Wondering if you can enjoy San Diego in one day? You can with this short and sweet itinerary!

If you’re short on time, one day in San Diego is enough to see the city’s best bits.

Whether you’re arriving on a cruise or at one beginning (or end!) of a California road trip, it’s worth visiting San Diego for a day or two.

Here’s what you need to know before you go and how to plan a perfect one day San Diego itinerary.

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San Diego 1 day itinerary

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How to see the best of San Diego in one day

There are more things to do in San Diego than first meets the eye.

One day in San Diego simply isn’t enough time to see everything. And trying to see it might seem like a clever idea… until it leaves you not seeing anything at all.

Instead, it’s best to prioritise a few things you want to do. Then, work your way around each area – soaking up the little surprises along the way, of course!


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Planning your one day itinerary for San Diego

Planning will go a long way if you only have a short time to see ‘the birthplace of California‘. Here are my tips for exploring San Diego in one day. 

Stay somewhere central

If you want to the most of your short trip to San Diego, you’ll want to choose your hotel wisely. Here’s where to stay in San Diego:


Cosmopolitan Hotel in Old Town San Diego California USA

For the best experience: The Cosmopolitan Hotel

Old Town San Diego is a fun historic park. Staying there is a bit like sleeping in a movie – or a time machine!

Unfortunately, there’s only one hotel inside the park. Fortunately, it’s very affordable and adds to the novelty if staying here.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel is an old western style hotel with staff that look like they stepped off of a screen. The gimmicks are complemented by tasteful murals and a fun experience for all ages.

It’s the perfect place to stay if you only have one or two nights in the city. You’ll get a unique experience while being centrally located!


The best beach side place to stay in San Diego: Mission Beach

If the Cosmopolitan isn’t available – or just isn’t for you – I’d recommend staying in Mission Beach.

Sonder – Bayside Bikini is a fun and quirky condo hotel with everything you need.


Plan your food stops

San Diego is a city that loves food. While visiting, try to taste some of its best! 

Although it’s hard to find a bad meal in San Diego, you might sometimes need to travel a little to find anything at all. 

If you want to make the most of your one day in San Diego, plan it around your food stops. That way, you won’t waste any time searching for your next meal.


Rum Jungle cafe in San Diego California USA


Allow extra time

San Diego is a deceivingly large city. At first, it might feel compact and cute – especially compared to cities like Los Angeles – but don’t be fooled!

While some parts of San Diego are certainly cute, the city is far from compact.

Make sure you allow enough time in your San Diego itinerary to travel between areas.


Avoid the main San Diego attractions

I can’t tell you what to do, but I will ask you not to visit San Diego’s two biggest “attractions”. 

The San Diego zoo and Seaworld seem to sit on every list of things to do in San Diego. Seriously – I struggled to find a single San Diego guide that didn’t include them. 

That shocked me a little, but I guess tourists in the US are still okay with questionable animal encounters.

I’m definitely not.

I didn’t visit either of these San Diego attractions and I had a truly wonderful day in San Diego. If you’re tempted to visit either, I’d urge you not to.

They’re not unique to the city and, given my love of nature and living things, they’re not something I can personally endorse.

Plus – as we’re about to see – there are plenty of other things to see in San Diego in one day!


Harbour seals on the beach in La Jolla in San Diego California USA
Why see captive animals when San Diego has so many wild cuties to admire?

A sample 1 day San Diego itinerary

Now you know what to expect from a day in San Diego, it’s time to plan what you’ll do! 

As I mentioned, one day is enough to really enjoy this city, and this is how I recommend spending that time.

Start your day with breakfast at Clayton’s

No matter where you’re staying in San Diego – if you’re staying at all! – you’ll want to enjoy a good breakfast.

Even if your hotel provides a free breakfast, I recommend eating out. San Diego is a foodie city, after all!

Set yourself up for the day ahead with a solid breakfast at Clayton’s Coffee Shop on Coronado Island.

Don’t be fooled by the name of this famous establishment.  Despite sounding like a cuter-than-a-grandma place to sip on your favourite hot drink, it’s actually a full-service diner. 

Originally opened in 1939, Clayton’s comes complete with everything you want in an American diner experience. There’s a jukebox, booths, bar and hearty portions of your favourite American fares.

And yes, all-day breakfast is served here.

Address: 979 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA 92118.


A glass of coca cola site on a diner table at Clayton's Coffee Shop in San Diego California USA
Clayton’s is kitsch and quirky.

Head to Old Town San Diego

If you decide to stay at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, you will have woken up in Old Town San Diego. But things don’t really start waking up there until around 10 AM. 

Late morning is the perfect time to explore San Diego’s Old Town. The markets and stores will be open, but the crowds won’t be too busy yet. 

If you want a tasty break from the Old Town, head just outside to the Congress Cafe. Their signature Mexican spiced mocha is worth making time for!

Address: 3941 Mason St, San Diego, CA 92110.


Old Town Market in San Diego California USA
Old Town San Diego is a blast from the past – with treasures from the present.

Soak up the views at Mariners Point

I absolutely love nature, and that’s why San Diego is one of my favourite cities in the United States.

No matter where you are in the city, you’re never far from peace and tranquillity. 

Mariners Point is an example of how easy it is to feel like you’re in nature (when really you’re in the heart of the city).
 

