What to Do in San Diego: 16 Activities for Families
My family loves to visit San Diego, CA. We’ve been twice in the last two years and find that there is a huge variety of fun things to do in San Diego from its plentiful beaches and amusement parks to its hip and happening Gaslamp Quarter and natural areas like Balboa Park. Oh, and combine that with some of the most perfect weather in the U.S. and you have a winning combination for families whether you’re visiting for a week or the weekend. So, what to do in San Diego? I’ve got 15 ideas!
What to Do in San Diego
1. Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is an trendy and bustling area of San Diego’s downtown. There are endless restaurants (try Brians 24 open 24 hours to please all ages and palates or Union Bar & Tap) with outdoor seating and live music, comedy clubs, the historic Balboa Theatre, hip hotels like the Hard Rock, Petco Park where the San Diego Padres play, tons of nightlife options and the colorful outdoor five-story Horton Plaza Mall (which truly only works in a city with such great weather as San Diego!).
2. Leopard Sharks
Do you love wildlife? Kids dying to see a shark? This is a safe way to get up close with sharks as they fill the waters off the coast of La Jolla (just north of San Diego) from July through early fall in September. According to Visit San Diego, these sharks are timid, docile and completely harmless. Take a gander from the cliffs up high or you can get right out there and snorkel with them or take a kayak tour like we did with Everyday California. Not only will you get to see the sharks by kayak — and some sea lions too — if conditions are right, you can paddle right into sea caves that sit along the coast. Uber cool!
3. Sea Lions
It is crazy fun to just walk right up to a sea lion in the wild — and it’s free! While you are supposed to stay 10 feet away, that’s still a pretty close encounter with these crazy creatures. They hang out all over the cliffs in La Jolla and there are plenty of points where you can walk right out and have a look. We got a kick out of listening to them hoot and holler, bark loudly, step all over each other and lazily hang out in the sun. Five stars for kids!
4. LEGOLAND California
If you have kids who enjoy Legos at all and have one who is at least 10 or younger, I highly recommend LEGOLAND California, which itself is just a mile from the ocean! They have some fun rides — nothing too scary — and you can definitely get your LEGO nerd on. Don’t miss the Star Wars section where they have an iconic scene from every movie made out of LEGOs (truly amazing!) and the world’s largest LEGO model, the X-Wing Fighter; the model shop where you can see real LEGO masters building; and the new interactive LEGO NINJAGO ride.
Take advantage of the Southern California CityPASS to save significantly on tickets to LEGOLAND, as well as SeaWorld San Diego and Disneyland just a couple hours north in Anaheim.
Stay at the wonderfully-themed LEGOLAND California Hotel, which is literally outside the doors of LEGOLAND and built for kids like nothing I have ever seen down to the kid-size peep hole and toilet training seat on every potty :). I personally LOVED the “disco elevator” and on-property floor whoopee cushion (you’ll have to see for yourself).
5. Coronado Island
Coronado Island, just across San Diego Bay from the city, is an incredibly charming island and home to the iconic Hotel del Coronado, which though expensive, is worth staying for a night or two if you can swing it. You just can’t beat the old elevator complete with attendant! Plus, it has its very own ghost story. The hotel was recently added to Hilton’s portfolio, so you can now use Hilton Honors points to book a stay.
There is a beautiful beach on Coronado, which has been named one of America’s top beaches, and you might just come across Navy Seals in training like we did :). Certainly, you will see jets flying overhead. We rented bikes from Pedels at Hotel del Coronado and rode around the island along San Diego Bay enjoying gorgeous views. The houses are adorable and leave you wanting your own vacation beach home there — just bring a couple million dollars and you should be set!
6. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a wonderful respite right in the midst of the city. Full of gorgeous gardens, meditation ponds and museums, it can easily fill a day. Great spots for families include the San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Natural History Museum. The nation’s largest urban cultural park and ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World, Balboa Park is a must-see in San Diego.
7. Pacific Beach
There are lots of great beaches around San Diego, many ideal for surfers with towering waves, including one of our favorites, Pacific Beach. Our kids spent plenty of time in the water, playing in very sizeable waves with body boards to ride them to shore. Pacific Beach has the vibe of Venice Beach outside L.A., but is cleaner and more family-friendly. We stayed at the Blue Sea Beach Hotel, a hip property right on the ocean that has been renovated inside and out with a midcentury modern flair. Don’t miss the vintage arcade games that are free to play in the lobby, and it’s easy to rent beach chairs, boogie boards and beach towels right from the front desk!
Find out how to score a FREE flight on Southwest Airlines to San Diego in my Free Flight Challenge below.
