San Diego County overflows with family-friendly fun. There is plenty for all ages to enjoy in this sunny Southern California town. As a local mom who loves exploring my fair city, here are my picks for the 15 best San Diego attractions for kids.
15. Old Town California
Step back in time at this historic area of San Diego. Staking claim as the birth place of modern California, Old Town is where the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1769 and built the first of 21 missions in the state. Today, you can wander through 15 historic buildings, which are now home to a variety of stores peddling souvenirs, homemade soaps, candies and more. Older kids might enjoy a tour of the supposedly haunted Whaley House, San Diego’s first brick house that has been used as a courthouse, theatre, billiard hall and school, which was featured on the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted. The real reason my family loves old town? The food! With over 25 eateries within a one-mile radius, you are sure to find something to please every family member’s taste buds. The specialty here, though, is Mexican cuisine with menus bursting with traditional dishes like tamales, mole, and chile rellenos.
14. Cabrillo National Monument
Take the kids to Cabrillo National Monument for a hands-on San Diego history lesson, a hike along the Bayside Trail, and gorgeous views of the ocean and city below. This national monument is named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, leader of the first European expedition to explore what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542. The highlight is a visit to Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which lit the way for sailors entering San Diego Bay from 1855-1891. Today, visitors get a glimpse of life in the 1800s through period-appropriate furnishings and lighthouse tools on display.
13. The New Children’s Museum
With so many museums at Balboa Park (17, to be exact!), it’s easy to miss this fun spot for children in the heart of San Diego’s downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Some areas of The New Children’s Museum are age specific, like Barn Dance for toddlers and the Teen Studio for ages 11+, while others engage children across age groups. This museum was designed to encourage children to think, play and create using hands-on exhibitions and artistic activities.
12. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
This is one of the best spots to experience San Diego’s natural beauty. The reserve is home to the rare twisty Torrey Pine as well as desert brush, prickly pear cactus, wild flowers, and other native plants. There are eight trails to explore at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. My favorite is Beach Trail, which descends over three-quarters of a mile from sea-cliff to beach, with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean along the way. An easier path, Guy Fleming Trail, is a two-third-mile loop. This is probably the best pick for older seniors and families with young children. Everyone, including those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers, can enjoy Discovery Trail, a short half-mile loop featuring information markers near the Torrey Pines Lodge.
11. Carlsbad Flower Fields
Every spring locals and tourists alike flock to the Flower Fields at Carlsbad to smell the ranunculus and pose for amazing photo opportunities among thousands of blooms. Tiptoe through a maze made of sweet peas or gaze at the more than 50 acres of rainbow-colored rows of flowers while riding aboard a tractor-pulled wagon. Older kids who like a challenge can fill paper passports with stamps at stations set up throughout the Flower Fields. At Santa’s Playground, children climb and slide among the restored play houses and gigantic mushrooms that were part of the once popular Santa’s Village amusement area (in Lake Arrowhead from 1955 to 1998).
10. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla is well-known for its designer shops and upscale dining options, but “The Cove” is also a fabulous place to enjoy the outdoors. Eat a picnic lunch while listening to live music on an expansive grassy field overlooking the ocean at Scripps Parkway during the summer. Walk along sea-cliffs and peer at California Harbor Seals lazing about on the beach at Children’s Pool – a small cove protected by a concrete breaker. Whenever my family makes our way to this beautiful area of La Jolla, my Midwestern-born-and-raised husband and I stare out at the ocean’s waves pounding white ruffles of water against the rocks and say, “Can you believe we live here?” It overwhelms us with its beauty every time.
9. Maritime Museum of San Diego
Kids will love to make believe they are pirates on the high seas while touring unique sailing vessels at the floating Maritime Museum. Steam-powered boats, sailing ships and submarines make up the museum’s fleet of nine boats. Families can spend a night aboard the Star of India, the world’s oldest active ship, during a special Family Overnight Adventure in the summer. After your tour, walk along the San Diego waterfront to eat some delicious fish n’ chips at Anthony’s Fishette while you watch seagulls dip and dive for dinner in the bay.
8. Birch Aquarium at Scripps
This aquarium in La Jolla provides an alternative to SeaWorld San Diego for families on a tight budget or with limited time. The focus at Birch Aquarium is on ocean education and conservation. I especially recommend this attraction for families with babies and toddlers who love to get an up close view of tanks filled with glowing moon jellies, beautiful but poisonous lion fish, silvery sardines, sharks and other sea creatures. Children can gently pet sandpapery sea stars and slimy sea cucumbers at the outdoor Tide Pool Plaza.
7. San Diego Botanic Garden
The 37-acre San Diego Botanic Garden is home to more than two dozen themed gardens situated along four miles of trails. The Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden is geared toward youngsters (kindergarten and younger) with its tubs of soapy water and wands for making bubbles, buried plastic dinosaurs for digging up, child-sized play house, and model railroad track with trains that chug through the garden. The Hamilton Children’s Garden appeals to bigger kids who can play a giant game of tic-tac-toe, wander through a labyrinth made of feathery plants, learn to read a sundial, and climb the garden’s centerpiece tree house. On hot summer days, kids can play with toy boats and cool off their tootsies in a miniature stream here.
6. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The Safari Park is just as impressive as its more well-known sister property, the San Diego Zoo. It encompasses a whopping 1,800 acres, compared to the zoo’s 100. The African Tram Safari is the park’s king attraction; it transports visitors through a wide-open landscape similar to that of the African Savannah to spy on such creatures as rhinos, giraffes and Cape buffaloes. Pay an additional fee to get up-close to the animals on a Safari Caravan (shown above). Purchase a cup of nectar at Lorikeet Landing to come nose to beak with brightly plumed lorikeet parrots. On hot days, bring swim gear so children can cool off in the animal-shaped fountains at the Savannah Cool Zone.
Want to see my top five picks for things to do with kids in San Diego?
Check out my top five best attractions in San Diego video that I made as part of Expedia’s Kids in the City campaign. I’m thrilled to be part of this project, which highlights 12 of America’s most popular destinations, with recommendations from some of the best family travel bloggers. I also share some of my favorite San Diego restaurants and hotels that cater to families in my San Diego Kids in the City guide on Expedia.
What’s your favorite thing to do with kids in San Diego? Let us know in the comments!
For still more summer United States city vacation ideas, take a look at these posts from other family travel experts: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle.
A Note from The Travel Mama: I was compensated by Expedia for participating in the Kids in the City project.