From only-in-San Diego events to nature galore, here are 100 reasons why San Diego is the best place for kids and families
Lucky for us, San Diego is one of the top vacation destinations in the nation. And while it may be the 2nd biggest city in the state, its laid-back lifestyle and easy-breezy attitude make it feel more like a beach town (with all the glorious bells and whistles of metropolitan hub like access to cultural events, world-class museums and food—let’s not forget the delicious food). From incredible parks that kids will love, and only-in-San-Diego bucket-worthy activities to hidden gems sprinkled around SoCal, we’ve rounded up the best 100 things to do in San Diego—whether you’re a local and are looking for some things to do or just visiting for a bit—this list will keep your calendar full and your memories stacked all year long.
1. With over 30 beaches dotting San Diego's gorgeous coastline, hitting the sand and surf tops our list of must-dos. With so many options, you can find a sandy stretch that's right for your crew. Our detailed beach guide highlights the best beaches for babies, toddlers and big kids, as well as where to go to learn how to catch a wave or putter around a tide pool.
2. Show your kiddos what life was like living on a floating city with a visit to the USS Midway Museum—the largest aircraft carrier in the world that you can tour. The self-guided audio tour, narrated by former sailors, offers a lot of history and drops loads of knowledge like the fact that over 200,000 sailors have worked there throughout the years. PS: Your budding pilot can earn Junior Pilot Wings—visit the information booth for more intel.
3. Take your little minifigs to LEGOLAND but before you go, be sure to read all of our must-know tips when visiting LEGOLAND like how to reserve 'n' ride to avoid lines or what it's like to spend the night at the LEGOLAND Hotel. And make sure to catch their newest attraction, The Ferrari Build and Race where your little Danica Patrick can design, build and race their own car.
4. Spend the day exploring the magnificent 1,200-acre urban cultural park, Balboa Park, hands down one of the best things our city has to offer its residents and guests. Our insider guide to Balboa Park has everything you need to know to make the most of your visit with kids, including hidden gems like the California Tower where you can climb a secret staircase and get one of the best views of the city, and how to reach Junior Ranger status by completing the Junior Ranger Scavenger Hunt.
5. Ride the historic Carousel at Seaport Village. Handcarved in 1895 and only four bucks a whirl, it's both affordable and iconic. When you’re done with the spin you can stroll along the bay, grab a pretzel and lemonade, then head out to watch kites flying in the air in the park near Seaport Village.
6. People from all around the world flock to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The most popular exhibits are the panda bear family and the polar bear plunge. Both have long lines so hit these spots first or be prepared to wait. Also keep an eye out for the oldest resident of the zoo, a 100 year old Galapogos tortoise named Speed. And in the summer, you can rock and roar into the dark with Night Time Zoo experience where you can hang with the animals in the evening.
7. A trip to Cabrillo National Monument is another must-visit. It's where explorer Juan Rodriguez Carbrillo became the first European to set foot on the west coast in 1542. Ask for a free Cabrillo Journal newspaper at the Visitor Center. The back of the paper has a section with tasks for kids ages 3 and up—if they complete it, they'll become a Junior Ranger. Cabrillo also hosts plenty of workshops and camps devoted to youth interested in STEM activities.
8. This year, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park with a visit to see white rhinos and roaming giraffes. In honor of their golden anniversary, the park is hosting a 90-minute tour of the Safari Park's Nairobi Village where you'll see iconic wildlife including gorillas and elephants as well as get a chance to go behind the scenes to areas not typically available to the public.
9. Unwind with a day of endless play at The New Children’s Museum, where all of the super-fun, interactive exhibits will entertain and educate kids. Did you know they also have a north county location in Del Mar? Remember, February is Museum Month in San Diego and all museums are half-price!
10. If your crew loves some healthy competition, this will get them jazzed up. Follow our list of San Diego's quirky landmarks (think the Crab Carillon Musical Bridge and an outrageous topiary garden) and see how many you can visit.
11. Go back in time to the 1850s with a visit to Old Town where kids can sit in a stagecoach, eat homemade tortillas, visit an old schoolhouse and learn some hands-on skills of the trades of yesteryear. It’s also where Father Junipero Serra established the first of California’s 21 missions in 1769, which also became the first permanent Spanish settlement in the region.
12. Descend into Sunny Jim Sea Cave, the only cave you can access by land on the California coastline. There are 144 stairs involved so come prepared to both descend and climb. Tours are about 15-20 minutes and are self-guided.
13. Get up close and personal with a dazzling array of sea creatures from sea horses and jellyfish to sharks and sting rays at Birch Aquarium. Also, if you have kids interested in learning what it's like to be a scientist, Birch Aquarium offers opportunities to interact with staff members, STEM events, summer camps and other outstanding resources.
