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15 Best San Diego Attractions for Kids

15 Best San Diego Attractions for Kids

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.

Old Town San Diego

Old Town wagon with flowers (Photo courtesy of SanDiego.org)

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.

Cabrillo Lighthouse

Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument (Photo by nantella, purchased from istockphoto.com)

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.

The New Children's Museum, San Diego

Art activity at The New Children’s Museum (Photo courtesy of The New Children’s Museum)

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.

Torrey Pines Nature Reserve hike

Hiking at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve

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.

Carlsbad Flower Fields

Just a peek of the thousands of blooms at the Carlsbad Flower Fields each spring (Photo by Colleen Lanin)

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).

La Jolla Cove

View from a stroll along La Jolla Cove (Photo by Colleen Lanin)

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.

Star of India, Maritime Museum

The Star of India at the Maritime Museum (Photo by Ramon C. Purcell Photography, purhased from istockphoto.com)

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.

Birch Aquarium's Kelp Tank in the Hall of Fishes

Birch Aquarium’s Kelp Tank in the Hall of Fishes

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.

San Diego Botanic Garden bubbles

Making bubbles at the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden at the San Diego Botanic Garden (Photo by Colleen Lanin)

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.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park rhinos

Safari Caravan at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global)

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.

Expedia Kids in the City San Diego video

Click the image above to see my Expedia Kids in the City video about the top five best attractions for families

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, DenverNew 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.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.


  1. Our family visited San Diego a couple of years ago and it is a fantastic destination for families. The area is beautiful and there are so many fun things to do. We spent a busy week in San Diego and somehow did not do any of the things on your list above. Our visit included the obvious San Diego attractions like SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and Coronado, which were also wonderful. Thanks for the insider recommendations and inspiration to make a return trip!

  2. I agree with this great list! We’ve only missed visiting Cabrillo National Monument and mostly because every time we planned on visiting something would come up. It’s true San Diego weather is the best and it has lots to offer families!

  3. So many things to do here in sunny San Diego!

  4. Love all of your ideas! I think I have been to each one of them. So many fun things to do in San Diego with the family!

  5. Such an awesome list that includes some of our city’s hidden gems! We’re so lucky to live in such a family-friendly city. Anything dealing with the beach and nature is at the top of our list here. We love the tidepools at Cabrillo. I couldn’t agree with you more on Old Town food. Great job on the Expedia project!

  6. Maggie @ MamaMaggies says:

    I love San Diego. I still pinch myself every now and then.. especially when I’m crossing the Coronado Bridge. Love the Cabrillo Monument too.

  7. Perfect timing! I’m headed to San Diego this summer with my toddler and have been trying to research some fun things to do while we’re there…thank you for this great list! Now I’m off to check out your video and Kids in the City guide 🙂

  8. What a great list! We only made it to your top 5 when we visited San Diego (and didn’t get to really play on the beach because it was winter). I was most disappointed about missing Old Town but it was pouring rain the day that we were planning to be there. Clearly we need a return visit to check out the rest that San Diego has to offer.

  9. With so many outdoor activities to do in San Diego it’s nice to know that the weather can be counted on to make it all possible – not too hot or humid, not overly rainy but enough to keep it a lush green.

  10. Great list! I love taking my kids to San Diego. So much to do!

    I’d love to feature this list on our site. If you’re interested, let me know!

    Shondra 🙂

  11. Boston Activities says:

    San Diego is very comfortable and good place to spend the vacation with the family. I enjoyed the Botanic Garden with my kids, also felt very joyful at African Tram Safari. The royalty and finess of the city attracts me lot.

  12. Thanks a lot for sharing such beautiful destinations which is loved by every child. San Diego has scene of love as well as fun…

  13. Ashley Cooke says:

    I think I will have this list when we visit San Diego. We can cover everything in a week’s trip and the kids will have fond memories of the place.

  14. New York Hotel says:

    I love San Diego. I still pinch myself every now and then .. especially when I cross the Coronado Bridge. Also Love the Cabrillo Monumenti love San Diego.

  15. Definitely Love vacationing in San Diego and fortunately we have family there so we get to visit often! 🙂
    We love the San Diego Zoo, and always make a point to stop in at Belmont Park, the kids just love it!
    The city is great too! Great food, great weather, always a pleasure to visit there!

  16. All of these places ROCK! San Diego is an amazing place to live and visit. I’ve used another website at http://www.sdfamilyfun.com that also provides many FREE family activities and events throughout San Diego. I scored checking out their site. Thanks for the great information, Colleen!

