How to Spend an Amazing 36 Hours in San Diego

These top things to do in San Diego, California are perfect for a quick 36 hour stop. Covering the best food, beaches and photo spots both downtown and on the coast, these are things you can’t miss in San Diego.

California has so much natural beauty as well as some pretty amazing cities. It’s actually the eighth largest city the country, who knew, and even if you only have 36 hours in San Diego, there’s still so much you can see and do.

While I loved the city of San Diego so much, I loved the food almost even more. I’m a gimme-those-margaritas-and-tacos person pretty much every day of my life so… I felt pretty at home here in San Diego. If you’re that kind of person – I’ve got you covered. You might only have 36 hours, but you’ll pack a lot of tacos and margaritas into that short period of time.

Not so silently dreaming of tacos and margaritas now…

Moving on!

36 hours in San Diego

I’ve always said I’m not a huge fan of California. With the earthquakes, the wildfires, the heat – it’s just not for me. However, I actually loved San Diego and even though we were only there for a short period of time, I could totally see myself there.

With only 36 hours in San Diego, you need to make good use of your time because there’s so much to see. Ultimately, what appeals to one person may not be for you, so at the end I’ll throw in some bonus activities so you can pick and choose what works for you.

I’ve never been one who likes being told what to do, just to get ideas to form my own plan. If you end up doing anything else, let me know!

Day 1

Balboa Park

You could honestly spend an entire day in Balboa Park without doing anything else because there’s so much to see and enjoy. Since you only have 36 hours in San Diego, Balboa Park is a great thing to do first since it’s one of the most iconic parts of the city and will probably take up the most time.

There are so many museums and gardens to see, so you’ll need to look ahead and see what you want to prioritize because at the end of the day, you’re unlikely to see everything, especially in only 36 hours. The following are my absolute favorites and took me about half a day.

Rose Garden

Roses are red, violets are blue, you’ll love this rose garden as I did too. Apart from my terrible rhyming, this rose garden is gorgeous and well worth walking through. There are rows and rows of them, of all different varieties and colors, as well as a nice gazebo and fountain.

Balboa Park Rose Garden, San Diego, up close orangey pink roses

Rose Garden Path in Balboa Park, San Diego

I urge you to remember the flowers are there for your visual enjoyment so please don’t break them off or remove them. Despite the many signs, I saw numerous people breaking off roses to put in their hair and take photos with. Having respect for nature and for all the hard work the ground maintenance team puts into this place is the least we can do.

Up close red rose in rose garden, Balboa Park, San Diego

Desert Garden

Right near the rose garden is the desert garden with a wide variety of cacti. Now, none of these cacti were like what I saw in Arizona (seriously, it was taller than our two-story hotel), but it was really cool to examine them so up close.

Desert Garden Balboa Park in San Diego, up close of green and prickly cacti

I guess being from the east coast, cacti are still pretty exciting and exotic for me so if you’re from somewhere out west maybe you want to skip this because you see enough of the darn things at home. Even so, it’s still surprising how much variety there is in this single iconic western plant.

Desert Garden, Balboa Park, San Diego: How to spend 36 hours in San Diego

Botanical Building

This is probably one of the most iconic parts of the park and I was devastated when I went on a Thursday to discover it’s open every day of the week… except Thursday. Of course! I only got to view it from the outside (which by the way was beautiful), though it would have been nice to go in.

Botanical Building in Balboa Park with palm trees and reflection pool. 36 hours in San Diego

If you happen to be there not on a Thursday, then you can go in between 10am-4pm.

Lily pad and pink flower on reflecting pool in Balboa Park, San Diego

Right across from the Botanical Building is a beautiful walkway that has some serious Spanish-inspired architecture. It was hard to imagine I was even still in the US. I highly recommend just walking around this area since it’s so beautiful (and there’s plenty of shade for those who burn up like a lobster in 3.2 seconds like me).

Balboa Park reflecting pool by Botanical Building

Museum of Man

Apart from the Botanical Building, the Museum of Man is another one of the most iconic parts of the park. I thought the building was unique and stunning, and the museum is said to be amazing. If you don’t have the time or inclination to go in, then be sure to admire it from the outside.

If you’re walking into the park, you’ll likely come in across the bridge on El Prado so you’ll be greeted first by this museum.

