San Diego With Kids: What To Do Beyond the Zoo

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A father and son try not to wake the sea lions on a La Jolla beach.

By Lynn Perkins

Thanks to SeaWorld and a renowned Zoo, San Diego is a rather obvious kid-friendly destination. But this west coast city offers a lot more than pandas and Shamu’s latest tricks, and lesser known attractions can make for a mellow family vacation. Here are my favorite things to do in San Diego with my preschool-age twins.

Get Outdoors

San Diego has a perfect climate for outdoor family time nearly all year long. We also have miles of beaches and parks. Our favorite beach is Windansea Beach in La Jolla. It’s one of the most popular beaches, which is kind of the point. Its sleepy, private quality makes it beautiful and manageable with small children.

The middle section of the cove is the best sand castle terrain. We also spend time at the rocky edges of the cove, where the kids like to climb while we enjoy the scenic view (with one eye on the boys, of course). We’ve had many dolphin sightings from there.

Tip: Be prepared to have no public restrooms.

For waterfront without the beach, we love Liberty Station in Point Loma. It used to be a Navy Training Center, and is now a family destination with restaurants, shops and tons of open, grassy space that is perfect for flying kites. It’s also a great spot for picnicking or just walking with a stroller.

Make the Most of Rainy Days

Rainy days don’t happen often in San Diego, but when they do, our favorite indoor space is the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, an awesome hands-on science museum in Balboa Park. It has something for kids of all ages. Kid City is perfect for the under-5 set. The planetarium can be too dark for them. Older kids love it, along with the main science center and IMAX theater.

Tinkering at the Science Center

Local parents also love the children’s area at the Coronado Public Library.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer they offer activities like arts & crafts, magic shows, cooking classes, and story time.

Let the Kids Stay Up Late

Our favorite spots for enjoying an evening picnic include the cove at Solana Beach, Del Mar’s Powerhouse Park or the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. During the summer, these three parks often hold free family friendly concerts

Tip: We always pack a warm blanket and sweaters along with dinner and snacks in case the fog rolls in, which is often does.

We also enjoy beach bonfires or making s’mores over barbeque coals at one of the waterfront areas along Mission Bay. SeaWorld puts on a fireworks show almost every night throughout the summer, and it can be seen from almost any spot here.

Don’t Forget to Eat

Station Tavern & Burgers in South Park has mastered the family dining experience.  Adults enjoy comfort food and a constantly changing selection of local and craft beers in an outdoor dining area while their kids play in an adjacent play area. It’s like a big backyard with picnic tables and great food. Order a side of tater tots—these are not the tater tots you remember from the school cafeteria!

[Thinking of Going? Check the FG! Hotel Guide for family friendly San Diego hotels.]

Have A Date Night

Whether you want a downtown vibe or something beachy and casual, there are so many great restaurants in San Diego, it’s a great place for a vacation date night. Burlap in Carmel Valley puts a hip Asian twist on surf and turf and is one of our favorite spots

Tip: Leave the comfy mom shoes in your suitcase; the bar is a bit of a scene.

After dinner, we love the very grown-up movie experience at Cinepolis in Del Mar. The movies are your usual multiplex option, but I have to warn you: Once you settle into the theater’s super comfy, reclining, leather seats with a glass of wine from the drink service you might have a hard time staying awake for the film!

[Take a look at our advice on hiring vacation babysitters and don’t forget our discount with UrbanSitter.com]

Get Out of Town

If you have more than a weekend, take some time to venture out of the city via the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. San Juan Capistrano, a small beach town 90 minutes from San Diego, has some of the most panoramic coastline views in California. In March, a festival and parade celebrate the return of the town’s famous swallows.

Our kids love the train, but when we really want to make their day we stop at ZooMars Petting Zoo across the tracks from the San Juan Capistrano train station. Kids can ride a pony, pet guinea pigs, and feed the rabbits. When you’re done for the day, it’s an easy (perhaps sleepy) ride back to town.

Sunset on Windansea Beach

Lynn Perkins is a San Diego native, mom of 4-year-old twin boys, and a co-founder of UrbanSitter.com, an online babysitting service

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15 Responses

  1. Everytime I read your posts about San Diego I want to jump on a plane and go there now!
    Thank you for linking up to Travel Tuesday. This is a fantastic article!

    Kerrie
    http://familyfoodtravel.blogspot.ca

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  2. San Diego is a fantastic place to go for anyone of any age! You can’t go wrong in La Jolla either :)

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  3. North County San Diego is my favorite. Moonlight beach, encinitas and del mar are huge favorites that we visit as much as we can!

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  4. I was very interested in this article. Our children are grown but I am interested in the San Diego area. Sometimes house-sits come up there and I have struggled trying to get an idea of what the area is like. I like the idea of a train ride to a small town on the coast, that would be achievable when house sitting.

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  5. Love that date night tip!
    Sounds like the perfect place for a family vacation.

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  6. I love San Diego – what great suggestions beyond the zoo and LEGO Land!

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  7. We loved our trip to San Diego. We spent one whole day at the zoo and another whole day visiting the rest of Balboa Park and still didn’t see it all. We also loved the beach at Coronado. San Diego is one of those places we visit where I think, “I could live here.”

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  8. Great suggestions for San Diego! We visited for 6 nights a couple of years ago and didn’t have nearly enough time to do everything that we wanted to – can’t wait to go back!

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  9. I love San Diego, it was by far my favourite place on that part of the coast. I’d love to go back, this time , with the kids, they’d love it.

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  10. I love this! We’ve found ourselves in San Diego a few times in the past couple years, and just love it! From the tourist attractions to the smaller finds, SD has so much to offer. We were just in La Jolla this past August for a wedding, and my 3-year-old just loved watching seals on the beach, and the “Pirate Caves”!

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  11. We love going to to the New Children’s Museum and the Safari Park and SD Zoo.

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  12. Wow I never knew about Windansea Beach

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  13. I love the Pacific Surfliner train route. Every stop is something special.

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  14. Thanks for the great info!

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