8. La Jolla
La Jolla is just north of San Diego and one of our favorite spots in the area. It is a charming and absolutely gorgeous seaside village mostly set on rocky cliffs but with a few beaches set apart as you see in the picture above. However, plan on relaxing with sea lions by your side :). This is a wonderful area to take a stroll along the sea and the cliffs, check out the local Italian restaurant and head out to kayak sea caves with Everyday California. We stayed at the romantic Mediterranean-themed La Valencia hotel with amazing ocean views, a fantastic pool for the kids and spacious rooms with fireplaces and truly one of the best showers we’ve ever experienced (who can argue with a great shower!?).
9. SeaWorld San Diego
If you take advantage of the Southern California CityPASS, you can enjoy discounts on tickets to SeaWorld San Diego. We enjoyed this park a lot more than we thought we would! I was SO impressed with seeing Shamu in person, and, as you can see above, you can sit right next to him while eating. He just plops right up on the platform! We learned about all the great things SeaWorld does to help with the conservation of wildlife along the coast, and as best I can see, they are doing a great job. I think it’s important for people to learn about wildlife up close so that we have a vested interest in protecting these creatures. SeaWorld also has some really outstanding thrill rides. I must have ridden the Manta roller coaster about a thousand times, because it was so much fun!
10. Kids Are Free Every October!
Every October, more than 100 San Diego hotels, restaurants, attractions, museums and transportation companies offer special deals and discounts for kids. “Kids Free San Diego” lets families visit this beautiful city on the cheap and save on the many amazing things to do there.
Kids 11 and younger get into the famous San Diego Zoo FREE. At SeaWorld San Diego one child age 3 to 9 is admitted free with a paying adult (don’t miss the opportunity to Dine With Shamu; see above picture). One child age 12 or younger can ride free on a bike or kayak rental from Bike and Kayak Tours Inc and the list goes on… See all the deals.
11. Belmont Park, Mission Beach
If you’re looking for the classic California boardwalk amusement park experience, you’ll find it at Mission Beach’s Belmont Park. Mission Beach is another area just north of San Diego, and it is both on the ocean and on Mission Bay, making it a water lover’s paradise. Mission Beach also happens to be the home of SeaWorld San Diego. Belmont Park offers all the classic attractions you’d expect to find at a boardwalk park like a wooden roller coaster, massive arcade, bumper cars, tilt-a-whirl and more. If you’re staying in Pacific Beach, just north of Mission Beach, you can even walk south along the ocean for about 30 minutes to get to the amusement park. 10,000 steps? Check!
12. Walk in a Sea Cave
In the La Jolla area of San Diego, you can literally walk down into a sea cave from, get this, the inside of a store! Step inside The Cave Store, and for $5 for adults and $3 for kids, you can head down the manmade tunnel carved out of the rock and stand inside the cave that looks out on the ocean. Definitely a top activity for kids of all ages!
13. Hike Torrey Pines State Reserve
This state park near La Jolla offers uninterrupted natural views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean from high above. Hike up from the beach if you’re looking for a more strenuous outing or drive your car up to the top to one several trailheads at Torrey Pines State Reserve that give you picturesque views of the cliffs and surf below. The cost is $10-$20 per car.
14. Visit the San Diego Zoo
Always ranked among the best in the nation, the 100-year-old San Diego Zoo located in Balboa Park is a top family stop. See pandas, koalas, gorillas and more from atop a double-decker bus or from the air via the Skyfari to take in this 100-acre park filled with more than 4,000 animals.
15. Eat in Little Italy
Another of my favorite areas of San Diego, at least when it comes to food, is Little Italy! After spending time in Italy, we find ourselves craving authentic Italian food and San Diego ranks at the top of my list for some of the best options in the Little Italy neighborhood of town. Very close to the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy is utterly charming with lights strung across the streets and block after block of Italian restaurants. There’s also a large weekly farmer’s market and all-the-time Italian markets where you can get imported olive oil, fresh pasta and more.
16. Cruise San Diego Bay
I always enjoy seeing a city from the water for a completely different viewpoint and perspective. A great way to see San Diego is from San Diego Bay, which runs right along downtown and across to Coronado Island. You can rent a boat from Seaforth Boat Rentals and cruise around the bay. We enjoyed seeing sea lions on piers in the water, the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier (also in the bay) and the city skyline.
Those are our top recommendations for what to do in San Diego! Kidventurous has even more great ideas for free things to do with kids in San Diego.
Note: I received some complimentary or discounted accommodations and activities for some of the above in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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- Southern California CityPASS: A Review
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