San Diego County overflows with fun for families. There is plenty for all ages to enjoy in this sunny Southern California town. As a mom who lived San Diego for 15 years and who returns regularly with her brood, here are my picks for the best San Diego attractions for kids. I've also included my favorite restaurants and hotels for families in America's Finest City to ensure your San Diego family vacation is tops.
Best San Diego Attractions for Kids
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15. Old Town California
Step back in time in 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. These include a variety of stores peddling souvenirs, homemade soaps, candies and more.
Older kids might enjoy a tour of Whaley House, which was featured on the Travel Channel's America's Most Haunted. This supposedly haunted building was San Diego's first house made from bricks and has been used as a courthouse, theatre, billiard hall and school.
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 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 families with young children. Everyone, including those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers, can enjoy Discovery Trail. This short half-mile loop near the Torrey Pines Lodge features information markers about local plants.
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. Here, you can tiptoe through a maze made of sweet peas and ride a tractor-pulled wagon through more than 50 acres of rainbow-colored rows of flowers. Older kids who like a challenge can fill paper passports at stamp 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). The Carlsbad Flower Fields are typically open from March through Mother's Day each year.
10. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla is well-known for its designer shops and upscale dining options, but La Jolla 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. Then 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 this view?” It overwhelms us with its beauty every time.
9. Maritime Museum of San Diego
Kids enjoy pretending 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 even spend a night aboard the Star of India, the world's oldest active ship, during a special Family Overnight Adventure in the summer.
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. Young ones 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 contains 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.
Hamilton Children's Garden appeals to bigger kids. Here, they 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 centerpiece tree house. On hot summer days, kids can play with toy boats and cool off their tootsies in a miniature stream.
6. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo 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. Riders 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).
But that's not the only memorable adventure at the Safari Park. 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. You can even zip-line at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park over the heads of wild animals for an extra fee. For a memorable adventure, sign up for the Roar and Snore overnight camping in the park.
5. LEGOLAND California
While many amusement parks present passive entertainment, parents will be pleased to discover the interactive attractions at LEGOLAND California. At the Volvo Driving School, children drive pint-sized cars around streets dotted with stop signs and working stoplights. Kids can also build and race LEGO vehicles and can even program computerized LEGO Mindstorms robots. The Police and Fire Academy ride gets Mom and Dad involved, with families piling into a fire truck or police car, and powering it by pumping levers up and down as they race other teams to put out a “fire” and stop robbers.
What's more, families can purchase separate tickets or park hoppers to explore the onsite Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium and LEGOLAND Water Park. Visitors get a glimpse of what it's like to live under the sea from encapsulated plastic bubbles that pop up into fish-filled tanks. The water park offers fountains and mellow waterslides for tots plus more exciting slides for bigger visitors.
4. SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is best known for its shows starring animals from the ocean like dolphins and sea lions. More common creatures like dogs, cats, pigs and geese star in my family's favorite show, Pets Rule. Aquariums filled with sea life abound here, including a walk-through shark tank. Sesame Street Bay of Play provides three sweet rides for young ones. Meanwhile, rides like Manta and Shipwreck Rapids thrill adventurous park goers. For an extra special treat, book a Premier Experience, like a Dine with Shamu meal or Penguins Up-Close Tour.
3. Balboa Park
The location of the first-ever World’s Fair, Balboa Park feels like a grand old European boulevard. Seventeen museums, a multitude of gardens, five playgrounds, a carousel, a train for children, the famous Old Globe Theatre, and more reside here. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which houses one of the largest indoor model train displays in the world, is a hit with the preschooler set. Bigger kids will be too busy turning knobs and pressing buttons to realize they're learning about science at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. All ages will enjoy wandering through the park’s beautiful grounds. Be sure to visit the Balboa Park Rose Garden to stop and smell the fragrant flowers.
