How to Experience San Diego in 4 Days
San Diego’s famously welcoming weather, epic coastline and ever-changing activities lineup have the potential to keep anyone happy for a lifetime — and as evidence of this, a recent and widely reported survey ranked the city as one of the top 10 happiest in the U.S.
Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to spend all their days in “America’s Finest City.” With smart planning, though, it’s possible to experience some of the best the city has to offer in under a week. And we’ve got the lowdown on how to do just that.
Any San Diego trip worth its salt — or saltwater, maybe — will incorporate visits to the city’s verdant cliff-lined Pacific coast, beaches and natural parks. In a region known for its foodie-favorite restaurants, it would be outright wrong not to also plan your journey at least in part around visits to inventive, headline-making eateries and lounges serving flavors from around the globe. And while you’d need much more time to visit all 90 of the city’s museums, four days is enough to at least get a taste of the cultural milieu on offer — and the same goes for the region’s theme and adventure parks.
You’ll find all of the above mixed in to our flexible 4-day itinerary. And even repeat visitors will want to take notes, as San Diego’s in the midst of unveiling a plethora of new experiences, restaurants and nightlife venues that open up all new reasons to explore.
Day 1: City Tours and Sunsets
For your first day in town, get the lay of the sunshine-filled land with an Old Town Trolley Tour — a hop-on hop-off sightseeing tour that's been a classic fixture of the city for more than three decades.
The shiny trolley offers free shuttle pickup at select hotels and takes guests to 12 distinct areas of the city — a fun and efficient way to get a sense of place, note intriguing areas you'll want to explore in depth later, or just spontaneously hop off to experience a neighborhood on the spot. Tickets are good for the entire day, so if you decide to, say, step off to get a good look at the Star of India (the oldest active sailing ship in the world at 159 years old); to stroll waterfront Seaport Village, with its winning combination of tranquil harbor views, popular eateries and fun shops to explore; or to eat your way through seven stations serving oven-baked pizza, lobster rolls, cheeseburger tacos, gelato and more at the Little Italy Food Hall; you can simply hop back on post-exploration to continue your journey.
Along the way, you'll be treated to sweeping views of the Pacific, the city and the seaside cliffs in the distance. Of course, if your first priority is getting out on said water, you can opt to start your trip with a Tiki Time Bay Tour instead, to view some of San Diego's most iconic sights from a Hawaiian-themed party barge on San Diego Bay. Among Tiki Time's options are a landmarks tour led by an expert city guide who doubles as an improv comedian; and an evening tour timed perfectly to catch a San Diego sunset.
Whether by sea or by land, you will want to catch the sunset on your first day in San Diego. If you're not opting for a magic-hour sail, you'll want to write a visit to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park — in ink — on your agenda.
You'll find the 68-acre park made famous by its sundown vistas in San Diego's Point Loma neighborhood. Walk out onto the jutting nature-made pier to witness the crash of waves against the rugged coastline, take in the panoramic sea views and claim your spot on the smooth sandstone rock or a bench as the show unfolds. Tip: Since this is, not surprisingly, a popular spot at sundown, arrive early so you've got enough time to secure parking. Ladera Street and Luscomb Street often have good availability.
Alas, gorging on beautiful scenery fills the spirit, but not the belly. So unless you brought a picnic basket to the cliffs (not a bad idea), you'll need to replenish after the day's adventures. Head two miles east and you'll land at Point Loma Marina, where dozens of dining options await — including fresh seafood, Mexican, Thai, pizza and pub-style restaurants.
Ketch Grill and Taps is a beloved choice for casual dining, and the locally-sourced menu features fusion dishes like spicy wonton tacos with jicama slaw; and sesame-crusted bigeye tuna plated with yellow curry cauliflower and sweet sake mushrooms. Enjoy them on the outdoor patio with a house-brewed Hazy Conditions IPA or an elderflower- and cucumber-laced Spa Day cocktail. The delicious provisions and views of the twinkling harbor will mark a fitting end to your epic first day of vacation.
Day 2: Mission [Bay] Accomplished
Make day two a mix of exhilarating outdoor activities and relaxing old-timey fun in the Mission Bay neighborhood. Located east of Mission and Pacific Beaches and about 7 miles northwest of downtown, Mission Bay's islands, coves and peninsulas boast 27 miles of shoreline, despite occupying just 7 square miles of land. No surprise it's a veritable paradise for seafarers — and that includes paddle boarders, kayakers and jet skiers.
Pick your mode of aqueous transportation from one of the half-dozen watersports rental companies dotted across Mission Bay's shores, and you're on your way. Paddle your way over to Fiesta Island on Mission Bay's east side, a dog-friendly peninsular park great for picnics and sunbathing.
