How to Plan One Day in San Diego

Have you ever been asked by a friend visiting your city to plan an itinerary for them? They want to know where to stay, where to go, what to see, and what to eat—all the essentials. And now you’re stuck racking your brain, trying to remember what that one fancy restaurant’s name is, and pretending that you know all the ins and outs of your city (whereas you’re better off explaining the ins and outs of your Netflix library).

As experts of San Diego, we offer many San Diego Tours, which means we get asked how to spend one day in San Diego all the time. And we love answering it! 

It is kind of our job, after all.

So, if you yourself are visiting this beautiful, wondrous, magical Southern California city of sunshine for the day or you know someone visiting on a quick business trip to San Diego, and you are still knocking your noggin over which restaurant to send your friend and which major San Diego attractions are the best, then tune in. Because we’re about to plan the heck out of your day with the perfect San Diego itinerary. 

Location, Location, Location

From the Southern California tip to the northern beach towns, San Diego has gems to offer for any type of person, any day of the week. You, however, only have twenty-four hours. So, let’s stay central and within short driving distances in order to maximize the fun you can have with your time in San Diego.

For a spectacular one day in San Diego itinerary,  we recommend splitting up the day as follows:

  • Spend the morning to mid-afternoon (about 3 hours) in the aesthetically pleasing La Jolla.
  • Drive, Uber, or Lyft your way to Balboa Park for the afternoon and spend another 2 hours walking the grounds and hitting a museum or two.
  • Just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Balboa Park is Embarcadero. This is a great location for afternoon lunch, early evening strolls and spending a couple of hours by the water where you can check out the famous Midway Museum.
  • Finally, we recommend the Gaslamp Quarter for the cherry on top, the nighttime pièce de résistance.

Now that you have your overview set, let’s point out the wheres and whats in each locale.

La Jolla | Luxury By The Sea

Photo Courtesy: La Jolla

The small beach town of La Jolla is the geographical equivalent of an illustrious palace, the northern tip of Mission and Pacific Beach. We’re talking well-kept gardens, fresh green grass, quaint little shops, and of course, golden beaches as far as the eye can see. Did I mention sea lions at the cove at La Jolla?  For some spots to watch the sunrise and enjoy the blazing sun of the West Coast:

  • La Jolla Tide Pools – Walk amongst the rocky shoals and spot crabs, fish, sea stars, and plenty of other interesting life.
  • Windansea Beach – A famous surf spot where you can head out into the cool Pacific Ocean water for a quick session with mother nature.
  • La Jolla Shores Park – Suntan, volleyball, long walks on the beach, La Jolla Shores Park is the place to do it.

Coffee Beans, Brunch, and Bottomless Mimosas

Photo Courtesy: Trilogy Sanctuary

Start your day off right with the most important meal: bottomless mimosas, ahem, breakfast, of course. In La Jolla, you’ll find plenty of yogi-centric restaurants to fuel your mind, body, and soul in a hearty, healthy way.

Some of our favorites?

  • Trilogy – Part yoga studio, part café, all delicious. Come for the stretching and corpse pose; stay for the smoothies and tacos.
  • Shorehouse Kitchen – Want to keep it relatively healthy, but supercharge your caffeine intake. Shorehouse Kitchen offers delicious options like their Seared Salmon & Baby Kale Benedict… mmm.
  • Sugar and Scribe – Cure that annoying toothache with a pastry and a coffee at Sugar and Scribe. Wait, did we say toothache? We meant sweet tooth. Although… you’ll be aching for more sweet treats after your last bite.
  • Better Buzz – Need a supercharged start to your day? Head on over to Better Buzz for a good caffeine buzz and a breakfast sandwich to wash it down. 
  • The Cottage – For a delicious breakfast in a sleepy little restaurant, head over to The Cottage. They only use the best and the freshest ingredients in every meal.
  • True Foods – Eco-chic, it’s described. Pushing a health-conscious menu, this restaurant serves only in-season locally grown ingredients. For a taste of SoCal, True Foods is a must.

Once you’ve welcomed the day and said namaste, it’s time to head over to Balboa Park.

Balboa Park | The Park Extraordinaire

Photo Courtesy: Balboa Park

To call Balboa Park a park is like calling the Amazon Rainforest a garden. Balboa Park does have long stretches of grass, perfect for picnics, walks, and sunshine-filled days—much like a park—but it also has other incredible attractions to see, like:

  • Museums & Workshops – Explore art, culture, and beauty. Or make some of your own. At Balboa Park, there’s always more to see and more to do.
  • Gardens – Check out the Japanese Friendship Garden for a waltz through beautiful Japanese architecture and scenery. Or check out one of the other 19 incredible gardens.
  • Shopping & Restaurants – Clothing, crafts, wine, and burgers. Find everything you want and more at one of the many shops and restaurants.
    • Notable highlight – Panama 66 – Come and enjoy the fresh air, craft beers, salads, and sandwiches at The San Diego Museum of Art with Panama 66.
  • Attractions – The famous San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park. Roar with some lions or gawk at one of San Diego’s coveted artistic secrets at the Spanish Village Art Center. Looking for the whole package? Check out the San Diego Zoo Safari!

