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The Perfect 4-Day San Diego Itinerary (From a Local!)

I grew up in San Diego so I know all of the insider tips and tricks. There is so much to do and see in San Diego that it might feel overwhelming for people who are traveling here for the first time. So I am here to help you plan the perfect 4-day San Diego Itinerary!

Day 1: Coronado Island & Downtown San Diego

When you get to San Diego the first place that you should go is Coronado Island. This island is actually a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land known as the Silver Strand and is home to beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts.

One of the most famous landmarks on Coronado Island is the Hotel del Coronado, a historic Victorian-style beachfront hotel built in 1888.

The hotel has hosted many celebrities and dignitaries over the years and is known for its grand architecture and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

Coronado Island also has a charming downtown area with boutique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. The island’s beaches are some of the most beautiful in Southern California and are popular for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing.

One of the unique features of Coronado Island is the presence of a large naval base, which is home to many Navy SEALs and other military personnel.

The base is not open to the public, but visitors can take a ferry tour around the bay to see some of the naval ships and submarines.

Coronado Bridge

To get to Coronado you will first need to cross the Coronado Bridge. The Coronado Bridge is a landmark suspension bridge that connects San Diego to the island.

It spans 2.12 miles (3.4 km) over San Diego Bay and reaches a height of 200 feet (61 m) at its highest point.

Coronado Bridge
Coronado Bridge

Driving over the Coronado Bridge you get an amazing view of Coronado Island and Downtown San Diego. Once you get across the bridge you are now in Coronado.

Centennial Park

The first place you should go to when you are in Coronado is Centennial Park, which is situated along the waterfront, offering beautiful views of San Diego Bay, downtown San Diego, and the Coronado Bridge.

Centennial Park
Centennial Park

Other notable features of Centennial Park include a large grassy area for picnics and games, a playground for children, a skate park, and a fishing pier. The park is also home to the Coronado Flower Show, an annual event held in April that showcases beautiful flowers and plants from around the world.

Centennial Park with view of San Diego
Centennial Park

Centennial Park is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, and it offers a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere in the heart of Coronado Island.

Hotel del Coronado

The Hotel del Coronado, also known as “The Del”, is a historic beachfront hotel located on the island of Coronado, just across the bay from San Diego.

It opened in 1888 and is considered one of the most iconic and beautiful hotels in the United States, known for its distinctive Victorian architecture, with its red-roofed turrets and towers, and its stunning beachfront location.

Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado

It has also been designated a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places!

We’ve been to Coronado during each season of the year and no matter the season it is always worth visiting. When we went last December for Christmas they set up an ice skating rink at the Hotel del Coronado and it was a super fun experience to ice skate on the beach!

Ice Skating at the Hotel del Coronado
Ice Skating at the Hotel del Coronado

Ice skating on the beach is not something that a lot of people can say they’ve done!

Check Out Some of the Historic Houses and Vehicles

Coronado Island is a beautiful place to live, with a mix of historic and modern homes. There are a variety of houses on Coronado Island, including:

  1. Historic homes: Coronado Island has a rich history, and there are many historic homes that have been preserved and restored. These homes often have unique architectural styles and charming details that reflect the island’s past.
  2. Beachfront homes: With miles of sandy beaches, Coronado Island is a popular destination for beach lovers. There are many beachfront homes that offer direct access to the sand and surf.
  3. Luxury homes: Coronado Island is also known for its luxury homes, which feature high-end finishes and amenities like swimming pools, spas, and expansive outdoor living areas.
Queen Anne Victorian Coronado Island
Queen Anne Victorian Coronado Island

The house in this picture was built in 1887, and was recently listed for $24 million dollars! The average house price on Coronado Island can vary widely depending on the location, size, and style of the home.

According to Zillow, as of September 2021, the median home value on Coronado Island was around $2.7 million, with prices ranging from around $1.2 million to over $20 million.

And where there are rich people there are fancy cars. If you drive around for long enough on the Island you will see some incredible historic vehicles, sports cars, military vehicles, and many more.

Downtown San Diego

Once you’ve gotten your fill of Coronado Island it’s time to cross back over the bridge to Downtown San Diego. I personally think that San Diego has one of the most beautiful downtowns in America. It has towering skyscrapers that overlook the harbor and is just perfection.

