A San Diego trip with kids can be the experience of a lifetime. Seriously, this city was made for families, with a great mix of attractions and even better facilities for travelers. Transport is usually fairly easy to manage, and the city itself has a good mix of accommodation for all price ranges. Best of all though, San Diego is relaxed and welcoming. People here tend to be extremely tolerant of children, and will help you when they can.
When to visit San Diego
San Diego has a reputation for great weather all-year-round, leading many travelers to assume there’s no bad time to visit the city. While it’s true the city is definitely doable in any season, there are better months than others. Winter tends to be cloudy and rainy, and even early summer can get surprisingly foggy, particularly in June (ever heard of San Diego's June gloom?). The best weather is usually from around early August to November, when you can expect clear skies and plenty of Californian sun. However, the summer months from June to September are unsurprisingly the busiest, when domestic tourists flock to the beaches. Spring is a little quieter, or try aiming for the shoulder of peak season (late September and November). Peak prices often still apply, but at least you’ll get the best of California’s climate without the worst of the crowds. Alternatively, if you’re aiming for a San Diego family vacation on a budget, off-season from December to February can be a little chilly, but prices are significantly lower. In the end, we visited in June and had to deal with the June gloom fog while still mostly paying high season prices.
Point Loma is definitely one of the best places to visit in San Diego for anyone who doesn’t mind stretching their legs a bit. This national park at the far end of a peninsula of the same name is a popular spot for day hikes, not to mention its fantastic coastal views. Lace up your hiking shoes and prepare to explore the park’s 4,400 acres (1,800 ha). The trails are almost entirely flat, and shouldn’t be much trouble for anyone in reasonable shape.
Don’t miss the lighthouse or Cabrillo National Monument, both of which serve as a good first target. From there, you can continue along the coast, overlooking the crashing waves. Signage is extremely good, and you’ll have a lot of trouble getting lost. If you come at the right time, you might also be able to check out the tidal pools. Best of all though are the sunsets, which can be nothing short of awe-inspiring. However, pay careful attention to exit times, as travelers have complained in the past of having the gate locked on them in the early evening. If you do end up staying late for the sunset, consider instead moving over to the Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, where you can get an equally good show without the risk of getting locked into the park.
A little north of the peninsula, Ocean Beach is another great spot for a relaxed walk. The beach walk here is definitely one of the best free things to do with kids in San Diego, and is less physically demanding than the mild Point Loma walks. Known to locals simply as OB, Ocean Beach itself is a pretty neighborhood with nice views and a mellow vibe. The beach-side walk makes for a pleasant family outing, and is very accessible even for strollers. Apart from soaking up the sun and enjoying the walk, there’s not much else to see here. History buffs will enjoy meandering around the Ocean Beach Cottage Emerging Historic District, where locals have preserved a handful of structures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ocean Beach Library and Strand Theater are both considered good examples of turn-of-the-century architecture, and are worth a peek if you have a burning interest in historic buildings.
The affluent community of La Jolla is easily among the top places to visit in San Diego, though not necessarily the most affordable, so we decided to make it a one day visit. With its back to the slopes of Mount Soledad, La Jolla boasts a dramatic coastline with stunning views. La Jolla is consistently rated one of the best beaches in the world, and it’s pretty easy to see why.
Along with checking out the beach, La Jolla also offers a good mix of cultural and adventure tourism options. La Jolla Playhouse offers some of California’s best performing arts, while the Museum of Contemporary Art is unmissable for anyone with even a passing interest. Families should beeline for the seaside Scripps Park, which is a popular spot for picnics on weekends. Don’t miss the nearby Children's Pool. Despite its name, you won’t see any children in the pool – at least, no human ones. Originally intended as a sheltered pool for kids to play in, a local seal colony has decided its also just right for their little ones. Today, the seals basically own the Children’s Pool, making it a good location to see some of these awkward but adorable animals which can be found in different areas within La Jolla.
Where to Eat in La Jolla
There are plenty of restaurants in La Jolla where to eat, with all kinds of prices. We wanted something close to the ocean and not too far off from where we were heading, and along our way we stumbled upon Taste of the Himalayas. The restaurant has a huge menu of Indian and Bhutanese food, has won several local awards, and we found it to be absolutely delicious. Even our 2 year old Teo loved the food!
Other recommended venues include El Pescador Fish Market where you'll find Calamari Steak or the Local Seabass Burro as well as Duke's La Jolla, a great family place inspired in the same restaurant in Waikiki (which I also happen to have eaten at and highly recommend).
