San Diego in One Day: What to See and What to Skip

A Pacific Coast paradise best known for miles of surf, sand, and sun. San Diego is a Southern California mecca you don’t want to miss.

Nevertheless, if you only have one day in San Diego, how do you make the most of your time spent in America’s Finest City? Follow along to discover everything you need to know about a day in San Diego.

An ideal day trip destination from Los Angeles, the driving distance to San Diego is a little over two hours. Journey to this coastal city for loads of outdoor adventure plus top-tier museums, parks, zoos, and food.

You’ll find no shortage of things to do, whether you choose to explore the historic Gaslamp Quarter by nightfall. Or chow down on tacos and margaritas before catching an ionic Hotel Coronado sunset.

See the sea lions at La Jolla Cove, or educate little ones on dinosaur fossils and dazzling gems at the Natural History Museum.

San Diego in one day is a tight squeeze. But, by prioritizing your interests you’ll uncover the perfect way for you to explore San Diego.

Ready to reveal the mystery of what to see in San Diego in 1 day? Read on…

San Diego Hotels

Before we dive into what to see in San Diego in one day, let’s secure those lodgings. Take the stress out of your jam-packed day trip when you reserve any of our San Diego Hotels & Resorts ahead of time.

Relax after your full itinerary of body surfing, whale watching, and miniature train rides in a full-scale beachfront resort. Or explore downtown San Diego courtesy of your boutique-style suite.

From rooftop cocktails to kid-friendly wading pools, we offer accommodation options for every type of traveler.

View of entrance to the Sofia Hotel, a yellow brick building with green accents and the light on at night in San Diego, Califonira, USA
photo credit: The Sofia Hotel via Facebook

San Diego in One Day

Long layover or just sightseeing your way through the Golden State? Whatever your reason for your one day trip to San Diego, we’ve got you covered.

Before we let you in on all of our little San Diego secrets on what to see and what to skip, take a minute to brainstorm how you want to spend your 24 hours in America’s Finest City.

If you are a certified foodie, you should design your trip around gourmet tours filled with homemade tortillas, tequila, and the delights of Little Italy. Traveling with tots? Head to the San Diego Zoo for adventures Down Under with Koalas. Or spring for a real African savannah experience at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Related Post: Hidden Gems in San Diego: The Ultimate Guide to the Best Secret Spots

Tourists with a hunger for history will do well to trek through Old Town on a Trolley Tour. Or pay a visit to the uber-haunted Whaley House Museum.

While it can be tempting to try to do it all in San Diego, we recommend choosing 2 to 3 top-tier tours and attractions to focus on. This will allow you to appreciate this SoCal city without resorting to speeding through every site at a breakneck pace.

aerial view of san diego skyline during daytimeThings to Do in San Diego

Grab a pen because we are about to hand you the keys to an ideal one day in San Diego itinerary. No matter if you’ve got your eye on witnessing the majestic gray whale migration. Or wish to stay landbound while you stroll through the Natural History Museum, there’s simply nothing worth skipping.

Load up on piping hot stacks of pancakes, bacon, and eggs at Richard Walker’s Pancake House before tackling a day of Balboa Park fun. Or, savor Chilaquiles and a classic SoCal burrito at Breakfast Republic before exploring Seaport Village and the USS Midway Museum.

All set to hand-pick your attractions for a perfect day in San Diego? Let’s go!

Balboa Park

While we hate to play favorites, no visit to San Diego is complete without a visit to Balboa Park. Clocking in at a sprawling 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is home to a medley of interactive museums, a world-famous Zoo, and the Old Globe Theatre.

For a dreamy day of park pleasure, combine your San Diego Zoo outing with a visit to the San Diego Natural History Museum or the San Diego Museum of Art. Considered one of the best zoos in the country, animal lovers from all over will flip over aerial Skyfari rides and glimpses of monstrous Komodo dragons.

Pro Tip: Make quick work of the park’s many offerings when you take advantage of the free Balboa Park Tram. This handy public transportation offers loops around the cultural district throughout the day to get you within a 10-minute walk to many of the Park’s most popular destinations.

fountains at balboa park in San Diego, California, USAWhale Watching

San Diego’s glittering Bay is considered a crowning jewel of this seaside oasis. If your one-day visit happens to coincide with the whale-watching season, we strongly urge you to hop aboard a 2.5-hour tour.

Related Post: San Diego Whale Watching: In-Depth Guide to Seasons, Locations, and Tours

A San Diego Whale Watching Cruise by Flagship Cruises is your ticket to a first-hand look at these massive mammals’ 10,000-mile migration. Every year 20,000 gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to the lagoons of Baja California and back again.

In addition to full breaches and fin slaps, guests will be privy to a medley of other sea creatures including fin whales, humpbacks, minke whales, dolphins, sea lions, and more.

Historic Gaslamp Quarter

Looking for a quick overview of America’s Finest City in under three hours? Climb aboard for hours of world-class sightseeing with the original Old Town Trolley Tours San Diego: Hop-On Hop-Off.

From panoramic views of the Big Bay from atop the 2-mile-long Coronado bridge to stops in the birthplace of California, the Embarcadero, you’ll see it all. For over 20 years Old Town Trolley Tours has been showing visitors the highlights of San Diego.

Spend as long as you like at each stop as you cover everywhere from Little Italy to Balboa Park.

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

Whaley House Museum and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Got a hankering for some sinister spooky fun? If haunted houses and panorama investigations make your heart go pitter patter there’s no missing a stop at the Whaley House Museum.

