San Diego La Jolla Cove

United States: 4-day San Diego travel guide

To the point Our ultimate guide to San Diego, a laid-back Southern California destination perfect for a family vacation.

San Diego is an ideal destination for relaxing, but also for families. This city is full of tourist attractions to delight children, from the beach to museums and a visit to the San Diego Zoo.

The best tacos in the country can be found here, and most of your day will be spent outdoors.

What’s more, since San Diego isn’t too far from Los Angeles, it’s easy to combine the two cities and/or even go to the deserts and vineyards for a longer trip: a great week (or two) under the beautiful California sun!


San Diego: a 4-day itinerary

Day 1: Balboa Park and Old Town San Diego

Balboa Park is a great place to start your San Diego vacation.

Take a guided tour of Balboa Park and discover its architectural treasures. The city boasts some one hundred museums. There are 17 located within the park.

This area is considered the heart and jewel of San Diego . The park covers more than 2,000 hectares. So, technically, you could spend the whole day there and still not have seen the whole thing!

San Diego Balboa

The main attraction here is the famous San Diego Zoo, home to some 4,000 animals. The latter is the best known in the United States, and is one of the pioneers in the development of natural open spaces for flora and fauna.

The San Diego Zoo is a must-see, especially if you have children. Since it’s so big, you can even take a tour bus inside instead of walking!

The stars of the San Diego Zoo used to be pandas, but they were relocated to China a few years ago.

When buying tickets, don’t forget to use a card with no conversion fees to save on this foreign currency transaction!

San Diego zoo
San Diego zoo 2
San Diego Zoo

Some community members have reported that the purchase of tickets at the San Diego Zoo is categorized as “travel,” so you can use your points to cover the cost of this activity.

Save by booking a San Diego Explorer Pass, giving you access to between two and seven attractions of your choice and local activities at reduced rates.

My other recommendations stop at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, since I’m an AvGeek, the Balboa Park Alcazar Gardens, which nod to Seville in Andalusia, and the Comic-Con Museum.

Comic-Con is a significant phenomenon in San Diego; the museum is a good compromise short of attending the event itself.

The various points of interest that are also worthwhile at Balboa Park are:

Don’t hesitate to book a private gyropode tour at Balboa Park or an electric scooter tour at Balboa Park.

San Diego Balboa 2

Only 4 days left in SanDiego? There is no shortage of activities around Balboa Park.

After a busy morning, head to Old Town San Diego for a quieter time. By public transport, the journey will take you around half an hour.

The old town has colonial architecture, so it’s the perfect place to stroll and dine. The city of San Diego was once part of Mexican territory, which explains the strong Mexican influence on many aspects of local culture today.

Let yourself be tempted by a small-group tour of San Diego’s Old Town, complete with taco tasting.

San Diego Vieille Ville

Second day: the Embarcadero, Coronado and Gaslamp

TheEmbarcadero is a promenade along San Diego Bay where you’ll find a ton of seafood restaurants, sea lion tour operators, museums and the international cruise terminal.

The main point of interest here is the USS Midway Museum. The USS Midway is a true aircraft carrier, and was used in several notable 20th century conflicts, including the Viet Nam War and the Gulf War.

Many historic planes and helicopters are on display; for Top Gun fans, Tom Cruise’s F-14 is there too!

San Diego USS Midway

This San Diego museum is a must for families with children, young and old, AvGeeks and anyone interested in history; you could easily spend 5-6 hours here.

Afterwards, stroll through Little Italy, which is full of restaurants for your dinner, before taking a ferry to the Coronado Peninsula or driving there for a relaxing afternoon at the beach with the beautiful city of San Diego in the background.

San Diego plage 3

Focus on the Gaslamp district’s electrifying atmosphere; its name comes from the “gas lamp” lights. This corner of San Diego is known for its artisan markets and boutiques by day and for its gastronomy, cafés, bars, terraces and nightlife.

Indeed, there are many clubs and entertainment such as comedy and music shows.


Day 3: La Jolla, the coast, the sea and the cliffs

After a schedule mainly centred on the museums, we turn to a more restful day around La Jolla in the northeast of San Diego.

In La Jolla Cove, you can easily spend a lot of time at the beach with sea lions, doing water activities (surfing, kayaking, diving, etc.). Kids will love swimming with the sea lions all around them!

An electric bike tour of La Jolla and Pacific Beach is the ideal way to discover the area.

San Diego La Jolla 2

Then, for golfers, outdoor enthusiasts and hikers, there’s Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. There’s also a glider airport at Gliderport, so even if you’re not up for paragliding, you can sit back and watch the people jump! From this point, you can admire the magnificent view of Black’s Beach.

