48 Hours in San Diego: The Ultimate Itinerary

San Diego downtown

Courtesy of SanDiego.org 

Sun, surf, seafood, and suds—San Diego County has them all in spades and they are certainly the biggest draws to the destination. But there’s also more to be had than a dose of vitamins D and sea, a brewery tour, and all the fish tacos you can eat. There are museums to visit, apples to pick, bikes to ride, boutiques to browse, scenic trails to hike, baby animals to adore, sunsets to see, cocktails to throw back, well you get the picture. To ensure your Southern California stay is golden, follow this itinerary for an action-packed weekend that takes advantage of a little of everything the eighth largest U.S. city has to offer.

Coronado Beach
Courtesy of SanDiego.org  

Day 1: Afternoon

4 p.m.: Time your drive into town or flight into San Diego International Airport to arrive in the late afternoon in order to catch the Left Coast’s longest-running free show, the sun’s daily dip into the Pacific. There’s no shortage of spots with spectacular views of the horizon including the top of Mount Soledad or Mister A’s, a fine dining establishment on the 12th floor of a downtown skyscraper. If you’re already itching to feel your first sea breeze, post up at the aptly named Sunset Cliffs (south of Ocean Beach), which is particularly scenic because the rugged bluffs face west, near the ice plant-smothered rock shelves surrounding La Jolla’s Windansea Beach, while fishing from the 125-year-old, 2,000-foot-long Oceanside Pier, or while strolling the mica-flecked sands of Coronado’s west side.

Before you attempt to see the legendary green flash, get situated at your temporary home for the weekend. Where you stay really depends on your budget, plans, and preferred hotel style. First timers should find something in downtown where the convention center, Petco Park, and many of the museums, attractions, and Gaslamp Quarter nightlife options are but a short walk, pedi-cab, or trolley ride away from your room. Most of the big chains are represented here with all the bells and whistles like the Hilton Bayfront, which just finished a $23 million makeover and has waterslide at the pool, or the lux InterContinental, which fronts a park that often hosts food trucks and festivals. If you think it’s fun to stay somewhere more unique, the new Guild Hotel, built inside a century-old YMCA, features lots of design nods to its history including a gymnasium with an elevated-running-track-turned-ballroom. There are also swanky resorts with spas (and sometimes golf courses) on the beach (Hotel del Coronado, Lodge at Torrey Pines), hidden in posh outlier communities (Fairmont Grand Del Mar, Park Hyatt Aviara), or tucked into hillsides (Rancho Valencia). There are also budget-conscious Airbnbs aplenty in seaside neighborhoods like Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach.

Day 1: Evening

7 p.m.: Head over to the most happening neighborhood in town, Little Italy, where the main thoroughfares of India Street and Kettner Boulevard are lined with hot-ticket dinner options, many of which made our top 20 restaurants list.  Two “Top Chef” contenders, Richard Blais and Brian Malarkey, operate seasonal concepts around the corner from one another. Malarkey’s spot is connected to a fast-casual café and marketplace, Herb & Eatery, which is a great place to pick up locally made snacks to fuel tomorrow’s adventures. Kettner Exchange, home of the Pig Mac, and glitzy steakhouse Born and Raised, have buzzy rooftops. And true to the hood’s history, it’s boiling over with places to get superior pasta and pizza, including Civico1845, Nolita Hall, Barbusa, and Monello (where they toss hot spaghetti inside a cheese wheel!). If you need to work up an appetite, stroll through the open-late shops or play a round of bocce in Amici Park with the area’s club team.

9:30 p.m.: End night one with a sweet treat. San Diegans are doughnuts about gourmet fried dough, so much so that The Donut Bar opens back up at night for folks on the Hole30 diet. They also scream for Stella Jean’s small-batch, chef-made ice cream. The pink-and-white retro scoop shop is known for global flavors like Mexican rocky road and blueberry French lavender with butter cookies.

Paragliders over La Jolla
TripSavvy / Sharyn Umaña-Angers

Day 2: Morning

7 a.m.: As the city is full of the physically ambitious, nature lovers, dog and baby owners, soldiers, and fishermen, even the weekends start early. To do SD like a true local, you gotta go outside and get the heart pumping. How you do that is personal choice. It can be as simple as flocking on foot to a healthy breakfast of avocado toast and a probiotic mimosa at Parakeet Café or rambling with rentals on the 19-mile Mission Bay Bike Path, or as skilled as mountain climbing, kayaking around the La Jolla caves, SUP, kite-surfing, or paragliding at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. Get a private wave-riding lesson from the Surf Diva School or swim with mermaids at the Hotel Del Coronado. (Or in winter, the same resort offers a beachfront ice skating rink.) Take a free hike or shore run. There are even several breweries that offer occasional yoga classes like Societe, Culture Brewing, and North Park Beer Co.

Besides Parakeet, you can follow your flow with frittatas and waffles at Breakfast Republic, Rustic Root (another sunny rooftop), Kindred (entirely plant-based), or Great Maple.

10 a.m.: It’s easy being green at Balboa Park. For one, it has 16 gardens for plant moms and dads to wander around including a Japanese Friendship Garden, a cactus collection started for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, and a rose garden with 22,400 bushes. Even the world famous San Diego Zoo is accredited as a botanical garden thanks to the 4,500 species of orchids, bamboos, cycads, and trees that beautify its 100 acres of exhibits. And who doesn’t love to watch baby animals play? This zoo always seems to have several of those rolling around, chasing tails, or climbing on their parents. You can also visit the nervous cheetah who lives with his support dog. (Seriously, if this doesn’t warm your heart, you might be dead inside.) Get closer to the action by springing for the upgraded experiences like photo expeditions and the Crazy About Cats tour. If you prefer the arts and museums to monkeying around, Balboa has those too including the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, a puppet theater, the Museum of Man, and the San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Hall of Champions. 

