20 Mar San Diego With Kids
San Diego is home to me. I was born and raised there, and visit often with my own family now so they can partake in the goodness of the place that molded me. It’s a quick, easy 10 hour road trip for us, so we try to visit 1-2x a year (or more!). San Diego is very big, with smaller cities within it. I’ll break down family-friendly places to stay as well as activities to do- some touristy, some only locals know about. There is SO much to do and see that you can’t go wrong. So let’s get to it.
Places to stay:
There are a LOT of great places to stay in San Diego. I’ve rounded up just a handful of my favorites that are close in proximity to family friendly adventures. If you have more favorites that aren’t listed, please add them in to the comment section. I’d love to hear!
Oceanside is a great beach, close to a pier that you can walk on with Ruby’s Diner at the end of the pier. There’s a great path along the beach that is great for scooters and bikes. There are tons of rental homes south of the pier, but the more south you get, the rockier it gets, but it’s still a great location! North of the pier is where I personally prefer for beach time. There are beautiful beach rocks, small shells, and occasional sand dollars to collect at Oceanside Beach.
Every Thursday, downtown Oceanside has a really fun market with dozens of local venders with food, plants, knick knacks, and clothes to check out. It’s all under bistro lights which makes for a great ambiance. Oceanside is a military town because it’s so close to Camp Pendleton.
This is the epitome of a beach town. There are surf shops everywhere, great food (especially tacos), and local surfers in abundance. The beaches are family friendly, but it tends to get very crowded- especially in peak seasons. Parking is minimal getting around the beaches but your rental or hotel should have designated parking.
La Jolla is a beautiful beach with a ton to do! It’s one of the more crowded beaches in San Diego (in my opinion), but if you’re there at the right time you can beat that. There’s a grassy park directly behind the beach with a playground as well. It’s perfect for family picnics and gatherings! La Jolla has fun little shells to collect and usually the shore break waves are very small. Be careful though- I’ve known a few people who have stepped on jellyfish and sting rays in La Jolla- but this is no reason to avoid this beach. It’s a very rare occurrence. La Jolla is a ritzy town so a lot of the rentals and hotels are pricey and upscale, but it’s such a beautiful place! There are also tide pools that you can visit and see all the sea creatures during low tide. And don’t forget to check out Seal Beach where hundreds of seals beach themselves. It’s also a famous dive spot for snorkeling and scuba diving.
The Pacific Beach area is awesome! It’s full of unique people and is really close to downtown San Diego. There are lots of cute shops and plenty of smaller beaches to pick from. It also has fun shells if you’re a beach comber. Fun fact- Pacific Beach is home to the very first Rubio’s fish tacos. If you’re a thrifter there are some gems in Pacific Beach. PB is also just minutes away from Sea World, Mission Bay, and Old Town. It’s also filled with lots of college students so be aware of that.
Old town is quaint and lovely. It’s known to be the “birthplace” of San Diego where the first Spanish settlers settled permanently in California. Old Town has lots of original, historic buildings and even has a little replica town that has gem shops, occasional reenactments, incredible Mexican food, and is billowing with history. It’s a very family friendly location to stay. Hotels are walking distance to a lot of the Old Town fun.
Things To Do:
Balboa Park is always the #1 first thing and the tippy top of my list of things to do in San Diego! I can’t even put into words the incredible-ness of it, but I’ll try. In a nutshell, it was first designated as a park in the early 1900’s, and then they started building shortly after that for a World Fair, and kept expanding. You can read the full history here. The architecture is breathtaking and you won’t believe the minute details and grand impressions the park has. But it’s not only the architecture and history that Balboa Park has to offer. There are 17 museums you can visit, ranging from the Fleet Science Center (very kid-centric) to the Museum of Man. There’s a museum about model railroads, Air and Science museum, and a huge Japanese Friendship Garden. The list goes on. Getting into Balboa Park is free, but some museums do cost money. You can get museum passes and deals, too. Balboa park is outdoors, and is huge and spacious. We brought the kid’s scooters and they rode around the park all evening to get their wiggles out. I don’t encourage this if the park is crowded though. Another favorite thing at Balboa Park is the Spreckels Organ Pavillion. It’s a GIANT outdoor pavilion where musicians perform (usually free of charge) and you can come sit, relax, and enjoy the show. You can come and go as you please (usually, if it’s a free concert). It’s definitely a sight to see. I could go on and on about Balboa Park, but I’ll just mention one more thing- The San Diego Zoo is also located in Balboa Park. Which takes me to my next point.
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
If you’ve never experienced the San Diego Zoo you’re missing out! Boy did I take this place for granted growing up. Who knew that there were less-amazing zoos out there? I certainly didn’t until I went to our local Zoo in Utah and asked where all the animals were. Haha! The San Diego Zoo is huge, it’s awesome, and I highly recommend it. I can wage that you’re not going to find a more incredible zoo in the world. I promise.
All of my favorite beaches are listed above in the “places to stay” section 🙂 San Diego has incredible beaches and they all have different vibes, too! Explore a few different beaches when you go!