2. San Diego Zoo
Of course, you can't visit San Diego without going to its famous zoo. Widely regarded as one of the best zoological centers in the world, the San Diego Zoo wows animal lovers of all ages. Four thousand animals representing 800 species make their homes here. You can take a peek at lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). But there are also koalas, Komodo dragons, giant pandas, and so many other animals to fascinate visitors. Take the SkyFari Aerial Tram for an uplifting ride over the zoo’s canopy of leafy trees for a view of the animals below.
Kids will enjoy visiting the Children’s Zoo, where they can play on the Fisher-Price Discovery Playground, watch playful otters swim and dive through a bi-level exhibit, and interact with goats, sheep and other mellow creatures in the petting zoo. Read my tips for making the most of visiting the San Diego Zoo with kids.
1. The Beach
When considering the best San Diego attractions for kids, the beach always tops the list. This Southern California city is renowned for its long sandy beaches and surf-able waves. San Diego boasts more than 70 miles of beaches where families can take surfing lessons, go sea-kayaking, or build sand castles along their shores.
No matter what time of year you visit, beauty and fun abound at San Diego's beaches. Summer San Diego beaches bustle with picnicking families and horseshoe-playing college kids. Cooler spring and fall temperatures mean more space to relax and spread out a beach blanket. Those visiting in winter are often surprised to find the beaches too chilly for swimming, but wetsuits are available from surf shops for die-hard ocean lovers. That's when I love San Diego beaches the most for long walks along the sand, listening to the waves roll in and out, and watching the seagulls and other birds dive into the water for a seafood snack.
Best San Diego Restaurants for Kids
If dancing waiters serving up thick milkshakes and tempting diner fare sounds like your family's jam, you'll love Corvette Diner at Liberty Station near downtown. It features themed dining areas representing the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Burgers are the specialty here. If you're feeling adventurous, go for the Rory burger, topped with peanut butter, bacon, lettuce & mayo. Choose from shake flavors like Butter “Hop” Scotch and Peppermint Twist. As though that weren't enough, kids will go gaga for the Gamers Garage, where they can play video games galore for a chance to win prizes.
Besides friends and the beach, the thing I miss most about living in San Diego is my favorite lunch spot in all the land: Urban Plates. (They're open for dinner, too.) Every member of the family will find something they'll like at this fresh-made cafeteria style cafe. Choose from healthy and delicious salads, sandwiches, pizzas and plates. You'll flip for their sides like roasted Brussels sprouts with turkey bacon or homemade macaroni and cheese. Save room for dessert! Their chocolate flourless cake is the bomb and there are plenty of other cakes and cookies to tempt your sweet tooth. Choose from three San Diego County locations: Del Mar, Carlsbad and La Jolla.
Of course, you'll want to eat some fresh seafood during your San Diego vacation. The Fish Market is the perfect choice for seafood-loving families. Kids will enjoy watching chefs cooking up entrees on a flaming grill from behind a wall of glass (look, don't touch!). An interactive children's menu will keep the kiddies entertained with its mazes, puzzles and coloring pages. Kids can order charbroiled fish and rice or panko-crusted fish or shrimp with fries. Picky eaters will be pleased with pasta or pizza offerings, too. Dine at the Fish Market along the waterfront near the Maritime Museum, or choose the Del Mar/Solana Beach location.
Who doesn't love pizza? Especially when that pizza is scrumptious and served up with a selection of tempting brews for the parents and video games for the kids. Stand in line at Pizza Port to order your pie and then pull up a stool and make friends with your neighbors. Located a block from the beach in North County's Solana Beach, I've even ordered pizza to go for a delicious surf-front picnic.
With so many incredibly Mexican restaurants in San Diego, I couldn't pick just one. For greasy but delicious Mexican grub after a day at the beach or hiking at Torrey Pines Natural State Reserve, grab a table on the outdoor patio at Roberto's Very Mexican Food.
If you're staying in North County, choose Casa Sol y Mar in Del Mar. The kids will love the roaming mariachi band that plays in the evenings.
Mexican restaurants abound in Old Town but my family's favorite is Cafe Coyote. Children enjoy watching senoras in traditional dress here making flour tortillas by hand on the restaurant's patio. (Bonus: diners can park for free in their own underground parking garage!)
