San Diego is the birthplace of California, the last big city before entering Mexico, and a top-notch tourist destination. A day trip to San Diego is not nearly enough to explore all the majesty of this California city, but it’s still one of the best day trips in the country. With a world-class zoo, historic islands, golden beaches, and stunning weather year-round, San Diego is a fun spot for kiddos, a romantic getaway, and a fabulous place to party with friends. It’s just two hours south of Los Angeles and shares a border with Tijuana, Mexico, making the city a perfect day trip from either location or any of the other Orange County hot spots. In this travel guide, we’ll line out your San Diego one-day itinerary. Let’s roam!
Explore San Diego with Let’s Roam!
When you need to explore a city quickly, organized scavenger hunts are your best friend! With our 13 awesome sightseeing hunts, you can easily and efficiently experience Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park, La Jolla Shores, and Point Loma. Our hunts are not only well-organized but exciting and full of fascinating trivia! You’ll learn all the juicy details about the sights, complete fun photo and video challenges, rack up points, and compete against other San Diego squads for the top spot on our city leaderboard. Download our scavenger hunt app before your San Diego trip, and fill your itinerary with fun!
Why San Diego?
While Hollywood and San Francisco get most of the international travel attention when it comes to California’s cities, San Diego is more often listed as the favorite of those in the know. It’s a short drive from more prominent cities, has some of the oldest historic sights in the state, and is a stone’s throw from the beauties of Baja. Cliffside hiking trails, traditional Mexican art galleries, and the famous San Diego Harbor give this city a traditional, yet unique vibe. It boasts excellent eateries, a stunning coastline, awesome parks for the kiddos, and vibrant nightlife, providing a little bit of something for every kind of traveler.
Getting Around San Diego
While San Diego does have some tour options (more on that in a minute) and decent public transit, it’s easiest to get around by car. This is especially true if you’re taking a road trip from LA. Actually, whether you take the train, a bus, or rent a car, the trip from LA to the city of San Diego will take 2-2.5 hours. However, having your own vehicle once in the city makes it easier to stay on schedule, although sometimes parking can be a beast. The major sites of San Diego are spread out over a large area, and utilizing public transit can be difficult and time-consuming to get to some of the spots on our itinerary. It’s not impossible, but for the most efficient day trip, if it’s in your budget, consider renting a car for the day.
Alternatively, you could take Uber or another rideshare if you don’t want to mess with renting a car and driving in the city. There are options. Consult your budget. Do some research on the options, and choose the transit plan that fits your budget best.
Pointer: When driving to San Diego, make sure to stay on I-5 along the Pacific Ocean. Google will likely try to take you onto toll road 73. Not only will you miss out on the coastal views, but this route can add $10-15 to your trip and will only save you ten minutes or so. The drive along the coast will allow you to make quick stops in several great beach towns like Del Mar, Torrey Pines, and Carlsbad.
Hop-On-Hop-Off Trolley Tour
San Diego also has a wonderful hop-on-hop-off trolley tour. The tour encompasses Old Town, stopping at 12 spots, including Embarcadero Marina, Old Town Market, Little Italy, Balboa Park, and Coronado/Orange Avenue. When you’re on a tight schedule, staying in Old Town is a great option. You’ll see a good deal, and it will be easy for you and take minimal planning. The tour takes about 2.5 hours if you don’t get off, but you can stop at as many or as few of the sites as you want. Just choose what interests you!
We’re going to line out a self-tour of the city’s best stops, but remember that organized tours are still an option and can be slotted in. When exploring a new destination on a short time schedule, walking tours, food tours, and hop-on-hop-off tours are a legitimate way to see a ton of sites in an efficient manner.
One-Day Itinerary for “America’s Finest City”
Unfortunately, with only one day, you’ll have to skip some of the city’s most famous spots. For instance, the San Diego Zoo, Legoland, and Sea World are each full-day adventures on their own. So, for this article, we’ll skip those. Instead, we’ll stick to an itinerary that you can complete in a 12-hour period.