Of all the places to visit in San Diego, this one is perhaps one of the few that can truly be considered totally unmissable. The USS Midway was the world’s largest aircraft carrier for around a decade, and saw action during the Vietnam War. It was also deployed during the First Gulf War, before being decommissioned in 1992. This mammoth vessel is one of the biggest pieces of military hardware ever built by the world’s largest military superpower, and every inch of it oozes with brute force. Tours are available daily, and are both informative and a lot of fun. The kids will go crazy over the opportunity to dive into the iron intestines of this beast of war, and history buffs will have plenty to gawk at.
More info at https://www.midway.org/
Sooner or later, a San Diego trip with kids will inevitably end up at Seaport Village. This seaside shopping and dining center is popular among locals, particularly on weekends. It has a bit of a mall vibe, but has nice views of the harbor. Find a nice spot to have a coffee, and it’s all-too-easy to whittle away an afternoon watching the ships come in. During peak season, this area is packed with street performers and other entertainment, including the historic Looff Carousel and a pond where kids will love looking at the ducks and ducklings. The shops here are good for souvenirs, and there’s a wealth of family restaurants that cater well to kids. Most of the restaurants have water views, so make sure to get a window table
Where to Eat
There's no lack of places where to eat at Seaport Village, and in fact I recommend you head here at some point during your San Diego visit just because of this. You'll find all kinds of restaurants and snack shops, but if you're ready for some great seafood close to the ocean Edgewater Grill can be your place. Our bill averaged 22 USD/ person, not bad, and as you can see we enjoyed some great food.
Of course there's always space for something sweet as a dessert, so we headed straight to the Fudge Factory to pack up some calories! I have a sweet tooth (very) but mind you, I don't think I can handle something sweeter and heavier than this! The fudge bars don't come cheap either, at around 6 USD each, but worth a one time splurge!
If shopping isn’t your thing, then Seaport Village’s biggest draw card may end up being its pleasant water-side walk, or just the family atmosphere on weekends. It’s good for people watching, there's an artificial pond that has some ducks and ducklings kids love to watch, and there’s always something interesting happening around Seaport Village.
The New Children's Museum
If the kids are starting to get a bit rowdy, then it’s time to treat them to the New Children's Museum. This incredible museum is packed with arts and crafts, stuff to climb on, puppet making classes, building blocks and more. Your kids can easily lose a day here, and the staff are nothing short of a godsend. While the kids burn energy, you can kick back at the on-site cafe, which does a respectable cappuccino. Expect to receive your children exhausted, and more than ready for an early night (woohoo!)
More info at https://thinkplaycreate.org/
Another historic district, Gaslamp was once the commercial heart of San Diego. Today, it’s a popular spot for evening entertainment, including great restaurants and bars. If you’re staying in San Diego for more than a few nights, then odds are you’ll end up eating out here at some point. Kids won't find the area particularly interesting so a quick walk will also do- you can head on to the USS Midway from here.
San Diego Zoo
Another of the places to go with kids in San Diego, the zoo is some seriously good fun for the whole family. The San Diego Zoo is one of the most prestigious in the world. It’s widely credited with being a trailblazer, revolutionizing the use of open air exhibits. It’s also one of the only zoos in the world to successfully breed the giant panda in captivity. Today, the zoo boasts around 3,700 animals, and can easily be done as either a half or full day outing.
The visit to the zoo can easily keep you busy for a full day, specially if you're visiting San Diego with younger kids. There are a few places where to eat (food isn't really very good anywhere in the zoo) but I do recommend you get one of the soda refill cups for you to use all day; you'll save some money and will be able to drink at any time if the weather is hot. I recommend you get your tickets online to save some time upon arrival.
For wildlife of the marine persuasion, don’t miss out on SeaWorld San Diego. More than just an aquarium, SeaWorld has great shows with killer whales (note: the Orca breeding program has been cancelled, meaning that the current Orcas will be the last to be part of the shows), dolphins, sea lions and more.
SeaWorld has received a lot of bad press in for quite some time now, and I must admit I was hesitant about visiting. At the end I decided to go for it, as SeaWorld does in fact have many good things on its side including conservation and rescue programs, plus I had vague memories if when I had been here is a little boy, about Teo's age. The kids will particularly love the petting pools, where they can touch all kinds of oceanic creepy crawlies. Bear in mind this place gets absolutely packed during peak season.
See what San Diego was like back in its days as a Mexican frontier town. Founded in 1769 by Spanish explorers, this was the first permanent European settlement in modern-day California. However, the settlement struggled for much of its history, largely due to its lack of direct access to critical oceanic trade routes. Today, Old Town features a rich heritage of colonial architecture, and the free tours are highly recommended. There aren’t too many must-see sites, though if you have the time it’s worth visiting the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and Presidio Park. Both are great spots to check out California’s rich colonial history, and the laid back atmosphere makes for a solid day trip.
