First-time visitors to San Diego have a dazzling array of choices to make. Between the natural beauty of the beaches, parks, countless shopping and dining options, and a bustling nightlife, there's a world of possibilities. To help you make the most of a first-time visit, we've developed a special day-long itinerary highlighting some of the city's top attractions. You'll start your day at the San Diego Zoo, rightfully known as the finest zoological collection in the world. Next, it's on to Coronado for an afternoon of sun and sightseeing. In the evening, San Diego's vibrant downtown scene beckons.
The Zoo opens at 9 a.m., giving you several hours to explore. With approximately 4,000 animals on more than 100 lushly-planted acres, the best way to get your bearings is with a narrated tour on a double-decker bus. Your ticket is also good for an express bus that makes stops throughout the Zoo, so you can hop on and off at various points. Another great idea: an aerial tram ride providing a fantastic overview of the entire area. In addition to the Zoo's famous pandas, on loan from the People's Republic of China, top exhibits include the Polar Bear Plunge and Hippo Beach (both enclosures offer underwater vantage points); the brand new Monkey Trails exhibit, home to many endangered species; and the tropical jungle environs of Tiger River. For youngsters, the Children's Zoo with its petting corral of friendly animals is a perennial favorite. Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (extended hours during the summer); San Diego Zoo.
From the Zoo, it's an easy drive to the island (actually, a peninsula) of Coronado where you'll visit one of the nation's loveliest beaches. Named one of the top 10 in America by the Travel Channel, Coronado Beach is family-friendly and well-patrolled by lifeguards. Here, you can swim, play volleyball, build a sandcastle, or simply relax. The most popular stretch of sand is known as Central Beach, adjacent to the historic Hotel Del Coronado. Constructed in 1888, the charming red-roofed hotel has hosted numerous presidents and celebrities and was the setting for the movie "Some Like it Hot." To the north, the beach offers a designated area where dog owners can let their pets romp in the surf, while to the south, the Shores area is a popular spot for bodyboarding. The hotel offers some informal dining options, and you'll find several restaurants within walking distance of the beach and hotel.
After an afternoon of sun and sea, plan to spend your evening downtown. Depending on your interests, you can sightsee, shop, stroll, see a movie, dine, or dance into the night. Your first stop should be Horton Plaza, a multi-story, open air mall known for its eclectic architecture, people-watching opportunities and more than 100 stores and shops. Make a purchase here and you'll get three free hours of parking - ample time for shopping and for exploring the surrounding Gaslamp Quarter. Home to art galleries, boutiques, coffeehouses, neighborhood bars, swanky nightclubs and restaurants of every stripe, the Gaslamp Quarter offers something for every budget. Dining options range from family-style restaurants and chains to upscale steakhouses, Italian trattorias, tapas bars and Asian eateries. Several clubs and restaurants host live music (the House of Blues has a branch here) while others feature DJs, televised sports, or simply the buzz of lively conversations. Movie theaters include the Gaslamp Stadium 15 and the UA Horton Plaza; and if it's baseball season, you can catch a Padre game at the spectacular Petco Park.