San Diego 101

What Makes San Diego Vacations So Great?

(How Much Time Do You Have?)


I’ve got a cousin who lives near Darwin, Minnesota (home of the “world’s largest twine ball made by one man”).

Let’s say my cousin was looking for even more spice in her life and is considering a San Diego vacation. She asks what’s the big deal about San Diego?

How Do I Top The Twine Ball?

I’m not going to tell her that San Diego County is a fascinating multi-cultural metropolis of around 3 million residents that straddles the Mexican border. She can read that elsewhere. She wants to know why San Diego vacations are so popular and what she should do about it. Perhaps you have similar questions. By the way, Darwin is a nice town; check it out if you’re in the Twin Cities and have time for a drive in the country.

San Diego Vacations—Why So Popular?

The main reasons San Diego is so popular are

  • The weather
  • The beautiful geography
  • The fact that there is so much to do here.

The first two reasons have actually led to the third. That is, inviting year-round weather and a beautiful geographical setting have given motivation to crafty entrepreneurs over multiple centuries to create cool destinations like Sea World, the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego Zoo, Hotel del Coronado, and a bazillion other activities (the presence of a handy all-season harbor didn’t hurt either; speaking of the harbor, be sure you visit the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum. This vessel was at the center of the evacuation of Saigon on April 30, 1975 and the museum IS the ship plus a bunch of other fascinating exhibits). San Diego started out as a hangout for Juan Cabrillo in September of 1542, and it’s been going strong more or less ever since. Another reason for the popularity of San Diego vacations is that the city of San Diego is close to a lot of other great places. It is a reasonable drive out to the Anza Borrego wilderness, or the old mining town of Julian, or the Mexican city of Tijuana, or the Temecula Valley Wine Country, or even up to Orange County and Los Angeles.

Read About the Guru’s Weekend on Coronado Island!

The challenge that always befalls planners of San Diego vacations is that there is too much to do in too little time. It’s even tougher (but more fun) if you find yourself with plans to spend time in other parts of SoCal on the same trip. So you must do some strategic planning. Let’s ask some questions to help you focus on where you’ll want to spend time; what are you trying to accomplish?

San Diego Vacations — What Is Your Mission?

Is this a vacation where visiting theme parks and attractions are secondary, and you mainly want to be on or around the beach—that is, right on the sand and water? Of course most of San Diego is around the beach more or less; certainly compared to Darwin, MN. But if you’re looking for a great place to spend time in the sun, on the sand and in the water, that will influence where you stay and how much time you spend at Sea World or the Zoo.

Be patient and we’ll steer you to resources to find lodging that ranges from relative economy to waterfront resorts to private condos for rent (renting out condos and homes is perhaps more common in San Diego than up in the LA area for some reason). If you stay very near or on the beach, you’ll pay more and naturally will want to enjoy the beachfront ambiance and amenities for which you’re shelling out mucho dinero (Hey, we’re practically in Mexico here!).

The flip side is that if you’re coming for the attractions, you’ll spend less time at your beachfront retreat and may wish to instead stay at a more modestly priced hotel a ways inland.  Save the reduced hotel costs for admission tickets.  But if the beach is where you want to be, there are homes in Ocean Beach (many folks build their San Diego vacations around beach house rentals), Mission Beach, resort hotels in San Diego Harbor, the Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island and scads of other choices.

Sea World hotels and lodging

What Kind of Beach Experience Do You Want?

Do you want to hang out around the harbor (keeping your shorts and shoes or sandals on)? Or do you want to be on a towel or in a beach chair in a wet swim suit, sand clinging to your feet? Do you want to surf, or is relaxing on a hotel balcony with a nice view as close as you need to get to the seawater?

San Diego vacations offer all of the above. You may have some in your group that want to surf and others that don’t need to spend any time on the sand. So think that through now. With so many divergent options, it really might be smart to write this out on paper or on a spreadsheet.

If this is a vacation to enjoy the weather and ocean views, but primarily to visit the many fun attractions, then you need to make a list of the dozens of options. Add up the time needed for each one and fit that into your schedule. Do you also want a day or two out on the sand? Great, but that burns hours that could be spent on an aircraft carrier or smelling yaks.

Here’s a partial list of some of the major attractions, and a range in how much time you might want to spend on each one. Some simple arithmetic and differential calculus will help you figure out how many weeks you need to see them all, or how to fit them into a San Diego vacation of finite length.

My slide rule gives me a range from around 9 to over 21 days NOT including any time spent bodysurfing or relaxing by the hotel pool. And you do want to break up the activity with some slower days to relax. San Diego vacations composed of all action take some of the fun out of things, especially if you have small children. Pace yourself. By the way, here is a clever site with a clickable map that will take you to many of the local attractions; we offer some other good websites below.

