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San Diego is such a fantastic family destination, with plenty to see and do that adults and kids alike will love. This 3 day San Diego itinerary will help you hit the highlights, but I’ll be honest — if you have more time you can spend in San Diego, then definitely take advantage of it! This sunny city is full of things to do and could keep you busy for weeks.
San Diego is one of those cities that hits the perfect balance of being family-friendly. Everything on this itinerary is something both us and our kiddo thoroughly enjoyed. Plus the laid-back feel of the city, the plentiful sunshine, and the beautiful views already have us wanting to go back.
So if you are thinking about a trip, here’s an itinerary to get you started!
Best Time to Visit San Diego
With mild to warm temperatures all year, there is truly not a bad time to go to San Diego! It is a perfect year-round destination for family vacations.
There are a few thing you might want to be aware of though. Because this is Southern California, San Diego can be subject to the “May Gray” and “June Gloom” that frequents the area during those months. Also note that during the summer, San Diego can be very crowded with tourists and visitors attending big conferences and events.
We visited in October and thought it was the PERFECT time. The weather was beautiful, plus San Diego does a thing called Kids Free October, where kids get in free to most area attractions, making this a perfect time to visit as a family.
Money Saving Tip: If you plan to go to a lot of San Diego museums and attractions, look at getting a San Diego Go City Pass. SO many of the most popular attractions are included in the price, and it can be a big money saver!
Getting to San Diego
Unless you are driving from somewhere in California, you’ll likely be flying into San Diego. And the cool thing about flying into San Diego is that the airport is SO CLOSE to the city center. Like, definitely keep your windows on the plane open because you fly right next to downtown.
This also means that once you reach the airport, getting to wherever you are staying within San Diego is pretty easy, whether you are renting a car, taking an Uber or Lyft, or using some kind of shuttle service.
Getting Around San Diego
Unless you plan on spending your time exclusively in the downtown San Diego, I HIGHLY recommend renting a car for your San Diego trip. A lot of the sights you’ll want to see are not located in the city center. You’ll find this is a driving-friendly city though, with plenty of parking options all over.
You can of course, choose to exclusively use Uber or Lyfts to get around, but I prefer to have the control of a rental car in a city like San Diego where I know I’ll be spending a decent amount of time in the car.
San Diego does not have a great public transportation system for visitors, but there is a trolley system that can take you to some of your destinations.
3 Day San Diego Itinerary
This itinerary makes for a perfect short family vacation! Is 3 days enough time to spend in San Diego? Yes and no. You can definitely hit most of the city’s highlights in 3 days, but if you have more time definitely don’t hesitate to stay in San Diego longer! At the end of this itinerary, we have a list of some extra things you can add on if you have extra time to extend your vacation.
Say Diego Day One
Tour Old Town
For day one of our 3 day San Diego itinerary, let’s start out where San Diego started out: in Old Town! This is the site of the first European settlement in California, which of course also makes this the oldest part of the city of San Diego.
There are two different parts of Old Town: the State Historic Park, and the more general neighborhood. Spend the morning checking both out!
The Old Town State Historic Park opens most mornings at 10:00 a.m. (although you can walk around the grounds if you arrive earlier…the buildings just won’t be open yet). It is full of historic buildings with historical actors, small shops, and museums. Our favorite was the Casa de Estudillo, once the home of an important Spanish family.
You also won’t want to miss the Fiesta de Reyes area, which is in the northwest corner of the State Park. This festive area is full of fun shops, a restaurant, and is a great place to catch some music.
The more general neighborhood area of Old Town is to the southeast of the State Park, and is full of shops, restaurants, and other historic attractions and museums like the Whaley House (supposedly the most haunted house in America).
Old Town is also a great place to grab lunch after your morning exploring. There are TONS of great restaurant options here.
Visit the USS Midway
After lunch, head to the USS Midway on the downtown Embarcadero (the waterfront area). This aircraft carrier will be a hit with the whole family, full of interesting exhibits and fun activities.
