Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to a one day in San Diego Itinerary. For most of my life, I had never thought about trying a One Day in San Diego Itinerary. San Diego is not a city you hear too much about when you live on the East Coast. New Yorkers like me are too busy hating on Los Angeles or feeling competitive with San Francisco. So on my very first trip to…I’m trying to think of a nickname for San Diego and drawing a blank.
Anyway, I was surprised to find what a beautiful city San Diego is. You have the gorgeous Balboa Park, the tranquil San Diego Bay, and the stunning Coronado Beach. And today, we’re going to see all of them in our One Day in San Diego Itinerary. Come with me, and maybe we can finally give poor San Diego a nickname!
One Day in San Diego Itinerary
Where to Stay?
Are you looking for a place to stay during your One Day in San Diego Itinerary? Would you like for it to be a place with a great location, a friendly staff at a 24 hour desk, and a free breakfast every morning? Why wouldn’t you be? Then you should book a room at the Urban Boutique Hotel! You won’t regret it!
One Day in San Diego Itinerary
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
SD is usually sunny, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
One Day in San Diego Itinerary
Morning: Balboa Park
I do a tremendous amount of solo traveling to feed this blog. I travel about 16 weeks a year, almost all of it by myself. It’s all for you, Internet Strangers! But spending that much time on the open road can get a little bit lonely, even for an Independent Lady like myself. That’s why I like to book walking tours whenever possible. You get the company of fellow travelers and a local guide, so the solitude of roaming solo doesn’t drive you mad and you start talking to bugs, like in that movie about Charles Lindbergh.
Just my luck, the company Urban Adventures has several walking tours in San Diego! And one of them was of the best area for walking in San Diego: Balboa Park! My friendly guide Jennifer took me around all the hidden gems anyone could wish for. I’m not going to reveal everything I learned, just get your attention with…
approximately top 5: balboa park edition
1) Balboa Park Founders Statue
Your tour of Balboa Park begins in Founder’s Plaza. This plaza is home to the statues of three men who were responsible for creating Balboa Park: Ephraim Morse, Alonzo Horton, and George White Marston. Originally, San Diego was confined to the neighborhood that is now Old Town. (We visited there in my previous post about San Diego.)
Morse and Horton wanted to expand the city, and they felt it needed a ginormous park. I can’t really think of any city that has been hurt by the addition of a beautiful place to chillax, especially in Southern California, so well played Morse and Horton!
You might be wondering what the third guy, George White Marston, is doing up there if the other two had all the ideas. Well, Marston was a successful department store owner, so he is largely responsible for financing the park. When you pay for the park, you get a big old statue in it, as my grandmother always used to say. Maybe Marston has to sit by himself here because he wasn’t the one with the big ideas. Or maybe he gets to sit by himself because he was the one who anted up the cash. I suppose your answer depends on how cynical you are.
2) California Building
The next big event in the history of Balboa Park was the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. This event was held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Of course, San Diego massively benefited from the Panama Canal because it became a more important port city, now that it was easier to get to by boat from the East Coast. (Remember, this was a time before airplanes, the internet, microwaves, etc…)
The architects who designed the buildings for the exposition, like the California building, wanted to emphasize California’s Spanish heritage. So they used a style called Spanish Colonial Revival. It basically looks like some took the Infanta’s birthday cake, dripped icing over the whole thing, and then covered it with a plethora of multi-colored tiles. (That’s a compliment! I like both Infantas and birthday cakes.)
Also important figures from California’s past, like Father Junipero Serra, the founder of San Diego, are pictured on the walls of the building. It’s an architectural marvel and a history lesson all in one!
3) Flowers of Balboa Park
This is a park, so of course we’re going to want to see some gorgeous plants. That’s just science. The Balboa Park Botanical Building with its reflective lily pond is one of the most Instagrammable sights in the park. On the tour, the guide Jennifer, even took me inside so I could see the orchids. Like the California building, this lily pond was built for the Panama-California Exposition. Just be careful when you are posing for your photo here. Jennifer warned me that the water quality of the lily pond was…ooky, so don’t fall in. The selfie isn’t worth it!
We also stopped to smell the roses at the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. I visited San Diego in the autumn, so I was surprised that the roses were in bloom. But I guess it’s always rose season in sunny Southern California.
