The Perfect Day in San Diego

It’s hard NOT to have a great day in this lovely coastal city with an ideal climate. Dally in Balboa Park, try some of the local fare (tacos! smoothies! margaritas!), put your toes in the Pacific at the beach, and enjoy this sunny paradise

2300 Expedition Way
Birch Aquarium is located near the coastline. Although it is a small aquarium, they have some spectacular fish tanks and exhibits. The seahorse exhibit is really nice, the dragon seahorse has to be one of the most gorgeous creatures that lives in the oceans. Outside on the patio is a little petting stingray exhibit along with a great view of part of the La Jolla coastline. Tip: Don’t bother paying for your tickets online- they charge an extra $1 per ticket and when you get there, you still have to wait in line to exchange the print out ticket for a “real” one.
Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, USA
A 1,200-acre green space filled with museums, theaters, and gardens, Balboa Park is the center of art and culture in San Diego. It’s also one of the city’s most historic sites, built for the Panama–California exhibition in 1915. While the museums are definitely worth seeing, there are also a number of free attractions, including the photogenic Botanical Building, which houses more than 2,100 plants (including Venus flytraps); the Desert Garden, filled with succulents from around the world; and a sculpture court with works by Miró and Rodin. For one of the area’s best views, purchase a timed ticket to climb the California Tower in the Museum of Man. The ornate structure reopened to the public in 2015 after being closed for nearly 80 years and features a spiral staircase to the eighth floor, where you can catch a glimpse of the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Cabrillo Bridge, and even Mexico’s Coronado Islands.
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106, USA
One of California’s most significant historical landmarks, this statue marks the spot where Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the west coast of the United States. Every year at the end of September, actors re-create this historic moment as part of the Cabrillo Festival. If you don’t happen to be in San Diego then, there’s still plenty to explore here, including the two-mile Bayside Trail through tide pools and coastal sage habitat. Cabrillo died in the Channel Islands not long after coming ashore, but he lives forever in the large limestone statue here—near which you can also enjoy stunning 360-degree views of San Diego, the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, and the surrounding mountains.
3000 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA 92109, USA
The boardwalk between Mission Beach and Pacific Beach is around 3 miles each way. If you walk from Belmont Park to Pacific Grove, it’s a touch shorter at 2 miles each way. At one end is Belmont Park with a large wooden roller coaster, amusement park games, and the Wave House where you can have a drink and watch surfers try their skill. At the other end is Pacific Beach, where you will find hotels, restaurants, bars, and beach shops. If you’re looking to hang out the San Diegan natives, the boardwalk is the place to go and has the best people watching. Tip: There’s a lot of free parking on the Mission Beach end by Belmont Park.
1400 Garnet Ave, San Diego, CA 92109, USA
A three mile stretch each way, the boardwalk is a great place to rent a bike and enjoy the gorgeous San Diego weather. Or check out the neighborhood and just bike around Pacific Beach. There are lots of shops and restaurants found on Garnet Ave. and most bike rentals companies include a bike lock with your rental. There are several bike rental places found in Pacific Beach. We really like riding the cruisers. After you hand in your bike satisfy your hunger at Oscars Mexican Seafood for a taste of local flavor. Tip: If you choose to bike the boardwalk, it can be crowded on the weekends, so either start earlier in the day or go on a weekday.
2259 Avenida De La Playa, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
Trey Foshee, executive chef of George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, is one of the most talented and respected chefs in San Diego. At his casual Mexican restaurant near La Jolla Shores, he cooks with equal skill, using only the best ingredients to create pure, intense flavors. Head to Galaxy Taco for heirloom Masienda corn tortillas, made-to-order guacamole, and epic margaritas with top-shelf liquor and charred fruit. A balance of sweet, sour, and smoke, the Oaxacan Guava (Los Javis mezcal, guava, lime, orange-vanilla shrub, and grapefruit) is a must.
1654 India St, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
Like a nautical version of the yellow brick road, illuminated anchors embedded in the floors of Ironside Fish & Oyster lead you to the Emerald City of raw bars, where the bounteous platters come in Big, Bigger, Biggest, and Holy Sh*t. This last assortment might include, say, 24 oysters, 14 shrimp, 14 mussels, two pounds of lobster, two ounces of sustainable royal white sturgeon caviar, a portion of rockfish ceviche, and some kanpachi crudo for good measure (the mix changes daily according to what’s fresh). Not that lovers of cooked seafood will go hungry at chef Jason McLeod’s Little Italy hot spot, where the catch of the day is a perennial favorite. There’s even a small yet mighty vegetarian lineup (think charred broccolini with dried chilis, garlic, and parmesan; and Japanese sweet potato with scallion chimichurri and puffed quinoa). It’s all rounded out by an impressive bar, where 11 categories of whiskey are represented. While the menu occasionally diverges from the strictly seafaring, the decor never does. The interior design features prow figureheads turned lighting fixtures and artful stacks of steamer trunks.
2820 Historic Decatur Rd, San Diego, CA 92106, USA
San Diego’s first food hall is housed in the city’s former naval training center, a 361-acre site in Point Loma that now features a lively business district with wide lawns, a waterfront park, and historic Spanish Revival–style buildings. Here, vendors serve everything from coconut-curry chicken sausages to ahi tuna poke bowls, providing the makings of a casual lunch or dinner. Take your food to the patio, or sit inside at the high-top tables near the bar and enjoy the untouched murals that line the upper walls. Painted by naval recruits in the 1950s, they depict various vessels, from a late 18th-century sailing ship to a World War II aircraft carrier.
675 W Beech St, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
One of San Diego’s original craft-cocktail spots, this Little Italy establishment reopened in 2016 after a complete makeover. Today, it features 100-year-old taxidermy pieces (a collaboration with the Natural History Museum), shelves lined with classic novels, and even a tiki-themed hidden bar in the back. The excellent cocktails, however, remain blissfully unchanged. At dueling bars, the staff crafts everything from a refreshing Whiskey Smash to the Chilcano, made with yerba maté–infused pisco, ginger, lime, Angostura bitters, and soda. For something different, make reservations at False Idol—the speakeasy, concealed behind a walk-in cooler, features a waterfall, many wood carvings, and cocktails like a mai tai made with the original Trader Vic’s recipe.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks