21 unmissable things to do in San Diego with kids

Last updated on October 20, 2023

Embarcadero aerial view

San Diego has to be one of the USA’s best family destinations. From the world-famous San Diego Zoo to the beaches to Legoland, there’s enough to keep kids entertained for weeks. Add to that sunny skies and a laidback vibe and you have a perfect, and fairly easy, family trip.

Here’s our guide to the best things to do in San Diego with kids. You could also combine it with a trip further north to Disneyland (1.5 hours away) and Los Angeles. If so, don’t miss our guide to the best things to do in Los Angeles with kids.

And if you need somewhere to stay, see our guide to the most stylish kid-friendly San Diego hotels.

The San Diego: Go City Explorer Pass

If you’re planning a family trip to San Diego, a good way to save money is with the San Diego Go City Pass, which saves you up to 55% on top San Diego kids attractions. There are two options to choose from: the All-Inclusive or Explorer pass.

The Go City All Inclusive Pass gives you access to over 50 San Diego-area activities, attractions, and tours over 1-7 days (choose a duration to suit you). It starts at $100 for one day. Buy yours now.

Or the Go City Explorer Pass allows you access to 2-7 attractions from the list of over 50. It includes San Diego kids activities like the San Diego Zoo, Birch Aquarium, Natural History Museum and more. The Explorer pass starts at $70 for two attractions. Buy yours now.

Find the best deals on car hire

We recommend Discover Cars for booking your rental car. They search all the top companies and always tend to find the best deals. We use them every time.

Things to do in San Diego with kids

San Diego Zoo

Ever since I first watched Rainbow Brite goes to San Diego Zoo (any other 80s kids out there?!), I dreamed of visiting the 100-acre zoo in real life. That dream came true age 11 and it lived up to all my expectations. It’s still as good today, rated as one of the world’s top zoos and home to around 4,000 animals. It’s top of the list for fun things to do in San Diego with kids.

The SkyFari Aerial Tram is a fun way to get around the 100-acre zoo (and part of the reason I was so keen to go there as a child!). And nowadays they also have the Fisher-Price Discovery Playground where children can interact with farmyard animals. Buy an advance skip-the-line ticket here, or a combined 2-day ticket for the safari park too.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

As well as the San Diego Zoo, there’s also the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Even bigger than the former, this one is spread over 1,800 acres and is one of the best kids activities in San Diego.

There are all sorts of safari adventures to choose from in the park, ranging from the free African tram safari to paid-for add-ons, including a helium balloon safari and caravan safari where you can interact with animals, including giraffes. There’s even a zipline safari where you fly over the top of the park (open to ages 8 and up).

It’s a must-do San Diego attraction for kids. Buy a combined skip-the-line 2-day ticket for the safari park and zoo.

LEGOLAND California and Water Park

LEGOLAND California has all the hallmarks of LEGOLANDS worldwide, including the driving schools where kids get to drive mini cars around and get their special LEGOLAND driving license. It’s one of my own favourite childhood memories and has become a rite of passage for kid around the world.

Other fun activities include vehicle races, programming robots, and a game where you have to join together as a team to put out a fire and stop some thiefs!

There’s also a brilliant LEGOLAND Water Park onsite (open in the summer only), which is a great for all ages, plus the Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium. It’s a great day out, exploring three of the best kids attractions in San Diego. Buy a combined 2-day ticket for all three here.

New Children’s Museum

The New Chidren’s Museum in the Gaslamp Quarter is a wonderland for kids with plenty of hands-on arty activities. Its motto is “Think, Play, Create” and exactly what kids will do. Parts of the museum are aimed at   specific ages, but others appeal to all, from toddlers up to teenagers.

Another great kids’ museum is the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido close to the safari park. It’s focused on conservation and all sorts of fun activities including worm farms and chicken coops.

Old Town San Diego

San Diego Itinerary - Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego is a sort of living museum, where you can explore the origins of California while enjoying some of the city’s best Mexican food. It’s all a bit kitsch, but a good place to get to know the area’s history, plus the Mexican food is really good.

It’s the site of the first Spanish settlement in the US. If you feel like embracing the tourist vibe, there’s a narrated hop-on-hop-off tour you can do. Kids will likely enjoy the novelty of it all, plus they might learn some history along the way too.

Explore The Embarcadero

San Diego Itinerary - Embarcadero

The Embarcadero is an area along the waterfront where you can explore some of San Diego’s top family attractions: the Maritime Museum, the USS Midway (a long serving aircraft carrier with 29 restored aircrafts on board) and the Star of India (the world’s oldest active ship).

It’s also home to Seaport Village, a collection of shops and restaurants, including our favourite, Puesto, which has amazing Mexican food.

The Embarcedero is also where you can hop on a boat for a harbour cruise or some whale watching (between December and April). Buy a skip-the-line USS Midway ticket here. Or you could try your hand at driving your own speed boat!

All in all, exploring the Embarcadero is a great family thing to do in San Diego.

Belmont Park

Belmont Park San Diego

Belmont Park in Mission Beach is seaside amusement park, featuring plenty of family fun in San Diego. It includes an arcade, fair rides, mini golf, go-karts and plenty more to keep kids entertained. You can get all-access passes so you don’t have to pay for individual rides.

Family-friendly Beaches in San Diego

San Diego Itinerary - How to make the most of three days in San Diego

There are plenty of beaches to choose from in San Diego, but these are a few favourites: Ocean Beach is a traditionally hippy option; Mission Bay is a manmade aquatic park with calm waters; and Pacific Beach is a good place to get started surfing. 

You could also head north to Del Mar, or go across to Coronado and the Coronado Central Beach, which is often voted as one of the USA’s most popular beaches. Also see the La Jolla beaches below. Visiting the beach is definitely one of the best free things to do in San Diego with kids. We spent time in La Jolla when Otis was a baby and it was a lovely, family-friendly place to hang out (see our full travelling with a baby guide).

La Jolla beaches

San Diego Itinerary - La Jolla

La Jolla (pronounced ‘la hoy-ah’) means jewel and the pretty coastal area is definitely a gem in San Diego’s crown. The dramatic coastline has a selection of beautiful, family-friendly beaches and the village is one of San Diego’s most chi-chi neighbourhoods.

The small but picturesque La Jolla Cove is home to a colony of seals and sea lions, and there’s also a little area called children’s pool, which is ideal for little ones as there’s a concrete breakwater that shields it from the waves.

Another family-friendly option is the sweeping La Jolla Shores beach, which has a little park next to it, and a wide sandy beach.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

The Birch Aquarium at Scripps is another of the best family attractions in San Diego and La Jolla. It’s part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and gives the public the opportunity to explore their work and learn about conservation.

There are 60 habitats to explore, including a kelp forest and octopi. Plus there’s the Tide Pool Plaza, a manmade tide pool area with ocean views where you can touch sea creatures including starfish and anemones.   

Balboa Park and its museums

San Diego Itinerary - Balboa Park

The giant 1,200-acre Balboa Park is home to over 15 museums, including some brilliant family-friendly San Diego museums:

You could easily spend a whole day hopping from museum to museum and spending time in all the green spaces. For a treat, head to The Prado for lunch and try to get a seat on the outdoor terrace. Or for something more casual, try the Cafe in the Park.

Balboa Park is filled with some of the best of what to do in San Diego with kids, and it’s perfect for little ones as you can give them space and time to run around in between sights.

San Diego Botanic Garden

I can never resist a botanical garden and luckily the kids seem to love them too. The San Diego Botanic Garden is a gem with 29 beautiful gardens to explore. Best of all for families, there’s the Hamilton Children’s Garden with a maze, treehouse treehouse and other kids activities.

Petco Park

I always recommend a trip to a baseball game in the USA as it has huge novelty value for non-Americans. And if you’re a domestic traveller then I guess it’s fun to visit so long as you’re into baseball! Petco Park in San Diego is home to The Padres. Go there to watch a game in the season or you can also do a behind-the-scenes tour. There are agreat views from the stadium.

Carlsbad Flower Fields

If you’re in San Diego in Spring, don’t miss the Carlsbad flower fields where everyone will be wowed by a blanket of rainbow-coloured flowers against the backdrop of the ocean beyond. It’s open for around six weeks in the spring.

Sesame Place San Diego

Sesame Place San Diego is one of San Diego’s newest top kids attractions. It’s the States’ second Sesame Street-themed theme park (the other is in Philadelphia), and features rides and shows from the popular American show.

A note on Seaworld

I don’t want to recommend Seaworld as its riddled with ethical issues, but it’d be odd not to mention it in a post about what to do with kids in San Diego. Some people travel there specifically to visit Seaworld. But before visiting Seaworld, I’d recommend looking into their track record on animal cruelty. It’s not good.

Where to stay in San Diego with kids

San Diego has lots of great family-friendly accommodation. We have a full round-up of the coolest San Diego kid-friendly hotels, but here are some of the highlights.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines

California Road Trip Itinerary - San Diego, Lodge at Torrey Pines

The Lodge at Torrey Pines is somewhere to splash out on. The Five Diamond luxury resort overlooks a world-renowned golf course with views of the Pacific Ocean and has a classic, old-world elegance. We were lucky to stay in a suite that had no fewer than three fireplaces – one in the lounge, one on the spacious terrace, and another in the bathroom!

It was pure luxury and a wonderful place to kick back and relax, taking advantage of the spa and exploring the nearby state reserve. It’s certainly a treat, but a worthwhile one if you’re celebrating. Rooms start at $329 per night. Book your stay now.

Hotel Republic

Pacific Coast Highway road trip - Hotel Republic

Hotel Republic is a design-conscious centrally-located hotel in downtown San Diego, just outside the gaslamp quarter. The modern lobby and bar is a stylish place to hang out, and they also have a trendy rooftop bar and restaurant (not on the very top of the building, but on a roof at level three).

The bathroom in our room was beautiful with a huge tub in a haven of clean design. The hotel is part of the Autograph Collection, a brand that specialises in unique and thoughtful boutique hotels – I’ve always been impressed with the ones I’ve stayed in.

It’s not specifically aimed at families, but kids are very welcome. We stayed there with Otis at 10 months old. Rooms start at Hotel Republic start at $225 per night. Book your stay now.

Fairmont Grand del Mar

The Fairmont Grand del Mar is another luxury family option in San Diego. The five-star hotel, near the I-5 is ideally situated for all the main attractions. And there’s a daily kids club, kids pools, horse riding, movie nights, s’mores and more.

Check availability and book now.

Omni La Costa Resort & Spa

The Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad is another good option if you’re heading to LEGOLAND. It has a splash pool for kids, a games lounge and kids’ club.

Check availability and book now.

Legoland California Hotel

If you have fans of Lego in the family then a stay at the Legoland California Hotel will be a perfect treat. Stay in Lego-themed rooms and get nightly Lego-themed entertainment. Breakfast is included and it’s right at the entrance of LEGOLAND.

Check availability and book now.

Hotel del Coronado

The Hotel del Coronado is a San Diego icon and ideal for kids as it’s right on the beach, plus they have lots of kids activities, like s’mores nights, an onsite ice cream store, kids’ club, pool toys and more.

Check availability and book now.

Airbnb

Airbnb San Diego - Secret Garden Guesthouse

We’re written more about where to stay in San Diego with kids in our guide to the best of Airbnb San Diego, and in our 3-Day San Diego Itinerary.

See more inspiration is our post filled with family vacation ideas.

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Our California travel guides

We also have detailed guides to loads of California destinations that can help you plan even more. They’ll especially suit you if you’re a bit like us, keen on discovering the creative side of a destination and in pursuit of all the best cafes, ice creams, doughnuts, bookshops, murals and beauty spots. And we have lots of family guides if you’re travelling with kids.

Road trips: California Road Trip | Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip | San Francisco to Seattle road trip | San Francisco to Seattle road trip

Handpicked travel guides: Laguna Beach | Mendocino |San ClementeSan Diego  | Santa Barbara  | Santa Cruz|Shasta Cascade and Redding Sonoma |Tuolumne County Yolo County

California family travel guides: California with kidsLos Angeles with kids | Sacramento with kidsSan Diego with kids | San Francisco with kids

California accommodation guides: Joshua Tree Airbnb | Laguna Beach Airbnb | Hip Palm Springs Hotels | Palm Springs Airbnb | Palm Springs VRBO | San Diego Airbnb | Santa Cruz Airbnb | Santa Barbara Airbnb |Santa Monica Airbnb | Sonoma Airbnb | Venice Beach AirbnbHip San Francisco Hotels

California attraction guides: How to get the most out of Disneyland with toddlers | The ultimate guide to Universal Studios with babies and toddlers

If you’re heading elsewhere in the USA or even worldwide, see more of our family travel tips here.

5 thoughts on “21 unmissable things to do in San Diego with kids”

  1. We did a 2 day trip and could manage to see seaworld and the San Diego zoo, there are definitely lot of things to do apart these 2 as you have mentioned. We have everything else to cover when we visit next time now.

    Reply
  2. FINALLY a travel blog addressing the Seaworld issue! Great job! Highly recommend everyone look into the matter and making a decision that’s right for them…but really consider the impact your support of their business has on the world.

    Reply
  3. As a Native San Diegan with a friend who is a dolphin trainer at Sea World, that Blackfish movie had a lot of misinformation in it, according to my friend. So maybe consider that in your decision making, as well. Also, if you’re wishing to boycott Sea World, then you may as well remove the Sesame Place recommendation, as they’re owned by the same company. Happy trails!

    Reply

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