The Ultimate Guide To San Diego

The Ultimate Guide To San Diego

California
San Diego SeaWorld | San Diego Travel Guide

San Diego is the oldest and one of the most vibrant towns in California!

The Europeans first arrived and settled in the Bay region of San Diego, California, making San Diego “the birthplace of California.” However, before becoming a part of the US, San Diego was owned by Spain, followed by Mexico. Then finally, the land was ceded to the United States by Mexico after the Mexican-American War.

San Diego’s unique blend of Spanish-Mexican architecture is a heritage from its past.

The two great World’s Fairs, the United States Navy establishment, and the commercial sea and cruise ship ports in San Diego led to the birth of the modern city of San Diego.

San Diego is one of the finest cities in California, and the perfect year-round weather makes it a popular tourist destination in the US!

San Diego is located in Southern California along the Pacific coast with access to several gorgeous beaches and plenty of sunshine resulting in a year-round warm climate.

The warm climate and the coastal access make San Diego a popular destination amongst outdoor enthusiasts. However, San Diego has a lot more to offer besides the natural beauty and the coastal access.

There’re several things to see and do in San Diego, including the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Sea World, museums, national monuments, beautiful beaches, and so much more!

Here is my ultimate guide to San Diego, featuring major attractions and things to do in San Diego, along with a suggested itinerary and recommendations on San Diego hotels and San Diego restaurants.

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Getting To San Diego

Cabrillo National Monument | San Diego Travel Guide

The best way to get to San Diego is by flying into San Diego airport or any other nearby airport in California and then driving to San Diego.

However, if flying or driving is not an option, you could still get to San Diego using train or bus services. Below I have outlined different commute options, best driving routes, train and bus services to get to San Diego.

Flights to San Diego

Airports Near San Diego: San Diego International Airport (SAN), San Diego, CA, just 4 miles from the city. John Wayne Airport (SNA), Santa Ana, CA, 87 miles from San Diego, and about 1 hour 30 minutes drive. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Los Angeles, CA, 125 miles from and about 2 hours drive. 

I highly recommend flying directly into San Diego International Airport (SAN). However, if you find a better price and don’t mind driving, you can also fly into Santa Ana or Los Angeles, rent a car and drive to San Diego.

Driving to San Diego

There’re a lot of people who fly into Los Angeles and then drive to San Diego, and if you’re planning to do so, I highly recommend going through the Pacific Coast Highway to get to San Diego.

PCH, Pacific Coast Highway, is one of the most scenic drives in the world! The beautiful highway overlooking the Pacific Coast starts from San Francisco and goes all the way to San Diego.

Many prefer breaking the PCH drive into two parts (1) San Francisco to Los Angeles and (2) Los Angeles to San Diego. You will find more details about the entire PCH drive in The Ultimate Guide To Pacific Coast Highway

So if you’re driving to San Diego from Los Angeles, you must drive through the Pacific Coast Highway. Stopping and exploring several beach tows in California, including Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point Harbor, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and La Jolla.

The drive to San Diego from Los Angeles via PCH is about 150 miles but can take 5-6 hours, depending on how much time you spend at each stop.

Pacific Coast Highway is the best route to San Diego from Los Angeles, offering great coastal views and access to some of the best beach towns in the US!

Train and Bus services to San Diego

If flying or driving is not an option, you could use Amtrak’s train and Greyhound’s bus services to get to San Diego.

Train Services to San Diego: Amtrak offers a train service, the Pacific Surfliner, that connects San Luis Obispo, a city in California’s Central Coast region, to San Diego through Los Angeles & Santa Barbara.

Bus Services to San Diego: Greyhound offers daily bus services from Los Angeles to San Diego. You can check the schedule and make your reservations online on the Greyhound website.

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Things To Do In San Diego

There are endless things to see and do in San Diego, and most likely, you would need a couple of trips to San Diego to see all that San Diego has to offer!

San Diego is quite significant in size, and the attractions in San Diego are spread all around the city. Some attractions are best visited via a trolly tour to avoid San Diego traffic and save time finding parking. However, there a few attractions in San Diego that are best visited by car.

I have organized the attractions in San Diego into two groups – Attractions best visited via Trolly Tour & Attractions best visited by car.

I highly recommend purchasing a multi-attraction discount pass from Go City, which gives you access to several San Diego attractions at a discounted rate.

San Diego Attractions Best Visited Via Trolly Tour

The Old Town Trolley Tours company in San Diego provides great hop-on hop-off, well-narrated trolley tours of San Diego downtown & Coronado, stopping at all major attractions.

