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San Diego is a coastal city known for sunny skies, sprawling beaches, world-class museums and a variety of ocean activities. Often referred to as “America’s Finest City,” San Diego is an ideal destination for families, as it is home to well-known, kid-friendly attractions such as the San Diego Zoo and Legoland.
Here are some fun things to do in San Diego that are sure to make a family vacation memorable.
This 1,200-acre destination is where locals and visitors go to experience art, nature and attractions. Balboa Park is home to a plethora of museums that showcase everything from space and contemporary art to automotives and natural history. You’ll find music and dance performances here, as well as an array of gardens and trails, including the Japanese Friendship Garden. Families praised the beautiful grounds and interesting museums. Kids will also love getting their wiggles out at one of the many playgrounds, and there are various places to grab a bite when the kids need a snack. Park in one of the parking lots and catch the free tram to get around the grounds.
(Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)
No visit to San Diego with kids is complete without a trip to the famous San Diego Zoo, one of the country’s best zoos. This sprawling 100-acre park features more than 12,000 rare and endangered animals from all around the world. Past visitors warn that the park is hilly. To make it easy to explore this expansive park, consider taking the 35-minute guided bus tour or utilize the hop-on, hop-off bus that stops at several animal exhibits.
Young visitors will have a blast seeing a wide variety of animals in areas such as the Lost Forest, Africa Rocks and Elephant Odyssey. They can also enjoy interactive shows, animal encounters and the iconic Skyfari Aerial Tram. The all-new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp blends learning about wildlife conservation with physical activity in innovative play areas.
Another option is to visit the more expansive San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which boasts wide open spaces for the animals to roam, open-air safari truck tours and zip lining.
Located in the picturesque coastal town of La Jolla, Birch Aquarium (part of the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography) offers a fascinating underwater adventure for young marine enthusiasts. With stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, this educational facility – a U.S. News pick for one of the top U.S. aquariums – features interactive exhibits showcasing marine life in the local waters and beyond.
Kids can get up close to everything from rainbow-colored fish and seahorses to penguins and sharks while learning about the importance of ocean conservation. Get your hands wet in the touch tank or take a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about your favorite ocean creatures. A highlight for previous visitors were the little blue penguins – the world’s smallest penguins.
Step back in time at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, located on the ancestral land of San Diego’s First People, the Kumeyaay. This vibrant hub of Mexican and early American culture is free to visit and filled with charming adobe buildings, restaurants and shops selling items made by local artisans. Families can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and flavors of the past in Old Town San Diego by taking a walking tour, listening to live Mariachi bands and enjoying authentic Mexican cuisine. Kids will especially enjoy the reenactments and living history demonstrations that bring the past to life. The working blacksmith shop was of particular interest to those who have visited recently.
Perched on the southernmost tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, Cabrillo National Monument offers breathtaking views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The monument commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the U.S. One of the biggest draws to the area is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is open to the public. Families can also explore the visitor center, hike scenic trails, and learn about the area’s natural and cultural history. Kids will love the tide pools, where they can discover fascinating marine life. Keep your eyes peeled for whales, too. Note that entrance passes are required.
Ignite your child’s curiosity and love for science at the Fleet Science Center. Located in Balboa Park, this interactive museum impresses visitors with a wide range of hands-on exhibits and engaging displays that explore various scientific concepts. While discovering the wonders of science, kids will have a blast exploring the depths of space in the planetarium, experimenting with electricity and water, learning about video game design, or taking a virtual reality ride to the moon.
Known for its breathtaking natural beauty, La Jolla Cove is a must-visit destination for families. This picturesque stretch of shoreline – one of San Diego’s best beaches – offers crystal-clear waters, tide pools, and a chance to spot seals and sea lions up close. The cove is protected by a sea wall, so kids can splash in the gentle waves, build sandcastles or simply enjoy a relaxing day by the sea. Snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking opportunities are also available for those looking to explore the cove from in or on the water. Make time to stop at The Cave Store nearby; you can walk through a sandstone tunnel (with 145 steps) to get to Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave.
