Best Way to See San Diego in 3 Days
Of course, the best attractions for you and your group will depend somewhat on the ages and interests of everyone in your party. If you’re looking for a truly family-friendly adventure, focusing on shared experiences may be better than spending all your time seeking out thrill rides.
Transportation and Hotels
Since the best attractions in San Diego are spread out around downtown and the north side of the city, booking a centrally-located and convenient hotel can be tricky. Look for a hotel near Interstate 5, since this is the route you’ll need for getting to most of the theme parks and major attractions. Booking a hotel in the Mission Hills area near the airport will save you time upon arrival and departure, though it may mean you need a little more time to get to the parks each day.
If you’re hoping to spend some time exploring downtown after you get back from the parks each evening, a downtown hotel can be a great idea too. Purchasing a hotel and park ticket bundle is a great way to make downtown hotel rooms more affordable.
Booking a rental car is also highly recommended. While San Diego’s public transportation isn’t bad, it’s not optimal for tourists heading between theme parks and downtown areas. It’s also not ideal in hot weather, especially if you’re lugging around small children. A rental car gives your party a chance to rest in peace and quiet instead of having to stand on a noisy bus or trolley. If you’re considering using a hotel shuttle instead, make sure to ask the hotel about exact shuttle usage policies before booking.
Best Times and Days to Visit
If your schedule has any flexibility, try to visit San Diego on weekdays in the winter, spring or fall. The busiest season is summer, when children are out of school. Weekdays are naturally busier than weekends because most adults won’t be working. Most of the theme parks in the area offer longer hours on the weekends and in the summer, but this is usually offset by longer lines and larger crowds.
Getting to the parks first thing in the morning is best. Doing this enables you to beat the crowds, and allows you to enjoy the parks before they get too hot. Arriving early is especially important for popular theme parks like SeaWorld San Diego and Legoland California, where lines for rides get long very quickly.
Attractions that contain many exhibits, like the San Diego Zoo, don’t have the same crowd and wait time problem and can be visited later in the day if the weather is nice. However, make sure to check closing times carefully, as they can vary from week to week depending on seasonal special events and more.
Day One – SeaWorld and Belmont Park
The original SeaWorldⓇ San Diego park is a fun and educational experience for the whole family. This park has a great selection of kids’ rides in addition to thrilling roller coasters. If you want to ride the roller coasters, get in line for them first thing in the morning, as they are some of the park’s most popular attractions. Journey to Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids are water rides that are great on hot days. Small children can head to the Sesame Street Bay of Play, where several gentle rides can entertain tots for hours.
After that, watch a show featuring orcas, dolphins, or sea lions at one of the park’s many theatres. Many shows are outdoors with limited shade, so reapply sunscreen or wear a hat if possible. Showtimes vary, but they are typically frequent enough that you can catch a few different shows before leaving for the day. Make sure to arrive 10-15 minutes early to get good seats. The animal exhibits typically don’t have major crowds, so if a show is too busy to get good seats, head over to a nearby exhibit instead.
Nearby Belmont Park has fewer rides, but is a great park to end your day at. The iconic wooden roller coaster overlooks the beach and offers fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean. It also has mini golf, laser tag, a rock wall, an arcade, and a number of other family-friendly attractions. It has classic amusement park food and games, which gives it a nostalgic vibe that the whole family will enjoy. Though its hours vary somewhat, at least some of its attractions stay open much later than SeaWorldⓇ San Diego, so ending your day here allows you to make the most of your time.
Day Two – San Diego Zoo and Trolley Tour
The San Diego Zoo has over 600 animal species, making it an amazing experience that’s hard to fit into just one day. It has been open for over 100 years, and has become a stellar example of what zoos can and should be. Its 3,500 animals have come from all over the world, and have been a successful part of many conservation and repopulation efforts.
It’s difficult to see the entire park in one day, but you can certainly see the highlights. One of the newest exhibits is Africa Rocks, which focuses on the vast array of species that can be found across Africa. Monkey Trails is a must-see area, thanks to its endearing crowd of monkeys and other critters. Giraffes, kangaroos, rhinos, and more live at the Urban Jungle. The cougar, tiger, and koala exhibits are popular every year, even when their inhabitants are sleeping or lazily eating bamboo.
In the afternoon, get out of the sun by getting on a Trolley Tour. This flexible tour allows you to purchase tickets in advance, then hop on and hop off the trolley at whatever stops you like. Since there’s a stop right near the Zoo, it’s a convenient way to continue your afternoon adventure. Keep in mind that the full trolley route takes about two hours, and if you hop off the trolley, there is typically a 30-minute wait until the next one comes by. The trolley runs until 5:00 p.m. in the winter and 6:00 p.m. in the summer.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a separate adventure that can be quite hot in the afternoon, since it’s much more open. It’s the best way to see rhinos and other animals that require more space to move around, though. If the weather is nice, you can definitely do this instead of the Trolley Tour.
Day Three – LEGOLANDⓇ California
LEGOLANDⓇ California is up in Carlsbad, California, which can take an hour to drive to when there’s heavy traffic. It’s well worth it for families, though! The park’s attractions are all kid-friendly and have minimum height requirements that are great for grade-school children.
Start your day with Coastersaurus, a junior roller coaster that often has long wait times later in the day. Depending on your kids’ ages, you may want to check out Fun Town, where the rides let kids drive cars, see how LEGOs are made, and go on simulated adventures around the world. Older kids may be more interested in the Castle Hill area, which has two roller coasters and a medieval jousting ride. Serious LEGO enthusiasts can spend hours in Miniland USA exploring the amazing scale models made out of LEGOs.
Since LEGOLANDⓇ California is far from other destinations, it’s hard to fit in a second attraction in the evening. The park has a heavy emphasis on allowing families to play together, though, so you can easily spend an entire day enjoying the park. If your party still has plenty of energy, you could go to Belmont Park again, since many of its attractions are open late even in the fall and winter.
Two Days at SeaWorld?
SeaWorldⓇ San Diego has relatively short hours in the winter, spring, and fall. On some weekdays, it opens at 10:30 a.m. and closes as 5:00 p.m. Other days it stays open until 6:00 p.m. or later, but this is highly variable depending on the season. The lines for thrill rides can take a surprisingly long time, especially later in the afternoon. Even if you’re not riding many thrill rides, remember that children won’t want to be rushed through their favorite animal exhibits.
Depending on how much you want to do at SeaWorldⓇ San Diego, it may be best to spend two days there. Since LEGOLANDⓇ California is primarily aimed at children and serious LEGO fans, you could spend two days at SeaWorldⓇ San Diego and then visit the San Diego Zoo on Day Three.
Where to Eat
San Diego has excellent food all over the city, so families and groups with dietary restrictions can still find healthy meal options. Eating at the theme parks is the easiest option, and can be surprisingly inexpensive. SeaWorldⓇ San Diego offers a great selection of healthy meals. LEGOLANDⓇ California and the San Diego Zoo also offer good lunch options, and since LEGOLANDⓇ California is far from downtown, it may be wise to eat an early dinner there before heading back to your hotel or to your evening adventures.
Of course, the downtown area also has many dining options. On a warm evening, it might be worth it to just walk around your hotel and pick whatever restaurant looks good. The area around the San Diego Zoo and Japanese Friendship Garden has some excellent options, as well. The choices are endless – if only you had more time to spend enjoying them!
Remember that a sit-down meal is the best option for giving kids a break. Food trucks and other fast food options are convenient, but if your party is tired out, a chance to sit down is almost as important as the chance to eat.
Dealing with Weather and Other Problems
San Diego is often sunny and warm, but it does occasionally get bad weather. SeaWorldⓇ San Diego and the San Diego Zoo have a limited number of indoor attractions to take advantage of, and LEGOLANDⓇ California is similarly designed for sunny days.
If rainy weather is expected to last all day, it may be worth it to head to a museum instead. The San Diego Natural History Museum is an educational and fun adventure, especially for grade schoolers. The Maritime Museum is a fascinating experience for tourists who live far from the ocean or who simply want to learn more about the United States’ maritime history and innovations. For families with small children, The New Children’s Museum provides a great chance to bond and play with your little ones.
The “best way” to see San Diego can vary slightly depending on your group. For example, if your group is comprised of older teens and adults, LEGOLANDⓇ California may not be the best option for your main event on Day Three. You could instead spend more time at the San Diego Zoo, Belmont Park, or another area attraction.
The San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Living Coast Discovery Center provides another excellent educational opportunity for families. Like SeaWorldⓇ San Diego, the Center has a range of native species like stingrays and sea turtles for visitors to learn about. This is an excellent attraction in warm weather, since many of the wildlife and educational exhibits are outdoors.
Though the Japanese Friendship Garden may not be of much interest to children, older teens and adults may thoroughly enjoy it. This garden features koi ponds, bonsai trees, and a teahouse, making it a unique and authentic attraction. It also has art exhibitions that change periodically, so it’s a great way to put some cultural activities into your vacation. It’s right next to the San Diego Zoo, so it’s best visited on Day Two of the above itinerary.
Go San Diego Card
Since San Diego is home to so many great attractions, it’s only natural that there’s a multi-day, multi-attraction pass available to give you a great discount! The Go San Diego Card gives you access to LEGOLANDⓇ California, SeaWorldⓇ San Diego, San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and more. If you’re planning on visiting three or four of these attractions, the card is worth the money.
Some of the attractions included, like Knott’s Berry Farm, are far outside San Diego and probably won’t fit into a three-day trip. It also doesn’t include the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge, Japanese Friendship Garden, and some other attractions mentioned above.
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