Home to pristine beaches, well-maintained public parks and oodles of history, San Diego is a top class destination for a family vacation.
The Pacific coastal city of San Diego draws huge numbers of visitors each year, including many families with young kids in tow. Whatever age your children, and however diverse their tastes, you’ll find plenty of fabulous things to see and do in and around the city that are guaranteed to keep them entertained. We’ve picked out some of the best to add to your itinerary below.
Explore a park filled with cultural gems
There are parks where the only built up areas of note are a playground with a slide and swings, and perhaps a ramshackle café. And then, in stark contrast, there is Balboa Park. Home to an incredible 17 museums, the remarkable, sprawling public park combines plenty of space to play and roam free with a huge array of cultural venues, many of which cater for children.
Among the most acclaimed of Balboa Park’s panoply of top class museums is the San Diego Natural History Museum. Featuring a wide assortment of authentic fossils, fun-filled scavenger hunts, and diverse exhibits relating to local geology, ecosystems, and history, the museum is a fabulous place for families to discover and learn about the rich biodiversity of the region.
1788 El Prado / Fri-Tues 10am-4pm Closed Weds-Thurs
There are few kids anywhere whose heart beat doesn’t raise at the sight of an aircraft. The San Diego Air and Space Museum is packed full of fascinating exhibits and artifacts that chronicle the history of flight, from early air balloons all the way through to space travel. Perhaps the main highlight of the museum is the visual spectacle of 50-plus aircrafts hanging from the venue’s rafters.
2001 Pan American Plaza / Mon-Sun 10am-4.30pm
With almost 4,000 rare and endangered animals calling it home, and a beautiful display of over exotic plants dotted throughout its 100 acres, San Diego Zoo is one of the city’s most enduringly popular family attractions. Geared heavily towards education, the zoo has put great thought and care into its exhibits, ensuring that as well as gawping at the creatures behind the cages, visitors also learn plenty as they go around.
2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego / Mon-Thurs 9am-6pm Fri-Sun 9am-9pm
Visit a top class children’s museum
While all of the museums in Balboa Park are rightfully considered child-friendly, there are also a handful of San Diego cultural venues specially tailored for little ones. Among them is the New Children’s Museum, which encourages kids of all ages to experience the arts in ways that are meaningful to them. Operating under the motto “think, play, create,” kids here are invited to explore arts, crafts, and hands-on exhibits like the Sketch Aquarium.
200 West Island Avenue / Thurs-Mon 9am-4pm Closed Tues-Weds
Located in vibrant Escondido, close to the borders of Balboa Park, the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum is another temple of kids’ entertainment. Intended to encourage children to learn through play, the venue features some 6,000 square feet of indoor space, as well as a vast outdoor area where there are chicken coops, worm farms, and other themed play stations.
320 North Broadway, Escondido / Tues-Sat 9am-4.30pm Closed Sun-Mon
Test your mettle at a thrilling amusement park
An historic amusement park, Belmont Park is rammed with great rides and other kid-tastic attractions that will keep your little ones entertained for hours – if not more. Perched right on the seaside, it’s the ideal place to head after the beach fun has worn a little thin. Among the array of activities to enjoy are the roller coaster, arcade, carnival rides, zip line, laser tag, miniature golf, and go-kart track.
3146 Mission Boulevard / Weds-Thurs 11am-8pm Fri-Sat 11am-10pm Sun 11am-9pm Mon 11am-8pm Tues 12pm-7pm
Attend a fun-packed festival
Held over two full days each year, Fiesta del Sol is a family-friendly street festival with community at its heart. Celebrating the history, diverse cultures, and civic engagement of the people of San Diego, it draws large numbers of revellers who come to enjoy the entertainment stage with live music, multi-cultural food court, arts and crafts, and dedicated kids’ area featuring rides, an inflatable bounce house, face painting and more. Free to enter, the event’s kiddie focus even extends to a strictly enforced ban on alcohol and tobacco.
Fletcher Cove Park, Solana Beach / May each year
The construction of sandcastles has always been a competitive field, with kids vying to build the biggest and most creative structures they can muster with a bucket and spade. Taking place on Imperial Beach each year, 14 miles south of downtown, Sun & Sea Festival is a hotly contested adults’ sandcastle-building competition that draws large crowds to come and witness the zenith of sand-based engineering ingenuity. The results are truly mesmerising, often veering way off-piste from the traditional fortress- and-moat concept. There’s also a separate Kids-n-Kastles contest for little ones to pit their creativity against each other.