The New Children’s Museum, designed to inspire imagination and creativity, serves as a haven for young artists and innovators. Located in downtown San Diego, this vibrant museum offers a wide range of interactive exhibits and art installations that encourage hands-on exploration and offer art-making activities. Families praise this museum for keeping their kids active and occupied. Youngsters can visit the Rain House for rainy day activities, swing on the Whammock! sculpture, test their balance at Wobbleland or watch the Cash Machine suck up a dollar bill. From art studios to imaginative play areas, kids can unleash their creativity in meaningful ways.
(Courtesy of USS Midway Museum)
Step aboard the USS Midway – the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century, which has been turned into a museum – and embark on an unforgettable journey through naval history. This floating museum, spanning 10 acres, allows families to explore more than 60 exhibits, including restored aircraft, interactive displays and the stories of the people who served aboard the ship.
Kids can even sit in the cockpit of a fighter jet, experience a state-of-the-art flight simulator, visit the engine room and explore the flight deck. Many past guests recommend doing the self-guided audio tour. To keep younger ones engaged, take advantage of the Junior Pilot Program audio tour and Little Skippers downloadable activity sheets.
Discover the wonders of the natural world at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which guests praise for being educational and interactive. Located in Balboa Park, on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay people, this museum features fascinating exhibits that highlight the region’s diverse ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Kids can learn about dinosaurs and baleen whales, watch the Foucault Pendulum swing, explore the unique environments of Southern California, and admire sparkling gems and minerals. The museum also offers educational programs, whale watching tours and guided nature hikes.
If you happen to visit San Diego in July, don’t miss the world-famous San Diego Comic-Con. This annual pop culture extravaganza attracts comic book enthusiasts, movie buffs, animation fans and sci-fi fanatics from around the globe. Kids can immerse themselves in the colorful world of comics, movies and television shows by meeting their favorite superheroes, attending panels and workshops, strolling the expansive exhibit hall, and watching film screenings. Admission is free for up to two children ages 12 and younger with a paying adult.
For adventurous families seeking a unique outdoor experience, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California’s largest state park) is a desert paradise with a variety of wilderness areas waiting to be explored. Located about 75 miles from downtown San Diego, this vast park offers endless opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping and stargazing. Kids can marvel at towering cacti, Indigenous grinding holes and the vibrant display of wildflowers in spring. Many travelers were impressed with the beauty of the desert landscape.
Take a trip across the stunning Coronado Bridge to the picturesque Coronado Island and enjoy a day at the famous Coronado Beach. The wide beach is just under 2 miles long. Activities here include swimming (with year-round lifeguards), surfing, volleyball and fishing off the pier. Families can also have a picnic, explore tide pools, and stay until dark to roast marshmallows over a fire ring.
You’ll find amenities here like public restrooms, showers and a playground. There are a number of restaurants on nearby Orange Avenue, and at the south end of the beach sits the historic Hotel del Coronado. This grand Victorian-style hotel, which has hosted celebrities and dignitaries for over a century, features several dining options, including the casual Beach & Taco Shack.
(Courtesy of Legoland California Resort)
Located in the nearby city of Carlsbad, Legoland California Resort is a dream come true for Lego enthusiasts of all ages. This theme park offers a multitude of attractions, including thrilling rides, a factory tour and even a water park for those hot summer days. Kids can meet their favorite Lego characters and see a dazzling show, or dig for dinosaurs and embark on a deep sea adventure.
Miniland USA is a favorite attraction of visitors, with a new Lego replica of San Diego. For kids with a love of building, there are opportunities to construct everything from boats to rockets out of Legos. Families might also enjoy visiting Sea Life Aquarium next door.
Too tired to drive home after a long day at the park? Spend the night in a Lego-themed room at the Legoland Hotel or Legoland Castle Hotel.
