HOW TO SPEND 3 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO – ITINERARY
- 1 HOW TO SPEND 3 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO – ITINERARY
- 2 TRAVEL TIPS FOR YOUR 3 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
- 3 DAY 1 OF 2 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
- 4 Balboa Park in San Diego
- 5 Embarcadero
- 6 Extra: Coronado
- 7 DAY 2 OF 2 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
- 8 Mission Beach
- 9 Pacific Beach
- 10 La Jolla
- 11 Surfing
- 12 Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- 13 DAY 3 OF 3 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
- 14 Point Loma
- 15 San Diego Old Town
- 16 Liberty Public Market
- 17 Gaslamp Quarter
- 18 Extra: Mission San Diego de Alcalá
- 19 ALTERNATIVE DAY TRIPS FROM SAN DIEGO
- 20 Day Trip 1 From San Diego: Legoland
- 21 Day Trip 2 From San Diego: Pacific Surfliner
- 22 Day Trip 3 From San Diego: Mission Trails Regional Park
- 23 FINAL THOUGHTS ON Your 3-DAY SAN DIEGO ITINERARY
- 24 PIN ME FOR LATER – SAN DIEGO IN 3 DAYS
San Diego is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the US on the west coast. Although it is not as well-known as Los Angeles or San Francisco, it is still a great choice for a trip at any time of the year. With great weather and lots of beaches, museums, and parks, this city has something to please everyone – families, couples, or solo travelers.
If you are looking for the best way to spend 3 days in San Diego, this post will help. Find out where to go and what to see. It also has some travel tips to make your own San Diego itinerary even better.
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The post was written by Rebecca.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR YOUR 3 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
Before talking about the main activities for your 3-day San Diego trip, here are some important travel tips for a smooth trip.
How to Get to San Diego
You can fly into San Diego International Airport, and from there, take a taxi or rental car to your hotel. If you are driving in from the north, take Highway 101, aka the Pacific Coast Highway. And from the east, take Interstate 15.
Once you arrive, you can take a bus from Terminal 1, a tram, or a taxi to your hotel. There is also a shuttle service. The best option will depend on the location of your hotel.
How to Get Around in 3 Days San Diego
San Diego has public transportation throughout the city, including buses, trains, trolleys, ferries, and taxis, not to mention Uber. So, you can get along fine with these for the popular attractions and within the downtown area.
There’s even a ferry that will take you across the bay to Coronado.
But when it comes to visiting La Jolla, Legoland, and other things that are farther, I suggest renting a car. The bonus is that you can drive down scenic coastal routes, like the Pacific Coast Highway, which starts in San Diego and follows the ocean all the way to Oregon.
Weather in San Diego
The weather in San Diego is really nice, year-round. Summer temperatures range from 67ºF-77ºF, and winters are from 49ºF to 66ºF.
The rainy season is from December until March. Generally, I have found that the mornings feel a little chilly, but everything warms up quickly once the sun is out in force.
What to Pack for 3 Days in San Diego
Since San Diego has pretty mild weather normally, you can pack pretty much the same all year. During the summer months, take some sandals, shorts, and t-shirts with you for the warmer afternoons, but make sure you have a jacket, just in case you’re out at night.
For winter, sneakers, boots, pants, and long-sleeved shirts are great but be prepared for warm-ish afternoons and colder evenings. Also, there’s nothing more chilling than a cold rain, so pack a coat in case you run into a storm.
3-day San Diego itinerary – Where to Stay
There are so many hotels in San Diego, not to mention the little neighborhoods throughout the area, like La Jolla. I would suggest taking a hotel in the downtown area of La Jolla, which has great ocean views. Or, if you don’t mind the move, take one night in each!
- For a luxury option, I suggest the Pendry Hotel downtown, which has great amenities and service, or the Pantai Inn in La Jolla, which offers a boutique experience and a great location.
- For a mid-range hotel, try the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter in the downtown area, which has a good location.
- For a budget option, you could stay at Holiday Inn Express – Downtown San Diego, which includes breakfast, or the La Jolla Cove Suites, which has vintage décor and a good location.
