego. I give you two options depending on the type of beach experience you prefer!
Option 1: Surfing & Amusement in Mission Beach
Start the day with a morning ride down the Mission Beach boardwalk or around Mission Bay. You’ll get a tour of the area this way while taking in the fresh ocean air.
The boardwalk route gives you an amazing coastal cruise next to the ocean, while the bay provides a quieter atmosphere to hear the seagulls and take in the gorgeous morning light reflected on the calm water.
You can rent a cruiser bike for only $10 from Hamel’s Surf Shop located at the south end of the boulevard to get around this fun area for the entire day!
A quick 10-minute ride north on the boardwalk will take you to Pacific Beach, where you’ll find the pier, restaurants and rowdy beach bars, and plenty of places to lay out on your towel.
This is a great place to park your bike and souvenir shop or walk down Crystal Pier lined with Cape Cod-style cottages that have been drawing tourists since the 1930s with the unique experience of sleeping over the ocean.
Breakfast at a Beach Cafe
For being beach towns, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach have great affordable food options. My favorite beach cafe to get breakfast is Woody’s Breakfast and Burgers! It’s located closer to the Pacific Beach end of the boardwalk but is in biking distance from either neighborhood.
Park your bike, order from the window and pick a spot in the sun, with any spot you pick providing the best oceanfront view. Order one of their awesome breakfast burritos like the Cali Scramble or an açaí bowl for a healthier option!
Try surfing, paddleboarding or kayaking
After breakfast it’s time to jump in the water! San Diego has a long history of surfing dating back to Hawaiian surf legends visiting the city in the early 1900’s. Since then, San Diego has made contributions to the sport including pioneering surfboard designs and plenty of surf athlete legends. You might show up at the beach to find a surf competition – sometimes for people, sometimes for dogs!
People come from all over the world to surf San Diego’s waves. The water is warm enough that you won’t need a wetsuit, and the waves are generally pretty consistent – plus, you’ll find waves appropriate for all skill levels. And there is no greater feeling than feeling the wind in your hair and staying up on your board– even for just ten seconds!
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Lunch and Drinks in Pacific Beach
After playing in the ocean for a few hours, you’re gonna be hungry – and it’s time to try out some of the best restaurants in San Diego. Luckily, they are a short bike ride away from the spot on the beach you’ve been hanging out at all morning or surfing!
- Oscars: You can’t come to San Diego without eating fish tacos and Oscars is the place to do it. Their battered fish tacos are buttery, melt-in-your-mouth goodness and are even more flavorful with their creamy cilantro sauce.
- Sushi Kuchi: Sushi is super affordable and popular across San Diego. Sushi Kuchi is a local favorite for cheap sushi that looks and tastes expensive and 99 cent sake bombs. If you’re a sushi lover check out my article on the top 10 best sushi restaurants in San Diego!
- World Famous: As the name suggests, this spot is famous for their $5 fish tacos along with an oceanfront view from your table!
“P.B.” or Pacific Beach, is also well known for being day-party central, so after lunch pick one of these spots to drink pretty cocktails overlooking the water with dance music playing overhead. There are a myriad of bars with rooftops and patios to enjoy the afternoon sun while enjoying your cocktail or mocktail!
Here are some of best bars in Pacific Beach with the coolest scenes:
- El Prez: This is probably the most fun rooftop bar in the P.B.! It has a super zany interior with lots of colorful lights and graffiti, and the rooftop bar has awesome sunset views. Their spicy margaritas are a perfect way to start a night of fun!
- Shore Club: Four words: Red Bull vodka slushy. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s soooo good! They also have a lively outdoor patio with live DJs right next to the beach!
- Waterbar: I love this spot for their classy setting, indoor ocean views and fish bowl cocktails, like their “Mermaids are Real”, with Herradura Blanco, basil, agave, lime, and raspberry. Yum!
- Mavericks Beach Club: With outdoor games like cornhole and hard seltzers on the menu, it’s designed to make it feel like you’re at a backyard barbecue! It’s also over 15,000 square feet, including 5 bars, so you could be here all night and not get bored!
Spend an Afternoon in Belmont Park
Belmont Park is San Diego’s premier beachfront amusement park, and one of my favorite places as I grew up going there. Locals might say Belmont Park is too touristy, but I love playing mini-golf, attempting the obstacle course, riding the rides, and copping San Diego t-shirts!
You do not pay to enter the park but rather pay per ride/attraction, or you can purchase a day pass (the Go San Diego pass also includes a one-day Parks Pass). It’s a cute spot for couples and friends to hang out and laugh like kids again!
To get to Belmont Park, ride your bike over and drop it off back at Hamel’s, conveniently located next to Belmont Park!
Definitely ride the classic wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, built in the 1920s, or chase your travel buddy in a bumper car. I also highly recommend getting some ice cream from Sweet Shoppe or pineapple ice cream from the Dole Whip cart.
The park stays open until 9PM on the weekends so hang out here until it gets dark and the neon lights turn on. Or, head out around sunset to catch an amazing view…
Watch the sunset at Sunset Cliffs
With long summer days you also have enough time to catch a sunset at Sunset Cliffs where locals convene to say cheers to the day. Our sunsets are always brilliantly colored by orange and pink clouds against the neverending blue horizon. You won’t meet a San Diegan who doesn’t love them!
Take a short drive south to Ocean Beach and aim to get here 30 minutes before sunset with a blanket, a jacket, and your travel buddy. The cliffs rise high above the ocean below, creating a kind of natural theatre for the sun’s evening show.
If it’s a cloudy evening, don’t worry because clouds reflect more colors than an empty sky does! (See how observant and analytical I am of sunset qualities? THAT’s how obsessed we are about them here.)
There are a couple of parking lots and scenic places to sit and enjoy the view off of scenic Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Camp out at the first beautiful spot that catches your fancy, or head to the parking lot at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park where you can get a great view from Pappy’s Point. You can climb the stairs down to the beach on the beach and explore during low tide, and there’s even a sea cave here – but it’s not safe to go explore it unless the tide is low, and even then, it’s a little iffy when it starts getting dark- be very careful!
- Travel Tip: If you want to turn sunset-watching into more of an activity involving cocktails and canapés, take a Sunset and Sips boat tour across San Diego bay!
Option 2: Snorkeling in La Jolla & Hiking in Torrey Pines
There are so many great beach neighborhoods in San Diego, I had to give you options. Don’t hate me!
North of Pacific Beach, the beaches become coves surrounded by beautiful cliffs that continue on through the ritzy area of La Jolla. Beyond that is Glider Port and Torrey Pines which have nature hikes, hang gliding, and even a nude beach.
Breakfast in La Jolla
La Jolla is quiet and refreshing in the morning with its ocean breeze that you can feel while walking along the cliffs. Grab a ham and cheese croissant and California Coconut Mocha to-go from The Living Room Coffeehouse, open everyday at 6AM. The Living Room is a local chain that has caffeinated locals since the 90s. They describe themselves as a European cafe with Californian flair. The logo is an elderly woman sitting next to a person with a mohawk–very 90s and locals love it.
You can also have breakfast at the popular Cottage La Jolla, serving the best breakfast for over 25 years. If I were you, I’d order their pancakes or eggs benedict, or both because their food is that good. The space really is a cottage; small and not loud or bustling, which is what I like on a Sunday morning.
Walk the cliffs or go snorkeling in La Jolla Cove
Walking along the cliffs in La Jolla gives you the chance to inhale the fresh, salty seabreeze and really take in the expanse of the pacific ocean from the top of the rocky cliffs. There is something so magical about seeing boats in the distance, and maybe you’ll even see a whale or two!
Along the cliffs you’ll see a bunch of funny, mushroom-shaped trees, which are the Monterey Cypress. Dr. Seuss, who created most of his works while living in San Diego, got his inspiration from a specific Monterey Cypress tree for “The Lorax”, but it sadly fell down in 2018.
But the real highlight of La Jolla Cove is its marine life. So pack your bathing suit and some snorkel gear because La Jolla Cove is a prime snorkeling spot! (Psst: You can, of course, rent snorkel gear – and it’s also included free with a Go San Diego pass!)
Within the Cove lies two underwater canyons, two reefs, a kelp forest, and even a spooky underwater graveyard.
The La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Preserve are federally protected, meaning that fishing or collecting is illegal. Thanks to this protection, marine life has flourished here which makes for some fantastic snorkeling!
You will see tons of the bright orange Garibaldi, the California state fish. Sometimes you’ll even see seals swim past and lobsters on the ocean floor, and if your visit falls between June and December, there’s a good chance you’ll see a few harmless leopard sharks!
You can learn about snorkeling in La Jolla Cove here.
- Travel Tip: The beach here is tiny, so expect to only claim a small spot near the rocks to leave your things.
