What to do with only half a day in San Diego, California

If you are visiting this coastal Southern California city on a road-trip, flight layover, or a day trip from LA, here are the top 3 things to do on a San Diego one day trip.

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1. Shop and Snack in North Park

We started off our day trip to San Diego here in the neighborhood of North Park where there are a lot of cute little shops. We loved ArtElexia for bright colorful murals and odds and ends from Mexico, and around the corner was another store full of pastels and cute things called Pigment.

This is also just a short drive or walk away from Holy Matcha (matcha tea + Instagram worthy café), the San Diego Mural (shockingly located next to a nondescript parking), Milk bar (the famous cereal milk ice cream and whimsical dessert shop from NYC) and the huge Balboa park with the San Diego Zoo.

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Standing arms outstretched on a dramatic seaside cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean to a golden sunset

2. Hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines is seriously the most beautiful place, and I recommend to at least come for the sunset if you haven’t got much time. This was actually the highlight of the trip to San Diego!

This is a state natural reserve, so parking at the official entrance is $25. For a more budget friendly parking option, keep driving past the entrance to the park on your left and make a U-turn at the next traffic light to find street parking on your right with a kiosk. This is a budget-friendly parking option if you do not plan to stay a long time, or staying later after the visitor’s parking closes.

You can enter the natural reserve on foot at no cost. There are a few trails on this side with dramatic cliffs above the shore, or you could walk towards the park entrance for more trails and cliffs and to be along the shore.

Spend some time hiking around the dramatic red cliffs, then head down to the shore or find a spot on the red rock and cozy up with a blanket to catch the most beautiful West Coast sunset.

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3. Visit Old Town

Now a State Historic park, Old Town is the site of the original settlement of the Kumeyaay in San Diego, California which dates back 9,000 years but is built to represent the more recent Spanish settlements of the 1800’s.

Once you enter into park you can parallel park along the street on San Diego Avenue for free, or use this map to locate additional parking; in my experience, parking was crazy for Labor Day but should be easier for you if you are not visiting on a holiday.

Head to the end of San Diego Avenue for the entrance to Old Town State Historic Park, which is meant to look like the actual historic Spanish town and contains open-air markets with reasonable prices for authentic artisanal finds from Mexico like blankets, pottery, artisanal tiles, and more. 

Peruse the park, shop in the markets, and stick around for some amazing Mexican food, then try to catch a weekly ‘folklorico’ performance before heading on to walk it off and catch the sunset at our next suggestion.

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Arms outstretched before the famous Greetings from San Diego mural

More Things To Do In San Diego

That is all we had time for on our short half-day trip from LA. If we went back, we would love to see more. If you are looking for more things to do in San Diego, consider adding one of the below to your itinerary:

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4. See the La Jolla Beaches + Cave

Free: Visit the beach of La Jolla for free! A friend of mine went to this beach to see the sea lions which is free and mentioned it was much smellier than she imagined (heads up!)

Cheap: Visit The Cave Store to see Sunny Jim Sea caves in La Jolla for just a few dollars to walk down to the stunning view of the ocean cut out in the rock over thousands of years

Location: 1325 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037
Cost: $5 adults, $3 children
Hours: Monday-Friday 10am to 5pm, Saturday-Sunday 10am to 5:30pm (Cave closes at 4pm)
Parking: Very difficult, come early and be prepared to walk

Splurge: Alternatively you can kayak in the beautiful Southern California ocean around the caves for a higher fee.

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5. Visit the San Diego Zoo & Balboa Park

You could easily spend an entire day seeing this well-known zoo and walking around the Balboa Park.

The park is free to visit, but parking is difficult and expensive. Instead, park outside of the park, and walk or rent a scooter to make your way around the botanic gardens, museums, and the San Diego Zoo.

6. Check Out a Unique Sculpture Garden

Go to see this sculpture garden, which is only open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the second Saturday of the month, free of charge.

We haven’t had the chance to be in town during one of these times, but this funky and fun sculpture garden is on our list the next time we make it to San Diego, and could be fun to visit if you are looking for something new to see!

Wrapping up this guide to One Day in San Diego

San Diego is a beautiful, sunny destination that is perfect for a day trip from LA or layover on your way to the next stop in your itinerary.

There are so many things to do with less than 24 hours in San Diego, from exploring the coast, to the famous zoo, and even historic Old Town.

You might even enjoy it so much that you want to plan a full family vacation to San Diego!

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