    • Notable highlight – Shopping at Spanish Village Art Center – This hidden gem has a ton of artists shops that you can peruse through, buy yourself some art, and support your local artist scene.

Weeks upon weeks could be spent scouring the grounds of Balboa Park, finding new and exciting gems at every corner. However,your time in San Diego is limited, remember? So, shake off the awe and cruise down to Embarcadero.

Embarcadero | The Water’s Edge

Photo Courtesy: The Fish Market San Diego

Revel in the beauty of San Diego’s famous waterfront here at Embarcadero. With a waltz through the cute Seaport Village and some gazing out to the sea to spot whales, you’ll be in San Diego heaven. Hungry for some lunch? Check out these amazing eatery recommendations if  you’re in the mood for fine dining:

  • The Fish Market – Gaze across the bay at the USS Midway while you enjoy delicious sea-to-table fish and other delicacies at The Fish Market.
  • Coasterra – Another restaurant bordering the San Diego Bay, Coasterra offers modern Mexican food cuisine and creative cocktails. Come for happy hour, late-night food, or afternoon lunch.
  • C-Level – Soak in the afternoon sun while admiring San Diego’s cityscape and skyline. Chef Deborah Scott will take your taste buds on a 2-course lunch excursion (or 3-course dinner) that will have you entranced.

By this point in your day, it’s probably starting to look like 5 o’clock. Well, how perfectly timed…

So Diego Tours | Your Guides to 5:30 Bliss

Head on over to the Gaslamp Quarter or to Old Town San Diego to catch one of our city-famous tours of San Diego. You’ll learn all about the history of the city while enjoying some of the best eateries and drinkeries this illustrious city has to offer.

Considering your location and timing, we recommend one of these tours:

  • Brothels, Bites & Booze – This Gaslamp Quarter walking tour will take you through San Diego’s scandalous history of the infamous red-light district and all the women who ruled the streets. Plus, you’ll enjoy satisfying treats and refreshing beers along the way from local breweries in downtown San Diego.
  • Tequila, Tacos & Tombstones – You’re probably well aware of how San Diego’s roots are deeply intertwined with Mexican culture. Come enjoy authentic Mexican Food and indulge in tequila and tacos while listening to ghost stories that haunt Old Town.
  • Vino! Vino! Little Italy Wine Tour! – In a wine tasting mood? So are we! Come on down for a wine tasting in Little Italy, one of San Diego’s hippest neighborhoods and sample wines from a variety of boutique and historic downtown sites.
    • One note here – This tour is only offered on Saturdays at 4 pm. So, come a little early for that magnificent wine buzz we all love so much.

As sunset fast approaches, the dreamy buzz of San Diego’s downtown awakens. After you find a place to watch the best sunset in San Diego, come and witness the allure of this Southern California City at night…

Gaslamp Quarter | Nightlife to Entice

Photo Courtesy: Gaslamp Quarter

Speakeasies, dance clubs, and rooftop bars—if you can think of it, San Diego has it. Here is a list of must-visits for your twenty-four hours in SD.

  • Listen to a live set at The Field – Hearty beers and traditional tunes will have you feeling the luck of the Irish at this traditional Irish pub.
  • Enjoy tapas and flamenco at Café Sevilla – Known for their authentic flamenco dance and music show, Café Sevilla is one of San Diego’s hottest tapa and cocktail restaurants.
  • Kick back at the Tin Roof – A great bar with live music and a relaxed atmosphere, the Tin Roof is a great place to end the night (or ramp it up). 

Trying to get away from the tourist trap? Did we just read your mind…? Check out these locales for an awesome locals-only experience:

  • For some fine dining, try your luck at:
    • Meze Greek Fusion
    • Double Standard Kitchenetta
  • Check out gorgeous skyline views at these rooftop lounges:
    • Rustic Root
    • The Nolen
  • Laugh your a** off at:
    • Great American Comedy Club
    • Mad House Comedy Club
  • And of course, dance your a** off at:
    • OMNIA Nightclub
    • Side Bar

Is It Over Already???

With a city so enticing, by the time your twenty-four hours are up, you’ll be wondering, Is the trip over already? Fortunately for you, these San Diego attractions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So come on down anytime to experience some magic, a fun-filled tour, and great eats the SoCal way. Because a day trip to San Diego just isn’t enough.

See you soon!


Voice of San Diego. History Man: When S.D. Tried to Douse the Red Light.