The Essential San Diego 3 Day Itinerary

They say the West coast is the best coast. Home to sunny cities like San Diego, it’s hard to argue with that one.

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The coast of San Diego at Sunset, California, USA

With perfect weather and a great blend of coastline and leisure activities, San Diego is one of the best places to visit on America's West Coast. But if you have only 3 days in this sunny Californian city, what should you do and see? This is where the experts come in (that’s us - Plum Guide). We know all about the best things to do and the best places to stay (our rental homes in California are expertly vetted, don't you know). So, grab your surfboard and read on for our essential San Diego 3 day itinerary.

Day 1: Explore Balboa Park

Like any first day spent on holiday, it’s always good to get to know your surroundings. There’s no better place for that than Balboa Park. It's one of the most popular urban parks in the US, packed with an array of attractions including the world famous San Diego Zoo

Giraffe at San Diego Zoo, USA

Giraffe at San Diego Zoo, USA

The zoo houses more than 650 species in wide, open enclosures that resemble their home habitats. You’ll also find plenty of spots to relax and enjoy the ever-perfect weather in Balboa Park, and you should definitely take some time to explore the Botanical Building. It’s home to over 2,100 different plant species – which is almost as much as the number of surfers on one wave at La Jolla Shores (more on that later).

You’ll find more grand Spanish Revival buildings in the park (we’re very close to Mexico here), namely the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Natural History Museum. 

In short, Balboa Park is a place you could easily spend an entire day exploring. And at the end of a long, tiring day what better place to call home than Balboa & Bacchus? Located just around the corner from the park, this place offers great views across the city and a lovely BBQ location in the terraced garden.

Balboa & Bacchus, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

Balboa & Bacchus, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

Speaking of food, you’re spoiled for choice here in San Diego. Head to Little Italy for San Diego’s very own foodie heaven. There’s everything from classic pizzerias and pasta restaurants to old school establishments, breweries, family-owned cafes and new, trendy restaurants set up by California’s top chefs.

Depending on the time and day, you may also catch concerts and cultural events in the 10,000 square foot ‘Piazza della Famiglia’ - the central plaza of Little Italy. On a Saturday, there’s the ‘Little Italy Mercato’ - a farmers market packed with treats.

This is one of the great things about San Diego - the food and drink is unmatched. Underpinned by fresh ingredients like avocados, tomatoes, eggplant and fruit (all grown locally, of course), the city has some of the best fish tacos, carne asada and enchiladas around, thanks to its proximity to the Mexican border.

Day 2: Stroll along the Embarcadero

So, with all the eating you’ll be doing on your San Diego 3 day itinerary, it’s probably a good idea to keep moving. Start your second day waking up at Azure & Ochre. Enjoy the large, open social area with its ocean views before going on a relaxing stroll along the nearby Embarcadero, the city’s main harbour where everything is happening. 

Azure & Ochre, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

Azure & Ochre, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

Enjoy the picturesque views of the city skyline, looking out across the harbour to Coronado Island. You may notice the rather imposing figure of the USS Midway – America’s longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century and now America’s most interesting maritime museum (or most boring, depending on who you are).

North Embarcadero, San Diego, California | Image by Port of San Diego is licensed under CC BY 2.0

North Embarcadero, San Diego, California | Image by Port of San Diego is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Aircraft carriers not your thing? No worries. The Embarcadero is also home to many different shops and boutiques. You can put a real dent in the bank account and continue to eat like royalty as you swing by the Cheesecake Factory (yes, really).

Additionally, the Embarcadero is the launch point for the harbour cruise, which is a great way to explore the city and get to know more about its history, iconic landmarks and marine habitat. 

Speaking of marine habitat, you’ll also find whale watching tours regularly departing from here. These cruises can last up to four hours, led by a qualified tour guide who provides insight about the whales which you’re guaranteed to see. They’re so confident of this, you’ll receive a free pass for another tour if you don’t see one. Not bad. Definitely a great option if you're looking for things to do with kids in San Diego.

Back at Embarcadero, through the summer months, you may hear the San Diego Symphony Orchestra playing as the sun goes down on another infuriatingly perfect San Diego day. Is there nothing bad to say about this city? Nope. Oh, the Embarcadero also plays host to the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival every November.

Day 3: Hit the waves

The ocean is San Diego's big selling point and we’ve made the last day of your San Diego 3 day itinerary all about that. When it comes to beaches and water activities you really are spoiled for choice here: hitting the waves is hands down one of the top things to do in San Diego.

One of the most popular spots is La Jolla Shores Park, with good reason. It’s beautiful. Here, you can soak in the rays on the beach, go for a swim or explore the famous La Jolla Cove on a kayak tour. Feeling adventurous? Take a dive or snorkel and see what lies beneath.

Ocean Beach, San Diego, California

Ocean Beach, San Diego, California

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Californian coastal experience without surfing. You can book a lesson and get stuck in at one of many renowned surf locations such as La Jolla Shores, Point Loma, Del Mar and Mission Beach (try San Diego Surf Lessons here).

Mission Beach is another great location offering up whale spotting cruises, mini golf, shops and plenty of tranquil parks with those big lofty palm trees swaying in the breeze. Heaven. There’s even an amusement park here, offering up some funky retro rides. End the day by watching the sunset over the Pacific from great vantage points such as Mount Soledad or the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

Once you’re ready for home, get back to The Tide, one of our favourite San Diego homes on offer. Situated close to La Jolla shores, just off Windansea Beach, The Tide is perfect for a group of friends or a small family looking to get some peace and quiet. The location is hard to beat and we’re a big fan of the open plan living space where everyone can relax and spend quality time together.

The Tide, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

The Tide, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

If you're looking for more place to stay in San Diego, look no further than Plum Guide's professionally vetted rental homes. How about the cute and cosy Sunset Deck? Offering some great views over the city, there’s a balcony where you can sit out in front of the fire and relax with the sunset colours every night. Its location close to the airport is a real winner too.

Sunset Deck, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

Sunset Deck, Plum Guide home in San Diego, California

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