Note that most of the hotels are more expensive in La Jolla than in San Diego proper, so just keep that in mind as you are booking.
More Travel Tips For Your San Diego Itinerary
If you plan to stop at many main attractions, such as the Air & Space Museum, Legoland, and Belmont Park (and others mentioned in this post), I suggest getting the Go San Diego Pass. You can get one for just 3 days, and it will save you money on entrance fees.
Travel can get pretty bad, especially on Interstate 5. To avoid this, there may be times when public transportation is the way to go. Look into trolley, train, and bus schedules to save you time and frustration.
Day trips to Tijuana are very common since San Diego sits right on the US-Mexico border. To make it fun, do a little research on where to go when south of the border. Also, note that while the drinking age for alcohol is 21 in the US, it is 18 in Mexico.
The hotel tax in San Diego is 10.5% and 12.5% for larger hotels with 70+ rooms. So, don’t be surprised if you see this added to your bill.
Avoid visiting during the giant Comic-Con convention unless you’re attending. The city hosts about 150,000 attendees, and hotel room rates are super high and sell out fast. It’s usually at the end of July each year.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO
After all the travel tips, here is your itinerary.
DAY 1 OF 2 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
Let’s start with day 1 in San Diego.
Balboa Park in San Diego
Balboa Park is a must on any 3-day itinerary in San Diego. Encompassing 1200 acres, this park is more than a park and has something to offer every visitor. It is near downtown San Diego and the largest urban cultural park in the US. It was First established by the City of San Diego in 1868, which makes it is also one of the oldest city parks in the country and it is the most visited single destination in San Diego. So, it surely is none of the hidden gems in San Diego.
It is home to 16 museums, arts venues, gardens, trails, and many other creative and recreational attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. So, a lot of your first day in San Diego will be at Balboa Park.
Gardens dot the park, so you can enjoy beautiful greenery wherever you are.
The Botanical Building was built for the 1915-16 Exposition and along with the adjacent Lily Pond and Lagoon, this historic building is actually one of the largest lath structures in the world. Also, the most famous of the Balboa Park is probably the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond and Lagoon in the foreground.
Bring your own breakfast and have it on a bench among the 350 plant species so you can get an early start on your first day. Here, you will also find seasonal flower displays.
- Free to the public on Friday through Wednesday, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
- Closed Thursdays and holidays
From here, head to one (or all) of the museums that are housed within Balboa Park.
San Diego Museum of Art
If you like art, stop at the San Diego Museum of Art located within Balboa Park. It specializes in Spanish Renaissance (even the architecture is done in this style) and Baroque paintings.
Check their website to see what programs are running for fun cocktail events, film screenings, and activities for the kids.
- Opening hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday – 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, Sunday – 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
- Closed on Wednesdays
- Tickets are around $15 for adults (discounts available)
San Diego Natural History Museum – The Nat
If you’re traveling with kids, the Natural History Museum be a good stop within the park. The Nat has four floors of exhibitions – examine fossils, explore different ecosystems, and see 3D displays that bring the Ice Age to life.
Even adults will find the exhibition fun and interesting.
- Open from Friday to Tuesday from 10 am – 4 pm
- Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays
- Admission is around $20 for adults – discounts available
San Diego Air & Space Museum
This museum is also located in Balboa Park and is an homage to the evolution of human flight.
You’ll find reproductions of the Wright Brothers’ glider from the first flight ever and artifacts from Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Flight simulators are really cool for adults, and if you’re traveling with a family, the Action Hangar is set up as a play area for kids.
- Open 7 days a week from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm
- Closed on Thanksgiving Day & Christmas Day
- Tickets are around $22.00 (discounts available)
If you’ve had your fill of museums, stroll over to the next landmark in Balboa Park.
The Old Globe Theater was built as part of an expo in 1935 and is a replica of the original in England where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. It has three stages, and one is outdoors.
It is not just a random theater – the Old Globe is one of the country’s leading regional theatre complexes, California’s oldest professional theatre, and San Diego’s largest theatre organization.
