What to Do in San Diego If You Don't Have Much Time

San Diego skyline FreeImages/Jack Sanders

If you think San Diego is just about wiggling your toes in the sand or cooing over cuddly panda bears, think again. Combining big-city style with small-town heart, this seaside destination offers an embarrassment of riches: stunning natural beauty, high-octane nightlife, world-class cultural organizations, family-friendly attractions, and sophisticated dining. And did we mention the perfect weather?

We've put together an itinerary for seeing the best of San Diego, whether you've got one, two, or three days to fill. For a deeper dive into what makes the city great, check out our handy guide, Frommer's San Diego Day by Day.

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A house in San Diego's Old Town State Historic Park meunierd / Shutterstock.com

Dedicated to re-creating the early life of the city from 1821 to 1872, this is where San Diego's Mexican heritage is best celebrated. The park features more than a dozen structures (some original, some reconstructed), including the home of a wealthy family circa 1872 and the fledgling town's one-room schoolhouse. Memorabilia and exhibits are on view in some buildings; visitor-oriented shops and restaurants are incorporated into the rest. On Wednedays and Saturdays from 10am to 4pm, costumed park volunteers reenact life in the 1800s with cooking and crafts demonstrations, a working blacksmith, and parlor singing. 

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Balboa Park in San Diego Dancestrokes
Like New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the emerald in San Diego's crown is Balboa Park, a 1,174-acre city-owned playground and the largest urban cultural park in the nation. The park's most distinctive features are its mature landscaping, the architectural beauty of the Spanish colonial revival-style buildings lining the pedestrian thoroughfare, and more than a dozen engaging and diverse museums. You'll also find rose, cactus, and flower gardens; walkways; 4.5 miles of hiking trails in Florida Canyon; an ornate pavilion with the world's largest outdoor organ; an old-fashioned carousel; the acclaimed Old Globe Theatre; and the San Diego Zoo.

For lunch: The Prado, Balboa Park's sophisticated but casual restaurant, is a great place to catch your breath and sit a spell. Located in the baroque House of Hospitality, the sprawling eatery has a lovely patio overlooking a garden often used for weddings. 
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San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter f11photo / Shutterstock.com

Where others had seen only dismal mudflats melting into a shallow bay, businessman Alonzo Horton saw untapped potential. In 1867, he undertook an audacious plan to lure citizens away from Old Town with the founding of New Town several miles to the south. That district is now known as the Gaslamp Quarter, and it's become more successful than anything Horton could have hoped for. It comprises 16.5 blocks of restored historic buildings housing dozens of restaurants, bars, clubs, and boutiques—this is where you'll find San Diego's most vigorous night life, fabulous Victorian architecture, and excellent people watching. Begin your tour of the area at Horton Plaza shopping center, where you can shop and dine or catch a play or movie.  

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The rooftop Altitude Sky Lounge in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter

Finish off your day by rising above it all for a nightcap at the open-air Altitude Sky Lounge, 22 floors up from the Gaslamp commotion. This long, narrow space is in the Gaslamp Quarter Marriott overlooking PETCO Park and the Convention Center. You'll find fire pits, lounges, and DJ-spun grooves as well as appetizers from the first-floor restaurant. As with many Gaslamp Quarter venues, lines begin forming around 10pm on weekends—and two hours before game time when the Padres are playing. 

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Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego Ken Lund

Breathtaking views mingle with the early history of San Diego—specifically, the arrival of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542. His statue is prominently featured here, along with a historic lighthouse built in 1855, a small museum, the remnants of World War II artillery batteries, a visitor center with lots of books and souvenirs for sale, and a theater screening short videos about local natural history and the age of exploration. The park's setting 422 feet above sea level at the tip of Point Loma makes it a great vantage point for watching migrating Pacific gray whales December through March. National Park Service rangers also lead walks at the monument, and there are tide pools to explore at the base of the peninsula. The Bayside Trail is an easy hike (3.2 miles round trip) along an interpreted walkway that leads to a lookout over the bay. 

