San Diego is one of the best family travel destinations in the United States. It has 70 miles of beaches, plenty of theme parks, water parks, kid-friendly museums, and lots of outdoor activities to make the most of the California sun.
Have an Animal Adventure
San Diego is known for some incredible opportunities to view animals up close and personal. Start with the San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, to see animals from all over the world. The different areas are connected and take you to exotic locales such as Africa Rocks, Asian Passage, the Outback, and Elephant Odyssey.
Then head a little further afield to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where large exotic animals roam in vast areas and share the same space with others. Take the Africa Tram ride to see the animals much closer or choose from one of their many safari options, including a jungle rope and zip line safari.
There are playgrounds, a jungle gym, and a water feature for smaller children to enjoy. You can even go up in a tethered balloon that rises 400 feet in the air for beautiful birds-eye views of the park. Add on an animal encounter to learn more about the Sumatran tigers, meet an animal ambassador, pet the goats, or go on a lemur walk through the animals’ habitat to watch them play.
Make time for an entire day at SeaWorld, the home of orca whales, animal shows, and theme park rides. Check out the sharks, sea lions, penguins, dolphins, otters, and walruses in the aquariums and exhibits. Take in an outdoor show while it’s early and see the animal trainers direct dolphins and sea lions to perform tricks while also learning about these incredible creatures.
If you haven’t got your fill of ocean animals at SeaWorld, stop at the Birch Aquarium, which is smaller and not as crowded as some of the other major attractions. Kids will love the interactive exhibits and opportunity to get close to animals. Popular exhibitions include the one on seadragons and seahorses along with the tide pools full of sea cucumbers, lobsters, and sea stars.
High-Adrenaline Theme Parks
San Diego is home to a few different theme parks where you can easily spend an entire day full of thrills and chills. First is Legoland California, the 128-acre park with over 60 rides, attractions, and shows. This park caters to children ages 2 to 12, so many of the rides are mild like riding in your own helicopter or safari Jeep and other spinning rides. There are some coasters and a bouncing ride that launches 15 feet up in the air before dropping down.
Hot, sun-filled days are the perfect time to head to Legoland’s Water Park to go down any of the water slides or float on the lazy river. Firewater cannons, build a raft, or climb aboard a pirate ship, and relax in the wave pool. Children two and under are free, so this is an excellent place for families with really young children, and many activities have no minimum height requirement.
Head to the theme park side of SeaWorld to ride the Electric Eel, the fastest and tallest roller coaster in the city, or hit the upside-down twists of the Tidal Twister. Calmer rides for younger children include some flying fish, a child-sized drop tower, and the Skyride gondolas for scenic views. Aquatica, the water park portion of SeaWorld, has water slides, a sandy beach, and a lazy river.
If you still haven’t had your fill, take a 90 minute trip outside the city to Disneyland Park, which is located in Anaheim. Take a walk down Main Street, U.S.A. before heading to New Orleans Square to experience Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Splash Mountain, a log flume ride, is a huge draw in the park, and younger children will love Mickey’s Toontown with many age-appropriate rides and cartoon character houses.
Hit the Beach
With miles of beaches, San Diego is the perfect city for a day near the water, soaking up the sun and enjoying recreational activities. One of the most famous beaches is in Coronado and is worth a trip just to see the famous Hotel del Coronado. The long beaches here are covered in sparkling, golden sand, which makes it a popular place to spend the day building sandcastles, flying kites, and sunbathing.
La Jolla Shores is a mile-long family-friendly beach with gentle slopes accompanied by shallow water and slow waves that won’t overwhelm young children. It’s the perfect place to learn to surf or bodyboard. Go for a walk or bike ride along the boardwalk, have a picnic, or a fire on the beach to warm up at night.
Torrey Pines State Beach, also located in La Jolla, features bluffs and the namesake Torrey Pine trees. There are eight miles of trails with enough variety to satisfy hikers of all ages and levels. The beach is quite safe and has showers, bathrooms, and lifeguards on duty so you can safely swim and surf.
You can see two beaches easily by heading to Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, which are conveniently connected by a short, three-mile-long boardwalk. Some stretches are calmer and more family-friendly with lifeguards and other facilities. You can rent bicycles, play volleyball, have a picnic, or grab a bite to eat and window shop nearby.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
In addition to a day spent at the beach, there are many other outdoor activities to enjoy. After all, you’ll probably want to make the most of the balmy San Diego weather, and it’s the perfect place to be active.
There are many places to learn to surf, and you can also rent kayaks, wave runners, or try kitesurfing for the first time. If the water isn’t your cup of tea, head to one of the many skate parks around the city to skateboard.
All the trails allow for opportunities to hike, jog, roller skate, and cycle. For a more outdoorsy experience, head to a local park and climb the peak or go mountain biking. There are also several wildlife refuges full of trails and access to nature along with the wildlife that allows for birdwatching and learning about local plant life.
Those who love cycling can head to the Bayshore Bikeway, a 24-mile route that has 13 miles without cars, which is safer for kids. You can travel through Coronado and back into downtown San Diego, stopping along the way to see the sights, take pictures, and enjoy the beautiful views. For more thrills, bike over the Lake Hodges Suspension Bridge for a thrilling ride over the water.
The San Diego Botanic Garden covers 37 acres and has a bamboo grove, tropical rainforest, fruit garden, and desert gardens. With four miles of trails, you can easily spend the day exploring to see plants and flowers from many different places. The Hamilton Children’s Garden features butterflies and hummingbirds while a treehouse, maze, art garden, mountain stream, and smell garden will keep kids happy for hours.
In the summer, there are plenty of places around the city to watch a movie. Bring a blanket, picnic dinner, and perhaps some glow sticks or other fun toys for the kids to play with before the sun goes down.
Balboa Park is a must-visit location because there is so much to do there. This 1,200-acre green space is home to gardens, fountains, museums, theaters, sculptures, trails, playgrounds, and much more. You can often hear live music or attend an outdoor concert, and there are always events happening here. Take some family photos set against the beautiful gardens like the rose garden and then stop for a picnic to rest or take a nap.
Have Fun for Free
Family vacations can quickly become expensive, so if you plan to splurge on airfare and lodging, there are still plenty of ways to have fun on a budget. Waterfront Park, which is close to the harbor, has green areas for kids to play or families to picnic. There are fountains to cool off in and gorgeous views for perfect pictures.
Take a tour around the Gaslamp Quarter to see the Victorian architecture or stop by Seaport Village for some window-shopping in their unique shops. The Embarcadero also provides lots of entertainment and a great way to see the ships passing by.
Summer brings free concerts in the park as well as outdoor movies. You can also head to a local Farmer’s Market or take a scenic drive out to Mt. Laguna to hike or take in the mountain air.
Chicano Park is a national historic landmark with over 80 murals and one of the largest collections of outdoor art. Other annual festivals and events are often free too, including the U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge, a St. Patrick’s Day parade, art walks, Fourth of July celebrations, and much more.
San Diego – Best Family Hotels
445 Camino Del Rio South
San Diego, CA 92108
1500 Orange Avenue
San Diego, CA 92118
1404 Vacation Road
San Diego, CA 92109