If you’re thinking about spending one day in San Diego, here’s how I visited the city and had an amazing time with my sister and my friends. There’s only so much you can see in a day, and we didn’t try to pack in too many activities. For the most part, we wandered around San Diego by foot. We walked around the waterfront, through Balboa Park, and the Gaslamp Quarter.
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In addition, I’ve provided lots of alternative activities if there’s something else that piques your interest, too. There are also many suggestions for those who love sampling tasty food and drink when they travel, as well as some accommodation recommendations and travel tips towards the end of the blog post. Ready to spend one amazing day in San Diego, California? Let’s go!
Get the San Diego Pass
First, if you’re planning on visiting any San Diego attractions, you might want to consider getting your hands on the San Diego Pass. Even if you only have one day in San Diego, you can make great use out of the one day pass. Depending on how long you’re staying in San Diego, you can buy a San Diego Pass for up to seven days.
The San Diego Pass provides free admission for over 35 activities, tours, and attractions in San Diego. There are also additional discounts on shopping, restaurants, and more activities. Some of the most interesting benefits that I can see from the San Diego Pass include:
- Admission to the USS Midway Museum
- Belmont Park all-access combo pass
- One hour San Diego harbor cruise
- San Diego Air and Space Museum admission
- Admission to the San Diego Natural History Museum
- Fleet Science Center with IMAX
- Admission to the San Diego Museum of Art
- 90 minute tandem kayak rental
- Whale watching by Hornblower Cruises
- Bike and kayak tours in Coronado and La Jolla
- All day bike rental
- Surfboard rental
- Speedboat adventures
This is only a small selection of the activities, tours and attractions that you can experience with the San Diego Pass. Get your pass right now and you’ll receive the pass instantly to use straight from your phone (or print it out, if you’d rather).
One Day in San Diego: Balboa Park
Out of all the best things to do in San Diego in one day, my favorite is Balboa Park. It belongs on every San Diego itinerary of must see places, and it’s a wonderful spot that I’d love to visit again in the future. Balboa Park is a National Historic Landmark, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s one of the Great Places in America.
With all of those accolades, Balboa Park strives to be at the top of the list for sustainability. It’s a refuge for wildlife, a vast natural space for outdoor activities, and it’s bursting with experiences in the realm of science, arts, and culture. The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership has 10 LEED certified buildings, and they are leading the way with water and energy efficiency projects. They’ve helped reduce 5,139 metric tons of carbon dioxide since 2009, which is the equivalent to the emissions from over 1000 cars driven for a year.
Things to Do in Balboa Park
It’s easy to spend the entire day or longer at Balboa Park, especially if you want to visit the museums. Balboa Park is home to museums, gardens, forests, and playgrounds. You can admire intriguing architecture or catch a cultural performance, like musicals, plays and orchestras.
Take a walk through one or several of Balboa Park’s gardens. They’re a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch, relaxing beneath a century-old tree, or feel free to stop and smell the roses (literally!). There’s the 1935 (Old) Cactus Garden, the Alcazar Garden (modeled after the garden at Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain), the Australian Garden, the California Native Plant Garden, the Desert Garden, and the Japanese Friendship Garden, to name a few. Strolling through the gardens at Balboa Park is one of the best things to do in San Diego.
If its culture and history you seek, you must visit one of Balboa Park’s 17 museums with their massive collections. There’s really something for every interest, including the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Art Institute, the San Diego Automotive Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the San Diego Automotive Museum, the San Diego Museum of Man, and more.
To get a great feel for the park in a short amount of time, why not take a small group, two hour walking tour of Balboa Park with a local guide? You’ll learn all about the park and visit the highlights, which is perfect if you only have one day in San Diego.
Visit a Local Brewery in San Diego
San Diego has dozens of craft breweries and microbreweries right within the city. There’s a good chance that there’s a brewery within walking distance of wherever you happen to be in the city. During our one day in San Diego, we walked over to Mission Brewery near Petco Park. I was really impressed with the variety of beer and seasonal beer, as well as the overall atmosphere and service.
