Within a two-mile radius of the San Diego International Airport and the Cruise Ship Terminal, dozens of exciting sights and attractions can be found, including museums, historic sites, great shopping, and vibrant neighborhoods.
Just minutes from the airport, San Diego's Embarcadero, the long Bayfront stretch where the cruise ships dock, is a great place for sightseeing. If you only have one day to explore San Diego, this is a great place to start.
USS Midway Museum: Explore galleys, sleeping quarters, and the engine room of this aircraft carrier, as well as 25 restored aircraft and optional flight simulators, during a self-guided audio tour. Docents include many retired sailors who served on the USS Midway.
- Maritime Museum of San Diego: Historic ships include the Star of India, the world's oldest active sailing ship, and a replica of the HMS Surprise, made famous in the film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."
- Seaport Village: Stroll through the quaint Victorian-style collection of shops and restaurants or enjoy a ride on the historic Looff Carousel (circa 1890).
- Embarcadero Marina Park: Located adjacent to Seaport Village, this Bayfront area is ideal for picnicking and watching the sailboats drift by in the Bay.
- Dine at a superb seafood restaurant:
The trackless Old Town Trolley Tours of San Diego, Inc. offers one of the most entertaining ways to explore San Diego. Riders can easily hop aboard at a stop right in front of the Cruise Ship Terminal on the Embarcadero. Tour at your own pace—as you can get off and reboard the trolley as many times as you wish while making one complete loop of the city. If you choose not to disembark, the tour lasts approximately two hours.
Along the way, you’ll see:
- Seaport Village, a quaint Victorian-style collection of shops and restaurants with a historic Looff Carousel (circa 1890).
The Gaslamp Quarter, a 16 1/2-block downtown historic district with shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, theatres and museums
- Westfield Horton Plaza, an outdoor European-style, multi-level shopping and entertainment center known for its award-winning architecture
- Coronado Island, home of the famous Hotel del Coronado
- Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in North America, home of 15 museums and the Tony® Award-winning Old Globe Theatre and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, the first European settlement on the U.S. West Coast
Old Town Trolley Tours of San Diego operates a similar city excursion, SEAL Tours, which explores both land and sea on an amphibious vehicle tour of the city plus the scenic waters of San Diego Bay. The 90-minute tour departs daily from the Harbor House Restaurant in Seaport Village.
It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring downtown's historic Gaslamp Quarter, where classic Victorian buildings are home to 100 retail shops, 100 restaurants and 35 bars and nightclubs. Discover the colorful history of downtown San Diego, from the founding of Alonzo Horton's New Town to the Wild West days of Wyatt Earp, with these fine tours:
- Where You Want to Be Tours offers behind the scenes walking tours of the Gaslamp Quarter beginning at Buster's Beach House in Seaport Village; reservations are required.
- The William Heath Davis Historic House Museum, the Gaslamp Quarter's oldest surviving structure and home of the Gaslamp Historical Foundation, offers self-guided tours of the museum. On Saturdays at 11:00 AM, the Foundation offers an entertaining guided two-hour tour of the Gaslamp district.
Board the San Diego Coronado Ferry (adjacent to the cruise ship terminal) every hour on the hour from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM (9:00 AM to 10:00 PM, Friday and Saturday) and cross San Diego Bay to spend the day in Coronado. Orange Avenue, the city's charming main thoroughfare, was awarded the Great American Main Street Award in 2000, and the village's charming "downtown" is home to quaint shops, gourmet eateries and the award-winning Lamb's Players Theatre.
Fun sights and activities on the island include:
Coronado Ferry Landing: Enjoy a collection of specialty shops, galleries and restaurants on San Diego Bay; bike rentals are available too.
- Hotel del Coronado: A National Historic Landmark built in 1888, this legendary oceanfront hotel was the backdrop for the 1959 film "Some Like it Hot," starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
- Coronado Beach: These golden sands have been ranked by the Travel Channel as the nation's #1 beach for families and #2 of "America's Top 10 Beaches."
- Glorietta Bay Inn: This historic estate is the former mansion of "Sugar Baron" John D. Spreckels and offers walking tours. Stroll past "The Del," the Duchess of Windsor cottage and the home where Frank L. Baum created the Wizard of Oz, and hear tales and tidbits of more than 100 years of Coronado history. Reservations are required: 619-435-5993.
- Museum of History and Art/Coronado Historical Association: Offering complimentary maps, guides, tour information, discount tickets, brochures and directions, this visitor center is in a landmark Historical Association building. Inside the Visitor Center you will find the Coronado Museum of History and Art where you can take an interactive look at Coronado's colorful past and more.
Step back in time and experience the rich Spanish and Mexican heritage of San Diego, the birthplace of California, by visiting the following significant historic sites:
Cabrillo National Monument: Situated on the Point Loma peninsula at the entrance to San Diego Bay, this site commemorates the first European exploration of the U.S. West Coast by Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who discovered San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. Cabrillo National Monument is the third most visited national monument in the U.S. and includes the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park: Located just north of downtown San Diego, this area marks the first European settlement on the West Coast. Be sure to visit Old Town Square, Casa de Estudillo, Plaza del Pasado and the Whaley House Museum SOHO, one of only two officially-designated haunted houses in California. Old Town is easily accessible from downtown by the San Diego Trolley's Green Line, just hop aboard the trolley at the Santa Fe Depot and get off at Old Town station.
