With world class museums, delicious restaurants, beautiful beaches, fun theme parks, and tourist attractions galore, there is plenty to keep families occupied for a few days or several weeks in San Diego. We spent a week there when our kids were ages 7 and 9, and we had an absolute blast. We didn’t do all of the things on this list, but we were able to hit most of these attractions in the time we had. With so many fun things to do in San Diego with kids, we definitely left wanting to come back again!
Read on to find out what adventures await in this family-friendly city.
1. San Diego Zoo
2. USS Midway Museum
3. San Diego Air and Space Museum
4. San Diego Natural History Museum
5. Balboa Park
6. Old Town San Diego
7. Sea World
8. Miniature Golf
9. Belmont Park
10. Coronado Island and Cabrillo National Monument
11. La Jolla
12. Legoland California
13. Birch Aquarium at Scripps
14. Newport Beach and Balboa Island
15. Drive up the California coastline
16. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
17. Knott's Berry Farm
Know Before You Go
There are two things before we get to the list that we highly recommend if you are going to visit San Diego and the surrounding area. First, have a car, whether it is your own or a rental. No matter where you stay in the area, you’ll want to be able to easily get to all of these destinations, and some of them can be a bit of a drive. Second, equip yourself with a Go San Diego card or a Southern California CityPass to save yourself some time and money. Most of the attractions in this post we did at a discount with our Go San Diego Card. They really are a great deal!
Now, on to a list of some of the most fun things you can do with kids in San Diego.
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Things to Do in San Diego With Kids
The San Diego Zoo
If you are a fan of zoos, the San Diego Zoo is a must. It’s simply one of the top things to do in San Diego.
Our kids both absolutely loved our experience there. Since we visited in early June, we were lucky enough to see some of the new babies that had recently been born, like a baby giraffe and a baby koala. Cuteness overload!
Be prepared to spend a full day there (we spent 9 hours), and wear comfortable shoes. The San Diego Zoo is HUGE! And, there’s a lot of walking. Some of the highlights of the zoo for us were the pandas and the koalas, along with many other species you won’t find in your average zoo. Don’t miss the apes…or the polar bears…or the elephants…or, you know, just see it all.
The San Diego Zoo can be an overwhelming place to visit, so definitely stop by their website before you plan your trip. There you can find information on special VIP experiences, and they can help you plan your day.
Amazing San Diego Museums
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this was not high on MY list of things to do in San Diego.
Warships, planes, ugh. Boring.
Turns out, this was one of my favorite things we did, and it was one of Andrew’s (our 9 year old) as well.
The USS Midway Museum is such a cool experience. You get to tour the aircraft carrier, plus there are so many cool old airplanes there for the kids to touch and explore. It is an interactive experience for the whole family. We took a tour with a veteran, and he told us all about the ship and what it takes to live and work there. It was all so fascinating, but what really impressed me was how good these guys were with little kids. They were so excited to share their knowledge and their love of this aircraft carrier with the next generation. The Midway really was one of the best San Diego museums we visited.
The Air & Space Museum was something we decided to visit because it was included on our Go San Diego cards. Located in Balboa Park, this museum is full of items from the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart, as well as space pioneers like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.
This place is definitely worth a visit and will spark your kids’ imaginations. One of the highlights of our visit was when one of the employees who was dressed in World War I regalia talked about the planes and uniforms IN CHARACTER. Talk about making history come to life for kids! It was a great San Diego museum!
The Natural History Museum was another place our kids voted to see based on our Go San Diego cards. Also located in Balboa Park, the Natural History Museum is a beautiful and fascinating place for families to visit. Have you ever seen a giant sloth? Or a woolly mammoth? You’ll see their fossils and much more at the Natural History Museum. Be sure to check their website for information about special traveling exhibits and programs for kids.
Other San Diego Attractions
So, it turns out that Balboa Park is THE place to be in San Diego. The zoo is located there, as well as gardens, activity centers, restaurants, a carousel and miniature railroad, an awesome outdoor pipe organ, and about a dozen or more amazing museums. This easily makes Balboa Park one of the best things to do in San Diego.
For the sporty types, there are hiking and biking trails, as well as a golf course. You’d have enough to do in Balboa Park alone for weeks. Be sure to check out their website before your visit to see if there are any special performances or exhibits happening during your stay.
