Three Days in San Diego Itinerary: Top Things to Do in San Diego for First Time Visitors

Disclaimer: This post might contain affiliate links, which means we get a small commission if you make a purchase (at no extra cost to you).

Learn how to spend an amazing three days in San Diego California if your visiting for the first time!

San Diego is known for its attractive mild year-round climate, beautiful beaches, craft breweries, and cultural attractions. San Diego claims to be the birthplace of California as it was the first site visited by Europeans on the West Coast of the United States!

Whether you’re from California or from across the country, there are plenty of things to do during an extended weekend or three days in San Diego. In this sample San Diego itinerary, we include things to do in downtown San Diego, where to eat, and where to stay. In these three days in San Diego, you’ll get to see and experience San Diego’s top things to do and attractions. Here is how you can spend three days in San Diego California!

Three Days in San Diego Itinerary for First-Time Visitors

San Diego Itinerary at a Glance

Day 1: Museums and Sightseeing

Day 2: Coronado Island and the Harbor

Day 3: San Diego Zoo

Planning Your Visit to San Diego

In this sample three days in San Diego itinerary, we have included all of the things that we did during our first visit to the city. So this guide is more geared towards first-time visitors to San Diego. San Diego is full of so many things to do, you’ll easily be able to fill up three days visiting the city.

During our visit to San Diego, we were impressed by the welcoming and laid back vibe that everyone seems to talk about when referencing Southern California. It makes sense why so many people say San Diego calls people back!

Getting to San Diego

San Diego has a centrally located airport, which makes getting to the city very easy from across the United States. San Diego is also very easy to get around. The city is very walkable, while Uber and Lyft also available at fair prices.

Weekend Getaways – Save up to 30% and discover hidden gems close to major cities

When to Visit San Diego

One of the things that draw people to San Diego is the beautiful weather year-round. Typically, even in the winter, the temperature doesn’t drop below 55 degrees during the day and it rarely rains. This makes packing for San Diego very easy!

Because the weather is so great in San Diego, it attracts tourists year-round. The summers tend to be the busiest because summertime is when most Americans take vacations and travel, so expect more tourists in the summer.

Getting Around San Diego

If you’re staying in downtown San Diego, most of the top sights in the city are within walking distance or a short Uber ride away. Public transit in San Diego is also very accessible and fun! The iconic Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) bright red trolley is a fun and easy and convenient way to get around the major areas of San Diego. There are four trolley lines (UC San Diego Blue, Orange, Sycuan Green and SDG&E Silver) available.

Old Town Trolley Tours

If you want to experience San Diego with a hop-on-hop-off tour and transportation, consider the Old Town Trolley Tour. With the Old Town Trolley Tour, you’ll get two-hours of a fully narrated, historic city tour of San Diego and Coronado. The tour covers approximately 25 miles and over 100 points of interest in San Diego! Riders can hop-on and off as much as they would like!

Day 1: San Diego Itinerary

The marina and downtown neighborhoods of San Diego offer plenty of things to do for tourists. In this first day of your three days in San Diego itinerary, you’ll be exploring the downtown area of the city.

Embarcadero Park

Start off your day by visiting Embaracdero Park. Embarcadero Park is a park located along the harbor and features walking paths, space for fishing, and picnicking areas so you can enjoy the harbor views.

USS Midway Museum

After strolling through the park, make your way to the USS Midway. The USS Midway Museum is aboard the longest-serving naval aircraft carrier. USS Midway sailed from 1945 from 1992 and became a museum in 2004. Today, you can explore the USS Midway with a self-guided tour. During your tour, you can see what life what like for sailors from the engine room to the sleeping quarters.

Hours: 10AM to 5PM

Admission: $0-26

Unconditional Surrender Statue

This 25-foot statue of the famous V-J in Times square kiss photo overlooks the USS Midway. The Unconditional Surrender Statue, or the Kissing Statue, is an art installation that has these statues scattered around the globe. The statue in San Diego attracts tourists and couples who are searching to get “the photo.”

