Things to Do in San Diego With Kids

Apr 10, 2019

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While we enjoy traveling all over, we’re San Diego locals, so count us as experts on all the best things to do in San Diego with kids. We have teens ourselves and have been doing fun things with them here since they were born. San Diego is known for its beautiful beaches and year-round sunny weather, plus there are a ton of things to do in the city itself.

La Jolla Cove cliff flowers and surf
The cliffs and beaches in La Jolla are a great place to get some sun and explore tide pools. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

Because there are so many cool family activities in San Diego, we’ve narrowed our list of favorites down to the ones we think visitors will like the best.

1. San Diego Zoo

Just so we are clear, San Diegans are positive that their San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr.) is the best in the world. The vast San Diego Zoo property is organized by geographic and bio-climatic zones so animals that live together in the wild are shown together here. When entering, we recommend turning to the right and following the path over to Australian Outback to see the tremendous koala exhibit and other animals from this diverse country.

From there, take a quick spin through the mesa to see the rhinos, giraffes and cheetahs. The cheetahs are soothed by their best friends — dogs they have grown up together with. Further down the path you come to the African desert and the tundra of the elephant exhibit. This area is just magic, and our kids love to hang out and watch the enormous condors fly, the rattlesnakes shake their tails, and the dung beetles roll up balls of, well, dung. There is plenty of room to run around in this area, and even some interactive play structures where kids can burn off any excess energy.

Admission: A one-day pass starts at $56 for those 12 and older; $46 for kids 3–11.

koalas San Diego Zoo
The koalas are always family favorites at the San Diego Zoo. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

2. Balboa Park

The crown jewel of San Diego, Balboa Park (1549 El Prado) is chock full of fun things to do as a family. Regardless of your kids’ ages, there are activities for everyone. Covering more than 1,200 acres, Balboa Park includes not only the zoo but an enormous collection of 17 museums, many playgrounds, hiking areas, gardens galore and some pretty fantastic photo opportunities. We’ve had many a birthday party for our kids at various sites around Balboa Park because there are so many diverse options.

Near the zoo there are rides for little kids. An antique carousel has brightly painted ponies and real brass rings to grab, and there is a little train ride our kids were obsessed with when they were between 2 and 6 years old.

The Natural History Museum has always been a family favorite, complete with animatronic dinosaurs, real creepy-crawly bugs/frogs/snakes, and some awesome interactive exhibits that teach through play. Right across the plaza, the Fleet Museum features many amazing interactive science exhibits that fascinate kids and adults alike. For a little culture, the San Diego Museum of Art has programs for kids where they can draw or paint with the help of a working artist. Sometimes we like to grab a picnic lunch and head for the grass near the Lily Pond, where musicians entertain and ducklings swim with koi amid the blooming lily pads.

Admission: The park is free to enter but various activities and museums charge ticket prices ranging from $3 to $20+ per person.

lily pond Balboa Park San Diego
The lily pond in Balboa Park is framed by historic buildings, museums and gardens. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

3. La Jolla Cove

One of our favorite spots to bring family and friends from out of town, La Jolla Cove is a short drive from the hotels near downtown. Only 20 miles up the road, La Jolla is a wealthy enclave with some of the best beaches in the area. We always make our way to the Children’s Pool, where local seals come to pup and raise their young (so darn cute!). And, you can see sea lions by the cliffs too.

If you time your trip for a low tide, you will find rocks to scramble on and tide pools to explore. Teeming with fish, anemones, octopus, crabs, starfish and more, the rocks around the La Jolla Cove are good for hours of entertainment. Nearby shops and restaurants provide a welcome rest from all that ocean activity. Or head over to nearby La Jolla Shores Beach for kayaks, stand up paddle boards, surf lessons and more.

Admission: It’s free to enjoy the coastline, and the cost of other nearby activities varies on a case-by-case basis.

seals at La Jolla Cove San Diego
It’s common to see seals and sea lions basking in the sun on the rocks at La Jolla Cove near San Diego. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

4. Liberty Station

A retired military base that has been reimagined into a bustling historic district, Liberty Station is a great mix of grassy fields, play areas and bike paths. (If driving, enter at the intersection of Lytton and Rosecrans streets.) These outdoor activities sit among restaurants, shops, small museums and activities that can keep kids busy for hours.

There is a fantastic food hall here full of local vendors selling prepared foods and gourmet ingredients. Kids love the variety of choices, and the ice cream, gelato and pastry selections always make their eyes sparkle. If your family would prefer something more chill, check out The Lot movie theater. More than just movies, The Lot (2620 Truxton Rd.) lets you reserve your seats in advance online, show up minutes before the film begins, recline your seats all the way back and order food and drinks served right to your seat.

For a seated dinner that kids always love, try Corvette Diner (2965 Historic Decatur Rd.) for a ’50s-style experience. Here the servers dress out of the 1950s, music of the period plays loud and proud, and the menu of burgers and shakes is kid-pleasing. Sometimes the staff breaks into a spontaneous dance routine, pulling kids into the fun to learn the hop or the sprinkler.

Admission: It’s free to enter Liberty Station; prices for activities vary.

kids play with goo at Liberty Station San Diego
There are tons of fun kids’ activities at Liberty Station in San Diego. (Photo courtesy of Liberty Station)

5. Belmont Park

Located in the fun and sun of Mission Beach, Belmont Park (3146 Mission Blvd.) is an old-time amusement park with a real wooden roller coaster and enough rides to keep kids entertained for hours. Right on the beach boardwalk, Belmont Park opens up onto the wide sand of Mission Beach. When not rolling or coasting, our kids love to swim in the waves, watch the surfers and volleyball players, fly kites and bury each other in the warm sand.