This itinerary is also for a first-time visit to San Diego, hitting all the must-see spots. We’ll try to keep the transit to a minimum by providing a schedule with a sensible flow. However, you’ll need to double-check all sites. Depending on your travel day, museums, historic sites, and restaurants may be closed or have alternative hours on the day of your visit.
Remember that every itinerary is subject to change, and no itinerary will perfectly fit the wants and needs of every traveler. Utilize this plan as your base, but build on it, or take away from it, to make it fit your interests. There’s no right or wrong way to explore! We’ll give you a few alternatives and estimated time blocks, but don’t feel strapped in. This is meant to be a helpful map and guide, not an end-all, be-all. Since more of you will likely be coming in from the North, we’ll start our journey in the northern suburb of La Jolla.
1. Breakfast at Brick & Belle
While there are several awesome options for breakfast in the area, since we are on the go, we’ll join all the business folks who trust Brick & Belle for a fantastic breakfast at breakneck speeds. Brick & Belle is famous for its homemade scones, and they make a mean latte, too. Pop into one of their two locations in La Jolla and grab some grub to go. We suggest the Avenida de la Playa locale as it is on your way into town, just off La Jolla Shores Drive.
2. Sea Cave of La Jolla
The La Jolla sea cave is one of the only California Pacific Coast sea caves that are accessible by land, although you can also take a kayaking tour. If you aren’t into tiny boats on frigid, crazy waves, one of the best ways to view the cave is through a seemingly unimpressive storefront. Head for Sunny Jim’s Cave aka The Cave Store. Pay your five dollars and enter the manmade, 120-year-old tunnel. Built in 1902, the tunnel was said to be a smuggling route for bootleggers. The Cave Store has been offering self-guided tours of the stunning cave since 1905. The tour will take you about 20 minutes and includes 145 stairs down to the water. Please wear proper shoes, as the stairs are often wet, are old, and can be slippery.
3. La Jolla Coast Sites
Leave the car parked and walk along the coast to get a peak at San Diego’s famous sea lions. Stroll past the idyllic La Jolla Cove and stroll along the boardwalk or dip your toes in the water. You can sometimes see seals here as well. Skirt the edge of the cliffside Ellen Brown Scripps Park. Pass by Shell Beach and onto the epic lookout spot of Seal Rock where you get a bird’s eye view of the funny sea creatures. From there, walk down to Children’s Pool. This small beach is one of the favorite hangouts of the seals, and a great place to see them playing, lounging on the rocky points, or even birthing if you happen to be there in February. Without stops, the walk only takes about 12 minutes. Allow yourself an hour to explore.
Alternative: We’re going to move on to San Diego proper for our official travel guide. However, if you have time, or you are loving La Jolla, you can stick around for lunch and some fantastic boutique shopping! The area is full of unique eateries, beautiful sandy beaches, and fun tide pools to explore. Guided walking tours of La Jolla, as well as snorkeling excursions, are easy to find as well. You could definitely spend an entire day in La Jolla and have an extraordinary time!
La Jolla Scavenger Hunt
We might be biased, but we think the absolute best way to explore the area is with our “La Jolla Shores Shore-nanigans Hunt!” We’ll hit all the hotspots, fill you in on the behind-the-scenes trivia, and take you to all the best viewpoints for some truly memorable photo and video challenges. You’ll compete against other teams from La Jolla and see if you can come out on top of our leaderboard!
4. Old Town San Diego Historic Park
Hop back in the car for the 15-minute drive (45 mins on the train) to Old Town San Diego State Park. This historic neighborhood dates back to the late 1760s. It’s considered by many to be the birthplace of California and functions as a sort of outdoor museum. The area contains a large number of preserved and replicated historic buildings dating to the early 19th century which tell the story of the foundation of Southern California in a vibrant and interactive way.
