What to See in Two Days in San Diego
San Diego is a fantastic city with lots to see and do. We were recently in San Diego for a conference and extended our stay by a couple of days so that we could take advantage of being in the city to see more than just the inside of the hotel where the conference took place. We stayed close to both the Gaslamp district and Balboa Park. We were travelling without our kids on this trip so we were able to do a lot more walking than we would have been able to do with little feet and short strides accompanying us. San Diego – at least the parts we visited – is a very walkable city. We did take public transit a couple of times while we were in town and found it easy to navigate. Each of the things we did during our two days would also be great to do with kids.
In our two days we went to the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, Whale Watching and Bike Riding on Coronado Island. Details of each are included below.
San Diego Zoo – It Started with a Roar!
We are generally not big fans of zoos because they often don’t have enough space for the animals. We decided to visit the San Diego Zoo because many people told us we should go to the zoo when we told them we were going to San Diego. The San Diego zoo has a strong focus on conservation and in addition to the main zoo, which is located in Balboa Park and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary on that site, they also have the San Diego Zoo Safari Park where the animals have a much larger habitat. We didn’t have time to get out to the Safari Park during our visit. We could have easily spent the full day at the zoo. Since we had limited time, we spent a little more than half the day, arriving when gates opened and leaving in early afternoon.
The San Diego Zoo has its origins in the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition and the animals left behind from that exhibition. The exhibition took place in Balboa Park and many of the exhibition building remain in the park. The idea for the zoo came from a local physician who reportedly heard the roaring of a lion at the exhibition. He launched the local zoological society that eventually grew into the zoo San Diego has today.
When we arrived at the zoo we started out by getting on the double decker bus tour that takes you around most of the zoo. It was a great way to orient ourselves and since we rode on the top level of the bus, we were able to see some of the animals better than from the ground level. The tour helped us cover more ground more quickly, learn more about the zoo and the animals in the zoo and figure out where we wanted to spend more time. The zoo also has a hop-on, hop-off bus with four stops to help you get around the zoo. The Skyfari, which takes you from one side of the zoo to the other in four person cable cars, is a worthwhile trip to get an arial view of the zoo, some of Balboa Park and parts of the city.
Tickets are $52 and up for adults and $42 and up for kids. All prices in US dollars
San Diego Zoo Animals
To be honest, we have a lot of pictures of the animals that we saw. Since there are three other activities to cover, I’ve included a limited selection of those photos.
This is not the lion who’s roar started the zoo, but he was very vocal. We arrived at the lion enclosure just as he came walking past rumbling and roaring. There is also a lioness in the enclosure and the lions are close to the leopard enclosure, the elephants and the sloths. The zoo is building a new African animal exhibit scheduled to open in the summer of 2017.
There are two hippos in the hippo pond and one side of the pond is a glass wall so you can get up close with the hippos without risk of being crushed. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this close to a hippo before. There was a little girl there at the same time as us who was ecstatic at the site of these hippos and who could barely contain her excitement.
Most of the giraffes live at the Safari Park. There were five or six at the zoo when we visited.
We live in Canada, so Flamingos are a pretty exotic animal for us to see. They were very noisy! The flamingos are right at the front entrance to greet you when you arrive at the zoo.
This large bird is a Secretary Bird. It hunts primarily from the ground and even though it is a mixture of greys and white in colour, I thought it was a beautiful and fascinating bird.
Balboa Park is a large park in San Diego, first set aside in 1868, that is home to the San Diego Zoo, 17 museums, numerous gardens, performing arts spaces, restaurants, the world’s largest outdoor organ, a carousel and lots of green space for walking and fantastic architecture to admire.
Much of the architecture in Balboa park is in a Spanish style. This building made me think of a Spanish church. We didn’t have enough time to investigate the many museums in the park and learn more about each of the buildings. We took the opportunity to wander and enjoy the sun.
We passed by this reflecting pool a couple of times and each time saw different things. We saw fish, a great blue heron and 15 year old girls having their birthday photos done, which is apparently a big deal. We saw a few girls dressed up in ornate dresses with professional photographers and lighting set ups. You can see one in this photo down by the far end of the pool. The pool is outside the botanical garden building.
The roof of the botanical building, which was built for the 1915 exhibition, is entirely made of wood lath. It lets the rain and light in. There is a huge variety of plants in the building. Some of which were very familiar to us, like tulips and hyacinths, and others that were completely foreign to us. If you are interested in plants or just want some time with lush greenness, this building is worth a visit.
In spite of its appearance, this is apparently not a giant head of lettuce. It is actually a type of fern.
San Diego Tourism provided us with free passes to go on a whale watching trip with Hornblower whale watching. Opinions and sunburn are my own.
San Diego is home to a large naval base which is the principal home port for the US pacific fleet. There is a significant naval air station as part of the base. The Hornblower pier is beside the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum. On the way out of the port to open water to watch for whales we passed by the naval base. We saw a docked aircraft carrier and were heading out of port at the same time as a destroyer. The boat captain provided an excellent commentary as we left the port providing details of what we were seeing and some of the history of what had been achieved by naval aviators operating out of this base.
On our way out of the port we encountered the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt aircraft carrier coming into port. This aircraft carrier and the one we passed coming in were smaller than I expected.
We went out in February, which is a prime time of year to see Gray Whales migrating south from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the lagoons in Mexico where they give birth. We saw lots of surfacings by whales coming up to breathe and we had the opportunity to see several whale tails as they submerged.
The Gray Whale has a distinctive heart-shaped spray if you catch it from the right angle and happen to take a photo at exactly the right moment. We also saw dolphins playing around the bow of the boat and sea lions lounging on buoys in the harbour.
When we went out whale watching I had no idea that we would be followed by the man in black.
After whale watching we went to the pier immediately beside the Hornblower pier and got on the ferry to Coronado Island. While it isn’t a true island, it might as well be. It sits between the San Diego waterfront and Pacific Ocean. The north half of the island is the naval base. The southern half is home to a residential community, hotels and beautiful beaches. I didn’t ask about the prices of the homes on the island, but given that the only real estate signs we saw we from Sotheby’s and Berkshire Hathaway I suspect that they were probably out of my price range.
Once we arrived on the island, we found a bike rental shop in amongst the boutiques situated around the ferry landing. They provided a map and we set off towards the hotel Coronado, a distinctive hotel on the beach. We looped around the southern portion of the island and back to the ferry landing. It was a beautiful ride and we spent some time walking along the beach.
Obviously we had a terrible time here at the beach. The bike shop provided us with a lock so we locked up our bikes and headed out for a walk in the sand.
We watched the sandpipers digging for food and playing in the surf.
After our bike ride, we returned the bikes, grabbed some ice cream and watched the sunset while we waited for our ferry ride back to downtown San Diego.
Where to Stay in San Diego?
San Diego has plenty of hotels in the central Gaslamp neighbourhood by the harbour. We looked at the hotels, which were all pretty pricey for our budget so we decided to check out AirBnB for the first time. We found a great place that was a 45 minute walk from the harbour and a 30 minute walk from Balboa Park. If you are looking for a place to stay, I happily recommend this apartment where we stayed. It was an apartment on the second floor of a house and our host Jared was very helpful. Included with the apartment is all the useful amenities like Wifi, Netflix and a neighbourhood guide. Jared also provides a free pass to the San Diego Zoo for all of his guests who stay three nights or longer.
If you decide to try out AirBnB for a trip to San Diego or anywhere else, please consider using my referral code (www.airbnb.ca/c/chrisf10302) when you book your trip and I will receive a small referral credit that I can use towards our next trip.
Have a great time in San Diego!