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Best California with Kids Destinations

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California is so jam-packed with fun for kids, you may not know where to begin planning your family vacation. As a mom and former Californian who has explored much of the Golden State’s shores, theme parks, and cities — let me help you narrow down your choices with this list of the nine best places to visit in California with kids.

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo

Flamingos at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: pngstudio, Depositphotos.com)

This story is brought to you in partnership with Visit California.

1. San Diego

I lived in San Diego in Southern California for 15 years in this self-proclaimed America’s Best City, so I admit I’m a bit partial to this California beach town. San Diego pleases all ages with the renowned San Diego Zoo, miles of shoreline, SeaWorld San Diego and tons of other attractions. Sound like your cup of kid-friendly tea? Read about the best San Diego attractions for kids.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland (Photo credit: Paul Hiffmeyer, Disneyland)

2. Disneyland

Of course, no list of the best destinations in California for kids would be complete without Disneyland and its sister park, Disney California Adventure. With memorable character meals, thrilling rides, and attractions aplenty, you’re never too old or too young for a Disney vacation. Visiting with wee ones? Check out my picks for the best Disneyland rides and attractions for babies and toddlers. Headed to the Happiest Place on Earth with bigger kids? Take a peek at the 17 scariest rides at Disneyland, ranked for families.

Huntington Beach is the ultimate surfer town to visit in California

Huntington Beach, the ultimate surfer town (Photo credit: wolterke, Depositphotos.com)

3. Huntington Beach

If your ideal California family vacation focuses on ocean waves, sandy beaches and hanging ten — book a trip to Huntington Beach. Also known as Surf City USA, be sure to sign up for family surf lessons during your visit. A trip to the Surfer Hall of Fame and a nighttime beach bonfire are musts in this walkable beach town. Read more about Huntington Beach with kids.

The Channel Islands are an intriguing place to visit with kids in Ventura Country

The Channel Islands in Ventura Country (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

4. Ventura County

For a unique array of activities for families, consider a Ventura County vacation. Think gondola rides through canals, spying on wild foxes on an uninhabited island, and piloting a battery-operated boat. Discover more unique things to do in Ventura County with kids.

Kids might be surprised to find that the Golden Gate Bridge is red, not gold during a visit to San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (Photo credit: martinm303, Depositphotos.com)

5. San Francisco

Ahh…San Francisco! What’s not to love about this city by the sea? From the massive Golden Gate Park and the world’s crookedest street, to the famous Pier 39 and Alcatraz Island, there’s much to explore in San Francisco with kids. Got a Star Wars fan or comics lover in the family? Then you’ll want to read our geek’s guide to San Francisco before you go!

Children and adults alike love Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium (Photo credit: Belyay, Depositphotos.com)

6. Monterey

Along California’s Central Coast lies the picturesque city of Monterey. The famous Monterey Bay Aquarium will wow kids with exhibits filled with tuxedoed penguins, playful sea otters and, of course, fish of all sorts. Seafood lovers rejoice in Monterey for its abundance of fresh-caught selections. Plus, hiking opportunities give families a chance to connect with nature and each other. If your family golfs (and even if it doesn’t), a stop at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links is a must. Monterey is just four miles from the darling Carmel, a destination worthy of a day trip or additional stop during your California vacation.

California's Lake Tahoe in winter

Lake Tahoe in winter (Photo credit: mblach, Depositphotos.com)

7. Lake Tahoe

Snow in California? Oh yes, indeed! Skiing may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you picture a California vacation, but maybe it should be. Northstar California at Lake Tahoe offers a wintry wonderland for the whole family. This resort boasts over 3,000 skiable acres – with trails for skiers and snow boarders of all skill levels. Snowshoeing, ice skating, s’mores and more keep kids content during a California winter trip to Lake Tahoe. The fun doesn’t stop when the snow melts, either. In summer, head to Lake Tahoe for jet skiing, paddle boarding, hiking, kayaking and beyond.

Legoland California in Carlsbad with kids

Legoland California in Carlsbad (Photo credit: Legoland California)

8. Carlsbad and Legoland California

Located just over 30 miles north of downtown San Diego and less than an hour’s drive south from Orange County’s Irvine, you could easily spend your entire California family vacation in Carlsbad. Besides its seven miles of beaches, Legoland California is the star of the show here. This amusement park offers mellow roller coasters, interactive rides, colorful play areas, and other fun for kids. Also onsite is Legoland Water Park for summer visitors and SeaLife Aquarium, open year-round. The fun doesn’t stop there, though. Learn about all there is to do in Carlsbad with kids.