- Packing Tip: Make sure you only wear ocean-safe reef-safe sunscreen when going in the ocean! Reef-safe sunscreen is designed to biodegrade and not harm ocean life. Regular sunscreen bleaches coral and ensures humanity’s swift death from climate change. This is my favorite reef-safe sunscreen, and I use this lightweight sunscreen on my face. I also recommend wearing a long-sleeved rash guard and swim leggings. Swim leggings let you move underwater without restriction while providing sun protection (so you don’t have to use sunscreen!) and like a bathing suit, they dry quickly and stay comfortable once you’re out of the water. I love my swim leggings (and matching top) made by Waterlust, an ethical and sustainable conservation-focused apparel company. Their marine-life themed leggings are chlorine, sun, saltwater and sunscreen resistant and made from recycled materials, and they have POCKETS! Sizes go up to 3XL.
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Find affordable lunch in San Diego’s ritziest neighborhood
La Jolla is like the Beverly Hills of San Diego, but there are many affordable spots to grab lunch while still feeling luxurious. It’s a gorgeous neighborhood situated on ocean cliffs with houses and mansions hidden amongst the hills and Californian coastal trees.
Great spots to have lunch in La Jolla are:
- George’s: Grab a table at the beautifully modern George’s on the open terrace with the best view of La Jolla’s coast. It seriously feels like you’re floating above the water! My fave is their fish sandwich, which is so beautifully cooked and flaky that it melts in your mouth. With those views and food that won’t break the bank it’s truly the perfect La Jolla dining experience.
- Caroline’s: Shh–this is my hidden gem for an affordable but fancy brunch spot. Order a Butternut Squash Panini (white cheddar cheese, arugula, truffle butter, roasted squash, sourdough–yum!) and find a table on the patio that is situated right above the beach! Watch the surfers or the beach walkers as you enjoy a fancy but very affordable lunch.
Hike Torrey Pines or Go Bare at Black’s Beach
While you could spend a full day snorkeling in La Jolla, if you like hiking you’ll love Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, a short drive north from La Jolla and one of the best places to go hiking in Southern California.
Here you’ll take in unique jagged, red cliff formations, the smell of pine trees that are the rarest in the country (Pinus torreyana, found only here and on an island near Santa Barbara), and aerial views of the beach far below.
Avoid the parking lot fee by finding a spot before the parking lot along the road. Starting at Torrey Pines State Beach, you’ll walk up the hill on a paved road to get to the coastal trails. Once you get to the top of the hill, the trail is easy and level. You can take different paths at the top of the cliffs and circle back via the beach.
Another option is to hike down to Black’s Beach just south of Torrey Pines, which is a long beach backed by the beautiful cliffs above. The trail snakes down the cliff to the beach and offers amazing views, but the walk back up the trail can be difficult because of the incline!
Access the trail to Black’s Beach from Glider Port and grab a sandwich from Cliffhanger Cafe for a little impromptu picnic.
Once on the beach, you’re free to let loose, shed the layers, and attempt a full body tan since this is a nude beach! It really is freeing to try it and to accept all body types that are there, including yours! So, show yourself some love and body positivity by laying out on the sand or jumping in the ocean naked or topless.
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Sunset at Glider Port
Climb back up to Glider Port by sunset to witness the sunset from my secret spot, Torrey Pines Gliderport, and if you’re there during operating hours, you can catch paragliders and hang gliders suspended midair!
You can even book a tandem tour with a guide from Torrey Pines Gliderport if you want to watch the sunset in a more adventurous way. Those who have tried it say that it feels like you’re one with the giant pelicans that fly by. It’s also a quiet and serene experience since the gliders rely on wind and not motors!
Ending the day overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Glider Port almost feels like you can sense the curvature of the earth you’re elevated so high. The glow of the setting sun lights up the ocean with golds and metallic blues and a perfect place to see another famous San Diego sunset!
San Diego Itinerary: Day 3
Monday | Food and Culture
It’s your last day in San Diego, so let’s eat good food and learn about San Diego’s history and the Indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican cultures that contributed to what it is today.
San Diego is on Native land, home to the Kumeyaay who were displaced by Spanish colonizers after having lived here for 10,000 years. After that, Mexico extended into almost a third of the USA, but it wasn’t until the USA won the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s – at considerable loss of life to Indigenous people – that what we now think of as “California” came into existence.
San Diego was and is home to Kumeyaay and Mexican-Americans with Indigenous and Spanish ancestry, whose history and presence thrives in San Diego.
