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Family-friendly San Diego needs no introduction. A year-round destination, the city and its surrounding environs offer everything from beaches and hikes to animals and Legos. That’s what makes it such a popular destination for families; there are endless amounts of fun things to do in San Diego with kids. Whether you’re there for your first visit or fifth, these are our top picks.
Spread across 100 acres, the San Diego Zoo is home to 3,700 rare and endangered animals, with some 700,000 plants creating the lush habitats surrounding them. Well known for its animal care and conservation efforts (the zoo employs 300 animal care staff!), the zoo is a top priority for most San Diego-bound travelers.
Given its sprawling size, it can be a lot of ground to cover, especially for little legs. Families may want to consider upgraded experiences such as the 2-hour Inside Look tour with a driver guiding visitors through the zoo on a golf cart and stopping at several animal enclosures along the way. Yes, the tour comes at a premium, but it is well worth it to make the most of your day and time. You’ll learn incredible facts about the animals (e.g., koala babies are the size of a jellybean when they are born), and gain behind-the-scenes access. During a recent visit, our family of four was able to see the penguins so close-up we could have touched them, visit the elephant care and kitchen area, and even feed lettuce leaves to Harriet the giraffe. Both our 5-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter fondly remember the tour as an enriching and enjoyable highlight.
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Don’t come all the way to the Pacific Ocean without looking for whales, dolphins, sea lions and birds on a whale watching cruise off San Diego’s coast! Watching a whale fluke or breach is truly a majestic sight, and from winter to spring, migrating gray whales can often be spotted in the surrounding waters. Come summer, you’re likely to see blue whales and humpbacks. Hornblower Cruises is one of the most popular whale watching operators in San Diego, with volunteer naturalists from the San Diego Natural History Museum on board for some sailings to narrate and share facts. The 3.5-hour cruise is best suited for families with older children and teens.
In the northern San Diego suburb of Carlsbad, the Legoland theme park attracts brick-loving kids and adults alike. With rides, shows, exhibits and even a small aquarium, the 128-acre park offers something for all ages, making it a gem among the many amusement parks found in southern California.
A favorite of ours is Miniland USA, where visitors can walk around and look at remarkably precise models of several United States cities — including San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans — complete with landmarks, moving vehicles and Lego people. In Fun Town, which is geared toward younger Lego masters, toddlers and preschoolers can ride a Lego train and play with Duplo bricks. From a fairy tale-inspired boat ride to a dinosaur rollercoaster, there’s plenty to entertain older kids too.
Legoland also operates an adjacent water park, which is especially popular during the summer months. And should you want to stay the night, book a room at the park’s onsite hotel, where you can sleep on a bed built from bricks, of course.
From the Little Italy Mercato Farmer’s Market on Saturdays to some of the state’s best craft breweries and taco joints, San Diego has great food. Spots like Tribute Pizza and Galaxy Taco are family-friendly and tasty enough to satisfy everyone. Plant-based eatery Donna Jean is delicious, a major hit for our vegetarian family. Afterward, seek out one of three Bobboi locations for a scoop of stracciatella or pistachio gelato. It is not to be missed!
In the heart of downtown San Diego, Balboa Park is 1,400 gorgeous acres of green space. (By comparison, New York City’s Central Park is 842 acres.) In 1915, Balboa Park was the setting for the Panama-California Exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal and securing San Diego’s place as a port, which is why several of the city’s oldest and most ornate buildings can be found here. Many of those historic buildings now house robust museums such as the San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art and family-friendly San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT).
Aside from its 16 museums, the park also boasts a serene Japanese Friendship Garden (kids will love strolling through the grounds and stopping to watch koi fish) and the intricately detailed 200-foot-tall California Tower, which visitors can climb for stunning views of the entire San Diego Bay area. To help visitors get around, the city runs a free tram with five major stops throughout the park. It’s worth noting that the San Diego Zoo technically resides within Balboa Park as well.
TIP: If you love amazing views and nature, be sure to carve out time to visit the Cabrillo National Monument and the nearby tide pools. Much like Balboa Park, it’s the perfect mix of nature park and history.
