Offering more than just splendid beaches and an enviable climate, San Diego is home to an impressive range of family-friendly things to do, such as top-tier zoos, interactive museums, historic parks, and more. Each of these places offers a unique learning and enjoyment platform for children, packing every moment of your trip with fun and education. Not only will your children experience the joy of exploring new places, but they will also gain valuable insights and knowledge along the way. By including San Diego in your trip plan, you and your family will create wonderful memories that will last a lifetime. From the lively atmosphere of the vibrant city to the serene tranquility of the picturesque landscapes, San Diego offers a family vacation experience that is second to none. So, pack your bags, bring your family along, and get ready to take a journey that you will cherish forever.
Best Fun Things To Do in San Diego With Kids
Encompassing a rich historical heritage, Balboa Park has been an integral part of San Diego since its inception. The park’s history stretches back to 1868 when San Diego’s civic leaders set aside 1,400 acres of land for it. Over time, the park evolved into a beautiful and vibrant cultural space, with the first notable steps taken in 1892, largely due to the contributions of Kate Sessions. Sessions, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” offered to plant 100 trees a year within the park and to donate trees and shrubs around San Diego in exchange for 32 acres of land within the park for her commercial nursery. This marked the beginning of the park’s transformation into the verdant oasis we see today.
Recognizing the need for a cultural hub, the San Diego City Council decided to build a cultural park for the Exposition in 1910. To honor the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who led the first European expedition to the Pacific Ocean by crossing the Isthmus of Panama, and coinciding with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915, the council renamed City Park to Balboa Park. Today, the park stands as a testament to San Diego’s commitment to the preservation of nature, art, and culture.
Things To Do at Balboa Park
Balboa Park boasts an enriching educational and cultural experience for families courtesy of its 17 museums. The array of museums includes the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and the San Diego Museum of Art, each offering interactive exhibits and fascinating collections that will engage the interest of both kids and adults.
For nature lovers, Balboa Park is a paradise with over a dozen exquisitely themed gardens. These include the Alcazar Garden, influenced by the gardens of the same name at the Alhambra in Spain, and the Japanese Friendship Garden, a peaceful enclosure perfect for a tranquil family stroll. The Botanical Building, with its famed lily pond, houses over 2,100 tropical plants and is a must-visit.
Don’t forget to pay a visit to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, home to one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs. Offering free concerts on Sunday afternoons, it provides you with the perfect opportunity to enjoy a family picnic while being serenaded by the mesmerizing sounds of the organ.
The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, built in 1935, houses a collection of cottages from 32 countries. These charming cottages host open houses on Sunday afternoons, offering you a chance to explore the cultures of the world without leaving the confines of the park.
Balboa Park is the hub of seasonal festivities in San Diego. From the December Nights holiday festival, filled with food, entertainment, and fun, to the summertime organ concerts and Halloween Family Day, there’s always a reason to celebrate at Balboa Park.
Make sure to check out the various exhibitions and educational programs on offer. These programs aim to imbue visitors with knowledge about the environment, art, and culture in a way that’s engaging and entertaining for the entire family. By participating, your kids will have a chance to learn new things while having a good time.
San Diego Zoo
The history of the San Diego Zoo comes into the limelight as a story of determination and commitment to animal welfare. The zoo started its humble journey soon after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition when a large number of exotic animals, abandoned post-exhibition, caught the attention of Dr. Harry Wegeforth. A local physician and animal lover, Dr. Wegeforth embarked on a mission to develop a permanent home for these animals, leading to the inception of the San Diego Zoo in 1916.
From the early stages, the San Diego Zoo pioneered the concept of “cageless” exhibits, a major shift in the way animals were traditionally housed in zoos. This was largely due to Dr. Wegeforth’s determination to create moated exhibits that allowed animals to roam in a more natural environment, instead of being confined behind bars. The vision materialized in 1922, when the zoo opened its first lion area without enclosing wires, setting a precedent for zoos worldwide.
Things To Do at San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is a haven for animal lovers. From roaring lions, majestic elephants, and colorful parrots, the zoo offers a chance to observe your favorite animals in naturalistic habitats. For an up-close experience, head to the Polar Bear Plunge where you can see polar bears swimming and playing underwater through a glass viewing panel. The Elephant Odyssey, where you can glimpse into the past and see what animals roamed Southern California 12,000 years ago, is a must-visit.
