40 Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
Popular San Diego attractions, best museums for kids, beaches and free outdoor fun
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 of your bucket list.
The good news is that these San Diego attractions are just as fun for parents and I have tons of advice for how best to buy tickets.
Table of Contents
- Best San Diego Attractions for Kids
- Best San Diego Museums for Kids
- Best San Diego Beaches for Kids
- Fun Outdoor Activities in San Diego with Kids
- Best San Diego Tours for Kids
- Other Seasonal Activities for Kids
Best San Diego Attractions for Kids
Tip: If you plan on visiting two or more San Diego attractions, consider purchasing the Go San Diego Card sightseeing pass. They have a build-your-own pass option with savings starting at 20% off. The more attractions you add, the higher your savings will be Or, choose the all-inclusive Go San Diego Card which I have an exclusive 10% discount on through December 5, 2018.
Most of the ticketed attractions below are on the Go San Diego Card. Otherwise, I’ve listed the best place I know of (usually aRes Travel, a San Diego-based ticket seller) for discounted tickets where applicable under each attraction.
If visiting in October, Kids Free San Diego offers free admission, meals, and hotel stays at over 100 participating restaurants, hotels, and attractions. Adults will need to buy a qualifying ticket to take advantage of this promotion.
1. San Diego Zoo
Location: Balboa Park
The world-famous San Diego Zoo tops the list of things to do in San Diego with kids. It’s home to over 3700 rare and endangered animals and a beautiful display of over 700,000 exotic plants throughout its 100 acres.
Walking around the zoo’s maintained gardens is a pleasant way to spend a full-day or half-day. The San Diego Zoo is dedicated to conservation and pioneered cageless exhibits that replicate an animal’s natural habitat
Highlights include the Polar Bear Plunge, pandas, Skyfari tram (panoramic views), Children’s Zoo and Africa Rocks. Live cams (panda cam, ape cam, etc.) are available online should you like to get the kids excited before a visit.
We also like to go right when it opens as the weather is cool and some animals enjoy breakfast during this time. However, I would highly encourage you to check out their special experiences, some of which you join before the park opens like Early Morning with the Pandas.Buy Discounted San Diego Zoo Tickets
2. 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.
Tour on your own or schedule a safari (or both). Two of the most popular safaris include the Africa Tram tour around the park and the Skyline Safari zip line over some of the animal enclosures.
Be aware that in the summer, it can get quite hot, and that the animal enclosures can be spread out (these are mostly big animals, after all). Watching the afternoon cheetah run is one of the most popular attractions. We love the tigers of Tiger Trail, Nairobi Village (where the petting zoo is), and the new Walkabout Australia.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park also has live cams to check out.Buy San Diego Zoo Safari Park Discount Tickets
3. LEGOLAND California
LEGOLAND California is, of course, one of the most popular things to do in San Diego with kids. The resort consists of LEGOLAND California, SEA LIFE Aquarium, LEGOLAND Water Park, LEGOLAND Hotel, and LEGOLAND Castle Hotel.
If pressed for time, LEGOLAND California theme park can be visited in a half-day. The park is best for younger kids (suggested age is between 2-12). Teens would have to be die-hard LEGO lovers to enjoy it as the rides might be too young for them. The average visit to SEA LIFE Aquarium is about 45 minutes, and it’s a fun stop, also.
The food at LEGOLAND California Resort outlets is surprisingly good for a theme park though no alcohol is available anywhere inside the parks. Bring mini figures to trade with staff members.
Important: During the school year, LEGOLAND California closes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The water park is also seasonal. Check their calendar before planning a visit.Buy Discounted LEGOLAND Tickets
4. SeaWorld San Diego
Location: Mission Bay
SeaWorld San Diego alone draws tourists to our city from all over the world to enjoy up-close animal interactions, rides, and educational experiences.
Special behind-the-scenes tours give guests the opportunity to learn more about penguins, rays, dolphins, sea otters and more. Sesame Street Bay of Play entertains young kids with mild rides and lots to climb on. The Manta roller coaster and new Electric Eel roller coaster thrill older riders. SeaWorld San Diego uses their facilities to rescue local sea life, including the often famished La Jolla seals.
Most guests spend an entire day here. A half-day is doable if short on time.
Tip: Now you can buy a Quick Queue Premier pass to skip the lines! Discounted SeaWorld San Diego tickets are usually best bought through them directly.Buy SeaWorld San Diego Tickets
5. Aquatica San Diego Water Park (Seasonal)
Location: Chula Vista
San Diego’s only water park features a wide range of attractions for any level of swimmer including wave pools, lazy river, water slides up to 78′, interactive water play areas, private cabana rentals and much more. Discounted Aquatica San Diego tickets are most often purchased through SeaWorld directly.
