Three Days in San Diego: How to Plan the Perfect Long Weekend Trip

Photo: Marion Botella/Courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority

Day One

If you’ve arrived at San Diego International Airport, you have several easy ways to get to your destination, and we suggest the downtown area, in the midst of all the action with convenient access to just about anywhere you’ll want to go. Take the City Bus, taxi, or rideshare from either terminal and head downtown. In 10 minutes or so, you’ll be there with your choice of upscale hotels, restaurants, boutiques, lively streets, and sea breezes. Choose the historic U.S. Grant with its classic Art Deco style or the Andaz in a vintage building updated with contemporary style. If being in San Diego means views of the sea, you’ll find your perfect room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt and still be close to downtown and the fun of the Gaslamp Quarter.

John Bahu/Courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority

Once you’ve settled in, stroll through the area to get your bearings, and head to Seaport Village. Take in the atmosphere, views of The Big Bay, and grab a bite to eat. Try Margarita’s Kitchen for Mexican dishes or Marion’s Fish Market for lunch. Just want a snack? Visit Wetzel’s Pretzels, Ben & Jerry’s, or Frost Me Gourmet Cupcakes.

A short walk from there is the U.S.S. Midway, a United States Navy aircraft carrier now open for self-guided or docent-led tours. Even without time for a tour, you’ll appreciate the size and history of the ship that took part in the 1990s Operation Desert Storm and launched more than 3,000 combat missions. Nearby in Tuna Harbor Park, look for the statues recognizing comedian Bob Hope’s role entertaining the military and a statue memorializing the celebratory kiss of a sailor and a nurse at the end of World War II.

You’ll probably want to relax at your hotel and freshen up before dinner and the evening ahead in the Gaslamp Quarter. Start with a cocktail at the Rustic Root’s rooftop bar, and if you arrive between 4 and 6 p.m., you’ll be in time for Happy Hour. If not, you can still sip a cocktail and order from the Rooftop menu while you enjoy the view. Head to the dining room and choose a seafood, pasta, meat, or vegan entree with a salad, side, or appetizer. After dinner, enjoy the spirited atmosphere of the Quarter before returning to your hotel.

Day Two

Depending on how late you lingered last night, your breakfast time will vary, but the place should be Richard Walker’s Pancake House, with every morning dish you can imagine, perfectly prepared. You’ll want to be well nourished for the busy day ahead in Balboa Park, San Diego’s 1,200-acre cultural and entertainment paradise, an urban park with 17 museums, gardens, and the San Diego Zoo.

About a mile from downtown, it’s walkable, but you can bike (bike racks are available) or rideshare. There’s vehicle parking, but depending on the day and season, it can be difficult to find a space. Stop at the Visitors Center for information to help plan your day, and grab a coffee or espresso at nearby Prado Perk or Daniel’s Coffee while you decide which museums to see — art, science, history, space exploration, or model railroads. Will you stroll through the Japanese Friendship Garden, ride the vintage Balboa Park Carousel, or hear one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion? You can explore on your own, take a self-guided audio tour, or book one that focuses on a special interest like architecture or the gardens. The Balboa Park app for your phone is a great guide as well.

Chelsea Loren/Travel + Leisure

When it’s time for a midday break, treat yourself to lunch at The Prado where you can choose an indoor or outdoor table, a margarita or specialty cocktail, sandwich, salad, burger, or favorite like Prado Paella. Local beers are on the menu as well. While you relax over lunch, you can plan your afternoon. There’s still so much to see in the Park, but save something for next time, and go to the San Diego Zoo. Most visitors are surprised to find that it’s actually in Balboa Park.

Like the Park, the Zoo has more than you can see in a day, but plan to spend at least three hours and stay until closing time at 5 p.m. This is your introduction to some of the 3,700 animals in their natural habitats and climate zones, and you’ll want to return for an in-depth visit once you see the beauty of the animals and their homes in the zoo. Take the 35-minute guided bus tour for an overview, and you’ll still have time to spend with some of your favorites.

Back at your hotel, rest a while and regain some energy for the evening. Go for dinner in Little Italy, a historic downtown area increasingly known for its lively atmosphere, wine bars, breweries, and stylish restaurants serving delicious eats. For authentic Sicilian cuisine, fresh pasta, artisan pizzas, and Southern Italian wines, visit Busalacchi family-owned Barbusa. Or choose Herb & Wood for their roasted branzino, grilled venison loin, bone-in prime New York steak, pasta, or any other of the creative dishes of chef Brian Malarkey. Dinner will end your busy day on a high note, so sleep well and be ready for your beach day tomorrow.

Day Three

It’s not a trip to San Diego without a day at the beach, so get an early start and head north for about a 20-minute drive to La Jolla. Spend a while at the “Children’s Pool” and look down from the top of the cliff at the seals and sea lions that have taken over part of the cove and small beach. They’re entertaining to watch as they loll in the sand, jostle for space, take a dip in the water, and return to sleep on the beach. They put on quite a show, and it’s especially fun to see these marine animals in their natural surroundings. For your own beach visit, look for the parking lot at La Jolla Shores and walk to the mile-long sandy beach, ideal for swimming, and equipped with convenient showers and restrooms.

Edelweiss Melanie Stocker/Courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority

Since this is your San Diego beach day, experience another style beach, one with a boardwalk, bike path, and lots going on. Drive south along Mission Boulevard about five miles, and you’ll be at Mission Beach. There you can swim in the ocean or the calm waters of nearby Mission Bay, take a bike ride, a sailboat cruise, or just relax and watch all the goings-on. Belmont Park, a classic boardwalk amusement park, is the place for miniature golf, arcade games, bumper cars, or a ride on the restored 1925 Giant Dipper Roller Coaster.

End your beach day and short visit to San Diego as close to the sea as possible, and dine outdoors with a view at one of Mission Bay’s fine dining or casual restaurants, depending on your mood. Enjoy seafood with a bay view at Tidal or sushi at oceanfront Cannonball, set on a rooftop above Mission Beach. While you enjoy the sunset and reflect on your visit to San Diego, we have a feeling you’ll be making plans for your return.

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