Take a break from walking and enjoy an immersive 4D theater experience. The zoo’s 4D theater showcases short films that bring you into the world of the animals. Equipped with special effects like wind, mist, and even scents, the 4D theater is sure to captivate the little ones and provide a fun educational break.
Extend your animal adventure with a visit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, an expansive wildlife sanctuary that is home to more than 2,600 animals representing over 300 species. Its vast and varied landscapes ensure a thrilling safari experience that mimics the animals’ natural habitats. Here, you can travel in a tram to see herds of giraffes, crashes of rhinos, and flocks of exotic birds live freely, or even take a guided tour for an even closer encounter.
The San Diego Zoo houses a variety of unique exhibits tailored to mimic the natural habitats of the animals. The Africa Rocks exhibit, highlighted by rocky cliffs and waterfalls, showcases African biodiversity, featuring animals like lemurs, meerkats, and African penguins. The Lost Forest, a tropical rainforest environment, is home to a variety of primates and birds. The Australian Outback houses Aussie icons like kangaroos and koalas. Each exhibit provides an immersive experience, allowing you to understand and appreciate the diversity of wildlife.
Take your time to explore these attractions and experiences when you visit the San Diego Zoo. Not only will you enjoy a day full of fun and adventure, but you’ll also learn about various species, their habitats, and the zoo’s efforts in conservation.
The Whaley House, built by Thomas Whaley in 1857, is a gem of mid-19th-century Greek Revival architecture and should not be missed during your visit to San Diego. Thomas Whaley, of Scots-Irish origin, was born in 1823 in New York City, the seventh of 10 children. After taking over his father’s business, he moved to San Francisco in 1849, at the height of the California gold rush, where he thrived as a businessman. He relocated to San Diego in 1851, only to return to New York two years later to marry Anna Eloise Delaunay. They traveled back to California together and settled in San Diego by the end of 1853.
Construction of the Whaley House began soon after their arrival, with the Whaleys moving into their new home in August 1857. This historic house, the first two-story brick building in San Diego, was built using bricks from Whaley’s brickyard. This not only testifies to Whaley’s enterprising spirit but also adds a unique personal touch to the house’s rich history.
In the present day, the Whaley House proudly represents San Diego’s rich historical heritage. Opening as a museum on May 25, 1960, The Whaley House offers visitors a glimpse into the life of the Whaley family and the broader social and cultural history of 19th-century San Diego. A visit to this historic site is not just about admiring its architectural beauty but also about immersing oneself in the narrative of the city’s evolution. Thus, including the Whaley House in your trip plan is highly recommended to enrich your understanding of San Diego’s heritage.
Things To Do at the Whaley House
While the Whaley House is steeped in history and architecture, it also offers engaging experiences for the entire family.
One of the most thrilling activities at the Whaley House is the After Hours Paranormal Investigation. Often referred to as the most haunted house in America, it draws ghost hunters and enthusiasts from around the world. During the investigation, specially trained docents will guide you through the house, sharing eerie tales and experiences of past inhabitants. Kids 13 and up and adults alike will be captivated by the spine-chilling stories and the chance to possibly experience a paranormal encounter.
Bring history to life for your kids as you explore the house’s exquisite Greek Revival architecture. Let them marvel at the symmetrical layout, grand porticos, and ornate moldings, which exude an air of classical elegance. The house’s authentic 19th-century decor beautifully complements the architecture, transporting visitors back to a bygone era.
The Whaley House is a treasure trove of original antiques and furniture, offering a unique opportunity to educate your children about historical artifacts and their significance. Each room is meticulously curated to feature artifacts from the Whaley family’s collection, including Thomas Whaley’s rosewood desk, historic photographs, and household items of the era. These artifacts not only serve as a testament to the past but also help children envision the lifestyle of a prominent 19th-century family.
Visiting the Whaley House is a rewarding experience both for education and leisure. This historically significant venue offers an engaging way to learn about San Diego’s past while also providing a memorable day out for the family.
New Children’s Museum
The New Children’s Museum, a gem in the heart of San Diego, boasts a rich history that dates back to 1983 when it was first opened as the Children’s Museum of San Diego in La Jolla. After a successful 10-year run, the museum relocated to a downtown warehouse, marking a new identity as the Children’s Museum/Museo de los Niños. A significant transformation occurred in 2008 when the institution reopened as the New Children’s Museum, the “new” indicating a revolutionary approach to children’s learning, igniting children’s creativity by commissioning contemporary artists to create full-scale art installations for children to engage with and explore.
