San Diego is one of the most popular family vacation destinations in the United States. There are plenty of things to do in San Diego with kids so just be sure to plan enough time to tick as many items as possible off your bucket list.
1. San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo tops the list. Not only is it home to over 3700 rare and endangered animals, there is a beautiful display of over 700,000 exotic plants throughout the 100 acres. It’s pleasant to walk around the zoo which has nicely-maintained and spacious (for a zoo) animal enclosures. The zoo is dedicated to conservation and research. Highlights include Polar Bear Plunge, the pandas, Skyfari tram and other exhibits.
Live cams (Panda cam, ape cam, etc.) are available online should you like to prep the kids prior to a visit. We also like to go right when it opens as the weather is cool and some animals enjoy breakfast during this time. Location: Balboa Park
2. The Beach
San Diego is home to 70 miles of stunning coastline which means there are a number of beaches to choose from. The odds are that there is a family-friendly beach near where you are staying but here are my top picks.
Coronado Central Beach
This beach is in front of the Hotel Del Coronado though it extends quite a distance past the luxury hotel. The water is usually pretty calm here, with a nice flat sandy beach to chill out on. You can walk up to eat at the Del if you aren’t too sandy and dressed appropriately. Coronado Central Beach ranks highly on a number of national travel publication lists including Travel + Leisure. The north end is dog-friendly and good for surfing when waves cooperate. Location: Coronado
La Jolla Shores Beach
This is the beach for people who crave ocean activities. A number of surf schools teach at La Jolla Shores beach (I recommend Surf Diva ages 5 and up) and you can rent kayaks to tour the La Jolla Caves or, better yet, go with a guide. The beach is flat and sandy and great for kids especially because Kellogg Park’s playground and amenities are right here, too. It’s easy to walk to Avenida de la Playa, the main street in La Jolla Shores, for snacks (grab a sandwich at The Cheese Shop) or forgotten sunscreen. The parking lot is fairly sizable but go early during summer months to avoid issues. Location: La Jolla
Del Mar Beach
From 15th street in Del Mar through 29th street is an area of beach in front of beautiful homes that is very popular especially during the summer (when parking is tough). It’s walkable from a some of the most popular restaurants in Del Mar as well as L’Auberge Hotel and a few smaller Inns.
Another stretch of Del Mar beach is Torrey Pines State Beach, near the famous state reserve. Because it is administered by the state park system, you’ll need to pay to park at the kiosk. The most family-friendly strip of beach is the one that is closest to the highway. There are bathrooms, showers and lifeguards here as well as a fun little area where kids can play next to the lagoon. Location: Del Mar
Further north awaits Moonlight Beach which is a popular concierge recommendation because it has probably the most family-friendly amenities of any North County San Diego beach. Between picnic tables, fire rings, lifeguards, restrooms, volleyball courts, a snack bar and even equipment rentals, needs are very well taken care of here. Fun fact: It’s named Moonlight Beach because residents used to picnic here late night during the 1900s. Location: Encinitas
3. LEGOLAND California
The release of The LEGO Movie is no doubt going to spark even more interest in LEGOLAND California as they’ve added in a few extra exhibits in support of the movie. Also, the largest selection of LEGOs in the nation is at The Big Shop in the park. LEGOs can be shipped from here to anywhere in the world.
LEGOLAND California Resort consists of LEGOLAND California, SEA LIFE Aquarium, LEGOLAND Hotel, LEGOLAND Water Park and the soon-to-open LEGO Legends of Chima water park. The water parks are an additional cost of $20 above the LEGOLAND California ticket price. During the school year LEGOLAND California is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
If pressed for time, LEGOLAND California can be visited in a half-day. The park is best for younger kids (suggested age is between 2-12)… I think teens would have to be die-hard LEGO lovers to enjoy it as the rides might be too juvenile. If after visiting, you’d like to come back the next day, stop by Guest Services to purchase an upgrade. Also, the food at LEGOLAND California Resort outlets is surprisingly good though no alcohol is available anywhere inside the parks. Location: Carlsbad
4. Birch Aquarium at Scripps
For a peaceful hour or two, roam the Birch Aquarium at Scripps which is the public exploration center for the prestigious Scripps Institute of Oceanography. To the right, the impressive aquarium displays 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico and beyond. Turn left after the entrance to play with hands-on educational exhibits that teach the value of conservation.
