From beaches to theme parks, California is a treasure trove of sights and experiences for families. This list of fun things to do in California with kids will help you decide exactly what to add to your family vacation itinerary.
I was born and raised here in the Golden State. Now, I help people plan vacations to it. So, I can tell you that it takes most travelers multiple trips to cover the attractions and activities on this bucket list.
The easiest strategy for first-time visitors is to pick one or two in the same city or region and road trip between them. Your kids will ask to come back, so it will be easy to explore the rest during future holidays.
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1. San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park houses over 4,000 animals from 800 species and is also known for its beautiful natural features — it’s also a certified botanical garden — and conservation emphasis. Highlights include polar bears, the state-of-the-art elephant care facility, koalas, Galapagos tortoises, and hippo habitats.
Kids love the play structures, keeper talks, and crossing the Zoo from one side to the other on the Skyfari Aerial Tram. If you are pressed for time, take a look at some of their private guided tours that can zip you around the park.
Tip: Don’t forget about the other San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Park — San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You also can find discount San Diego Zoo Tickets and cheaper San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets through me.
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2. Disneyland Resort
Disneyland Resort, with its two Disney parks — Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park — is definitely one of the top things to do in California with kids, not to mention likely also a trip down memory lane for parents and grandparents.
Every kid (and adult, I might argue) should visit Disneyland Park, the original Walt Disney park at least once in their life. Here guests of all ages can explore Fantasyland rides like Dumbo, ride Space Mountain in Tomorrowland, and walk through The Sleeping Beauty Castle. And, let’s not forget classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s A Small World, and Haunted Mansion, among others. Plus, there’s Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, one of the best Disneyland rides.
New this year are Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the latest Disney ‘land’ San Fransokyo Square, and the fantastic ‘reimagined’ Adventureland Treehouse, which will keep the kids busy for ages.
The little ones will also get excited to snap photos with their favorite Disney princess or classic characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Don’t forget your famous Dole Whip frozen dessert.
The newer Disney California Adventure Park is just steps away (which is why Park Hopper tickets make sense). The Avengers Campus is a firm favorite, as is the Incredicoaster for thrill-seeking fans of The Incredibles. Pixar fans will delight in Toy Story Mania as well as the epic Radiator Springs Racers ride in Cars Land.
You’ll find lots of restaurants with varied cuisine that’s different than most amusement park fare, plus you’ll even find a few places that serve alcohol, allowing parents to kick back and relax.
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3. Learn How to Surf
Yes, your kids (and you) can learn how to surf on a California family vacation. Pick one of the best family beaches in California, like La Jolla Shores Beach or Huntington Beach (both mentioned below) that offer surfing lessons.
These schools have wetsuits and foam boards. Usually, the recommended age is 5 and older, but some younger kids who are good swimmers start younger (talk to the school). It is entirely possible for children to stand up on a board in the first lesson.
If taking a California family vacation during the summer months, keep an eye out for surf camps. Some will let you drop in for the day instead of booking an entire week. When you’re coming in from other parts of the United States that don’t have beaches, trust me, your child will love telling friends about cool it is to hang ten.
4. La Jolla Beaches and Tide Pools
The tide pools in La Jolla are some of the region’s best-kept secret destinations if you happen to be visiting during the winter. You can walk along Coast Blvd in the Village to explore multiple habitats with hermit crabs, sea stars, rockfish, sea cucumbers, sea anemones, and more that become exposed during minus tides.
During nearly any time of the year, this is the same area where you’ll find the famous, frolicking La Jolla sea lions and seals, another must-do in San Diego with kids. Sea lions live on the La Jolla Cove beach and cliffs, while Children’s Pool beach is home to one of the state’s only urban rookeries. Adorable seal pups are born on the beach here between December and April every year.
But for the ultimate Southern California beach day, head over to La Jolla Shores Beach. The wide, sandy beach is perfect for sunbathing and swimming, but many people learn how to surf or stand up paddleboard here. You can access the marine-life-rich La Jolla Underwater Park from here, which is why it’s one of the best places to go snorkeling or diving in California (probably in the entire country).
5. Universal Studios Hollywood
Get a behind-the-scenes look at some of your family’s favorite movies while also going on fun rides inspired by The Mummy, Despicable Me, Fast & Furious, The Simpsons, and others. Watch live stunt performances and snack on oversized donuts at this California theme park and working TV and movie studio.
This year’s main new attraction is Super Nintendo World, where you can party with Mario and Luigi if you’re lucky, or at least roam and play in their world and hop aboard the Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge ride.