Older kids may want to be on the move all the time (especially those with ADD) but giving them a half day or full day near the hotel or to just hit the beach is important. Also, if you have nap-takers, you may want to try and be back to the hotel in the afternoon, before heading back out in the evening (summer evenings are really great in these parts; sometimes a bit chilly near the water but often perfect).

Now, if you plan to include a trip up to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Hollywood, Universal Studios and the like, that requires some additional mental calisthenics. It’s a solid 90 minutes driving time to Knott’s and Disneyland in Orange County and another hour up into Los Angeles County. That’s if traffic is kind to you. So it is potentially 5+ hours of round-trip driving time, with rush hour at both ends if you do it wrong. What’s the best approach?

First, you don’t need to go to L.A. and O.C. if you just want to get to the beach; San Diego has plenty of great beaches. Now, if you really want to check out the Santa Monica pier or the wacky folks at Venice Beach, then decide how important that is to you.

How many days can you spare up in northern southern California? Only one? OUCH! But hey, it’s doable. You could get up at the crack of dawn and be up to one of the theme parks by opening time (and miss the rush hour if you leave early enough). You could stay late and come back after closing time, which could be pushing midnight.

Safe to say you’ll want to make the next day a slow, relaxing day to sleep in back at your San Diego hotel. You’ll be frustrated to try and cram in Disneyland like this, especially with Disney’s California Adventure right there. The park you pick depends on your interest; roller coaster fans must go to Six Flags Magic Mountain and/or Knott’s. Simpsons and Spiderman fans (or at least Hollywood fans) gotta go to Universal Studios. Check our pages on those parks for tips.

You can see that you might want to book an O.C. or L.A. hotel room if you have any ambitions of seeing more than one theme park in a day. A few hours at Universal followed by some time cruising the sights in Hollywood could be done in one lonnnggg day but you’ll feel very rushed. Obviously, if you have planned in some nights up in Los Angeles, you now simply need to figure out how to see all there is up there in a few days. Any chance you can make this a 2-week trip?

San Diego Vacations — Getting Around

Do you need a rental car if you’re flying in (or taking AMTRAK, a very reasonable option by the way)? You could have a very fine San Diego vacation without a vehicle, as most of the cool stuff in San Diego is closer together than in Los Angeles and Orange County.

Between the San Diego Trolley, the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) and the Coaster commuter trains, you can blow into town, get to your hotel (many hotels have airport shuttle, or there are private shuttle companies as in most big cities), and move around town by public transportation.

There is one main airport, San Diego International Airport Lindbergh Field. The airport is not far from many of the hotels and the downtown train station (the airport is down next to the harbor; sometimes you might think they are going to land that USAIR flight on one of the Navy carriers). The historic Santa Fe Depot is the main station that will connect you with the other forms of public transit. The MTS website has some great information; even if you drive or rent a car, you’ll want to leave it parked for much of the time given the nice bus and trolley options available.

San Diego Vacations — The Best Specialty Websites

I’ve examined a number of websites with San Diego vacation information. There are quite a few good sites, but I want to tell you about what I’ve found to be particularly helpful. The San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau operates a site that is really top-notch, with links to other complementary websites. They will tell you about activities, shopping and dining, help you find lodging and offer additional tips. This is a good place to start.

Another site with good information on San Diego vacations is operated by the city of San Diego. It is not as fun visually, but does offer simple listings of the many activities, museums and attractions.

Here is a site with information specific to the historic Gaslamp Quarter near downtown. There’s a lot of history here, as it was one of the first areas targeted for major commercial development back in the mid-1800s. It’s had a lot of ups and downs over the decades, but now is very vibrant and appealing. The GaslampQuarter site has a nice map with details on most of the historic buildings.

For insider information on another important area of interest, you might want to visit the website offered by the Old Town San Diego Chamber of Commerce, where you’ll find a helpful short video and other good information. On that site you’ll find a link to another site for “Old Town State Park,” which is run by the State of California. That site has a bit of history, but also click on the Stores, Restaurants & Museums tab in the upper left of the Home page to get a better idea of what you’ll find.

Of course most of the major attractions (SeaWorld, San Diego Zoo, etc.) have their own websites with lots of specific information. Hopefully our discussion above will help you do some strategic thinking about your San Diego vacation objectives, how much time you have available and your budget. Then check out the individual websites for important specifics. This may be a process of filtering out attractions that are less essential; that is, you will likely want to see much more than your schedule will permit.

So start with the big Wish List and rate each option with a 1, 2 or 3 rating, 1 being most urgent. Maybe everybody in your family should do this and see which attractions overlap as high-priority destinations. Decide on the more time-consuming items first; anything that requires a full day or more should probably be considered first. Then you can add the shorter activities. Leave some time for relaxing along with the action; San Diego vacations are more fun if you mix it up a bit.