San Diego Botanic Garden – An Enchanting Place for Children

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! The San Diego Botanic Garden is one such place that perfectly met our expectations.

A bunny-shaped plant sculpture at the San Diego Botanic Garden

A bunny-shaped plant sculpture at the San Diego Botanic Garden (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


The San Diego Botanic Garden

In our hometown, we are members of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Formerly named Quail Botanical Gardens, this garden is one of San Diego’s best, hidden gems. It contains not one but TWO children’s gardens full of hands-on activities. There are also plenty of walking paths. Lining these walking paths are 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

The  Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden miniature train is always a hit with kids. (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


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. This house is even outfitted with a kitchen and utensils. Children can also get their hands dirty doing a bit of gardening. They can transplant tiny succulents from one container to a take-home plastic pot, filling it up with a wee bit of soil, and then spray 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

My son, Leo, digging for dinosaurs last year. (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


Hamilton Children’s Garden

This newer children’s garden is much bigger than the cozy original. Clearly, it 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

Leo climbing Toni’s Tree House (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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 is 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

The Spell & Smell Garden is filled with labeled potted plants, each of which starts with a different letter of the alphabet (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


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

A waterfall in the Tropical Rain Forest Garden (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


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

A bunch of bananas growing in the Subtropical Fruit Garden (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


Mexican 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

The fountain in the Mexican Garden (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


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 lily pads and a hoppy frog or two.

My daughter, Karissa, in front of some of the smaller stalks of bamboo

My daughter, Karissa, in front of some of the smaller stalks of bamboo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


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

A splash of vibrant desert flowers amongst succulents and cacti (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)


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 San Diego Botanic Garden holds special events throughout the year, like a children’s Fairy Festival in the summer and a Garden of Lights holiday celebration in December.

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!

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of 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,, 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. Wow! I want to go here! I’m definitely adding it to our family’s to-do list next time we’re in the area.

    I am continually amazed at how much fun my kiddos when we go to gardens & arboretums. I think it’s the freedom to roam & discover that other places don’t offer. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Debi – It’s funny because when I posted this I thought of you because it seems like the kind of place you’d write about on Go Explore Nature! Add meeting up with me to your San Diego to-do list too! 🙂

  3. Indeed a great place to go!! I had the honor of sharing the gardens with the Travel Mama herself. Lucky me! My favorite part was chasing Karissa through the labyrinth and watching the kids play with the musical instruments in the children’s section. And even a wedding was taking place on the day we were there. Definitely an enchanting place to visit!

  4. It was so fun to visit the San Diego Botanic Garden with you, Jeannie! Thanks for sharing the day with us. Apparently Karissa loved running through the labyrinth with you too; she can’t stop talking about Jeannie Bo Beannie!

  5. Lovely post Colleen. This is one of my favorite San Diego secrets. We love to visit. The Hamilton garden is much nicer on a not so busy day, and we were enchanted by the frog pond. My ten year old get some great pics!

  6. Bridget – We totally have to meet up at the San Diego Botanic Garden with the kiddos sometime! We are members so we go all of the time. Let me know the next time you’re going!

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