We thought we’d just grab a bite of some amazing Mexican food in Old Town, but little did we know that there is so much more to this district than homemade tortillas and margaritas. First, we did enjoy an excellent meal at Cafe Coyote. We loved the food and the atmosphere, but like so many things in San Diego, the kids are never forgotten. For completing their coloring pages and games on the kids’ menu, they received a free piece of candy at the shop next door. I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t love a store that has literally BARRELS of candy.
Not only are there plenty of places to eat, but as we wandered after lunch, we discovered shops, art, local artists and artisans, music, and more in this historic district. In fact, as California’s first settlement, this historic state park dates back to 1769. Don’t miss this amazing place on your next visit to San Diego!
We opted to skip Sea World on our week long trip to San Diego, but Sea World is always one of the most popular attractions in San Diego for families. We have been to the Sea World in San Antonio several times, which made it less of a priority for us on this trip, but if you’ve never been, we encourage you to check this one out.
We have always found Sea World to be an educational and entertaining experience for the whole family. We have done a dolphin encounter on a previous visit, and the kids loved it. Definitely check their website for more information on behind-the-scenes and VIP experiences.
If you’ve read our post on Branson, you’ll know that our family cannot resist a round of mini golf, and after passing by Boomers several times, we just had to pay them a visit. This family entertainment center has all the things you’d expect, like games and go karts, but we only have eyes for the mini golf.
We enjoyed 18 holes on the Storybook course that had enough challenges to keep the adults happy, but wasn’t too difficult for the kids. Plus, the images from classic stories and fairy tales were fun to talk about.
Belmont Park is billed as San Diego’s beachfront amusement park. We kept seeing this amusement park on our drives up the coast to various other things, and from a distance thought it looked like lots of fun. Even though we didn’t have time to visit on this trip, Belmont Park will definitely be on our radar for next time. They have some great rides, and an arcade, plus shopping, dining, and beach activities. Check out their website for details on ride tickets, beach rentals, and other amenities.
San Diego Beaches at Coronado Island & Cabrillo National Monument
Coronado is a fun little side trip from downtown, and we went to just explore and drive across the amazing bridge that takes you there. But, there is plenty to do besides checking out the beaches to keep families busy there for a day or two. You’ll find lots of history, art, and culture on this “island,” such as the incredible Hotel Del Coronado, and the Cabrillo National Monument. This monument celebrates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542.
If you’re a fan of National Parks like we are, be sure to check out our page on America’s National Parks.
Things to see just outside the city
One of the first things we did upon landing in San Diego and renting our car was to take a drive north of town to the city of La Jolla. This gorgeous city on the coast is home to a colony of sea lions that can be seen (and heard!) from various viewpoints at La Jolla Cove.
We spent some time exploring the coast, checking out the tidepools, and watching the sea lions. Afterwards, we strolled along the beach, explored, and found a bite of lunch before heading back to our hotel in San Diego. It is well worth the short drive to experience what La Jolla has to offer.
Legoland in Carlsbad was really our main reason for visiting the area.
At ages 7 & 9, both kids were getting into Legos, and Andrew especially loved them. The kids thought Legoland was awesome, but I think if we had waited a year or two longer, they might have been too old. There are quite a few rides for little ones at Legoland, but there are plenty of bigger (but not too big) rides to keep a 9 year old happy.
I thought the coolest part was the city models, like New York and Las Vegas. They are so accurately detailed, and we were all just amazed by them. This part of the park has its fair share of Lego Star Wars items too, which of course, made the boys happy.
Now, if we’re being totally honest here, from my adult perspective, I just don’t think there’s any comparison between Legoland and Disneyland. If I had to choose only one to visit, I would choose Disneyland. BUT, we enjoyed our day at Legoland and definitely recommend it for families with young kids.
Like a lot of big theme parks these days, they offer incentives for staying on property. (The Legoland California Resort Hotel looks awesome). They also have special VIP programs. Similar to the pin trading at Disney, Legoland offers mini figure trading, which is really cool. This park can definitely be done in one day, but if you have more time, you might want to take a look at the Sea Life Aquarium and the water park as well.
Located in La Jolla, the Birch Aquarium is part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. We chose to visit this aquarium because it was part of the Go San Diego card, and we were so happy we did. This is one of the most research-based aquariums we have ever visited, plus it includes fabulous ocean views.
They focus on sea life that can be found in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast at the Birch Aquarium, and they have several touch pools for the kids to enjoy.