The park is open in summer and select fall weekends so check the park calendar before going.Buy Aquatica tickets
6. Belmont Park
Location: Mission Beach
Break from the beach for a few hours to pop into San Diego’s seaside amusement park.
Between a historic roller coaster, an arcade, numerous rides, giant scoops of ice cream, a zip line, laser tag and more, Belmont Park is a great thing to do in San Diego with kids.
It’s located right on the beach and home to what are now a couple of pretty good restaurants. They even have a Dole Whip truck.
Tickets: You can buy discounted unlimited ride tickets sometimes through Costco or Groupon. The Go San Diego Card includes the all-access combo pass. Belmont Park now has an annual pass that residents may want to check out. Entrance to Belmont Park is free, but the cost of rides and activities can add up quickly here because kids love this park.
7. Old Town San Diego
Location: Old Town
Known as the birthplace of California, Old Town is fun to run around. In addition to a variety of shops and restaurants (many serve Mexican food), there is a lovely park and some historic sites.
The Whaley House is one of the coolest haunted houses in the country while the Seeley Stables is an old stagecoach stop. The Serra Museum showcases Kumeyaay Indians Spanish and Mexican exhibits of San Diego history starting in the 1700s and much more.
Old Town often has mariachis and people dressed in period costumes as well as other live entertainment. Check the event calendar. Kids also like popping into the shops.
8. Seaport Village
Location: Downtown San Diego
Yes, it’s a touristy spot, but Seaport Village is a fun seaside entertainment area for local and visiting families.
We’re talking about a fudge store, Frost Me Gourmet cupcakes (winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars), an awesome kite store (fly a kite on the nearby grassy area on the bay), roaming entertainment, ocean views, and dining at over 50 restaurants and shops in all.
It’s an excellent spot for family photos and within walking distance of many hotels in downtown San Diego. The historic carousel is fun to ride for younger kids.
9. Balboa Park
The nation’s largest urban cultural park is home to 16 museums (the most kid-friendly options are 10-14 below), many gorgeous gardens, the San Diego Zoo (mentioned above), restaurants and performing arts venues.
Balboa Park is free to enter though the museums have individual ticket fees. The museums are best visited using a Balboa Park Explorer pass (provides entrance to all museums, with an option to include the San Diego Zoo, for a specified number of days) or the Go San Diego Card.
Our favorite al fresco, counter-order restaurants are Panama 66 and the Japanese Tea Pavillion.
See also: Where to Eat and Drink in Balboa Park
Best San Diego Museums for Kids
10. Fleet Science Center
Location: Balboa Park
Fleet Science Center is one of our favorite museums for hands-on science education. Kids (and adults) love exploring the 100 exhibits throughout eight galleries. Learn how gravity works, build stuff, watch movies in the world’s first dome IMAX theatre and then some.
11. San Diego Natural History Museum
Location: Balboa Park
Located across the courtyard from the Fleet, the San Diego Natural History Museum fossils, scavenger hunts and exhibits regarding San Diego geology, ecosystems and history. Kids under 5 will love the new Backyard play area (parents can watch with latte in-hand from the cafe steps away).
12. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Location: Balboa Park
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is North America’s largest model railroad museum (27,000 square feet) and a toy train enthusiast’s dream with its four enormous scale and model layouts. Admire and tinker with toy trains here, too. The detail on the trains and the scenery is staggering.
13. San Diego Air and Space Museum
Location: Balboa Park
Go to the San Diego Air and Space Museum to learn about the history of flight from early balloon ascents to space travel. Over 50 aircraft hang from the rafters, and the various galleries showcase the Wright brothers, the Golden Age of flight, World Wars I and II, the Jet Age in addition to women in flight.
14. Museum of Man
Location: Balboa Park
Kids can channel their inner archeologist at the Museum of Man. The can also dress up as a Pharaoh in addition to learning about excavating and wrapping mummies. The iconic California Tower is here, and you can climb it with a reservation. This activity would only be suitable for older kids, however.
15. San Diego Botanic Gardens
If you’re looking for both a fun day outside with the kids and garden inspiration, this is your place. The San Diego Botanic Garden is home to 30 gorgeous gardens with themes ranging from fire safety to olive trees to plants native to the Canary Islands) in addition to the Hamilton Gardens filled with activities for kids. Guests can join a tour ranging from bird watching to various walks catered toward specific age groups.Buy San Diego Botanic Garden Tickets
16. Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Location: La Jolla
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is the public exploration center for the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.
Enter, and 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. On the other side, kids play with hands-on educational exhibits that teach the value of conservation.
A tide pool area in the back boasts panoramic ocean views over La Jolla Shores beach and is where docents help visitors gently touch starfish and anemones. And, there’s more.
