Insider Guide: San Diego
Family-friendly things to see and do in San Diego By Mimi Slawoff
Beach in San Diego (Flickr: Chad McDonald)
Why Go: Year-round mild temperatures, miles of pristine beaches, family-friendly attractions and an array of festivals bring people from all over the globe to this top Southern California city. But while San Diego may be synonymous with beach culture (hang 10 anyone?), the city’s museums, theme parks and historic districts offer a well-rounded family vacation.
Here’s most of the things you need to know when visiting San Diego with the kids.
Good to Know
The annual Kids Free San Diego in October offers free admission and discounts to more than 90 San Diego hotels, restaurants, attractions, museums and transportation companies. October is a terrific time to visit San Diego, when it’s not too crowded and the weather is warm.
Best kid-friendly hotels:
Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa (3999 Mission Blvd.; 858-488-1081). The Polynesian-themed resort overlooks Mission Bay, inviting water play, kayaking and sailing. Lush grounds, tiki torches, koi ponds, waterfalls and luaus complete with roasted pig offer tropical adventures onsite. Catch a movie projected on a 16-foot-wide screen right on the beach. Some hotel packages can be customized to include one complimentary adult ticket to a major San Diego attraction.
Bahia Resort Hotel (998 West Mission Bay Drive; 858-488-0551). The Catamaran’s sister hotel has a kids’ arcade, swimming pool, tennis courts and water sports. The Bahia Belle, a turn-of-the-century sternwheeler that sails to the Catamaran Resort, provides complimentary cruises with nightly entertainment.
Paradise Point Resort (Courtesy Paradise Point Resort)
Paradise Point Resort & Spa (1404 Vacation Road; 858-274-4630). Stay on a private 44-acre island minutes from downtown San Diego. Bungalow-style guest rooms are set amidst tropical gardens, meandering pathways and lagoons. Surf lessons, five pools and bike rentals keep the kids happy.
LEGOLAND Hotel (5885 The Crossings Dr.; 877-534-6526). Pirate, adventure and kingdom-themed rooms with in-room LEGO models make the hotel an extension of the park. The colorful rooms include a separate children’s area, two TVs and a treasure chest. Check out the disco elevator, play area, family pool and Bricks Family Restaurant.
Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado; 619-435-6611). Situated on beautiful Coronado Island, the elegant Victorian resort pampers families with suites (and themed kids rooms with bunk beds) children’s programs and a teen spa/salon. Learn to surf or paddleboard, ride a bike and tour the neighborhood on a surrey. During winter holidays, there’s a beachside ice skating rink.
Get Your Bearings
San Diego is a coastal city located in southern California, 20 miles north of Mexico and about 120 miles south of Los Angeles. Its vast terrain encompasses miles of ocean and bay shoreline, mountains, canyons and desert.
Most fun way to get around:
On two wheels. San Diego has miles of bike trails, but the most family-friendly paths circle Mission Bay. Peddle on car-free paved paths along the bay or branch off on side trips through beach communities.
Best local tours:
Old Town Trolley Tours. Hop on and off at 11 stops with access to over 100 points of interest. The trolley is much more convenient than driving around and competing for parking.
Hornblower Cruises. One- and two-hour narrated Harbor and Sea Lion Adventures cruise by marine animals, birds, Coronado Island, Point Loma Lighthouse and other landmarks. Bring a light sweater and enjoy ocean breezes.
Soak Up the Local Scene
La Jolla Cove. Nestled among sandstone cliffs, the picturesque beach has small surf perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Kids will love scoping out marine life in the tide pools. Lifeguards, restrooms and showers make this a safe and clean family beach. It’s also by scenic Scripps Park, popular for picnics and summer concerts.
La Jolla Shores. Adjacent to the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, the one-mile long beach has small surf and is good for snorkeling. A playground, fire pits, picnic areas, restrooms and showers make this an inviting beach for families.
