This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.
We know how stressful traveling can be, and the point of our job is to make it all the easier for you. So if you don’t have time to do the research to plan how to spend one day in San Diego, California, we’ll do it for you!
Luckily, we’ve lived in the southwest USA for a few years and have consistently taken trips over to San Diego. Over time, we’ve nailed down the perfect way to spend a day in SD.
This is what we live for. Here are our suggestions for the best San Diego one day trip.
How to Get to San Diego
The best way to reach the city depends on where you’re coming from, but generally, flying is the easiest way. San Diego International Airport serves as the main airport in the area and provides flights to cities across the United States.
If you prefer not to fly, then driving or taking the train are other possible options. If you choose to drive, it’s less than a 5-hour trip from Los Angeles (depending on traffic) and about 9 hours from San Francisco.
Many people take Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner service, which runs from Los Angeles up through Solana Beach just north of San Diego. The route is scenic, with views of the ocean along most of its length.
How to Get Around San Diego
San Diego is a great place to visit, and getting around the city is relatively easy. Public transportation is available and can be used to get to many of the popular tourist destinations.
However, if you’re looking for more flexibility during your stay, having your own car will allow you to explore further and experience everything San Diego has to offer. Whether it’s scenic drives along the coastline or a trip to a bustling neighborhood, having your own vehicle opens up a world of possibilities for exploring the area.
Just know that parking can be pricy and hard to come by.
Where to Stay in San Diego
Even if you’re just spending a day in San Diego, you’ll probably want a place to stay. Below are a few of our recommendations.
Our go-to affordable hotel in San Diego is the King’s Inn. It’s located right next to a mall and is a short drive from places like Coronado and downtown San Diego. The rooms are comfortable and there’s air conditioning. What more could you want?
A great mid-range accommodation (that also happens to be luxury), Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego is a perfect place to stay. It’s near the airport and there are amenities like 2 swimming pools, parking, free wifi, a restaurant, and American breakfast.
FREE TRAVEL QUIZ
Where should you travel next?
Have some extra $$$ to splurge? Then you have to stay at Hotel del Coronado. Located right on the beach, this luxury accommodation offers oceanfront rooms that will take your breath away.
One Day in San Diego Itinerary
Grab Breakfast at Meraki Cafe
Meraki Cafe is one of our favorite breakfast spots and cafes in San Diego. The menu is full of clean but tasty and filling options. From oatmeal to acai bowls to avocado toast, your breakfast will feel good and look good.
Meraki Cafe also makes a mean cup of coffee.
Located on Adams Avenue, the cafe is in a prime location for exploring the city. You can eat a nice breakfast and charge your devices before embarking on your 1 day in San Diego.
After Breakfast, Explore Balboa Park
Next, you’ll drive 8 minutes south to Balboa Park, and you can walk off Meraki Cafe’s delicious food as you explore the park’s 1,200 acres. Here, you really have your pick of the lot.
You can jump into the exotic biomes of the San Diego Zoo, explore one of the 20 gardens, or learn a little bit about the culture and history of San Diego in a museum of your choice. Entrance to the park itself is free, and there are many free activities to do within the park as well.
Some of these include listening to the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, letting the kids loose at Pepper Grove Playground, strolling through The Spanish Village Art Center, and traveling the world at the House of Pacific Relations.
You could really spend all day in Balboa Park, but I would pick one or two places you want to see and spend a couple of hours here before heading out to see the rest of the city. After all, you have all kinds of places to visit in San Diego in one day.
Marvel at Point Loma
In your one day in San Diego, Point Loma is a must-see. This peninsula curls out around the bay, providing a drop-dead gorgeous view of both the sea and the city.
Point Loma is a 20-minute drive from Balboa Park. Be sure to look at the windows to see the heart of San Diego unfold around you.
At Point Loma, you can hike around the Cabrillo National Monument, a beautiful monument standing guard at the tip of the peninsula. The statue commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to touch down in the bay.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse needs to be in your San Diego one day itinerary. This aesthetic lighthouse is no longer in use but is a perfect place for some “I was in San Diego” pictures.
There are also some fun neighborhoods and restaurants to explore if you have extra time.
Eat Lunch at Liberty Public Market
Speaking of restaurants, what’s for lunch?