Honestly, I just couldn’t get over the size of this aircraft carrier. But there are all kinds of exhibits too: below decks exhibits that show you how people lived and worked on the boat, and aircraft galleries on the Hangar Deck and Flight Deck full of all kinds of planes.
In the Hangar Deck there are also opportunities to climb into a real cockpit and get in a flight simulator.
If you have kids with you, you may want to check out the Junior Pilots program too, where kids can listen to special audio clues with an audio guide, answer questions, and get their Junior Pilot Wings at the end.
And definitely don’t miss the beautiful views of San Diego from the Flight Deck!
Parking Tip! Your parking at the USS Midway is good all day, so once your arrive, keep your car here and you can walk to the rest of the destinations!
Enjoy Little Italy
If you aren’t feeling worn out and need to go back to your hotel for a nap, this would be a great time to explore Little Italy.
Little Italy is the area of downtown directly across from the USS Midway and is full of restaurants and shops. Plus it seems like there is almost always something going on, from Farmers Markets to live music and more.
Evening in Seaport Village
Seaport Village is a perfect place to end the evening. This area is full of specialty shops and restaurants (it would be a great place to grab dinner if you didn’t already eat in Little Italy) and it has lots of beautiful outdoor space to sit down and people watch.
And BONUS there is a historic Carousel that kids will love.
You also won’t want to miss sunset here — it’s gorgeous!
San Diego Day Two
Visit the San Diego Zoo
You cannot go to San Diego without visiting the world-famous San Diego Zoo! So most of day two should be focused on that, because there is tons to see!
Here are a few tips for navigating your day at the San Diego Zoo:
- Arrive early for easy parking.
- When you arrive, be sure to pick up a map and see where the animals you most want to see are.
- Start your morning with the free bus tour. This takes you all around the zoo, will give you views of a lot of the animals, and may help you cross some things off your list.
- Don’t miss the Skyfari either! This takes you from the front to the back (or the back to the front) of the zoo, and has great views of the city and Balboa Park.
- The Lost Forest is the coolest part of the zoo temperature-wise, so save it for later in the afternoon when the day is warmer.
- The San Diego Zoo has a lot of levels, so use busses and elevators to your advantage!
Explore Balboa Park
After your morning (and probably early afternoon) at the zoo, spend the rest of the afternoon (and maybe your evening) exploring Balboa Park.
Balboa Park can be thought of a little bit like San Diego’s version of Central Park — it is full of museums, gardens, attractions, and more. (Plus, it’s technically where the zoo is located, so you can just walk over from the front gates of the zoo!)
There’s a lot to see here, but definitely don’t miss the Botanical Building, the Spreckles Organ Pavilion, or exploring some of the beautiful gardens.
Balboa Park is also where a lot of San Diego’s most popular museums — like the Fleet Science Center and the Air & Space Museum — are located. If you find yourself with a lot of time this afternoon, you might choose to check out one of these (be sure to keep track of closing times though!)
San Diego Day Three
Go to a Museum
For the last day of our 3 day San Diego itinerary, pick one of the city’s many museums to visit in the morning. You may choose to see the San Diego Air & Space Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, or one of the many other museums in Balboa Park. If you are traveling with kids, another choice might be The New Children’s Museum located downtown.
On our visit, we went to The Maritime Museum of San Diego, which was a great small museum for the morning full of historic ships to explore. (We all loved it!)
After lunch, head over the La Jolla. It’s about a 25 minute drive from downtown San Diego, but you will not want to miss this gorgeous spot.
La Jolla is, of course, known for their sea lions and seals; but be prepared — this also means the area can have a…smell.
You can easily walk along a trail in La Jolla starting by The Cave Store and heading south to Children’s Pool. There are beautiful vistas and there should be plenty of seals and sea lions to see along your way. Before you start, you can also pay a fee to go down into a sea cave at The Cave Store.
(Always remember not to get close to wildlife and follow instructions for areas that may be marked off for wildlife during pupping season.)
