What to Do When You Only Have 1 Day in San Diego

December 12, 2017

When you travel, would you like to visit the area’s top landmarks? Perhaps you’d rather discover destinations off the beaten path. Or, are you looking for a jam-packed adventure from sunrise to sunset? You can find all of this and more in San Diego.

Are you making a 24-hour pit stop in San Diego? Awesome! There is so much to see and do in San Diego, even in such as short amount of time. However, determining what to do when you only have 1 day in San Diego depends on your personal travel preferences.

To craft the perfect day trip to San Diego, choose from our list of mini-itineraries:

Koala and Joey sitting in tree together at San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, USAGet Wild in San Diego

In San Diego, there’s no better way to go wild than with the myriad of zoos, aquariums, animal expeditions, and more.

At the San Diego Zoo, you’ll see more than 4,000 rare and endangered species. The zoo also offers exciting tours, interactive play areas, upbeat live performances, and other activities. Looking for more of an adventure? Book a safari with your San Diego Zoo Safari Park Ticket. During your immersive safari, you’ll explore the park’s 1,800 acres of land and learn all about the more than 2,600 animal species living onsite.

If you’d rather dive under the sea, spend the day at SeaWorld San Diego. In addition to exhilarating rides, this aquatic theme park focuses on animal rehabilitation and conservation through educational exhibits. Families searching for a more educational approach to ocean life should visit Birch Aquarium. Located at UC San Diego, Birch Aquarium is a public exploration center with 60+ habitats of fish and invertebrates from the Pacific Northwest, Mexico, and beyond.

Animal fans visiting San Diego from December to April should also book a whale watching cruise. These cruises offer an up-close look at San Diego’s migrant grey whales in the harbor.

While it’s impossible to visit all of San Diego’s animal-themed attractions in one-day, you have plenty of wild options to choose from!

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an iron-hulled sailing ship Star of India in the harbor in San Diego, California, USASan Diego Edutainment

If you’re spending 1 day in San Diego with children, explore San Diego’s wealth of educational (and fun) things to do.

Start your day at Balboa Park. Known as the place where culture and nature meet, Balboa Park has 17 museums, hiking trails, historic architecture, botanical gardens, and so much more. Top museums at the park include:

In addition, the park also boasts incredible performing arts venues such as the Starlight Bowl. The San Diego Youth Symphony and Civic Dance Arts perform at the park, as well.

Considering you only have 24 hours to visit San Diego, you have two options:

  1. Spend your entire day exploring the museums at Balboa Park
  2. Pick a few museums to enjoy and go downtown for more educational fun

If you choose the second option, make your way to downtown San Diego and visit the USS Midway Museum and Maritime Museum of San Diego. Intriguing for kids and adults alike, these iconic museums give visitors a glimpse into our nation’s naval and sailing history. Since you’ll be visiting at the end of the day, purchase your tickets in advance from Tripster so you can skip the ticket lines. You’ll head right into the fun instead of waiting in line.

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fountains at balboa park in San Diego, California, USADowntown San Diego

If you want to see all that downtown San Diego has to offer, this 1-day mini-itinerary is for you. Filled with vast maritime history and ocean views, this coastal area is not to be missed.

Begin your day at San Diego’s Embarcadero. This bayfront strip is where ships of all sizes dock. Pack a picnic and watch the ships sail by from Embarcadero Marina Park.

Near the Embarcadero is the USS Midway Museum and Maritime Museum of San Diego. Here, you’ll learn more about our country’s Navy, epic voyages, and magnificent sailing vessels from history.

After strolling through the museums, make your way to Seaport Village. This cute area of shops, restaurants, and galleries is home to the historic Looff Carousel built in 1890. If it’s your first time in San Diego, you have to go for a ride!

End your day in downtown San Diego with dinner reservations at Sally’s Fish House & Bar or Harbor House for delectable seafood.

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Old Town Trolley Hop on Hop Off Tour under city sign - San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: San Diego Hop On Hop Off Trolley Excursion via Facebook

See the Sights

When you have a mere 24-hours to visit somewhere new, one of the best ways to spend the day is by sightseeing. To see the sights during your 1 day in San Diego, you’ll want to take advantage of the many available tours.