Today’s itinerary includes visits to Old Town, Chicano Park, Barrio Logan, and Coronado Island.
Explore Old Town, California’s Birthplace
Old Town is called the “birthplace of California” and was the first Spanish settlement on the West Coast, dating back to 1769 – although Spanish colonizers actually arrived 300 years earlier but were fought back by the Kumeyaay. Once that first Mission was established, Spanish colonization spread northwards, ultimately establishing 21 Missions along the route that we now know of as Highway 101.
Today, the birthplace of California is a tourist destination filled with Mexican restaurants, shops, gardens, and live Mariachi music. It’s also a historic place to contemplate California’s history as you sit by the fountains, tour museums, and eat Mexican food while experiencing what San Diego might have been like 250 years ago as an outpost of Mexico and a prize of battle-worn Spanish colonization.
Start with here at the Old Town Mexican Cafe, a San Diego staple for over 40 years. This spot is a local favorite because they make their tortillas in-house and you can watch the tortilla makers through the window while you wait for your table.
Once seated, definitely order Mexico’s favorite breakfast, huevos rancheros, which are fried eggs served with salsa, rice, beans, and those freshly made tortillas. Since today is about honoring culture, you have to start your day by tasting food from it!
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Walk off brunch by exploring Old Town and visiting local shops. At one end of Old Town, you’ll find Old Town State Historic Park, a collection of 19th-century homes and businesses that provide a glimpse into colonial life in San Diego, complete with staff in period costumes recreating San Diego’s past at the height of Spanish colonization in the mid-1800s (which is a little eyebrow-raising, but certainly unique).
On the palm tree-lined streets outside the Historic Park, Old Town Village‘s restored buildings house museums, shops, galleries, and restaurants. You’ll feel a bit like you stepped back in time and traveled to another country entirely.
As you walk through Old Town Village and the Historic Park listening to live Mariachi music and stopping anywhere that catches your fancy, there are a few attractions not to miss. Here are a few Old Town highlights:
- Bazaar de Mundo features handmade and artisan-crafted treasures from throughout Latin Ameica and around the world. The market is a colorful treat to wander through!
- The Junipero Serra Museum tells the story of what we now know of as California, with Kumeyaay, Mexican, and Spanish exhibits spanning 1700 to 1920. You’ll also find contemporary art exhibitions by local artists and photo exhibits of what the area looked like in the early 20th century.
- Casa del Rey Moro African Museum, meaning House of the Moorish King, depicts African-American heritage in San Diego, focusing on African-Spanish and African-Mexican history and highlighting colonial and contemporary African world history throughout the diaspora.
- Take a tour of the very haunted Whaley House. It is deemed the most haunted house in America and was built in 1855 on land where criminals were hung. Since then, deaths and suicides occurred in the home and visitors say they hear the cries of a baby and see the ghosts of the hanged infamous thief, Yankee Jim Robinson, and of Violet Whaley. Though I have never been inside or dared to look, my sister swears she once saw an ominous figure through the front door that made her body go cold! (Entrance is $12, or is included with a Go San Diego all-inclusive pass)
Visit Chicano Park in Barrio Logan
Next, head away from the crowds of tourists and drive 10 minutes away to Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, a San Diego neighborhood rich with Indigenous and Mexican-American history, gigantic Chicano murals, cultural events, and a deep history of resistance.
An important way to honor the colonial history of San Diego is by supporting the people and cultures affected by colonial conditions like displacement and gentrification. San Diego was previously land owned by Mexico, and before Mexico was colonized by Spain it was populated by Indigenous communities. Their descendants make up the large Latinx community in San Diego, many who live in or around Barrio Logan.
Though the neighborhood of Barrio Logan is becoming gentrified, the community is no stranger to resistance and voicing their rights. Chicano Park was created after the construction of the Coronado Bridge that pierced right through the neighborhood of mostly Mexican-Americans, displacing them and closing businesses. The community came together and created a park beneath the bridge to take back the space, painting colorful murals of Che Guevara, Mayan pyramids, and symbols of the United Farm Workers.
The park is a stance against gentrification and race classism and has hosted protests for Chicanx and Latinx rights.
- Travel Tip: Talk a walking tour beneath the Coronado bridge where murals now decorate the same foundations that once invaded this community. Starting from Chicano Park, head south along Logan Avenue towards Sampson Street past artwork, locally-owned galleries and businesses.