What to See
Check out the Whaley House Museum, one of the most haunted houses in the USA. It was once a courthouse, the first theatre in San Diego, and the site of the execution gallows. Casa de Estudillo is one of the most prominent Adobe homes in the area and now serves as a museum with period furniture. Pop into Cousin’s Candy for some taffy. Enjoy the mariachi bands and folk dancing in the streets. Take a look at the original schoolhouse and the graveyard. Check out all the local galleries for traditional Mexican pottery and handicrafts. Bazaar del Mundo is popular for traditional crafts and international restaurants.
What to Eat
Time for tacos! Stir up your appetite with a free tortilla at the tortilla stand. They are pure perfection. Just make sure to leave a tip. Famous for authentic Mexican cuisine, Old Town is also the ideal place to grab some grub. We like the open-air vibe and mariachi music at Cafe Coyote.
More to Explore
When you’ve finished lunch, go explore nearby Heritage Park, which features a handful of restored Victorian-era homes from the 1800s, as well as the first Jewish synagogue in the area. History buffs will want to take another hour and drive up the hillside to Presidio Park. Here you’ll find the first California Spanish Mission, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. There is a small museum with interesting and informative exhibits on this formative period in California history.
Can’t decide what to see in Old Town? Let us guide you through the best of the best on our “Old Town Charms” scavenger hunt.
5. Balboa Park
Pull yourself out of the magic of Old Town and head down I-5 for Balboa Park. Balboa is another destination where you could easily spend an entire day! There are 20 museums inside Balboa Park as well as the San Diego Zoo. You certainly won’t be able to explore it all. Choose a couple of spots based on your interests, or just explore the park on foot, taking in the incredible gardens and architecture from the outside.
The most important and universally interesting stops are the San Diego History Center, The San Diego Museum of Art, the gorgeous Botanical Building, and The Museum of Us. There’s also an automobile museum, an air and space museum, and the Fleet Science Center. Most of the major museums are located around the edge of the gorgeous Japanese Friendship Garden. Give yourself 2-3 hours to explore Balboa Park. The botanical gardens are truly extraordinary!
If you just want to get the basics of the park and not tour the museums, check out our “Balboa Park’s Puzzling Pursuit” scavenger hunt. We’ll hit all the best stops. Share some cocktail trivia facts you can pull out later in the evening, and provide some excellent photo ops!
5.+ Coronado Alternative
If history isn’t your thing, or you just want some beach time, cross the Coronado Bridge over San Diego Bay to the Coronado Peninsula. Coronado Beach is consistently rated as one of the best beaches in the United States. It’s a wide swath of white sand beach, speckled with the mineral Mica that gives it a golden, sparkling quality. We recommend parking at Ferry Landing Market Place and walking along the beach to the famous Hotel del Coronado, featured in the iconic Marilyn Monroe picture, Some Like It Hot.
The peninsula is often called Coronado Island. It’s technically not an island, and there is an actual Isla Coronado that is farther out to sea and part of Mexico. Anyway, the “island” has a totally different vibe than the rest of San Diego. It feels like an upscale resort island, but the beaches are public and free. Aside from getting your toes in the sand, you can visit the boutique shops of Orange Avenue. Rent a bike and tour the island via the long boardwalk. Rent a SUP, or jump on a Venetian gondola tour. Coronado has a totally different vibe than the rest of San Diego. It feels like an upscale resort island, but the beaches are public and free.
The Embarcadero is the cruise-ship port adjacent to Downtown San Diego. It’s famous for the USS Midway Museum, seafood and shopping at Seaport Village, and fascinating marine parks. No San Diego itinerary would be complete without a visit to the iconic pier.
Start your visit at the USS Midway Museum. The former naval aircraft carrier is fun for the whole family. It features a self-guided tour with audioguide that includes sleeping quarters, the engine room, multiple flight simulators, and 25 restored aircraft. There are also former naval service members that serve as informative docents on the ship.