I would also encourage you to take a look at their calendar of off-site programming, including whale watching tours (December through April), tide pool tours (winter), snorkeling with leopard sharks (summer), summer camps and other special events.
17. USS Midway Museum
One of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers is now a popular maritime museum home to 60 exhibits and 29 restored aircraft. Kids will love learning what life was like at sea on the USS Midway in addition to trying two flight simulators (height restrictions apply). Some of the docents lived on board the ship, and it’s one of the most unique museums you’ll ever visit.
See also: Tips for Visiting the USS Midway Museum
18. 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. It’s one of the things to do in San Diego with kids that will spark their love of learning early.
19. San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
If you happen to be in the area, stop by the San Diego Children’s Museum. It’s entirely dedicated to learning through play throughout 6000 square feet of indoor space and even more outside where there are chicken coops, worm farms and other investigative stations. The themes of water and energy conservation are present throughout.
Best San Diego Beaches for Kids
San Diego is home to 70 miles of stunning coastline which means there are many San Diego 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.
See also: 15 Best Beach Hotels in San Diego
20. 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 wide flat sandy beach to chill out on. You can walk up to eat at the Del and even rent chairs and umbrellas from their Del Beach area.
Coronado Central Beach ranks highly on national travel publication lists including Travel + Leisure. The north end is dog-friendly and suitable for surfing when waves cooperate.
See also: Detailed Guide to Coronado Beaches
21. La Jolla Shores Beach
Location: La Jolla
This beach suits people of all ages who crave ocean activities (some are listed below). The beach is flat, sandy and great for kids especially.
Kellogg Park’s playground, grassy areas, and amenities are right here, too. Lifeguards patrol the area, visitors may use the handful of fire pits (first come, first serve) and the bathrooms are reasonably nice.
Walk easily 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 reasonably big but go early during summer months to avoid parking issues.
We list several things to do with kids at La Jolla Shores beach below (22 and 23).
22. Kayak the Sea Caves
Location: La Jolla Shores Beach
Rent a double kayak, bring your own or join a tour. Kayaks launch easily from La Jolla Shores Beach for exploration of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. From above, you can see orange Garibaldi fish and our friendly sea lions.
You’ll pass by our sea caves. All but one are only visible from the ocean. Some tours will take you through Clam’s Cave where the barks of sea lions are almost deafening (but funny) though this is not something you should try on your own. I recommend a sea cave tour with Everyday California.
23. Snorkel or Swim with Leopard Sharks (Summer)
Location: La Jolla Shores Beach
La Jolla Shores Beach is also home to the largest aggregation of leopard sharks in the world. They arrive starting in June, but numbers peak around August and September. You’ll see them even in knee deep water but mostly while snorkeling (swim slowly). No, they don’t bite.
24. Del Mar Beaches
Location: Del Mar
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 difficult). 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. The state park system administers it so you’ll need to pay at a kiosk to park.
The most family-friendly strip of beach is located closest to the highway. Find bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards here as well as in addition to a fun little area where kids can play next to the lagoon.
25. Moonlight Beach
Further north awaits Moonlight Beach. It’s a favorite 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: The name Moonlight Beach stems from the fact that residents used to picnic here late at night during the 1900s.
26. Mission Bay Beaches
Location: Mission Bay
The largest human-made aquatic park in America is Mission Bay. In addition to vendors who offer a myriad of water sports from water skiing to SUP to aqua cycles, bay beaches are great for young families because there are no waves. The sand is soft, and water is as calm as can be (though it can be murky in spots). Access the bay beaches in some places, but Sail Bay Beach in front of Fanuel Park in Pacific Beach is a favorite.
See also: 8 Best Mission Beach Hotels in San Diego
Fun Outdoor Activities in San Diego with Kids
27. Learn to Surf
One of the coolest things to do in San Diego with kids that embodies the California lifestyle is to get them up on a surfboard. Kids as young as five can take surfing lessons. Take private lessons, group lessons or even enroll in a half-day summer camp (by the day or week).
I would recommend Surf Diva at La Jolla Shores or San Diego Surfing School in Pacific Beach, though there are accredited surf schools all up and down the coast.
28. Children’s Pool Seals and La Jolla Sea Lions
Location: La Jolla
One of the best free things to do in La Jolla is to visit the seals and sea lions. They’re cute, noisy and perhaps a bit stinky.
The most popular location is called the Children’s Pool, a small stretch of beach protected by a partial seawall 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, and most of the time people may not walk on the beach here.
It is technically okay to swim at the Children’s Pool, but the water is not of the highest quality. It’s quite a scenic spot for photographs. Walk from here to the Cave Store along Coast Blvd. and you’ll also see a myriad of sea lions.
29. Cabrillo National Monument
Location: Point Loma
San Diego’s National Park is a fun one for all ages. Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is thought to have discovered California in 1542 at Cabrillo National Monument.