If being out on the open water isn't your thing, there are just as many bike rental outfitters to choose from, and 12 miles of well-kept bike paths to cruise. In fact, you can circumnavigate the entire Mission Bay area on two wheels via the Mission Bay Bike Path, a route that touches 10 public parks, two wildlife reserves and seemingly endless views of the shimmering water. Tip: Near the path's end (by Sunset Point Park on the southwestern part of the loop) stop in at hidden gem Sportsmen's Seafoods for a tuna burger or a piping-hot plate of fresh-caught fish and chips, served in an ultra-casual setting.
While in the area, you're bound to catch a glimpse of some technicolor tents, curvaceous rollercoaster tracks, spinning rides and other signs of lighthearted California fun. This is Belmont Park, one of San Diego's happiest places for nearly 100 years. Hold your sweetheart's hand as you stroll through the beachfront park, nosh on giant pretzels or take a dive on the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. (Admission is free; buy tickets or wristbands to get in on the games and rides).
If your party includes critter-curious kids (or adults, for that matter), SeaWorld San Diego is another popular theme park in Mission Bay. Opt to spend the day viewing its dolphins, sharks and pilot whales without the worry of being deprived of an adrenaline surge, thanks to the park's fully-loaded lineup of rides. Emperor is the newest addition, taking riders to a 153-foot height, where they promptly undergo a 14-story vertical drop. All this at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.
Whichever Mission Bay activity you choose to explore, one thing's for certain at the end of the day: Hunger. Settle for nothing less than stellar with a meal at TIDAL, whose prix fixe menu rotates nightly, featuring standouts like spicy shrimp tamales and dirty-rubbed sticky pork ribs, plus daily vegetarian options like forest mushrooms with caramelized shallot and roasted cauliflower steak. Whether you eat on the spacious bayfront dock (complete with a cozy firepit) or in the chic domed-ceilinged dining room, the ambiance will only add to the deliciousness.
Alternatively, end the day on a literal high note at Cannonball for sushi and Pacific Rim-inspired cuisine on a rooftop patio. Fusion favorites like the sushi burrito and coconut-ginger panna cotta go down especially easy with a guava- and spice-infused Midway Margarita. The jaw-dropping Mission Beach views don't hurt, either.
Day 3: Torrey Pines and Other Finds on the Northwest End
Venture to San Diego's North County region for a hike through Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve — one of the wildest stretches of California coastal land, period. This 2,000-acre park embodies timeless and unique California landscapes, with masses of gnarly, umber-colored sandstone heaving skyward; rock faces falling steeply into green-tufted ravines; vast tracts of salt marsh; and Torrey pine forest for which the park is named. The namesake tree is critically endangered, and found uniquely in this protected place.
Pick one (or more) of the park's 10 scenic trails and prepare for sights — lagoons, sandstone gorges, vivid wildflowers and Pacific Ocean stretching to infinity — all of which you'll want to tuck away as brand-new "happy places" in your mind's memory bank.
If you're traveling with kids, you'll want to pay a visit to LEGOLAND® California while you're in the area. The onsite water park is an ideal stop on summer trips, comprising a plethora of waterslides; a "not-so-lazy river" that encourages kids to build their own drift-ready raft; a splash pad for littles; and LEGO®-themed water play attractions that let kids build bridges, dams and even whole cities while getting happily soaked. Rollercoasters, indoor building stations, fossil digs and rock climbing walls are just the start of the fun to be had on dry land.
Wind down the day with a shareable plate of house-made focaccia to accompany the fresh seafood and jaw-dropping vistas at George's at the Cove in La Jolla. The sweeping sea views from the ocean terrace; the craft cocktails served up at the Level2 lounge (located on the restaurant's middle level); and the seasonal menu showcasing local ingredients (the seafood stew with saffron aioli is a house favorite) make this a coveted spot for upscale dining. In fact, it's so sought after, you'll have to reserve several weeks in advance — especially for weekend visits.
Looking for something less formal? Also located in La Jolla is Puesto, a hip, modern, mural-bedecked hotspot that serves up authentic Mexican street food. The Baja fish tacos with on organic blue corn tortillas are a must-try. Tip: The restaurant offers great Taco Tuesday and weekday Happy Hour specials.
Or for an experience where inventive dining meets locally-produced liquors, head to the tasting room at the Cutwater Spirits in the North County Inland neighborhood. You'll find such stick-to-your-ribs dishes as the Bourbon Smoked Brisket (marinated in the house-distilled bourbon, naturally) alongside gluten-free and vegetarian plates like the chickpea, carrot and eggplant Malaysian Curry. Don't leave without trying the Tiki Monkey Sticky Toffee Pudding — or a handful of the whiskeys, tequilas, gins, vodkas and rums that are made on the premises. Tip: If you're driving, don't fret. They've also got some creative non-alcoholics on the menu — like the "No Pear Pressure," infused with flavors of pear, cinnamon, ginger, lemon and nutmeg.