Harry Potter fans can sip butterbeer and shop for Hogwarts house gear at Hogsmeade in Universal Studios Hollywood’s incredibly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Visitors can watch King Kong tear down buildings in the world’s largest and most intense three-dimensional performance during the must-see World Famous Studio Tour.
6. Huntington Beach (Surf City USA)
I spent the first 18 years of my life living in Huntington Beach, CA, just a few blocks from the ocean. It was awesome.
It’s nicknamed Surf City USA thanks to the epic waves that break along the pier, the 100+ years of world-renowned surfers who made the breaks famous (some whom I am lucky to call family friends), and perhaps a Beach Boys’ song that you’re likely familiar with.
What makes this among the most fun things to do in California with kids is the 10 miles of wide sand and easy-to-play-in shoreline. The ocean here, with its sandy bottom, is free of obstruction. You can have a classic SoCal beach day in HB.
The whole family can get surf lessons on day trips here, too. After learning to hang ten, partake in a beach bonfire to end your day.
You can easily park yourself at one of the beachfront resorts or drive in for the day.
7. Griffith Park Observatory
This incredible museum is THE place to go in Los Angeles for anyone who loves looking at the night sky as it’s home to one of the world’s largest telescopes. Other super fun things to do here include numerous exhibits on the universe.
You’ll also enjoy the tributes to some of the iconic space journeys humans have undertaken. Griffith Park Observatory is heaven on earth for all things space-related. Best of all, entry is free. The various movie shows are definitely worth checking out, but some do require tickets.
As a bonus, you’ll find a nice picnic area outside where you can bring your lunch for a relaxing family break. If you’re a fan of the movie La La Land, the observatory is the site of one of the film’s main scenes.
8. Monterey Bay Aquarium
Get up close and personal with more than 600 species of ocean beings. If you have an affinity for anything aquatic, this is the place to go as it’s widely regarded as one of the top aquariums in California.
This Central California vacation destination emphasizes sea life, but you can also learn about regional fish. ‘Open Sea’ is the aquarium’s main and largest exhibit, where visitors watch as tuna and sardines swarm above the giant windows surrounding them. Sea turtles, stingrays, hammerhead sharks, and jellyfish are also at play to delight the watching crowds.
Children will love the many exhibits that make Monterey Bay Aquarium so special and meet otters, tuna, and other incredible sea creatures. Chances are, Mom and Dad will learn something, too.
9. LEGOLAND California
Located just 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, LEGOLAND California is geared to families with children between the ages of 2 and 12.
You’ll enjoy over 60 rides, shows, and interactive attractions in spaces with LEGO themes like Fun Town, Ninjago, Miniland, and Castle Hill. Kids can even get a LEGOLAND driver’s license in the park’s Driving School.
Of course, what’s a Legoland California family vacation without spending time building something from the millions of available plastic bricks? You’ll also find SEA LIFE aquarium and a seasonal water park, so bring your bathing suit if visiting during the summer.
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10. Lake Tahoe
It doesn’t matter whether you visit in winter, on spring break, or in summer, your entire family will find plenty of things to do all day and evening long.
Lake Tahoe is nature’s playground with its massive lake surrounded by mountains, rivers, and lodges with programs catering to children.
During warm months, you can swim, hit the hiking trails, go boating, kayaking, bird watching or fishing, while winter has plenty of skiing, sledding, snowboarding, and ice skating.
Lake Tahoe borders Nevada and California, so you might be in one state or the other depending on the activities you seek.
11. Santa Monica Pier
For fans of arcade games and carnival rides, you’ll find few destinations better than Santa Monica Pier. Ride the Ferris wheel, spin around the historic carousel, swim in the ocean, or sit on the shore and watch the world go by.
Enjoy the street performers or have your caricature done by a local artist. There is even a trapeze school here. When you’re hungry, you have multiple choices from a food court to a couple of cafes that serve up everything from Mexican food to seafood. The pier is also where you can pick up beach and bike rentals.
12. Yosemite National Park
Give your family the ultimate nature experience hiking on one of the hundreds of trails here, many of which are lined with sequoia trees.
Along the way, you’ll see picturesque waterfalls and lots of wildlife to fascinate the smallest members of your family. Climbing the famous Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is an activity that many teens enjoy.
Enjoy camping and fishing or just simply enjoy family fun along the John Muir Trail and take a look at the natural wonders that have inspired artists for centuries.
13. Joshua Tree National Park
About 25% of California is desert, so it makes sense to take your children to one of the best natural desert areas in the state.
