There are so many amazing things to do in San Diego with kids! It is hard not to fall in love with this waterfront city known for its fabulous year-round weather, great beaches, and world-class animal attractions.
A San Diego family vacation should be near the top of every family bucket list. Here are our picks for the best things to do in San Diego with kids. As locals, we know all the best places to visit with kids becuase we have actually taken our kids there! We also share some “can’t miss” dining, lodging, and day trip recommendations.
The Best Things to do in San Diego with Kids
Tour Balboa Park
Nearly 50% larger than New York’s Central Park, Balboa Park serves as San Diego’s natural and cultural oasis. Home to fifteen museums, over a dozen gardens, a carousel, miniature railroad, International cottages representing many nations, and the world famous San Diego Zoo, this park is one of our nation’s best.
Fleet Science Center
Fleet Science Center is one of Balboa Park’s museums that is especially popular with families. They have a deisgn zone where you can create a skate park or video game, a space gallery, a planetarium, live science demonstrations, and so much more.
Little kids love the Kid City area which is filled with hand-on exhibits directed at little ones aged five and under. Everyone seems to love Studio X where you can create marble runs, kinetic sculptures, cardboard mazes, and more. As if all that wasn’t enough, there is also an Imax theater with rotating films highlighting several fascinating subjects.
San Diego Natural History Museum
My kids love the San Diego Natural History Museum because of its wonderful exhibits on the dinosaurs and other extinct creatures that once lived in the San Diego area. There are also exhibits on the various environments in Southern California and impressive display of skulls from all sort of creatures.
Little ones tend to spend a good chunk of their time in The Backyard, where they can experience nature and science concepts through play.
Of course, the museum offers much more and has a regular rotation of temporary exhibits to enjoy, so there is always something new to experience no matter how many times we visit this Balboa Park museum.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
If you have train enthusiasts in your family, you definitely don’t want to miss the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, another Balboa Park treasure. Kids 12 and under get into the museum for free!
The museum has 27,000 square feet of trains and tracks in various scales from the smallest “Z” scale to the larger “G” scale. The scenes are meticulously detailed, featuring landscapes, buildings, and miniatures that bring the trains to life. Some of the scenes are among the largest in the world.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
Have a plane fanatic in your family? Balboa Park has a museum for them as well. The San Diego Air and Space Museum has a collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft, spanning the early days of aviation to modern space exploration.
Planes include everything from biplanes to fighter jets, as well as a reproduction of the Wright Brothers glider and aircraft from both World Wars.
They also display artifacts from NASA missions, including spacecraft and equipment used in space travel.
San Diego Zoo
With its lush botanical gardens, typically sunny skies, and a collection of over 3,700 incredible creatures from the around the globe, it’s no wonder Trekaroo named the San Diego Zoo the best in the country.
The 35-minute guided bus tour is a great way to get an overview of the zoo and form your family’s plan to attack this hilly landscape filled with creatures big and small.
Whether you walk through time at Elephant Odyssey, spot a playful troop of baboons in Africa Rocks, or join the crowd in letting out a collective “aww” while watching the animals at Polar Bear Plunge, your family is sure to have a memorable time.
Splurge on the Animals in Action tour which takes families behind the scenes and give tourgoers the chance to interact with a variety of animals. On my families tour we got to feed a rhino and flamingos, pet a zebra, and sit within feet of a leopard and cheetah. It was amazing!
Watch a Puppet Show in the Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park
The Hitchcock Puppet Theater was originally part of the California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park in 1935 and has been delighting generations of children ever since. Shows take place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm and are just $5.
Visit the Tide Pools at Cabrillo National Monument
Rugged cliffs and edge of the earth views on one side, spectacular vistas of the San Diego skyline on the other. Cabrillo National Monument is most definitely a destination with multiple identities.
Stretching out into the Pacific on Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument marks the very spot in 1542 where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made landfall, making him the very first European to set foot on the West Coast.
Visiting families will love the history, tide pools, shoreline strolls, visiting the lighthouse, and, if they are lucky, spotting a grey whale migrating to Mexico. We like to pack a picnic and eat our lunch while enjoying the incredible views.
See which locations made our list of the best tide pools in California.
Tour Old Town San Diego
It wasn’t so long ago that California was part of Mexico and Mexican culture is still integral to San Diego’s identity. Old Town San Diego, the self-proclaimed “birthplace of California” gives visitors a glimpse at what life was like in San Diego in 1850 through historic adobes, living history demonstrations, museums, and even the first ever schoolhouse in San Diego County.
Old Town is also a desirable stop to dine (there are several popular Mexican restaurants in Old Town), shop for a wide variety of goods from neighboring Mexico, and even watch traditional Folklorico dancers put on a show.
See San Diego by Boat
San Diego probably would have never become a thriving metropolis if it weren’t for its large, natural harbor. You really haven’t seen all that San Diego has to offer until you get out on the water and explore.