In addition to panoramic views of downtown San Diego over the bay, other sights here include the iconic lighthouse, a visitor’s center where kids can earn a Junior Ranger stamp, lovely trail walks and fantastic tide pools (best viewing is November–March when low tides typically happen during the day).
30. Petco Park Baseball Game and Tour
Even if the Padres aren’t in season, 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. Petco Park boasts some of the best sightlines in baseball.
31. Waterfront Park
Families love this big waterfront park (hence the name) with its interactive water fountains (yes, they can play in them) and playground equipment. The large grassy area is great for picnics, games and they even show outdoor movies here in the summer. The views over the harbor are also spectacular. It is located across from the Maritime Museum of San Diego and next door to the Wyndham San Diego Bayfront.
32. Falconry Lessons
Location: La Jolla, Alpine, Ramona
The Torrey Pines Gliderport is also home to some cool falconry and owl experiences through Total Raptor eXperience where participants will enjoy the up-close interaction and learn to fly a raptor. All ages are welcome in the introductory class.
We enjoyed a falconry lesson with Sky Falconry at the Torrey Pines Gliderport a few years ago. They offer these lessons now only at their Alpine ranch. I would highly recommend them.
33. Queen Calafia’s Magic Circle
A somewhat hidden gem in North County, Queen Califia’s Magic Circle is the only American sculpture garden by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle who is famous for colorful mosaics. This display includes nine large sculptures, a circular “snake wall” (400 feet long with varying heights), and a maze entryway in addition to some bench seating. Find it in Kit Carson Park.
34. The Stuart Collection at UC San Diego
Location: La Jolla
Another striking art installation is woven throughout the campus of UC San Diego. The Stuart Collection has 18 rather large pieces of public art ranging from an actual house hanging off the side of the Engineering Building (Fallen Star by Doh Ho Suh), steel trees, and the Sun God by Niki de Saint Phalle.
It makes a fun scavenger hunt for kids or something fun to look out for when touring the campus with a potential student. Download the map.
Best San Diego Tours for Kids
35. San Diego Seal Tours
Location: Embarcadero or Seaport Village (Downtown)
Yes, even San Diego has the famous bus-boats that start off on land and head into the water. San Diego Seal Tours are 90-minute, fully-narrated tours on an amphibious vehicle that tour scenic downtown spots and then submerge into the San Diego bay for skyline views and seal sightings.
36. Speed Boat Adventures
Location: Harbor Island (Downtown)
Even if you’ve never driven a boat, you can drive these. Speed Boat Adventures has boats that are 13′ mini speed boats with quiet, eco-friendly motors that carry up to three people (small children sit in the middle). Boats have a two-way communicator so you can hear narration from the guide. It’s a fabulous way to see the San Diego Harbor and they even do sunset tours.Buy Speedboat Adventures Tickets
37. Old Town Trolley Tours
Location: Various stops from La Jolla to Downtown
The orange and green Old Town Trolley Tours cars allow guests to hop on and off at various stops around San Diego. This service can eliminate the need for a rental car in San Diego.
Download the trolley’s interactive map on to your phone for information about stops, attractions, and restaurants near stops and more.Buy Old Town Trolley Tickets
Other Seasonal Activities for Kids
38. Winter Tide Pooling
Tide pooling season begins in November and spans through roughly March when tides are low during the day. See sea creatures galore including sea anemones, hermit crabs, octopus, sea stars, sea slugs and more live in our tide pools.
Birch Aquarium leads tide pool tours near Scripps Pier at La Jolla Shores. Other great locations include the Cabrillo National Monument, Shell Beach in La Jolla, Tourmaline Surfing Park in Pacific Beach, in front of the Hotel Del Coronado and more.
39. Whale Watching
Location: Cruises typically depart from Downtown San Diego
Whale Watching is viable for about nine months of the year here in San Diego. The types of whales seen depend on the season.
Roughly 20,000 grey whales make the 10,000-mile migration from Alaska to the warm waters of Mexico annually to give birth. Grey whales swim in offshore mostly from mid-December to April.
Your chances of seeing them from land (Torrey Pines State Park and Cabrillo National Monument are two excellent spots) are better earlier in the season as they tend to swim a bit closer to shore when en route to Mexico.
Blue whales are among the largest creatures on earth and spotted between mid-June and September. A variety of local companies offer whale watching tours.
40. Carlsbad Flower Fields
Every spring, a 50-acre Carlsbad hillside turns into an almost rainbow of color as thousands of ranunculus flowers bloom against an ocean backdrop. It’s a tradition going over 60 years strong. The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch is a family-friendly San Diego attraction open to the public for about 6-8 weeks, with hayrides and other special events.
What are your favorite things to do in San Diego with kids?