Ever heard of Carlsbad? It's probably not the first place that pops to mind when you think of a California vacation…but maybe it should be. Often overlooked in favor of its popular neighbor, San Diego, Carlsbad has plenty of fun for families. This laidback town is just 36 miles north of the San Diego International Airport and less than an hour's drive south from Orange County's Irvine, making it an easy destination for those hailing from Los Angeles, Phoenix, and beyond. Here are some of the best attractions, restaurants, and accommodations Carlsbad has to offer families.
The Carlsbad Seawall beach walkway
Beaches, Beaches, Beaches!
Carlsbad is home to seven miles of beaches, where families can splash, swim, build sand castles, and maybe even learn to surf. If you'd rather just go for a seaside stroll, the Carlsbad Seawall stretches for about a mile along Carlsbad Blvd, with several beach access points along the way.
For some wave-free water fun, head to the Carlsbad Lagoon to rent stand-up paddle boards, canoes, jet skis, speed boats, and more. Float past luxury waterfront homes and into an inlet lined with condos and their docked boats.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
Carlsbad Flower Fields
Every spring families pose for pretty pictures amongst row upon row of brightly colored ranunculas at the Carlsbad Flower Fields. Gem-mining, free concerts, tractor-pulled wagon rides, and a maze made of sweet peas add to the fun.
Museum of Making Music
Discover the history of musical instruments from the 1890s to today at the Museum of Making Music. This attraction features over 500 instruments. Push the plentiful exhibit buttons to hear what the instruments sound like in the hands of masters. The best part is an interactive room where you can make your own music using an electric piano, drums, guitars, and more.
Carlsbad Premium Outlets
With over 90 stores to visit, save some time in your schedule and money in your vacation budget for trip to the Carlsbad Premium Outlets. Choose from favorites like Banana Republic Factory Store, Kenneth Cole, Coach, and Barney's New York Outlet plus stores that cater to kids like Baby Gap Outlet, Gymboree Outlet, and Carter's.
The Dragon roller coaster at LEGOLAND California
Carlsbad is probably most well-known as the home of LEGOLAND California. This amusement park for families with children ages 2-12 offers mellow roller coasters, interactive rides, colorful play areas, and other fun for kids. The park's centerpiece, Miniland USA, is filled with recreations of famous U.S. landmarks like the Las Vegas Strip and the Empire State Building as well as Star Wars scenes, all formed entirely from LEGO bricks.
Located inside LEGOLAND California, the LEGOLAND Water Park is a must-do if visiting during the warmth of summer. The whole family can float down the Build-A-Raft River, while stacking huge foam LEGO bricks on their inner-tubes. There are special splash areas with fountains and mini waterslides just for toddlers and young children while big kids and grown-ups can zip down four giant swirling slides.
SEA LIFE Carlsbad Aquarium
Located next door to LEGOLAND California, SEA LIFE Carlsbad Aquarium is a fabulous attraction in its own right. Add SEALIFE Aquarium to your LEGOLAND visit by purchasing a park hopper, or purchase an entrance ticket just for the aquarium. Innovative pop-up underwater viewing stations give kids a chance to see what the fishies see. Make it a learning adventure by encouraging children to play the Quiz Trail, a scavenger hunt of sorts that teaches about marine life while children make their way through the aquarium's exhibits.
Pop-up bubble at SEA LIFE Aquarium
Just above the flower fields, you’ll find the Karl Strauss Brewing Company. Each year this family-friendly restaurant and brewery creates 30 beers, including seasonal and and specialty brews. Stop in for lunch or dinner or just to get a side of their to-die-for fries with a nice, cold brew (or a lemonade for the kiddies).
Another dining option is Pizza Port with arguably the best pizza in San Diego County, a handful of video games for kids, and plenty of beers on tap for grown-ups.
If your kids dig Mexican food, there are a couple of tasty options for families. Rena Crawford-Payne, a Carlsbad resident and mom, recommends Norte because, “they have a nice outdoor patio and you don't have to worry about the kids being too loud or making a big mess.”
Los Olas is the Carlsbad Mexican restaurant of choice for Aimee Steckowski, a mom and author of the FancyLittleThings.com blog. She says, “They have wonderful food choices for both adults and children. Their food smells and tastes wonderful — true authentic Mexican food served in big portions for great prices.”
Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach pool
The Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach makes a wonderful choice for families. This particular Hilton Garden Inn ranks highly among mid-range hotels year after year, not only for its gorgeous Southern California location across from the beach, but also for its above-and-beyond customer service. Complimentary shuttles cart guests anywhere within a five-mile radius of the hotel. During the summer, child guests are greeted with a stuffed sea animal like a dolphin or seal. In warmer months, guests can munch popcorn and cookies while watching family-friendly Movies on the Lawn on an inflatable screen. They even pass out free Otterpops to cool down guests at the hotel pool!
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What is your favorite Carlsbad attraction or restaurant? Tell us in the comments!
A Note from The Travel Mama: I received a complimentary stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach. As a travel writer, I have also received media discounts/passes from a few of the other attractions mentioned above.