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Nestled along the southern shores of California’s Pacific coastline, San Diego is a city steeped in more than just white sand beaches and sunshine. Known for its sprawling green parks, bayfront views and vibrant streets, it’s a city you’ll want to spend far more than just a few days in.
Having just arrived on your first San Diego trip, you’ll want to get started on learning everything about it. From trying out some must-see experiences to following a trusty San Diego tour guide around some of the city’s most well-known historical hotspots and hidden gems, your first visit to San Diego is sure to be a magical one. Make sure you get the most out of your San Diego trip by exploring with Old Town Trolley Tours, who will take you from A to B in the most exciting, smile-inducing way — featuring all these must-see San Diego sights and so much more.
Must-Visit San Diego Attractions
As the city that has it all, it can often feel impossible to decide which San Diego attractions to tick off your list, but there are a few San Diego sights that are a must. No first-time visitor’s guide to San Diego is complete without a trip to San Diego Zoo — the perfect way to start your day before moving on to explore America’s largest cultural park, Balboa Park, and take in the colorful sights of San Diego’s lively downtown. As your trip moves on, you’ll take in many San Diego attractions, such as scenic Seaport Village and the ocean views of La Jolla and San Diego Bay. All these sights can be seen to their fullest with a San Diego tour guide by your side. This might be your first visit to San Diego, but it won’t be the last.
The number one stop on any visitor’s guide to San Diego, especially if it’s your first visit, San Diego holds deep pride in its city zoo, which is spread over 100 acres of verdant land filled with over 3,000 animals and 800 species from all corners of the globe. Hop on here as your first stop with Old Town Trolley Tours and spend hours winding between each point. Elephant lovers will be enchanted by Elephant Odyssey, and both children and adults alike by Koalafornia and the Children’s Zoo. When hours have passed here, hop back on the trolley to explore the next of your San Diego sights.
Far more than your usual city park, Balboa Park is San Diego’s crowning jewel. Also known as “the Smithsonian of the West” this San Diego trip-maker encompasses over 1,200 acres of museums, theater venues and beautiful botanical gardens, a true oasis away from the bustling vibe of the city. During your first visit to San Diego, make the Natural History Museum and Japanese Friendship Garden a must — with the help of the San Diego tour guide on your Old Town Trolley Tour.
As memorable at night as it is during the day, Downtown San Diego is the beating heart of the city. Never missing from any visitor’s guide to San Diego, it’s a place to shop, eat, dance and come together — from dawn till dusk, young to old. Your San Diego tour guide may suggest making two stops here: one for shopping and people watching at Horton Plaza during the day and another for dining out in the iconic Gaslamp Quarter in the evening. This buzzing San Diego attraction captures the hearts of everyone and offers everything from family-friendly food spots to artsy boutiques you can happily get lost in. Whatever your style, you’ll quickly find there’s something on this San Diego trip for everyone.
Seaside cities call for sea views, and San Diego is no exception. On your first visit to San Diego, you may find yourself gravitating towards the bayfront gem of Seaport Village. Opened in 1980, it’s quickly become one of the must-see San Diego sights on everyone’s list. Lunch, learning or simply strolling by the water, this shopping and dining complex has everything from galleries to smoothie stalls, offering a unique experience overlooked by beautiful oceanic views. Hop off here when you’re looking for a break from the midday sunshine and a bite to eat at one of many eclectic (but moreish) eateries.
Must-See Sights in San Diego
When people think of must-see San Diego sights, La Jolla is often the first one that pops into their heads. Ideal for the first visit to San Diego and a second, third and each one after, this stretch of azure blue sea and fine pale sand has become one of the poster children of Southern California’s offerings. Wherever you wish to explore along this beach, Old Town Trolley Tours has you covered. Begin with charming boutiques and views before stopping by picturesque La Jolla Cove to paddle in the water.
While many know San Diego sights as stretching out to sea, you can also catch sparkling city views when visiting San Diego Bay. A natural harbor and maritime history hotspot, it’s the perfect place on your San Diego trip to stop and smell the sea air. Take in many parts of this must-see San Diego sight with a San Diego tour guide, and if you’re after a little more adventure, why not try a cruise around North Bay or South Bay? Whether it’s for a sunset dinner or a whistle-stop tour, it’s one San Diego sight you won’t want to miss.
