As much as I love to travel, I’m also very thankful (and fortunate!) to call San Diego home. I’ve lived here for almost 20 years, so I’ve spent a LONG time exploring everything that the city has to offer. This post is a roundup of all my favorites – so it’s the perfect San Diego itinerary for first-timers!
Before You Go To San Diego…
Where to Stay in San Diego
Geographically, San Diego is quite spread out. For that reason, no matter where you stay, expect to drive to see some of the sights you want to see.
Best Hotels in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter
For this itinerary, I would recommend staying somewhere in the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. It’s a 5-minute ride from the airport, and very walkable. In the Gaslamp, there are TONS of hotels to choose from. Many are boutique-style hotels with amazing rooftop pools.
One of the Gaslamp’s newest and chicest hotels is the Pendry Hotel – I LOVE all of their restaurants, and especially their pool. Another great option is the Hotel Indigo, which is also a great choice – and also pet-friendly!
Where To Stay in San Diego With Hotel Points
Looking to spend or rack up hotel points by staying at a chain hotel? I’d recommend either the Andaz San Diego (a Hyatt chain), or the US Grant Hotel (Starwood). Although they’re both part of larger chains, they each have plenty of individual charm!
An alternative is the Marriott Gaslamp, which I love for a few reasons. First, it’s close to Petco Park, and second, it’s rooftop bar, Altitudes, is a great spot for a sunset cocktail! There are several Marriotts in the Gaslamp quarter, so make sure to double-check the name when you make your reservation!
San Diego Itinerary Day one: Explore San Diego’s Beautiful North County
Head up the coast to start your day with a hike in one of San Diego’s prettiest spots: Torrey Pines State Reserve. If you have time on your drive there, stop off at the Glider Port. At the glider port, you can watch adrenaline-fueled adventurers hand-glide from the rocky cliffs down to the beach.
Hiking in Torrey Pines State Reserve
My favorite hike is the Beach Trail, but you can take your pick from the trail map. A quick stop off at Razor Point for an unbelievable view, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot some dolphins playing in the waves below!
Drive into quaint downtown Del Mar to grab a late breakfast at Americana or Pacifica Breeze Cafe. After breakfast, you can continue north through the cute coastal towns of Solana Beach and Cardiff , until you get up to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas.
Moonlight Beach in Encinitas
Moonlight Beach is a great spot to spend the afternoon lounging in the sun, and it’s the perfect beach for visitors to San Diego because it has plenty of creature comforts, including a snack bar, showers, restrooms, and chair/umbrella rentals. You can even rent a surfboard if you’re feeling adventurous!
If you get bored or hungry, you can wander down nearby highway 101, Encinitas’ main drag, which is filled with plenty of casual restaurants and shops. If you’re in the mood for a pizza dinner, check out Blue Ribbon Pizza or URBN Pizza. Otherwise, The Third Corner is a great wine bar option.
San Diego Itinerary Day two: Visit Fairytale Coronado Island
On the second day of your San Diego itinerary, hop aboard a ferry across San Diego’s harbor to Coronado Island, a seemingly fairytale-perfect beach community that’s a lot of fun to explore. Once the ferry docks, it’s a quick stroll to rent bikes, your wheels for the day.
Tour the Hotel Del Coronado
It’s a quick ride to the opposite side of the island, where you’ll fall in love with the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, one of San Diego’s oldest and most luxurious hotels. It’s worth parking your bike for a bit and wandering through the hotel’s grounds and shops to check out the rich history of the property. A refreshing drink overlooking the beach on the hotel’s outdoor patio is also highly recommended!
Take a Gondola Ride in Coronado
A fun afternoon treat is a gondola ride through the Coronado Cays, a Venice -like neighborhood built on water canals. This is one of my favorite San Diego secrets – most San Diego locals don’t even know that it exists! If you decide to go, make a reservation ahead of time, and you may want to leave your bikes and take a car there, as it’s a ways south of the Hotel Del.
Make your way back to the ferry landing via Orange Avenue, Coronado’s main street, to return your bikes and head back to downtown. Start your evening at one of the Gaslamp’s rooftop bars (Altitudes is a favorite), followed by dinner at Searsucker.
San Diego Itinerary Day three: Balboa Park and Point Loma
Day three begins in Balboa Park, San Diego’s cultural epicenter and home to over 15 museums. Stroll around and take in the beautiful grounds, gardens, and Spanish architecture, and explore one of the museums if you’re inclined. My favorites are the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Man. The elegant Japanese Friendship Garden is also worth a visit. Grab lunch at The Prado, located within Balboa Park., and try to get a table on the outdoor terrace.
Shopping in Northpark
Spend the afternoon exploring one of the nearby neighborhoods. If you’re into quirky shops and hipster coffee joints, you’ll love Northpark. Don’t miss Pigment, my favorite store in ALL of San Diego!
If you’re more of the outdoorsy type, head over to Cabrillo National Monument. You can check out the vintage Point Loma lighthouse and take in gorgeous views of the city harbor. Try to time your visit with low tide, because you’ll be able to check out the tide pools for creatures.
For dinner, I’d recommend the nearby Island Prime, where you can dine with a picture-perfect view of San Diego’s skyline.
San Diego Itinerary Day four – La Jolla Beaches
On your fourth day, head up north again to La Jolla (pronounced “la hoya” which means”the jewel” in Spanish). On your way, stop at the top of Mt. Soledad for another incredible view of San Diego from above. Head back down to La Jolla Cove, where you can walk along the beach and scope out the group of seals that call the Cove home.
Explore Downtown La Jolla
It’s a lot of fun to walk around downtown La Jolla and explore the cute shops and art galleries. If you’re looking for adventure, kayaking is a popular activity in La Jolla.
For lunch, I highly recommend George’s Ocean Terrace. At George’s , you can eat outdoors and overlook the rocky coves that are unique to La Jolla. Be sure to make a reservation, since it’s a very popular spot (and for good reason)!
Best Beaches To Visit in San Diego
For the afternoon, it’s time to clock more beach time! For a low-key beach day, head to nearby La Jolla Shores, which is the perfect spot for families.
If you want a beach that’s bit more lively, you can head down to Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. Both beaches are great for people-watching on the boardwalk. Make sure to grab drinks at a beachy bar, and even perfect your surfing skills at The Wave House. Yep, at The Wave House, you can surf an artificial wave (or watch others do it)!
Where to Eat Mexican Food in San Diego
By now, I’m sure you’ve worked up an appetite, and there’s no food better in San Diego than Mexican food! So head to Old Town, a festive spot filled with amazing Mexican restaurants, to toast your beach day with margaritas and burritos.
Day five – A Bonus Day
With another day in San Diego, check out the city’s fast-growing craft beer scene by taking a brewery tour. Is wine more your thing? Then you could head up to Temecula Valley. Temecula is about minutes northeast of downtown San Diego, where you can spend the day wine tasting.
If you’re traveling to San Diego with kids, spend Day 5 exploring one of San Diego’s well-known parks. My favorites are the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park! Younger kids will also love Legoland, located in Carlsbad.
There you have it – the perfect San Diego Itinerary for First Timers!
If you’ll be traveling elsewhere in California, make sure to check out my posts on the perfect Los Angeles itinerary, the perfect San Francisco itinerary, and the best hidden gems in California! You might also love my California bucket list – which has my top 20 places to visit in the sunshine state.
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