Torrey Pines

With a car at your disposal, I recommend a road trip from Black’s Beach to Sunset Cliffs, stopping at all the beaches along the way. My favourite one in San Diego is Mission Beach, with the rides at Belmont Amusement Park and SeaWorld San Diego nearby. Once again, the kids will get a kick out of this.

Sunset at Sunset Cliffs is very popular, so it’s suggested that you get there early to find a place to park; if not, you can always go to the nearby residential streets. Sunset Cliffs is well worth a visit if you like to watch the sun fall into the Pacific, leaving magnificent streaks of orange in the sky.

La Jolla

Day 4: Tijuana

To end your stay in San Diego and Baja, California, on a different day, you can take a trip to Tijuana, Mexico. You don’t need a car to get there from San Diego.The blue trolley line takes you to the San Ysidro border in 45 minutes, where you can cross on foot. Then, you can jump in a cheap cab to reach the city.

Waiting at the San Ysidro border can be time-consuming as many Mexicans come to San Diego for work daily. However, there are usually short lines for American and Canadian citizens. You can use this site to determine the current waiting time according to your passage mode.

The first spot to visit would be the Mexican market Mercardo Hidalgo. It is the best place in Tijuana to immerse yourself in the culture; you can find local products, typical food counters and many handicrafts.

Afterwards, stroll along Pasaje Rodriguez to admire the street art of Tijuana. Then take a stroll through Malecon, a waterfront promenade with many street food vendors, restaurants, bars and artisans.


And Tijuana is a good place to store compared to San Diego; it’s cheaper! Here are the best places to spend:

  • Plaza Rio Tijuana: outdoor shopping mall ;
  • Mercado Hidalgo: local market ;
  • Mercado El Popo: local market ;
  • Plaza Agua Caliente: for major brands ;
  • Sanborns: surface department store.

Apart from local markets, credit cards are accepted in stores. Be sure to pay with a card like the Scotiabank Passport™ Visa Infinite* Card to avoid conversion fees!

Then, to get the best exchange rate for cash withdrawals, Scotiabank is present in Tijuana, so you can save on currency conversion fees and/or ATM withdrawal fees.

Finally, if you’re not comfortable juggling public transport and border crossings, there are several excursions you can book to Tijuana.

Activities departing from San Diego include a guided day trip with lunch to Tijuana.

Where to eat in San Diego?

San Diego

San Diego has a significant Mexican influence, so you can easily find great Mexican and taco restaurants all over town. What’s more, it’s not very expensive and kids usually love it!

Otherwise, here are my recommendations of places that are not Mexican:


For the best tacos in Tijuana, I suggest the following places:

  • La Mojaritta – the best fish tacos I’ve ever had; this restaurant is the reason I want to return to Tijuana!
  • Telefónica gastro park – a group of foodtrucks/tacotrucks.

Then, for modern Mexican cuisine, I liked Mision 19.


Where to stay in San Diego?

With several days in the beautiful city of San Diego, I advise you to identify your points of interest before choosing your accommodation, as this will depend on what you have planned during your stay.

  • Gaslamp: This neighborhood is just south of Balboa Park and is the heart of San Diego. There are plenty of restaurants and bars, and the marina is not too far away for late-night walks;
  • La Jolla: for people who prefer to spend more time on the beach;
  • Old Town San Diego: good value for money for hotels and not too far from other points of interest in San Diego.

Marriott Bonvoy in San Diego

In San Diego, there are many Marriott Bonvoy hotels. In addition, many are under 35,000 points, making them eligible to use a free night certificate.

If you have several days to spend in San Diego, I recommend staying in the vicinity of Balboa Park, especially if you have children; it’s a fairly central location where the many museums will keep young and old busy!

Another area I like is San DiegoOld Town, where you’ll find the Fairfield Inn & Suites San Diego Old Town, where you can use the overnight certificate offered by the Marriott Bonvoy® American Express®* Card and the Marriott Bonvoy® Business American Express®* Card.

Marriott Bonvoy points are an excellent way to save significantly on your stay in San Diego.

Marriott Bonvoy in Tijuana

The city of Tijuana, Mexico, is a stone’s throw from San Diego. Although a day trip can be made, staying at least one night is preferable to get a good feel for the place. Prices are more than affordable in this quasi-suburb of San Diego.

How to get to San Diego for less?

Direct flights between Montreal and San Diego airport make it convenient to save travel time. In addition, San Diego is an ideal destination for children, often a significant deciding factor.

With travel points

Fares for flights to San Diego range from $520 to $900. When paying in cash, it’s best to use a credit card with travel points, which can give you a refund on your expenditure or a credit on purchase. For example, the National Bank World Elite Mastercard® offers both options.