The trolley tour is a great way to explore the city without having to worry about traffic and parking. The trolley stops at several locations, including a couple of hotels in the town. The trolleys are quite frequent and have well-staffed boarding stops.

The tour company offers one & two-day passes and a few other specialty tour options that you can find on their website – Old Town Trolley Tours.

Here are my favorite San Diego attractions that are a must-see on the trolley tour!

Attractions in San Diego | San Diego Travel Guide

Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego is where you can relive the history of San Diego! The Old Town San Diego State Historic Park preserves several historical buildings and sites, providing an opportunity to experience what it was to live in a different era in California’s history.

This is also the starting point of the Old Town Trolley Tours, but it’s not necessary to start your trolley tour from this particular point. You can board the trolley at a stop that is convenient for you.

If you’re a history buff, you must visit Old Town San Diego!

There is a lot to see and explore in Old Town San Diego, including the Old Town State Historic Park, the Whaley House, Mormon Battalion Memorial, Immaculate Conception Church, and several gift shops in the Old Town Market. Old Town San Diego Address: 4002 Wallace St, San Diego, CA 92110

Maritime Museum & Star of India

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is known for their art of restoration and maintenance of historic vessels. The museum has one of the world’s most exquisite collections of historic ships, including the world’s oldest working ship, the Star of India.

The museum offers self-guided tours and is open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM. Maritime Museum Address:1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101.

USS Midway Museum

The USS Midway Museum is a historic naval aircraft carrier museum located in downtown San Diego and is very close to the Maritime Museum.

The USS Midway is the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century. The naval aircraft carrier is now a museum, allowing visitors to explore the ship’s engine room, crew quarters, flight control rooms, and several restored aircraft.

There is a lot to see, and it might very well take 2-3 hours to explore everything. USS Midway Museum Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 9210. The museum is open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas from 10 AM to 5 PM.

Things to do in San Diego | San Diego Travel Guide

Seaport Village

Seaport Village is an oceanfront shopping and dining district adjacent to San Diego Bay in downtown San Diego, located close to the USS Midway Museum.

There are several shops and eateries along the boardwalk, and it is a great place to see the sunset over the Pacific. Seaport Village is also famous for the Busker Fest, an event held every March showcasing numerous street performers from all over the globe.

Seaport Village is open daily from 10 AM t0 9 PM and offers onsite paid parking, in case you’re planning to drive. Seaport Village Address: 849 W Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101.

Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter is a sparkling downtown area in San Diego known for its nightlife, victorian-style buildings, shops, art galleries, theatres, and restaurants.

The name Gaslamp Quarter is due to the gas lamps that were used to light the streets of San Diego downtown.

There are several historical buildings in Gaslamp Quarter, including the Old City Hall, Yuma Building, Spencer Ogden Building, and many more. There’re even several guided tour options available for Gaslamp Quarter. Gaslamp Quarter Address: Ace Parking – 614 Market St, San Diego, CA 92101.

Hotel Del Coronado

Hotel Del Coronado is a historic beachfront hotel in Coronado, San Diego. The hotel opened in 1888, and it was then the largest resort in the world. The hotel has been featured in several books and movies and has hosted many celebrities over the years.

Hotel del Coronado is known for its beautiful Victorian architecture and is the second-largest wooden structure in the US!

The gorgeous Del beach and the beautiful architecture make it a must-see on my list. Hotel Del Coronado Address: 1500 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA 92118.

Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo | San Diego Travel Guide

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a cultural park located in downtown San Diego. Balboa Park is home to several historical buildings, numerous museums, and beautiful gardens.

Balboa Park was initially built for the Panama California Exhibition, held in 1915 – 1916, and most of the buildings in Balboa Park are remains from that event. There’s a lot to see in Balboa Park, and you will need several days to see everything in Balboa Park.

The Botanical Building, the Museum of Man, and the Museum of Natural History are my favorite things in Balboa Park!

That said, if you have time, you should definitely try and see other museums and attractions in Balboa Park. Balboa Park Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101.

San Diego Zoo

Balboa Park is also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo!

San Diego Zoo is my favorite Zoo in the US! It’s not just about the extensive collection of animals but also the accessibility. You will find hop-on hop-off busses in San Diego Zoo, unlike any other zoos in the US.

There are guided bus tours and an aerial tram that takes you all the way from the entrance to the back of the Zoo. San Diego Zoo Address: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101.

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San Diego Attractions Best Visited Via Car

These are a few attractions in San Diego that I recommend visiting using a car/ride-hailing service as most likely they’re remotely located, don’t have guided tours, or these are the places where you would land up spending the entire day.

SeaWorld

San Diego Seaworld Rides

With spectacular shows, animal exhibits, and thrilling rides, SeaWorld is a must-see!