This San Diego Harbor Cruise includes city views, as well as views of the famed Coronado Bridge and and the naval station. There are also dinner cruises, narrated tours, and even pirate adventures.
If you prefer to get behind the wheel yourself, there is also a tour where you can drive a high speed power boat yourself, while a guide in an adjacent point points out the highlights via two-way radio. Like the speed but prefer to leave the driving to someone else? There is a tour for that, too!
Go Whale Watching
During the winter months, the waters off San Diego’s coast are a prime grey whale watching territory and a whale watching cruise will take you out into the coastal waters so that your family might get a glimpse of the gentle giants for yourselves.
These whales are on their way to or from the birthing grounds in Baja California and witnessing their sheer size and gentle demeanor in person is something you won’t ever forget. Sea lion and dolphin sightings are near guaranteed on whale watching cruises.
Have Beach Day
Without a doubt, San Diego is one of the best beach destinations in the country. As long as it isn’t raining (which doesn’t happen much), a beach day is always a great day. The water may be chilly in the winter, but the scenery is always top notch and it is fun to build a sand castle, watch a sunset, or explore a tide pool no matter the temperature.
Of course, most of the year, San Diego’s weather is near perfect, and splashing and playing in the water is a blast. La Jolla Shores is a great place for wading, swimming, and boogie boarding. Pacific Beach has great stretches of sand plus Crystal Pier and the boardwalk which are great for walking as you stop into local shops and restaurants.
Coronado Beach has been voted one of thetop beaches in the country because of it’s gorgeous white sand and pristine beaches! But there’s more! Here are our picks for the 12 best beaches near San Diego for families.
Visit SeaWorld San Diego
It is no surprise that a trip to SeaWorld is one of the most popular things to do in San Diego with kids. Acrobatic dolphins, playful penguins, silly sea lions, and splashtacular rides have made SeaWorld one of San Diego’s most visited attractions.
Where else can you learn about marine ecology, get kissed by a beluga whale, and ride thrill rides all in the same day? The have several special experiences including in-water dolphin encounters, sloth encounters, beluga encounters, walrus encounters, on-ice penguin experiences, and more!
Spend the Day at Sesame Place
Sesame Place is San Diego’s newest theme park. It is geared towards young kids and there are several rides, water slides and splash areas, and even parades featuring Bird Bird, Elmo, and all their pals.
There are also opportunities to meet and take picture with beloved characters like Bert & Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Telly, and Julia. They even have special holiday driven events like including The Count’s Halloween Spooktacular and A Very Furry Christmas.
Hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
The nation’s rarest pine trees cling to the sea cliffs of northern San Diego inside the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. It’s a great place to enjoy the rugged and wild beauty of the Southern California coastline.
Take a hike among the pines while enjoying sprawling views of the Pacific from atop the reserve’s bluffs. Then reward yourselves for your physical efforts with some time on Torrey Pines State Beach which beckons you from below.
Watch the Seals at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool
The Children’s Pool in La Jolla was originally intended as a swimming area for children protected by a sea wall, but then the seals showed up. Within several years it became a favorite spot for harbor seals and California sea lions, so kids got kicked out of the ocean pool.
Harbor seals give birth to their pups typically from mid-December to May. Obviously, this is the most adorable time of the year to visit but it’s important to give the animals plenty of space and as a result, the Children’s Pool Beach is closed to public access December 15th through May 15th. You can still view the seals and their pups from above.
Kayak to Sea Caves
In addition to being a great stretch of sand with a playground and mild surf for families, La Jolla Shores Beach is also the launching spot for guided kayak tours which paddle out to nearby sea caves.
Book your guided kayak tour on TripAdvisor and get the lowest rates guaranteed.
Wildlife abounds in the rich marine habitat of La Jolla Cove where families can snorkel alongside harmless leopard sharks which use the cove as their nursery. Some kayaking tours allow you to snorkel and paddle into the sea caves on the same trip!
See which San Diego beaches made our list of the best Southern California beaches for families.
See what else there is to do in La Jolla.
Learn to Surf in San Diego
San DIego is a big surf destination and some beaches are better than others for newbies. Once again, La Jolla Shores shows off its family friendliness with typically gentle waves that are great for beginners. There are several surf schools and rental shops in the area offering lessons and equipment.
Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are right next to each other and there are surf schools and rental shops along the boardwalk to help you achieve that ever-important goal of riding those Southern California waves. Tourmaline Surfing Park in Pacific Beach is a designated surfing park popular for learners.
Watch the Hang Gliders Take offf at the Torrey Pines Gliderport
One of my favorite places to take out of town visitors is the Torrey Pines Gliderport. It is such a fun and unique San Diego experience and the views are always incredible.
