San Diego Itinerary: 3 Days of Nature and Culture

San Diego surfer standing at the beach, preparing for a surfSan Diego is known for the perfect blend of stunning landscapes, cultural hotspots, architecture, and surf culture, making it a fun destination to explore for all ages.

It’s filled with European and Mexican influences combined with a quintessential Southern California beach ambience. Throughout my short visit to San Diego, I experienced moments that transported me back to Europe. 

If you're looking for a weekend of west coast adventure, here are the top things to see and do in San Diego in 3 days to make the most of your visit.

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Table of Contents

A row of surfboards by a boardwalk cafe used as decorations

Day 1: Balboa Park, Little Italy, and Sunset Cliffs

Balboa Park

Ease into San Diego on your first day with a relaxing visit to Balboa Park to explore at your own pace. It is one of the largest urban cultural parks in the United States with many choices for activity. 

The entrance to Balboa Park is free with the option of booking select paid experiences through their website.

We spent the first day strolling through its lush gardens and visited the Spanish Village Art Center, which is filled with charming, small business shops that brought back memories of Europe. 

Balboa Park was one of the most unique public parks I’ve visited with loads of cultural influences from other destinations.

Spanish Village in Balboa Park (left and middle), Cactus (right)

Little Italy

A short drive from Balboa Park is Little Italy (approximately 8 min drive). It’s a charming neighborhood with a distinct Italian feel. 

Little Italy is filled with cozy cafes and family-owned restaurants serving authentic Italian dishes. You’ll also find art galleries and festivals that add to the neighborhood’s distinctiveness. 

Sunset Cliffs

Anyone who tells you that California’s sunsets are great isn’t painting the full picture. It’s magical and rich, and the horizon is expansive, almost as if you’re standing at the edge of the world. 

Sunset Cliffs is a long stretch of cliffs right alongside Sunset Cliffs Boulevard road for approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. 

Orange sunset at the Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California

We enjoyed a sunset walk along the cliff top. It was one of the most breathtaking sunsets that will forever be ingrained in my memory, and the experience reminded me of the Algarve Cliffs in Southern Portugal!

The horizon is picture perfect, stretching almost a full 180 degrees.  

Two examples of Sunset Cliff photography as wall art for home decor

Day 2: Dolphin & Whale Tour, Coronado Island, and La Jolla Cove

Dolphin & Whale Tour

The following morning, we went on this Dolphin & Whale Watching tour that lasted 1.5 hours. 

Dolphins are visible year-round in San Diego, but the types of whales you’ll see, and whether you’ll see any at all depends on the time of year. There’s never a guarantee as luck plays a role in your experience.

The best time to see whales in San Diego is generally during their annual migration seasons when these marine mammals are more active and visible. 

Two dolphins swimming under the surface

Here are the breakdowns for the best months to see different whales and dolphins in San Diego:

Gray Whales:

  • Best Time: December through April
  • Winter and early spring are prime times to witness Gray while on their southbound journey.

Blue Whales:

  • Best Time: Mid-June through September
  • Summer months, July and August are ideal for spotting blue whales as San Diego is known for having one of the highest concentrations of blue whales during this time.

Humpback Whales:

  • Best Time: May through November
  • Humpback whales can be seen off the coast of San Diego during their migrations, commonly spotted in late spring, summer, and early fall.


  • Present year-round
  • While dolphins are present year-round, the best weather for boat tours is from late spring through early fall.

Coronado Island

Coronado Island has a pedestrian-friendly village atmosphere with tree-lined streets, upscale boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. 

And it is one of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in Southern California. 

a row of neatly lined surfboards on front of a palm tree at Coronado Beach

We took the afternoon stroll along the boardwalk by the iconic Hotel del Coronado and enjoyed lunch at one of the island's seafood restaurants (Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill).

For a luxury experience, Coronado Island offers:

  • Fine dining
  • High-end boutiques
  • Theater performances
  • Scenic golf courses
  • Yachting

If you’re traveling on a budget, an afternoon on the beach and exploring the cafes and boutique shops is still well worth the experience.