I have so many incredible memories of Belmont Park (including MTV-Spring Break 2000? coming and Sisqo performing the Thong Song…but that’s a different story). This park is basically a beach boardwalk with carnical-like games, arcades, and a historic, wooden roller coaster that is super fun! It’s all right on Mission Beach, so you could park your stuff, play at the beach, and ride the roller coaster all in one!
I love Sea World! They’ve expanded a lot since I was a kid, and my favorite things to do is visit the belugas, the sea lion and otter show, and the dolphin show. The shark encounter is awesome too! If you’re going to stay close to Sea World, I suggest staying in the Mission Bay/Mission beach, or Old Town area rather than directly south of Sea World.
Coronado Island Ferry
This is a beautiful, quick (15 min.) ferry ride over to Coronado Island. You can drive over the Coronado Bridge as well, but the Ferry is a fun experience! Once you’re there, you can visit the famous Hotel Del, rent bikes and surreys, eat at delicious restaurants, or simply play on the beach. Coronado Island makes for a great afternoon activity.
Seaport Village is right on the San Diego Harbor! It’s a little village with fun and unique shops to browse. It’s also a great place to fly kites! If you want to soak in the goodness of Downtown San Diego, this is a great spot for that.
La Jolla Tide Pools
The tide pools are really fun with kids (and without kids :)! If you visit at the right time of day, the water washes out to shore for a few hours and tiny sea creatures are available to look at in their little nooks and crannies of homes. I found a blog post HERE about the best way to experience the La Jolla tide pools in La Jolla of you want to check it out.
The Mormon Battalion Visitor’s Center
This is always on our list of things to do when we visit San Diego! The Mormon Battalion Visitor’s Center is not just for Mormons (I promise!). It’s a really fun interactive tour that teaches about the mormon pioneers getting enlisted by the US government to fight in the Mexican-American war. You travel with them through their journey across the US to get to San Diego, and hear about the fascinating experiences they encounter. All the volunteers are dressed up in period costumes, and at the end you get to pan for gold and take some home with you. It’s the perfect way to learn a little (30 minute) US history, pan for gold, and get into air conditioning for a bit. After you visit, make sure to walk around Old Town and experience that! It’s so much fun!
San Diego Padres Game
If you happen to visit during baseball season, head to a Padres Game in Petco Park downtown. Even if you’re not into baseball, the experience of the stadium, all the fun activities they have inside, and the 7th inning stretch is worth it all! The stadium even has a little grassy section for families to bring blankets and watch the game instead of getting expensive stadium seats. In the summer they usually have firework shows too. Padres games are for sure one one my favorite memories growing up!
If you want to get woodsy, head inland and visit Julian way up in the mountains for San Diego. Julian is close to where I grew up and it’s so much fun! It’s a historic gold mining town located about an hour inland of San Diego. It’s famous for it’s amazing apples (21 varieties!), and of course their apple pies that you can find in grocery stores around San Diego. There are dozens of specialty shops lining their historical streets, and my personal favorite is the Julian Candy Basket that specializes in old fashion candy. It’s SO nostalgic and just typing this makes me want to stop and visit on our next trip!
I spent countless 4th of Julys at Mission Bay growing up! Located directly across from Sea World, you can set up for the day and play in the water for hours on end! If you have jet skis or kayaks this is the place to go, too! The water is perfect and you can pull right onto shore. There are grassy areas as well as playgrounds for the kids. We love evening bon fires at Mission Bay, too! During peak seasons, make sure to get there early to get a firepit. Off season you won’t have a problem getting one though. If you’re visiting in the summer, head to Mission Bay to watch the Sea World fireworks sparkle on the water. It’s super magical! There’s also a great bike path too so bring scooters and bikes.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
This aquarium is incredible! It’s located right above La Jolla Shores and is super kid friendly! I strongly recommend spending a little time here for sure- especially if you don’t have a great local aquarium where you’re from.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
These flower fields are INCREDIBLE! You can view them right off the freeway, but if you happen to be visiting at the right time, definitely stop and wander through them! The flowers are only in full bloom for about 2 weeks out of the year, so check their website to see when they’re open before going. It’s always in early spring.
Growing up, this was known as the Wild Animal Park. It’s a sister company of the San Diego Zoo and it’s just as incredible! I lived only about 25 minutes from the Safari Park growing up so we would go there very often! It’s a huge park with SO much to do. They have a lot of encounters and tour opportunities so make sure to check that out.
Eat Mexican Food
I can’t emphasize this enough. Find a hole in the wall Mexican food restaurant (the smaller the better), order a bunch of food to share, and eat it on the beach. Might I suggest rolled tacos, bean and cheese burritos, and quesadillas (our family favorite)? And don’t forget to ask for hot carrots. That’s a must.
I hope you enjoyed this roundup of my favorite things to do in the best city in America (or maybe the world). There’s SO much more to do than even on this list. If I missed something please add it into the comments.