Sure, you can sign up to go tandem gliding and check out the ocean and city views the way a bird does, but if you are a chicken like me, staying on the ground and enjoying the free show is plenty fun.
Watching the brave hang gliders and paragliders run off the cliff 350 feet above the Pacific and soar is always impressive. Grab an ice cream from the Cliffhanger Cafe and really, what more do you need?
Try Falconry on the Cliffs of La Jolla
While my family hasn’t tried paragliding at the Torrey Pines Gliderport, you better believe we have booked the falconry experience held there by Total Raptor Experience. We learned how to release trained falcons and watched them soar in the skies above the Pacific before landing on our hands (protected by a falconry glove) with total precision.
This is an ideal experience for any family that loves animals and is interested in learning about the ancient practice of falconry. You will also get to watch the falcons perform acrobatic feats in the sky while working on hunting exercises. We were also able to hold some other birds of prey that weren’t ready or able to free fly.
Tour the USS Midway
Much of San Diego’s history revolves around the military and the sea. A tour of the USS Midway, one of America’s longest serving aircraft carriers, gives families a fun and educational glimpse at what Navy life on-board one of the cities of the sea is actually like.
Go down below and get a glimpse at just how tight living quarters are for sailors before heading up to the deck to check out of some of the incredible Navy aircraft. They have a great audio tour especially designed for kids.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
A short walk from the Midway, the Maritime Museum of San Diego gives folks a chance to explore six different ocean vessels
The Star of India, the crown jewel of the museum’s fleet, is a three-masted boat that has sailed around the world multiple times and is the oldest active sailing ship in the world. This ship has been in San Diego for so long that I remember taking a field trip to visit it as a kid!
They also have the sailing ships The Californian, HMS Surprise, and San Salvador as well as the steam ferry Berkeley, the steam yacht Medea, and submarine 555 USS Dolphin.
They offer a variety of on the water experiences including a 90-minute pirate adventure. 45-minute historic bay cruises, four-hour tall ship cruises, and even a swift boat naval history tour.
Spend the Day on Coronado Island
A quick ferry ride from downtown San Diego takes you to Coronado Island, home to the world famous Hotel Del Coronado and a stretch of sand that is consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the US for families. Spending a day here is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego with kids and should be a “must” for your San Diego family vacation.
The best way to explore this seaside retreat is by beach cruiser, and rental stands can be found on the island. If you happen to visit during the holiday season, be sure to make time to ice skate on the Hotel Del’s beachfront ice skating rink. Where else can you ice skate within view of the sandcastle your kids just made?
Watch the Padres Play at Petco Park
Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres, is located in the heart of downtown in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. Watching a game here is always fun because you can combine it with dining or checking out the multitude of attractions within walking distance of the ballpark.
If you visit when the Padres aren’t playing, you can still visit the park and take a behind-the-scenes tour. This 80-minute tour is a great option for anyone who loves baseball.
Visit the First Mission
If you have kids that went to 4th grade public school in California, they are surely familiar with our state’s missions. Some of us may have even stayed up into the wee hours of the night trying to build a model of them out of sugar cubes or salt dough as a child.
The very first mission to be built in California is Mission San Diego de Alcala. It was orginally built in the area that is now Old Town, but was moved to Mission Valley and rebuilt in 1774. You can tour this beautiful mission which still holds mass today.
Play in the Fountains at Waterfront Park
San Diego’s Waterfront Park is the perfect place to hang out when the weather is warm. There are tons of water fountains and splash areas for kids to play in and run about. Some of the jets shoot water 14 feet into the air. There is also a large grassy area that is great for picnics and often home to a variety of events.
Since this spot is located downtown, it provides a nice break from touring some of the more educational experiences where kids have to be less wiggly. Visit the USS Midway or Maritime Museum and then let the kids run around and play. Bring a change of clothes because they are sure to get soaked!
The New Children’s Museum
The New Children’s Museum is locate dowtown and is an art-based childrens museum. There are various art installations, some rotating and some permanent, that kids are invited to explore. Kids 10 and under are the best fit for this space but all are welcome.
Favorites include Whammock which is a 3D hammock-style installation that is fun to climb in and The Wonder Sound which is a labyrinth of ropes, rooms, and nooks to explore. It connects to the Wonder Sound Garden that is on the museum’s upper patio.
Fling an Ax at Throw It San Diego
Located near Petco Park in the Gaslamp, Throwit San Diego is a great place to take your teens and tweens. In addition to having axe throwing lanes, they also have arcade games, giant board games, and a Tetris-themed snack bar.
Best of all, as long as a child is with their parent or legal guardian, they are allowed to come in and throw axes!
Belmont Park is an iconic waterfront amusement park located in Mission Beach. The park’s most famous attractions is the Giant Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster that has been keeping families thrilled for decades.