A central pillar in the Old Town, this iconic Greek Revival house was constructed in 1856 by Thomas Whaley using bricks from his very own brickyard. Dive into the eerie legacy of this possessed home which many claim was struck by tragedy long before construction began.

Well known as the site where horse thief Yankee Jim Robinson was publicly executed. Visitors can take their pick of haunted day or evening tours.

Bring your pulse back to its baseline and uncover a different side of history when you swing by the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Brush up on San Diego of the 1800s as you witness its transformation from a Mexican pueblo to an American settlement.

Related Post: San Diego at Night: 18 Best Nightlife Activities

Stroll by the five ordinal adobe buildings, experience the inner workings of the blacksmith shop and cuddle up with one of the park’s furry burros.

Hotel del Coronado and Cabrillo National Monument

Combine your classic San Diego history with some outdoor adventure when you tackle the Hotel del Coronado and the Cabrillo National Monument on the same day. Swing by Cabrillo National Monument and scour tidepools for urchins and anemones. Or, bring along some proper footwear for a hike on the Bayside Trail.

This 2.5 trail delivers breathtaking views of the ocean, Ballast Point, downtown, Coronado Island, and Tijuana. Next, channel your inner Marilyn Monroe when you visit the Hotel del Coronado.

This behemoth testament to Victorian architecture instantly conjures images of fairytales and was the setting for the famous flick Some Like It Hot. Soak up some sun beachside and refresh with a cocktail on the Sun Deck. Or, wind down your day of Vitamin Sea with a sweet treat from Sundaes Ice Cream and Gelateria.

Close up view of the Cabrillo National Monument with the skyline in the background in San Diego, California, USALa Jolla Cove and Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Sunsets, sea lions, and sharks oh my! Give your one day in San Diego a distinct marine spin, when you take your time uncovering the secrets of La Jolla Cove and the Birch Aquarium. Appreciate the sunshine and channel your inner mermaid with a morning of swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking at La Jolla Cove. Stay dry with a beach stroll, or whip out that camera to document the basking La Jolla seals.

Related Post: Things to Do in La Jolla California – 9 Must-Try Activities

Next, make a beeline for the groundbreaking facilities of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. With an emphasis on sustainability, community, and play, Birch delivers oodles of hands-on learning opportunities, exhibits, and animals.

Watch the adorable waddling walks of their Little Blue Penguins, or appreciate the mesmerizing patterns of the spotted Leopard Sharks. Be sure to stop by the Preuss Tide Pool Plaza on a sunny day for some sweeping ocean views and touch some of the spiky and soft tentacled tide pool residents.

San Diego Bay Cruise and Seaport Village

Feeling nautical? Gain a sweet new perspective on this city of sunshine and sand, when you merge your Seaport Village sojourn with a San Diego Bay Cruise. Elect to cruise through the Bay with the longest-running harbor company as you revel in jaw-dropping views of Point Loma, the Cabrillo National Monument, Seaport Village, and more.

More in the mood for an after-dark adventure? Opt for a dinner cruise complete with complimentary champagne and bear witness to the sparkle of the city skyline from aboard your luxury yacht.

Intrigued by the quaint charm of Seaport Village? Post your ocean escape, make a detour for some chic souvenir shopping. Then enjoy a tantalizing supper of fish and chips, lobster rolls, and ceviche.

Be sure to stick around for a ride on the beautifully hand-carved historic carousel which dates back to 1895.

close up harbor with cruise ship in front of skyline on sunny day in San Diego, California, USAFood Tours

More into planning your getaways around the most hyped brunch places or the latest TikTok food trend? Make your stomach undeniably happy when you spend an entire day munching your way through San Diego’s most luscious food offerings.

A melting pot of vibrant cuisines from around the world. There are endless ways to experience the gastronomical pleasures of America’s Finest City:

  • Discover Californian Melt burgers, fish tacos, and locally produced ice cream downtown with Secret Food Tours San Diego.
  • Mamma Mia! Get a taste of the Old Country with Pizza, Pasta, and Piazzas. Sip on fruity sangria, learn about the history of Little Italy, and feast on piles of handmade pasta.
  • Fill up your tummy with some spooky tales, custom tequila cocktails, and freshly made tortillas on this 2.5-hour Tequila, Tacos, and Tombstones Tour.
  • Ladies of the night, prohibition-era gangsters, and morsels of sizzling flatbreads come together on this Brothels, Bites, and Booze Food Tour. Conquer the nefarious history of the Gaslamp Quarter as you sample unique cocktails and microbrewery concoctions.
A photograph of a glass of wine being held
photo credit: Five Star Tours and Charter Bus Company via Facebook

While there may be more than a million reasons to spend more than 1 day in San Diego. We know that sometimes there’s simply no time to traverse every inch of California’s second-largest city.

Take on your day of national monuments, haunted museums, and body surfing in stride.

From tide pool scavenger hunts to Buddhist sculptures at the San Diego Museum of Art. This beachy city beckons with boatloads of culture, nature, and history.

Whether you choose to focus on exploring the Old Point Loma Lighthouse at the Cabrillo National Monument. Or splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon safari adventure, there’s no wrong way to see America’s Finest City.

Tell us, What Would You See in San Diego in One Day?

Did we miss any of your favorite San Diego attractions?

Leave a comment below!

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Written by Isis Maya Nissman

A New York native, Isis-Maya spent most of her professional life working in TV production until a vacation whisked her away to Central...

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