They also have feedings, shows, and hands-on activities for kids. We were really impressed with the employees and how they interacted with and taught our kids about the animals in their care. Check out their website for details on special experiences and new exhibits at the aquarium.
Newport Beach and Balboa Island
Balboa Island was such a good find for us during our trip to San Diego, and we ended up planning a trip there because of my late night reading habits. When we plan big trips, we have a general itinerary of the big things we know we want to do, and then we fill in with cool, random things we read about or see on TV.
I happened to read an article in Food Network Magazine during our planning stages about these crazy concoctions called Balboa Bars. Basically, these are chocolate dipped ice cream bars that are covered in sprinkles. I was intrigued, and I knew when I mentioned it to the ice cream fanatics in this family, it would go straight to the top of the “must do” list. So, in between zoos and theme parks, we took a drive up the coast to Newport Beach and Balboa Island.
First, Balboa Island is such a neat little place off of Newport Beach. You’ll find all kinds of mom and pop stores, candy shops, souvenirs, and the like. But the main attractions are the Balboa Bars, and there is a bit of healthy competition between the two places that make them. Each claims to be the first, and each claims to be the best. Both Sugar N’ Spice and Dad’s serve up the treats, offering their guests slight variations. We decided that to be fair, we should sample some from each establishment, choosing the same sprinkle toppings.
Our verdict – everyone’s a winner in this competition, especially the eaters. And, honestly, it’s no skin off our noses who made them first.
Second, if you’re going to be in Newport Beach anyway, you might as well stop and play at the beach for a bit, and if you’re lucky enough to visit on a Sunday, you can get some delicious brunch at the Rusty Pelican. (Take some decent clothes along if you’re making this a “beach day” because the Rusty Pelican is a bit more upscale than it appears from the street…the valet parking was our first clue that we’d all need to change out of our beach attire before we sat down for brunch!)
Take a drive up the coast and play on the beach
There are plenty of beaches and cool towns up and down the coast of California, and driving about an hour or two north of San Diego will allow you to see a lot of them. Stop by one of the public beaches like Huntington Beach for great views of the Pacific Ocean.
Located in Escondido, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is an awesome and unique experience.
This was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip. What we loved about the Safari Park was their philosophy on conservation and protecting endangered species. They are also known for their California condor breeding program and their free range enclosures. There are many different experiences you can have in the Safari Park. The one that is included with your price of admission is the Africa Tram Safari. This gives you a guided tour of most areas of the park.
Afterwards, there are walking trails and animals to see, including an amazing tiger encounter and Condor Ridge, which offers some wonderful views of the valley.
If you crave a wilder experience, there are many other safaris that you can purchase including a balloon safari. Be sure to take a look at their website for more information.
We had heard great things about Knott’s Berry Farm before our trip to San Diego, but we made the decision to skip it until the kids were a little older for one reason…there were not enough roller coasters suitable for the under 48″ crowd. As many parents will understand, it can be difficult to do theme parks when both kiddos love roller coasters, but only one meets the height requirements for those particular coasters. Since coasters are the big draw for Knott’s Berry Farm, including GhostRider, the longest, tallest, fastest wooden coaster on the west coast, we will definitely make this place a priority on our next visit to the area.
Knott’s Berry Farm is located in Buena Park, so its proximity to Disneyland would make it a great addition to any Southern California family adventure. This park is also included as part of the Go San Diego Card giving your family a decent discount on admission if you choose to go that route. Check out our partner UnderCover Tourist for pricing on those passes.
A lot of people include Disneyland in their San Diego trip because Anaheim is less than 2 hours away. We felt that Disneyland should be its own trip for our family, just because of the amount of other things we wanted to do in San Diego. We did that trip at Thanksgiving and absolutely loved it. Disneyland is a must for any Disney lover.
You’ll still get the same thrills you would at Disney World, just on a smaller scale. Plus, you get that perfect California weather. Consider staying on property to enhance your experience. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is incredible and, or course, perfect for families.
Like Theme Parks?
If theme parks are your thing, definitely consider a SoCal CityPASS! The SoCal CityPASS includes discounted admission to Disneyland and California Adventure, Sea World San Diego, and Legoland California with an option to add on the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park. Check out this deal here.
So, there you have it…18 fun-filled San Diego adventures for families. We know that this is not a complete list of all there is to do in San Diego with kids, but we hope that we have given you a place to start.
What have we missed? Leave us a comment and tell us about your favorite things to do in San Diego.