Shop at and Have Lunch at the Seaport Village

After visiting the USS Midway and the statue, take some time to relax and do some shopping at Seaport Village. The Seaport Village is a small collection of shops and restaurants along the harbor waterfront. Here, you can shop for locally made crafts and gifts and dine with local cuisine.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

Once you’re done with lunch, take a walk or Uber ride to the Maritime Museum of San Diego. The Maritime Museum of San Diego restores, maintains, and operates historic vessels. Admission to the museum includes touring the 10 ships and museum space. The most prominent ship at the Maritime Museum is the Star of India, the world’s longest operating sailing ship! The Star of India was constructed in 1863 and still sailes regularly! The ship has been around the world 21 times.

Depending on if you want to do one of the on the water tours, you can easily schedule doing the Maritime Museum in the morning on your first day in San Diego!

Hours: 11AM-8PM Monday to Saturday

Admission: $0-20

Have Dinner in Little Italy

San Diego’s Little Italy is perfect if you’re looking for good pizza, wine bars, and the happiest of happy hours. During our three days in San Diego, we ate out in Little Italy a few times. Here are some of the places we dined at!

Landini’s Pizzeria

Landini’s Pizzeria is a counter-service pizza shop with specialty slices and solid prices. We personally found the specialty slices to be better than just the cheese!

Wicked Maine

Little Italy has a small cafeteria area in Piazza della Famiglia with outdoor seating and plenty of grab-and-go options. So we decided to try Wicked Maine Lobster and were highly satisfied!

Ballast Point Brewery Little Italy

Ballast Point, founded in 1996, is one of the many craft breweries in San Diego. So if you’re a beer snob, San Diego is your place! Ballast Point has multiple tasting rooms in San Diego and offers a small menu with American style food.

Ironside Fish and Oyster

This upscale seafood restaurant was out of our comfort zone for us, but it had amazing food!

Day 2: San Diego Itinerary

On your second day in San Diego, take some time to relax and explore the beaches!

Spend the Day at Coronado Beach and Island

Coronado Island is one of the top things to see in San Diego! Coronado is a resort city and island that features beautiful hotels, beaches, and water sports. While San Diego is home is many beaches, Coronado Island should be on your bucket list for your first trip to San Diego. The long sandy beaches of Coronado Island are special and literally sparkle, because of the mineral mica in its sand. Because Coronado Beach is so beautiful is no wonder its been consistently voted one of America’s finest beaches.

San Diego – What You Need to Know Before You Go

Explore More of San Diego’s Beaches

  • Torrey Pines State Beach
  • La Jolla
  • Pacific Beach
  • Point Loma
  • Pacific Beach
  • North Pacific Beach
  • Pacific Beach
  • Mission Beach
  • Ocean Beach
  • Imperial Beach
  • Sunset Cliffs
  • Point Loma

San Diego’s beaches attract locals and visitors for its surf culture, rocky cliffs, white sands, tidepools, an sunset views.

Go on a Boat Tour of the San Diego Bay

If you want to see San Diego from a different perspective, consider going on a boat tour around the harbor and Coronado Island! These tours include romantic sunset cruises, whale watching, and general sightseeing!

Dine in the Gaslamp District

After spending the day at the beach, grab some dinner in the historic Gaslamp District of San Diego. The Gaslamp District of San Diego is a lively downtown neighborhood known for its nightlife, restaurants, and theaters. The Gaslamp District is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Blind Burro

The Blind Burro is a Mexican restaurant that serves Baja coastal cuisine. With its rustic atmosphere, the Blind Burro gives you a casual and relaxing dinner experience.

El Chingon

El Chingon brands itself as a bad-ass restaurant with its grafitti decor and edgy look. Serving a wide variety of tacos, El Chingon is a great place for both lunch and dinner.