Charming streets of Coronado Island in San Diego

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove is a must-visit! It’s a picturesque beach known for its crystal-clear waters and seals. 

We ended the day with breathtaking sunset views along the coastline with palm tree silhouettes, the epitome of the Southern California streets.

Based on our experience, it can get crowded around sunset so parking can take a while. 

The crowd adds to the energy of the place, but if that’s not your vibe, I suggest visiting a quieter beach for sunset. 

Purple sunset at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California

Day 3: Torrey Pines State Park, Old Town San Diego, and Gaslamp Quarter

Torrey Pines State Park

My family is big on hikes, so there was no better way to enjoy San Diego’s nature than a morning hike at Torrey Pines State Park. 

Perched atop the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Torrey Pines State Park offers rugged terrains, native flora, and breathtaking ocean views.

And along the beach, you can watch the local surfers at the Torrey Pines State Beach below.

The difficulty level is moderate and takes an average of 1 to 1.5 hours to complete. But feel free to take your time! We took a bit longer as we paused for breaks and photos.

Cliff View at Torrey Pines State park

Old Town San Diego

After your hike–and a lunch break, enjoy an afternoon visit to Old Town San Diego!

For history and culture lovers, Old Town San Diego will feel like a historical treasure.

As the birthplace of California, this historic neighborhood features well-preserved adobe buildings, cobblestone streets, and charming courtyards. 

You can also explore Old Town San Diego State Historic Park to learn about the region's Native American, Mexican, and early American history. 

Gaslamp Quarter

If you like to go out, wrapping up your last night in San Diego at the Gaslamp Quarter is a solid way to end things on a fun note.

It is filled with Victorian vibes, lively nightclubs, and rooftop bars. 

Row of California palm trees during sunset

Food/Cafe Recommendations

Mister A’s Rooftop

Price: $$$$

For those who enjoy fine dining experiences, I’d recommend Mister A’s Rooftop. It is one of the best restaurants in San Diego.

We visited during New Year's and everything from the food to the skyline views of Downtown San Diego and interior decorations were fantastic.

It is a popular, high-end restaurant, so be sure to reserve ASAP and pack a business casual outfit to comply with their dress code.

Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill

Price: $$

Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill on Coronado Island is a San Diego culinary gem with a light and coastal interior. We appreciated the wide array of seafood dishes and the view of the marina.

It is on the higher price end but we found it reasonable for the portion size and quality of the seafood.

Seafood pasta at the Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill on Coronado Island

Oscar’s Mexican Seafood

Price: $

My family loved Oscar’s Mexican Seafood so much that we went back the following day. They offer a delicious mix of traditional Mexican flavors with a coastal twist. 

Although the scene isn’t as high-end as the restaurants listed above, this spot is known for its flavorful Baja fish tacos and juicy ceviches, all made with locally sourced, high-quality ingredients. 

Plus, the tacos are loaded, hence great value for your money if you’re hungry after a day of exploring.

They have multiple locations in San Diego so you can choose the place that works best for you. 

Better Buzz Coffee Roasters

Price: $

Better Buzz Coffee Roasters is a coffee chain known for quality beans and a laid-back Southern California atmosphere. It originated as a coffee cart in San Diego's Pacific Beach and is now serving more than 20 locations in Southern California. 

Aside from coffee, the menu includes light breakfast/lunch food options: Toast, sandwiches, and healthy bowls.

We chose Better Buzz to start our morning as it was close to our Airbnb. Since it has locations throughout the city, it's also a great option for an afternoon coffee break too. 

Final Thoughts

To sum it up, I had a fantastic 3-day trip to San Diego, and would love to visit again!

It's a mix of cultural delights and natural wonders, and hopefully this itinerary will inspire your next trip. 

If you happen to love San Diego and wish to bring the coastal city back home, check out my photography prints below.

They're printed on museum-quality paper, available rolled or framed with sustainably sourced wood for lasting quality.

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Hi, I'm Annie

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I'm a travel photographer from NYC who discovered her love for photography in middle school. After I started my corporate job, I turned to photography as my escape. It was then that I decided photography wasn't just a hobby, and start Annie Ambience to inspire others to connect with the world.

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