Since its rebranding in 2008, the museum has collaborated with hundreds of artists, providing an immersive and ever-evolving environment that inspires children and families to think, play, and create. The dynamic space of the museum, designed by the award-winning architect Rob Wellington Quigley, is one of the first green museums in California, aligning with the state’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
Things to Do at the New Children’s Museum
The New Children’s Museum offers a variety of innovative exhibits that are both educational and entertaining for young children. These exhibits are designed to stimulate curiosity and encourage children to think creatively. From interactive displays that explain the principles of physics to art installations that encourage abstract thinking, these exhibits offer a unique learning experience.
One of the highlights of the museum is the colorful interactive play areas. These areas are thoughtfully designed to cater to kids of all ages and abilities. They encourage imaginative play, motor skill development, and social interaction. Children can crawl through tunnels, climb on soft structures, and explore sensory-rich environments.
The New Children’s Museum is also home to hands-on art installations. These installations offer children the opportunity to engage with art in a tactile and interactive way. Kids can paint, sculpt, and create their own masterpieces, fostering their creativity and artistic talent.
The museum offers a balance of indoor and outdoor activities, making it an ideal destination regardless of the weather. Indoor activities include exploring the exhibits, participating in art workshops, and attending storytime sessions. Outdoor activities feature playing in the beautiful park adjacent to the museum, complete with climbing structures, swings, and plenty of room to run around.
The outdoor park at the New Children’s Museum is a definite hit among young visitors. This beautifully designed space is full of fun climbing structures, swings, and plenty of space for kids to run around. Children can burn off energy, develop their physical skills, and enjoy the fresh air. The park also provides a perfect setting for picnics and outdoor games, encouraging families to spend quality time together.
Visiting the New Children’s Museum is a day well spent, offering a blend of fun and educational activities that cater to children’s diverse interests and learning styles. With its engaging exhibits, interactive play areas, hands-on art installations, and fantastic outdoor park, the museum provides an enriching experience for kids and families alike.
Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego is an irreplaceable destination with a lively history that serves as the cornerstone of California’s establishment. Known as the “birthplace” of California, San Diego was the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement. The commencement of California’s colonization took place here in 1769 when Father Junipero Serra established the first of a chain of 21 missions. Father Serra’s mission and presidio were strategically built on a hillside, overlooking what we now lovingly refer to as Old Town San Diego.
In the 1820s, a small Mexican community began to take root at the base of the hill, forming a cluster of adobe buildings. By 1835, this thriving community had achieved the status of El Pueblo de San Diego. A major turning point came in 1846 when a U.S. Navy lieutenant and a Marine lieutenant raised the American flag in the Old Town San Diego Plaza, signaling a new chapter in its history.
Today, Old Town San Diego pays tribute to these formative years, housing numerous historic buildings from the period of 1820 to 1870. It serves as a living history site, enabling visitors to step back in time and walk the same streets as the city’s early inhabitants. Including Old Town San Diego in your trip plan is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the rich cultural heritage that is the cornerstone of present-day California. Soak in the historic charm, savor traditional Mexican cuisine, and explore the beautiful historic buildings that narrate the evolution of this spectacular city.
Things To Do in Old Town San Diego
Start your visit at the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center, an excellent place to get oriented with the layout and history of Old Town San Diego. The center features exhibits that take you through the town’s evolution, from its initial years as a Spanish mission and Mexican pueblo to its growth under American rule. Children will enjoy the model of Old Town San Diego as it appeared in 1872, complete with miniature buildings and streets.
A visit to Old Town San Diego would not be complete without watching a live performance at the Old Town Theatre. This historic venue hosts a variety of shows throughout the year, including musicals, dramas, and comedies. The theater’s intimate setting and professional productions provide an unforgettable experience for families, allowing children to appreciate the magic of live performances.
No trip to Old Town San Diego would be complete without a visit to La Dulceria, a traditional Mexican candy store. This sweet spot is bound to tantalize your taste buds with its array of sugary treats, such as candied fruits, tamarind candies, and chili sweets. It’s a delightful experience for children and adults alike, offering an authentic taste of Mexican confectionery.
Finally, make your way to the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This park is a preserved area showcasing a collection of historic buildings and sites from the 19th century. Kids can run around the manicured lawns, explore the historic structures, and even participate in interactive exhibits at the museums. The park also hosts living history demonstrations, allowing children to learn more about life in the Old West.