Mission Brewery has a really interesting history. The brewing company started in 1913 and went out of business during Prohibition. However, in 2007, a home brewer reestablished the brand as a microbrewery and set up shop in the historic Wonder Bread building that dates back to 1894. This is where you’ll find the brewery and the tasting room.
We all decided to order beer flights with varieties that tempted our individual tastes, and I really enjoyed all of my beer (and I ordered a root beer, too!). If you aren’t in the neighborhood of Mission Brewery, here’s a list of San Diego breweries so you can find a brewery near you. If you’re really into drinking beer and trying new breweries, here’s a fantastic San Diego brewery tour that takes place in the evening, leaving the day open for other adventures.
Eat Delicious Vegan Meals
There are so many amazing vegan-friendly and vegan restaurants in San Diego that it will be hard to choose just one or two for the day. Eating all of the yummy vegan food is one of the best things to do in San Diego. Thankfully, a California native and friend of mine wrote this brilliant vegan San Diego guide for our site. Here are a few suggestions where you really can’t go wrong.
Plant Power Fast Food
Plant Power Fast Food (2204 Sunset Cliffs Blvd) is a popular Southern California fast food vegan chain, and they have two restaurants in San Diego. Check out their Ocean Beach location, near the beach and within a cool and kitschy bohemian neighborhood.
On the menu, you’ll find some typical American eats that are made healthier by virtue of being vegan, like burgers, wraps, and frozen treats. Try The Iconic Burger or The Holy Guacamole (if you’re a fan of spicy food), as well as their organic sodas or vegan old-fashioned milkshakes. It’s one of the best vegan restaurants in San Diego and all over California.
The Purple Mint Vegan Bistro
The Purple Mint Vegan Bistro (6171 Mission Gorge Rd #118) is a family owned and operated vegan restaurant in San Diego. They serve Vietnamese and Pan-Asian dishes that are super yummy, and the service is welcoming and friendly. Even though their location in Mission Valley doesn’t have any interesting features (it’s in a shopping plaza), the delicious food more than makes up for the ambiance.
You’ll find a wide selection of Asian food in huge portions, so bring your appetite! They have vegan curry, pho, banh mi sandwiches, and a number of other comfort Asian dishes. Make sure to try their vegan pho, eggplant & tofu delight, or their “prawns” in garlic noodles. Oh, and they’ve got fantastic Thai iced tea if you’re looking for a caffeine kick.
Trilogy Sanctuary (Rooftop & Level 3, 7650 Girard Ave Suite 400) is a healthy vegan cafe and yoga studio combo in the La Jolla area of San Diego. It’s also a rooftop cafe so you can soak up all those sparkling ocean views and San Diego sunshine while filling your body with good ol’ vegan nutrition. This is where you can practice your down dog then sit down to a heaping Acai bowl or filling smoothie after practice, a great idea if you’re visiting San Diego on a Sunday.
Their menu is 100% vegan, organic, gluten-free, soy free, and doesn’t include any refined sugar. They also offer aerial yoga classes (in addition to traditional yoga) if you’re feeling adventurous in your practice. Make sure to try their traditional Acai bowl and falafel tacos.
The Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego spans 16 blocks, and it features Victorian architecture alongside modern buildings. Former saloons and brothels are now restaurants and nightclubs. While it’s best known for its nightlife, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s a great place to explore on your 1 day in San Diego.
By day, there are places to go shopping, delightful restaurants and cafes, and you’ll want to check out all of the impressive details on the old buildings. By night, there are lots of pubs and bars to visit, even if you aren’t a fan of the typical nightclub environment. For instance, the Shout! House is a dueling piano bar featuring classic rock sing-a-longs. Noble Experiment is a speakeasy hidden behind a secret door. And Vin de Syrah is another hidden lounge with DJs, cocktails, and small bites.
From the Gaslamp Quarter, it’s a short walk to the USS Midway Museum, a historical naval aircraft carrier museum at Navy Pier. There’s a large collection of US aircraft and several exhibitions on board. It’s a must visit if you’re a fan of aviation history or US history in general. If you didn’t purchase the San Diego Pass (which allows free entry), you can buy a skip-the-line ticket to the USS Midway Museum to save valuable time on your one day in San Diego.