Stone Brewing
Courtesy of SanDiego.org

Day 2: Afternoon

2 p.m.: San Diego got its first year-round food hall, the Liberty Public Market, in 2016. Set inside a former Navy mess hall, it offers everything from lobster rolls and crepes to seasonal smoothies, ramen, and tacos. Works by local artists line the walls. Sometimes there’s even live music.

3:30 p.m.: Time to see for yourself how the city earned its Craft Beer Capital of the World nickname by going to a brewery or two or 160 (that’s how many they had at last count!). Depending on your level of fascination with fermentation, many offer behind-the-scenes tours or private tastings of the West Coast IPAs that put the region on the beer map. Most pair pilsners with added-value programming like board and lawn games, trivia nights, live music, food trucks, yoga, even macramé classes. Here are 10 favorites for a flight.

Make Thorn or Border X your last stop for sips in order to find yourself in Barrio Logan, historically the heart of Mexican-American life in the city and one of California’s 14 officially designated Cultural Districts. In recent years, it has become a hotspot for edgy and authentic art as warehouses are converted to galleries as was the case with Bread & Salt and La Bodega. The movement in the ‘60s started when residents reclaimed a park encroached on by the building of the Coronado Bridge by decorating the towering pillars. Today, Chicano Park houses the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world and is the site of cultural celebrations throughout the year. You can snag crafts and edible souvenirs at the mixed-use complex, Mercado del Barrio. The baristas at Café Moto have even been known to use drink foam as a canvas. Duck in here if in need of a caffeine pick-me-up.

Day 2: Evening

7 p.m.: This also puts you in a prime position to stuff your face with all the tacos. Las Quatro Milpas is a fan favorite but it’s only open until 3. (We highly recommend coming back when they’re dishing up their famous crunchy rolled versions made with tortillas they grind and shape in house.) Don’t worry as there are tons of other options like Salud!, Mariscos El Pulpo, or Rolando’s Taco Shop. Barrio Dogg brings another popular street food across the border. The all-beef organic hot dogs are slathered in toppings. El Bombero is fire, literally, because it features seven types of chile peppers. Outside of BL, you can also satisfy your craving for tacos or other Mexican staples but with a modern spin at Galaxy Taco, Death By Tequila, or Lola 55, or Tahona.

9 p.m.: Because of its population’s proclivity for beer and the brewers’ prowess at providing it, visitors too often overlook the burgeoning craft cocktail scene. The mixology masters at Madison in University Heights are at the top of the gin fizz and gimlet game, using seasonal ingredients, specialty spirits, and badass glassware and occasionally creatively reusing bits from the restaurant side like avocado pits that would otherwise be tossed. They’ve even cracked the code on making milk punch that is both delicious and vegan. Rendezvous Bar at the US Grant Hotel pours French-inspired classics updated with modern tricks like diamond-shaped ice and printed edible photos. As the seaside setting demands, the town also has a great selection of tiki bars. The Grass Skirt, which has a secret entrance through a real poke restaurant’s fake freezer, and False Idol are newer kids on the block while Bali Hai has been slinging Polynesian pupus and drinks since 1954. (A ticker boasts nearly three million mai tais have passed from bartenders’ hands to customers’ lips during their reign.) Polite Provisions is another worthwhile watering hole with an old-timey vibe. And if you want to recreate the libations at home, look into their cocktail classes. 

Old Town
Courtesy of SanDiego.org  

Day 3: Morning

9:30 a.m.: It was a busy day yesterday and you definitely got in your steps, so reward yourselves with a brunch in the immaculate and whimsical Crown Room at the Hotel del Coronado. It will set you back a cool Benjamin before tip, which is a little hard to swallow, but rest assured the DIY Bloody Marys and mimosas, the flaky pastries, the raw bar delicacies, the egg-cellent entrees, assorted dim sum, pepper-crusted freshly carved prime rib, and the frozen treats from gelato bar go down easy. If you didn't come here for the sunset, be sure to head out to the wide beach to get one last sandy fix.

Noon: How your afternoon goes down is again dependent on personal interests. History buffs should spend time exploring heritage sites like Cabrillo National Monument and Old Town, which turns 250 in 2019. Nautical nerds won’t want to miss the USS Midway or the Maritime Museum, which is made up of 10 restored ships floating in the bay. Art lovers might find the drive to see Ricardo Breceda’s towering metal creatures near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park worthwhile. If you’re lucky, a super bloom will also be in effect. Families might hit a theme park like LEGOLAND or Belmont Park or Birch Aquarium at UC San Diego. 

What you do might depend on the season. Fall brings apple picking in Oak Glen and Julian whereas spring ushers in a few weeks of bold color at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad. Summer is a great time for baseball games and alfresco concerts. In 2020, the San Diego Symphony will debut its new outdoor amphitheater. 

Cross a few more breweries off the list or check out other hip parts of town like North Park, Normal Heights, Mission Hills, and Hillcrest, all of which have their own distinct character, boutiques, eateries, and coffee shops. Exploring the oceanside enclaves like Solano Beach, Carlsbad, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and Encinitas is also a good way to spend an afternoon.