Birch Aquarium At Scripps
A visit to San Diego would not be complete without exploring the wonders of the marine world at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Established in 1903, the aquarium carries a rich and fascinating history. It was initially formed after the creation of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego to conduct marine research in the Pacific Ocean. Its name was later changed to Scripps Institution of Oceanography to honor supporters Ellen Browning Scripps and E.W. Scripps, stalwarts from the newspaper industry. The founders envisioned a public platform to share their scientific discoveries, leading to the construction of a small aquarium and a museum.
Over the years, Birch Aquarium has evolved into a significant public outreach center for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. It has gained accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a testament to its commitment to conservation and education.
Today, Birch Aquarium welcomes more than 439,000 visitors annually, including over 40,000 schoolchildren. It houses an impressive collection of over 3,000 animals, representing 380 species, offering an engaging and interactive educational experience. A trip to Birch Aquarium not only provides an exciting adventure into marine life but also serves as a captivating journey through its century-long history. It’s a must-include destination in your San Diego itinerary for a unique, enriching, and fun-filled family experience.
Things To Do at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Step into the magical underwater world at the Hall of Fishes, home to more than 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico and beyond. Experience the awe-inspiring beauty of coral reefs, enigmatic kelp forests, and even a simulated tide pool. The exhibit provides an immersive experience that’s both educational and breathtakingly beautiful.
At the Tide Pool Plaza, visitors can touch and feel the texture of starfish and sea cucumbers, witness the fascinating behaviors of hermit crabs, and gaze at the slow-moving sea anemone. This interactive experience brings the captivating wonders of the shoreline right to your fingertips. Regularly scheduled presentations by the aquarium’s knowledgeable volunteers provide a deeper insight into the lives of these intriguing marine creatures.
One of Birch Aquarium’s highlights is Shark Shores, which features a 13,000-gallon tank providing a close-up look at local leopard sharks and other elasmobranchs. This exhibit not only offers a unique view of these fascinating creatures but also highlights the ongoing shark research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It’s an unforgettable, awe-inspiring experience that instills a greater understanding and respect for these often misunderstood marine animals.
A visit to Birch Aquarium is a perfect blend of fun, learning, and immersion into the enchanting world of marine life. It’s a destination that promises a day full of discoveries and delightful experiences for the entire family. Visitors are advised to check the daily schedule for feeding times, special talks, and demonstrations to make the most of their visit.
Seaport Village, a lovely waterfront shopping and dining complex in San Diego, is steeped in intriguing history. Built on a landfill over Punta de los Muertos (Spanish for “Point of the Dead”), this location was the final resting place for those who died of scurvy during the Spanish expedition of 1782. In later years, the area served as a bustling railroad yard, facilitating the transit of goods and materials through the region. Developed by Morris Taubman, Seaport Village broke ground in 1978 and officially opened in 1980. Today, it is owned by the Port of San Diego and managed by Protea Management Properties.
A visit to Seaport Village is a journey into a charming blend of past and present. Its unique location and history imbue it with a distinctive character that complements the eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. As you stroll through the winding paths, take a moment to appreciate the history that paved the way for this vibrant seaside hub. Whether you are a history enthusiast, a shopping aficionado, or a food lover, Seaport Village offers something for everyone. Including it in your itinerary is a must, as it promises a delightful opportunity to shop, dine, and immerse yourself in the rich cultural fabric of San Diego.
Things To Do at Seaport Village
Seaport Village is a paradise for families and kids looking for a day filled with fun, exploration, and delectable dining experiences. With over 50 unique shops and boutiques, it’s a shopping haven offering an eclectic range of goods and gifts. From quirky stores selling novelty items to specialty boutiques with handcrafted treasures, there’s a little something for everyone. Kids will be delighted to discover unique toys and games, while adults can find distinctive jewelry, art, and fashion items.
Children can enjoy the historic carousel at the center of the village, a hand-carved masterpiece that has been spinning joy since 1895. Each one of the 54 animals is a unique creation, making for an exciting ride that transports kids to a time of simple old-fashioned fun.
For those seeking interactive entertainment, Seaport Village hosts a range of outdoor performances throughout the year. From jugglers to musicians and magicians, these family-friendly shows promise laughter, amazement, and memorable moments.
