Last Updated on July 30, 2020 by Janet Frost
San Diego is one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. The city boasts nearly perfect weather year-round. This 12-mile long natural deep-water harbor has drawn mariners, explorers, missionaries, migrating settlers and visitors of every ilk since 1542. Beaches, deep canyons and mesas define the region. San Diego offers urban excitement, vast park lands, beaches, amusement parks, historic sites and museums. Trust me, 3 days in San Diego will only scratch the surface.
Let’s Go! Learn Things for 3 Days in San Diego…
San Diego History
Over the course of its history, San Diego Bay has been under the control of Spain, Mexico and the United States. Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, hit Mexican soil in 1520 and proceeded to rampage his way across the land. He would essentially destroy the Mayan and Aztec cultures and leave a Spanish influence covering the western Americas, including most of California.
The Spanish model of colonization was a three-pronged sweep. First, conquistadors would claim the land for Spain, conquer the indigenous peoples, and build a military installment, known as a Presidio. Then the Catholic missionaries would follow, creating missions that would basically enslave the natives in the name of conversion and salvation. Finally, the third wave would be European and Hispanic settlers to establish a pueblo This pattern held until Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821.
Mexico established a division of the region between Baja California (the southern peninsula), and Alta California (northern regions). Alta California included all of the modern US states of California, Nevada and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Many large land grants were given to prominent families under Mexico’s rule. These ranchos raised cattle and sheep. The construction, ranching and domestic work on these vast estates was primarily done by Native Americans. Under Mexican rule the ranchos grew very prosperous producing leather and tallow.
The Manifest Destiny policy of the U.S. kept profiteers, prospectors and pioneers pushing west. It was inevitable that this migration would find a passage through the mountain ranges and onto the beautiful shores of California. In 1826, American Mountain Man, Jedediah Smith, completed the first overland trip from the East. He blazed through South Pass which would become the infamous mountain pass of the Oregon Trail. By 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe ended the short Mexican War between Mexico and U.S. This treaty designated the Rio Grande as a boundary for Texas, and gave the U.S. ownership of California, New Mexico, most of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah and Colorado. California and San Diego were now part of the United States.
California was added as a state in 1850. San Diego history was further impacted by the Gold Rush of 1848, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1891, hosting of the Panama-California Expo twice, and the desperate migration of Dust Bowl refugees during the Great Depression.
This is of course a very brief overview of the history of beautiful San Diego. San Diego has proudly preserved many of their historical venues. These spots are somewhat buried by California urban sprawl. So let me help you find some of my favorite historic spots. Never fear though, I cannot live on history alone. I will also share plenty of other San Diego highlights.
Day 1 of San Diego Itinerary
I am going to dedicate one whole day to the iconic Balboa Park. In reality, you could spend all three days exploring this world-renown, 1200-acre urban park.
Early San Diego development concentrated on the mesas, leaving the deep canyons as open natural spaces. Balboa Park, sits in one of these natural settings. Local city leaders, Horton and Morse, financially backed the creation of City Park in 1868. In 1910 another prominent San Diego citizen, George Marston, changed the name to Balboa Park and started a massive construction project in preparation for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
Marston hired premier architect, Bertram Goodhue, to design and build Balboa Park. The California Tower, Cabrillo Bridge and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs) were built for the 1915 Exposition. These buildings were the highly ornamented, flamboyant architectural style of Spanish-Renaissance. The team of Marston and Goodhue worked together again for the 1938 California-Pacific Exposition at Balboa Park.
Today, Balboa Park is home to 17 state-of-the-art museums, a world renown zoo, 16 exotic gardens and 10 performing arts venues. It is an oasis of nature, history and culture for residents and visitors of San Diego.
Balboa Park is home to 17 museums, covering Science, History, Art and Culture. Fleet Science Center, Natural History Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, Museum of Man and the historic Marston Home to mention just a few. Each museum has separate admission that runs from $15-$22. If you plan to spend the day and hit several museums it would be worthwhile to check into the Balboa Park Explorer Pass.
Balboa Park also has 16 gardens the majority of which are free to the public. Don’t miss the infamous Zoro Garden, a nudist exhibit during the 1938 Expo.
San Diego Zoo
Of course, everyone has heard of the world-renown San Diego Zoo. It stretches 100 acres along the northern edge of Balboa Park. The Zoo is a separate entity and carries a hefty admission fee (almost $60 a person). Typically, I am not a fan of zoo settings. However, when this close to the world’s best zoo we had to splurge.
The visit was a hot unusually humid day for San Diego, so we decided to cover ground comfortably on their Aerial Tram. The Tram was really fun and offered amazing views of the area. It is a nice zoo with landscaping that hides a lot of the cages but honestly it is just another zoo. If you really only have 3 days in San Diego, I highly recommend the rest of Balboa Park over the Zoo.
Chill in North Park
After your busy day exploring Balboa Park it is time to chill over some great beer. In my other 3-Day Itinerary Series, I have shared “beer pairings” for each day. Well San Diego is a craft beer paradise. This is after all, home to the iconic West Coast IPA, a super-hopped up Pale Ale. San Diego county claims over 150 breweries of every size and style. This is not a 3 day brewery tour, even if it was it would never scratch the surface. But you can certainly find great beer at the end of each day.
North Park is the young professionals neighborhood just to the north of Balboa Park. Its main hub of trendy eateries, boutique retailers and craft breweries runs along 30th street. The corner of University and 30th is perfect for finding a spot to rest, people watch and grab a “cold one”. Hit the duo venues of North Park Beer Co. and across the street, Mike Hess Brewing. Neither of these host their own kitchen, but they have regular food trucks and there are plenty of dining options all around them.
