San Diego, CA 3 Day Itinerary
The city of San Diego (or America’s Finest City) is known to everyone across the country (+ potentially even the world) for it’s laid back culture, beautiful coast lines, and year round perfect weather – which are all reasons I love living in Southern California. Although it’s one of the larger cities in the USA, and borders Mexico, San Diego as a city feels to me like it’s really multiple cities in one, because all the little towns have their own character. From casual beach towns, downtown/business areas, and both new and historical sections, you’ll find it all. I’ve heard it before, and I know I’ll hear it again how people come to visit San Diego, CA and end up coming back again or even moving here. As a San Diego local, I pride myself on being fun and adventurous as well as history lovin’, wine tastin’, tasty food eatin’, and San Diego livin’ expert.
I wrote this post specifically in mind for first timers to San Diego that will lead them to more than just your typical major touristy spots. It’s my pick on how to spend a long weekend, 3 days, in San Diego, CA.
Day One – Gaslamp & Little Italy
Welcome to San Diego! *this guide is assuming you’ve arrived Day 1 in the morning* Once you get your bag and check into your hotel (scroll down for my favorite hotels in San Diego!) grab your car and head to downtown or as we call it Gaslamp quarter and grab a quick breakfast at:
- Cafe 21 – fresh flavor, great ingredients, and known for their sangrias.
- Lazy Hippo – quirky, country-style cafe perfect for breakfast.
- Le Parfait – french bakery with amazing croissants.
- Donut Bar – famous donuts featured everywhere you can imagine with ever changing flavors that you couldn’t even dream of.
After you’ve finished breakfast, I recommend walking down to Seaport Village where you can eat at Sam The Cooking Guy’s restaurant (check out my meet and greet with him here), shop all the novelty and touristy shops, grab a snack/drink/or dessert all while taking in the salty air from San Diego Bay. Once you’re done walking around there, head north just a few minutes walking to the USS Midway which is a retired United States Navy aircraft carrier now open for self-guided or docent-led tours. Right in the park by the Midway is the famous “Unconditional Surrender Statue” or kissing sailor statue kiss of a sailor and a nurse at the end of World War II.
You’ll probably want to relax at your hotel and freshen up before dinner and the evening ahead in Little Italy which is known for its lively atmosphere, wine bars, and authentic Sicilian cuisine (aka fresh pasta, artisan pizzas, and Italian wines). These are my favorite restaurants in Little Italy that you honestly can’t go wrong with:
- Barbusa – Busalacchi family-owned with modern Sicilian cuisine.
- Bencotto – a chic bi-level restaurant with handmade pasta & classic desserts.
- Civico 1845 – their menu features southern Italian cuisine and reflects what’s being served in Italy today.
Before or after dinner for sunset or happy hour depending on where you day takes you, I’d recommend stopping by one of these rooftop bars:
- Kettner Exchange – rooftop patio with harbor views, craft cocktails with shareable bites. It’s the perfect spot for some pre-dinner apps and drinks. Or an easy place to spend an evening.
- Garibaldi – though this isn’t technically in Little Italy, it’s a speak easy and totally worth stopping by for the views of San Diego bay alone. They have great craft cocktails and perfect little apps (though I’d wait for food at dinner in Little Italy!)
- Nolita Hall – inspired by Europe’s legendary beer cities, Nolita Hall is the perfect spot for lunch, brunch, dinner, and every time a plane flys over – the board behind the bar changes. It’s also a great spot for a game, they have a lot of TV’s and shuffle board.
- The Waterfront – one of San Diego’s oldest bars, you come here for the ambiance, the pub grub, and happy hour. It’s a unique spot in Little Italy that can’t be missed.
- Ballast Point – a great spot for local brews (that are now sold nationwide), other local wines/hard kombuchas paired with great food. A perfect spot to chill and grab food/drinks plus it’s kid friendly.
