Last Updated on June 22, 2023
With its rich history, cultural treasures and award-winning Pacific Ocean views, “America’s Finest City” is a well-deserved moniker for San Diego. When thinking about how to spend one day in San Diego, your biggest problem will be narrowing down all the items you’d like to put on your itinerary.
San Diego is an ideal travel destination at any time of the year – never too cold, never too hot, not much rain. One of my local surfer friends says it best when he calls it the place of endless summer. With 70 miles of coastline, a Mediterranean climate, average temperature of 72-degrees and 266 days of sunshine, it’s easy to see why visitors flock here.
As a local, I’m often asked for recommendations of things to do and see. The first question I ask is, “how long are you here?”
Oftentimes, travelers decide to drive down from Los Angeles for the day, given that San Diego is only two hours away by car depending on traffic.
When considering how to spend one day in San Diego, realize you can’t come close to seeing all the treasures that make our city one of the world’s favorite destinations, but you can get a taste of what makes San Diego so special… and motivation for a speedy return.
La Jolla by the Sea
When Spanish explorers landed on the shores of La Jolla, they named it “The Jewel.” One visit and you’ll quickly understand why.
With 17-miles of rugged and picturesque coastline curving into a myriad of natural coves backed by verdant hillsides, La Jolla is a natural treasure trove.
The vibrant, upscale bedroom community of San Diego attracts surfers, beach bums and nature lovers, along with the rich and famous. Bottom line: you never know what or who you’ll see here, but everyone who visits falls in love with La Jolla. (It’s pronounced ‘La Hoya’.)
The beaches here are simply marvelous, but the real gem is La Jolla Cove, home to sea caves and an abundant array of wildlife including basking harbor seals and barking sea lions. The cove is also a habitat for the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world. From June to early December, these beautifully spotted, non-threatening ocean creatures share the waters with swimmers, divers and snorkelers.
If you haven’t had enough of the spectacular views, La Jolla is an ideal place for lunch and many of its restaurants provide stunning picturesque Pacific Ocean vistas. Our favorite: Duke’s La Jolla.
Coronado Island from San Diego
Though technically not an island, Coronado is actually connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of beach known as the Silver Strand. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most precious gems in San Diego’s crown, and one of her most magnificent places to stay and play.
Visitors have two options in getting to Coronado Island located just seven miles from downtown San Diego. If you have a car, you can drive over the Coronado Bridge. If not, hop on a ferry from the Convention Center that leaves every hour and arrives at the Coronado Ferry Landing.
Keep in mind that the heaviest Coronado traffic is in the morning as commuters are heading over the bridge to the Naval Base North Island and between four and five in the afternoon as they return back to the mainland.
Coronado Island is famous for its sparkling white sand beaches which are regularly listed among the world’s best. Building sandcastles is a popular pastime and we’re always intrigued by the unbelievable creations of spectacular professional sand sculpturers bringing “oohs” and “aahs” from beach-goers along with great photo opportunities.
Coronado boasts an easily walkable main street and side roads filled with charming boutiques, eateries, and nautical gift shops. Just driving over the Coronado Bridge brings a sense of excitement.
Coronado’s grand lady by the sea is the historic Hotel Del Coronado built in 1888. The iconic red-and-white turreted Victorian architectural masterpiece stands sentinel over a mile and a half of pristine glittery beach surrounded by swaying palms and fronting the azure waters of the Pacific.
The Beauty of Balboa Park
Believe it or not, the nation’s largest urban cultural park is located in the heart of downtown San Diego. Covering 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is home to 16 museums in addition to theatres, cultural exhibits, and hiking and biking trails. The park also features numerous gardens and a botanical building housing over 2,000 different tropical plants.
Balboa Park is how to spend one day in San Diego without getting into your car.
One of our favorite aspects of the park is the elaborate Spanish-colonial architecture of its many iconic landmark buildings designed and built for the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is also located in Balboa Park, but you’ll need an entire day to explore its tropical grounds covering 1,800 acres and featuring more than 3,500 animals. If you can’t add a day on to your itinerary, put this at the top of your list for a future visit!
The San Diego Zoo is widely considered the best zoo in the world and has been so for decades.
Exploring the Embarcadero
A testament to the region’s colorful maritime and military history, the San Diego Embarcadero stretches along San Diego Bay showcasing historic ships and vessels, museums, the port and cruise ship terminal, and charming Seaport Village.
The Star of India is the queen of the waterfront. Built more than 150 years ago, this tall ship hails as the world’s oldest functional merchant sailing ship. With her wooden decks and towering masts, she harkens back to the days of high sea adventure, and she is beautiful.
If you’ve seen the movies “Master and Commander” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” you may recognize the HMS Surprise, a replica of the 1750 British frigate featured in these flicks. With its cannons and crows’ nests, it brings out the swashbuckling pirate in each of us.
The USS Midway, America’s longest-serving aircraft carrier is now a maritime treasure and museum of Naval aviation. The impressive ship features naval aircraft and tours led by experienced docents who served onboard and tell personal tales of their time at sea. Though you’d have to spend the best part of a day here if you had the time, just walking past the massive vessel is a treat.
Dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter
The heart and soul of downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter, is renowned for its night life and entertainment. Its rectangle-shaped, 16-square blocks are filled with 19th century buildings restored to their original architectural charm.
Visitors can walk in the footsteps of the legendary Wyatt Earp who owned gambling halls in the area and resided at the historic 1880s Horton Grand Hotel, a charming Victorian boutique venue reputed to be one of San Diego’s most haunted places.
The impressive PETCO Park, home to Major League Baseball’ San Diego Padres, is also located in the district.
But we love the dining options of the Gaslamp Quarter. Barleymash is a local favorite with fun foods and creative bartenders.
To really get the feel and flavor of the historic San Diego Gaslamp, nab a reservation at Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant for some fun and great food. The eatery contains San Diego’s oldest mahogany tiger-oak bar with an old-fashioned gentleman’s club and speakeasy feel, but the real fascination is an enigmatic clock on the wall across from the bar that first appears inverse or broken.
The bar, once called the Press Room, was filled with cigarette and cigar smoking reporters from the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper. Seated at the bar, these stalwart newsmen could view the correct time reflected in the mirrored wall straight ahead. During renovation of the restaurant in 1983, builders discovered a secret passageway connecting Spreckels Theater men’s lounge to the Press Room bar.
That’s a wrap on a day best spent in San Diego. I guarantee you’ll love it enough to return, as the beaches, the bay, the historic parks, the outdoor adventures and natural beauty in our city of wonders will be summoning you back.