Cardholders have access to the NBC Rewards platform; on this portal, you can find a price similar to what you’d find on the carrier’s website (the slight difference is in OPC fees, since NBC Rewards is considered a travel agency).

The advantage of booking through this platform is that NBC Rewards points can be applied to the purchase at the best possible redemption rate. In this situation, I could get a $300 credit by using 30,000 points when I would have needed 36,000 points to get the same credit if I had purchased the ticket on the Air Canada website.

In addition to being able to collect up to 5X points at the grocery store for a trip like San Diego, the National Bank World Elite Mastercard® offers market-leading travel insurance for the whole family!

Then you can use your $150 annual credit to get your baggage fees refunded!

It’s worth checking out the flights to Los Angeles and renting a car. Indeed, there are more competitions at LAX, so the deals are more frequent; LAX is about a 2-hour 15-minute drive from San Diego when there is no traffic. Personally, I would do that; otherwise, I would use Aeroplan points, as you can often find reasonable Aeroplan fares to San Diego.

With Aeroplan points

Air Canada only serves the San Diego airport from Quebec. When cash prizes are harder to digest (or when you don’t have travel points), it may be more advantageous to use Aeroplan points.

A one-way economy ticket from Montreal starts at 12,500 points, according to the points predictor.

To get to San Diego with your Aeroplan points, you could easily rack up some with the welcome bonus of the TDMD AeroplanMD Visa Infinite* Card; the bonus on this card even lets you take your family of four on a trip for a San Diego getaway if each adult takes a card!

Finally, you’ll have the advantage of being able to check in your luggage free of charge if ever your carry-on become too heavy after a bit of shopping!

With a buddy pass

If you have a companion passe-boni and aren’t sure what to do with it, San Diego is a great option, especially if you have two of them and two kids! This pass can be used on all Air Canada flights in North America.

How to get around San Diego?

On foot and by public transport

Downtown San Diego is best explored on foot, especially in Balboa Park, Old Town, Gaslamp and the Embarcadero.

San Diego’s public transportation system is extensive and consists of a bus and trolley system. For example, it’s possible to get from Old Town San Diego to Gaslamp in less than 20 minutes.

If you plan to use public transportation often during your stay in San Diego, it may be worthwhile to purchase a PRONTO pass. This smart pass will deduct the cost of each of your trips up to the cost of the day pass. You can get PRONTO from Apple Store or Google Play directly on your cell phone.

There are some specifics to know about to save on public transit in San Diego:

  • One-way tickets with PRONTO are valid for up to 2 hours and include unlimited connections;
  • Up to two children under the age of five may travel free of charge with a paying adult;
  • On weekends, up to two children under 12 can travel free of charge with a paying adult;
  • On holidays, a companion may travel free of charge with a paying person.

Rental cars

Personally, I don’t think renting a car is necessary in San Diego compared to Los Angeles. When I visited friends, we stayed in their residential neighborhood and drove downtown. However, it was often parked all day once returned. So a good compromise is to take Uber and Lyft for big trips.

The car will be most beneficial for short trips outside downtown San Diego, explicitly touring the coast. Travel points such as TD Rewards or Scene+ points are preferred.

A travel guide to San Diego

Don’t forget to pick up a San Diego travel guide from the Ulysses travel store!

Bottom Line

San Diego is the perfect destination for a family vacation with children. It is possible to spend days discovering many tourist attractions that are very interesting to entertain the little ones.

Then, for the grown-ups, the walks on the waterfront and the nightlife of Gaslamp will satisfy you.

While big cities in the U.S. can be very expensive, there are many ways to cut costs when you play your (credit) cards right!

Did you like this guide? See New York in 4 days and Los Angeles in 4 days.

Why go to San Diego and what to do?

This town is packed with tourist attractions for family relaxation. Activities include the beach, the zoo, Balboa Park, the city’s many museums and even a trip to Tijuana, Mexico.

What budget for a family trip to California?

Your budget will depend not only on the activities you want to do, but also on the hotel you choose and the cost of your flight. Loyalty program points are a great way to save on your stay.

When is the best time to visit San Diego, California?

Year-round, average air temperatures in San Diego range from 19 to 24°C.

How can I book a cheap flight from Montreal to San Diego?

Fares to San Diego range from $520 to $900. One of the best ways to save is to use travel points on certain credit cards.

Come to discuss that topic in our Facebook Group!
4.4 Milesopedia Rating
Aline Nguyen
I'm Aline, an experienced traveller, a foodie at heart, an Avgeek, a photography enthusiast and an expert on credit card programs. I use Reward Points to travel on a budget and to save money on everyday life; writing about these topics allows me to share my passion and help you. ~ 7 continents and 75 countries ~

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