Whenever you get hungry head to Las Cuatro Milpas, which has been owned and operated by three generations of the Estudillo family since the 1930s. As you wait in line (as there is usually a line) you get the smell of refried beans and fresh tortillas being made inside. They have a small menu, the average item price being $5, and you’ll order directly with the Estudillo women themselves.
Grab a plate of shredded pork tacos, Mexican rice and beans and find a picnic table outside in view of the murals.
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Drink Mexican Craft Beer
San Diego has the most breweries of any county in the country. The beer industry has grown to draw in tourism for festivals like San Diego’s International Beer Competition. We are serious about our beer. So how do you pick one brewery? Well, I’ll tell you.
Border X Brewing is the first Mexican-owned brewery in San Diego in an industry dominated by caucasian men, located in Barrio Logan and a necessary stop on our last day in San Diego. The brewery also runs Mujeres Brew Club, led by Carmen Favela and Esthela Davila to teach primarily women of color about local beer, the process and industry.
As you enter you’ll see contemporary art using skulls, the Virgin Mary, and Lotería, a traditional card game. Order the Blood Saison beer inspired by the Mexican drink Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus) or Abuelita’s Chocolate Stout with flavors of Mexican chocolate.
Take the Ferry to Coronado Island
It’s time to hit the open water to get an exceptional view of the San Diego skyline. A quick drive from Barrio Logan to the Convention Center will take you to the Coronado Ferry Landing to hop on a ferry heading to Coronado Island.
Coronado is a quiet and romantic neighborhood, home to the famous Hotel Del! This hotel used to be a popular mid-century vacation spot for celebrities from Hollywood and has been featured in movies like “Some Like it Hot” with Marilyn Monroe.
Getting to Coronado via the ferry costs only $5 (it’s also included with a Go San Diego all-inclusive pass) and runs every 30 minutes with the last ferry leaving Coronado at 9:30PM on Mondays.
Another option is to take a harbor cruise tour that takes you under the iconic Coronado Bridge.
Once you’ve landed in Coronado, walk down the main strip, see the Hotel Del, or hang out at Centennial Park for the best view of the Downtown skyline, like you would see in photos! Sit here and relax while you watch Downtown slowly light up as the day fades away.
Dinner with a View
If you’ve still got room after a day off feasting on Mexican cuisine, have dinner or drinks at the ferry landing.
- Head to Peohe’s for island-inspired seafood like Coconut Crunchy Shrimp with a view of Downtown and the harbor from your candle-lit table.
- Check out Il Fornaio Coronado for Italian food made by an Italian-born executive Chef. Try the vegan penne pomodoro (tomatoes, garlic, marinara sauce, and fresh basil)!
Night Out in the Gaslamp Quarter
If time and your energy permit, then hop on the ferry back to Downtown to start your night in the Gaslamp Quarter where locals and tourists come to let loose and enjoy themselves any day of the week. This quarter is the pulse of Downtown with some of the best bars and clubs:
- Altitude Sky Lounge: This place has one of my favorite rooftop views of Downtown and the harbor, perfect for a romantic evening and wine sipping. It’s 22 stories up and even gives you a view of Petco Park where you can watch the San Diego Padres play a baseball game from way above!
- Moonshine Flats: This is a huge country bar that is popular for line-dancing on the weekends and has drinks on the menu like a Texas Mule (Tito’s vodka, barrel-aged bitters, ginger beer, and fresh lime) and a Cowboy Cooler (Jack Daniel’s Rye, barrel-aged bitters, Fanta Pineapple Soda, and fresh lime). Yee haw!
- The Field: This is an authentic Irish pub with live Irish music that makes everyone feel cheerful! Underneath the rustic decor, you have to order a Snake Bite (Harp and cider) or a good ‘ol Guinness.
If you decide to dance and cheers the night away, either bring your car back to your accommodations and take a short Lyft back to Downtown, have a designated driver, or only visit one of these bars! The energy here is contagious so it’s easy to get caught up in the lights and music, so just plan accordingly!
I know that leaving San Diego won’t be easy, but I hope you spent your time here well by taking these tips from a local who loves this city more than any other.
I love all of its different faces: its surfer vibes to its fancy restaurants; its myriad of cultural groups who bring their food, history, and music; its diverse natural beauty from the coast to the mountains to the desert; and its weather, but that actually stays pretty much the same all year round.
I know you’ll fall in love with San Diego for all of these reasons, too.
San Diego Weekend Getaway Itinerary Summary
Here’s a quick at-a-glance summary of the San Diego weekend itinerary! Bookmark this post so you can come back to it later.