No trip to San Diego would be complete without time on the beautiful hiking trails. If you can only do one, this is our top pick. Spanning 1,750 acres, Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve sits on dramatic cliffs above Torrey Pines State Beach; in fact, early Spanish explorers called the area “Punto de Los Arboles,” or Point of Trees, since it was so rare to see groves of trees along the southern California coast.
Comprising sandstone canyons and pine forests, including the namesake and rare Torrey pine, the reserve offers eight miles of trails. The easier, more family-friendly paths include the 0.7-mile Guy Fleming trail or 1.4-mile Razor Point loop. Several trails crisscross, so it’s possible to start on one and return on the other. Spring brings lots of wildflowers amid the coast chaparral; volunteer docents are often onsite too, sharing the reserve’s history and handing out nature bingo cards to children. Adjacent to the reserve, the Craftsman-style Lodge at Torrey Pines is a stunning 170-room property with direct access to the trails (the Lodge even set ups a trail mix bar for guests every morning).
Rest those tired legs by watching hang gliders take off and land at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. It’s at the far southern end of the park and is the top paragliding and hang gliding spot in the United States. Tempted to try a tandem flight? There’s no age limit — even toddlers can join in.
Golden beaches and hidden coves are synonymous with the seaside village of La Jolla. Stretching for 7 miles, the coastline here varies between dramatic and tranquil. For sandcastle building and splashing around, head to La Jolla Shores, a mile-long stretch of sand that attracts all sorts of beachgoers. The parking lot fills up in summer, so arrive early or be prepared to circle for a bit. For snorkeling, try La Jolla Cove, where it’s common to see Garibaldi fish and thousands of leopard sharks during the summer. Nearby, spot friendly seals and sea lions at the Children’s Pool, a small cove originally intended as a swimming area for kids, but now home to dozens of seals and sea lions and their pups. In fact, there are so many of the adorable marine animals in this area, expect to smell them before you see them!
Baseball-loving families will want to head to Petco Park to watch a game when they visit San Diego. The park has made a concerted effort to attract families, and there’s actually a park within the park for kids. During all Sunday home games, the area is tricked out with bounce houses, face painters, balloons and more. While it’s a bit harder to follow every play from this green space, it does allow young children freedom to move. Kids can also run the bases, play catch on-field and participate in ball signings as part of the free Compadres Kids program. Wander the surrounding Gaslamp Quarter before or after the game for a full day of fun.
Originally in La Jolla, the New Children’s Museum opened in its current light-filled downtown space in 2008. Entering the multi-story, 50,000-square-foot space, it’s immediately evident that a lot of thought and imagination has gone into the museum’s design. Off the bat, a room lined entirely with mattresses invites kids to literally jump on the bed. Both brilliant and simple, the playful space gets those wiggles out so kids can embark on sculpting with clay or creating with recycled materials in the Innovators Lab with all the more focus.
Upstairs, the Whammock, a colorful rope climbing sculpture, is as inspiring as it is fun. Canada-based artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam spent an entire year hand-braiding and crocheting the “textile playground.” Other museum features such a chalk wall, a sandbox room and plenty of wooden parts downstairs give kids the freedom to explore and engage with materials that appeal to them.
A historic mining town in the nearby Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian is an hour’s drive from San Diego and a popular day trip for families. With cows grazing on hilltops and roadside stands selling produce and jams, the quaint town is a welcome escape from frenetic city life. Stroll Main Street, where old-fashioned stores sell quilts, candles, jewelry and more. Kids will enjoy visiting during the fall apple season when several farms offer apple picking and cider-pressing, including Apple Starr and Crosscut Farm & Orchard. Pick up pies at the famed Mom’s Pie House. Tired parents can sample beer at Nickel Beer Co. or grab some hard cider to go from Julian Hard Cider.
The one thing you’ll never hear kids in San Diego saying? “We’re bored.” It is why this town remains a firm favorite on the family vacation destination list!
Editor’s Note: Photos by Tanvi Chheda except where noted.
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