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How to Take an Awesome San Diego Family Vacation

Balboa Park in San Diego

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Our San Diego family vacation may be one of my favorite trips we’ve ever taken. It was our first trip post-pandemic, and we all fell in love with this sunny California city. Plus, there are SO MANY great activities for kids here that adults will still love, which makes it one of my top choices for a multi-generational family trip.

So, here’s how you can plan your own San Diego family vacation!

Why is San Diego so Perfect for Families?

First, let me tell you *why* I love San Diego for families so much.

  1. Perfect weather all the time. There was a big storm one night while we were there actually, and we learned how rare this actually is when our waiter told us he hadn’t seen lightning in like 5 years.
  2. Beautiful outdoor spaces. San Diego may be a big city, but there are so many amazing outdoor spaces that don’t make it feel like such a big city.
  3. Amazing activities for kids. From the San Diego Zoo to museums to theme parks, there are so many kid-friendly activities here. Which makes it so easy to balance more adult-focused things with kid-focused things. And honestly, everything we did in San Diego was something kids and adults enjoyed equally!

Best Things To Do on a San Diego Family Vacation

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo Entrance

The San Diego Zoo is definitely one of the most popular things to do in San Diego. It’s a historic zoo, getting its start after animals were left in San Diego from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

It’s located in Balboa Park. And while I’ve got tons of great tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo, here’s a quick breakdown of how to spend your day there:

  • Start off with the free bus tour to get the lay of the land.
  • Explore the right side of the zoo, seeing Australian and African animals.
  • Take the Skyfari (bucket gondola system) from the back of the park to the front.
  • Let your kids spend time playing the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp (children’s zoo area).
  • Spend your afternoon in the Lost Forest area.

There’s lots to explore here, and several restaurants and snack spots where you can get lunch while you are there.

And for more details, here’s a full post about how you can plan your one day San Diego Zoo itinerary!

Pro Tip: To save money at San Diego attractions, buy the San Diego Go City Pass. It allows you to get into multiple San Diego attractions!

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

The San Diego Zoo system actually has a second zoo 30 minutes north of San Diego in Escondido. It’s the San Diego Safari Park, and it is equally as cool as the San Diego Zoo yet has a completely different feel.

If you only have time to visit one, we’ve got a comparison between the two zoos to help you decide. But I definitely recommend spending time at both.

While the San Diego Zoo is right in the middle of the city and focuses on all kinds of animals, the Safari Park has more space and focuses much more on conservation efforts. It actually started as a space for animals to breed, because they found that the smaller enclosures of the regular San Diego Zoo were not conducive to their breeding and conservation efforts.

One thing I love about the Safari Park is how it tends to be less crowded and there is a lot more space. While the San Diego Zoo has more animals to see, the Safari Park focuses more on African animals and feels like a breath of fresh air (can you tell I’m *maybe* a little biased toward the Safari Park?).

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is San Diego’s main park. And it’s not just a park in the traditional sense. There are lots of major attractions here including museums, the San Diego Zoo, special gardens, and more. (My favorite is the Botanical Building!)

When traveling with kids (or honestly, even just adults) here are some of the best things you can do in Balboa Park (aside from the San Diego Zoo of course):

  • Fleet Science Center
  • San Diego Natural History Museum
  • San Diego Air & Space Museum
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum
  • Spanish Village Arts Center
  • California Tower
  • Ride the Tram
  • Ride the Carousel

Read more about things to do in Balboa Park here.

Old Town

Courtyard of La Casa de Estudillo in Old Town

Old Town is the earliest San Diego European settlement. Now it’s an open air park with historical buildings. And while there is a section that is the official Old Town State Park, it is also an area of town (next to the state park) which shopping, restaurants, and other historic sites (like the most haunted house in America).

Our favorite thing by far was the Casa de Estudillo, a historic house with rooms you can tour. But there are lots of other historical buildings with interactive elements and historical reenactors. You can visit the schoolhouse, the newspaper office, the stables, and more.

Read more about things to do in Old Town here.

USS Midway Museum

USS Midway Museum

The USS Midway Museum is an aircraft carrier turned museum in the Embarcadero (waterfront area) of San Diego. There are all kinds of interactive elements. You can tour in the insides of the ship and see where people slept and worked and went to the doctor. You can see all kinds of aircraft on the top of the ship. And you can even climb into a flight simulator.

Kids will also love their Junior Pilots program, which sends them on a scavenger hunt around the museum and then rewards them with a pair of Junior Pilot Wings.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

Maritime Museum of San Diego

I feel like the Maritime of Museum of San Diego is one of the most underrated museums in the city! It’s right down the street from the USS Midway Museum, so you could easily visit both of them in the same day.

This is a museum all about historic ships. The main exhibits are in a large historic steam ferry, where you can see all kinds of model ships and other sailing information. But surrounding it on the water are several other ships you can explore including the H.M.S. Surprise from the popular Master and Commander series (it’s actually the one they shot the movie one!) and the Star of India which is the world’s oldest sailing ship.

They also have excursions you can book that will take you out on these boats!

La Jolla

Sea Cave in la Jolla

You can’t take a family vacation to San Diego and not go see the sea lions and seals in La Jolla!

This area is about a 25 minute drive from downtown San Diego, and you can walk along the coast stopping at a few beaches or tide pools and seeing the wildlife.

Start at the Cave Store, when you can pay a fee to climb down to a sea cave. Then walk along the La Jolla Coast Walk Trail from there to Children’s Beach (which is definitely not meant for children swimming because the sea lions and seals have taken it over).

