Our family loves to visit botanical gardens when we travel. It allows us to spend time outdoors and we get a feel for the personality and natural beauty of our destination. Plus it gives the kids a chance to run around and get some of their wiggles out!
A plant sculpture at the San Diego Botanic Garden
In our hometown, we are members of the San Diego Botanic Garden (formerly named Quail Botanical Gardens). This is one of San Diego’s best hidden gems. It contains not one but TWO children’s gardens full of hands-on activities. Plus there are plenty of walking paths lined with beautiful plants and flowers from around the world. In total, there are 27 themed gardens to choose from.
The Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden miniature train is always a hit with kids
Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden
This garden is all about simple pleasures for toddlers and preschoolers. There are buckets of soapy water with tons of wands for blowing bubbles. A sand pit hides small plastic dinosaurs perfect for little hands to dig up. Kids can pretend to be mommy or daddy in a child-sized wooden house outfitted with a kitchen and utensils. Children can get their hands dirty doing a bit of gardening by transplanting tiny succulents from one container to a take-home plastic pot, filling it up with a wee bit of soil and then spraying their new treasure with a spritz of water. My train-loving toddler’s favorite part of the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden is the miniature train that chugs through the garden.
My son, Leo, digging for dinosaurs last year
Hamilton Children’s Garden
This newer children’s garden is much bigger than the cozy original and is geared for a slightly older audience of school-aged children. The Hamilton Children’s Garden has less greenery and shade, but it is ever-so-fun nonetheless. The centerpiece is Toni’s Tree House, complete with rope bridges, tunnels, and a spiral staircase for exploring.
Leo climbing Toni’s Tree House
The Incredible Edibles teaches children about the plants and herbs we eat. The Pencil Arbor and Bonsai Sketching Area is equipped with coloring sheets and a trellis on which children can hang their creations. Garden Rhythms encourages children to make music with instruments made from items found in nature, like rocks, sticks and water. There’s a labyrinth, a sundial, a giant tic-tac-toe board, and more to discover in this sprawling garden.
The Spell & Smell Garden is filled with labeled potted plants, each of which starts with a different letter of the alphabet
Tropical Rain Forest
After visiting one or both of the children’s gardens, you can meander through the rest of the gardens. All are beautiful, but one of my personal favorites is the Tropical Rain Forest. I love Hawaii and this feels like a wee slice of Polynesia in San Diego. This is a great place to sit on a bench to listen to the sound of waterfalls and breathe in the sweet scent of over-sized flowers in a lush landscape…for as long as your children will let you.
A waterfall in the Tropical Rain Forest Garden
Subtropical Fruit Garden
A visit to the Subtropical Fruit Garden is fun and educational because children can see with their own eyes how some of their favorite fruits, like bananas and oranges, actually grow on trees; they are not manufactured in a factory and delivered to grocery stores just so people can eat them!
A bunch of bananas growing in the Subtropical Fruit Garden
The Mexican Garden is a darling spot filled with plants in a fiesta of colors. There is also a fountain decorated with painted Mexican tiles and sculptures of a mariachi band and a flamenco dancer formed from greenery.
The fountain in the Mexican Garden
Bamboo Garden & Bamboo Pond
A walk through the giant stalks of bamboo feels otherworldly. Read the signs aloud to the kids so they can learn that Bamboo is actually a grass that can grow up to 30 feet in one season! The Bamboo Pond is filled with lilly pads and a hoppy frog or two.
My daughter, Karissa, in front of some of the smaller stalks of bamboo
Old World Desert Garden
Those unfamiliar with the desert landscape should walk through the Old World Desert Garden to get a peek at cacti, succulents and bright desert flowers. Just be sure to keep toddlers in their strollers in case they want to pet the prickly plants!
A splash of vibrant desert flowers amongst succulents and cacti
What Else You Should Know
The San Diego Botanic Garden is located in Encinitas, a little over a half-hour drive north from downtown. If you are on a tight budget, visit on the first Tuesday of the month when entrance is free. Plan to do a lot of walking up and down hills here – your glutes will definitely get a good workout, especially if you’re pushing a stroller!
The Gift Shop and Nursery sells gardening tools, plants, wind chimes, and gardening books. The bad news (or the good news?!) is that there are very few toys or souvenirs for the kiddies here.
The Kona Koffee Hut sells coffee drinks, sodas and juices as well as simple snacks like string cheese, Goldfish crackers, and ice cream treats. On the counter, a tongue-in-cheek sign states, “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.” Go here if you’ve got a bit of the munchies, but if you want to have a picnic in the gardens, you should pack your own lunch.
San Diego is so stuffed with fun things to do that this family-friendly attraction often gets overlooked. If you are tired of the hustle and bustle of a theme-park-packed vacation, a visit here gives the whole family a chance to slow down and connect with nature.
Do you have a favorite botanical garden? Let us know in the comments!