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Surfers at Mission Beach in San Diego maratr

This is it: ground zero for the party-hearty, freewheeling Southern California beach lifestyle. These two beaches form a 3-mile stretch of sand paralleled by a cement boardwalk that hosts a nonstop parade of surfers, skaters, bikers, joggers, and plain old beach lovers. South Mission Beach (pictured) is where you'll find serious volleyball and a seaside basketball court. Farther north is Belmont Park, an amusement park whose star attraction is a 1925 wooden roller coaster. Another 1925 holdover is Crystal Pier at the foot of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach (or PB to locals). This 400-foot-long wooden pier now supports rental cottages but is open daily to the public, offering great views of the local surfers. The streetside action in these beach zones takes place primarily on Mission Boulevard (heading north from Belmont Park) and Garnet Avenue (running east from Mission Blvd.). Both thoroughfares are overflowing with restaurants, clubs, and retailers. Rent a bike and join the parade.

For lunch: Pop into Lahaina Beach House, an old beach bungalow transformed into a simple, unpretentious, extremely popular eatery and bar. 

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Sunset at La Jolla Pier Dancestrokes

About the only thing La Jolla shares in common with the beach communities to the south is the Pacific Ocean. La Jolla's principal shopping and dining district is known by locals as "the village," though it's far ritzier than that name implies. High-end boutiques, antiques stores, art galleries, and fine restaurants line the streets; just steps away, a dramatic coastline of standstone cliffs and picturesque coves with tropical-blue waters awaits. And this beauty has brains, too—La Jolla is a center for local arts and culture, providing a home for the University of California, San Diego, where you'll find the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse and the Stuart Collection of site-specific art. Also in town: the flagship space for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, which presents concerts and art exhibits.  

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La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, California La Valencia

La Valencia Hotel is the grande dame of La Jolla. The Pink Lady originally opened in 1926; its Mediterranean style and killer location made it a favorite of celebs like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. A second generation of movie stars discovered the place thanks to La Jolla native Gregory Peck, who cofounded the La Jolla Playhouse. A major redo completed in 2014 transformed the hotel's clubby, legendary watering hole into the chic Cafe La Rue, where paintings of Paris circa 1947 and a menu of fromages, charcuterie, and mussels play up the hotel's European panache. Linger at a sidewalk table for the full effect. 

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A sleeping panda at the San Diego Zoo Nadia Borisevich

"World famous" often precedes any mention of the San Diego Zoo, and for good reason. Established in 1916, the zoo was a pioneer in developing naturalistic, humane enclosures. It's also a global leader in endangered-species preservation with its breeding programs. Among the most popular wildlife sightings are the giant pandas. A more recent addition, Elephant Odyssey features a herd of Asian elephants as well as life-size replicas of prehistoric animals that roamed the San Diego region. Other highlights include the Monkey Trails, Forest Tales (the zoo's largest, most elaborate habitat), Gorilla Tropics, and the Australian Outback, where you can see Tasmanian devils and kangaroos. 

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Passion fruit pavlova at Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego Kimberly Vardeman
You've earned this one, after all the walking you've done. Head toward downtown and the Embarcadero, but stop on the way for a sinful creation from Extraordinary Desserts. Set in an architecturally striking space, this local standout also serves panini, salads, and artisan cheeses as well as wine and beer. Chef/proprietor Karen Krasne sells her own line of jams, confections, and syrups, too, if you want to take a taste of San Diego home. 
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Coronado ferry at the Embarcadero in San Diego lowellaguno

Take a leisurely stroll down San Diego's waterfront, where the sights include the flotilla of historic vessels that make up the San Diego Maritime Museum. Most impressive is the Star of India, which was originally put to sea in 1863, making it the world's oldest active ship. Continue to the Broadway Pier, where you can catch the ferry to Coronado (pictured). 

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The Hotel del Coronado in San Diego Lowe Llaguno

This is the last of California's stately old seaside hotels. In continuous operation since 1888, the Del is a monument to Victorian grandeur; its cupolas, turrets, and gingerbread trim make it San Diego's most recognizable property. There is plenty here to engage a nonguest, including a gallery devoted to the hotel's history, a shopping arcade, and several wonderful options for drinks or dining—not to mention the fact the hotel sits on Coronado Beach, one of San Diego's finest stretches of sand. 

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Frommer's San Diego Day by Day

We've only scratched the surface of all that you can see and do in San Diego. For a more in-depth look, pick up a copy of Frommer's San Diego Day by Dayour handy guide to experiencing the best of everything the city has to offer in the smartest, most time-efficient way. The book features 19 self-guided tours, 37 maps (including a tear-resistant foldout one), tons of full-color photos, and listings for hotels, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife for any budget. In short, it's got everything you need to have an unforgettable trip.

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