14. Venture from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano or Solana Beach all the way to Disneyland on the train! The Coaster, The Trolly & The Sprinter all make for an adventurous day trip that train-loving kids will go loco for.
15. San Diego has more farms than any other county in the country and 92% of the farms are family-owned so it's easy to get outside, dig in some dirt, learn where your food comes from and meet and greet animals from camels to alpacas. For a real adventure, check out Oasis Camel Dairy where you can try some chocolate made from camel’s milk.
16. Expose your kiddos to the world of art without worrying about museum etiquette at one of these must-see outdoor art walks in San Diego. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle created by artist Niki de Saint Phalle at Kit Carson Park is a favorite. Her freestanding, whimsical sculptures (9 of them!) are sure to delight.
17. Can you tell the difference between a seal and a sea lion? Take a trip to La Jolla Sea Caves to see both and keep a lookout for external ear flaps. Sea Lions have them and seals don't. The caves are also a great place to go kayaking for families with kids 6 and up.
18. Bask in the gentle bay breeze and soak in the sounds at the Rady Shell Stadium. A stunning mix of the Sydney Opera House and the Hollywood Bowl, this outdoor venue tops the list of best outdoor music experiences in the world. Insider Tip: Some shows have rehearsals during the day that are completely free—bring your kiddos to one of these and enjoy the show.
19. Take your water baby to get wet and wild in the huge fountain area at Waterfront Park. There’s even a giant grassy area right by the fountain where you can lay towels, have picnics and enjoy the waterfront views.
20. Rent a stand-up paddle board, Aqua Cycle, canoe or other water sports gear for a day of fun at Carlsbad Lagoon. Insider Tip: if you have your own equipment you can access the lagoon at 4700 Bayshore Dr. in Carlsbad. It's a perfect beach spot for little kids to splash and play or for older ones to go out on the water.
21. Go say hello to the sea lions basking in the wild at the La Jolla Children’s Pool. Afterward, grab a bite to eat at Cody’s restaurant which serves a belly-pleasing crab cake Benedict for the crustacean-crazy crowd.
22. Fly a kite at Dusty Rhodes Park, home to the oldest children’s kite festival in the United States, The Ocean Beach Kite Festival. If you're around for the event in May, attendees are encouraged to build their own kite—prizes are awarded for best decorated!
23. Go buy some peanuts and Cracker Jacks and root for the home team at a Padres baseball game. For an extra-special kid-friendly perk, go on a Sun. and enjoy Kidsfest, when gates open early (two hours before the first pitch) for families to enjoy bounce houses and other inflatables, games, face painters, balloon artists and more kid-friendly activities in Gallagher Square.
24. Desert Dunes, Marsh Meadows and Rainforests are open—and we've got the insider track on what to do so get ready to embrace your wild side at this epic outdoor discovery and play center at San Diego Zoo's all-new Basecamp.
25. Enjoy the fruits of your labor by picking apples or strawberries straight from the trees and bushes at these local U-pick apple farms and strawberry patches. Some even have hayrides, corn mazes and other perks your family will love.
26. Home to the Surf Hall of Fame and Surf Film Festival, San Diego is synonymous with surf culture. Encourage your little grom to catch a wave and become a true San Diego local.
27. Visit the bronze statue of Kate Session, known as the 'Mother of Balboa Park,' and give your kiddos a rundown of these influential women that helped shape San Diego into the place it is today. This particular monument is located in the southwest corner of the Sefton Plaza, near the Sixth Ave. entrance, where Session can look over and protect the park.
28. Named one of the top North American Gardens worth traveling to, San Diego Botanical Garden is an ideal place to spend the day exploring nature. Kids will love climbing and playing in a gigantic treehouse in the Hamilton Children’s Garden at San Diego Botanic Gardens.
29. From the ocean to the canyons, take a hike at one of the 12 best hiking trails for kids in San Diego.
30. Bringing Southern California's train history to life, visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum where Thomas the Tank Engine lovers can enjoy toy trains and tracks galore. Don't miss the 'Toy Train Gallery; the “Choo-Choo cam” fitted onto a running train provides visitors with a first-person virtual view of the layout.
31. From the newly opened Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream to San Diego's oldest shop, Niederfrank's in National City, get a lick (or two) of one of the best ice cream spots in the San Diego.
32. Camp cliffside at San Elijo State Beach. Some campsites offer breathtaking views of the sunset and the coastline. And parents need not worry about rip currents here—San Elijo is a one of our favorite family beaches with its mellow breaks and shallow water near the shore.
33. Our insider's guide to Sesame Place has everything you need to know like tips on where to go to nurse and warm a bottle or that you can get a cashless wristband so you don't need to lug your wallet around.