Day 3: San Diego Itinerary

On your last day of your three days in San Diego, spend the day exploring the top things to do in San Diego: the San Diego Zoo! The San Diego Zoo will certainly take up an entire day in the city.

Visit the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is one of the world’s most renowned zoos. This AZA-accredited zoo prides itself on its remarkable size, diversity of animals, and conservation accomplishments. The zoo is an active part of the species survival program which strives to increase populations and one of the zoo’s most famous accomplishments in the California Condor Project. Everyone has their share of favorite animals that they like to see at the zoo, so the San Diego Zoo has plenty of diversity (3,500 animals!) for all interests!

Hours: 9AM to 5PM daily

Admission: $48-58

What to See and Do at the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is separated into sections and trails that interconnect with one another, based on the geographic location of the animals. For example, there is the Outback area, the Lost Forest, the Northern Frontier, and Africa Rocks just to name a few. It was kinda easy to get lost, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! But it’s a lot of walking. The San Diego Zoo also has a sky tram that will take you from one side of the zoo to the other!

Bus Tour: Having never been to the San Diego Zoo before, it was a little overwhelming looking at the map! The park is huge so it’s hard to know where to start. During our visit to the Zoo, we did the bus tour first. The guided bus tour around the zoo showed some of the top exhibits at the zoo and gave me a nice preview of the layout. The zoo is HUGE so it was really helpful to see around the facility prior to walking around.

Observe the Plants: The temperate, sunny climate of San Diego is suitable to many plants and animal species. Because of the climate, the San Diego Zoo is also an arboretum with a rare plant collection!

Safari Park: With an upgraded ticket your admission to the San Diego Zoo also includes admission to the Safari Park. The Safari Park is an offsite property where animals are free to roam inf ree-range enclosures. The park is located 30 miles from the Zoo, so if you have an extra day in San Diego, consider visiting the Safari Park as well!

Book an Experience: The San Diego Zoo offers additional experiences such as interactive tours, behind the scenes tours, and photography tours.

If you have more than Three Days in San Diego

The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, which is home to other major attractions in San Diego. Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban cultural park that is home to open space areas, gardens, walking paths, museums, and theaters. If you have more than three days in San Diego, consider exploring more of Balboa Park.

More Fun Things to do in San Diego if you have more time:

  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • San Diego Museum of Natural History
  • Fleet Science Center
  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • San Diego Air and Space Museum
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • Old town San Diego Historic Park
  • Birch Aquarium

Where to Stay in San Diego

During our extended weekend in San Diego, we actually stayed at two hotels because of availability. Both hotels served as excellent accommodations for San Diego. We personally really enjoy stay at Hilton hotels because of the Hilton Honors rewards program and diverse hotel chains.

Hampton Inn and Suites Downtown

The Hampton Inn and Suites in downtown was located a few blocks from some of the sightseeing things to do in San Diego including the Star of India and the USS Midway. It also located around the block from Little Italy, so restaurants and happy hours are closeby!

Hampton Inn and Suites tend to be our go-to hotels because they always offer nice rooms with complimentary breakfasts. Even though getting out of the hotel to go out for breakfast is fun, it’s nice to have the option of a hotel breakfast for those early mornings!

Hilton Inn Bayfront

The Hilton Inn Bayfront is located right on the bay and offers sweeping views of the city and the harbor! This gorgeous hotel has close access to the Embarcadero Marina Park, the Gaslamp District, Convention Center, and the San Diego Padre’s baseball field (Petco Park).

The hotel room was very modern and had large windows for plenty of natural light and beautiful views. Although breakfast is not included in the rate (it can be included depending on your Hilton Honors membership level), it can be added on. Book your stay at the Hilton Bayfront!

Who is excited for their first-time trip to San Diego?

What are you most excited about visiting in San Diego? Let us know in the comments below! For those who have visited San Diego before, let us know your favorite spots!