Should you choose to go into the museum, tickets are $13 for an adult.

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Japanese Friendship Garden

I think I must have picked a terrible time to go to San Diego’s Balboa Zoo because I was dying to see the Japanese Friendship Garden and it was closed for a private event. Ugh!

I did get to see a bit of it from the outside and enjoyed a nice iced tea at the teahouse, but it would have been nice to see the inside. Obviously, this means I have to go back. I’m including this because it’s said to be beautiful and from what I saw, it definitely was.

Japanese Friendship Garden, Balboa Park, San Diego

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Despite the fact that the Organ Pavilion is really cool and plays awesome organ music, it also has a really interesting history.

Built in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech here the following year in front of nearly 19,000 people. That same year, William Howard Taft also spoke at the pavilion to a smaller crowd of around 7,000 people.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Balboa Park, San Diego

It was pretty cool to be standing in a place where two former presidents discussed things like world peace. During World War II, the Navy borrowed Balboa Park, including the pavilion and eventually it fell into disuse.

It was almost demolished until more than $1 million was raised to repair it in the 1980s. I’m so glad they did because it still plays beautifully (or as beautiful as an organ can be) and is still a magnificent structure.

San Diego History Center

This free museum is a little odd, but I enjoyed it a lot. Not knowing too much about San Diego before I went, it gave me a brief and very educational rundown on the history of the city.

San Diego History Center, Balboa Park

It’s a great place to take 30 minutes to an hour to walk around and learn about how San Diego started as a port city and shifted from the Old Town to what San Diego is now. It’s also the perfect opportunity to prepare yourself for seeing the Old Town later in the day.

San Diego History Center, Balboa Park

Gaslamp Quarter

You can’t go to San Diego and not visit the Gaslamp Quarter in the downtown area. This area is great for shopping and definitely for eating. It’s very walkable and picturesque and is the perfect place to have a breather after wandering Balboa park all morning.

The Gaslamp Quarter is a big nightlife area so it may be worth coming back at the very end of the day to explore some of the clubs and bars in the evening.

If you want to read about the food in the Gaslamp Quarter you can scroll down to the where to eat in San Diego section.

Old Town

The Old Town of San Diego was founded in 1769. By the time California joined the United States in 1850, the town only had a population of 650, but was still made the county seat. However, by the 1860s, a newcomer to San Diego started building up what is currently downtown San Diego and people started flocking away from the Old Town.

By 1871, the courthouse and all records moved to the “New Town” and the “Old Town” became just that, old and left as a relic of a past time.

Old Town San Diego, how to spend 36 hours in San Diego, California

Today, you can go and see what life may have been like in the early days of California joining the Union, with more than 100 specialty shops and 27 historic building sites. Overall, it feels a little kitsch, much like Williamsburg, but it’s still kind of fun to see what Old San Diego may have been like.

Old Town San Diego restaurant

Ocean Beach

It’s a great idea to end your day in San Diego in Ocean Beach, a quaint area to the west of downtown San Diego. It’s a great place to watch the sunset and enjoy a delicious dinner.

Pier

The Ocean Beach Pier is a long walk jetting out into the ocean and gives you great views of the beach for miles and miles. I love walking out onto piers and feeling the sea breeze and the soft lulling sound of the ocean waves hitting the jetty poles.

Wonderland Ocean Pub

This restaurant is located very near the Pier and had tons of delicious seafood options. It’s affordable and tasty and has fantastic views of the ocean. It would be a great place to watch the sunset if you can time it right.

Wonderland Ocean Pub Ocean Beach San Diego

Day 2

Harbor Walk

Along the North San Diego Bay is a scenic, pleasant walk. There are lots of shops, restaurants, museums, food carts and more. It’s bustling and can get quite busy, but it’s a nice way to see a different side to San Diego.

Seaport Village

Part of Harbor Walk is the Seaport Village, where most of the shops and dining establishments are along Harbor Walk.

Seaport Village waterfront property, San Diego, California

Unconditional Surrender Statue

Further along the Harbor Walk, around where the USS Midway Museum is, you’ll find the Unconditional Surrender Statue and I’m sure you’ll recognize immediately what it’s from.