If you’ve already hit up all San Diego’s big tourist sites, then consider visiting a few of the city’s free parks. San Diego has a great array of public parks, which have traditionally served as the backbone of local social life. Expect them to be quite lively on weekends, when the barbecues go into overdrive. Some good options include the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, the Japanese Friendship Garden, Balboa Park and the Nobel Leash-Free. The latter is geared towards pet owners, and ideal for anyone with a canine buddy itching for a bit of a run.
The San Diego Maritime Museum is dedicated to the preservation of California’s rich history of Pacific shipping, trade and exploration. Their painstakingly well-produced exhibits will bring out the grizzled sea captain in anyone, and it’s hard to not leave this place with a newfound passion for the ocean. To really sate this passion, consider taking one of the museum’s on the water adventures. These range from relaxed cruises across the bay, to thrilling open-ocean adventures aboard historic, immaculately preserved tall ships. The latter makes for a truly memorable experience, where you can live out your fantasy of life in the age of sail.
For more details visit https://sdmaritime.org/
Where to Stay in San Diego With Kids
As one of California’s biggest tourism cities, San Diego has countless accommodation options, with something for every budget. Almost all mid and upper range accommodation is well suited to families, and you shouldn’t have much trouble finding somewhere suitable for toddlers, kids and everyone else. Bear in mind prices jump significantly during peak season. Below are our top picks based on our one week trip to San Diego with our son:
DoubleTree by Hilton (Hotel Circle)
With a great location and extremely accommodating staff, the DoubleTree by Hilton wins big points for service and professionalism. Geared towards both business travelers and families, the DoubleTree is consistently clean, well maintained and comfortable. The family suites are airy and spacious, which can be a bit of a rarity in a city of this size. The on-site restaurant is quite good, but somewhat expensive for non-Hilton members. Luckily, there’s no shortage of good places to grab a bite within a short drive. Also, it’s worth point out that although the DoubleTree has onsite parking, they do charge for it.
Sheraton (Hotel Circle)
With a great location, the Sheraton is within walking distance of a mall and some shops and restaurants. They also have good public transport connections, making this a great option for anyone looking for a practical place to crash. The rooms are great if you're visiting San Diego with family, as they are all very spacious and have separate sleeping and living quartes. However, the front rooms facing the road can be somewhat noisy because of highway traffic, so make sure to book accommodation at the back. It's what we did and slept very very well.
A little out of the way, the Handlery isn’t exactly in the middle of the action. Luckily, there’s a major public transport hub around 400 meters from the hotel, so you’re definitely not isolated. Staff are nice, and prices are decent given the level of service. If you decide to stay here make sure you choose a room on the upper floor as they are much more spacious and just look better.
Getting Around San Diego with Kids
San Diego does have an interesting network of buses and a trolley which can be of use if you're staying in or near downtown, but, truth be told, you will need a car if you want to be able to go anywhere without having to rely on taxis or Uber. This become even more mandatory if you're traveling with a baby or kid that needs a car seat; most taxis don't have one.
You'll find all the major car rental companies in San Diego and then more, but the cheapest one we found by far was Dirt Cheap Car Rental. They have a decent enough variety of cars, most of which do have some signs of use, but are definitely worth renting should you want to save some money. Their office is very close to Hotel Circle, and will come and pick you up at you hotel if needed.
Which brings me to an important point: if you have a young kid make sure you arrive to San Diego with a car seat, or be prepared to buy or rent one as soon as you arrive. Even getting to our hotel from the airport proved to be tricky as we didn't have a car seat. Thankfully a friendly Uber driver was willing to risk a ticket and took us to our hotel (the Hilton DoubleTree recommended above). As soon as we got there I headed to Target and bought the Graco 4-in-1 Car Seat which I already had the intention of buying (it's the only car seat you'll ever need! Our son is 2, but this would avoid us having to buy a booster in the future).
San Diego is a great family destination and ideal to visit with kids year round. Temperatures will definitely get chilly in winter, and I even had to buy a sweater when visiting in June, but there are many things to do throughout the year. Of course the summer months are the most interesting as being outdoors is what you want to do- and your kids too, but hotel prices increase significantly and do fill up!
I do recommend you rent a car to get around, visit as many spots mentioned here as you can, but do remember that many attractions are great for both kids and adults. I'd say that one of the most often overlooked but definitely worth checking out is the maritime museum. If here on a weekend you can hop on one of the larger clippers for a unique family experience at sea.
The San Diego Zoo and Sea World need no introduction, and will probably be on your list anyhow. And there are a few side trips you can take while here. Head over to La Jolla and spend another afternoon at Ocean Beach for the quintessential California family experience you and your kids will love.