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4 Days in San Diego: Itinerary Travel Guide & The Best Things To Do

by Caitlin J
San Diego Things To Do

It finally happened. I finally got to travel to San Diego! This city has been on my to-visit list for so long. My fiance, Jason, and I recently spent four days in this area. And not to brag, but we covered a lot of ground with my San Diego itinerary. 

So keep reading for details on my 4-day trip itinerary and learn where to stay, how to get around, and all the best things to do in San Diego!

What to Expect on Your San Diego Trip

La Jolla in San Diego, California

San Diego is a city in Southern California located along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and right next to the Mexican Border. As of 2020, it’s the 8th most populous city in the US with a population of almost 1.4 million.

The city is known for mild weather year-round, harbors and coastlines populated by seals, as well as a vibrant tiki scene and around 150 craft breweries.

Personally, San Diego has been a beer city that has been recommended to me by everyone. Everyone who has visited here, or been lucky enough to live here, are constantly singing the praises of this area.

After my San Diego trip, I can obviously see why. Now I too am one of those who get to sing the praises of this beautiful, sunny city!

Where to Stay in San Diego

Like most cities in California, San Diego is quite sprawling. The county covers several different areas. In fact, there are 100 unique and charming neighborhoods to choose from when deciding where to stay in San Diego. 

However, it all really depends on what you want most out of your trip. We really wanted to be close to the ocean, but still central to Little Italy and Balboa Park. So we chose a hotel in Point Loma.

With that, here’s what to know about the most popular neighborhoods in San Diego:

Colorful sidewalks in Balboa Park.
  • Balboa Park is minutes from downtown San Diego and is the cultural center of the city. You’ll find gardens, museums, and of course the world-famous San Diego Zoo in this park/neighborhood.
  • La Jolla is home to caves, cliffs, coasts, and coves. This area is a gorgeous one, with beyond breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Visit here if you’re looking to spot seals and sea lions
  • Liberty Station is a waterfront urban neighborhood that features tons of hotels, bars, restaurants, and breweries. It’s home to the Liberty Public Market as well.  
  • Little Italy is a San Diego icon. If you’re not staying here, you will most likely be visiting here. The area features plenty of Italian restaurants and some of the larger craft breweries.
Little Italy Neighborhood in San Diego, California
  • Mission Beach is San Diego’s “classic” boardwalk beach town and features two miles of oceanfront boardwalk. Popular with 20-somethings, there are plenty of bars and nightlife in the area.
  • Ocean Beach is home to one of the longest piers in SoCal as well as the popular Dog Beach. The neighborhood features great dining, breweries, and a lively bar scene.
  • Pacific Beach is another beach neighborhood, this one is a big hot spot for college students and the party crowd. The area comes alive at night, both on the beach and in the clubs.
  • Point Loma is west of Downtown and also features Harbor Island and Shelter Island. We stayed in this neighborhood and enjoyed the relaxed vibes of the harbor and the area’s walkability.

Staying at the Monsaraz Hotel

The Monsaraz San Diego from Hilton’s Tapestry Collection is my top recommendation for the best hotel in San Diego. This budget-friendly hotel is cute, modern, and fresh from a recent renovation. 

The property features an on-site restaurant, pool, rooms with balconies, valet parking, and is even dog-friendly. I loved how our rooms were decorated. It seemed to fit in perfectly with the peaceful harbor that is just steps away.

For more information about booking a room at the Monsaraz Hotel in San Diego, click below.

Getting Around San Diego

So I highly recommend getting a rental car for your time in San Diego. When it comes to getting around San Diego, you’ll find it easiest to get around with a car. I recommend a compact rental car so you can see all the sights. Jason and I rented a car through Budget for under $175!

When it comes to scenic drives in San Diego, you have plenty of options. I found that keeping my “Avoid Highways” setting in Google Maps to be very helpful. If you want to learn more, California’s tourism board offers more information and routes on their website.

Overall, I found navigating San Diego with a car to be very pleasant. The roads were kind of confusing but traffic was never crazy awful like LA. And parking was widely available, whether it was cheap public parking or free street parking.

San Diego Itinerary: What To Do, See, Eat and Drink

Below is a recap of our four days in San Diego. This itinerary and travel guide will be a great resource to help you schedule and plan out your time here. 

Day 1: Arrive to San Diego

The harbor around Shelter Island in San Diego

On our first day in San Diego, we landed around 4pm and went straight to pick up our Budget rental car. From the airport, you’ll want to take the shuttle to the rental car building. There will be plenty of signs to guide you.

Once we had our car we quickly stopped at the nearest dispensary before heading to our hotel. “When in Rome,” as they say…

The Monsaraz hotel is just a few minutes from downtown and steps away from the harbor. We booked a hotel room with a balcony and views of the harbor. 