With its lively boardwalk, amusement park rides and nearly 2 miles of golden sandy beaches, Mission Beach is a family-friendly destination that promises endless fun in the sun. Kids can enjoy thrilling rides at Belmont Park, rent bikes or rollerblades, and indulge in delicious treats from the numerous beachside cafes and eateries. Water sports such as surfing, paddleboarding and boogie boarding are also popular activities for families to enjoy together. Amenities include lifeguards, picnic tables, playgrounds and showers. Families praise the rides, arcade games and food in Mission Beach.
(Courtesy of Belmont Park)
Located in Mission Beach, Belmont Park is a classic beachfront amusement park that offers a nostalgic experience. Children can ride a thrilling wooden roller coaster and play carnival games. Other attractions range from bumper cars to drop rides to a carousel. The park also features an arcade, mini-golf and a zip line, ensuring there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
(Courtesy of Maritime Museum of San Diego)
For little sailors and history buffs, a visit to the Maritime Museum of San Diego is a must. Located on the downtown waterfront, this museum offers a collection of historic ships – including steam-powered ships, sailing ships and a submarine – that provide a glimpse into San Diego’s maritime heritage. Kids can explore the decks of the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship, and even participate in activities such as sail raising and cannon drills at the museum. Visitors highly recommend this attraction, stating that it’s like traveling back in time.
(Courtesy of Seaport Village)
Situated on the waterfront near downtown San Diego, Seaport Village is a shopping and dining district that offers a delightful experience for families. Stroll along the picturesque boardwalk and browse several dozen unique shops before grabbing dinner at one of the eateries or waterfront fine dining restaurants. Kids will love the chance to indulge in sweet treats, ride a historic carousel or have a caricature artist draw their picture.
(Courtesy of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment)
SeaWorld San Diego is an iconic marine park that offers a thrilling combination of animal exhibits, interactive activities and exhilarating rides. Kids can marvel at the sight of dolphins and whales, interact with playful sea lions, and learn about marine conservation. For a behind-the-scenes perspective, consider booking a Rescue Tour to learn about the park’s marine rescue programs and animal care hospital.
Thrill seekers will love SeaWorld San Diego’s rides and roller coasters, including the new Arctic Rescue ride – the longest and fastest straddle coaster on the West Coast, with speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. The new Rescue Jr. play area has splash pads, climbing structures, rides and real-life rescue stories, allowing kids to engage with conservation efforts in a fun and interactive environment.
Located near the bustling downtown area, Waterfront Park is a 12-acre, beautifully landscaped oasis. It is a great place for families to relax and enjoy stunning views of the San Diego Bay, with lots of free things to do. The park features grassy areas for picnicking, interactive fountains for splashing around, a play area with a giant climbing structure, and themed garden areas. Waterfront Park is the perfect spot to unwind and let the kids burn off some energy outside.
(Courtesy of Historic Tours of America)
Embark on a sightseeing adventure on the orange and green Old Town Trolley of San Diego, which offers hop-on, hop-off tours throughout the city. With 12 stops along the 25-mile guided tour, families can explore the city’s top attractions at their own pace. Children will enjoy riding on the trolley, listening to the entertaining and informative commentary, and hopping off at various stops to explore places of interest, such as the zoo, the Gaslamp Quarter and the Maritime Museum. Previous visitors can’t say enough great things about the knowledgeable guides.
(Courtesy of Sesame Place San Diego)
The toddler-friendly Sesame Place San Diego is home to everything from rides and waterslides to shows and parades. In the Sesame Street Neighborhood, you’ll find hands-on activities, meet-and-greets with favorite “Sesame Street” characters, and storytelling by Big Bird. The new “Dine with Elmo & Friends” is an interactive adventure that includes a buffet-style meal and entertainment. Sesame Place is an accredited Certified Autism Center, with team members trained in sensory awareness, program development and more.
Sharael Kolberg is a U.S. News & World Report contributor with a wealth of knowledge when it comes to child-friendly activities in San Diego. As a mom and a native Californian who has taken her daughter on various outings in San Diego, Kolberg’s favorite places to visit include the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and La Jolla Cove. She used her personal experience and research skills to curate this list of fun things to do in San Diego with kids.