If you’re in the mood for a play, check the schedule. There are usually two performances a day and three on the weekends. Or, just wander around and take in the architecture and atmosphere of this Tony-award-winning institution.
- Open from Tuesday to Sunday 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm
- Also closed on some holidays
This stop at Balboa Park should have taken about 2-5 hours, depending on how many museums you visited.
And now it’s time to leave Balboa Park and head the harbor.
One of the best things about San Diego is its closeness to the water. Embarcadero is the perfect spot to enjoy a meal, do some shopping, and take in the views. It is a busy cruise ship hub, with a lot to do and see.
Walk along the harbor and see Coronado island right across the bay. If you happen to be visiting in the summer, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra performs from the end of June until September. Also, Waterfront Park has interactive fountains and playgrounds for kids to enjoy.
If you’re wondering what to do in San Diego in 3 days, then here’s what Embarcadero has to offer.
USS Midway Museum
Here at Embarcadero is the USS Midway Museum. Take a tour of the USS Midway Museum and the aircraft carrier with a self-guided audio tour. You can climb into cockpits and try simulators to feel like you’re actually flying, as well as check out the below-decks areas.
- Open every day from 10 am – 4 pm
- Tickets for adults are around $26 (discounts available)
- You can also buy tickets online and skip the lines
Since you are right in San Diego Harbor, why not take a cruise? You’ll get to see some of the city’s many landmarks, not to mention views from a whole new angle. This will be especially fun on a warm, sunny day.
Spot wildlife like sea lions and pelicans. And listen as an experienced guide tells you about the marine habitats and history. Cruises last one hour. Check out ticket prices online.
If you want to end your first day with a dinner cruise check out prices here.
Whale Watching in San Diego
Another must-do in San Diego if you are visiting from December through April is to go whale watching. This is the time of year that the California Gray Whale migrates from Alaska to Baja.
These cruises have a naturalist on board as a guide to answer questions. Cruises can last up to four hours. Check out prices for whale and dolphin tours in San Diego.
You might be able to add Coronado to your 1 day in San Diego – however, you might also have to skip it, depending on the time of your arrival in San Diego. Either way, it is a place that might be perfect for you.
Coronado is located on the peninsula of San Diego Bay. Famous for its landmark hotel, this is also the home of some of the US Navy SEAL teams, which can be seen working out on Coronado Beach sometimes.
The Hotel del Coronado, the world’s largest resort hotel when it opened in 1888, was the place to go for the rich and famous, like Babe Ruth, Edward VIII, Charlie Chaplin, and 16 different US presidents.
It’s also been featured in a dozen movies. Take a 75-minute tour through the building and ornamental gardens to get a look at this famous resort. Even if you do not take the tour, you can stroll the area and enjoy some beach time.
This stop at Coronado should take about 2-3 hours.
That’s about all we can fit into Day 1. This stop at Embarcadero should have taken about 3-4 hours unless you did the whale watching cruise. So, get a good night’s sleep before we start Day 2 at the beach.
DAY 2 OF 2 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
We’re starting Day 2 at some of San Diego’s best beaches.
Lined with a boardwalk with its own small amusement park, Mission Beach is a lot of fun. If you’re visiting in the early hours, then rent a bike, traverse the boardwalk, play some mini-golf, have a coffee in one of the lovely gardens, or take the kids to a playground.
If you want to lay out in the sand, you’ll have plenty of company year-round. So long as the weather is good, people will be out at this popular beach spot.
If you love amusement parks, it will be hard to resist Belmont Park which is also at Mission Park.
Located on the boardwalk, this park has 12 rides, including the Giant Dipper – a wooden roller coaster named a National Historic Landmark and a favorite of locals. There’s also an 18-hole Tiki-themed mini gold course and eateries.
This stop at Mission Beach and Belmont Park should have taken about 2-3 hours. Once you’ve gotten your roller coaster fix, let’s head to La Jolla or Pacific Beach.
