Orlando has Mickey, Chicago has deep-dish pizza, and San Diego has an amazing bounty of wildlife, both in parks and roaming free. Here’s our 36-hour guide to it all.
5:30 p.m. Trip to Antarctica
Feeling overheated or exhausted from your travels? Relax at the SeaWorld’s Penguin Encounter, where the temperature remains a refreshingly chilly 25 degrees Fahrenheit and a moving walkway pulls you past 300 Arctic and subarctic penguins as they swim and waddle around the snow-filled habitat.
8 p.m. Sunset Ride
Go for a ride on the park’s Bayside Skyride just as the setting sun casts a golden apricot glow on the evening sky. Comfy, open-air chairlifts glide slowly over picturesque Mission Bay on the six-minute round-trip, affording 360-degree views of the park and bay below.
8 a.m. Bird Calls
SoCal’s only coastal lagoon not intersected by roads or rail lines, the isolated Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Reserve is an ideal bird sanctuary. Since birds are most active and vocal in the morning, head to this 1,051-acre reserve early and bring binoculars to scan for the more than 370 species that have been spotted on-site, including the endangered light-footed clapper rail and the California brown pelican.
10 a.m. Butterfly HQ
The 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, located 15 minutes north of Tijuana Slough, may be best known for its brilliant display of native plants. But in one garden, sage, monkey flower, and fuchsia-flowered gooseberry were specifically planted to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. It worked. The garden, which is intersected with walking trails and benches, is a prime nesting ground for the tiny fliers.
1:45 p.m. Go Wild
Located on the northern end of the bay is the San Diego Natural History Museum, the third-oldest scientific institute west of the Mississippi. Take advantage of the other patrons grabbing lunch, and catch a 1:45 p.m. showing of Wild Africa (offered through April 2017), a 25-minute film in the state-of-the-art 3D theater that plunges you into the habitats of the creatures living on the world’s wildest continent.
4 p.m. Zoo View
Instead of jumping right into various exhibits upon arrival at the adjacent San Diego Zoo, hop a ride on the Skyfari aerial tram to the northern end of the park. On the way, you’ll get a prime bird’s-eye view of hippos and monkeys and surrounding Balboa Park, so when you disembark beside the Polar Bear Plunge, you’ll have a better idea of how to chart your way back through the park.
5:30 p.m. Huggable Cub
Save the zoo’s most beloved residents – the giant pandas – for last once the crowds have begun to head home. The zoo has had a love affair with these giant lumbering creatures since two of them came to visit for 100 days in 1987. Today, three giant pandas call this place home: Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Xiao Liwu, born here in 2012. Walkways wrap around two enclosures, where the black-and-white bears chow down on bamboo grown on-site.
8 a.m. Morning Constitutional
Get out in the early morning cool with a moderate hike through Tecolote Canyon Natural Park. Tecolote means “owl” in Spanish, but you likely won’t see any of the nocturnal birds of prey this early, so keep your eyes peeled instead for other raptors and hummingbirds as you trek the six-and-a-half-mile network of trails through the canyon’s rolling hills.
10 a.m. Coral Education
Located on a coastal bluff just 10 miles north of Tecolote, the Birch Aquarium at the acclaimed Scripps Institution of Oceanography is nice and quiet on Sunday mornings. Head straight to the popular Hall of Fishes. Showcasing more than 60 Pacific Ocean habitats in 60 tanks, it features the behemoth 70,000-gallon kelp forest tank home to the endangered giant black sea bass.