The museum is open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, but the last entry is at 4:00 p.m., and the museum closes at 5:00 p.m. You could quickly visit in an hour. However, if you are interested in aircraft and naval history, we recommend moving through Balboa more quickly and allotting yourself 2-3 hours on the ship.
After your tour of the ship, you might consider popping into the Maritime Museum of San Diego to see the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. The ship was built in 1865 and has circumnavigated the globe 21 times! Stroll along the Victorian homes, boutiques, and eateries of Seaport Village. Watch the sailboats drift by at Embarcadero Marina Park with an ice cream cone, or if you’re traveling with your love, test your flexibility and mimic the kissing pose of the famous “Unconditional Surrender” statue. Then, scope out the fabulous seafood options for dinner.
“Embarcadero Escape Extravaganza” is a fun and efficient way to get the most out of your short time at the pier!
7. Dinner on the Water
We suggest filling your undoubtedly empty stomach at one of the fine seafood establishments on the Embarcadero. For a luxury meal in the area, Eddie V’s Seafood is pricey but positively divine. Sally’s Fishhouse & Bar is a slightly less expensive option and a local fave, while Edgewater Grill is a more budget-friendly, waterfront spot with a tasty catch of the day and excellent service. While you really can’t go wrong with seafood in the area, we do suggest finding a seaside establishment that allows you to take in the impeccable views while you scarf down some shrimp!
8. Sunset at Coronado Beach or Sunset Cliffs
Catching a Pacific Coast sunset from a rocky cliff is a Southern California must! You have two great options. If you skipped out on Coronado Island earlier in the day, then head for the Imperial Beach Pier and grab a spot for the show.
If you explored Coronado earlier in the day, then opt for the incredible view at Sunset Cliffs. The spot is on the Pacific Coast of the finger-like Point Loma Peninsula and features majestic sunset views. It’s a small location, but there is ample parking, and you can descend the stairs to walk along the beach if you want, or just throw out a blanket for a killer show.
If you get there in time, there are a few interesting spots to explore on Point Loma. Just south of Sunset Cliffs Beach, there’s Sunset Cliffs Cave, and then Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. At the very Southern tip of the peninsula, the Cabrillo National Monument piers out over the vast ocean and provides a view well into Mexico as well. The site commemorates the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who reportedly discovered San Diego Bay in 1542. From here, you can also visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Keep your eyes open for friendly water friends. You’re now standing on some of the best whale-watching sites in the region!
You guessed it, mateys. We’ve got a Point Loma scavenger hunt too, and it’s chalked full of captivating tales and hidden treasures!
9. Bar Crawl in Gaslamp
Back on the mainland, the Gaslamp District is San Diego’s favorite nightlife spot. From craft breweries to sports bars and Irish pubs, the district has a watering hole for everyone. If you want to add a unique flair to your bar hopping, check out our “Slammin’ San Diego Bar Crawl.” Like all of our bar crawls, this one is a combination of barhopping, scavenger hunt, and friendly competition.
We’ll escort you to four of the most fabulous bars in the Gaslamp District. At each spot, you and your crew will be challenged to a range of photo and video competitions to earn points. Some are super easy. Others are a bit challenging, especially after a few drinks. You’ll laugh, dance, and awaken at some point tomorrow to a phone full of memories. Maybe you’ll even claim the top spot on our leaderboard!
The hunt takes about 1.5 hours (but can be extended for as long as you want), and it covers a distance of 0.58 miles, so it’s easily walkable for most. Just download our scavenger hunt app, and you’ll get access to this hunt as well as hundreds of others in cities all over the world! If you’re able to stay the night, that’s preferable. If not, remember to cut your drinking short or designate a driver from your crew. You need to make it back to LA safely!