34. Ride the Giant Dipper, the iconic wooden roller coaster that’s called Belmont Park home since 1925. If you feel adventurous make it a night ride and follow up the fun with some after-dark laser tag.
35. Kids of any age can get an exhilarating thrill by paragliding over the Pacific at Torrey Pines Gliderport!
36. Have some good, old-fashioned fun at Bates Nut Farm where activities include everything from a pumpkin patch and harvest and nut tours, a farm zoo and a huge homemade fudge and candy shop.
37. When the calendar says it's fall, San Diegans head to Lake Arrowhead to experience the crisp autumn air and see the leaves change colors on the trees. You'll almost think you're in Vermont during SoCal's leaf-peeping season.
38. Did you know San Diego is called the 'craft beer capital of the world?' Raise a pint and give a little cheer at these breweries across the city that welcome kids and families.
39. Budding thespians will enjoy watching their peers in a theatrical performance at San Diego Junior Theater.
40. Unplug and take a break from all things digital at a botanical garden. Kids can chase butterflies while you enjoy a picnic.
41. Plan a family date night the whole crew will remember. Park 101 in Carlsbad Village keeps kids busy playing with life-size Connect Four, Giant Jenga or corn hole, while parents sip watermelon mimosas and catch a few rays.
42. Learn about science, art and world cultures with a visit to San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum where kids can play with engaging indoor and outdoor hands-on exhibits.
43. Go stargazing around San Diego with an astronomer at the Fleet Science Center or catch a planetarium show at Palomar College.
44. Let kids explore The Backyard at The Nat, a nature-inspired indoor play area that educates and entertains.
45. Ride a Steam Locomotive, Speeder or Trolley on the Poway Midland Railroad at Old Poway Park.
46. Rough it by tent or make it a lux glamping vacay, either way, there's a mecca of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors from the beaches to the mountains at one of these top camping spots in San Diego.
47. Take a day trip to the quaint mountain town of Julian to pan for gold and enjoy freshly baked apple pie.
48. Want the taste of Italy without pricey airfare? Try all of these pizza spots open in San Diego that are sure to satisfy.
49. Save a buck and have a priceless time at a free museum day at one of San Diego’s best museums for families.
50. Relax with a glass of wine in the countryside at one of these local family-friendly wineries with kid perks. The bonfire nights, cool animal encounters, ice rinks and playgrounds all make visiting these vineyards a family affair.
51. Rock out at the Museum of Making Music where kids can explore interactive instrument playing areas.
52. Book a mom & me or a dad & me adventure at this popular nearby treehouse perched just six blocks from The San Diego Bay, Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo and just three blocks to the Village of Little Italy.
53. Snooze alongside wild animals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Roar & Snore sleepover and get an after-hours look at the animals, guided walks and a campfire program—then wake up to breakfast the following morning.
54. Go on the road and dig up some fun with a field trip to the San Diego Archeological Center. The free (donation-based) museum gives little archeologists an inside look at how natives lived in San Diego for the past 12,000 years.
55. Feed sea turtles and come nose to beak with Bald and Golden eagles at The Living Coast Discovery Center. Afterward, treat yourself to lunch at Old California Coffee House and Eatery. Their vegan and gluten-free menu items are top-notch.
56. Dine on great food outdoors with ocean views or in a huge garden setting at our fave San Diego dining spots with patio seating.
57. Take a 3-minute train ride through four acres of Balboa Park on a miniature railroad aboard a model G16 (a rare antique—there are as few as fifty currently remaining in the US)!
58. Eat your way through the amazing food selections at the 22,000-square-foot Liberty Public Market then explore the shops at Liberty Station. Explore more of San Diego’s best food halls with culinary delights to please every family member.
60. In many cultures peacocks are regarded as a symbol of good luck, good fortune, and immortality. Visit old rancho and hidden treasure, Leo Carrillo Ranch where you can see beautiful peacocks roaming the grounds and learn some history.
61. De-stress by watching the giant koi fish swim in ponds at the Japanese Friendship Garden. There are 20 varieties of fish in the pond—make it a game and see how many your kiddos can find.
62. Learn about the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and see how lighthouse keepers lived while enjoying the spectacular views of San Diego.
64. Skating, like surfing, is a mainstay in San Diego. So channel the local vibe and culture at a skatepark where the pros practice their tricks.
65. Play tourist for the day (or weekend) and rediscover Oceanside. This north county city is the buzz of the county with a bevy of new restaurants, art shows and events happening regularly. Must-dos include The Top Gun house, The Surf Museum, and a walk on the iconic pier.
66. Take a family bike ride through Coronado and visit the iconic Hotel Del and Coronado Beach where the shimmery, golden sand glistens.
67. On almost any given day, you can find a farmers market ripe with crowds picking the most delectable produce of the season. Here's our pick for the most family-friendly farmer’s market in the city.