Downtown San Diego
Downtown San Diego

Downtown San Diego is the central business district of the city and is a vibrant and bustling area with a lot to offer. The first place you will want to visit is the Gaslamp Quarter.

Gaslamp Quarter (Old Town San Diego)

This historic district is filled with Victorian-era buildings that now house restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s a popular spot for nightlife and entertainment.

Gaslamp Quarter
Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter is so cute and has so much to do and see like Little Italy! Especially after dark.

Barrio Logan

If you are looking for some good Mexican food then head over to Barrio Logan. Barrio Logan has a diverse range of restaurants and food vendors, with a focus on Mexican cuisine.

Tacos from El Carrito Restaurant
Tacos from El Carrito Restaurant

Barrio Logan is also known for its lively arts scene, with many galleries and studios showcasing the work of local artists. The neighborhood is also home to Chicano Park, a community park located underneath the Coronado Bridge that features colorful murals depicting the history and culture of the neighborhood.

Mural in Barrio Logan
Mural in Barrio Logan

We loved this little neighborhood and the delicious Mexican food they have. I would say that we liked this area even more than the Gaslamp Quarter!

Embarcadero

Next, we went to Tuna Harbor Park. This is a great place for a view of the USS Midway and the famous Kissing Statue.

Kissing Statue and USS Midway
Kissing Statue and USS Midway

The statue stands 25 feet tall and weighs 6,000 pounds and is located near the USS Midway Museum. Visitors can walk right up to the statue and take photos with it, or simply admire it from a distance.

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Harbor Island Park

We ended the day by going to Harbor Island Park. Harbor Island Park is a public park located on Harbor Island, a man-made island.

Harbor Island Park
Harbor Island Park

The park offers stunning views of the bay and the San Diego skyline and is a popular spot for picnicking, jogging, walking, and enjoying the outdoors.

This is just day one in San Diego! There is still so much to see and do!

Day 2: Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines Beach

Torrey Pines is by far my favorite beach in San Diego. The beach itself is known for its rugged beauty and dramatic cliffs that rise up from the shore. It is a popular spot for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing, with a wide sandy beach that stretches for miles.

Me and Dayna’s favorite thing to do in San Diego is to wake up, get donuts and an iced coffee, and go straight to Torrey Pines and just read and hang out.

Donuts and the Beach
Donuts and the Beach

Then when we are done with our donuts we just walk for miles down the beach and take in the amazing sights.

Torrey Pines Cliffs
Torrey Pines Cliffs

Make sure that you get to Torrey Pines early so that you can get a free parking spot! During Summer this is probably impossible but during any other time of year, you should be able to get one if you circle around enough times.

If you can’t get a free spot then just head to the Torrey Pines Beach Parking South Beach Lot. This parking lot will get you the closest to the beach and cliffs and is only $10-$25 per car for the day (depending on the season).

If the water is warm enough (July-October are the best months because the water will be 60-75 Ferenhight) then it’s time to go swimming, surfing, and suntanning!

Surfing at Torrey Pines
Surfing at Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines also has some of the most famous hiking trails in San Diego. If you do want to go on a hike and not just walk down the beach for miles then you should definitely do the Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop.

It’s an easy 2.3-mile loop with 360 feet of elevation that takes you up to the top of the cliffs and has stunning views of the ocean and coastline.

Black’s Beach

If you feel like going to two beaches in one day then head over to Black’s Beach when you are done with Torrey Pines. It’s only an 8-minute drive and definitely worth going to.

Black’s Beach is a secluded beach located in La Jolla and is known for its stunning views, clear water, and impressive cliffs that rise above the sand. It’s also famous for being one of the few clothing-optional beaches in the United States.

Access to Black’s Beach is through several trails, which can be quite steep and difficult, so it’s not recommended for those with mobility issues. The most popular route is the Blacks Beach Trail.

Hike Down to Black's Beach
Hike Down to Black’s Beach

Once you reach the beach, you’ll find a long stretch of sand that’s perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and surfing.

It’s also a popular spot for hang gliding and paragliding, with the nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport attracting thrill-seekers from all over the world.

While the clothing-optional aspect of Black’s Beach can make some visitors feel uncomfortable, it’s important to note that it’s legal and has been a tradition since the 1960s. If you’re not comfortable with that, then I would just stick to Torrey Pines Beach.