Day 4: Balboa Park and Downtown Nightlife
On your last day in the city, absorb as much as possible by visiting the area's most concentrated cultural oasis: Balboa Park. In an area less than 2 square miles in size, you'll find 17 museums encompassing a variety of themes — plus performing arts venues, gardens and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
The obvious question is where to start. There are no wrong answers, but "at the beginning" usually works, and in this case that means The Nat. Known more formally as The San Diego Natural History Museum, this monument to scientific discovery was one of the first two museums to inhabit Balboa Park, and its exhibits trace — in living color — the story of Southern California's natural history from prehistory to today.
Art lovers will be spoiled for choice among the park's five art museums, but the San Diego Museum of Art — the largest, oldest and best-known art museum in the group — should make the top of the list. Masterpieces from impressionist masters including Matisse and Monet are on loan through August 7, while Chinese artist Wang Qingsong's satirical, elaborately staged and thought-provoking photography exhibit titled Social Mobility is on view through August 14. The museum's permanent collection, too, is nothing short of staggering, with works by El Greco, Goya and other Spanish masters; Calder, Sargent, Eakins and other renowned American artists; South and Southeast Asian art from as early as the first century AD; and one of the country's most respected collections of German Expressionist works.
The Mingei International Museum, on the other hand, showcases a different brand of art: objects of daily use. The museum's name means "art of the people," and this idea extends throughout the space, where you'll find crafts, toys, dolls, ceramics and baskets created by craftspeople from ancient to modern times.
Tip: Time your visit to enjoy lunch, happy hour or — best of all — a special prix fixe dinner (reservations required) at ARTIFACT, the museum's restaurant. You'll be treated to cuisine prepared with ancient cooking methods and culturally-specific ingredients.
Fantasy fans will want to check out the brand-new Comic-Con Museum — the first permanent exhibit space launched by the creators of the famed convention of the same name. Inside, visitors can score up-close views of props, costumes and more memorabilia used on the sets of the Marvel and DC films, the Star Trek television series and many others. There's also a nostalgic Archie Comics exhibit where viewers of a certain age can reminisce about all the hijinks that went down at Riverdale High.
There's the Automotive Museum for car aficionados; the WorldBeat Center celebrating indigenous cultures and the African diaspora; and the Fleet Science Center, whose 100+ interactive exhibits bring scientific investigation and innovation to the fore. Even if you're only touring the museums for one day, you might find the Explorer Pass a worthwhile purchase as it offers a significant discount at most of the park's museums and gardens.
Continue the day's worldly theme with dinner at beloved nearby Japanese eatery Weapon Ramen inside Liberty Public Market. If the bowls brimming with handcrafted noodles, authentic tonkotsu pork-bone broth, bamboo shoots and soy-marinated eggs (plant-based options are also available) don't call your name, you'll be in a prime position to change plans. The market is home to dozens of local restaurants, offering a variety of world cuisines (Greek, Filipino, Peruvian, Hawaiian, Italian and American, just to name a few), plus fresh-pressed juices, coffees, pastries and boutique shops.
Evening presents an opportunity to experience San Diego's hippest nightlife in the Gaslamp Quarter downtown. You'll find everything from swanky rooftop spots to hot dance clubs headlined by celebrity DJs dotted along the area's 16 strollable blocks.
For a unique experience, try speakeasy/tiki bar hybrid False Idol in Little Italy, where the array of festive tropical drinks will have your head spinning, even if you don't venture to the "exceptionally strong cocktails" portion of the menu. But first things first — you'll have to get in. Time inside the ornately decorated lounge (think a bamboo-lined bar, hand-carved Polynesian-style art and hundreds of colored glass balls emitting mood lighting from fishing nets on the ceiling) is highly sought after, so make a reservation well in advance or arrive no later than opening time. For cocktails in the fresh night air, 14th-floor rooftop bar and lounge The Nolen is a top choice in the Gaslamp Quarter, boasting sweeping views of the city, the bay and the Coronado bridge.
If you'd rather cap off your trip with some live entertainment, catch a game at Petco Park — a stadium known for its architecture, large public spaces and a craft beer lineup that rivals the hometown Padres for power hitters. Or grab tickets to a show at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. Located on the edge of San Diego Bay and in the heart of Downtown, "the Shell" is a brand-new architectural marvel and a hub of diverse entertainment on the San Diego Bay waterfront.
Headliners this spring and summer include Tony Award-winning singer Lea Salonga; comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short; and Grammy-winning vocalist Common. If your trip is timed right, you can even pop in for one of the San Diego Symphony's rehearsals — which are free and open to the public on select dates. Regardless of who graces the stage, you'll drift to the end of your San Diego adventure with a memorable performance backlit by sparkling bay views.
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Funded in part with City of San Diego Tourism Marketing District Assessment Funds.