How To Spend 3 Days in San Diego (with Solo & Budget Travel Tips)

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Ship on the pacific ocean in San Diego

With a history that spans back over 10,000 years, it can be hard to squeeze everything into 3 days when you visit San Diego, but it’s fun trying. And I’ve produced this itinerary to help you do it.

I arrived in San Diego after several months in Mexico and despite plans to spend only a couple of nights in the city (it was, after all, my second visit), I ended up staying close to a month. From the harbor and downtown to the beaches and coves, here’s my guide to the how to spend 3 days in San Diego including where to eat, sleep and drink.

I’ve included a Google Map at the end of the post featuring all the locations listed. At the end, I’ve also included tips for visiting San Diego as a solo traveler.

Day One

Breakfast and coffee in Little Italy

Start your first day with a meander through Little Italy. You may automatically think Gaslamp is the place to start but located a few blocks north of downtown and the Gaslamp Quarter, you’re going to find some of the best breakfast options in the city from pastries to panini and, most importantly, good, strong Italian coffee that’s going to fuel you day.

India Street is a good place  to start – just hold your nose in the air and follow the best scents. And if you’re in the city on a Saturday, check out Little Italy’s Farmer’s Market.

Maritime Museum, Star of India and U.S.S. Midway

Star of India in San Diego

Once you’re high on sugar and caffeine, head to a few streets west to the Harbour (North Harbour Drive) for a day along the sea front.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego, U.S.S. Midway and the Star of India are the three top attractions and it’s easy to spend half a day exploring this part of the city. Even if you’re not into maritime activities, make an exception – the Maritime Museum in San Diego possesses one of the finest collections in the world including the Star of India, which is the world’s oldest active ship. (If you are interested in Maritime history, definitely plan a trip to Pearl Harbor). Meanwhile, U.S.S. Midway is one of the longest serving aircraft carriers that has 29 restored aircrafts on board. The flight simulator is brilliant for both kids and adults – but take it from me, you might want to let your morning latte go down before you spin through a few loops.

You can get more information here: Maritime Museum & Star of India and U.S.S Midway.

Lunch at Tivoli Bar & Grill

When you’re finished at the harbor, stroll a few blocks east and you’ll land yourself in the historic downtown, known as the Gaslamp Quarter (more about Gaslamp below). Before you start exploring, you may want to grab a quick bite. I recommend heading to Tivoli.

Tivoli Bar & Grill (505 6th Avenue) is great for a lunchtime stop or for pre-game beers and a snack. It’s the oldest bar in the Gaslamp Quarter stretching back to 1885 and once included Wyatt Earp as a patron. These days its a favourite amongst Padre fans and has an extensive happy hour and bar food menu. (Currently no website – guess they’re investing all their money in their drinks.)

Petco Park

Statue of Baeball Player outside Petco Park

Afterward lunch, take yourself to the south east corner of the Gaslamp area and locate Petco Park (it’s kind of hard to miss). Whether you’re a sports fan or not, this centre of the city baseball park should be on your list. Petco Park is a giant baseball stadium that’s home to the San Diego Padres. Baseball fan or not (I’m not), it’s a pretty spectacular sight. If you’re in San Diego during the baseball season, tickets are affordable and make for a great night out. Otherwise, you can take a stadium tour, or just climb up onto the grassy bank opposite and have a nosey from there.

Considering a trip to Mexico? Check out my guide to How to visit Tijuana from San Diego which includes how to cross the and staying safe. I’ve also written a guide to Fun Things To Do In Tijuana. You might also like: How To Go Wine Tasting in Ensenada

Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter arch in San Diego

This historic part of the city is made up of 16 (and a half?!) blocks that feature almost 100 buildings from the Victorian Era and the name Gaslamp Quarter is a nod to the gas lamps that once lit the area during Victorian times. Today, the area is packed with hotels, restaurants, clubs and bars and is the perfect place to spend your first night in the city. I’ve got some recommendations below for where to eat and drink, but the best thing to do is to wander around and go where the feeling takes you.

If you like places with history, why not head up the coast and explore the rich history of Downtown Los Angeles?

Dinner and drink in Gaslamp Quarter

If you’re staying in or near Gaslamp Quarter (and even if you’re not), it has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Here are some of my favourites.

Lounge Six (at the top of the Solamar, a Kimpton Hotel) is an excellent choice for rooftop pre-dinner drinks. Think fire pits, palms, cabanas and cocktails.