Eppig Brewing’s waterfront beergarden

After we settled into our hotel, we decided to explore the neighborhood. Jason and I walked along the harbor and found ourselves at Eppig Brewing’s taproom. The view from their taproom, combined with their fresh and clean lagers made for the perfect San Diego vacation kickoff.

We had dinner reservations at Bali Hai, one of three popular San Diego tiki bars. I highly suggest making reservations a few weekends before your trip.

Interior of Bali Hai restaurant in San Diego

The view from Bali Hai’s upper deck gave us the perfect view of downtown San Diego. The sun was setting as we sipped our rum cocktails and ate our Polynesian appetizers. I was starting to already tell it would be hard to leave this city! 

Bali Hai’s appetizer sampler
Navy Grog and a Bali Tai

After dinner, we walked along the harbor some more and stopped for donuts before heading back to our hotel. We needed to get to bed early because we had a huge day in the morning.

Day 2: San Diego Zoo and Little Italy

Jason and I woke up early, like 6 AM thanks to our bodies being used to Central Time, and we definitely used that in our favor. Not just this morning, but for the rest of the trip, we were up and ready bright and early, out the door before nine.

The drive from our hotel to Balboa Park was short. During this trip, we made sure to take the scenic routes, and even in doing so, we were surprised to find how drive-able this city is. (Unlike nearby Los Angeles…)

We arrived at the San Diego Zoo before it opened and since we bought our tickets online we headed straight in to wait for the official opening. Every morning at 9am the Zoo releases a flock of Macaws to officially open the zoo. It is a beautiful thing, and don’t be shocked if it brings a tear or two to your eye.

The San Diego Zoo is 100% a must visit on any San Diego vacation. The work that this zoo does is legendary and you’ll find many, many animals here that you can’t see anywhere else in the United States.

As awesome as it was, we didn’t want to spend the whole day at the Zoo. Though we definitely could have… But even by prioritizing what we saw and did, we spent about 2-3 hours there.

Tasting flights at Ballast Point’s taproom in Little Italy

After working up an appetite walking around the Zoo, we drove downtown to explore Little Italy. We parked at Ballast Point and decided to start there, then work our way down. AND hopefully get into another tiki bar, False Idol, when they open.

When it comes to food and drink in Little Italy, you better be craving Italian! There are so many Italian restaurants along India Street, and all of them have great reviews.

We stopped at one of the cozy spots to enjoy some appetizers and pizza. Don’t skip over the Italian bakeries either!

In this neighborhood, you’ll also find craft breweries such Bolt Brewery, Mikkeller Taproom, and Stone Brewing. While we didn’t, it’d be a great neighborhood to brewery crawl through!

Since we didn’t have reservations at False Idol, we showed up 15 minutes before hoping to get a table as a walk-in. There was already a line with several people in front of us which made me anxious.

But it all worked out!

We were the last table to be seated, they had standing room for those after us. We had a wonderful time watching the bartender work his magic as we sipped on some of the best tiki drinks I’ve ever enjoyed.

There is no food here so plan around that! Above False Idol is Craft and Commerce, a hip and cool restaurant that we had lined up as Plan B.

After False Idol, we decided to stroll around the marina and harbor downtown as we walked several blocks back to our car. This is the area where they keep all the fun boats and ship museums.

Once we got to our car, we headed back to our hotel for a late-night dinner. This evening, we decided to eat at our hotel’s restaurant, Westerly Public House.

Monsaraz Hotel in San Diego features on-site restaurant, Westerly.

We split a big, old juicy burger, and a heaping mountain of homemade onion rings. After dinner, we grabbed one more drink to take back to the room and enjoy on our balcony.

Have I mentioned how much I love staying at hotels with restaurants and bars? 

Day 3: La Jolla and Miramar Brewery Hopping

Shell Beach in La Jolla, San Diego

Day 3 was sadly our last full day in San Diego. Jason and I planned for this one to be where we covered the most ground. It was our coasts, caves, and cliffs day! We even made it up to Miramar to visit some of the many breweries that call that area home.

We started off the morning with breakfast at the nearby Humphreys Half Moon Inn. While it wasn’t the most delicious breakfast, I did love getting the day started with a magnificent view of the harbor and all of its docked boats.

The view from breakfast at Humphrey’s Inn in San Diego

After breakfast, it was time to head north to La Jolla. Since this was our exploration day, we decided to start the furthest north and work our way back down south. Hopefully in time to get a table at Grass Skirt when they open at 5…

The scenic drive to La Jolla was hilly and curvy, but it took you through all of the prettiest neighborhoods. Our main objective for La Jolla was to visit the La Jolla Cove and see some sea lions and seals.

To see the La Jolla Cove, you’ll want to first visit Sunny Jim’s See Cave store. You’ll buy a ticket there for $10 which will give you 15 minutes of access (which is plenty enough time!). 

Sunny Jim’s See Cave
The path to La Jolla Cove in San Diego

You’ll take 145 steep stairs down to a dock that gives you a perfect view of the cove. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot some sea lions there!