A big favorite among locals and tourists alike, whale watching can’t be missed by any visitor’s guide. San Diego is home to some of the best Pacific ocean views in the country — which means even more opportunities to see whales swimming majestically in their natural habitat. If you’re basing your San Diego trip around which whales and dolphins you’d like to see, note that sightings are seasonal; those wishing to catch sight of the elusive blue whale should visit between June and September.
Places to Stay in San Diego
Situated in the heart of San Diego’s Coronado Island, Crown City Inn Coronado has far more to it than softly shaded pastel rooms, a pool and a prime location. With Crown Bistro serving up the best in American and French cuisine, this gem is not one to be missed by any San Diego visitor’s guide — and for good reason. When you aren’t enjoying the all-day dining options, take the short 16-minute stroll to the nearest beach or make use of the inn’s free bicycles.
Everyone should stay somewhere they can see the skyline on their first visit to San Diego — even if only for a couple of nights. The comfort-first Best Western Plus Bayside Inn boasts balconies, complimentary breakfast and an on-site fitness room alongside a stellar location. The Maritime Museum is only a 15-minute walk away and the buzzing Gaslamp Quarter a mere mile; your San Diego trip starts here.
For those on a first-time visit to San Diego who wish to immerse themselves in the history of the iconic Gaslamp Quarter, Gaslamp Plaza Suites is one of the must-see San Diego sights in its own right. With marble walls and stairways, this European-style hotel was built in 1913 and houses the unique Melting Pot restaurant known for its decadent desserts. Simply step outside to enter the Gaslamp Quarter whenever you like.
How can I explore San Diego?
San Diego is a cityscape that spills from urban to lush, green parkland in mere miles — meaning there are many San Diego sights to see. Let someone else take you on your adventure. Take the pressure off of your first trip to San Diego with Old Town Trolley Tours. Led by a San Diego tour guide who puts the entertainment in transportainment, each friendly conductor is here to immerse you in San Diego, sight by sight, where you’ll learn all about the city and its colorful past. Hop on and hop off the trolley wherever and whenever suits you, with convenient stops located near all of San Diego’s top sights. There’s a reason no visitor’s guide to San Diego is ever without it.
Every San Diego trip needs something special to make it stand out. On your first visit to San Diego, try a ghost tour around the city with Ghosts & Gravestones. A must on any visitor’s guide, San Diego is filled with spooky spots perfect for exploring. From El Campo Santo Cemetery to Pioneer Park, learn about the darker past of the city with historic ghost tales from your spooky San Diego ghost host and a range of scare levels to suit everyone. Try one of these trolley tours in the fall for the ultimate spook factor, or all year round for a unique way of seeing the city.
Any visitor’s guide to San Diego will tell you that this is not a city to be lightly explored. With so much to see, do, eat and enjoy, we recommend at least 3 days in San Diego. Most people who visit come for between 5-7 days to truly appreciate it all. However, if you can only allow 3 days to visit, make sure you see some of the city’s most famous gems. With the help of a San Diego tour guide on an Old Town Trolley Tour, you won’t miss out on any of this city’s sparkling history. In any case, you’re sure to be charmed by San Diego, and you might find yourself back for more in the future.
San Diego has one of the warmest climates in California due to its prime location in SoCal. Summer is a popular time to visit, especially for families, but the weather may make it too hot and humid to explore. To avoid larger crowds and catch the weather at its most refreshing but temperate, we recommend you visit in spring or early fall.
The most important thing to know is that San Diego is a city for everyone. Filled with contrasts, it boasts a rich history and modern skyline, ocean panoramas and bustling food scenes. Considered to be relatively safe, there’s a reason people feel so at ease here. However, we advise you to always be on the lookout for pickpockets. Due to the warm climate, remember to always pack light clothing, but go heavy on the sunscreen to stay protected all day long. And finally, don’t skimp on the San Diego sights. It’s a city defined by museums, good food and nature — so take all the time you can to explore.