Best kid-friendly exhibits:
Seuss on the loose in La Jolla. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla. See the "Secret Art of Dr. Seuss" at the Legends Gallery in La Jolla; The Dr. Seuss/Lorax truffula tree in Scripps Park; the Dr. Seuss Collection (the world’s largest) at Geisel Library/UCSD; and "Ingenious! The World of Dr. Seuss" exhibit at San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. There’s also an annual Dr. Seuss birthday bash in March with free cake, punch and a giant inflatable Cat in the Hat at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
Most entertaining kid-friendly festival:
Spring Buskers Festival. Sword-swallowing, knife-throwing, juggling on unicycles and pogo stick tricks are performed during an annual two-day festival in March in Seaport Village, a waterfront shopping and dining complex.
Fiesta Old Town Cinco de Mayo. Immerse yourself in Mexican culture during three days of festivities in May with live music, a low rider car show, children’s area, zesty food and cantina beer gardens.
Best kid-friendly hike for wildlife viewing:
Torrey Pines State Reserve. Spot whales and dolphins while hiking on ocean-view trails.
Let the Sun Shine In
Most all-inclusive park:
Balboa Park (Flickr: Richard)
Balboa Park. Museums, theaters, gardens, walking paths and open spaces comprise the 1,200-acre park. Best bets for kids: the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (see a planetarium show!), San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Air & Space Museum, Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Hall of Champions, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum and the San Diego Zoo. Take a spin on the 1910 Balboa Park Carousel.
Pepper Grove Playground. Near the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (see a planetarium show!) in Balboa Park, the playground has two play areas: a giant sandbox, cushioned floors, slides and swings for little ones; and a larger area with climbing structures for kids ages 5 and older.
Walk on the Wild Side
San Diego Zoo. Home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals, and over 700,000 exotic plants, the 100-acre zoo offers many activities and special experiences, such as breakfast with Koalas. Rest weary feet and ride the Skyfari aerial tram for a bird’s eye view of the zoo. Animal shows, several play areas and a miniature train that circles a portion of Balboa Park are among the many fun activities.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park (Courtesy San Diego Zoo Safari Park)
San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Cheetahs, tigers, lions, giraffes and the California condor are among more than 2,600 animals that live in open spaces. See animals via tram, safari truck (ages 8 and older) and flightline safari (zip-line style).
Most creative theme park:
LEGOLAND Carlsbad (Courtesy LEGOLAND)
LEGOLAND California Resort. Though geared for ages 2 – 12, older kids and adults find the Lego-themed attractions, shows and tasty dining options appealing, too. There’s also a water park and Sea Life Aquarium with interactive exhibits, habitats and touch tanks. Be sure to try Granny’s Apple Fries – yum!
Best whale viewing:
From about December through April, you can see gray whales from shore at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, Cabrillo National Monument and Torrey Pines State Reserve. Or set sail with Hornblower Cruises on a whale watching tour.
Feed Your Culture
Best museum for kids:
New Children’s Museum. This contemporary art space features interactive creative activities for tots through teens.
Most kid-friendly historic district:
Old Town San Diego. Historic sites, festivals and more than 25 restaurants attract locals and visitors. Wander through a black smith shop, the first area schoolhouse and the Whaley House, believed by many to be the most haunted house in America. Here’s the place to feast on authentic Mexican food.
Most kid-friendly restaurants:
Corvette Diner. Waitstaff dressed in 50s-era outfits serve up burgers, chicken, soups, salad, fries and shakes. Play in the arcade while waiting for your food.
Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, Liberty Station. While parents sample craft beers and gourmet dishes, kids get their own delicious menu of steak, pasta, ribs and teriyaki chicken bowl. Try the house made sodas. The cool venue has a large lawn and bocce ball court.
Old Town Mexican Cafe. Munch on traditional Mexican food, listen to live mariachi music and watch corn tortillas being made. Kids get coloring sheets and crayons upon being seated.
Mimi Slawoff of WriteMimi.com contributed this to MiniTime. She is a Los Angeles-based journalist and a seasoned family travel expert who explores the world with her three children and writes about their journeys.