My idea of the perfect family vacation day is one that tires my kids out for an easy bedtime, lets me spend time in nature, and doesn’t cripple our savings account. This is probably why San Diego with its miles of beaches and opportunities for year-round outdoor fun is one of my favorite destinations. During early fall and summer you can’t tear me away from the beaches. The ocean is the warmest during these month and it really is the closest thing to tropical paradise that California has.
However, even sunny Southern California has the occasional cooler day that isn’t perfect for beaching. Rather than let a little wind or chilly weather (and by chilly I mean daytime temps in the low 60’s) rain on your vacation parade, take it as a sign from nature that it’s time to check out some of the many other fun things to do in San Diego with kids.
Fun Things to do in San Diego With Kids
Bike Around Mission Bay: In the summer months the pedestrian path that goes along the beach from Mission Bay to Pacific Beach is packed with college students, joggers, rollerbladers, (yes, apparently people still rollerblade), and it can feel like a conveyor belt of impeccably toned physiques. During the cooler weather months you certainly won’t have the path to yourself but it is considerably less crowded. Rent bikes/bike trailers/kid bike seats at Ray’s Rentals and they will give you everything you need, including a map that shows the different bike routes. Start by cruising the pathway between Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, then follow the path along Mission Bay for as long as your legs or your kids will let you. You can make a loop by following the path around the bay, past Sea World and back to the bike shop. Along the way you’ll pass bathrooms, playgrounds, and sandy stretches that make it a very family friendly bike ride. It took us about two hours with a few short stops along the way.
Insider Tip: You can have a basket put on the front of your bike if you want to bring a beach towel or snacks.
The San Diego Zoo: The thick vegetation and hilly terrain set it apart from your typical urban zoo making it a fun day for even the most reluctant zoo goer. Don’t miss riding on the Skyfari Areial Tram, it’s included in the price of admission and you’ll get a birds eye view of the zoo and Balboa Park. Plan on spending the entire day here if you want to see it all, or stay for a few hours and then explore other parts of Balboa Park.
A day at the zoo is a classic fun thing to do with kids when visiting San Diego. But it can also be exhausting for parents. If possible bring lunch or at least snacks, there are plenty of picnic tables to eat at and it will save you the hassle of waiting in line for overpriced food. The playground near the petting zoo is a fun spot to let children climb around in the afternoon when you’re ready to unwind a little after a day of chasing them around.
Insider Tip: If you’re planning to do multiple museums in Balboa Park and the zoo consider buying the “multi- day explorer ticket +zoo pass” which includes admission to all museums in Balboa Park and a day at the zoo. This can save you some $ for that margarita you’ll be wanting at the end of the day. ( Don’t worry you don’t have to do all the museums in Balboa Park and the zoo in one day, the pass is good for a week!)
Balboa Park: This massive urban park has something for everyone. Trails, gardens, and playgrounds for those looking for an active day outdoors and the sixteen museums provide a place of refuge on a rare rainy San Diego day. If you’re planning on spending a day at Balboa Park check the website to see what special events are happening, such as free concerts, and consider buying the explorer pass if you want to visit multiple museums. With so many things to do and see it can be a little daunting, thankfully there are valuable resources to help plan your day.
For toddlers the Alcazar Garden and the Japanese Friendship Garden are fairly contained yet picturesque spots. Young school aged children might enjoy scampering around Palm Canyon which feels like a hidden tropical oasis. Older kids and adults will want to check out the Museum of Man. If you’re interested in climbing the tower at the Museum of Man you will need to buy your tickets ahead of time and be over the age of 5.
Insider Tip: The park website has suggested itineraries and the folks at the visitor center will give you a free map and some helpful suggestions.
Kayaking at La Jolla Shores: While summer is great for lounging on the beach, fall is an ideal time of year for searching for leopard sharks in the waters off of La Jolla Shores. Peak season for leopard sharks is when the ocean is the warmest, summer through early fall but it is possible to spot them year-round. The advantage of kayaking on an autumn morning is that you’re less likely to have the morning overcast of summer or the winds that frequently arise by midday.
Experienced kayakers or those on a budget can rent a kayak from La Jolla Kayak or one of the other vendors in the area and set out on their own. Novice kayakers or those wanting to explore the sea caves (it’s illegal for anyone not on a tour to enter the caves) will want to book a guided tour. Note: The rental shops require that kids must be at least 5 years old to go kayaking. Contact La Jolla Kayak to rent a kayak/book a tour.
Insider Tip: Reserve your kayak beforehand to ensure availability. Early weekday mornings are the best because you’ll encounter fewer crowds and it will be easier to find parking. At La Jolla Shores the early bird gets the calmer ocean conditions and the parking spot!
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Located in Escondido, and often referred to as “The Wild Animal Park” the Safari Park is run by the same organization that operates the San Diego Zoo. Many of the animals are larger species that you might encounter on an African safari. During the summer months it can feel like a little too much like the savannah, which is why this is something to do in San Diego when the weather is just a little too cold for a beach day.
Insider tip: the tram is one of the highlights of a day at the Wild Animal Park but the lines can be brutal. Either get to the park early in the day and do the tram first or save it until just before closing when the crowds have thinned.
Torrey Pines State Reserve: Sweat off some of the burritos you’ve been enjoying by hiking the bluff top trails of Torrey Pines State Reserve. The ocean views are breathtakingly beautiful and the delicate flowers on the cacti during late winter and spring add the perfect pop of color. If you want a good leg workout park at the lower lot adjacent to the beach and walk up the hill to the start of the trails. If you’re hiking with kids it’s best to drive up the hill and park at the lot at the top. Note: Parking is $15. If you want to avoid paying for parking you can try to look for a spot along Highway 101. Good luck!
Most of the trails are short loops which lets you easily decide how much or how little of the park you want to explore. Be warned that sometimes the road to the upper parking area is closed to cars and you’ll have to park in the lower lot… and walk up the hill. Also, if it has been raining they will close the trails to prevent erosion so check the website for trail closure info.
Insider Tip: Check the tides before going. At low tide it’s possible to walk down the stairs from the Beach Trail to a beautiful beach. (Think long sandy stretch backed by towering cliffs) If you parked in the lower lot you can walk along the beach back to your car.
What to Bring
You don’t need much to have a good time in “America’s Finest City”. Listed below are my essential items for most non-beach San Diego adventures.
- Water bottle
- Small backpack
- Lightweight jacket
- Comfy sneakers
Bottom Line: You can’t beat a family beach day but there’s also plenty of other fun things to do in San Diego with kids. Looking to get away from the crowds? Check out my article on my favorite walks and beaches in Encinitas, a lively beach community thirty minutes north of San Diego.