But there are several beach areas you can enjoy like Shell Beach and La Jolla Cove. Ellen Browning Scripps Park is also near by with lots of picnic areas and room for kids to run around.

Birch Aquarium

Located just north of the La Jolla cove area is the Birch Aquarium. It’s a super popular aquarium for families to visit!

Some highlights include:

  • Tidepool Plaza with touch tanks
  • Hall of Fishes with all kinds of exhibits
  • Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins colony (the smallest penguins in the world!)
  • Blue Beach, a large outdoor area with play elements and family seating
  • Shark Shores exhibit devoted entirely to sharks

This is really such a beautiful place, set right along the coast so you can enjoy the views and and aquarium at the same time!

Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines is another beautiful area along the California coast! It’s just a little further north from Birch Aquarium, and one of the popular things to do here is to watch the paragliders (or even go paragliding yourself!).

You can stop by the Torrey Pines Gliderport to watch paragliders soar over the ocean off the cliffs, or book a tandem flight for yourself.

And then of course there’s lots of hiking and beaches in Torrey Pines State Reserve. But know that this area does not have a lot of shade, so be prepared for that.

Belmont Park

Belmont Park

Belmont Park is like an old-fashioned boardwalk amusement park, and it’s so much fun! It’s been open since 1925 and is right on Mission Beach.

There’s tons to do here that families will enjoy, including amusement park/carnival rides, rock climbing, an arcade, laser tag, and more.

It’s also home to the Giant Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster that is super fun but will also have you reaching for the ibuprofen afterwards.

Plus, since Belmont Park is right next to Mission Beach, you can enjoy both the amusement park and some beach time in the same afternoon.

Coronado Island

Coronado Island is a island near San Diego that especially known the the historic Hotel del Coronado. But there are lots of other things to do on this island too, including beaches, shopping and dining, and playgrounds.

You can get to Coronado Island by driving over the bridge, taking a ferry, or on the Old Town Trolley Tour. The ferry has you arrive right at Centennial Park (and I mean, what kid doesn’t love a ferry ride?), which is a great spot for views of downtown San Diego. It’s also right at the end of Orange Avenue, which is where most of the popular shops and dining spots on Coronado are.

The New Children’s Museum

The New Children’s Museum is a museum dedicated to inspiring kids with art and creativity. It’s located in downtown San Diego, and would be a great activity for days when you want some inside time.

The museum is full of colorful murals and art installations that will attract kids’ eyes, as well as interactive elements and play spaces that help them be creative. Kids can step backstage at a theater, explore the world of sound, and even play in a crocheted playground.

LEGOLAND

LEGOLAND California is a kid’s paradise! Especially if they are into Lego!

It’s located about 40 minutes north of San Diego, near Carlsbad. So you will have to drive to get there, but if you’re traveling to San Diego with kids you will probably want to make sure you add this to your list!

Besides Lego-themed rides, there’s also a full water park, the SEA LIFE aquarium, and Lego hotels you can stay at if you want to spend a full day here and spend the night. (You could also stop here on your way up to Anaheim if you want to include a Disneyland trip in your Southern California plans.)

Seaworld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego is closer to San Diego than LEGOLAND California, so it might make more sense as a theme park choice for some families.

Now, I know that SeaWorld faces criticism for how they have obtained their animals in the past (among other issues), and rightly so. But they’ve also done a lot in the past years to focus more on attractions and rollercoasters and created a family-friendly theme park. So if you have a coaster lover in your family, you might want to make the trip to SeaWorld.

Where to Stay in San Diego

There are so many great hotels in San Diego! Here are a few suggestions:

  • Hotel del Coronado — Luxury and a historic hotel in Coronado Island. It’s a Hilton hotel, and they also offer a kids club!
  • Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego — A large hotel right in downtown San Diego. It gets great reviews, but know that people often stay here for conventions (so it can feel a bit more corporate).
  • La Jolla Shores Hotel — A family-friendly hotel in La Jolla that’s right on the beach!
  • Bahia Resort Hotel — A great budget resort option with water access in Mission Bay.

There are lots of great other hotel and VRBO options in San Diego too, which you can see on the map below.

Where to Eat with Kids in San Diego

Just like hotels, there are so many great kid-friendly restaurants in San Diego! Here are some we really enjoyed.

  • Atypical Waffle — Funky spot for gourmet waffles!
  • Communal Coffee — A coffee shop/baker that also has an adorable shop.
  • Crack Shack — The best place in San Diego for fried chicken.
  • Edgewater Grill — Views of the water in Seaport Village!
  • Duke’s — A great spot in La Jolla with a large outdoor seating area.
  • Station Tavern — Burgers, and again some great outdoor space (are we sense a theme here?).
Me in Balboa Park

Tips for Planning Your San Diego Family Vacation

  • If you are traveling with kids, we highly recommend going in October! In San Diego, October is Kids Free San Diego month, where kids get in free (with their paying adult) to many attractions including the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND, and more. Plus many hotels offer perks like free kids meals with a paying adult.
  • Rent a car. San Diego is a very driving-centric city, especially since some of the most popular attractions like LEGOLAND and La Jolla are a bit of a drive outside of central San Diego.
  • Wear sunscreen and hat! Protect yourself from the Southern California sun.
  • Be safe at the beach. Know the ocean conditions and follow beach safety guidelines.

More San Diego Family Vacation Resources


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