Day Two – North Park, Balboa Park, & La Jolla Cove
You’ll want to be nourished for your busy day ahead! Wake up and head to North Park for breakfast, but before you leave don’t forget to stop by Pigment for the cutest little nick nacks, books, gifts, and things you didn’t think you did, but actually need. Breakfast options in North Park:
- Parkhouse Eatery – a cozy spot for brunch, this converted house is calling your name. You’ll feel like you’re going over to Grandma’s house for brunch, not going to a restaurant.
- Hash House a Go Go – twisted farm food and famous drinks inspired by Midwest meals. These plates are not only delicious, and fresh but they’re beautiful.
- Snooze – a very retro breakfast place with delicious bloody mary’s and mix & match eggs benes, where else can you find this?
- Communal Coffee – a very Instagramable coffee shop + cafe that is always on the top of my list of places to grab a coffee to walk around to bring my laptop and book to hangout in.
*Beer Lovers* I’m including a self guided brewery tour to do through North Park because there are so many brewery options there, sip your way to them all:
- Mike Hess – began as a home brewer in 1995 in his Philadelphia. When he moved to San Diego in 2001, he built a 10 gallon, 3-tier gravity system and then Mike Hess brewery was opened. With limited releases, seasonal, and classics – you’ll be sure to find a brew you like.
- Original 40 – brewed in San Diego with a great atmosphere they brew light, dark, and IPAs, they got their name from the original 40 acre piece of land that is now North Park.
- Belching Beaver – before you go in for some beers, make sure you take a picture with the “Greeting from San Diego Mural” right outside. They brew their own beers and have a variety of options including nitro beers, seasonal specialties and their best seller, Peanut Butter Milk Stout.
- North Park Beer Co – spacious brewery & taproom serving San Diego-style ales & lagers amid dapper decor. Famous for their Hop-Fu and known for their IPAs, come thirsty.
- Eppig Brewery – honoring the Eppig family’s Pre-Prohibition brewing roots you will find a lot of pilsners, ales, and lagers.
- Modern Times – a few brewers, coffee roasters, and culinary wizards came together in 2013 in San Diego to create Modern Times beer and now they’re distributed throughout the west coast.
After breakfast head over to Balboa Park where you’ll feel transported somewhere out of San Diego, I like to feel like I’m in Barcelona. But Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre cultural and entertainment paradise, an urban park with 17 museums, gardens, and the world famous San Diego Zoo.
There are so many different museums to see — art, science, history, space exploration, or model railroads depending on your interest. Will you stroll through the Japanese Friendship Garden, ride the vintage Balboa Park Carousel, or hear one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
The zoo can take as long as you’d want it to – if you motor through it I say you can do it in a half day. While it can be longer (especially with kids) I do think it’s something worth going to. In Balboa Park you’ll find coffee stands, food trucks, and also one of my favorite spots to grab an appetizer, drink, or even lunch – The Prado. I’d 100% make sure you get a spot on their terrace patio for beautiful views of the park.
Get ready to switch gears and head down to one of my favorite places – La Jolla Cove! Park around the “Children’s Pool” and look down at all the seals and sea lions that have taken over part of the cove and this area of beach. They’re fun to watch as they roll around in the sand, sunbathe, and play in the waves. After you’re done watching the sea life, stroll down to the cove and wander through the caves. This part of La Jolla Cove has restrooms, space to lay on the beach, but you can also snorkel and see garibaldi fish, you can’t miss them, they’re bright orange.
Parking tip: you will have better luck finding street parking up in the village by the shops or back a few blocks in the residential area than down by the beaches.
Places to eat in La Jolla:
- Cody’s – great comfort food (I’m partial to their brunch) and even better service and decor.
- George’s – one of La Jolla’s best restaurants with aerial views of the ocean, great drinks, and apps.
- La Valencia Hotel, The Med – a high end lounge inside the beautiful pink hotel. Grab a cocktail and/or food and enjoy the view.
- Herringbone – though this place isn’t on the water, the ambiance is unbeatable. There’s a rustic red brick feel, yet coastal charm with a huge tree inside. They’re famous for their oysters, wine selection, and I’m partial to their cheeseboard.
- Duke’s – a Hawaiian inspired menu, located right on the water gives you options for fish, steaks, meats, and more. It’s a great view right on the water (if you sit on their patio) and you have to finish with dessert, the hula pie.
- Caroline’s SeaSide Cafe – this spot is located in La Jolla Shores near Scripps Pier, but it has killer views (right on the water) and the food is so tasty. It’s a local spot, but it does get busy.
After you grab dinner at one of these restaurants, walk La Jolla Shores to the Scripps Pier for sunset. You’ll catch great views of the beach and sunset together.
Day Three – Coronado & Old Town
Wake up to stroll around Coronado!
To get to Coronado you have to drive across the Coronado bridge which is a sight in itself – this connects downtown San Diego to Coronado and you’ll drive over San Diego Bay. Coronado is just across the bay from downtown San Diego and is often voted as one of the USA’s best beaches. Rent a scurry and cruise around the neighborhoods and swoon over all the cute cottages and mansions that you probably will never be able to afford. Coronado is home to one of the larger navy bases in San Diego so you’ll see a lot of military personnel on the island.
The Hotel Del is a red roofed, iconic hotel that attracts people from all over the world. I like to think of it as a castle on the beach. Fun fact: the del was used as an inspiration for the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.
Depending on if you’re in the mood for lunch/brunch/breakfast there’s so many options! Here are a few of my favorite:
- The Henry – I love this spot! I would decorate my house like this restaurant, it’s great for lunch/brunch and if the line gets too long they also have a small bakery/cafe to grab a pastry with coffee while you stroll around.
- Sunset Deck (located at The Hotel Del) – a more casual spot at the Del, where I’d recommend sharing an app and grabbing a cocktail! Great views of the Pacific from this deck as well.
- Garage Buona Forchetta – an amazing Italian spot, though they have a few locations spread out around San Diego, it’s not one to miss. They are known for authentic neapolitan pizza.
- Coronado Brewing Company – another great brewery in San Diego and their logo is a mermaid, what more do you want? They have great sandwiches, burgers, and shareable bites.
If you decide to have a little fancier or “swanky” if I may, of a dinner on Coronado here are some options:
- Serea (located at the Hotel Del) – fine dining, a farm to seafood feel. Order the flash fried fish – and you won’t be sorry.
- Leroy’s Kitchen and Lounge – they call it farm to table, but I like to add a spin on it. They have great craft cocktails and an open concept restaurant.
- Peohe’s – Upscale Island inspired seafood with a harbor view.
Head north just a few miles to Old Town San Diego which is the site of the first Spanish settlement in the U.S. West Coast and is 12 acres of Mexican inspired shopping, restaurants, and historical sites. If you’re in San Diego for Dia de los Muertos (November 1st – 2nd) or Cinco De Mayo (May 5th), Old Town is a full scale celebration.
Along Juan Street you will find a lot of different Mexican restaurants with ladies making homemade tortillas outside. My personal favorite is Casa Guadalajara, just around the corner from the main drag and within walking distance. They have a lively mariachi band, delicious food, and even better margaritas. Their ambiance is the best!
Not to miss in Old Town San Diego is the famous Whaley House, Thomas Whaley and his family once lived and now it’s a California historic landmark and museum. Did I mention it’s named one of the most Haunted Houses in America?
**Bonus Day** Day Four – Pacific Beach & Mission Beach
Pacific Beach is a buzzing beach town in San Diego that is one and only. During the day it’s a great place to walk the boardwalk, grab a drink, lay on the beach, or shop, and at night turns into the place where college kids go out and party.
Casual Eats/Drinks in Pacific Beach:
- World Famous – a local favorite, almost *almost* will give you a dive bar feel but right on the water. Their happy hour is their best.
- JRDN – trust me, the menu is everything.
- Pacific Beach Fish Shop – located off the beaten path but fish tacos, crab cakes, fish ‘n’ chips – you are craving seafood they have it.
- Waterfront –
Bring the party (+ food) in Pacific Beach:
- El Prez – a rooftop over the ocean, drinks, apps with a view, what more do you want in life?
- Shore Club – get your party on with the red bull slushie, or if you’re feeling really crazy stay for their fish bowl races. .
You can either rent a bike or walk down the boardwalk to Mission Beach where you’ll find Belmont Park. Belmont Park is your classic (almost retro style) amusement park and has something for everything – miniature golf, arcade games, bumper cars, or a ride on the restored 1925 Giant Dipper Roller Coaster.
After the fun of Belmont Park, relax on the rooftop and stare at the beach/boardwalk while enjoying a cocktail and sushi at Cannonball.
Obviously, these days are made to be able to mix and match what you’re in the mood for! If you have any specific questions about anything San Diego related, shoot me a DM on my Instagram (@blondeoutofwater) and I’d love to be your personal tour guide! Looking for more San Diego spots to visit? Read my blog on top places in San Diego to visit!
San Diego Tips/Extra’s To Do
- I’d rent a car. San Diego’s public transportation leaves a lot to be desired, and yes there are always a lot of Uber’s/Lyft’s available San Diego is a pretty spread out city.
- Everything is always 15-20 minutes away. I kid you not, ask any San Diegan how far it is from the airport to La Jolla or from La Jolla to Del Mar or from Balboa Park to Mission Beach….for it all “15-20 minutes” and this is assuming no traffic of course.
- The grungier looking taco shop is typically the best and most authentic.
- Farmer’s Market! If you can find one on a day you’re in town, I’d recommend trying to stop by one. You’ll find organic produce, local artisans and live music at vibrant outdoor markets. I personally love the Little Italy one on Saturday mornings.
- Make a splash at SeaWorld! I grew up wanting to be a Shamu trainer so personally I have a strong tie to SeaWorld. There’s plenty to do for kids and adults of all ages. It’s a great place to spend the day and learn about the ocean.
- Cruise through San Diego Bay on a harbor cruise. You can either do a north or south harbor cruise (each is an hour) or you can do both for two hours.
- Drive Mount Soledad, it’s in between La Jolla and Pacific Beach and it has some of the best views in San Diego!
- Hike the Torrey Pines Trails and burn off some of the delicious food you’ve been eating. Torrey Pines has some beautiful cliff and ocean views, don’t forget to look up to try and see hang gliders!
- Kayak La Jolla Cove. You can either guide yourself or go on a tour. I’d recommend a tour from Everyday California and they’ll take you into the caves and teach you some amazing facts about the city of San Diego and it’s marine life.
- Cruise around Mission Bay. Mission Bay is a mademan bay located in San Diego, you can see it along the 5 freeway and it’s a great place to paddle boat, sail, jet ski, or do any sort of water activity. There’s also a path that goes around the bay which is perfect for roller blading, biking, running, or even a walk. Along the path there are also endless amounts of playgrounds for kiddies.
- Ocean Beach known as the “hippie” beach has a lot of little boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, a pier and is just south of one of my favorite places to watch the sunset – Sunset Cliffs.
- Del Mar is located in North County San Diego and is home to the Del Mar fair and horse races. The beaches are beautiful and there’s countless shopping and restaurants.
- San Diego has Moderate temperatures year round (the average year round temperature is 72 degrees F) along with minimal rainfall means no matter what time of year you visit, it will be perfect. Summer is beach season to enjoy sunny weather and warm water in the ocean and bay for water sports like surfing, paddle boarding, swimming, and boating. Though it’s a little cooler during winter months, it’s perfect for outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and walking along the shore. And if you’re from a colder weather climate – you’ll think it feels like summer!
- Need more San Diego Ideas? Check out all my San Diego recommendations: best outdoor dining in San Diego, best vegan restaurants in San Diego, local San Diego businesses to support, new spots in San Diego you can’t miss, meet and greet with the local legend, and my first guide to San Diego!
What was your favorite part of San Diego? I’d love to know!
~ XOXO, the local San Diegan, Amanda // Blonde out of Water