For San Diego's best fajitas, head to Jose's Courtroom in La Jolla Cove. This place has an upscale dive bar feel. You just have to eat there to see what I mean.
If you're looking for a quick, reliable bite to eat, stop in to one of the many Rubio's locations for fish tacos, quesadillas and other Mexican eats. Yes, it's a chain but Rubio's originated in San Diego and some locations even offer fish tanks to entertain the kiddos.
Best San Diego Hotels for Kids
Paradise Point Resort & Spa
Paradise Point Resort & Spa feels like a trip to Hawaii without a flight over the ocean. This resort on the sandy shores of San Diego Bay exudes a tropical feel. There’s plenty of water fun available for rental from the Paradise Point Marina. Enjoy the beauty of the bay via jet ski, sail boat, speed boat, or stand up paddle board. You can also book a water ski or wake boarding adventure. You can even take a water taxi to visit nearby SeaWorld San Diego. If pools are more your thing, Paradise Point Resort boasts five hotel pools and Jacuzzis scattered throughout the 44-acre property. Read my full review of this resort.
West Inn & Suites
This North County hotel makes a great pick for parents and pet owners, where Fido and the kids are given a warm welcome. West Inn & Suites provides a free shuttle to LEGOLAND California, the Carlsbad Flower Fields, the beach and anywhere else within a five-mile radius of the hotel. There’s also a complimentary full breakfast every morning, a selection of board games to borrow, a microwave and refrigerator in every room, and complimentary WiFi. Read my full review.
Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa
The Catamaran Resort offers a lot for vacationers. Located on Mission Bay, the beach right out front is absent of big Pacific ocean waves. This makes it a fabulous choice for families with young children. The resort boasts a Polynesian theme, with koi ponds and tropical landscape winding their way through the property. They even offer Sunset Luaus on the bay! For a splurge-worthy dinner, you absolutely must dine at the on-site Oceana Coastal Kitchen at least one night during your stay. This place makes a good choice for date nightith its tempting upscale offerings like Harris Ranch Filet Mignon with au gratin potatoes, cumin roasted carrots, and white raisins with red wine sauce and blue cheese butter. (So incredibly good!) A children's menu is offered, though, and kids are welcome to join you for a seaside meal. Read reviews of the Catamaran Resort on TripAdvisor.
Residence Inn San Diego/Gaslamp Quarter
If you want to stay downtown, within walking distance of a plethora of restaurants and shops, Residence Inn San Diego/Gaslamp Quarter is the place for you. For a refreshing respite after a day of exploring, take a dip in the rooftop pool with a view of the San Diego skyline.
This hotel has all of the convenient touches for which Residence Inn is renowned. Expect suites with full kitchens, an outdoor grill for barbecues, a 24-hour in-lobby market, and an on-site fitness center. Similar to other Residence Inn locations, this hotel also offers budget-savers like complimentary evening socials, free hot breakfasts, included Internet access, and discounts for longer stays. They’ll even go grocery shopping for you at no additional charge (besides payment for the groceries, of course). Read reviews of Residence Inn San Diego/Gaslamp Quarter on TripAdvisor.
La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club
A vacation at La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club will be long remembered. Its oceanfront suites open right onto the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the luxury price tag, this hotel/private club isn’t all that fancy.
But La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club has bragging rights no other property in San Diego County can claim: it’s home to the only oceanfront beach where alcoholic beverages can legally be consumed. As a private beach, the local no-drinking-on-the-beach law does not apply. You don’t need to be a big drinker to appreciate this detail either. Each summer evening, this exclusive stretch of sand becomes the best family beach party in Southern California. Read my full review of this resort.
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Expedia Kids in the City: 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. This project highlights 12 of America's most popular destinations, with recommendations from some of the best family travel bloggers.
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A Note from The Travel Mama: I was compensated by Expedia for participating in the Kids in the City project when this story launched in 2012.