As pretty as the roses were, I became even more attached to this plant that looked like an alien. I even got to try out my best Will Smith impersonation by yelling, “Welcome to Earth” and punching the plant in its face. It hurt a lot; the plant had spikes on it. Please don’t try this for yourself.
4) Spanish Village Art Center
Now I like nature, but I love shopping. So that’s why the Spanish Village Art Center was my favorite place in Balboa Park. A drink here is included with the price of the tour–I had a refreshing iced coffee. I suggest you do the same if the weather is sunny, and if the weather isn’t sunny, I suggest panicking because bad weather in San Diego is definitely one of the signs of the apocalypse.
The Spanish Village Art Center is a collective of local artists. It’s been around since 1936, though I imagine that all the original artists from back then are very dead. You can find any type of artist from jewelers to painters to sculptors to glassblowers. Even better, you can shop directly from the artists themselves.
I got two pairs of earrings because I have a terrible earring shopping addiction. Plus I bought a black and white kitty from a glassblower. (The cat was glass too, FYI.) If you’re like me, you have a hard time not buying something from someone once you’ve had a conversation with them, but don’t worry! None of the artists will give you a hard sell.
5) Lunch at The Prado
The tour ends just around lunchtime, but where to eat in this massive park? Jennifer suggested I get lunch at The Prado. Many dining spots in Balboa Park are a little touristy, but she told me that locals eat at The Prado too. It’s actually located in one of those historic 1915 Exposition buildings, the House of Hospitality.
One of the best things about traveling is getting to day drink without shame, so I kicked things off with a sassy Bloody Mary. (Kind of surprising to see the Bloody Mary at a Spanish themed restaurant. Wasn’t she their queen? You’d think they’d call it a Bloody Elizabeth.)
For my main course, I feasted on that Southern California specialty, the fish taco. I have never, ever eaten a good fish taco in New York City. If I even try to order one back home, the fish just says to me, “Ugh, what were you thinking?” and gets up and walks right off the plate. So it was a treat to enjoy my fresh fish, ripe avocado, and fragrant mango salsa in peace without having to listen to judgmental seafood.
One Day in San Diego Itinerary
Afternoon: Coronado Island
Next to Balboa Park, Coronado Island is one of the prettiest places in San Diego. Fortunately both Balboa Park and Coronado Island are do-able in One Day in San Diego Itinerary! I took a pleasant stroll from the park down to the Coronado Island Ferry, but if you’re unable to do the walk, just rideshare down. We’re very lucky because we’re going to have the whole afternoon to explore this magical place. I encourage you to spend some time roaming without a guide and seeing what beauties you can find. But I’ll point you in the right direction with…
three fun facts: coronado island
1) Do You Know the Way to Coronado? I’ve Been Away So Long…
I strongly suggest taking the Coronado Ferry to get to Coronado Island. It’s a soothing 15 minute ride with amazing views of the San Diego skyline. Plus, it’s the oldest wood ferry in the United States that’s still in operation. Hearing statistics like that always makes me think that the ferry’s just going to give up and sink while I’m riding it. But I’m a pretty strong swimmer, so I don’t think that would be a major issue.
The ferry only costs 5 dollars, and it leaves downtown San Diego on the hour. (The ferry returns from Coronado every half hour.) It’s not a 24 hour ferry, service stops at either 9 or 10 PM, depending on if it’s a weekday or weekend. Also there are sometimes special holiday schedules, so double check the times here. (You can also double check if you just don’t trust me, Internet Stranger!)
One thing you might notice while waiting on line for the ferry is a large number of scary-looking military ships. The military is one of the major employers in San Diego. In fact, over 7 percent of the entire city is either in the military or a member of a military family. Hmmm…I better tone down the number of jokes that I make about San Diego during this blog post. Wouldn’t want to get court-martialed!
2) Who Are Some Celebrities Who Have Lived in Coronado?
So allow me to geek out big time here and say that Mr. Lyman Frank Baum, aka the author of the original 14 books in the Oz series, including The Wizard of Oz, used to live in this nondescript house pictured above. (Take a public bus from the ferry stop to get here.)
I bow to no one in my Oz fandom. When I was a kid, I was a member of an Oz fan club, and membership included a card that said I was an official citizen of Oz. Probably the most expensive thing I own is a first edition copy of The Wishing Horse of Oz, which is the 29th book in the series. Visiting Frank Baum’s house for me is like visiting JK Rowling’s house for most other, more sane people.