  17. About 20 miles inland in Escondido is a special outdoor art exhibit called Califa by world famouse artist Niki de Saint Phalle. It is magical!! Limited hours. Also check out the grounds at UCSD. Look for nesting monarchs, sculptures, and talking trees!

  18. Colleen – I LOVE your list! Planning a trip to SD from the East Coast and can’t wait. Spent 2 yrs in SoCal for grad school and am so excited to show my husband and sons. Can you please recommend a neighborhood/area to stay in? We will be exploring Balboa park, the zoo and def the Wildlife refuge, hoping to get to others on your list too. Want to be able to walk to some restaurants/coffee shops. Hubs and I would love a beach neighborhood. Thanks!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Lori – Del Mar and La Jolla (both a little north of San Diego) offer an upscale beach village vibe with some swankier hotels. For more affordable beachfront accommodations, check out the Pacific Beach area of San Diego, which is very near Balboa Park and the zoo. Or, you could stay in Carlsbad, which is north of San Diego (about a 30-60 min drive, depending on traffic) and home to Legoland California. I love West Inn & Suites up there: http://travelmamas.com/west-inn-suites-carlsbad-review/

  19. Can you recommended best park playground in San Diego or near Bonita, CA?

  20. Hi,
    I’m traveling to San Diego with my 2 kids (8&11), next week. We’ll be there 5 days (Thusday to Tuesday) and I’m planning in to go one day to the zoo, another to Sea World, another one shopping (pelease tell me if Las Americas Premium outlet is a good choice). I also would like to visit Balboa Park, USS Midway Museum, Old Town, Coronado Island or La Jolla cove.
    Do you recomend to go the same day to USS Midway Museum and another place, like Balboa Park or Old Town?
    Which place is better for kids:la Jolla or Coronado?
    We’ll stay at Chula Vista and rent a car.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Sarah –

      I have never been to Las Americas Premium Oulets in San Ysidro. That is pretty far south and close to the Mexican border. If you are looking for outlet shopping, I love Carlsbad Premium Outlets in Carlsbad (home of LEGOLAND California), which is about 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego. If you are staying downtown – there is a fabulous outdoor mall there called Horton Plaza. Fashion Valley is another great shopping option with lots of upscale store options – it’s not far from downtown but you would need to drive to get there. In La Jolla, there’s the outdoor Westfield UTC with a mini train for kids. It really depends on what type of shopping experience you’d like and where you’ll be staying.

      The USS Midway Museum will probably take a couple of hours to visit at most. You could easily visit that as well as Horton Plaza or Old Town in one day. Balboa Park could take anywhere from a couple hours to several days to visit, depending on what you want to do while there. If you just want to walk around and look at the gardens and architecture, it could be a brief visit or if you want to visit one or more of the museums it could take a lot of time. Keep in mind that the San Diego Zoo is part of Balboa Park, and that’s a full day visit in itself!

      Both La Jolla and Coronado are fun places to explore with children. In Coronado, you can wander through the shops at the Hotel del Coronado and snap some photos of the hotel’s lovely parapets and play at the lovely stretch of public beach in front of the hotel. You can also rent bicycles from a couple of rental places along the peninsula’s main drag, Orange Avenue, and wander among the shops and cafes. Coronado is home to a military base and has a small town, patriotic feel whereas La Jolla feels more upscale and fancy schmancy. Both are lovely. La Jolla Cove offers many art galleries and luxury boutiques. You can wander down to the Children’s Pool to watch seal families lazing on the beach. There are also La Jolla beaches to choose from, of course. If you go to La Jolla, make sure to walk through La Valencia Hotel to snap a gorgeous photo of the view overlooking their pool and out to the ocean. (This is a great place to get a drink with your honey!) There’s also the Cave Store in a La Jolla – a fun place to take kids to walk all of the way down the stairs to see ocean water splashing in the store. I recommend going on a kayak tour with older kids in La Jolla to get a whole different perspective on the area.

      Good luck and enjoy your time in beautiful San Diego!

  21. Such a cool list! I knew about San Diego zoo and the sea world, hence loved the other less known suggestions. Will keep this list in mind when we go to San Diego, and that will be very soon. By the way, can you suggest if we should do the night safari at San Diego zoo or stick to the daytime activities?

  22. I’ve been to Old Town California and loved it there! Hoping to visit it again soon!

  23. Hey, Colleen Lanin, I must say, your blog is really amazing! Actually, I am a big fan of California and San Diego is my favorite one. Thanks dear for sharing the best things about San Diego!


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