Regularly ranked as one of the sunniest cities in the United States, San Diego is all about beautiful weather, surf, and those forever-cool California beachtown vibes that make the city so iconically SoCal. While many of us would be perfectly happy posting up on one of the city’s pristine beaches to swim or surf all day long, San Diego has a lot more going for it, aside from 70 miles of stunning coastline (but trust us—that part is pretty great).
Here’s the scoop: you will have no trouble filling 24 hours. Hiking trails, ranging from easy to difficult, flank the city center and offer sweeping views of the sparkling Pacific. Museums and historic missions abound. And of course, local restaurants boast some of the best Mexican food this side of the border (Tijuana is a quick 25-minute drive from downtown). We have a feeling you’ll want to fit in as much as possible, so gear up for a big day, and plan to start early. Pro tip: while it’s not absolutely necessary, we recommend renting a car (you can do so painlessly from the airport), as San Diego is geographically pretty spread out.
Pack good walking shoes, a swimsuit, and sunscreen (because, of course, you will spend some time on the beach), and make room for some unforgettable eats and culture. Our recommendations for all of the things to do in San Diego if you only have a day to explore.
9:00 a.m.: Begin your day by heading downtown from the airport (about a 10-minute drive). Enjoy breakfast at The Mission, a Latin American and Asian fusion restaurant with a focus on simple healthy dishes. Downtown is home to many of the city’s must-see attractions, including a handful of beautiful parks, bustling shopping areas, and terrific museums. When you finish up with breakfast, head to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in the historic Jacobs Building.
11:00 a.m.: After spending some time at MCASD, you’ll probably be ready to get outside. One of the best ways to tour San Diego’s Old Town—in addition to a handful of other neighborhoods—is by way of the iconic Old Town Trolley. Over the course of a couple hours, you’ll get to make 10 stops around the city, including Seaport Village, Balboa Park (home to tons of museums and arts venues), the bustling Gaslamp Quarter (you’ll return here tonight for some bar hopping), the San Diego Zoo, and a whole lot more. The tour allows you to hop off and on as you wish, so you can spend as much time exploring as you’d like (the ticket is good for a full day). We recommend buying your tickets in advance, which you can do here.
1:00 p.m.: After you’ve had your fill of San Diego history, art, and culture, head to Puesto for lunch. Seeing as the city is located just a hop skip and a jump away from the border, the Mexican cuisine here is some of the absolute best in California. There are tons of options for taquerias, food trucks, and sit down restaurants; we recommend Puesto for lunch, opened by a first-generation Mexican American family. Here, you’ll find authentic Mexican dishes like carnitas tacos, chicken el pastor, and beef salpicón tostadas—all inspired by traditional Mexican recipes and made with fresh, local ingredients.
2:30 p.m.: We have a feeling you’re ready to hit the beach. Hop in the car and drive about 30-40 minutes north of downtown San Diego to La Jolla, a picturesque pocket of the greater San Diego area boasting seven miles of ruggedly beautiful beaches and those ultra-cool Cali vibes we mentioned earlier. Kick back at La Jolla Cove Beach for a couple of hours, where you can sunbathe and snorkel in the protected and ecologically rich waters (note that this area is best for stronger swimmers). If you’re traveling with kids, La Jolla Shores Beach is a great place for the whole family.
If you’re not in the mood for hanging out on the beach, another great option is going for a hike. Head up to Torrey Pines State Park (about 25 minutes from downtown San Diego) to explore the 1,750-acre reserve and hike along the breathtaking cliff sides overlooking the Pacific. The Razor Point Trail and Guy Fleming Trail are both lovely hikes that offer expansive views and a good workout.
5:30 p.m.: Head back to the city after soaking up lots of sun and those epic ocean views. Continue to unwind over a beer at the Ballast Point Brewery's Little Italy location. Grab a brew and enjoy the sea breeze on the patio.
6:30 p.m.: The brewery situates you in Little Italy, which is known to locals as one of the best food neighborhoods in San Diego (it’s not uncommon to find seafood and Japanese fusion restaurants here, too). Grab dinner at the sleek Monello, one of the city’s finest restaurants serving up timeless Italian dishes. If you’re in the mood for a steak, though, head to Born & Raised, a high-end, opulent steakhouse with glamorous art deco vibes.
8:30 p.m.: After dinner, bee-line it for the Gaslamp Quarter (you’ll have stopped by here during your trolley tour). This vibrant neighborhood is known for a thriving, upbeat nightlife and a particularly dynamic neighborhood culture. Enjoy a cocktail on the rooftop at Altitude Sky Lounge (the highest open-air rooftop bar) for top-notch views of the city, or catch some live music at Prohibition Lounge, an iconic, 1920’s-era speakeasy.
10:30 p.m.: By the evening’s end, you’ll likely be more than ready for a good sleep. Check into the Pendry Hotel, located in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. The epitome of luxury hospitality, at the Pendry you’ll have no trouble settling into the chic, coastal California-inspired rooms. In the morning you can sleep in and recover from your packed 24 hours by the poolside, and enjoy a fresh breakfast at the Pool House (which opens at 11 a.m.).