Check Out Local Cafes
Visiting local coffee shops is one of my favorite things to do as I travel, and San Diego was no exception. As it was my friend’s birthday and he’s a massive fan of dessert, we ventured over to Le Parfait Paris (555 G Street) for dessert and coffee towards the end of our one day in San Diego. It’s a Parisian patisserie in the Gaslamp Quarter with tons of French desserts. While they don’t have any vegan desserts, I really enjoyed my rich and flavorful Americano.
Looking for more coffee shops in San Diego? I recommend getting your caffeine fix at:
- Bird Rock Coffee Roasters (3 locations in San Diego)
- Better Buzz Coffee (Multiple San Diego locations)
- James Coffee Co (3 San Diego cafes)
- Dark Horse Coffee Roasters (they have vegan donuts! 5 locations in San Diego)
Watch the Sunset
You’re in California, so you’re going to want to soak up those world famous sunsets! One of the best ways to wrap up your wonderful day in San Diego is by watching the sun go down. There are numerous places to add a sunset viewing to your San Diego itinerary.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park seems like the obvious choice. After all, the word “sunset” is right there in its name. It’s a 68 acre park on the Pacific Ocean and Point Loma. You can go for a wander around this conservation area, admiring sea caves, rugged bluffs, and natural arches. It also happens to be an amazing spot to watch the sunset. You might even spot migrating California gray whales from this location.
If you’re out at Mission Bay, Sunset Point Park is another great place to watch the sunset. There’s an open grassy park here where you can relax on a blanket and witness one of nature’s dazzling performances. If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, why not rent a kayak at Mission Bay? You can watch the sunset from your own watercraft!
More Ideas for Your San Diego Itinerary
If you have more than a day in San Diego, here are some more ideas for an action packed San Diego itinerary. Feel free to add or swap out these activities in place of other ones on the list. No matter what you choose to do in San Diego, you’re sure to have a memorable day.
Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego is a fantastic addition to any San Diego itinerary, even if you’re only able to see San Diego in a day. It was California’s first settlement, dating back to 1769. There are shops, gardens, and restaurants featuring delicious Mexican food. There are many historic sites, including Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. History comes to life through interactive displays and demonstrations.
Cross the Coronado Bay Bridge to reach Coronado Island where you’ll find a picture perfect beach and the iconic Hotel Del Coronado. If you’re looking for a beach day, Coronado Beach has some of the softest and cleanest sand in California. Besides the beach and checking out the elegant hotel for a meal or a drink, there isn’t much more to do on Coronado. It can get quite busy there, so you might want to visit earlier in the day to avoid the crowds.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Torrey Pines State Park is one of the best places to go hiking in San Diego and it’s only a short drive from downtown San Diego. If I had more than one day in San Diego, I’d head straight to Torrey Pines for the oceanfront trails and potential dolphin sightings.
It’s home to one of the most endangered pine trees in the world, and there are over 400 species of wildflowers that bloom mostly in late winter and spring. If you’re a fan of hiking and looking for more hiking trips, here are some more amazing hikes in San Diego to add to your bucket list.
Belmont Park and Mission Beach
The Mission Beach Boardwalk is another iconic spot in San Diego with beautiful views of the ocean. Take a stroll along the boardwalk for a relaxing jaunt, and stop at any cafes or restaurants along the way. Of course, Mission Beach is also home to a fabulous beach where you could easily spend the entire day.
You can also discover Belmont Park at Mission Beach, an amusement park that opened in 1925. It’s a classic carnival and midway right next to the beach with a wooden roller coaster. You can walk around Belmont Park for free, but you’ll need to buy tickets for the rides.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a picturesque coastal neighborhood in San Diego with a little beach and incredible scenery. You’ll likely be able to see seals and sea lions lounging on the rocks, as well as interesting rock arches and sea caves. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving here for the opportunity to spot leopard sharks and many species of fish. The best time of year to visit in order to witness the leopard sharks is August and September, although it’s possible to see them from June through to November.