Seaworld is a theme park with a unique blend of animal exhibits, shows, and some great rides. In the US, you will find SeaWorld in three locations: San Diego, CA, San Antonio, TX, and Orlando, FL.

No matter which SeaWorld you visit, you will get to see some fantastic shows, a range of animals, including dolphins, California sea lions, California otters, and sea turtles. SeaWorld is also home to some incredible rides, including Skytower, Bayside Skyride, Manta, Journey to Atlantis, Ship Wreck Rapids, Electric Eel, and more. SeaWorld San Diego Address: 500 Sea World Dr, San Diego, CA 92109

You don’t want to miss any shows in SeaWorld! Check out the show timings, and then plan your rides and other activities accordingly.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument San Diego Travel Guide

This is a hidden gem in San Diego with unparalleled coastal views, a National Monument, and a historical lighthouse!

Located about 11 miles from downtown San Diego, right on the southern-most tip of Point Loma, is the Cabrillo National Monument. Here you will see a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who, in 1542, was the first European explorer to sail to the coast of California.

There’s more to see besides the monument, including incredible coastal views, a Military history exhibit, Point Loma Lighthouse, Kelp Forest Overlook, and tidepools.

The coastal views at the Cabrillo National Monument are exceptional and breathtaking! On a bright and sunny day, you can clearly see the Point Loma naval base, downtown San Diego, and even the mountains of Tijuana, Mexico. Cabrillo National Monument Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106. Open Daily 9 AM to 5 PM.

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove | San Diego Travel Guide

The sea caves, gorgeous views, crystal clear water, and marine life make La Jolla Cove one of my favorite places in San Diego!

La Jolla Cove is a small but gorgeous beach snuggled between sandstone cliffs, located in La Jolla, San Diego. La Jolla Cove is one of the most visited and photographed beaches in California and is famous for scuba diving.

You can see the sea caves located along the bluff by taking a guided kayak tour or visit the Cave Store, which has a human-made tunnel that goes inside the Sunny Jim Cave. La Jolla Cove Address: 1100 Coast Blvd. (at Girard Ave), La Jolla, CA 92037.

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Lodging & Dining In San Diego

San Diego architecture | Pacific Coast Highway Travel Guide

San Diego Hotels

San Diego, being a popular tourist destination, has no shortage of hotels. There’re several lodging options catering to different tastes and budgets.

I recommend staying close to the attraction you plan to visit in San Diego.

Hotels Close to Downtown San Diego: I recommend staying in downtown San Diego if you’re visiting the downtown attractions, including Old Town San Diego, Maritime Museum, USS Midway Museum, Seaport Village, and Gaslamp Quarter. 

The best way to explore San Diego downtown is by staying close to the downtown and then using the Old Town Trolley Tours to get to different downtown attractions. 

These are my favorite hotels in San Diego downtown – Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina and Hilton San Diego Bayfront. I love these hotels because both of them offer some great views of the San Diego Bay, are close to several downtown attractions, and the Old Town Trolley Tours have designated stops close to these hotels. 

Hotels Close to Balboa Park & San Diego Zoo: If you’re visiting San Diego to mainly see the San Diego Zoo and spend time in Balboa Park, I would recommend staying close to that area to avoid traffic and save time in commute. My top picks in that area are – Inn at the Park San Diego, Marriott Vacation Club Pulse, and Four Points by Sheraton San Diego Downtown Little Italy.

Hotels Close to SeaWorld, San Diego: There are several great resorts and hotels close to SeaWorld San Diego, including The Dana on Mission Bay, Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, Bahia Resort Hotel, and San Diego Mission Bay Resort.

Hotels in Coronado, San Diego: If you’re planning to stay in Coronado, I strongly recommend staying in the historic beachfront hotel, Hotel Del Coronado. The views, the architecture, and the service are exemplary!

Hotels Close to Cabrillo National Monument / Point Loma: Though you might not find luxury resorts in this area, but there are a couple of decent choices, including The Inn at Sunset Cliffs, offering some great coastal views, and The Pearl Hotel.

Hotels in La Jolla, San Diego: I will not be surprised if you’re planning to spend all your time in San Diego at La Jolla! It’s so beautiful, and with so many things to see and do, I absolutely love that neighborhood. These are my top picks for La Jolla hotels – La Valencia Hotel, Grande Colonial, and The Lodge at Torrey Pines.

San Diego Restaurants

San Diego is a melting pot of different cultures, and no doubt you will find every cuisine in San Diego!