Pacific Beach is a rather tranquil spot compared to other beaches, so it is a perfect place to enjoy the sea, sand, and sun in the morning.
Take a walk on Crystal Pier and watch waves break. You have a great view of the city and the town of La Jolla from the end of the pier. The beach has lifeguards, so this is a good place to bring kids.
This stop at Pacific Beach should take about an hour.
Not far from Chrystal Pier is La Jolla – it is about 3miles away and you could walk from one beach to the other or just visit one of the beaches.
This seaside community sits on land that juts right out into the ocean, surrounded by water on three sides. There are lots to do here, from hiking to surfing to exploring sea caves.
La Jolla has a very chic, cosmopolitan vibe about it. Filled with boutiques and cafes, it has a different atmosphere from many other parts of San Diego.
Stroll down Prospect Street and stop at the Legends Gallery. Here you’ll find original art displayed, including from a former resident, Theodor Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss!
Stop for a little while to relax in one of the beautiful parks. If you’re visiting in the summer, the Ellen Browning Scripps Park offers open-air concerts, so you might be able to enjoy some live music, too.
Children’s Pool Beach
Whether you’re traveling with children or not, definitely check out this part of the beach. Because La Jolla’s surf can be powerful, they constructed a seawall to protect an area of the beach and make it safe for children to swim in the calmer waters.
An unexpected byproduct was that it was also a prime location for seals and sea lions to come and give birth to their pups. From December to May, they arrive.
Access to the beach is limited for this reason, but you can climb up the seawall to get a great view of these adorable sea animals.
La Jolla Cove
This cove is a must-visit, one of the most famous on the US’s west coast. The views are gorgeous and definitely Insta-worthy.
With tons of sea life in the water and sunning themselves on the rocks, you’ll take some great pictures in this cove. But I’d avoid swimming because the waves are powerful here. Another option would be to take a bike tour or go kayaking.
There are lots of places to surf, and not just in La Jolla. About 30 minutes north of the area, you will find Swami’s, a popular surf spot. Oceanside and Del Mar are also good choices and less populated. If you need to rent surf gear, each beach has a rental spot nearby.
And if surfing isn’t your thing, then grab lunch at an oceanside restaurant and watch others hang ten while you enjoy your meal.
Then, let’s head north to a beautiful nature reserve to end the day. This stop in La Jolla should take about 2-4 hours, depending on how long you spend shopping or at the beach.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
About 15-20 minutes (drive) north of La Jolla, you will find Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
This huge, 2000-acre park is home to the endangered Torrey Pine tree. It also consists of eight trails for hiking and walking, empty beaches to relax, and gray and blue whales’ sightings during their migration season.
This park is also situated on a plateau that offers some really gorgeous water views, so make sure you take a moment to breathe in the salty ocean air and take in the scenery.
If you’d like to take a guided walk, they are available on certain days at 10 am and 2 pm, starting at the visitor’s center. This stop should take about 2 hours.
Torrey Pines Gliderport
For all you adventurers out there: check out the Torrey Pines Gliderport on your San Diego trip. At the edge of the park, you’ll find a platform used for hang-gliding and paragliding. They also offer tandem flights for a fee.
But this location isn’t just for adventurers. If you just want to check out the cliffs’ views, this is a great vantage point. Benches are situated around the area.
By this time, you are probably nearing sunset, and this is the perfect place to see it. Enjoy the views, grab dinner, and either head back to the hotel or spend a lively evening at Mission Beach.
DAY 3 OF 3 DAYS IN SAN DIEGO
For day 3 in San Diego, consider visiting these places.
Our first stop this day will be the Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1855.
This is a local landmark and a very cool place to tour. Not only do you get great views from this lighthouse, but you can check out the keeper’s quarters and the lens that can see almost 25 miles out to sea.
Point Loma Tide Pools
If you catch the tides at the right time, you can actually climb down into the pools and look around at the sea caves and ocean life down there when the tide is out. Starfish, hermit crabs, and even octopus have been spotted.
After Point Loma, let’s head to the Old Town. This stop at Point Loma should have taken about an hour or so.