Unconditional surrender statue, San Diego California. Soldier kissing nurse at the end of WWII

The statue depicts the photo of the soldier kissing the nurse at the end of World War II. The statue went up in 2013 and has remained in place ever since.

La Jolla – Seals and Sea Lions

Nearing the end of your 36 hours in San Diego, you should head out to La Jolla, a town about 12 miles north of San Deigo. It’s a beautiful coastal town, but it’s also famous for the abundance of adorable seals and sea lions that sun themselves on the rocks most days.

Sea lions and seals in La Jolla, San Diego sunning on rocks

Just be careful of how far out you walk on the pathways, as I learned the hard way. I decided I wanted a better photo of the seals and sea lions so I walked further out than I probably should have for such rough water. With my camera to my face, oblivious to the nature around me, a giant wave engulfed me and soaked me through. I was wearing a white dress. Fortunately, the camera was fine; my ego was not.

If You Have Extra Time

Should you find yourself with a few spare hours of time before your 36 hours in San Diego is up, you should check out these two bonus activities.

USS Midway Museum

This maritime museum is on the aircraft carrier Midway and features an extensive collection of aircraft, many that were built in Southern California. Tickets aren’t cheap, an adult one costing $22 if you purchase online, but it may be worth checking out.

USS Midway Museum San Diego California

Little Italy

Originally, this area of San Diego used to be primarily an Italian fishing village, giving the area its name. Now you’ll find a wide variety of delicious Italian restaurants, Italian specialty shops, art galleries and cocktail bars with bustling outdoor seating.

It’s a very pedestrian-friendly area, so if you’re looking to get away from the traffic, then this is a perfect stop.

Where to Eat in San Diego

Puesto

It’s no secret I have a love affair with tacos and I have to say, the tacos I had at Puesto were easily the best tacos I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. The price is right, there’s great outdoor seating and it’s central to the rest of your activities.

Puesto San Diego, where to eat in San Deigo, best tacos

La Puerta

Another great spot for tacos in the Gaslamp Quarter, La Puerta has a great selection at reasonable prices and also has great outdoor seating. It’s a bit smaller than Puesto so it will feel a little more crowded, but the food is still excellent. They even have lobster tacos.

La Puerta San Diego, where to eat in San Diego with 36 hours in San Diego

Wonderland Ocean Pub

I mentioned this restaurant above in the Ocean Beach section and I would highly recommend it so just throwing it in here again.

Volcano Rabbit San Diego

It should come as no surprise the last thing I mention on my list is another Mexican and margarita place. Volcano Rabbit is the definition of restaurant luxe, but with a pricetag I can actually afford.

Volcano Rabbit San Diego outdoor seating

The outdoor seating was perfect and even if you sit inside, if the weather is nice they open the windows. Definitely a must-visit in the Gaslamp Quarter during your short trip to San Diego.

Where to Stay in San Diego

It can be tough to choose where to stay in San Diego because it’s pretty spread out and there are so many great options. I broke down some of the best areas to stay for you so you can make a more educated guess. When you only have 36 hours, the location is crucial to be able to get in everything you want to do.

Gaslamp Quarter

This will always be one of the most popular neighborhoods to stay in San Diego because it’s right in the middle of everything downtown. It’s a great option, but you are going to be looking at pricier accommodation due to the fact it’s so central.

Bankers Hill

I ended up staying in an Airbnb in Bankers Hill and I enjoyed the area a lot. While you’re not right downtown, you are very close to Balboa Park (within walking distance) and a very short Uber ride back downtown. If I were to go back to San Diego, I would probably look at staying here again.

The price was right and it allowed me to stay a little longer than if I had stayed in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Ocean Beach

If you don’t want to be in the middle of everything and are looking for something trendy but quieter than Ocean Beach will be a great solution for you. Depending on the time of year you visit San Diego, this may be the most cost-effective neighborhood to stay in.

Coronado

The island of Coronado is a popular destination for people visiting San Diego because it’s got beautiful beaches. If you’re looking for a neighborhood to stay in San Diego that has that beachy feel but is still relatively central than Coronado will be the perfect place. The downsides are Coronado is very pricey and the bridge back to the mainland can get backed up with traffic.

I hope this post inspires you to take the time out to visit San Diego, even if it is only for 36 hours. You definitely won’t regret the decision!

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