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 daylong 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 a.m. so you’ll have plenty of time to explore. The park is home to more than 4,000 animals on some 100 lushly planted acres, so 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 Kangaroo 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 Skyfari aerial tram. Wandering the park, you’ll discover the Polar Bear Plunge and the hippos at the Urban Jungle (both enclosures offer underwater vantage points); the Monkey Trails exhibit, home to many endangered species; the Elephant Odyssey, where you can see these magnificent animals while exploring prehistoric fossil evidence and extinction causes; and Koalafornia, featuring the largest collection of cuddly eucalyptus-eaters outside of Australia. For families, the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is an amazing 3.2-acre adventure zone that combines inventive play areas with up-close wildlife encounters and even a splash zone. 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 18 museums as well as performing arts venues, beautiful gardens, restaurants, organ 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 at 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 one of the most popular beach destinations in California. Spend the afternoon learning to surf, or kayaking, snorkeling, riding a stand-up paddleboard or just playing in the waves. If you're more interested in sightseeing, view the seal colony from above La Jolla Cove or the Children's Pool, spend a few hours at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography or take an ocean-view hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. 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, and — if you're in town for baseball season — even catch a San Diego Padres game at beautiful Petco Park, deemed the Best Ballpark in America by USA Today.
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.
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!