Make a stop here to soak up the views, enjoy some fresh air and admire the harbour of yachts and boats just off the main coastline.

Don’t forget to look up and admire the towering palm trees, too!


Mariner's point in San Diego California USA
You won’t believe Mariners Point is in the middle of a big city!

Lunch at rum jungle

I hope you’ve burned off the big breakfast from Clayton’s because we’re heading for lunch next! 

Don’t worry, though – the portions here won’t be so overwhelming. 

In fact, we’re taking a light and healthy lunch at a wonderful Hawaiian themed cafe: Rum Jungle

If you’re a fan of acai, you’re in for a real treat here. Rum Jungle Cafe’s acai bowls are loaded with the good stuff, and come in all sorts of mixes.
 

If you’re not a fan of acai, there are plenty of other options. Rum Jungle serves up a number of healthy sandwiches, wraps and burgers, as well as several hot bowls.

Coffee lovers can get a satisfying java fix here, too, with bulletproof, CBD and turmeric lattes all on the menu. 

Address: 4150 Mission Blvd #153, San Diego, CA 92109.


Rum Jungle Cafe acai bowl in San Diego California USA
The Hawaiian acai bowl comes with honey, banana, mango, pineapple and coconut.

Stroll along Mission Beach

One word will come to mind when you arrive at Mission Beach: Baywatch. 

Although the beach empire wasn’t filmed here, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was. 

Mission Beach is a beautiful narrow beach with throwback vibes. Think lifeguard trucks, roller skating locals and plenty of cute diners and beach clubs lining the sidewalk. 

There are plenty of places to shop, drink and relax here, but my favourite thing to do is to simply stroll along the beach wall and soak up my surroundings. There’s always plenty going on!


Two women ride bikes outside brightly coloured shops front in Mission Beach in San Diego California USA
Brightly coloured store fronts and wheeled transportation are standard at Mission Beach.

Head up to La Jolla

When you’re ready to leave Mission Beach – or, more likely, realise it’s time to move on – head north to another coastal area: La Jolla. 

Quite the departure from Mission Beach, La Jolla is famous for its rugged coastline, natural cave and furry residents. Yes, I’m talking about the local California sea lions and harbour seals!

If you find yourself in this part of California in December, you may even see new-born pups!

The beaches in La Jolla can have so many blubbery friends on them that they wouldn’t look out of place in the Galapagos Islands.

But I promise you’re still in California!

You’ll want to allow at least a couple of hours to explore La Jolla because there’s a lot to take in.

At one end of this stretch, you’ll find a natural cave. At the other, the tide pools are fun to explore and also a great spot for watching a beautiful San Diego sunset.


la jolla sunset tide pools
The beach in La Jolla is the perfect sunset spot.

Dinner at Oscars

Once the sun has gone down, it’s time to finish off your day in San Diego with one final amazing meal. 

Oscars Mexican Seafood is a San Diego taco chain and it’s a must try!

Prices surprisingly low, food quality is impressively high and the food is prepared quickly while you wait. 

It’s also great if you’re travelling with non-meat eaters because, as the name suggests, the entire menu if pescatarian. 

If you’re a fan of ceviche, try the mixed one. Or, if you prefer to stick to tacos, I highly recommend the fish one. 

Address: 746 Emerald St, San Diego, CA 92109.


La Jolla in San Diego California USA


Important things to know before visiting San Diego

With only one day to explore San Diego, you want everything to go smoothly. Here is everything you need to know before you go.
 

You might need a visa (or ESTA) 

If you’re not from the United States, you will probably need a visa to visit. 

If you’re from a visa waiver country, it may be possible to visit on an ESTA.

The UK is included as part of this scheme, meaning British nationals can visit the USA for up to 3 months at a time on the ESTA visa. Just make sure you fill out the ESTA form well in advance of your trip. 

If you’re travelling to San Diego on a cruise, you’ll need to double check the requirements with your cruise line.


RELATED READ: All your ESTA questions – answered


Don’t travel the US without insurance

If you take one thing away from any of my US blog posts, please let it be this!

Healthcare in the USA is EXPENSIVE, which is why it’s absolutely crucial to have insurance.

And not just any travel insurance, but adequate travel insurance.

Yes, it will be pricier than other countries. But it will be 100% worth it if anything goes wrong (which, as I found out the hard way, it always can!).

I have been using and recommending World Nomads since 2017. I found the claims process super easy and stress-free, and know I can travel with complete peace of mind because they cover things that other insurance providers won’t.


TRAVEL TIP

Even though the USA is fairly safe, you shouldn’t travel without insurance. Make sure your policy covers you for healthcare and cancellations, as well as any activities you plan to do.

I use and recommend World Nomads because they cover things that most insurers won’t.

Check the price here or find out more about why I use them


Safety in San Diego

San Diego is generally a fairly safe city. There’s certainly no need to arrive with any fear! In fact, its crime rate is 15% lower than the national average. 

However, just like anywhere, make sure you keep your wits about you.
 

While it’s perfectly fine to travel with your phone or an expensive camera (as long as you have the right insurance!), don’t go flashing your valuables around.

Similarly, if you’re renting a car, don’t leave valuables inside. 

As long as you’re sensible and don’t do anything silly, you should be totally safe in San Diego!


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