Activities in San Diego
Besides all of the above San Diego attractions, there are so many things to do in San Diego that you’ll surely need more than one day. If you like to keep active on holidays with lots of outdoor activities, here are a few that you’ll find in abundance in San Diego:
- Surfing: Try a 1.5 hour surf lesson at La Jolla
- Kayaking: Take a kayaking tour of the 7 caves at La Jolla
- Scuba Diving
- Bike Riding
- Stand Up Paddle Boarding: Rent a SUP for fun and exercise out on the water
Getting Around San Diego
When I visited San Diego for the day, I walked around everywhere on my own two feet. I walked around Navy Pier, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, down around Petco Park, and more. If you’re spending most of your time in downtown San Diego, it’s very walkable and you won’t need to plan for other modes of transportation.
However, I feel like not having a rental car really did restrict where I was able to visit. If I had access to a rental car in San Diego, I’d consider visiting Old Town San Diego, Torrey Pines, La Jolla Cove, and other places that make San Diego such a special destination. I suggest comparing rates to find cheap car rentals in San Diego so you can have the freedom to go wherever you want.
Visiting multiple destinations in California? It’s easy to drive up the coast when you have your own rental car! Here is my itinerary for visiting Los Angeles in a day or spending two days in Los Angeles. I’ve also rated both San Francisco and LA as the best places to live in the USA if you’re a frequent flyer, so maybe you’ll want to be permanently based in California.
Frequently Asked Questions About San Diego
Planning your San Diego itinerary and have some questions? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about San Diego from visitors.
Here are the best things to see and do in San Diego: Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla Cove, Torrey Pines State Reserve, visit local breweries, the Mission Beach Boardwalk, Belmont Park, Old Town San Diego, and Coronado Beach.
You can go kayaking, biking, stand up paddle boarding, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing.
You can visit San Diego in a day and it’s also possible to visit San Diego in a weekend. I recommend at least 2-3 days in San Diego for the best trip.
Absolutely! We didn’t feel unsafe walking around San Diego at all. In fact, San Diego is safer than 34% of other cities in the United States. Make sure you use common sense and practice safety as you would in any major city around the world.
The best time of year to visit San Diego are the shoulder seasons: March to May and September to November. The prices are better, the city is less busy, and the weather is ideal for walking around and soaking up the sunshine. December is the coldest month of the year to travel to San Diego.
Where to Stay in San Diego
There are many options for accommodations in San Diego ranging from budget stays to luxury hotels. Here are my suggestions for where to stay in San Diego for all budgets.
Budget Stay in San Diego
If you’re a traveler who is keeping to a budget, you’ll love the International Travelers House Downtown Hostel. The hostel is located inside an old Victorian home in the middle of downtown San Diego. There are both dorm rooms and private rooms, free Wi-Fi, private lockers and luggage storage, and there are even free adventure activities and a social hour through the hostel.
Mid-Range Stay in San Diego
Although it’s a five star property, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Kimpton Hotel Palomar San Diego within the mid-range budget pricing for hotel stays in the city. There are stylish guest rooms, a rooftop pool and bar, a fitness center, a room filled with vintage arcade games, and a Mexican restaurant on site. You’re within a one minute walk of the Gaslamp Quarter. This hotel is such a fantastic find!
Luxury Stay in San Diego
If you’re looking for a luxury hotel stay to make your trip to San Diego extra special, look no further than the Intercontinental San Diego. This urban boutique hotel is right on the waterfront, and the rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows for stunning views of the San Diego Bay. There are three dining venues, a rooftop bar, an outdoor yoga terrace, and a health and wellness center. You’re within walking distance of Navy Pier, Petco Park, and many of the tourist attractions that I’ve mentioned in this blog post.
Looking for More Options?
There are lots of amazing hotels in San Diego and Airbnb accommodations. Here’s a handy booking tool where you can see all of the Booking.com accommodations and Airbnbs in one place. It’s easy to compare prices and find the best rate for your trip.