Our family vacation to San Diego honestly felt like the trip that was never going to happen. We had originally planned the trip for early summer of 2020, literally booking our plane tickets just weeks before everything shut down.

Optimistically, we rescheduled for fall of 2020, before eventually cancelling all together and getting refunds for the plane tickets we had booked (which were luckily mostly in points so it was easy to do).

FINALLY the trip happened in fall of 2021 though, and I’m so glad we stayed the course and still made this SoCal trip happen instead of being tempted to go somewhere else. San Diego is SUCH a great family destination, and I’m definitely looking forward to returning sometime.

We spent five days in and around San Diego before heading to Disneyland, and it was a perfect amount of time. So here are our highlights!

Arrival Day

We got into San Diego around lunchtime, grabbed our rental car, and decided to grab some Shake Shack near the airport.

Immediate observation: SO MANY restaurants in San Diego have great outdoor seating, which was key for us considering…the state of the world in 2021.

While we waited for our Air BnB to be ready, we went to Balboa Park. This was one of my favorite areas in San Diego. It is so lush and gorgeous and we loved checking out the Botanical Building, admiring the beautiful architecture, exploring some of the gardens, and riding the free tram.

By the time we got to the condo (we rented a place right north of Balboa Park) we were exhausted. So we ordered take out, tried to make ourselves stay up for a bit and adjust to the time change, and then called it a night.

Day 1: Old Town and USS Midway

We were up SO early (thanks Central Time Zone), so we actually started out the day just driving around some of the neighborhoods while we waited for a breakfast place to open.

We had breakfast at Atypical Waffle (so good!) and then headed to Old Town.

The Old Town State Park officially opens at 10 a.m., but we got there a little after 9 a.m. Luckily, it’s an open air park so we were still able to stroll through and check out the nearby shops and restaurants before the museums opened.

Our favorite thing by far was the Casa de Estudillo, a historic house with rooms you can tour. Even our kiddo got into it and, being the writer she always is, started thinking about stories she could set there and wanted to go back to make sure we had pictures of all the rooms.

After Old Town we headed to the USS Midway, a stop that was definitely here for Gerrit. But even I was impressed. The USS Midway is an aircraft carrier in downtown San Diego, and there is so much to see there: planes, a simulator, beautiful views of San Diego. Plus there was a kind of scavenger hunt/audio tour for kids that our kiddo really loved.

After that we needed some afternoon rest, but on our way back to our condo we had to make a stop at an indie bookstore. The Book Catapult was such a friendly shop and made for a perfect stop.

For the evening we headed down to Seaport Village for dinner. We had a reservation to eat at Edgewater Grill (where I had some amazing mushroom risotto) and got to eat while we watched the sunset. Obviously a perfect ending to our first day.

Day 2: La Jolla and Driving to the Desert

For our second day in San Diego we headed out to La Jolla to see the beautiful coastline plus and sea lions and seals. We started at the Cave Store where we hiked down the steps to a sea cave. Then we walked along the trail to Children’s Pool, making several stops along the way to watch the wildlife and/or walk down to the beach.

Also, we DEFINITELY should have had an extra set of clothes for the kiddo. While we were standing on Shell Beach a rogue wave hit a rock at a weird angle and absolutely soaked her. Lesson learned.

We had lunch at Duke’s (which was great!) and then drove to check out Torrey Pines. Unfortunately, this was a bit of a bust for us. The paragliders weren’t flying and it was HOT. We stayed for a bit, but then were happy to head back for an afternoon rest.

Plus we had a big evening ahead of us because we were driving out to the desert. This was the one thing Gerrit wanted to do, because he had gone out near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on a previous trip and said it was magical. Well, it was. We drove 2 hours outside of San Diego just to admire the desert, but let me tell you it was so special I cried. Honestly it was so amazing that I don’t have much to say about it here because it feels like it needs a different kind of essay.

Day 3: San Diego Zoo

Ever since I was a kid I have wanted to go to the San Diego Zoo. I used to have this San Diego Zoo computer “game” where you could tour around the zoo and learn about the animals, and it was a DREAM of mine to finally go there.

But here’s where reality doesn’t always meet expectations: it wasn’t our best day.

We were tired, our kiddo was whiny, and our moods just weren’t conducive to the best zoo experience. It’s not the zoo’s fault though! The zoo was great, we loved seeing the animals, riding the bus and Skyfari, and just generally exploring. But it could have gone better.

Oh well. Some days are just like that.

In the evening we drove out to Coronado Island and stopped at a park (which made me realize how much I was already missing grass in California!). On the way back though, San Diego had an absolutely incredible lightning storm! I mean, it wasn’t great for their weather, but seeing the bolts of lightning strike out in the distance was amazing!

We ate at Station Tavern under an umbrella while it rained (and maybe hailed a bit?) (and we kept the radar pulled up to make sure the storm was moving away from us instead of towards us). Our waiter could not believe the weather. He told us he hadn’t seen lightning in years, which, as a North Alabama girl, was a bit hard for me to comprehend.

Day 4: Maritime Museum and Belmont Park

For our last full day in San Diego we took it a bit easier. Our morning event was the Maritime Museum, which I honestly put on the itinerary because I knew Gerrit would love it. But of course it was way cooler than I expected.

We loved touring the different ships, and the best surprise was that it is home to the HMS Surprise, which is the ship featured in Master and Commander. Gerrit LOVES this movie and these books and I had no idea the ship was there when I planned this! So it was a delightful…ahem…surprise.

After the museum morning we had lunch at Crack Shack, which was very good but I also laugh a little bit every time I have fried chicken outside of the South.

Then, after an afternoon rest, we hit up Belmont Park, which is a beachside amusement park in Mission Beach. We had a great time, but I was a bit surprised at how expensive it was. Also, I do not recommend the rollercoaster if you are over 30 years old. (Or maybe even over 20?) I immediately needed some ibuprofen. But, we loved some of the other rides, and it was fun to see our kiddo be brave and fall in love with some rides she was initially a bit scared of.

Day 5: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

For our last San Diego day we packed up the car and drove to Escondido to go to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This is an entirely different kind of park than the San Diego Zoo, and I have to say we LOVED it.

We thought it was gorgeously designed, had such great wide open space, and we saw so many animals that we loved. It was a great experience and the crowds were so low. We didn’t even do any of the extra paid activities and still had such a great time. It was honestly one of the highlights of the trip!

After this, it was more time in the car though, because we were heading to Disneyland!

Thinking about a trip to San Diego? Here are some posts that might help:

3 Day San Diego Itinerary

San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park

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