Hollywood sign

The iconic Hollywood Sign, as viewed from Burbank (Photo credit: logoboom, Depositphotos.com)

9. Burbank and Hollywood

If you’re gaga about all things glitz and glamour, head to the Media Capital of the World. Burbank is home to hundreds of major film and television studios, including Walt Disney Studios, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Warner Bros. Studio. For an immersive look at sets and memorabilia from favorite shows and movies — be sure to book a Warner Bros. Studio Tour in advance. For movies and TV shows served with a side of roller coaster and live shows, Universal Studios Hollywood is an absolute must. This is especially true for Harry Potter fans who adore this theme park’s Wizarding World. Learn more about this impressive Los Angeles suburb with this list of things to do in Burbank.

Best California Vacation Destinations for Families

Save these Tips for Visiting California with Kids

Be sure to save this list of the best California vacation destinations for families. Simply pin the image above to Pinterest. We hope follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it.

For even more ideas for things to do in California, check out our extensive list of travel tips and blog posts about California!

Where would you like to vacation in California with kids? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: I received compensation related to this blog post from Visit California. All opinions are mine, as usual.
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. I would love to take my child to Anaheim California to visit Disneyland!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      I bet your family will love Disneyland and Disney California adventure – hope you can visit soon!

  2. Michelle D. says

    Disneyland of course! My kid would love that trip!

  3. Melissa Chapman says

    That review of California destinations makes me wish I lived on the left coast. I find it hard to choose but the picture of those fields in Ventura county looks so inviting, I would love to go for a run there.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      That photo was taken on Scorpion Island, which is part of the Channel Islands National Park. It’s so beautiful and peaceful there.

  4. I’ve heard many great things about the San Diego Zoo. I know I would love going, as would my kids. Of course, SeaWorld would be a great experience, as would LegoLand! Way too many exciting places to take the kids to comment on!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      San Diego really does have SO MUCH FUN to offer families. I hope you can visit soon!

  5. Since we live in Las Vegas, we have been frequenting southern California theme parks for years, and we never get tired of them! The San Diego Zoo is a big family favorite and I love the idea of heading up north to explore San Francisco.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      California is such a diverse state – how lucky that you live close enough for easy escapes!

  6. This looks like an absolute blast! I need to take the boys to LegoLand!!

  7. Those are some pretty awesome destination choices for California with kids. Looks like Legoland California also has so much to offer, have to pass this along to my friends!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      It would be so fun to stay at their new Castle Hotel – good luck to you & your friends with the giveaway!

  8. Toni | Boulder Locavore says

    This is an awesome list! My kids can’t wait to visit Legoland California!

  9. I’ve been to Legoland and Disney World in Florida. I’d love to do the versions in California.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      I love noticing the similarities & differences between the California and Florida parks.

  10. AnnMarie John says

    So much to love about California especially if you’re going there with the kids. I love that they have Legoland aside from Disney. You can definitely plan your vacation around those.

  11. Mick Paul says

    Traveling with kids is not an easy job. California is my dream place. Legoland California also has so much to offer, have to pass this along to my friends. I will travel there soon but I can’t travel with kids.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Enjoy your travels to California and thank you for sharing this story with your friends!

  12. Brenda Haines says

    All my son talks about is going to Legoland! So, I have to make it happen. 🙂

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Brenda – I hope you can take your son soon & that it fulfills his Lego dreams!

  13. Nicole Wiltrout says

    We spent spring break last year split between in Monterey, Yosemite, and San Francisco. Such a perfect mix for families that like a bit of variety… seaside/ocean, mountains/hiking, and a culturally interesting city. I’d love to do a long weekend in San Diego as a family. So much to do!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Nicole – That sounds like a WONDERFUL California itinerary! San Diego is so full of fun things for families to do — I hope you can visit someday when it’s safe to travel again!

  14. Lisa Goodmurphy says

    We have visited San Diego, Carlsbad, Disneyland and San Francisco and had a great time in all four. Monterey and Hollywood are on my wish list so I can’t wait until we have a chance to visit California again!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      There’s so much to explore in California — it’s almost like a mini country! I hope it will be safe for us all to travel again very soon and that your California travel dreams come true!

  15. Shannon Entin says

    I’ve been to many of these spots – Lake Tahoe is my happy place! I still want to do a Highway 101 road trip though…

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Shannon – I’d love to get back to Lake Tahoe — this time for a summer vacation! It’s so beautiful there. Highway 101 is so pretty and chill, with so many cute little beach towns along the way. I hope your California vacation dreams come true once it’s safe to travel again!

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