68. Channel your inner Prince or Princess and raise a pinky at one of these spots to have high tea with your young royals.
69. There may not be a more ubiquitous food in San Diego than the taco! No need to wait for Taco Tuesday, sink your teeth into the most scrumptious tacos any day of the week.
70. Dine out with a side of bowling, arcade games, corn hole, Jenga and more at these hip restaurants that have epic play areas for kids.
71. Escape to a Mediterranean-style vacation that's just a ferry ride away. Family-friendly Catalina Island offers everything you need for a fun-filled getaway.
72. Go on a ghost hunt at The Whaley House, or, for the more easily scared, tour the House just for its history rather its hauntings.
73. Escape to the animal kingdom at Children’s Nature Retreat where your kids will get to feed, pet and bond with domestic, rescued livestock and exotic animals from around the world including zebras, camels and miniature horses.
74. Slide into a delightfully free story time at the Athenaeum. Great for kids ages 1-9.
75. Make like a hipster and go unearth the hidden gems of the super cool North Park neighborhood.
76. Take Fido to the coolest places for pooches in San Diego, from the Original Dog Beach to patio dining at restaurants that have dog menus.
77. Street art reigns supreme in San Diego so get snap happy in front of the city’s most Instagrammable walls and murals.
78. Take a stroll on the San Dieguito Lagoon Interpretive Walk and find 20 discovery points along the way to learn about the importance of the San Dieguito River plants, animals and Kumeyaay people who lived there.
79. Discover a hidden waterfall in the biggest canyon in San Diego. Los Peñasquitos Canyon is best for sure-footed hikers as you climb around rocks plus, it's six miles in and out.
80. Dive into the high life and turn a free day into a mini stay-cation with a day pass to San Diego’s most amazing resort pools.
81. In need of a bunny snuggling, chicken feeding, pony-riding adventure? Take your little party animal that goes wild for creatures at the best petting farms and zoos in the city.
82. Go whale watching by land or sea at these stellar spots for catching a glimpse of the majestic mammals.
83. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) lived in La Jolla for several decades. We show you where to spy Dr. Seuss delights all over town and see a historical first edition of Dr. Seuss stories.
84. Calling all Park Rangers! Meet up with Ranger Heidi for a nature story and craft at Mission Trails Regional Park. They also host guided nature walks and wildlife tracking walks your little ranger will flock to. At 7,220 acres, this park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States.
86. Go to the spot serving burgers and chocolate malts since 1969. Hodads is a San Diego favorite and even make their own beer that's certainly worth a try.
87. Go on a sea safari and study ocean life up close by exploring one of these bustling tide pools.
88. Ride the Coronado ferry and take in the magnificent views of the San Diego skyline.
89. Score a hole-in-one at Pelly's Mini Golf where you can choose from two ocean-themed courses. When you wrap up the round, head to nearby Viewpoint Brewery Company for food and drinks with views from their outdoor patio of the San Dieguito Lagoon.
90. Meet exotic birds and talk to colorful parrots at the Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary. Don't be surprised if you get talked into adopting a parot!
91. Get your caffeine fix at one of our favorite buzz-worthy local coffee shops that cate to both kids and families.
92. Make a splash at these mesmerizing, photo-worthy urban fountains, one of which is a whale standing tall at a height of 39 feet and 10 inches—it’s the second largest bronze sculpture ever cast in the U.S.
93. During the spring, don't miss the chance to get lost in a sea of dreamy, colorful ranunculus at The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. The nearly fifty acres of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers are the showstopper but there's also a sweet pea-maze and a U-pick blueberry field that your little buds will also love.
94. Catch a wave at the California Surf Museum to learn about how surfboards evolved, read pro surfer Bethany Hamilton’s story about how she survived a shark attack at age 13 and continued to compete—even after losing her arm (!), and touch Kelly Slater’s surfboard.
95. Hold and interact with reptiles, amphibians and arthropods at the EcoVivarium Living Museum.
96. Cross off a to-do on your bucket list with day trips to Idyllwild and Joshua Tree.
97. Help kids channel their inner calm (along with some lovely expansive ocean views) in the magical setting that is Meditation Gardens in Encinitas.
98. Slide through a gigantic bunch of grapes or climb aboard a colossal pirate ship at one of our favorite playgrounds. One is BYOC—as in bring your own cardboard, for sliding down an insanely fun turf hill!
99. One of the coolest parks in the country, Anza-Borrego State Park, is a short driving distance from San Diego. Extend your stay by booking a glam trailer during wildflower season and enjoy the scenery. The park is also home to more than 130 metal sculptures that'll be sure to captivate your little artist.
100. Go on a family date night at Luche Libra Taco Shop. Book the champions table in advance. You can thank us later.