The first thing we need to get straight is that when visiting San Diego, you’re going to need a car. It’s a spread out city full of distinct neighborhoods waiting to be explored but it’s seriously lacking in public transportation.
Get an early start and head to the beach before it gets too hot. If you get down there early enough you can leave your car at Belmont Park before spots become scarce. Come with your own wheels or rent some in Mission Beach to bike, skate or blade along the boardwalk. Head north for a mile and a half and stop for breakfast at Woody’s. Cool off with an açai bowl or opt for the Hangover Sando if you’re looking for something heartier. The banana pancakes are also delish.
Keep heading north for about another half mile to the Crystal Pier. Get your camera out because this is a nice spot for that ocean shot. Or, if you want to get a little artsy, take your photo beneath the pier. Many a graduation photo shoot has taken place under there, so you know it’s vetted for maximum Instagram success.
Head south and go back to your car. It’s time to move inland.
Balboa Park is San Diego’s big, urban green space and is home to museums, theaters, gardens and the San Diego Zoo. With just 24 hours here, you’re going to have to skip the zoo. Instead take a stroll through the colorful Spanish Village Art Center where more than 200 artists make their crafts. You can get a good overview in 30 minutes (unless you’re really into this sort of thing, then by all means browse away). Next walk down the main strip of the park between the Reuben H. Fleet Center and Plaza de Panama and enjoy the buskers. Maybe Steam Powered Giraffe will be grinding their gears or perhaps Anointed will be there with his acrobatic dance moves. Whoever’s around, you’re sure to get a good show. Take a peek at the plants in the Botanical Building and then it’s time to grab lunch.
Just a mile away from the park is Little Italy. You can’t really go wrong here for lunch. Just wander down India street and go in wherever the pizza smells the most delicious. En route to your lunch spot you’ll notice a big arch bearing the neighborhood’s name. Most of San Diego’s neighborhoods have one of these light up signs. When you see one, you know you’re in the area’s main hub and probably near something tasty to eat or drink.
Speaking of drinking. It’s time to hit a brewery. Head over to North Park (which yes, is just north of Balboa Park). You can go to Fall Brewing Company or Mike Hess Brewing if you want the warehouse-esque, vats of beer feel. Poor House (cash only, but they do have shuffle board!) is another good one with a smaller, more intimate vibe. If you aren’t tied to seeing where the beer is made, there are some great tasting rooms in the neighborhood too like Belching Beaver (where your inner-child can play board games). One thing you should be aware of is that San Diegans love dogs and tons of bars welcome their patron’s fur babies. If you’re allergic or just not a dog person, you might want to call ahead and ask if the bar you’re going to is dog-friendly.
Walk off the beer and explore the neighborhood’s street art. Whether it’s an electrical box improved by Christopher Konecki or an alley mural of Persue’s iconic BunnyKitty, the area is alive with ordinary public spaces turned into something beautiful. The 50-foot tall pink dinosaur by Madsteez (on the corner of University and Ray) makes for another great photo-op.
A trip to San Diego isn’t complete without Mexican food. Every local will give you a different answer as to which taco shop is the best in the city, so there’s no clear winner. Sarita’s is beloved pretty widely but it’s not immediately in the city. Try striking up a conversation with a local in North Park and ask where their favorite taco shop is. It’s more adventurous that way. Vegetarians and vegans may want to try Pokéz in Downtown. Wherever you decide on, grab your food to-go and get back in the car.
I know, I know. We’re doing a lot of driving here but there’s a lot to see. And I promise this will be worth it. Take your dinner to Sunset Cliffs, park on the side of the road, snag a bench, and enjoy the views. The sky changes colors, the ocean swallows the sun, you have a burrito in your belly, and life is good.
10 Tips for 24 Hours in San Diego
1. Make sure you have a car to get around. If you flew in and don’t want to do a traditional car rental, you could try car2go.
2. Learn a little about the San Diego neighborhoods before you arrive. PB and La Jolla may be neighbors but they couldn’t be more different.
3. Remember that it does occasionally rain here. Check the weather before you plan your day just in case.
4. This is going to involve lots of walking. While flip-flops are standard here, you may want to wear your comfy shoes for this.
5. Accept that you won’t hit it all in one day. The county is huge! But this is a good excuse to come back again.
6. August and September can get really hot so you may want to avoid these months if you have a full day outdoors planned.
7. June gloom is also very real so steer clear of this month if you’re looking for a typical sunny San Diego day.
8. There are farmer’s markets in each neighborhood on different days of the week. See where the market is the day you’re in town and pass through if you’re nearby.
9. Trying to find the best Mexican food in the city is a lifelong journey. Don’t kill yourself by attempting to track it down in one day. No one can eat that much in 24 hours.
10. Don’t do any of these.