The Shout House (655 4th Avenue) – I was a bit reluctant about going to this place which is famous for its rock’n’roll duelling pianists, who sit opposite each other and battle it out on grand pianos while taking requests from the crowds. I expected it to be a bit kitsch but it was actually a whole heap of fun.

Tip: Don’t forget to take some form of ID with your age on it if you’re heading to a bar or club.

You might also like my guide to 15 Famous Bars In Key West.

Day Two

Balboa Park

Family together in Balboa Park near pool

Head to Balboa Park if you want to focus on culture. Try to get there early because this park is HUGE (and by huge I mean there is a freeway and several other roads running through it).

Balboa park isn’t just green space, its packed with the best of San Diego’s museums and you’ll want to do some pre-planning to decide which museums you want to see in the time available (half a day). I’m a space and science nerd so I made a beeline for the Air and Space Museum.

The Natural History Museum, the Museum of Man and the Museum of Art are three of the other most popular museums. Balboa has some of the best museums I’ve seen outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

San Diego Zoo is also located within Balboa Park and Sea World is nearby. I know these are popular attractions in the city. I visited the zoo many years ago and it was wonderful but I’ve since become uneasy about visiting large, commercial zoos. Sea World I’ve not visited and won’t because of the many animal welfare issues. But, I’m not here to preach or judge – live and let live as my nan used to day. So, go if you want to, go. This second morning is the perfect time to do it. It’s your trip and you should do what makes you happy.

Old Town San Diego

Courthouse Museum in Old Town San Diego

Ok, so Old Town San Diego is definitely kitsch, but if you can look past all the sombreros, tacos stands and Tequila Tasting Taverns, there’s a whole heap of history to be had.

In the words of the Old Town Guide: Old Town San Diego is considered the “birthplace” of California.

San Diego is the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California. It was here in 1769, that Father Junipero Serra came to establish the very first mission in a chain of 21 missions that were to be the cornerstone of California’s colonization. Father Serra’s mission and Presidio were built on a hillside overlooking what is currently known as Old Town San Diego. At the base of the hill in 1820’s, a small Mexican community of adobe buildings was formed and by 1835 had attained the status of El Pueblo de San Diego. In 1846, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant and a Marine Lieutenant, raised the American flag in the Old Town San Diego Plaza.

In 1968, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park to preserve the rich heritage that characterized San Diego during the 1821 to 1872 period.

Within Old Town don’t miss Casa de Estudillo, which is one of the few original buildings (many are reproductions), Whaley House and Museum, which is believed to be haunted and Junípero Serra Museum, literally the place where California began.

Brewery Tour

If your brain is just about addled after all of that sight-seeing, it’s time to unwind with a Brewery Tour. Craft brewing is a subject-matter the city of San Diego excels at because what’s better in year-round warm weather than a nice cool beer?

There are plenty of formal tours you can book in the city but if you’re not happy to throw down $75 to $125 dollars for a few glasses of beer and a guide, you can create a DIY (drink-it-yourself) tour with this San Diego Craft Beer Walking Tour from Discover San Diego.

Hillcrest

Street performer in Venetian mask in Hillcrest San Diego

It’s probably going to be tempting after a long day of sight-seeing and beer sipping to return to good old familiar Gaslamp Quarter for dinner and an evening of entertainment, but force yourself a bit further north to Hillcrest. If we’re going to use the word ‘hipster’ for any part of San Diego, we’re going to use it in relation to Hillcrest, but I much prefer to consider the area as just plain old cool.

Crammed with bars, cafes and restaurants, you might think it’s Gaslamp in disguise but it’s got a whole different vibe going on. If you really can’t muster the strength to visit for dinner, then put Hillcrest at the beginning of your itinerary day and visit for breakfast before Balboa Park – the brunches here are something else, particularly if you’re in town on a Sunday.

Where To Eat on Day Two – Hillcrest

Hillcrest is the perfect spot for lunch close to Balboa Park but it’s also the perfect location for Sunday brunch, drinks or dinner. Here are my tips for eating and drinking nearby.

Near Balboa Park – you’d be wise to eat before or after your visit to Balboa Park because the food options once you’re there are very limited. If you do get famished to the point that you’re considering biting your arm off, leave the park on the west side and skip over a block to 5th Avenue where there are a dozen or so restaurants and cafes to choose from. Skip 6th Avenue around the park – there are no eateries unless you’re considering knocking on the door of one of the grand residences that run the length of the road.

Brunch in Hillcrest: Hash House a Go Go (3628 5th Avenue) Warning, don’t visit Hash House alone. The plate sizes are disgustingly large but the eggs Benedict and bloody Mary (hey, you’re on holiday!) are amazingly good (even if it is a chain).