Day 2 of San Diego Itinerary
Point Loma is a peninsula that wraps around the west side of San Diego Bay with rugged cliffs dropping into the Pacific Ocean. Today, Point Loma houses two major military bases, a national cemetery, and the Cabrillo National Monument. As you drive along this beautiful strip of land, the hustle of urban San Diego drops away. The panoramic views of the city skyline and bay remind you it is not far away, but for a bit, this is a quiet respite.
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
There is simply nothing as sobering as a National Cemetery. We visited this moving venue early in the morning. The fields of white headstones stood sentry over the Pacific Ocean to the west and the early morning city haze to the east.
Sunset Cliffs are the quintessential Southern California playground. These dramatic cliffs draw sunset watchers, tidal pool hunters and wave riders.
Cabrillo National Monument
The history of the San Diego area starts at the very southern tip of Point Loma. Here you find the Cabrillo National Monument and two Point Loma lighthouses.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo set out from Navidad, Mexico to explore the Pacific coast in the name of Spain. In late September, he found what is today Point Loma. He and his envoy continued up the coast as far north as the Russian River outlet in modern Sonoma County. Cabrillo died before the expedition returned to Mexico and any of the names he had bestowed upon the landmarks were never adopted. However, San Diego history still commemorates his voyage at his namesake National Monument.
Why 2 Lighthouses?
In 1851 the U.S. Coastal Survey team selected the steep, southern tip of Point Loma for the site of a Pacific lighthouse. It sat 422 feet above sea level. This lighthouse functioned for 36 years, until everyone had to admit that the ubiquitous California fog, made this a poor choice for a light. In 1891 the “new” lighthouse was built at the base of the cliffs at sea level.
Today you can visit and tour the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and you can peer down the cliffs at the New Point Loma Lighthouse. The entire peninsula tip, managed by the National Park Service, is an amazing spot to explore. The history and breath-taking vistas explain why I include this in my 3 days in San Diego itinerary.
Liberty Station and Stone Brewing World Bistro
Liberty Station is a 360-acre community in the northwest curve of San Diego Bay. It was established as a Naval Training Center in 1923. Today it includes a Naval memorial park, trendy dining, sophisticated boutiques and an interactive arts community. You will find Liberty Station on the spit of land that connects Point Loma peninsula to San Diego mainland. This is a perfect spot to end this scenic day.
I wandered around the Naval memorial, sobered by the plaques of lost submariners and their vessels. Then I explored several working artist’s studios and landed at the monolithic Stone Brewing Co.
Scattered throughout the elegant Spanish Revival buildings are numerous artists studios and galleries open for the public to wander through and engage with the creators.
Stone brewing has been a San Diego institution since 1996. The brewery is known for its West Coast IPA style. However, their tap list is always packed with great craft beer in every style. They have their primary brewing facilities in Escondido, CA and Richmond, VA. This venue at Liberty Station does brew some of their small batch creative beers.
I referred to this as “monolithic” before, because of its size, variety and decor. Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens has several massive lineups of taps and the entire structure is built with repurposed materials, historical structures, creating a memorable, unique experience.
Day 3 of San Diego Itinerary
Mission San Diego de Acala
You made it to Day 3! We have some more historical, urban and beer exploring to do today.
I briefly mentioned the Spanish Missions in the above history of San Diego. The Missions were usually the second sweep of settling the colony of New Spain. Father Junípero Serra founded Mission San Diego de Acala on July 16, 1769, in an area long inhabited by the native, Kumeyaay people. This settlement was originally located alongside the Presidio, but within 5 years moved 6 miles further inland for a better agricultural water supply.
The Presidio and the Father Junípero Serra Cultural Museum are located at Presidio Park next to Old Town San Diego Historic State Park. Honestly, my first visit to the Old Town area was hot, dusty and unimpressive. I felt that I should give it a second chance and visited again during a cooler season and it was still hot, dusty, crowded and cheesy. The Presidio Park is more of a green space and maybe worth a walk through. All in all, I would skip this highly-touted and highly-touristy area. Instead head 6 miles east and explore the actual serene Mission San Diego de Acala.
Gaslamp Quarter and Marina
Many San Diego visitors are told to stay in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. This neighborhood runs north east from the Embarcadero/Marina of downtown San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter is tightly packed urban streets with many historic buildings, eateries, clubs and Petco Baseball Park. You will pay a premium for lodging in the Quarter and parking is limited and extravagant. However, it is fun to be in the downtown bustle and strolling along San Diego Bay is a perfect end to any day.
Remember that San Diego is a craft beer haven. Many of the big name breweries have tap rooms all over the region. In addition, the tourist traffic in the Gaslamp Quarter makes it an ideal spot for small starter breweries. After a ball game at Petco Park, or watching the sunset on Harbor Dr., you can find another Stone Brewing taproom, Half Door Brewing Co, Mission Brewery and Ballast Point Brewery Little Italy.
I love much of the beer that Ballast Point Brewing produces. Unfortunately, this was the most disappointing taproom of my 3 days in San Diego. Their beer was great, but the service of beer and food was so bad that I can not recommend this location.
I really enjoyed the small brewery vibe at Half Door Brewing and Mission Brewery garners great reviews. For dining, I had a great experience, and yes it is an “Experience” at Bang Bang Japanese restaurant and nightclub. Also, a very trendy small plates evening at Lion’s Share.
San Diego is an exciting city in Southern California. Like all California cities, the traffic is outrageous, most venues are crowded and the weather is near-perfect. All of the activities I have shared in this 3 days in San Diego Itinerary could be easily accessed by public transportation or Uber.
Learn More: There are several other coastal towns that are considered part of Metro San Diego. If you have more than 3 days in the area check out posts on the upscale village of La Jolla, or the surfer town of Oceanside.