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First Timer Trips to San Diego

Special 1-day itinerary highlights top attractions

To help you make the most of a first-time visit to San Diego, we've developed a special day-long itinerary highlighting some of the city's top attractions.

Must-See Experiences for a San Diego Newcomer

First-time visitors to San Diego have a dazzling array of choices to make. Between the natural beauty of the beaches, emerald parks, savvy shopping, dining adventures and a bustling nightlife, there's a world of possibilities. To help you make the most of a first-time visit, we've developed a special day-long itinerary highlighting some of the city's top attractions. You'll start your day at the San Diego Zoo, rightfully known as the finest zoological collection in the world. Next, it's on to Coronado Island for an afternoon of sun and sightseeing. In the evening, San Diego's vibrant downtown scene beckons.


Arrive at the San Diego Zoo when it opens at 9:00 AM, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore. With approximately 4,000 animals on more than 100 lushly-planted acres, the best way to get your bearings is with a narrated tour on a double-decker bus. Your ticket is also good for an express bus that makes stops throughout the Zoo, so you can hop on and off at various points. Another way to get a fantastic (and literal) overview of the Zoo is on the aerial tram. Wandering the park you’ll discover the Zoo's famous pandas, on loan from the People's Republic of China, and other top exhibits including the Polar Bear Plunge and Hippo Beach (both enclosures offer underwater vantage points); the Monkey Trails exhibit, home to many endangered species; and the Elephant Odyssey, where you can view current species while exploring prehistoric fossil evidence and extinction causes; and Koalafornia, featuring the largest collection of cuddly eucalyptus-eaters outside of Australia. For youngsters, the Children's Zoo with its petting corral of friendly animals is a fun interactive experience. The Zoo is open daily with extended hours during the summer.  

Adjacent to the Zoo is Balboa Park, one of San Diego's most beloved treasures. Known as the "Smithsonian of the West," Balboa Park is the largest cultural park in America and features 17 museums and performing arts venues as well as beautiful gardens, the lily pond and botanic building, concerts and a host of special events. Take a stroll down the main El Prado promenade, enjoy the gorgeous 1915 Spanish Colonial-revival style architecture, and grab a bite to eat and one of the many purveyors in the park.  


From Balboa Park, it's an easy drive to La Jolla, the "Jewel of San Diego."  With a dramatic coastline boasting incredible views and wide sweeping beaches, La Jolla is consistently voted on of the most popular beach destinations in California. Spend the afternoon in the water learning to surf, or kayaking, snorkeling, riding a stand-up paddle-board or just playing in the waves. Or if you're more interested in sightseeing, visit the seal colony at Scripps Park, spend a few hours at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography or take an oceanview hike at Torrey Pines State Park. Be sure to keep an eye out for migrating whales off the coast as they travel to and from Baja California.  La Jolla is also an excellent place to shop for souvenirs and enjoy lunch with offerings from casual to fine dining.


After an afternoon of sun and sea, explore the vibrancy of San Diego's Downtown. Depending on your interests, you can shop, stroll, dine, or dance into the night. Horton Plaza Shopping Center, a multi-story, open-air mall, is known for its eclectic architecture, people-watching opportunities and more than 100 stores and shops. Make a purchase here and you'll get three free hours of parking—ample time for shopping and exploring the surrounding Gaslamp Quarter.

Home to art galleries, boutiques, coffeehouses, neighborhood bars, swanky nightclubs and restaurants of every stripe, the Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego nightlife central and offers something for every budget. Dining ranges from family-style restaurants and upscale steakhouses to Italian trattorias, tapas bars, Asian eateries and more. Several clubs and restaurants host live music (the House of Blues has a venue here), while others feature DJs, televised sports or simply the buzz of lively conversations. 

Movie theaters include the Gaslamp Stadium 15 and the UA Horton Plaza; and if it's baseball season, you can catch a Padre game at the spectacular Petco Park.

Book a trip today and make your first visit to San Diego a memorable one! Beaches, parks, countless shopping and dining options, and a buzzing nightlife scene, what more could you ask for!

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