Old Town Trolley Tour is an affordable and convenient way to maximize your time in San Diego. With multiple stops at top destinations, you can see all of San Diego’s main landmarks in one day. Popular stops along the way include:

  • Old Town
  • Mt. Soledad
  • Pacific Beach
  • Windansea Beach
  • Mission Beach
  • La Jolla
  • And More

Speaking of Old Town, do not miss your chance to visit this San Diego classic. As the historic home of mariachi music, California’s first mansion, and an exceptionally haunted house, touring Old Town is a must.

Another great way to see the sights during your 1 day in San Diego is with a SEAL tour. These one-of-a-kind tour vehicles can navigate land and water, making for a memorable sightseeing trip. You’ll head out into the harbor and San Diego’s streets to see landmarks such as:

  • Shelter Island
  • Broadway Pier
  • Point Loma
  • Harbor Drive

Plus, you never know—you might spot a sea lion, seal, or Blue Heron along the way!

Other fantastic ways to see San Diego’s landmarks are on a San Diego Harbor Cruise and a GoCar San Diego tour.

Since most San Diego tours take a few hours at most, you can fit several into your day!

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sunset with people walking in the path to Old Point Loma Lighthouse at San Diego Bay, San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: Frank Colosi Photography via Facebook

Coronado Adventure

With everything to see and experience in Coronado, you can spend an entire day on the island. To access Coronado, you can take the Ferry every hour on the hour from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm.

Situated across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado is home to Coronado Beach—rated the best beach in the country! Arrive early and spend time soaking in the sun before the crowds arrive.

Next, make your way to the Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado is a top destination on the island. This National Historic Landmark boasts an intriguing history, full of royalty, ghost stories, celebrities, and drama. In fact, it is believed that L. Frank Baum, author of “Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz,” based Emerald City off of the hotel.

While touring Coronado, be sure to stroll along the Ferry Landing for exquisite shops, restaurants, and entertainment. The area also boasts many famous art galleries to discover.

After a long day at Coronado, remember to catch the ferry back to your San Diego hotel before 9:00 pm!

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opening of Sunny Jim Sea Cave La Jolla Sea Cave taken from inside cave with view of ocean during sunset in San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: Shalika Weerasingha via Facebook

Outdoor Exploration

On top of a world of culture, arts, and entertainment, San Diego is known for their abundance of outdoor adventures. If you’re into the great outdoors, add these activities to your 1 day in San Diego.

Rise and shine! Get up super early and head to any of San Diego’s pristine beaches. The earlier you arrive, the better your visit will be. You’ll beat the crowds and perhaps even watch the sunrise. Some of the best San Diego beaches include:

  • La Jolla Cove
  • Ocean Beach
  • Bonita Cove
  • Mission Beach
  • Children’s Pool
  • Windansea Beach

After lounging on the beach, get ready for a day of hiking at Torrey Pines. Torrey Pines is a 1,750-acre nature preserve featuring multiple hiking trails along the Southern California coastline. The reserve’s trails are fairly short and are ranked from easy to moderate. If you have time, trek through more than one trail!

While at Torrey Pines, daredevils shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Torrey Pines Gliderport. If you’ve ever thought about hang gliding or paragliding, now is your chance. Torrey Pines Gliderport is the definition of outdoor adventure! There’s no better way to end a day in San Diego than soaring through the sky.

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Close up photo of street tacos with lots of white onion

photo credit: Xavier crook via Facebook

Food and Fun

If you’re like me, you love trying the local food and restaurants while traveling. Lucky for you, San Diego is filled to the brim with excellent restaurants, craft beer, and more.

Start your 1 day in San Diego with an unbelievable breakfast. A few of the local favorite spots for breakfast include:

  • Lucky’s Golden Phenix
  • V.G. Donut & Bakery
  • The Mission
  • Snooze An AM Eatery
  • Breakfast Republic

After breakfast, the best way to continue to the delicious fun is with a food sampling tour around San Diego. As you might have guessed, these tours are super popular, so make your reservations in advance. Fan-favorite food tours include:

To round out your day full of food, head to Gaslamp Quarter. Known as the nightlife capital of San Diego, there is no shortage of superb restaurants and bars to visit here.

After filling up on food all day, you can kick back in your hotel room knowing you’ve experienced San Diego right.

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What Will You Do with 1 Day in San Diego?

As you can see, there’s plenty to do when you only have 24 hours to experience San Diego. Use our mini-itineraries to plan your day and don’t forget to book a hotel room, too!

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