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San Diego Layover Itinerary: Exploring San Diego's Highlights in 24 hrs

Updated: Apr 29

Long layovers can be a pain depending on the city and the airport. If you happen to have a long layover in San Diego, you might have just enough time to venture out of the airport and explore the city. What makes San Diego a lovely city for a layover is that our airport is within walking distance of downtown and within a few minutes drive to many attractions. In this post, you'll find itineraries for a 4, 6-8 hours, and 24-hour layover in San Diego.

4 Hrs in San Diego

If you only have a four-hour layover in San Diego I recommend visiting Liberty Station due to the close proximity to the airport. Liberty Station has a variety of restaurants to choose from and is among the top tourist attractions.

Liberty Station (distance from SD Airport: driving: 1.2 miles or 4 min)

Liberty Sation is a former Naval Training Center that dates back to the 1920s. It's now home to Liberty Public Market, one of San Diego's many food halls, an Arts district, shopping, Stone Brewing, and restaurants.

Where to Eat:

What to do :

  • Walk along the beautiful sidewalks and explore the grounds. With over 300 acres to explore there are plenty of things to keep you busy.

6 - 8 hrs in San Diego

With a 6-8 hr layover, there are many options to choose from. I have included an itinerary with 3 different categories. The city explorer, beach vibes, and historical gems. The city explorer itinerary will cover the top things to see in downtown San Diego. The beach vibes itinerary will include a beach-focused itinerary and the historical gems will include some awesome historical places to check out.

Note: These itineraries are based on a morning arrival and may need to be modified based on the time your flight arrives.

The City Explorer Itinerary

Click to expand for details:

Gaslamp Quarter (distance from SD Airport: driving: 3.9 miles or 13 min)

Start your morning in the Gaslamp Quarter located in downtown San Diego. This area contains nearly 100 historical buildings, restaurants and bars. At night this is one of the top places for nightlife in the city. I decided to start the itinerary with this location first because it has a few good breakfast/brunch restaurants. If you plan to arrive in San Diego later in the day and you want to experience a little San Diego nightlife, then feel free to make Gaslamp the last spot on your itinerary!

Where to eat:

What to do:

  • Gaslamp is a popular spot for nightlife in San Diego. There are many clubs, music, and comedy venues to visit. This area also has a few speakeasies and rooftop bars!

Check out my blog post for rooftop bars to visit.

Seaport Village (distance from SD Airport: driving: 3.4 miles or 10 min)

Little Italy (distance from SD Airport: driving: 2.7 miles or 10 min)


Beach Vibes Itinerary

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Mission Beach (distance from SD Airport: driving: 5.7 miles or 13 min)

Mission Beach is a beach town located less than 6 miles from the San Diego Airport. This beach offers a beautiful beach, a 2-mile boardwalk, an amusement park, beach house rentals, and restaurants. This is my favorite beach in San Diego!

Where to eat:

  • Beach Wave - My favorite place to get an acai bowl! They also have a variety of juices and smoothies.

  • Better Buzz Coffee- Forget Starbucks and check out this local coffee shop.

  • The Mission- A local breakfast restaurant serving a variety of delicious breakfast options.

  • Cannonball- rooftop restaurant located on the boardwalk.

What to do:

  • Rent bikes and ride on the boardwalk.

  • Ride the rides at Belmont Park- San Diego's beachfront amusement park.

  • Relax on the beach

  • Play volleyball on the beach: The city has volleyball nets set up that are free for the public to use.


Historical Places Itinerary

Click to expand for details:

Balboa Park (distance from SD Airport: driving: 3.0 miles or 10 min)

Balboa Park is a vast area that dates back to the late 1800s and includes 18 San Diego museums, the San Diego Zoo, and many other attractions. I recommend parking next to the San Deigo Air & Space Museum or the Organ Pavilion.

Where to eat:

  • I recommend eating at Sunnyboy Biscuit Company, a local brunch place specializing in delicious homemade biscuit meals.

  • Other great places to eat nearby include:

  • Donna Jean - delicious vegan restaurant, serving pizza, pasta, and more! If you visit on the weekend, they also serve brunch!

  • Buona Forchetta- A local Italian spot in the South Park neighborhood.

What to do:

  • Explore the grounds: Start your day at the Balboa Park Visitors Center, where you can find information about the park and the attractions.

  • Visit a museum: The park offers many museums to visit including the Comic-Con Museum, Fleet Science Center, San Diego Air and Space Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, and more.

  • Explore the International Cottages: These cottages represent 31 cultures and each place allows visitors to explore and learn about each culture.

  • Explore the grounds: Start your day at the Balboa Park Visitors Center, where you can find information about the park and the attractions.

Old Town (distance from SD Airport: driving: 3.4 miles or 10 min)


24-hrs in San Diego

If you have a 24-hr layover you can mix and match the itineraries above. You may also have time to include some additional attractions or explore more areas in San Diego that I have listed below. If you plan to be in San Diego for 24 hrs or more, I definitely recommend a rental car. Although San Diego has a Trolley system and Uber is an option, it is still easier to get around the city if you have your own transportation.

San Diego Zoo: (distance from SD Airport: driving: 5.1 miles or 13 min)

The San Diego Zoo is one of the top attractions in San Diego and every year is listed as one of the top zoos in the world! This zoo is over 100 acres and is home to over 14,00 animals.

Due to the massive size of this zoo, I recommend only visiting if you have at least 24 hrs or more to spare. The zoo is located in Balboa Park, so refer to my Balboa Park itinerary above for tips!


Seaworld: (distance from SD Airport: driving: 4.5 miles or 10 min)

Seaworld San Diego is located in the beautiful area of Mission Bay. It's one of the most known attractions in the United States. Seaworld has amazing shows, thrilling rides, and many other attractions. This park is located near Mission Beach, so view my Mission Beach Itinerary above for tips!


Coronado: (distance from SD Airport: driving: 8.9 miles or 18 min)

Coronado is located across the bay from downtown San Diego and is home to what has consistently been voted one of the best beaches in the U.S. The beach has beautiful views, shops, oceanfront dining, and water activities that the entire family will enjoy. Coronado is also home to a Naval Base.

There are a few ways to get to Coronado. The first is driving and the second is riding the Flagship Ferry from downtown San Diego to Coronado.

Where to eat:

  • The Sun Deck: restaurant located right on the beach

  • Taco Shack: located right on the beach and serves cocktails and tacos.

  • The Henry: a popular restaurant serving delicious food.

What to do:


La Jolla: (distance from SD Airport: driving: 14.6 miles or 24 min)

La Jolla (pronounced La- Hoya) is a popular coastal city located about 25 min North of downtown San Diego. The city has beautiful views of coastal cliffs, trails, and multi-million-dollar homes. There is so much to do in La Jolla and you can easily spend the entire day exploring the city.

Where to eat:

What to do:


Bonus itinerary ideas:

  • Ride the MTS Trolley from Downtown San Diego to La Jolla UTC.

  • Attend a Padres Game.

  • Go on a city tour with Old Town Trolley Tours - This hop-on/hop-off tour is amazing. It takes you to all the top places in San Diego including Coronado. It's a great way to get around the city in a limited time.

  • Eat your way through Convoy, San Diego's Authentic Asian food destination. Once you arrive you will be surrounded by all types of food from Taiwanese to Shanghainese to Korean, just to name a few.

  • Go on a weekend brunch cruise!

  • Visit Southern California's oldest winery.


I hope your quick visit to San Diego is amazing and that this post is helpful with planning your itinerary!

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Aug 23, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent post steph! Good job!

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