Joshua Tree National Park is a great place to explore geological features, see desert animals and take photos of the iconic Joshua Trees. The weather is almost always good here, giving you plenty of opportunities to go hiking, mountain biking, or spend a few nights camping.
Make sure to visit top attractions in Joshua Tree National Park like Cottonwood Spring, Keys View, Skull Rock, and Black Rock Canyon.
You’ll also be situated close enough to Palm Springs if you want to relax by the pool at a world-renowned resort or take an educational and family-friendly eco-tour through another nearby desert — Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
14. Knott’s Berry Farm
The original California theme park is Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. Snap a photo with Snoopy, cool off in the seasonal water park, or choose thrill rides like the multiple roller coasters.
Originally a small berry farm (hence the name) responsible for creating the boysenberry, Knott’s sections its fun rides according to the age of its patrons, making it easy for families to find ones that their kids can enjoy. Don’t miss out on the boysenberry pie, the famous fried chicken dinner, and other culinary creations.
Tip: Hit both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in one Southern California trip. The kid-friendly theme parks are only around 20 minutes away from each other.
15. Crystal Cove State Park
The hiking trails at this state park in Laguna Beach are one of the reasons why this place (and Orange County more generally) provides a popular day trip for families. The other is the 3.2 miles of pretty beach.
It’s also a great place to discover tidal pools or let the kids take a dip in the Pacific Ocean as the surf is usually gentle here. Bring your kite along or build castles in the sand. Stay in the lodge or reserve a spot on the campground.
16. Calico Ghost Town
Dispel the notion that a ghost town is full of ghosts by visiting this old mining town in Yermo in Southern California that was part of the ‘Silver Rush.’ Take a peek at what life was like in the Wild West of the late 1800s. The over 500 mines and the town were abandoned after silver lost value.
You can ride the Calico Odessa Railroad, which has been running since 1958, or witness weird sights like water running uphill at the Calico Mystery Shack.
You’ll want to take a photo or two on your visit and go on the ghost tour to see the old mines. You can even pan for gold and go camping nearby. There is enough history and mystery here to satisfy the whole family.
17. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California is the place to go if you are fascinated by bubbling mud pots (likened to a witch’s cauldron), boiling pools, and volcanic gas vents.
Hike on boardwalks while checking out fun things like geothermic features, including Boiling Springs Lake, a bubbling lake that reaches temperatures of more than 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and Devils Kitchen hydrothermal area.
The kids can learn all about volcanoes while mom and dad can see how geothermal systems can power different things. Note that this park is not kid-friendly for children under 5 but older kids may appreciate it.
18. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco
One of the major San Francisco attractions, the former federal penitentiary of Alcatraz Island, is a slice of history. Learn about how prisoners lived on this eerie, rocky island out in San Francisco Bay. Take the tour that details the life and politics of the time. It’s a narrated self-guided audio tour that my daughter’s entire Girl Scout troop (5th grade) enjoyed.
Don’t forget to pick up a souvenir in the gift shop. The island also has some lovely natural features, including many birds and interesting tidal pools.
You’ll arrive via a ferry ride that departs from Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf (so you can explore San Francisco there before and after your tour).
If you love glitz and glamor, spend a day in Hollywood, where you’ll maybe even spot a movie star (or see a replica of one at the Hollywood Wax Museum). This is definitely one of the popular things to do in California with kids that state residents go out of their way to schedule every once in a while.
Speaking of stars, pose with your favorite on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Catch a movie at El Capitan Theatre, which shows recent and classic films from Disney, Pixar, and Marvel.
Hit the Hollywood and Highland Mall, where you can also take a tour of Dolby Theatre, which hosts the Academy Awards or even catch a movie at TCL Chinese Theatre. An excursion to this famous North American destination is a purely fun, but it’s also a fun California with kids activity your family will never forget.
20. Golden Gate Bridge
This iconic Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most popular places in California and a bucket list attraction in San Fran.
While younger children may not appreciate a visit there at first, they will when they see this marvelous feat of engineering. This landmark combines a stunning view with a bit of history about the state of California, i.e., the Golden Gate to the Golden State.
Educate your kids by discovering why the bridge is orange, not gold, or enjoy the view by taking a bike ride or hiking around it. Take a ferry under the bridge to view it from underneath, or head to the Marin Headlands for an unobstructed, less populated view.
You can even walk across. It’s just over 3 miles long, so the round-trip takes about 60-90 minutes, depending on how fast your stride is.
Tip: You’ll see the bridge from various places, including Baker Beach.
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