Torrey Pines Gliderport

After the hike up from the beach, it’s time to relax and watch the sunset at the Torrey Pines Glideport.

Cloudy Sunset at the Torrey Pines Glideport
Cloudy Sunset at the Torrey Pines Glideport

If sitting and enjoying the sunset sounds boring to and you are feeling really crazy then you can book a tandem paragliding flight! They usually do flights from 9-5 but if the weather is good then you can be lucky enough to do a sunset paraglide! That would be quite the way to end day two in San Diego, wouldn’t it?!

Day 3: La Jolla

Day three get ready for more beach! La Jolla is known for its scenic coastline, stunning beaches, and upscale shopping and dining options. The name “La Jolla” means “the jewel” in Spanish, and the area certainly lives up to its name.

La Jolla Shores Beach

To start off your day head over to The Marine Room, but not for breakfast! This is a place where if you get there early enough you can get free parking and easy access to the beach.

There is a little side street just to the left of the Marine Room that will lead you down to the beach that has some of the best snorkeling in the world!

Paddle Boarding at La Jolla Bay
Paddle Boarding at La Jolla Bay

This has been my family’s favorite place to go paddle boarding for years! If you want to paddle board there is a rental place where you can rent one called Bike and Kayak Tours, Inc. which is just right up the street from the beach.

Once you’re in the water and past the waves, go left towards the caves (cool rhyme, right?). It’s about a mile paddle to get to the caves from the shore which is another reason to start your paddle at the Marine Room and not the main beach because the Marine Room is closer.

Along the way, you can snorkel and take as many swim breaks as you need. When you get to the caves be prepared to be amazed!

Seal at the La Jolla Caves
Seal at the La Jolla Caves

You are going to see lots and lots of seals so if they scare you then stay away from the cliffs and caves.

La Jolla Cove Seals
La Jolla Cove Seals

The snorkeling is also amazing! You can see seals, sharks, fish, turtles, stingrays, everything!

Stingray
Can You See the Stingray?

After spending some time with the seals and snorkeling around we went back to the beach.

The beach is where you will see all of the stingrays and sharks so make sure to keep an eye out for them!

If you feel like doing all this on your own is too overwhelming then check out the La Jolla Sea Caves Kayak Tour! This tour takes you on a guided kayak adventure through the caves of La Jolla and provides all of the necessary equipment.

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Windansea Beach

After you are done with La Jolla Shores Beach then go and check out Windansea Beach! Windansea Beach is known for its beautiful views, great surf, and unique shoreline rock formations.

Windansea Beach
Windansea Beach

This beach is a great surfing beach but beware of the riptide! My brother and I were out swimming and got sucked out by the current and a lifeguard had to come out and tow us back to the beach.

Windansea Beach lifegaurd
Lifeguard Rescue. Embarrassing.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Then, what better way to end day three than with an amazing sunset over the ocean? Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a popular park that covers an area of 68 acres and features a scenic coastline with dramatic cliffs, tide pools, caves, and natural rock formations.

The park is named after the stunning sunsets that can be seen from its cliffs. Visitors can hike along the park’s trails and enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. The trails are relatively easy to walk, but visitors should wear comfortable shoes and be cautious near the cliffs.

Day 4: Cardiff & Ocean Side & Balboa Park

Cardiff State Beach

Last day! We always like to start the day off with donuts because (controversial opinion) California has the best donuts. So grab some donuts at VG Donut & Bakery and head over to Cardiff State Beach to enjoy your morning.

donuts at the beach
Me Being Way Too Excited About Donuts

After eating our donuts we go for a walk down the beach and just like Torrey Pines, it is so beautiful! The beach goes on for miles and it’s lined by sandy cliffs.

Cardiff State Beach
Cardiff State Beach

You could easily spend a whole day at Cardiff State Beach just relaxing and swimming, but there are some more places in San Diego you won’t want to miss!

Oceanside

Oceanside is one of our favorite places in San Diego. If we had to choose a place to live in San Diego it would be in this perfect little beach town. It is only about a 20-minute drive from Cardiff and is totally worth a visit.

I think that the pier in Oceanside is one of the most beautiful in California. Although it doesn’t have the amusement park rides of a pier like Huntington or Santa Cruz, it is just so simple and feels less like a tourist attraction and more like a local hangout spot.

View of Oceanside from the Pier
View of Oceanside from the Pier
Oceanside Pier
Oceanside Pier

After walking down the pier we set up our beach chairs and relaxed like a true local. After we got enough sun and swimming it was on to the last thing on our itinerary.

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban cultural park located in San Diego, California. It was originally built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915-1916, and it is now home to over 15 major museums, multiple performing arts venues, beautiful gardens, and the San Diego Zoo.

Balboa Park’s attractions include the Museum of Art, the Museum of Man, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Botanical Building and Lily Pond, and the Old Globe Theatre.

Balboa Park Visitors Center
Balboa Park Visitors Center

We love to just walk around the park and see everything that it has to offer. The architecture is so beautiful and there is so much to do and see.

Lily Pond in Front of the Botanical Building
Lily Pond in Front of the Botanical Building

After walking around we decided to go to the Natural History Museum.

The San Diego Natural History Museum is one of the major museums located in Balboa Park. The museum was founded in 1874 and it is dedicated to the study of the natural history and biodiversity of Southern California and the Baja California Peninsula.

After the Natural History Museum, we walked around the park a little longer while the sun was setting and then we went home. That’s the end of day four!

Other San Diego Attractions You Can Add to Your Itinerary

A big reason why a lot of people come to San Diego is for the Zoo, Sea World, the Birch Aquarium, Belmont Park, and other attractions.

We would much rather enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and relax than run around from place to place doing things that we really don’t enjoy.

If you do want to do the big things that San Diego offers then here’s how you can add them to your itinerary.

San Diego Zoo Tickets

The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a world-renowned zoo located in Balboa Park in San Diego, California, USA.

It is one of the largest and most diverse zoos in the world, home to over 3,500 animals from more than 650 species. The zoo is known for its innovative animal exhibits and its commitment to conservation and education.

Giraffe
Photo Credit: Unsplash

The San Diego Zoo is divided into various exhibits and habitats, including the African Rain Forest, Panda Canyon, Elephant Odyssey, Tiger River, and many more. The zoo also features interactive experiences such as the Petting Paddock, the Children’s Zoo, and the Kangaroo Bus, where visitors can get up close and personal with some of the animals.

The San Diego Zoo also offers a number of educational programs and events, including guided tours, animal encounters, and summer camps. The zoo is a non-profit organization that is committed to wildlife conservation, with a number of conservation and research programs dedicated to the preservation of endangered species.

Overall, the San Diego Zoo is a must-see destination for anyone visiting San Diego and is a great place to learn about animals and their habitats while having fun at the same time.

The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park so you can add it to day 4 on the itinerary.

Sea World

SeaWorld San Diego is a marine mammal park, aquarium, and theme park located in San Diego, California, USA. The park covers an area of 189 acres and is home to a wide range of marine animals, including dolphins, sea lions, sharks, penguins, and more.

Sea World
Photo Credit: Unsplash

Visitors to SeaWorld San Diego can enjoy a variety of attractions and exhibits, including the world-famous Shamu show, where killer whales perform acrobatic tricks and interact with their trainers. Other popular shows include the sea lion and otter shows, as well as the dolphin and pilot whale shows perfect for kids.

SeaWorld San Diego also features a number of rides and attractions, including the Electric Eel roller coaster, the Journey to Atlantis water ride, and the Sea Dragon Drop tower ride. For younger visitors, there is a Sesame Street-themed area with rides and attractions.

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In addition to its entertainment offerings, SeaWorld San Diego is committed to animal conservation and rescue efforts, with a number of programs dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of marine animals. Visitors can learn about these programs and the importance of protecting marine life through interactive exhibits and educational presentations.

I think that it is pretty obvious why I didn’t add this to the itinerary. Just watch the movie Blackfish and you’ll see why. If you do want to add this to your itinerary then add it to day one.

Take a Day Trip to Tijuana, Mexico

Embark on a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico. Spend the day exploring the vibrant city, immersing yourself in its culture, and indulging in its delicious cuisine. Tijuana, located just across the US-Mexico border, is known for its lively nightlife, colorful architecture, and bustling markets.