Other rides include bumper cars, a carousel, and the tilt-a-whirl. There is also mini golf, laser tag, and a rockwall. The park has a classic arcade with a variety of video games, pinball machines, and carnival-style games where you can turn in tickets and win prizes.
The park is also home to The Plunge, one of the largest indoor pools in Southern California. Originally opened in 1925, The Plunge has been beautifully restored and offers visitors a chance to enjoy swimming in a historic setting.
Located on San Diego’s waterfront, Seaport Village is a touristy shopping and entertainment area known for its kitschy shops and restaurants with lovely views. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs, ride the historic carousel, or fly a kite while watching the boats go by.
This is also a good place to pick up the San Diego Trolley or one of the many bike cabs in the area.
San Diego Botanic Garden
If you have “plant people ” in your group, a visit to the San Diego Botanic Gardens in Encinitas is a must. We love visiting during the Christmas holiday season when the gardens are lit with millions of beautiful lights at night.
In the spring through early fall, the garden is especially lush. There are a wide variety of habitats to enjoy including California native plants, a subtropical fruit garden, desert plants, a tropical rainforest, and even groves of towering bamboo.
This botanic garden is also home to the world’s largest children’s garden which has lots of hands-on activities, a treehouse, a mini train, and a natural trail which encourages kids to balance, jump, and play.
The Birch Aquarium is located at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. It is a small but well-done aqaurium that is perfect for exploring before heading too one of the area beaches.
There are dozens of tanks filled with fish and invertebrates in the Pacific from north in the Pacific Northwest to south in Mexico. Highlights include the Little Blue Penguins Exhibit (which happen to tbe the world’s smallest penguins) to the tide pool area out on the back patio where families have the opportunity to gently touch some sealife.
Go for a Hike
San Diego has beautiful weather and diverse scenery, so get out there and explore on foot! Here are some of my favorite hikes for families in San Diego:
- The Guy Fleming Trail at Torrey Pines in short, mostly flat, and big on “wow” factor with sprawling ocean views.
- Annie’s Canyon Trail is an awesome hike for families who like to climb. There is a slot canyon with some ladders to tackle on this 2.3-mile hoop near San Elijo Lagoon.
- Mission Trails Regional Park has several trails of varying difficulty. And easy one is the Oak Canyon Trail.
- Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve has an easy trail that follows a creek lush with towering sycamore and oaks.There is even a small waterfall that makes its way through volcanic rock.
Del Mar Fairgrounds
The Del Mar Fairgrounds are home to two great experiences for families- the San Diego County Fair and horse races. Best of all, it is basically across the street from the beach so you can easily combine time here with a beach day.
The 2024 San Diego County Fair will take place June 12th – July 7th and has everything you are looking for in a county fair experience including lots of farm animls, fattening fair food, and plenty of fun rides.
Horse racing is always great family fun. While kids may not be able to place real bets, they can definitely pick their favorite horses and root for them as they race around the track. There are two waves of horse racing at Del Mar. The first is July – September 8, 2024 and the second runs October 31 – December 1, 2024. You can even take the Amtrak Surfliner train from downtown San Diego to the fairgrounds. Easy peasy!
Take a Day Trip to Legoland
LEGOLAND in Carlsbad is extremely popular with the toddler to tween set. Kids love the LEGO-themed rides (complete with LEGO building stations for kids to play at in the queues), colorful waterpark, and cute aquarium with special viewing areas set up at “kid height.”
Parents will find themselves blown away by the incredible recreations of cities, animals, and even Star Wars fighter planes built entirely out of LEGO bricks. You might walk away deciding to switch career paths entirely and become a LEGO architect! We have an entire article filled with LEGOLAND tips.
Book your LEGOLAND tickets ahead of time to save money and skip the ticket lines.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
The Carlsbad Flower Fields have long been one of the favorite things to do in the San Diego area, especially when the fields are in full bloom! Plan to visit the flower fields in spring. April is the best month to get the best pictures. There is also a strawberry field nearby where you can pick your own fruit.
Over summer, the flower fields add a giant American Flag in red, white, and blue flowers – making June also a great time to stop by with the family!
San Diego Safari Park in Escondido
The San Diego Safari Park in Escondido is known for its open air tram which allows visitors to see animals roaming free on their version of an African savannah, but that incredible experience is just a small piece of what this unique park has to offer guests.
Here families can watch cheetahs run at full sprint, walk amongst kangaroos and wallabies, zip line over animal enclosures, take intimate caravan tours into enclosures where they can get close to rhinos and giraffes, and even “sleep over” at one of their Roar and Snore events.
Save time and money by purchasing your San Diego Safari Park tickets ahead of time.
Where to Stay in San Diego with Kids
There are many great family-friendly accommodations all over San Diego and Trekaroo has put together an entire post dedicated to our picks for top kid-friendly hotels in San Diego. We highlight the best values and best splurge as well as the best hotels in specific neighborhoods of the city.