Dinner in Hillcrest: Pho Fifth Avenue (3807 Fifth Avenue) – if you’re anything like me and you’ve trucked your way through wheelbarrows worth of American grub, there’s every chance you’re craving something light to eat. Enter: Pho on Fifth Avenue. This is genuinely excellent Vietnamese food (as decreed by someone who’s spent over a month in Vietnam).

Bars in Hillcrest: I confess to having a few nights out in Hillcrest and equally confess that I can’t quite remember the names of the places I went (sign of a good night). Hillcrest is gay-friendly but not exclusively a gay area.

Day Three

Ocean Beach

Lifeguard station at Ocean Beach

Want to add some ‘active-relaxation’ into your trip – blend time at the beach (relaxation), then hop up the coastline to explore San Diego further (active).

Start out at Ocean Beach, my favourite beach area in San Diego. Where khaki shorts and deck shoes give way to tie-dye and flip-flops, the 1960s haven’t quite been squeezed out of existence at Ocean Beach. And that’s a good thing. Grab a bran muffin, a flax-seed shake (or just banana one if you prefer) and chill-out beach-side.

As well as a great chilled vibe, OB features some great bars and restaurants. Here are my favourites.

Jungle Java (Ocean Beach) (5047 Newport Avenue) is a great tucked-away spot that has a host of roasts and good-priced refills. The vibe is as you’d expect in Ocean Beach and you can be damn sure the sweet stuff on offer is home made and organic.

Tacos (Ocean Beach): Sure it’s San Diego so the concentration of taco joints and Mexican cantinas is expected to be high, but the density of choice in Ocean Beach is close to overwhelming. Whether you’re in town on ‘Taco Tuesday’ or not, follow your nose for the scent of Mexican cooking.

Mission Beach

San Diego’s answer to the New York’s Coney Island, Belmont Park is one of the main attractions at Mission Beach, which sits north of Ocean Beach.  Get your stomach rollercoaster-ready or if you’re still feeling the heat of your Ocean Beach tacos, just take a nice long stroll along the Boardwalk.

Related: If you love beach boardwalks, put Miami on your bucket list.

Pacific Beach

Because why not complete the trifecta of three beaches in one day? Head even further north from Mission Beach and you’ll arrive at Pacific Beach. Known among the locals as P.B., if you’re looking for the stereotype of Californian beach life, you’re going to find it here. If you’re looking for a place to have a go at surfing, many newbies start out in the white water around P.B.

La Jolla

All I’m going to say is: sea lions. Ok, I’ve got a bit more to say than that. There’s a reason La Jolla (pronounced ‘La hoy-ah’) is known as the Jewel of San Diego. La Jolla Shores is a prime swimming, sunbathing and water sports spot; La Jolla Cove, meanwhile, features a series of sea caves that get kayaker, snorkelers and scuba divers excited. For ridiculously tall sea cliffs, head to Torrey Pines City Beach at La Jolla’s northern point. And then, of course, there are the sea lions and seals, which bask themselves close to downtown La Jolla. Add ice cream, a stroll along the boardwalk and dinner at night and you’ve just had the perfect third day in San Diego.


Where to stay in San Diego

Night skyline in san Diego

San Diego is a sprawling city that, unhelpfully, has it’s top sights scattered around. The good news it that it doesn’t therefore matter much which area you choose for you San Diego itinerary because you’re going to have to move around anyway. That said, I’d recommend first time visitors place themselves in the tourist hub of Gaslamp/Downtown and explore from there.

Due to bad (read: no) planning, I ending up trying the vast majority of the hostels in San Diego and, overall, they were of a high standard. The budget accommodation is listed in my order of preference.

Luxury: Hotel del Coronado – Perhaps the most famous hotel in San Diego, this sprawling red-roofed Victorian era hotel with beach-front views over San Diego bay is an absolute beauty. Tucked away on upscale Coronado island, if you’re after big bite of lux and whole heap of history thrown in, this is the place for you.

Luxury: Fairmont Grand del Mar – Tripadvisor’s traveler’s choice, this five-star hotel consistently wins five-star reviews; understandable when everything about this hotel screams elegance.

Mid-Range: Kimpton Solamar Hotel – Located in Gaslamp, I stayed at this hotel during my first trip to San Diego and I spent a lot of time enjoying the rooftop: pool time by day and cocktails by night. The quality is as you’d expect from a Kimpton hotel and the location is perfect.

