After needing to reschedule this trip three different times, I was excited that my older son and I could finally made it down to San Diego. Nicknamed “America’s Finest City,” it’s the ultimate family destination. You can do as little or as much as you want- you can easily go from the airport to a beach front hotel and not get in another car until you leave (which I would do pre-kids), or you can choose from the endless activities the city offers and pack your schedule (which is what we did this time). Either way is a blast.
San Diego is known for its practically perfect climate- it stays around 70 all year long. BUT be warned about May Gray / June Gloom. In these months, the clouds lay low and keep the day cool. They usually fizzle away after lunch time, but it’s still a bummer in the morning. I wouldn’t NOT come during these months if that’s the only time that works, but just know there’s a high probability you’ll experience it. If you can choose when to come, September and October are prime months. It isn’t too hot and the crowds have wound down from summer.
San Diego has something for everybody and if you’re heading that way, read over my guide to get your trip planned!
How to Get to San Diego
SAN (San Diego International Airport) is in downtown San Diego. It’s the only major airport in the area. It’s about 6 miles or 15 minutes away from Mission Beach, 14 miles or 20 minutes away from La Jolla, and 9 miles or 20 minutes away from Coronado Island. It’s a medium sized airport that is easy to get in and out of and has plenty of direct flights from major cities.
SNA (John Wayne Airport) is in Santa Ana and it’s the next closest airport at about 90 miles and roughly an hour and a half away from San Diego. It’s a smaller airport and very simple to get in and out of, but it doesn’t as many direct flights as bigger airports.
Read over my tips on how to fly with kids here.
How to Get Around San Diego
If you want to kick back and relax and stay in one area your whole trip, you can easily get by with walking and biking. Many of the hotels offer bikes, or there are plenty of bike rental shops all around San Diego. Uber and Lyfts are also available around the area for short trips.
But if you want to really explore neighboring cities- (and I recommend this!) San Diego is really spread out, so a car is a must. Check for rental cars here. (If rental prices are crazy, try Turo.)
Where to Stay in San Diego
There are a number of different neighborhoods that make up San Diego. Each has their own charm. The three I would recommend for families are:
Mission Beach is a laid-back seaside neighborhood that is an ideal spot for families. There’s almost two miles of an oceanfront boardwalk with shops, restaurants, and an amusement park. Not only is there an ocean beach, but there’s also Mission Bay beach. There are parks and playgrounds sprinkled all around the area. This area is also more central if you’re going to be exploring the rest of San Diego. It’s a lot of action and reasonably priced. It does get very popular though, so don’t expect much quiet.
Two hotels in this area I recommend:
La Jolla is a quiet, upscale seaside town known for its rugged coastline and gorgeous views. It’s known as “The Jewel” of San Diego. You can take surf lessons, SUP, kayak, snorkel, or bike around town. The Village is the downtown area full of shops and restaurants. You can easily walk everywhere. So many picture-perfect beaches and even one that has seals and sealions laying out! A little out of the way and pricey but worth it.
A hotel in this area that I recommend:
Coronado Island is a ritzy and quaint beach town, completely different feel (kind of Mediterranean?) than the other parts of San Diego. The water is gentle, the beach is huge with soft white sand, and the downtown area is adorable. This is perfect for the family that wants to enjoy a beach vacation and minimally wants to venture out. The iconic Hotel Del Coronado (from the movie Some Like It Hot) is here! Coronado is a peaceful paradise but is also much more expensive.
Two hotels in this area that I recommend:
What to Do in San Diego
I split the activities into two categories—All day and individual activities. There are areas around San Diego that have so many activities, you can easily spend the full day there—and you should!
There are also attractions that can be done as one offs that I added. Some are a little bit outside of San Diego, but worth the trek.
Spend the day in Mission Beach
Mission Beach is a great family friendly beach. There are two parts of it—Mission Beach next to Belmont Park, which is more popular and crowded, and South Mission Beach, which is quieter with a slower pace.
Mission Beach is a great gathering place for families because it’s high energy with plenty to do—swim, surf, boogie board, beach games, even bonfires. There’s even a surfing wave machine at Wave House.
South Mission Beach is super wide with plenty of opportunities to play beach sports like volleyball, softball, basketball courts, and it’s even a great place to go fishing. Both are great for whatever type of vibe you’re looking for.
Mission Beach Boardwalk
Also called Ocean Front Walk, the boardwalk goes on for two miles and is lined with restaurants, shops, and rental spots. You’ll see bikers, joggers, skateboarders, or just people taking a casual stroll.
Steps from the sand is San Diego’s only beachfront amusement park. I’d say it’s big enough to knock out a good amount of time, but it’s not overwhelming. Hit up the rides, play mini golf, go rock climbing, play laser tag, or check out the new 7D interactive theater. Many dining options, both for quick bites and for a sit-down meal at three oceanfront restaurants, plus sweet treats. Check out everything it has to offer here.
