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San Diego: Ultimate 4-Day 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 excellent destination for families to unwind, and this city is full of tourist attractions to delight children, from the beach to the museums and the San Diego Zoo.

The best tacos in the country can be found here, and your days will mostly be spent outside.

Also, since San Diego is not too far from Los Angeles, it is easy to combine the two cities and/or even the deserts and vineyards for a bigger trip: a lovely week (or two) under the beautiful California sun!

Map 3476638 1920

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. This city has nearly 100 museums, and 17 are located within this park.

This area is considered the heart and jewel of SanDiego; it covers over 2,000 acres… So, you could technically spend the whole day there and not have done the tour!

San Diego Balboa

The famous San Diego Zoo is the main attraction here, home to nearly 4,000 animals. The latter is the best known in the United States and is one of the pioneers in developing open natural areas for wildlife.

The San Diego Zoo is a must-see, especially if you have children. Since it’s so big, you can 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 purchasing tickets, don’t forget to use a credit card with no conversion fees to save on your foreign currency transaction!

San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo 2
San Diego Zoo
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. When in doubt, get the tickets from UnderCover Tourist to ensure the purchase is “travel”.

Then, my other recommendations would be to stop at the San Diego Air and Space Museum since I’m an AvGeek, the Balboa Park Alcazar Gardens that 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:

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 the territory of Mexico, which explains the solid Mexican influence on many aspects of the local culture today.

San Diego Vieille Ville
San Diego Vieille Ville

Second day: the Embarcadero, Coronado and Gaslamp

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

The main point of interest at this location is the USS Midway Museum. The USS Midway is an actual aircraft carrier used in several notable conflicts of the 20th century, such as the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.

Several historical planes and helicopters are there; for Top Gun fans, Tom Cruise’s F-14 is there too!

San Diego Uss Midway

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

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 artisanal markets, stores by day and gastronomy, cafes, bars, terraces and nightlfei.

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

Comedy 6054626 1920

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!

San Diego La Jolla 2

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

Torrey Pines
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 are worth a visit if you like to watch the sun fall into the Pacific, leaving beautiful orange streaks in the sky.

La Jolla
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 goes 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.

Tendence Attente San Diego Tijuana

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.

Tijuana

Then, Tijuana is an excellent place to store compared to San Diego; it’s cheaper! Here are the best places to spend:

  • Plaza Rio Tijuana: outdoor shopping center
  • Mercado Hidalgo: local market
  • Mercado El Popo: local market
  • Plaza Agua Caliente: for big brands
  • Sanborns: large surface store

Except for local markets, credit cards are accepted in stores; be sure to pay with a card like the HSBC World Elite® Mastercard® to avoid conversion fees!

Then, to get the best exchange rate when withdrawing money, Scotiabank and HSBC Bank are present in Tijuana, so you can save on currency conversion fees and/or ATM withdrawal fees.

Finally, suppose you are not comfortable juggling public transportation and border crossings. In that case, there are several tours you can book on Viator that will take you to Tijuana for a day or half-day from San Diego.

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. Plus, it’s not very expensive, and kids usually love it!

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

Tijuana

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

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

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

Tacos

What activities to book in San Diego?

Honestly, I think San Diego does very well on its own unless you are very tight on time. In addition, the attractions are more concentrated than in Los Angeles, for example.

However, Tijuana can be more complex for a day trip, especially with children, so this would be the trip I recommend booking.

You can check out the activities to book in San Diego with our partner Viator:

 

 

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 plan to do 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: People like to spend a little 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 a lot of Marriott Bonvoy hotels. In addition, many are under 35,000 points, making them eligible to use a free night certificate.

By doing a quick search on the Marriott Bonvoy website, I found 24 properties in San Diego priced under 35,000 points and 26 hotels between 35,000 and 40,000 points!

Hôtels Marriott À San Diego Moins De 40k

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 is a relatively central place where numerous museums can occupy young and old!

Otherwise, another area I like is San DiegoOld Town, where the Fairfield Inn & Suites San Diego Old Town is a good use of the certificates offered by the Marriott Bonvoy® American Express®* Card and the Marriott Bonvoy® Corporate American Express®* Card.