- Presidio Park: On a hill overlooking Old Town, this site was the first Spanish presidio—a fortress structure that included the original Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. Founded in 1769, Mission San Diego de Alcala was the first in a chain of 21 missions built in California. Presidio Hill, known as the “Plymouth Rock of the West,” is the home of the Junipero Serra Museum, which contains thousands of artifacts unearthed from this historic site.
- Mission San Diego de Alcala: The original mission was relocated to Mission Valley in 1774. In addition to visiting the mission’s original chapel, California’s first church, save some time to stroll through the gardens of this national historic landmark. There is a convenient Mission San Diego station on the San Diego Trolley's Green Line.
- Balboa Park: Located close to downtown—ten minutes by taxi from the airport or Cruise Ship Terminal—this urban park is the cultural heart of San Diego. It’s easy to spend an entire day discovering Balboa Park's many cultural delights. Encompassing 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is a magnificent cultural complex, often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West". The Park is home to 85 cultural institutions, including 15 museums (ranging from anthropology to science, as well as classic and contemporary art), performing arts venues (such as the Tony Award®-winning Old Globe Theatre), art galleries, lush botanical gardens and the San Diego Zoo. Between museum visits, stroll along the Prado walkway surrounded by the grand Spanish Colonial-revival style structures originally built for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition.
- San Diego Zoo: Take a walk on the wild side at our world-famous zoo, a 100-acre tropical oasis located in the middle of Balboa Park. Home to more than 3,500 animals of 650 rare and exotic species, the Zoo is world-renowned for its bio-climatic exhibits and rare animals. The Zoo is one of the few facilities in the United States that houses the popular giant pandas, a critically endangered species. For first-time visitors, starting off with a guided bus tour provides a great overview of the Zoo.
- SeaWorld San Diego was the first SeaWorld park in the nation. The Park features six major animal shows, dozens of fascinating interactive exhibits containing marine life from around the globe and thrill rides like Journey to Atlantis and the Manta roller coaster.
"Shop-portunities" abound in San Diego. Following are some of the most popular and conveniently located shopping spots for ship passengers or short-term travelers to San Diego:
Located within a 10 minute walk of the Cruise Ship Terminal, Horton Plaza is a colorful outdoor shopping experience covering seven city blocks in downtown. Known for its M.C. Escher-like architecture, Horton Plaza features more than 140 stores.
- San Diego's downtown neighborhoods offer unique shopping experiences. The exciting Gaslamp Quarter has 100 unique retail shops to explore. Little Italy, a lively old-fashioned neighborhood located northeast of the Embarcadero, is filled with art galleries, home décor shops, patio cafes, pubs, traditional Italian restaurants and ”Top Chef” eateries; Little Italy's main thoroughfares are India Street and Kettner Blvd.
- San Diego's eclectic uptown neighborhood, Hillcrest, is located just a short taxi ride away from downtown, the airport and the Cruise Ship Terminal. Its main thoroughfares, University and Fifth Avenues, are lined with dozens of novelty stores, thrift shops, bookstores and the like, as well as cafes and restaurants serving everything from California to Thai cuisine.
- Nearby Balboa Park has a multitude of museum shops filled with one-of-a-kind gifts.
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is home to dozens of little shops selling imported Mexican items; souvenir hunters love the variety of curios. Fiesta de Reyes, located on Old Town Square, is a festive international marketplace filled with colorful arts and craft shops. Old Town Marketplace, located at the entrance to the State Park, features merchant carts and artisans.
- San Diego's finest collection of stores, Fashion Valley, includes five department stores (Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, and JC Penney) and more than 40 stores exclusive to the area, including Tiffany & Co., M.A.C., Louis Vuitton, A/X Armani Exchange, Jimmy Choo and more. Fashion Valley is easily accessible by the San Diego Trolley's Green Line; riders board at the Santa Fe Depot and get off at the Fashion Valley Transit Center.
- Antique buffs will find all sorts of treasures from yesteryear in the Ocean Beach Antique District, located northwest of downtown in the beach community of Ocean Beach. Its main thoroughfare is Newport Avenue.
San Diego is well known for its close proximity to Tijuana, Mexico, one of the world's most visited cities. Located 17 miles from downtown San Diego, Tijuana is a perfect day trip for anyone looking for an affordable international adventure. The border city bustles with activity day and night, offering duty-free shopping, authentic Mexican cuisine, dog racing, arts and culture, nightlife and more. The rich and colorful culture of Tijuana can be discovered along Avenida Revolucion, the city's lively main thoroughfare, where shopping opportunities abound in festive outdoor bazaars and plazas.
The easiest way to visit Tijuana is via the San Diego Trolley's Blue Line, which runs from downtown San Diego to the U.S./Mexico border. The total ride time one-way is approximately 40 minutes.
Have more than one day to play in San Diego? Check out these 2-day and 3-day San Diego itineraries.