After trekking through Balboa Park and running around Point Loma, you’re bound to work up an appetite. San Diego is definitely one of the best places to be hungry.
Liberty Public Market opened in 2016 and is located in an old naval training base. The market has 38 vendors, so you have a variety of options to choose from. Feeling kebabs? Head to Kebab Craft. Thai food? You got it. Burgers? Just around the corner at Rad Burger.
And “donut” forget dessert! The Mini Doughnut Company has got you covered.
Liberty Public Market is a new, popping foodie haven, and they are always adding new restaurants and eateries. They also have fun stores like the Old Town Soap Company and Mo’s Records to browse in.
Lounge on the Beach
I hope you packed your beach stuff this morning because how could you spend one day in San Diego without going to the beach?
Now, San Diego is the quintessential beach town, so you have got a lot of beaches to choose where to spend your afternoon.
If you’re traveling with kids and/or want a safe swimming area, La Jolla Cove and Coronado Beach should be your first choices. The waves at these beaches are generally calmer, making it pretty easy to wade out into the waves.
If you surf and want to try shredding the waves in the surf capital of California, Del Mar, and Black’s Beach have some of the best surfing year-round. The best beaches to learn how to surf are La Jolla Shores, Pacific Beach, and Mission Beach.
Now, since you’ve already walked Balboa Park and Point Loma, maybe you’re just looking to relax and enjoy the beauty of the San Diego shores. Pacific Beach is not only great for surfing but has 3 top-rated beachfront bars that go perfectly with relaxation.
Experience a Beach Boardwalk or Pier
Now this might be a good time to go back to your hotel and take a nap, but if you’re ready to see more, then next, you’re going to head to one of San Diego’s famous boardwalks.
Mission Beach has one of the most well-known boardwalks in the city. Visitors and locals alike come here daily to walk, bike, and people-watch on the boardwalk. Once you reach the end of the line, you’ll stumble on Belmont Park, the family-friendly amusement park.
At Pacific Beach, you can walk along the famed Crystal Pier, a San Diego landmark since 1927. It is a public fishing spot (meaning no license is required) and has unrequited views, including the beautiful, unique Crystal Pier Hotel & Cottages.
But like I mentioned earlier, if you want to recharge at your hotel, or take a shower before heading into the evening, taking a look at the boardwalks and piers can be done quickly, or you can just put it in your San Diego one day trip next time you visit.
Have Dinner at Tuetano Taqueria
If you didn’t have tacos for lunch, and even if you did, Tuetano Taqueria is a must-try for your one day in San Diego.
An Old Town staple, Tuetano Taqueria is a local favorite for Mexican food. Serving tacos and birria tortas and quesadillas, a dish made with marinated meat. The menu has vegetarian options as well.
This delicious restaurant is beloved in San Diego, but if you want to try something new, there are plenty of options for that as well. Top-rated Indonesian, Japanese, Mediterranean and more exotic restaurants are easy to find here.
Watch the Sunset, Embark on a Ferry Ride, See a Play?
San Diego is a vibrant city when the sun is up and doesn’t go to sleep when it goes down. That means there are a variety of options on how to spend your night if you only have 1 day in San Diego.
That also means you have to choose, but depending on your definition of “one” day, you may be able to extend into the early morning hours and fit in a couple of the options.
San Diego is known for its surreal beach sunsets. Which, again, means there are a number of sunset spots you can choose from. Sunset Cliffs is an obvious choice, seeing how “sunset” is in the name.
To see the city from a different perspective, you can hop on the night ferry going across San Diego Bay. You’ll get off in Coronado and can explore the boardwalk and beachside shops and restaurants there.
Or, if you want to end your night with a show, you can buy a ticket or two to the Old Globe Theater. Built in 1935 and modeled off of the original Shakespearean theater in London, the Old Globe has been providing classics to San Diego residents for almost 100 years.
Final Thoughts: San Diego in a Day
And those are just a few of the things San Diego has to offer! Since you do have to fill a San Diego one day itinerary, I would suggest making seeing the sunset a priority. It will be a sight you won’t want to forget.
It’s definitely a challenge to try and pack all the essentials into one day in San Diego. With this itinerary, you’ll be able to see the things that make San Diego San Diego.
And chances are good, you’ll fall in love and will be back for a longer trip next time! This trip will get you a good headstart on your San Diego bucket list.
Check out more of San Diego: