40 Best Things To Do In San Diego With Kids
The list includes 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 as they are for kids.
Important note: San Diego’s annual Kids Free October promotion runs throughout the month which means that kids are free with a paying adult to many San Diego attractions. This means that it may not be necessary to purchase child tickets. Site partner aRes Travel has attractions that are participating in this promo clearly marked, in addition to discounted tickets. Take a look.
Table of Contents
- Best San Diego Attractions for Kids
- Best San Diego Museums for Kids
- 10. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
- 11. San Diego Natural History Museum
- 12. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- 13. San Diego Air and Space Museum
- 14. Museum of Man
- 15. San Diego Botanic Gardens
- 16. Birch Aquarium at Scripps
- 17. USS Midway Museum
- 18. New Children’s Museum
- 19. San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
- Best San Diego Beaches for Kids
- Fun Outdoor Activities in San Diego with Kids
- Other Seasonal Activities for Kids
- Best San Diego Tours 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 greater your savings. Or, choose the all-inclusive pass. (Buying an adult Go San Diego Card will not qualify your children for Kids Free October savings. To enjoy Kids Free October, you will need a ticket for the specific attraction you are visiting.)
1. San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo tops the list of things to do in San Diego with kids. 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. aRes Travel sells San Diego Zoo discount tickets that you can print and go straight to the gate with. Location: Balboa Park
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. 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. I’ve also written about the tigers of Tiger Trail. Buy San Diego Zoo Safari Park discount tickets on aRes Travel that you can print and go straight to the gate with. Location: Escondido
3. LEGOLAND California
LEGOLAND California is a great choice for things to do in San Diego with kids. Add in the success of The LEGO Movie as well as the largest selection of LEGOs in the nation at The Big Shop in the park (where LEGOs can be shipped from here to anywhere in the world) and you have one great San Diego attraction for kids.
LEGOLAND California Resort consists of LEGOLAND California, SEA LIFE Aquarium, LEGOLAND Hotel, LEGOLAND Water Park and CHIMA water park. The water parks are an additional cost of $20 above the LEGOLAND California ticket price. Note that 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
The 5-day park hopper ticket is only a few dollars more than a 1-day park hopper. You can buy discounted LEGOLAND tickets on Goldstar and Trusted Tours, though aRes Travel sells LEGOLAND discount tickets that you can print and head straight to the gate with.
4. Aquatica Water Park
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 and much more. Aquatica offers private cabana rentals are available by the day. Location: Chula Vista
5. SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego alone draws tourists to our city from all over the world. Regardless of how you or I feel about it, it would be negligent omit it from a list like this. A number of special behind-the-scenes tours are available. Sesame Street Bay of Play entertains young kids with mild rides and lots to climb on while Manta roller coaster thrills older riders. It’s possible to 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
6. Belmont Park
San Diego’s seaside amusement park is a great way to spend a half-day. 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. Tip: They serve Dole Whip and you can buy discounted unlimited ride tickets through Costco or Groupon. Location: Mission Beach
7. Old Town San Diego
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 a number of historic sites. The Whaley House is one of the coolest haunted houses in the country, 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 so check the event calendar. Location: Old Town
8. Seaport Village
Yes, it’s a touristy spot, but Seaport Village is fun seaside entertainment area for local and visiting families. We’re talking about a fudge store, cupcake shop, an awesome kite store, roaming entertainment, ocean views and great dining… over 50 restaurants and shops in all. It’s a great 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. Location: Downtown San Diego
9. 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. Balboa Park is free to enter though the museums have individual ticket fees. It is absolutely lovely to spend a day walking around here even without going into a museum, however, the most kid-friendly options are numbers 10 – 14 below. If you visit Balboa Park, our favorite al fresco, sit-down restaurant is Panama 66. If you anticipate spending a few days exploring Balboa Park at leisure, the Multi-Day Explorer Pass includes 7 days of museums and 1 day at the San Diego Zoo for one bundled price.
Best San Diego Museums for Kids
10. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center 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. Location: Balboa Park
11. San Diego Natural History Museum
Located across the courtyard from the Fleet, the San Diego Natural History 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. Location: Balboa Park
12. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is 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: Balboa Park
13. San Diego Air and Space Museum
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. Location: Balboa Park
14. Museum of Man
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. Location: Balboa Park
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. Location: Encinitas
16. 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 tide pool 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. This is a great educational option for things to do in San Diego with kids. Location: La Jolla
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 the two flight simulators (height restrictions apply). Some of the docents were actually stationed on board the ship. Buy USS Midway discount tickets on aRes Travel. Location: Downtown San Diego
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. This is one option of things to do in San Diego with kids that will spark their love of learning. Location: Downtown
19. San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
If you happen to be in the area, stop by the San Diego Children’s Museum which is 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. Location: Escondido
Best San Diego Beaches for Kids
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.