For even more action, families can rent bikes nearby and pedal up and down the boardwalk, where surfers, California girls, skateboarders, jugglers and sun worshippers all turn out to enjoy the warm San Diego weather. There are plenty of restaurants packed into this area, with foods of all different varieties and price points. We’ve often brought our beach chairs, umbrellas and towels and set up camp here for the entire day.

Admission: Belmont Park tickets start at $21, or they offer unlimited passes for all rides starting at $43. The beach, the ocean and the sights are free.

Plunge Ride at Belmont Park Mission Beach San Diego
Kids love the rides at Belmont Park, and the screams and laughter are the proof! (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

6. Mission Bay Aquatic Center

The Mission Bay Aquatic Center is located very close to Belmont Park, on the bay side rather than the ocean side (1001 Santa Clara Pl.). Boats, kayaks, paddleboards, sailboats and more can be rented here by the hour or day. The bay is protected and calm, so it’s a great location to learn how to operate watercraft or learn to balance on a stand-up paddleboard.

When our kids were little, we would call ahead to see if they had any spaces available in their day camps. Mission Bay Aquatic Center has a great summer camp program, where certified instructors teach kids how to sail, surf and more. There have been times when we dropped our kids off for a day camp and then walked over to the ocean side for a burger and beer. There are also tons of bike and running paths throughout this whole area, and it’s fun to get some adult exercise time in while the kids play safely in the water with trusted guards.

Admission: Rentals at Mission Bay Aquatic Center start at $16/hour for body boards and can go up to $34/hour for sailboats. It’s worth every penny and totally fun.

7. The New Children’s Museum

Located downtown and near the convention center, the New Children’s Museum (200 W. Island Ave.) is an extraordinarily well-done collection of activities for younger kids. We have spent many hours (OK, days!) at San Diego’s New Children’s Museum, because exhibits are always changing and there is a ton to do for kids up to maybe age 10 or so.

Our kids still talk about some highlights from the times we spent here, including getting to paint an old car. They put the kids in a smock and hand them a cup of paint and a brush, sending them over to a car to paint a masterpiece on its caked sides. Another fun feature is a room full of mattresses, where kids can safely jump, slide, tumble and fall. They would come out of that room sweaty and grinning from ear to ear. Big thumbs-up on this one from our family to yours!

Admission: Ticket prices start at $10.

kids having fun at the New Children
Kids love visiting the New Children’s Museum in San Diego to do fun things like paint a wagon. (Photo courtesy of the New Children’s Museum)

8. Downtown Embarcadero

On the San Diego Bay waterfront downtown, the city has worked hard to develop a beautiful downtown San Diego Embarcadero and esplanade with lots of color and action. At one end sits the San Diego Maritime Museum (1492 N. Harbor Dr.) with historic boats you can board and explore. The Star of India is the world’s oldest acting sailing ship from 1863, which sailors still take out once or twice a year for celebrations. The museum also has the boat used in the filming of Hollywood hit movie Master and Commander starring Russell Crowe, and a decommissioned b-39 Soviet submarine you can go down into and peek around.

A little further south is the cruise ship terminal, where giant ships come to dock. Many cruises to Mexico begin and end here, so there is always a lot of activity. We love to bring visitors to the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum (910 N. Harbor Dr.), where guests can board the ship and see all the inner workings of the historic vessel. Airplanes are displayed on her deck, sailors’ quarters can be viewed below and many exhibits talk about the Midway’s service in the US Navy, including historic war stories. Kids love the displays and sheer size of this enormous vessel, and it is regularly ranked as one of the top visitor destinations in San Diego.

All along the Embarcadero are restaurants, food stands and street vendors that keep the area lively and upbeat. If your little ones get tired of walking, there are always pedicabs nearby that are willing to pedal you to other downtown destinations or hotels.

Admission: Tickets to board the boats at the Maritime Museum start at $11/adults and $7/kids; prices for the USS Midway start at $22/adults and $9/kids.

USS Midway Museum San Diego aircraft carrier
The USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum is so gigantic it’s hard to show its scale in a photo. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

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Family Tips for Visiting San Diego

Take it from a local: San Diego has a chill reputation for a reason, so enjoy your time here and don’t stress about enjoying you stay — because you will likely enjoy yourselves no matter what.

Pacific Beach in San Diego
The San Diego beaches are punctuated by old-style wooden piers and plenty of surfers. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

Here are a few things to remember:

  • In San Diego, we refer to highways by their number. We say “take The 8 East to Texas Street” or “go north on The 5” instead of Highway 8 or Interstate 5.
  • We are huge fans of our tacos, and believe no place makes them better than San Diego (except Mexico, of course). Don’t insult our Mexican food by comparing it to Tex Mex — our tacos and burritos have a style all their own. Order a California Burrito to see why.
  • Wear sunblock for your protection. A sure giveaway that people are visitors to San Diego is their sunburn. Overzealous tanning at the beach or pool will result in a virtual sign around your neck that screams “tourist.” Plus it hurts. A lot.
  • You can purchase a Southern California CityPass that may save your family money on admission to a variety of parks including San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, Disneyland and more. It’s well worth it if you plan to venture out much, and pays for itself within a couple of days if you’re going to visit a lot of Southern California destinations. Passes start at $204.
  • No one in Cali refers to this state as Cali.
  • San Diegans are super friendly when you approach them, but they may not go out of their way to approach you.

Bottom Line

San Diego is consistently voted one of the favorite family vacation destinations in the US, and we encourage you to make the trip and experience the city for yourself.

sunset over Torrey Pines golf course San Diego
The famous Torrey Pines golf course is a perfect frame for this sunset over La Jolla’s Blacks Beach. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)

 

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