Right now this house is a private home, so you can’t go inside. But you can imagine what life was like for Baum when he was working on the Oz series here. Some say the Coronado Hotel, which we will visit next, was the inspiration for the Emerald City in the Oz books.
You can even buy ruby slipper earrings at one of the gift shops at the Coronado Hotel. (If you think I did NOT buy one of those earrings, you haven’t been reading this blog carefully. I told you that I have an addiction!) I refrained from pointing out to the gift shop that in the book, the slippers are made from silver, so Baum wouldn’t even have understood what ruby slippers are. No one likes a schmexpert!
3) So What’s The Prettiest Place on Coronado Island?
By all objective, scientific standards, Coronado Hotel is the prettiest place on Coronado Island. You can decide for yourself whether this wonder looks anything like the Emerald City. (Remember, in the book the city is entirely white. It only looks green because everyone in the city has to wear special green glasses all the time.)
However, even if you don’t believe in the Frank Baum/Coronado Hotel connection, it’s undeniable that he designed these four crown-shaped chandeliers. Truly, he was a Renaissance man.
One of the other celebrities associated with the Coronado is Wallis Warfield Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor. She is the American divorcee that terrible, Nazi-sympathizing Edward VIII of England abdicated the throne for. Fans of The Crown will already know this whole story. The Windsor Cottage is where Mrs. Simpson used to live. Some stories say that Mrs. Simpson and Edward VIII even met at the Hotel Coronado, but who knows if that’s true.
A more pleasant memory for the Coronado is when the Marilyn Monroe romantic comedy Some Like it Hot was filmed here back in the 1950s. (If you haven’t seen this movie, please remedy this situation immediately. It is a non-stop laugh riot.) The Coronado remains a popular destination for lovers, weddings, and Marilyn Monroe fans. You can even buy Marilyn Merchandise at many of the gift shops. (No earrings though. Believe me, I checked.)
One Day in San Diego Itinerary
Evening: Dinner at Cucina Urbana
It’s been well established that I knew almost nothing about San Diego before my trip. And one of the many things I did not know is that San Diego has a thriving Italian-American community. Everybody knows that were you find Italian-Americans, you find Italian-American food. That’s just science.
So let’s spend the evening of our One Day in San Diego Itinerary at Cucina Urbana, one of the most popular Italian restaurants in the city. Jennifer, my guide from the Balboa Park tour, even suggested that I dine here before I told her that I already had a reservation for that night. I don’t leave anything to chance when it comes to my gastronomic pleasures and yours, Internet Strangers!
This mulberry-hued dish is a beet and fig salad. Eating this made me feel like a chic lady with humungo sunglasses and a glamorous scarf wrapped around my head being fed ripe figs in an outdoor cafe in Tuscany by a shirtless Italian named Giorgio. Considering that I was inside in California with no man and no scarf, this is quite the achievement.
24 Hour Treat: Linguine With Shrimp Puttanesca
So I know that any good Italian restaurant is going to have wonderful main course choices that are not pasta. But I love pasta so much, I can never bring myself to order them. This tasty whore’s pasta (that’s literally what puttanesca means) was stuffed with fresh shrimp, Gaeta olives, and Calabrian peppers. This time I imagined Giorgio leaning in for the kiss and turning away because my breath smelled too much like spicy peppers and olive brine. It was worth it, though! I’d rather have delicious carbs than kisses from an imaginary Italian.
It’s funny because some restaurants brag about how all their ingredients are local. But others, like Cucina Urbana, brag about how their ingredients are imported from the mother country. Which is better? I’d be lying if I said I cared, as long as the food tastes good.
24 Hour Treat: Budino
Budino seems to be all the rage at Southern California Italian restaurants. I had already eaten the most famous butterscotch budino in the world at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. But this version from Cucina Urbana was no slouch either, especially with the chocolate cookie crumbles on top. The more budino, the better, I say!
At this point in the evening, Giorgio has moved on to a lady who will be more interested in him than her dessert. No one will miss you, Giorgio! My budino is enough to keep me happy. It’s all I need for a perfect One Day in San Diego Itinerary!
That’s a Perfect One Day in San Diego Itinerary!
What would you do with a One Day in San Diego Itinerary? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in San Diego? Is Balboa Park the prettiest urban park in the country? And is that alien plant going to take revenge on me for punching it? Please leave your thoughts below.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY enjoy a one day in San Diego itinerary. If you have time for another one day in San Diego itinerary, click here.