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 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
21. La Jolla Shores Beach
This is the beach for people who crave ocean activities (some listed below) The beach is flat and sandy and great for kids especially. Kellogg Park’s playground, grassy areas, and amenities are right here, too. Lifeguards patrol the area, there are a handful of fire pits and bathrooms are fairly nice (with showers). 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 parking issues. We list several things to do with kids at La Jolla Shores beach below. Location: La Jolla
22. Kayak the Sea Caves
Rent a double kayak, bring your own or join in on a tour. Kayaks are easy to launch from La Jolla Shores Beach for exploration of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. From above, you can see orange garabaldi 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 deaffening (but funny) though this is not something you should try on your own. I recommend a sea cave tour with Everyday California. Location: La Jolla Shores Beach
23. Snorkel or Swim with Leopard Sharks (Summer)
La Jolla Shores Beach is also home to the largest aggregation of leopard sharks in the world. They come starting in June but numbers peak around August and September. You’ll see them in even knee deep water but mostly while snorkeling (swim slowly). No, they don’t bite. Location: La Jolla Shores Beach
24. 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
25. Moonlight Beach
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
26. Mission Bay Beaches
The largest man 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. You can access the bay beaches in a number of places but Sail Bay Beach in front of Fanuel Park in Pacific Beach is a favorite. Location: Mission Bay.
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 surf board. Kids as young as five can take surfing lessons. It’s possible to 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. Location: Various
28. Children’s Pool Seals and La Jolla Sea Lions
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 O.K. to swim here but the water is not of the greatest 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. Location: La Jolla
29. Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego’s National Park is a fun one for all ages. It’s where Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is thought to have discovered California in 1542. 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). Location: Point Loma
30. Petco Park Baseball Game and/or Tour
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
31. Waterfront Park
This brand new park is a nice hub for families. Kids love the interactive water fountains (yes, they can play in them) in addition to play ground 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 Star of India and next door to the Wyndham San Diego Bayfront. Location: Downtown
32. A Falconry Lesson
From June – September it’s possible to enjoy a basic Falconry lesson by Sky Falconry at the Torrey Pines Gliderport and throughout the rest of the year at their Alpine ranch. You can read more about our basic falconry lesson. Location: La Jolla or Alpine
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. It has nine large sculptures, a circular “snake wall” (it’s 400′ long with varying heights) and maze entryway in addition to some bench seating. It’s all located in Kit Carson Park. Location: Escondido
34. The Stuart Collection at UC San Diego
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. You can download the iPhone app but it actually makes a fun scavenger hunt for kids or something fun to look out for when touring the campus with teens. Location: La Jolla
Other Seasonal Activities for Kids
35. Winter Tide Pooling
Tide pooling season begins in November and spans through about March when tides are low during the day. See sea creatures galore including sea anemones, hermit crabs, octopus, sea stars, sea slugs and more can be found in our pools. The 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. Location: Various
36. Whale Watching
Whale Watching is viable for about 9 months of the year here in San Diego but which type you see depends on the season. About 20,000 grey whales make the 10,000 mile migration from Alaska to the warm waters of Mexico. They’re best seen in San Diego 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. Blue whales are among the largest creatures on earth and are generally spotted from mid-June through September. A variety of local companies offer whale watching tours. Location: Pacific Ocean
37. 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 hay rides and other special events. Location: Carlsbad
Best San Diego Tours for Kids
38. San Diego Seal Tours
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, full-narrated tours on an amphibious vehicle that start in Seaport Village, tour scenic downtown spots and then submerge into the San Diego bay for skyline views and seal sightings. Join a Seal Tour at the Embarcadero or Seaport Village. Location: Downtown San Diego
39. Speed Boat Adventures
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. Location: Harbor Island
40. Old Town Trolley Tours
The orange and green Old Town Trolley Tours cars allow guests to hop on and off at various stops around San Diego. This 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. Tickets can be bundled in a variety of ways. Check aRes Travel for discounted tickets and or make sure it’s part of your Go San Diego Card, especially if you want to use it as transportation over multiple days. Location: Various stops from La Jolla to Downtown
How to Save Money on San Diego Attractions and Tours
I’ve woven in some tips for saving money while sightseeing in San Diego into this post. See San Diego Discounts: Experience the City for Less for a more detailed explanation.
Have questions? Feel free to ask!
What are your favorite things to do in San Diego with kids?
Photo credits: istockphoto, Flickr/Lavender Dreamer, LEGOLAND, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, New Children’s Museum