San Diego Old Town
The term “Old Town” means something very different in America than it does in Europe. San Diego’s Old Town is actually the first European settlement site in the state, from 1820-1870. The neighborhood, its adobe buildings, and the streets are well preserved.
Check out Casa de Estudillo for a lovely example of Spanish architecture.
Presidio Park is a good place to see historic settlements, specialty shops, art galleries and get authentic Mexican food. There’s even a real-life blacksmith that you can see working at the forge.
The stop in the Old Town will take about 2 hours.
Liberty Public Market
Visit the Liberty Public Market, a fun and exciting town market set up in a former navy building. Lots of fresh food, pastries, and arts and crafts are a great stop for lunch and see where locals and tourists do specialty shopping.
Open 7 days a week from 11 am-7 pm, you’ll find souvenirs for your trip and great examples of regional cuisine here. This stop at the market should take about an hour.
When planning 3 days in San Diego, you don’t want to forget the Gaslamp Quarter. Enter through the archway on Fifth Avenue and stroll the 16-block downtown area. Full of eclectic charm, this area has something for everyone.
Look over the historic buildings. Stop for a bite at one of the many sidewalk cafes. Check out a movie at the Rooftop Cinema Club – a fourth-floor outdoor movie theater where you can see a flick and the sights at the same time.
If you come at night, you’ll find plenty of clubs, bars, and breweries, many with rooftop lounges.
Visiting the Gaslamp Quarter will about 1-5 hours, depending on what you do while you’re here.
Extra: Mission San Diego de Alcalá
I added this attraction as an extra activity because it is located a bit outside and though it is interesting, you might not be able to squeeze it all into your 3-day itinerary.
Head to the Mission San Diego de Alcalá to see the first Franciscan mission in California, established in 1769.
Daily tours are available. See the choir stalls, living quarters of the friars, and the artifacts and tools from the Kumeyaay tribe that inhabited the region.
This stop should take about an hour.
ALTERNATIVE DAY TRIPS FROM SAN DIEGO
With so much to do in San Diego, it’s hard to fit in the things that are just outside of the city. So, as an alternative to any of the days on this itinerary, here are three great day trips to consider for your vacation.
Day Trip 1 From San Diego: Legoland
Located just 30 minutes from San Diego, Legoland is a great stop if you travel with kids. This amusement park is Lego-themed, full of roller coasters and other rides and playgrounds, and kid-centered activities.
Park hours are 10 am-5 pm daily. Prices range by age, but there is a discount for Go San Diego Pass holders.
Day Trip 2 From San Diego: Pacific Surfliner
The Pacific Surfliner is a great way to travel along the California coastline. The train ride offers amazing views, especially in the stretch right out of San Diego.
You could make a day trip to Los Angeles and use this as your main transportation. The train will even get you to Disneyland in two hours – which is great considering the crazy traffic in this area.
Tip: Sit on the right side of the train if you want to catch the sunset on your way back to San Diego.
Day Trip 3 From San Diego: Mission Trails Regional Park
This huge natural reserve is found at the northeast edge of the city. The sixth-largest park in the country, it deserves its own day.
Here you can enjoy horseback riding, hiking, cycling, and climbing. You can even get up to the highest point in the city for the best views available – the tip of Cowles Mountain is almost 1600 feet up! You have amazing panoramic views from this spot (even if it is a bit of a hike).
Take in the beautiful scenery and natural surroundings right inside this major US city.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON Your 3-DAY SAN DIEGO ITINERARY
San Diego is surely one of the best places for a long weekend break in the US. I hope this 3-day San Diego itinerary will help you plan an amazing trip. There is a lot to see, and it is a great location for families, couples, and solo travelers to enjoy nature, the beach, and city life, all in one place.
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About the Author:
This post was written by Rebecca, who runs her own blog at The Journey at Home – where she writes about her life as a mother of 5 with everything that comes along with it. She lived in New York for a long time before she moved to Las Vegas. She also works as a freelancer for Arzo Travels.