After La Jolla, head up to Torrey Pines for some beautiful views. The best thing to do up here is watch the hang gliders and paragliders from Torrey Pines Gliderport (note that they close at 5, so watch your time and maybe make a switch with La Jolla if this is important to you). If you are really feeling brave, you can even schedule your own paragliding adventure!
But there are also hiking trails, beach access (with a hike), and the sunsets up here are supposed to be spectacular! A beautiful sunset with a picnic would be a great way to end a trip to San Diego!
What To Do if You Have More Time in San Diego
Is a 3 day San Diego itinerary not enough time? Honestly, I think a whole week in this city would be great, and here is a list of some other San Diego attractions you can enjoy!
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
If you have an extra day, I highly recommend a drive out to Escondido to go to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This is a sister park to the city’s San Diego Zoo, and focuses more on conservation and African animals. It’s a really great space (and I *might* have actually enjoyed it more than the regular zoo).
Wondering if you should visit the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park? Check out our zoo comparison!
This small beachside amusement park is a great way to spend the evening. There are all kinds of kid-friendly rides, plus carnival games, food, putt-putt, and more. Just know that if you are going to ride The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, a historic wooden coaster, have the ibuprofen ready.
This island is a popular vacation spot, with it’s well-known hotel. But it’s great for day guests too, with lots of shopping, restaurants, and outdoor space. You can drive over there or take the ferry from the Embarcadero.
If you have a kid who is obsessed with Legos, you probably won’t want to miss LEGOLAND California. This Lego theme park is located in Carlsbad, California, about a 35 minutes drive from San Diego.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is another popular attraction for families, and not just for the sea life. SeaWorld has become known for their thrill rides, plus there is a Sesame Street area that young kids will love.
Have a Beach Day
Visit More Museums
We’ve already gone through a lot of them, but San Diego has tons of museums to explore! If you find yourself with extra time in the city, visiting more museums is a great thing to do.
Where to Eat in San Diego
There are SO MANY great restaurants in San Diego, and this is by no means an extensive list. But here are a few restaurants we really enjoyed.
- Communal Coffee for pastries and coffee (+ a super cute shop!)
- Atypical Waffle for gourmet waffles
- The Crack Shack for fried chicken
- Edgewater Grill in Seaport Village
- Duke’s in La Jolla
Where to Stay in San Diego
San Diego has lots of great options for where to stay. On our trip, we used VRBO to rent a small condo near Balboa Park within walking distance of the zoo.
If you are staying at a hotel, downtown will be the best options. There are tons of hotel options in popular places like the Embarcadero and the Gaslamp Quarter. Here are a few options ranging in price from least expensive to luxury:
- Holiday Inn Express Downtown San Diego is a good option for a smaller budget that still gets you downtown.
- Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town/Sea World Area has some beautiful architecture and will have you near the popular Old Town area.
- Moxy San Diego Gaslamp Quarter is a modern hotel for Marriott fans in the Gaslamp Quarter.
- InterContinental San Diego will put you right across from the water in a 4-star hotel.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton San Diego Bay Downtown is an upscale stay with room for the whole family right across the street from Seaport Village.
- Hotel del Coronado is probably the most luxury stay in San Diego and is an iconic property on Coronado Island right across the bay from downtown.
Tips for Traveling to San Diego
- Rent a car. San Diego is a city where the attractions can be pretty spread out, so renting a car for getting around is a great idea.
- Buy tickets online ahead of time if you can! Especially for popular attractions like the San Diego Zoo. And consider getting a San Diego Go City Pass to save money!
- Dress in layers. San Diego days can get pretty warm, while the evenings can be cool and breezy. Be sure to pack a light jacket.
- If you are traveling in October, know that it is Kids Free October in San Diego. This means that kids get in free to TONS of city attractions (yes, including the zoo!). Different museums may have different policies, so look them up or call ahead of time. For instance, at the zoo kids can get in with an adult with a ticket, but some places require you to get a free ticket for the child. Note that the San Diego Go pass usually does not let kids get in free.