Tijuana Market
Tijuana Market

Stroll through the city’s streets and visit local shops, museums, and landmarks. Taste authentic Mexican food and drinks, from tacos and tequila to churros and horchata. This is a unique opportunity to experience a different culture and way of life, all within a short trip from the United States.

Tijuana is one of our favorite places to visit and has so many things to do and see. If you would like to cross the border with a group then check out this Crossing Borders: Tijuana Day Trip from San Diego Tour.

San Diego Accomadation

San Diego offers a wide range of accommodation options to suit every budget and preference, including hotels, motels, vacation rentals, and more. Here are some popular options:

  1. Hotel Del Coronado: This historic hotel, located on Coronado Island, is a San Diego icon and a popular destination for luxury travelers.
  2. Manchester Grand Hyatt: This upscale hotel is located in downtown San Diego and offers stunning views of the bay and city skyline.
  3. Hilton San Diego Bayfront: This modern hotel is located in the Gaslamp Quarter and offers easy access to the city’s top attractions.
  4. Motel 6: This budget-friendly chain has several locations throughout San Diego, offering affordable accommodation for travelers on a tight budget.
  5. Stay Classy Hostel: This hostel is located in the trendy East Village neighborhood and offers affordable dormitory-style accommodation for backpackers and budget travelers.
  6. Paradise Point Resort & Spa: This waterfront resort, located on Mission Bay, offers a range of amenities including a private beach, multiple pools, and on-site dining options.

These are just a few of the many accommodation options available in San Diego. It’s always a good idea to research and compare prices and amenities before booking to find the best option for your needs and budget.

San Diego Transportation

San Diego has a variety of transportation options to help you get around the city:

  1. Car rental: Renting a car is a popular option for visitors who want to explore the city at their own pace. Major car rental companies have locations at the San Diego International Airport and throughout the city.
  2. Public transportation: The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) operates buses, trolleys, and trains throughout the city. The trolley is a popular option for getting around the downtown area and nearby neighborhoods.
  3. Taxis and ride-sharing: Taxis and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are widely available in San Diego.
  4. Biking: San Diego has an extensive network of bike lanes and trails, making biking a popular and eco-friendly option for getting around.
  5. Walking: Many neighborhoods in San Diego are pedestrian-friendly, and walking is a great way to explore the city’s beaches, parks, and historic districts.
  6. Water taxis: Water taxis operate in San Diego Bay and provide a unique and scenic way to travel between downtown and Coronado Island.
  7. Coaster and Amtrak: These commuter trains connect San Diego to nearby cities and towns, including Carlsbad, Oceanside, and Los Angeles.

Overall, San Diego offers a range of transportation options to suit every need and budget. It’s a good idea to research and plan ahead to find the best option for your travel needs.

Best Tours in San Diego

If you would rather have something planned for you then a San Diego Tour is Perfect for you! Here are the top tours in San Diego:

San Diego Hop On Hop Off Trolley Tour

With a trolley pass, you can discover the best attractions that San Diego has to offer through the Hop-on, Hop-off Trolley Tour. You have the freedom to choose your own adventure by hopping on and off the trolley at any of the 11 stops included in your pass.

You can visit popular destinations such as the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego Zoo, USS Midway, Cruise Ship Terminal, Little Italy, and many others. Moreover, this tour offers live commentary from your onboard guide to provide valuable insights during your ride.

San Diego Harbor Cruise

Take a break from your busy day and enjoy the serene waters near San Diego with a 1 or 2-hour San Diego Harbor cruise.

During the cruise, you can sit back and relax while listening to a fully-narrated tour that provides breathtaking views of the San Diego skyline, a trip under the Coronado Bridge, a glimpse of the bustling US Naval fleet, and even an opportunity to spot some of the harbor’s resident sea lions.

Small-Group San Diego Sunset Sailing Excursion

Experience an intimate cruise aboard a Catalina-style sailboat, sailing towards the setting sun. With a small group of only six guests, you can relish the feeling of having the entire ship to yourself while witnessing the final rays of the sun dip into the sparkling waves.

The ride comes with complimentary beer, soft drinks, snacks, jackets, and wind gear for no extra cost. To add to the enjoyment, you can even play your own music. Departure times vary depending on the season, and guests must contact Sail San Diego after purchasing the package to confirm the exact departure time.

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