Imperial Beach / July each year
Take a wander around a tranquil botanic garden
Horticulture isn’t typically a guaranteed winner with kids, but it’s hard for anyone to not appreciate the lush beauty of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Comprising some 29 gorgeous gardens, with themes ranging from olive trees to native plants native from the Canary Islands, the site is simply a pleasure to wander around at your leisure. The Hamilton Children’s Garden, with its treehouse and grass maze, is a particular hit with kids and there are also regular child-friendly tours.
300 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas / Weds-Sun 9am-5pm Closed Mon-Tues
Go hiking in a scenic nature reserve
Surrounding San Diego itself are a number of areas of natural beauty including several popular hiking spots. Among those most suitable for kids are two at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – a scenic 3/4-mile-long Beach Trail in the Upper Reserve and a 2/3-mile-long mild loop hike complete with panoramic Pacific Ocean views and an impressive number of wildflowers and native plants. As a bonus, below the reserve is Torrey Pines State Beach, providing the perfect reward at the end of your exertions.
12600 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla / Mon-Sun 7am-7pm
Discover San Diego’s rich maritime history
Not just any ordinary museum, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is unique for being housed across an important collection of historic sailing vessels. Located on the San Diego Bay, kids love to climb onboard to explore the prestigious seafaring machines, which include the museum’s centrepiece attraction, the Star of India, which lays claim to being the world’s oldest active sailing ship, and a Soviet-era B-39 submarine.
1492 North Harbor Drive / Mon-Sun 10am-5pm
Hit a family-friendly beach
A regular fixture on lists of California’s best beaches, Coronado Central Beach is a gorgeous stretch of white sandy shoreline that extends for some 1.5 miles past the luxurious Victorian-era Hotel del Coronado on Ocean Boulevard, lending it an impressive backdrop. Attracting surfers, swimmers, sunbathers and families in equal measure, the beach is anything you want it to be, whether you’re keen on watersports, relaxation or any other form of coastal fun and adventure.
Flat, long and wide, and backing onto a playground and grassy area, it’s little wonder that families flock to La Jolla Shores Beach, a short drive north of downtown San Diego, in their droves during the summer months. Beyond the sand, the beach attracts kayakers who enter at the south end and paddle out to see La Jolla Caves (see above) and other water-accessible sites, while beach walkers can head north passing under the Scripps Pier and continuing all the way to Black’s Beach.
La Jolla, San Diego
Get enraptured by raptors
The birds of prey known as raptors are among the most majestic of all earth’s creatures. Visitors to San Diego with a fascination for these stunning species can get up close and personal with some of them by joining a Total Raptor Experience. A renowned company based in the hilly, seaside neighborhood of La Jolla, they offer a variety of interactive group classes and private experiences that are guaranteed to render you awe-struck. You can learn to call the birds to a hand-held perch or falconry glove before releasing them into the sky, marvel at their aerobatic skills in simulated hunting exercises, and learn about the long history of falconry, believed by some to be the world’s oldest sport.
2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla / Weds-Sun 9am-5pm Closed Mon-Tues
Learn about butterfly conservation
The life cycle of butterflies has always held a bewitching fascination in the minds of children, and in the beach city of Encinitas, 25 miles north of downtown San Diego, is a place where they can come and explore further their curiosity for these colourful, delicate insects. Butterfly Farms is a non-profit organisation created to preserve and protect native butterflies and pollinators. Visitors get to learn about the research and conservation efforts that take place at the farms, as well as enjoy the immersive experience of walking through a 3,000-square-foot Vivarium where butterflies fly free.
441 Saxony Road, Encinitas / Mon-Sun 10am-3pm
Go kayaking in enchanting sea caves
The beautiful sea cliffs and caves nestled in La Jolla Ecological Reserve are a sight to behold. Awash with diverse marine life, plus rocky reefs, sandy flats, and kelp beds, one of the favourite ways to explore La Jolla caves is by kayak and there are a number of guided tours available. Highlights include getting up close to the caves’ stunning sandstone formations, and the chance to spot exotic creatures such as sea lions, garibaldi, leopard sharks, shovelnose guitarfish, and even the occasional dolphin.
Join a whale watching cruise
Another water-based activity you can enjoy in San Diego is a whale watching cruise. Aboard a replica of a historic sailing schooner, you’ll be joined by an expert guide who will regale you with fascinating facts about grey whales, dolphins, and other marine animals, along with details about the US Navy sites you pass as you head out on the Pacific Ocean. Your vessel’s deep keel provides excellent stability and its large decks offers unobstructed views.