If you’re visiting the main attractions in San Diego, including Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, and SeaWorld, you most likely have to rely on the cafes and restaurants in those places. Don’t get me wrong, even these locations have great dining options, but if you’re looking for some fine and Specialty dining options, you will find several options in San Diego!

Restaurants in Downtown San Diego: You will find endless dining options in downtown San Diego. Some of my personal favorites are – La Puerta for Mexican food, The Morning After for breakfast and brunch, and Pushkin Russian Restaurant & Bar.

Restaurants in Seaport Village: Seaport Village is a great spot to grab lunch/dinner after touring the USS Midway Museum. There are several dining options at the Seaport Village, including San Diego Pier Cafe, Harbor House, Edgewater Grill, and more. You will find the complete list of restaurants on the Seaport Village website

Cafes / Restaurants in San Diego Zoo: There’re quite a few dining options in San Diego Zoo, ranging from quick bites to formal restaurant dining. These are my personal favorites – Albert’s Restaurant, Safari Kitchen, Sabertooth Mexican Grill, and Hua Mei Cafe. You will find the complete list of restaurants on the San Diego Zoo website

Cafes / Restaurants in Balboa Park: There are a few great dining options in Balboa Park, my favorite being The Tea Pavilion at the Japanese Friendship Garden, The Prado at Balboa Park, and Craveology. You will find the complete list of restaurants on the Balboa Park website

Cafes / Restaurants in SeaWorld, San Diego: SeaWorld offers some great dining options and even sells dring & dining bundle tickets. Some of my favorite restaurants in SeaWorld are Mama Stella’s Pizza Kitchen, Explorer’s Cafe, and The Waterfront. There are several other dining options, and you will find the complete list on the SeaWorld website.

Restaurants in Coronado, San Diego: If you’re in Coronado, I highly recommend trying the Serea restaurant at the Hotel Del Coronado. There are several other dining options, including Little Frenchie, Miguel’s Cocina, POKÉ 123, and many more.

Restaurants in La Jolla, San Diego: La Jolla offers some of the best fine dining options in San Diego. My best picks are – The Marine Room for the views and seafood, Galaxy Taco for Mexican food, and George’s at the Cove for fine dining and great views.

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San Diego Trip Itinerary

San Diego Trip Itinerary | San Diego Travel Guide

There’re a ton of things to see and do in San Diego, and with so many choices, it becomes quite challenging to decide and plan all the activities and attractions for your trip to San Diego. 

To help you plan your perfect trip to San Diego, I have compiled a sample five day San Diego trip itinerary!

I highly recommend spending at least five days in San Diego to see everything in San Diego. I have covered all major attractions in San Diego on the itinerary and have grouped them based on their locations and driving distance from the town. 

However, if you can’t spend five days in a stretch, you can always tailor the itinerary per your needs, make multiple trips to San Diego and cover a few attractions on each trip.

Day 1

  • San Diego Downtown & Coronado Attractions – Start your San Diego trip by taking the Old Town Trolley Tours and visiting the following attractions on Day 1 – 
    • Old Town San Diego
    • Maritime Museum & Star of India
    • USS Midway Museum
    • Seaport Village
    • Gaslamp Quarter
    • Hotel Del Coronado

This might seem like a lot, but it’s doable if you use the trolley tour as you don’t have to spend time looking for parking and stick to the schedule. 

Day 2

  • San Diego Zoo – Start your day early, use the hop-on-hop-off buses and the aerial tram to explore the San Diego Zoo. 
  • Balboa Park – See a few attractions in Balboa Park – Botanical Building, the Museum of Man, and the Museum of Natural History.

There is a lot to see at San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park, and it’s really a lot to cover in one day. You might want to leave a few attractions in Balboa Park on day 2 and come back another day. 

Day 3

  • SeaWorld– You will need the entire day to cover all shows and rides in SeaWorld. 

Day 4

  • Cabrillo National Monument – Drive to Point Loma to see the Cabrillo National Monument, incredible coastal views, a Military history exhibit, Point Loma Lighthouse, Kelp Forest Overlook, and tidepools.
  • Balboa Park – You will not need the entire day at Cabrillo National Monument, and if you’re able to wrap it up early, I recommend going back to Balboa Park to see the attractions you might have missed on Day 2.

Day 5

  • La Jolla Cove – Drive to La Jolla to see the gorgeous coastal views, sea caves, and marine life at La Jolla Cove. You can do a guided kayak tour around the sea caves and enjoy great food in one of many fine restaurants in La Jolla. 
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San Diego architecture | Pacific Coast Highway Travel GuideI hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To San Diego, and I hope this will help you plan your perfect trip to San Diego.

Happy feeding your soul!
Shreyashi

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