Tips for a Successful Day Trip
1. Get going early.
If you’re staying in LA, get up and out of the city before rush hour traffic. If you are following our itinerary, you should be in La Jolla for your breakfast. The road trip will take 1 hr 45 mins at best. That’s if you don’t stop at all the pretty viewpoints. To get the most out of one day in San Diego, you need to arrive early and stay late! Brick & Bell opens at 6:00 a.m., so you can start your day very early if you want!
2. Map out your stops.
Part of efficient travel planning is knowing where you’re going and how to get there. We recommend mapping out all your spots on a saved Google map before taking on the day. This will help you explore in a time-friendly manner, and will often alert you to alternative interests that may be within walking distance of something on your schedule. If you have a few extra minutes, you can squeeze in something unexpected!
3. Keep track of time.
It’s very easy in an interesting destination to let time get away from you. Before you know it, you’ve spent the whole day watching adorable sea lions at La Jolla Cove, and you now have no time to see everything else on your list. Map out your day, and have an estimated time frame for each destination. Let everyone in the group know how much time you have at each spot and have a designated meeting time and point. If you get to the meeting point, and everyone is not done exploring, then extend the time a bit. There is no need to rush and skip something that interests you, but completely losing track of time is a sure way to miss out on something you really wanted to experience.
4. Make reservations ahead of time.
While booking ahead does strap you into a time slot, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when you only have one day to explore. Having a timed ticket for popular spots like the USS Midway is a major timesaver. You certainly don’t want to be spending half your day standing in a ticket line!
5. Prioritize your interests.
We’ve given you a map-based schedule that keeps you from spending all your time on the road. However, if there are points of interest on the schedule that you know you’ll want to spend a lot of time in, then you need to prioritize those spots. Stay in order if you can, but you may need to skip destinations of lesser interest and come back to them if you have time. This will add some transit, but it will ensure that you get ample time in the spots that most interest you.
There are two valid approaches to tackling a short schedule. You either see everything you can and skim it, or you prioritize the things you really want to explore and give them due diligence, sticking in anything else you have time for after. There’s no right or wrong way. It’s dependent on your travel style, level of physical endurance, and interests.
6. Eat on the fly.
Unless you are a foodie traveler, don’t spend too much time eating when taking on a San Diego day trip. Don’t get us wrong, the food is excellent, but it loses none of its flavor being eaten while walking or while in the car transferring from spot to spot. For some travelers, the whole trip is about the food. If that’s you, then by all means, spend an hour at the cliffside restaurant soaking it up. If it’s not though, get your food on the go, and kill two birds with one stone. You may also consider carrying a day pack and keeping it stocked with tasty treats that you can pull out at the first signs of hanger.
7. Walk when you can.
As in all major cities, parking in San Diego can be difficult. It’s not impossible, but finding a free, centralized parking place, and then exploring the surrounding area on foot is often the most efficient way to get around. When you’ve seen everything on your map in that region, then hop in the car, move to the next region, and hit the pavement again.
8. Do your research.
While you don’t want to ruin the surprise, the more you know about a place, the easier it is to explore once you get there. Familiarize yourself with the map of San Diego. Look at some pics of your destinations, so you’ll know them when you see them. Read about the history of your spots so that you don’t need to spend as much time reading plaques or utilizing time-consuming guides when you get there. On a regular vacation, don’t do this. Keep the element of surprise and learn on-site, but when planning a day trip, “know before you go” is a good policy.
We hope this travel guide has gotten you excited about your day trip to San Diego. It’s a gorgeous city with so much to offer. One thing we can pretty much guarantee is that you’ll want to come back and explore in more detail. Keep notes on the things you like and places where you felt rushed. You can always come back and explore on your next California road trip!
If you’ve got time in your schedule to stay the night, check out our travel guide “Ranking the Top Hotels in San Diego!”
Got more time to explore? Check out our full list of “The Best Things to Do in San Diego!”
Frequently Asked Questions
One day in San Diego is not enough to explore all the sights. You can spend an entire day in the San Diego Zoo, but with a good itinerary, you can get skim the best spots and eat some awesome food!