Out back is a tidepool area where docents help visitors touch starfish and anemones. Bring your camera as the view over the ocean and La Jolla is spectacular. From December through April, join one of their whale watching tours. Location: La Jolla
5. Children’s Pool Seals
One of the best free things to do in La Jolla is a visit to the Children’s Pool seals. They’re cute, noisy and perhaps a bit stinky (the city is apparently working on this). It’s called the Children’s Pool because it’s a small stretch of beach protected by a partial sea wall that was originally intended for kids to have a safe place to swim. Well, the seals took it over. Some say they should go, but in the meantime, they’re here hanging out and sunbathing for all to see. You may not touch them. It is technically OK to swim here but the water is not of the greatest quality. It’s quite a scenic spot for photographs. Location: La Jolla
6. Balboa Park
The nation’s largest urban cultural park is home to 16 museums, a number of gorgeous gardens, the San Diego Zoo (mentioned above), restaurants and performing arts venues. The park itself is free to enter though the museums have individual ticket fees. Here a few museums that kids like though there are many other choices:
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center: This is one of our favorite museums for hands-on science education throughout 8 galleries featuring over 100 exhibits. Learn how gravity works, build stuff, watch movies in the world’s first dome IMAX theatre and then some.
San Diego Natural History Museum: Located across the courtyard from the Fleet, this museum has some smaller dinosaur bones and a number of exhibits regarding San Diego geology, ecosystems and history. Temporary exhibits are also well done. Right now there’s exhibits surrounding the Titanic, Ansel Adams, coffee and more.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum: North America’s largest model railroad museum (27,000 square feet) is a toy train enthusiast’s dream with four enormous scale and model layouts. Admire and tinker with toy trains here, too. The detail on the trains and scenery is staggering.
Location of all: Balboa Park
7. Petco Park
Even if the Padres aren’t in season it’s possible to take a behind the scenes tour of Petco Park. The tours are approximately 80 minutes in length and involve about 1.5 miles of walking on to the field, in the press box and more. The state-of-the-art, open-air ballpark boasts views of downtown and beyond. But, if the team is playing, definitely grab tickets for a game! Location: Downtown
8. SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego alone draws tourists to our city from all over the world. A number of special behind-the-scenes tours are available as well as dining with Shamu. Sesame Street Bay of Play entertains young kids with mild rides and lots to climb on. Manta roller coaster thrills older riders. Learn about penguins, rays, dolphins and much more in this beautifully-landscaped park They do serve beer–it’s a Busch park after all. Location: Mission Bay
9. New Children’s Museum
The goal of the New Children’s Museum is for children of all ages to experience the arts in ways that are meaningful to them. Their motto is, “think, play, create” and that’s exactly what kids do there through arts and crafts, hands-on exhibits and performing arts. The museum is appropriate for toddlers up to teenagers. Location: Downtown
10. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Over 2600 animals ranging from giraffes, elephants, lions and more roam in large, free-range enclosures at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Safaris to schedule range from the Africa Tram tour around the park to the Skyline Safari on a zipline over some of the animal enclosures. The park is noted for its California condor breeding program and the world’s largest veterinary hospital. Be aware that in the summer, it can get quite hot. Watching the afternoon cheetah run is one of the most popular attractions. Location: Escondido
The good news is that parents will enjoy most of these attractions just as much as kids do. Have questions? Feel free to ask!
Photo credits: istockphoto, Flickr/Lavender Dreamer, LEGOLAND, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, New Children’s Museum