San Diego Marriott
San Diego Marriott

Between the two of you, you could each take these cards and accumulate four free nights for a total of $540 in contributions (2 cards with fees of $120 each and two cards of $150)! Then you can top it off with points if the night you want is more expensive. In the end, Marriott Bonvoy points are a great strategy to save significantly for a stay in San Diego!

Then these credit cards also offer very generous welcome bonuses!

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.

San Diego Marriott Tijuana

Best Western

A good alternative (or complement) to the Marriott Bonvoy program is Best Western; there are many Best Western hotels in San Diego, and the prices are relatively affordable, although they are located a bit further from the center.

San Diego Best Western

However, for those new to the world of points and credit cards, the MastercardMD Best Western RewardsMD Credit Card is one of the easiest to have; it has no annual fee and gives you 20,000 Best Western points on your first purchase!

So it’s quick and easy to earn enough points for a free night’s stay in San Diego. With two people, that’s enough points to stay for 2 nights! So why not?

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 hover around $600-$900; I’ve occasionally seen lower prices, but it didn’t seem the norm.

When paying with cash, it is best to use a credit card with travel points that can give you a refund on your expense or a credit on a purchase. For example, the National Bank’s World Elite Mastercard® is a card that allows both options.

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

San Diego Points Bnc

The advantage of booking through this platform is applying NBC Rewards points on purchases at 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 earning up to 5X points at the grocery store for a trip like San Diego, the National Bank’s World Elite Mastercard® offers market-leading travel insurance for the whole family!

Then, you can use your $150 annual credit to get a refund on your baggage fees!

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 more difficult to digest (or when you don’t have travel points), it may be more advantageous to use Aeroplan points.

From Montreal, Air Canada is the only carrier flying to San Diego. As a result, one must juggle the dynamic pricing of the Aeroplan program, but San Diego is generally not too expensive in points, in my experience.

San Diego Points Aeroplan Argent
San Diego Air Canada Argent

For the fall reading week, a ticket from Montreal to San Diego is 21,600 Aeroplan points + $82 tax compared to $685 if you select the best redemption option.

(685 $ – 82 $) ÷ 21 600 x 100 = 2,8 ¢

Following this calculation to determine the value obtained by using Aeroplan points, we can see that it is better to choose to pay in points than in cash in this situation; Milesopedia grants a value of 2¢ per Aeroplan point. For an economy class flight, this is a good deal.

To go to San Diego with your Aeroplan points, you could easily collect them with the TD® Aeroplan® Visa Infinite* Cardbonus of this card even allows you to take your family of 4 on a trip to San Diego if each adult apply to a card!

Finally, you will have the advantage of being able to check your luggage for free if your carry-on becomes too heavy after a bit of shopping!

With a buddy pass

If you have a companion pass-Boni and aren’t sure what to do with it, San Diego is a good option, especially if you have two and have two kids! This pass can be used on all Air Canada flights in North America so that you can use it for a family vacation to San Diego!

Your companion will only have to pay the taxes to accompany you to San Diego.

So, to go to San Diego with a companion pass-boni according to the rate found earlier :

PERSON TICKET COST TAXES
You 519,98 $ 165,35 $
Your companion free of charge 165,35 $

Your flights to San Diego are $850 or $425 per person.

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 is possible to travel from Old Town San Diego to Gaslamp in less than 20 minutes for as little as $2.50 USD.

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.

A day pass costs only $6 US, and 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 2 children under the age of 5 may travel free with a paying adult.
  • On weekends, up to 2 children under 12 may travel free 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 that necessary in San Diego compared to Los Angeles. When I visited friends, we stayed in their residential area and drove downtown; however, it was often parked all day once we got there. 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 TDR Rewards or HSBC Rewards points are preferred when necessary.

A travel guide to San Diego

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

Here is a travel guide about San Diego:

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.

Although big cities in the U.S. can be costly, there are many ways to cut costs when you correctly play your (credit) cards!

Did you like this guide? Check out our following guides: New York in 4 days and Los Angeles in 4 days!

Come to discuss that topic in our Facebook Group!

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