Disclosure: At least some of this trip was either comped or provided at a media rate. Post may contain affiliate links. A purchase and/or click through these links may result in a commission paid to us. All opinions are our own.
I’ve traveled to the greater San Diego several times for work events and conferences, but hadn’t been there with my family. I knew they’d love it – the laid-back atmosphere, the sandy and salty air, the near-perfect temperatures, and the fun kid-friendly activities. After experiencing record snowfall and cold temperatures this past month here in Boston, we were eager to board our cross-country flight to beautiful and sunny San Diego. Our 5-night visit felt a bit too short – next time we’ll definitely stay at least 7 nights. Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.
San Diego Vacation With Kids
San Diego Zoo (and other museums in Balboa Park)
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park. It was about a 15-minute drive from our hotel (the Bahia Resort Hotel), and offer free parking. We arrived right at opening, and I’d definitely recommend that, especially if visiting over a weekend or busy time.
Our visit to the zoo was fabulous. We started at the back of the zoo, and moved forward to limit crowds. As you’d expect, the Panda exhibit is extremely popular, and a queue starts early. Head to that exhibit toward the beginning of your visit to avoid a long wait.
My kids especially loved the koala exhibit (Koalafornia), the turtles and tortoises, the baby gorilla, the giraffes, the polar bears, and the pandas, although there was really so much to see. I’d recommend using the Skyfari to go from one side of the park to the other – it’s definitely a long walk. The zoo also offers a guided double-decker bus tour, and various behind the scenes tours (for an extra fee). There are numerous table and counter-service food locations throughout the zoo. Parking is free, and you’ll need a minimum of a half day to see much of the zoo.
With San Diego’s location right on the Pacific Ocean, a harbor cruise is a must. Hornblower Cruises offers several different options. There’s a 3 1/2 hour whale-watching tour, a 1-hour harbor tour, and a 2-hour harbor tour. The whale-watching tour includes a guarantee – if you don’t see whales during your journey, you’ll receive a voucher to return.
Paid parking is available adjacent to the harbor, as well as other private lots. The lot we parked in seemed to fill up, so definitely keep that in mind when you visit. The 1-hour and 2-hour harbor tours overlap – so the ship leaves in one direction for an hour, and then returns. The first group of 1-hour passengers disembark and the 2-hour passengers stay onboard. Then, the 1-hour passengers with tickets for the opposite direction board the ship.
We were most impressed with the quality and condition of the ship. It was completely spotless and in almost new condition. The crew was friendly, and provided narration throughout the tour. There is seating available in a variety of spots throughout the ship – I’d recommend asking a crew member which side to sit on if you want to be closer to the majority of sites. There are light snacks and beverages (including alcohol) available for purchase on the ship.
Legoland California is located about 45 minutes away from San Diego in the beautiful community of Carlsbad. A recent addition to the park is the adjacent Legoland Hotel. My kids really wanted to see the hotel, so we decided to pop in for a quick breakfast before the park opened. It’s a kid’s dream come true – with Lego toys, displays, and inspiration throughout the common areas of the hotel (we didn’t see the rooms or the pool).
Legoland itself includes that regular theme park, two separate water parks (including the new Legends of CHIMA water park), and a SEALIFE Aquarium. In the offseason, the water parks are closed, so we weren’t able to visit them. I’d definitely recommend checking operating hours of the park prior to making plans – on the day we visited, it was open 10-5pm.
My son has been wanting to go to Legoland for years, so we let him put together our plan for experiencing all of the rides. He absolutely loved Legoland, and is already asking to return. When we were done visiting the park, both kids had fun spending their allowances in the gift shop.
Petco Park, the USS Midway, and Seaport Village
The waterfront and downtown areas of San Diego are also worth a visit. Adjacent to the Hornblower Cruises boarding location is the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier, and a short walk away is Seaport Village, a waterfront village with shops and restaurants. Walk towards the San Diego convention center, and cross the street, and you’ll find Petco Park (home of the San Diego Padres). Tours of the field are available. We didn’t have the chance to visit the USS Midway because we ran out of vacation days, but it was something we wish we had done.
Belmont Park is a fun amusement park located on Mission Bay. We were able to walk right from our hotel, but ample free parking is also available. Admission into the park is free, and you can purchase tickets or an unlimited ride wristband.
The highlight of Belmont Park is the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster that was built in 1925. My whole family rode it, and we loved it. There’s also other amusement-style rides, including bumper cars and a Tilt-a-Whirl, as well as other attractions, like mini-golf, a ropes course, a zip-line (weight restrictions apply, so my kids weren’t able to do it), and a rock wall. Belmont Park also features shops, snack stands, and restaurants.
Visit the Beach
You can’t leave San Diego without dipping your toes into the Pacific at least once. There are countless beaches located throughout the vast city, but we spent much of our time at Mission Beach, adjacent to Belmont Park. It’s a fun, lively beach with rest room and BBQ facilities.
The Corvette Diner was recommended to us, and we are so happy we visited there. This family-friendly hot spot is located in Point Loma right in San Diego, and has free parking available. Reservations are only available for large parties, so arrive early for a shorter wait, especially during busy times.
While you are waiting for your table, you can visit their full arcade which features modern and classic games – my kids especially enjoyed playing Ms. Pacman while we waited. I also had the chance to teach my son pinball (of course he was amazed that mommy actually knew how to play). Many of the games give electronic tickets that can be exchanged for prizes.
The Corvette Diner features several distinct rooms – the main room (pictured above), a narrow “box-car” room where each table has a video screen, the 60s room with day-glow walls and heat-sensitive tables, and a function room. A live DJ emcees, and plays 50s and 60s tunes. It’s definitely a great touch.
The wait staff, who all seem to love their jobs, add to the fun. Each waiter or waitress does fun straw hairstyles for the female kids in your party – my daughter couldn’t wait for our server to come over and do her hair. There’s also a balloon artist that rotates around the dining rooms, creating balloon animals and other creations in exchange for tips.
Food is standard diner fare, with lots of options for kids. My husband and I each ordered a salad, and both were great. The diner also offers a full bar. Although my kids loved all aspects of the Corvette Diner, the large cotton candy dessert was definitely my son’s favorite.
There are countless family-friendly resorts and hotels located throughout the San Diego area, but we absolutely loved our stay at the Bahia Resort Hotel. Located on Mission Beach, the Bahia Resort Hotel features a private beach and heated swimming pool, making it a great “home base” for your family vacation.
Regardless of what you see and do during your San Diego family vacation, you’ll almost certainly enjoy some fantastic weather. Enjoy!