- Breakfast at The Mission | Address: 1250 J St., San Diego, CA
- Meet animals at the San Diego Zoo | Address: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA
- Lunch in Balboa Park
- Explore Balboa Park’s many museums, trails, and gardens
- Botanical Garden | Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA
- Fleet Science Center* | Address: 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA
- Museum of Photographic Arts* | Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA
- San Diego Arts Institute* | Address: 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA
- The Museum of Us* | Address: 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA
- Italian dinner in Little Italy | Address: Little Italy, San Diego, CA
- Salsa and Bachata at Cafe Seville | Address: 353 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA
Day Two, Option 1
- Pick up a bike and explore Mission Beach
- Bike rental from Hamel’s Surf Shop | Address: Surfrider Square, San Diego, CA
- Explore the Pacific Beach Pier | Address: 4500 Ocean Blvd, San Diego, CA
- Breakfast at Woody’s | Address: 4111 Ocean Blvd, San Diego, CA
- Go paddleboarding, surfing or kayaking
- Lunch and Drinks in Pacific Beach | Address: Pacific Beach, San Diego, CA
- Play at Belmont Amusement Park* | Address: 3146 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA
- Watch the sunset at Sunset Cliffs | Address: 1100 Sunset Cliffs Blvd, San Diego, CA
Day Two, Option 2
- Breakfast in Old Town | Address: Old Town, San Diego, CA
- Explore Old Town Village & Historic Park
- Wander through the Bazaar de Mundo | Address: 4133 Taylor St, San Diego, CA
- See the murals at Chicano Park in Barrio Logan | Address: Chicano Park, San Diego, CA
- Lunch at Las Cuatro Milpas | Address: 1857 Logan Ave San Diego, CA
- Drink Mexican craft beer at Border X Brewing | Address: 2181 Logan Ave, San Diego CA
- Take the Coronado Ferry* to Coronado
- 5th Avenue Departure at the Convention Center | Address: 600 Convention Way, San Diego, CA
- Coronado Ferry Landing | Address: 1201 First Street, Coronado CA
- Dinner with a Sunset View
- Night Out in Gaslamp Quarter | Address: 614 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA
* These activities are included on the Go San Diego pass! Pick one up before your trip to save some money.
About Our Guest Poster: For more recommendations on things to see or eat in San Diego, check out Rio’s San Diego category on her blog The TwentySomething Traveler. Follow her on Instagram and YouTube to see pics and vlogs of her travels and San Diego!
Have you decided which option you want to take for day 2? Or are you booking an extra day and doing both? Let us know in the comments below!
Psst: Planning a trip to California? Take a look at some of our other posts:
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Our Top Travel Tips & Resources
- Booking Flights: To score flight deals, search on Skyscanner or Kayak. Money-saving tips: fly mid-week or on the weekend; fly carry-on only on a budget airline; and take red-eyes or early morning flights.
- Accommodations: We usually stay in budget-friendly, vacation rentals, boutique hotels or private rooms in hostels. We use Booking.com to book hotels (we love their flexible cancellation policy) and Hostelworld to book hostels (low deposit, easy change/cancellation, and excellent reviews). For vacation rentals, we prefer to book using VRBO (they’ve got lower fees and better support than Airbnb, and we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record.) You can also book vacation rentals on Expedia and Hotels.com. We’ve also used TrustedHousesitters as both hosts (for our home and our fur-child) and travelers!
- Travel Insurance: We always, always, ALWAYS buy travel insurance for international trips, and we STRONGLY suggest it – visit our Travel Insurance Guide to find out why. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing for international travel insurance. SafetyWing is one of the few policies that covers Covid-19, and they have excellent monthly policies that are perfect for Digital Nomads and long term travelers!
- Vaccines & Meds: We use the travel guides on the CDC website to research recommended medications and vaccines for international trips. We always recommend getting every vaccine recommended by the CDC! You can get them at your primary care doctor’s office or a walk-in pharmacy.
- Tours: We love booking guided tours, especially food tours and walking tours, to get a local’s perspective and a history lesson while sight-seeing! We book our tours using Viator and GetYourGuide.
- Transportation: We use Rome2Rio to figure out how to get from place to place using public transit. When we book a rental car, we use Kayak to compare rental companies and find the best deal.
- Luggage Storage: Whenever we’re checking out early or taking advantage of a long layover, we use Stasher or LuggageHero to safely store our luggage while we’re running around. On Stasher, you can use the code PW10 for 10% off your booking!
- What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!