A visit to Seaport Village would not be complete without a dining experience at the waterfront restaurant Shorebird. Overlooking the stunning San Diego Bay, Shorebird offers a delightful menu that caters to all palates. Kids can enjoy their favorite dishes while parents relish the fresh seafood and California-style cuisine. The restaurant also provides a unique opportunity to spot passing ships and enjoy stunning sunset views, making it a perfect end to a bustling day at Seaport Village.
Seaport Village is indeed one of the most popular things to do in San Diego. Its blend of shopping, entertainment, and dining options, set against the backdrop of scenic waterfront views, offers a family-friendly destination that is both engaging and relaxing.
A coastal gem 30 minutes north of San Diego, La Jolla boasts a rich history that adds depth to its present-day charm and allure. The name “La Jolla” originates from the Spanish term “la joya,” meaning “the jewel” — a fitting moniker for this beautiful seaside locale.
During the Mexican period of San Diego’s history, La Jolla was mapped out as pueblo land, encompassing about 60 lots. With California’s statehood in 1850, the La Jolla area was incorporated into the City of San Diego. The initial development of this land began when Charles Dean acquired several pueblo lots in 1870 and subdivided them, resulting in what came to be known as La Jolla Park. However, Dean’s plans did not come to fruition, and he departed from San Diego in 1881.
La Jolla’s transformation into the vibrant community it is today began in earnest during the 1880s real estate boom, led by speculators Frank T. Botsford and George W. Heald. This period of development paved the way for La Jolla’s burgeoning reputation as a sought-after resort area.
The construction of the San Diego, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla Railway in the 1890s further bolstered La Jolla’s status. To attract visitors, the railway built enticing facilities such as a bathhouse and a dance pavilion. The visitors were housed in quaint cottages and bungalows located above La Jolla Cove, with a temporary tent city being erected every summer to cater to the influx of tourists. Two of these cottages built in 1894, the “Red Roost” and the “Red Rest,” also known as the “Neptune and Cove Tea Room,” still stand today. They are the oldest buildings in La Jolla situated on their original site. Although the cottages have been vacant since the 1980s and the Red Rest suffered significant fire damage in November 2020, they are poignant reminders of La Jolla’s fascinating past.
Things To Do in La Jolla
The family-friendly La Jolla Shores beach is the perfect place to spend a day frolicking in the surf, building sandcastles or picnicking by the sea. The beach offers a playground for children and gentle waves for first-time surfers. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard for a thrilling water adventure or simply enjoy lounging under the sun.
Regarded as one of San Diego’s most beautiful settings, La Jolla Cove beach is a quaint crescent-shaped beach surrounded by cliffs. The crystal-clear waters create an ideal environment for snorkeling and exploring abundant marine life. The real highlight here is the sea lion colony. Your children will be thrilled to watch these playful creatures basking in the sun, lazily swimming or frolicking about.
The Children’s Pool, a small beach partially protected by a seawall, has become a favorite spot for the harbor seals of La Jolla. It’s a popular place for families to get an up-close view of these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. Remember to respect the seals and maintain a safe distance while observing.
Finally, immerse yourself in nature at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, home to America’s rarest pine tree. The park offers family-friendly hiking trails with stunning ocean views. Kids will love the hands-on exhibits at the Visitor Center. Don’t miss the Guy Fleming Trail, an easy loop hike that offers panoramic views of the ocean and the chance to see wildlife.
Each of these sites offers a unique way to explore and enjoy the natural beauty and wildlife of La Jolla. Your family trip to San Diego wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the outdoor adventures that La Jolla offers.
Is San Diego worth visiting with kids?
Absolutely! San Diego offers an array of family-friendly attractions, from engaging museums and parks to beautiful beaches and interactive aquariums. Its blend of educational and recreational activities makes it an ideal destination for a fun and enriching vacation with kids.
What part of San Diego is good for families?
The La Jolla neighborhood is excellent for families due to its picturesque beaches, engaging attractions like the Birch Aquarium, and family-friendly dining options. It’s an exhilarating yet soothing destination that provides the perfect blend of thrilling experiences and peaceful moments for every family member.
What is the best time of year to visit San Diego with kids?
San Diego is a year-round destination, but the best time for families to visit is during the Spring (March to May) and Fall (September to November). These periods offer pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and lower hotel rates. Springtime sees the city in full bloom and the Fall brings beautiful foliage, making outdoor activities even more enjoyable. Additionally, many attractions offer off-peak rates and special activities during these times, providing both value and entertainment for families with kids.