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15 Best San Diego Attractions for Kids

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San Diego County overflows with fun for families. As a mom who lived in this Southern California beach city for 15 years and who returns regularly with her brood, I’m excited to share my picks for the best San Diego attractions for kids. These activities are sure to keep all ages content during your San Diego family vacation!

Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego (Photo courtesy of SanDiego.org)

Find San Diego deals including attraction ticket discounts and discounted hotel packages. Scroll to the bottom of this list of San Diego attractions for kids to find a special San Diego discount just for Travel Mamas readers!

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 here. 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. Over the years, the building 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, enchiladas, and chile rellenos.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument (Photo credit: bonandbon, Depositphotos.com)

14. Cabrillo National Monument

Take the kids to Cabrillo National Monument for a hands-on San Diego history lesson. Then take a hike along the Bayside Trail to take in 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 in 1542 what is now the West Coast of the United States.

The highlight is a visit to Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which lit the way for sailors entering San Diego Bay from 1855 to 1891. Today, visitors get a glimpse of life in the 1800s through period furnishings and lighthouse tools on display.

The New Children's Museum in San Diego

The New Children’s Museum (Photo courtesy of The New Children’s Museum)

13. The New Children’s Museum

With 17  museums at Balboa Park, 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 Sketch Aquarium for ages 2+ and Reconnecting to Home for ages 6+. Meanwhile, other spaces 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 State Natural Reserve in San Diego County

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (Photo credit: Feverpitch, Depositphotos.com)

12. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Choose from eight hiking trails 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 strollers, can enjoy Discovery Trail. This short half-mile loop near the Torrey Pines Lodge features information markers about local plants. The reserve is home to the rare twisty Torrey Pine as well as desert brush, prickly pear cactus, wild flowers, and other native plants.

Carlsbad Flower Fields in San Diego County

Carlsbad Flower Fields (Photo credit: bonandbon, Depositphotos.com)

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. In these gardens, 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 throughout the Flower Fields. At Santa’s Playground, children climb and slide among restored play houses and gigantic mushrooms that were once part of the 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.

Seals at the Children's Pool at La Jolla Cove

Seals at the Children’s Pool at La Jolla Cove

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 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 San Diego County, my Midwestern 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.

The Star of India at the Maritime Museum

The Star of India at the Maritime Museum (Photo credit: neilld, Depositphotos.com)

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.

Scripps Birch Aquarium in San Diego with kids

Scripps Birch Aquarium (Photo credit: Wayne Martin Belger, courtesy of Birch Aquarium)

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 lion fish, silvery sardines, sharks and other sea creatures. Children can also gently pet sandpapery sea stars and slimy sea cucumbers at the outdoor Tide Pool Plaza.

San Diego Botanic Garden

San Diego Botanic Garden (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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). You will find tubs of soapy water and wands for making bubbles, buried plastic dinosaurs for digging up, a child-sized play house, and a model railroad track with trains that chug through the garden.

Hamilton Children’s Garden appeals to bigger kids. Here, families 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, children play with toy boats and cool off their tootsies in a miniature stream.

Safari Caravan at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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

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 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 Caravan Safari (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. For an extra fee, you can even zip-line at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park over the heads of wild animals. For a memorable adventure, sign up for the Roar and Snore overnight camping in the park.

The LEGOLAND Waterpark at LEGOLAND California ~ 15 Best San Diego Attractions with Kida

The LEGOLAND Waterpark at LEGOLAND California (Photo credit: LEGOLAND California)

5. LEGOLAND California

While many amusement parks present passive entertainment, parents will be pleased to discover 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 Rescue 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 pop-up plastic bubbles in fish-filled tanks. The water park (open summers only) offers fountains and mellow waterslides for tots plus more exciting slides for bigger visitors.

Purchase discounted LEGOLAND California tickets now. Scroll down to learn more about saving money on your LEGOLAND California vacation with a special Travel Mamas discount!

Dolphin Days show at SeaWorld San Diego

Dolphin Days show at SeaWorld San Diego (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

4. SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego is best known for shows starring animals from the ocean like dolphins and sea lions. 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, too. 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 Penguin Encounter tour.

Balboa Park Lily Pond and Conservatory

Balboa Park Lily Pond and Conservatory (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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. A hit with the preschooler set, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum houses one of the largest indoor model train displays in the world. Meanwhile, 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.

This koala at San Diego Zoo looks like he's waving hello, doesn't he?

Koala at San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

2. San Diego Zoo

Of course, you can’t visit San Diego with kids 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, kangaroos 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 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.

La Jolla Shores Beach in San Diego County

La Jolla Shores Beach (Photo courtesy of SanDiego.org)

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. In fact, San Diego boasts more than 70 miles of beaches where families can take surfing lessons, go sea-kayaking, or build sand castles.

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 dive into the water for a seafood snack.

Save Money on Your San Diego Family Vacation

Want to save money on your San Diego vacation? Of course you do! Use discount code TravelMamas to get $10 off any two-night or longer Southern California package (hotel and two ticket minimum) when you book through Get Away Today. Also find San Diego deals including attraction ticket discounts!

Those considering a fall visit are in luck! October is Kids Free San Diego Month, with over 100 deals just for kids. Take a look at which attractions, hotels and restaurants are offering freebies to families.

It’s well worth investing in a Southern California CityPass. Choose the California attractions you’d like to visit and save a bunch!

It makes good sense to check Groupon for discounts on activities and restaurants in your destination, and San Diego is no exception. Take a look at Groupon San Diego deals now.