After checking out the cove, we walked along the ocean and Cuvier Park to take in the artist’s market and more beaches and rocky coastlines. 

Beautiful trees in La Jolla’s Cuvier Park

La Jolla in general is very ritzy. I had the impression that it was one of the nicer neighborhoods in San Diego. Though San Diego is a touristy city, you will still feel like you’re hanging amongst the locals in certain spots such as this.

After La Jolla it was time to head east and up the mountains to Miramar. And let me tell you, the temperature rises fast the second you leave the coast! Not just the temperature changes, but it is a whole different scenery 20-30 minutes from the heart of San Diego.

Pure Project Brewing Company

Once you’re in Miramar, you’ll find yourself in an industrial area that has 20-some craft breweries. We didn’t have time for all of them, of course, but here are the ones we hit up (and I suggest you do too).

  • Alesmith Brewing Company
  • Pure Project
  • White Labs Brewing Co.

(Coming Soon) TIP: Check out my blog post here for more information about San Diego breweries. 

After, we traveled back down to the coast, this time to Pacific Beach. We walked around the neighborhood and had drinks at Pueblo. Which was conveniently right across from the third and final tiki bar I wanted to visit: The Grass Skirt.

Once again, we did not have reservations, so we showed up 15 minutes before they opened. We were first in line and got seated right at the bar!

Note: don’t be confused by the doors here! Out of the three, only one will take you inside. ;) 

Pain Killer cocktail from San Diego’s The Grass Skirt tiki bar.
Mai Tai

After a few drinks at The Grass Skirt, we realized that we would be able to catch the sun setting from Pacific Beach. So we swung into the nearest 7-11, to grab some mini bottles of rum, an overpriced “California” flag towel, and two pina colada slushies.

Pacific Beach in San Diego

We found the perfect spot and watched as the sun set on our last full day in San Diego, California.

I can’t believe how this day went. We didn’t plan to end with a sunset on the beach or to get into Grass Skirt, but we were able to do both. 

San Diego Sunset at Pacific Beach

Looking back, Jason and I agreed that getting to view the sunset was one of the best parts of this San Diego trip. (That, and the zoo of course!)

Day 4: Balboa Park and Ocean Beach

So the final day had arrived. We were kind of very bummed about having to leave, but also satisfied that we had done so much. Still, there were a few things we still wanted to check off our list of “top things to do in San Diego”.

Balboa Park’s Botanical Building is currently under renovations.

We started off our morning bright and early at Balboa Park. Most museums and attractions here open at 10am but there is still a lot to do and see by arriving early. 

The park itself is 1,200 acres and is one of the United State’s oldest parks dedicated to public recreational use. To learn more about this park and its layout, visit the park’s homepage here.

This park is massive, it just goes on and on. We even stumbled into a railroad train museum and a Plumeria flower competition. 

We came to the park for the Japanese Friendship Garden but also wanted to view the Botanical Building and other areas of the park.

Once 10am hit, we went to the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Japanese Friendship Garden

Opened in 1991, the garden serves as a beautiful expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama. We spent an hour here wandering through the lush gardens.

Japanese Friendship Garden

We left Balboa Park at about 11, and we still had another four hours until our slightly-delayed flight took off. And in my book, with a rental car in San Diego, that was plenty of time.

Our next stop was to Ocean Beach to have lunch at Pizza Port Brewing. This San Diego brewery is very highly recommended. 

They offer a wide selection of unique pies, along with single slices, and a long, long list of house-brewed beers. Everything we tried from them was amazing, and I don’t say that lightly!

After loading up on some brews and ‘za, Jason and I were wanting to get one final look at the Pacific Ocean. Since we were nearby, we of course had to stroll down the long Ocean Beach Pier

The view from the Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego.

The sites and people you see at San Diego beaches are quite… unique. Everybody seems happy and friendly though. It must be that amazing weather and delicious craft beer right?

Our last stop before the airport was another big one for us as craft beer lovers. If you thought we were about to leave San Diego without a stop at Modern Times, I’m happy to report we made it in time. 

Modern Times is a brewery known across the world for its incredible beers, especially their fresh and tasty IPAs. Their taproom is large, with tanks that go all the way to the ceiling, and colorful. The artwork and decor will keep you entertained as you sip on one their many beer offerings.

Finally, it was time to drop off our rental car at the airport and board our plane back to Austin. Looking back on this trip, I was impressed by how much we got to do and how much the city had to offer. I cannot wait to come back!

Things To Do in San Diego: Final Thoughts

If you made it this far, congrats! And thank you so much! I always put together these guides as a way to share my experiences, the good and the bad, with you all. All in hopes that this San Diego travel guide will help you plan the perfect vacation! 

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email or message on Instagram. And if you’re looking for more helping planning your next great trip, check out these other Big World, Small Girl guides:

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