Maruta Gardner Playground
Right across the street from Belmont Park—you can’t miss it, it’s bright pink! You can walk or just drive over on your way out of the area. Parking lot is huge (and free). Not only is there an enormous playground, but there’s also a sand area to play in as well.
Spend the day in La Jolla
La Jolla Beaches
The best beach for a beach day is La Jolla Shores Beach. It’s huge, so you’ll have plenty of room to settle in, there are lifeguards and bathrooms, plus you can do many water activities like kayaking, paddle boarding, and even scuba diving. Bonus, there’s also a little park at this beach, Kellogg Park.
Going south down the coast from La Jolla Shores (these beaches are all within walking distance from each other):
Shell Beach is great for tide pooling.
Children’s Pool to check out the seals and sea lions and gorgeous views.
South Casa Beach is fun for chasing waves.
Ellen Browning Scripps Park
Right past Shell Beach down the Coastal Walk is a seaside park, Scripps Park. It’s a huge open grassy area perfect for frisbee, soccer, or just running around. There are also picnic tables and benches, and restrooms and showers.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
The Birch Aquarium is one of San Diego’s hottest attractions—not only because it’s an amazing aquarium, but also because it teams with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to showcase their research and findings. It has interactive exhibits, tide pools, and all kinds of exciting animals. Check it out and buy tickets here.
Village of La Jolla
The Village is the downtown area of La Jolla, perfect for a slow stroll after a fun day in the sun. It’s packed with restaurants (including The Cottage and Herringbone, two of the most popular dining spots in San Diego), shops, art galleries, and a movie theater.
Spend the day Downtown
New Children’s Museum
One of the best children’s museums we’ve been to! It’s three stories of interactive play split into flexible areas. The activities range from a rainbow bounce house at the entrance, to soft play with food sculptures for the little ones, a house full of hidden ropes and nooks to explore, painting an old truck, and a humongous blob made of braided nylon to climb into (picture below because I have no idea how to actually describe this thing in words!). My kid cried when we had to leave, so it’s one of those type of places. Check it out here.
In the middle of downtown is a 1,200 acre urban cultural park (think the Central Park of San Diego—but Balboa Park is actually bigger.)
It has museums, gardens, restaurants, shopping, and countless kids’ activities—the main being the world-famous San Diego Zoo, a carousel, a miniature train, Fleet Science Center, playgrounds, and a Model Railroad Museum to name a few. Check out everything they have here.
When it’s time to eat, there’s no better spot downtown than lively, pedestrian-friendly Little Italy. There are over 70 dining options, shops, and a weekly Farmer’s Market. It’s an adorable spot to get lunch and gelato, and just walk around.
Walk off your meal by heading over to Waterfront Park—it features a playground, fountains, with beautiful views of downtown buildings on one side and the Bay on the other. The Maritime Museum and Seaport Village are in the area as well.
Spend the day on Coronado Island
Unwind and enjoy a quintessential California day by heading to Coronado Island.
Start off by biking around town and then head over to Coronado Beach. (Coronado Beach has been voted #1 beach in America by Dr. Beach!) It’s over a mile long, flat, and very wide so you’ll have plenty of space. Lifeguards, restrooms, and showers are available too.
Check out the downtown area of the island, Orange Avenue. It’s about a mile long and runs from the bay to the beach. It’s filled with restaurants, shops, and rental shops. Take a leisurely stroll down to really enjoy the atmosphere and beautiful architecture and homes.
Spend a day watching animal shows, enjoying interactive exhibits, taking an animal tour, and going on rides. For the little ones, head over to Sesame Street Bay of Play for toddler rides and play areas like a splash pad, bouncy house, and a toddler mat. There are also seasonal events like food festivals and weekend firework shows. Read all about SeaWorld here.
Get up close and personal with animals on a guided safari tour through African Plains and Asian Savanna fields… where animals roam free! There are animal shows throughout the day, a carousel, play areas, an obstacle course, animal encounters, ballooning, even ziplining. Note that the Safari Park is about 45 minutes north of San Diego in Escondido, so be sure to factor that extra time into your schedule. Read more about the Safari Park here.
Image provided by San Diego Zoo Safari Park
One of the biggest draws to the area, larger than life LEGOLAND is a must see for your LEGO lovers. First, there’s the theme park with rides, LEGOLAND WORLD, shopping, shows, activities, and dining options. Then, there’s the water park. Then, there’s the SEA LIFE aquarium. They even have hotels on site. The age range is from 2-12 and there are all types of rides and activities for all. Note that LEGOLAND is actually in Carlsbad, about 45 minutes north of San Diego. Buy your tickets here.
NEW: Sesame Place
Opened in March of 2022 (we just missed the opening day by two weeks!) They have rides (plus some with water), shows and parades, and the full Sesame Street Neighborhood with interactive play, story time, and character photo opps! There’s also dining options and shopping for souvenirs. Read more about the new Sesame Place here.
There you have it! Have you been to San Diego? Tell me your favorite part of it in the comments!
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