Expedia Kids in the City San Diego video

Learn More about San Diego with Kids

Check out my San Diego attractions with kids 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.

Looking for places to eat in San Diego? Read my picks for the top San Diego restaurants for families. For more to explore in the Golden State, be sure to take a look at the best destinations in California with kids.

15 Best San Diego Attractions for Kids

Save these San Diego Attractions for Kids

Keep this list of things to do in San Diego for future reference. Simply pin the image above via Pinterest. Go ahead and follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

What do you think are the best San Diego attractions for kids? Let us know your tips and questions in the comments below!

Travel Mamas was compensated by Expedia for participating in the Kids in the City project when this story launched in 2012. This story is updated regularly to reflect San Diego’s current offerings for families. 

About Colleen Lanin

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.

Comments
  1. Toni | Boulder Locavore says

    Definitely bookmarking this! I haven’t thought San Diego has all these fun ctivities!!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      There’s oh-so-much to do in San Diego! I miss having so many awesome family-friendly options now that I live in Arizona.

  2. Seattle Travel Blogger says

    Wow, this is an impressive article – quite a reference for San Diego.
    The attraction list is awesome and not just for kids, as my husband and I would love to go to many of the places listed.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      So true – there are plenty of things for kids AND adults to enjoy in San Diego!

  3. Shannon Gurnee says

    We recently visited San Diego with our kids. We went to the San Diego Zoo and to Sea World and had a blast! We’ve been to Legoland before too! So many fun things to do!

  4. Cassie Tucker says

    I have always wanted to find time to visit San Diego! The place I want to visit the most is the Zoo!

  5. Elizabeth says

    Thank you for the article, it is just what I needed. We have a trip to San Diego at the end of the month with a 4 year old.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      So glad you found the tips helpful, Elizabeth! Have a wonderful time in San Diego with your little one!

  6. Darrell Redus says

    Great article! We will be using some of your suggestions when we visit the area next month with our one and three year old boys.

  7. Piotr Kowalski says

    It’s not FAIR that this are attractions for kids 😀 Just kidding, but LEGOLAND California is definitely a place I will visit as I simply love LEGO, it doesn’t matter how old are you in order to play LEGO, if you grow up with LEGOs then you know what I’m talking about.

  8. Are there any food tours that you would recommend with small children, or any that allow small children to come?

  9. Thank you for this list! Going to San Diego next week with 5 kids and I now have PLENTY of things for us to do!

  10. hi there,
    Thanks for this great article, really tempted to go!
    Do I need to rent a car to go to these places? I will be travelling by myself with 2 young children.
    Thank you!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Hi Jenny – Once upon a time I would have said you definitely need a car, but now with Uber you could probably skip it. That is, if you don’t mind using Uber with two little kids. Some hotels do offer free shuttles to the main attractions, but San Diego is definitely spread out so planning to rent a car or use Uber/Lyft is definitely the way to go. Enjoy San Diego! It’s such a great place for families with young kids!

      • Hi Colleen, thanks so much for your reply!
        The concern I have is my oldest in a booster, and the youngest still in a car seat…
        And I am planning to go with an AirBnb, way more affordable than a hotel room, although I will check out the ones you indicate first!
        Many thanks for the wealth of information!
        Jenny

        • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

          Since you’re still dealing with car seats, I’d definitely rent a car. I love AirBnB too, but sometimes it’s worth the extra cost for the amenities at a hotel. Whichever way you go, I hope you have a fab time in beautiful San Diego!

          • Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer! 🙂
            I am also trying to go on vacation on the cheap side (sorry!), but I really want to offer some vacation to the kids!

          • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

            No need to apologize! I love saving money while traveling. It means I can travel MORE! There are plenty of free and affordable things to do in San Diego like…the BEACH! Enjoy!

  11. Hi Colleen,
    We are heading to San Diego in July for two weeks to visit my daughter and granddaughter. Would like to do all of these great outings. And coupon ideas to save a few $$$$?

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Hi Martha – I suggest looking up Groupon and Living Social for the San Diego area to see if there are any discounted activities/restaurants that look appealing to you. GoCard San Diego also provides a great opportunity to save if you plan on visiting a lot of attractions. You can get San Diego discount deals when you book through Get Away Today. Use discount code TravelMamas to get $10 off any two-night or longer Southern California package (hotel and two ticket minimum) when you book here: https://www.getawaytoday.com/?referrerid=7425 Check out their attraction discounts here: https://www.getawaytoday.com/tickets/sandiego/?referrerid=7425 Have a fabulous time in San Diego!

  12. Brooke|ExploringFootsteps says

    We sure loved the trolley ride tour with my 4 and 5 year-olds. They loved seeing all the sites and exploring in different areas. The bay side of Mission Beach was our favorite hang out spot. The water was super calm for the girls. Love these ideas. We hope to get back to San Diego soon. My five-year-old is convinced she is moving there when she is all grown up!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Such fun, Brooke! We’ve done so much in San Diego with kids over the years but have never done the trolley tour. Must give this a try during our next visit to America’s Finest City!

  13. Thanks for the tips they really helped me out

  14. Rachel Warrick says

    Thank you so much for this article. I have been a bit overwhelmed planning our vacation but these are a lot of great ideas, and not only super pricey ones! It is well laid-out and thorough.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      So glad my tips have been helpful in planning your San Diego trip! Have a wonderful time in America’s Finest City!

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