Mid-Range: Pacific Terrace – Ocean views without the price tag of the Coronado (below), Pacific Terrace is ideal if want to spend your down-time at the beach in La Jolla.

Budget: ITH Zoo Hostel in Hillcrest – As well as a great environment, breakfast and some evening meals are included at this hostel. The dorms were clean and spacious, the common area was sociable and the location was a surprise – a bit of a walk to downtown, I enjoyed the more local feel of the restaurants and bars without being surrounded by tourists. Hillcrest is San Diego’s main gay neighbourhood. Dorms and private rooms are available.

Budget: ITH Adventure House in Little Italy – Sister hostel of the one in Hillcrest, ITH Adventure House is a smaller hostel but with the same free-food and social vibe. It’s also a lot closer to downtown if Hillcrest feels too far away. Bonus: you won’t have to walk far for decent coffee, gelato and other Italian goodies. Dorms and private rooms are available.

Budget: HI San Diego – Always a safe bet (though sometimes a little less dynamic than other hostels), you can’t beat the location if you’re interested in being in the area Gaslamp. Dorms and private rooms are available.

Budget: Samesun Hostel Ocean Beach If you want to be within walking distance of the beach, this place is perfect. Very relaxed –  expect a wonderful 60s hippy vibe in OB.

Want to take a gamble? Check out Priceline’s Express Deals. I’ve had discounts over 50% (almost $100 saved a night) using this site – including getting a great deal on the Solamar when I stayed. You can find out more about how to get great deals in my related article: How to Book Cheap Hotels Using Priceline Express Deals.

Visiting San Diego on a RTW Trip or as a Budget or Solo Traveler

The almost month I spent in San Diego was as a solo female traveler. Here are my tips if you’re visiting alone.

General Solo Traveler Tips

  • There are some amazing hostels in San Diego if you’re looking to connect with other solo travelers – book a room or just hit up the common areas.
  • Do note that many of the hostels book out quite quickly, so plan ahead – that means months ahead in summer season. I didn’t book and found myself bouncing around night after night in any spare bed going.
  • There are so many things to do in the city from museums to beaches, you are unlikely to have time for feeling loney. But, if you do feel the need for company, hop on a group tour.
  • Solo beach trips leave you with the ‘what do I do with my valuables while I swim’ moment. I pack a cheap foldable backpack that I leave on top of my beach towel, with my clothes resting on top. Then, underneath my beach towel, I stash my phone/money inside my Sea To Summit dry bag. An opportunist will (I hope), grab the worthless backpack and not go digging for my hidden valuables. Also: ask the person lying nearest to keep an eye out for you. Most humans are good humans and can be trusted.
  • You might like my guides to: What To Do When You Feel Lonely Travelling Alone and Tips for Eating Out Alone.

For Solo Female Travelers

  • Out of all the big cities in the USA where I’ve travelled as a solo female, San Diego felt one of the safest and I had zero problems or hassle walking around alone.
  • The thriving hostel scene makes it very easy to connect with groups of travelers if you prefer to have company, especially at night.
  • Stay in a bustling area where you don’t have to travel too far for dinner, if you are worried about going out alone in the dark. Or use the many food delivery services which will bring you hot, cheap eats to your accommodation.
  • You might like my guide to: 10 Great Destinations for Solo Female Travelers

For budget Travelers

  • Some of the hostels include free meals including dinner, so don’t just compare room rates, look at any meals that are included as well.
  • Overall, San Diego’s budget rooms aren’t all that cheap so plan how many nights you can afford to stay in the city and pack your itinerary as fully as you can to make the most of your money.
  • Head to the supermarkets in the city for cheap eats. Soups, salads and sandwiches coupled with the year-round good climate makes San Diego a good place for budget picnics. I travel with a set of travel cutlery.
  • For a ‘budget break’ from the city, head south to Tijuana. Prices reduce dramatically for everything from eating to sleeping to drinking.

For Round The World Travelers

  • On a RTW ticket, Los Angeles is a major flight hub. You can take a train or bus from LA to San Diego in around 3 hours. So, if you have the chance for a layover in LA before heading to your next stop, it’s easy to add another city to your itinerary.
  • San Diego is also the perfect place for a land border crossing into Mexico if you’re heading south. You can spend one day exploring and head south to sleep in Tijuana if you’re on a tight RTW budget.
  • You might like my guide: How to Plan a Trip Itinerary – Step-By-Step Guide

Map

Here is my Google map of all the locations in this post: 3 Days in San Diego

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boat on the water in San Diego with text overlay
Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.