Editor’s Note About 2020 Responsible Travel
As areas of the United States lift stay at home orders, many families are choosing to travel with their kids again. As of the publication date of this article, San Diego has reopened many locations. However some locations remain closed as well as indoor dining and limited beach parking. Indoor activities including museums also have closed. I recommend checking the websites of each location before planning your visit. Some of the locations in this article may not be fully operational at this time. Facial coverings are also mandatory and enforced in all areas of San Diego county.
Things to Do Outside in San Diego with Kids
I’ve lived in San Diego my entire life and I have a confession to make. Even I haven’t done everything on this list! There’s just so much to see and do outside in San Diego with kids. It’s my goal to get through everything here with my kids. We’re going to hit all the outdoor adventures in San Diego from North County to the South Bay! I have suggestions for things to do with toddlers and teens, and all ages in between. I’ve even included some free things to do in San Diego! These are my suggestions for the best San Diego attractions for kids to do outside.
Ways to Save on a San Diego Vacation
If you’re looking to save money on your San Diego vacation, check out these specials from Get Away Today, my travel partner. There are hotel discounts, ticket savings and even a San Diego travel coupon book! Also if you book a SoCal vacation package, use my special code REWRITTEN for an extra $10 off!
Outdoor Learning for Kids in San Diego
Cabrillo Monument – Located in the Point Loma area, see where Juan Cabrillo first landed in San Diego nearly 400 years ago. The Cabrillo Monument houses a visitor center, lighthouse, trails and tide pools. The only cost here is $10 per vehicle. Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn and Suites is an ideal overnight location near Shelter Island.
Julian – Step back to the Gold Rush days in the quaint town of Julian. Particularly popular in the fall (during apple pie season) or winter (when there’s lots of snow on the ground).
Living Coast Discovery Center – Located south of downtown San Diego in Chula Vista, this zoo & aquarium offers environmental education and animal encounters with SoCal wildlife.
San Diego Harbor – Take tours on the USS Midway aircraft carrier or Maritime Museum of San Diego with the Star of India and HMS Surprise.
Free Things to Do in San Diego
If you’re looking for more free things for kids in San Diego, check out this post with all the freebies offered annually in October.
Balboa Park – You could spend a week in this huge outdoor venue and still not experience everything! From weekly outdoor concerts at the organ pavilion and free special events, there’s a lot of ground to cover at Balboa Park. Take time to walk through the Japanese Friendship Garden, hiking trails, grassy areas for picnicking and the many public gardens.
Embarcadero Park – Walking and biking paths along with lots of shady trees and green space for napping or running around. Bring a kite as this location has some of the best kite flying wind around!
Waterfront Park – Kids can make a splash in this outdoor play area with splash pads and fountains along San Diego harbor. Free to play, just bring water shoes and a towel.
Old Town – The perfect place to start if you want to give kids a history lesson on the beginnings of this city. Kids can walk through the free museums of Old Town, including the old school house to see how people lived in San Diego 150 years ago. Consider staying at the Hilton Garden Inn Old Town, a terraced hillside hotel overlooking Old Town.
Outdoor Places to Eat in San Diego with Kids
Liberty Station – This hip center houses many restaurants, a movie theater, art studios, boutiques as well as historical museums, rose gardens and fountains. You can work up an appetite walking the length of the large Liberty Station area. We personally enjoyed the al fresco dining at Officine Buona Forcetta. The authentic Italian food is incredible and there is a play set outside for the kids.
Little Italy – This tight-knit community is host to a weekly outdoor mercado farmer’s market. There are also many family-friendly patio cafes, including our favorite restaurant in Little Italy, Civico 1845.
Seaport Village – This 14-acre shopping district is located along the bay, with some beautiful boardwalk views. Seaport Village offers a lot of outdoor dining, including Buster’s Beach House (order the Short Board Sampler!)
Dine with Orcas at SeaWorld San Diego – Definitely one of the most memorable meals! Click through to read more about Dine with Orcas (and find out how to get discounted tickets into the park).
Gardens to Explore
Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch – This seasonal springtime event includes oceans of gorgeous flower gardens, tractor rides, and mazes. Check the website calendar when specific days are designated for kids with face painting, bubbles and more.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – If you’re ready for the 2 hour drive to the far east edge of San Diego county, the sights of this state park are amazing. Families can hike the Pacific Crest Trail to see some of the beautiful wildflowers that bloom in this 600,000-acre state park. Cost is per vehicle, charged Fri/Sat/Sun. If planning a warm-weather time visit, keep seasonal temperatures in mind and use safety precautions when hiking in the 100+ degree temps.
Water Conservation Garden in Rancho San Diego – Kids can learn about water conservation, drought tolerant plants and rain water collection in this large series of gardens. Kids especially enjoy the sensory garden. I’ve loved exploring the gardens as a pretty place for taking photos of the kids. Admission fee is nominal.
Carlsbad Lagoon – Rent an aqua cycle, stand up paddleboard, canoe or peddle boat to get kids active on the water! For more power they also rent waverunners, pontoon boats and power boats.
San Diego Botanic Gardens in Encinitas – Kids can play in several of the beautiful gardens and look at the 4,000 different species growing here.
Outdoor Recreation in San Diego
Santee Lakes – Grab your fishing pole and toss a line into one of the many lakes here. Bring a bike, a suit and towel for the splash pad or just play at one of the playgrounds. There are also boats for rent as well as campsites and cabins. We stayed in one of the well-appointed lakefront cabins and it was an awesome retreat! Reserve early as they book up quickly.
Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad – The tidal wetlands trail here is stroller friendly and you can spy habitats for birds, fish and other animals.
Shelter Island – From fishing, water sports and dining the Point Loma-area Shelter Island is a wonderful place to explore all day with the kids.
Mission Trails – Start at the Visitor Center where you can learn history of the area and about natural wildlife. Then lace up your hiking shoes for one of the many rugged trails here (not stroller appropriate). Bring plenty of water, there’s not a lot of shade on the trails.
Old Poway Park – Plenty of space for grass play and picnics with the family. While the park is open each day, the Poway-Midland Railroad, Nelson House and Heritage Museum are only open on weekends.
Biking at the Beach – Carlsbad gets my vote as one of the best beaches in San Diego for families. My two little ones and I enjoyed a bike ride along the coast in Carlsbad last year. Pedego Electric Bikes gave me a bike with a seat in front for my toddler. They even had a bike with training wheels for my kindergartner! You can find bike rental locations all over San Diego, especially near the shore.
Adventures Outdoors in San Diego
Coronado Ferry – Hop aboard one of these “Flagship Cruises” that take you from downtown San Diego over to Coronado Island. Takes about 15 minutes total for less than $5 per person one way. Once at the Coronado Ferry Landing, you can walk or bike the paths along the water and enjoy the grassy areas, playgrounds, sandy beaches and public restrooms.
Aquatica Waterpark- Everyone can have fun in the sun at SeaWorld’s water park Aquatica (located in South Bay, not near SeaWorld). Be sure to check the schedule online as to when this water park will be open, as it has a seasonal calendar.
Potato Chip Rock – Adventurous kids who like to hike will enjoy standing on this famous rock near the top of Mt. Woodson in Poway.
Petco Park – What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the sun, watching a major league baseball game in downtown San Diego. Purchase tickets in the Park at the Park and kids can kick back on the grass (bring a blanket!) Join the complimentary Compadres Kids program. After Sunday home games, kids will have access to special activities like running the bases, bounce houses, playing catch on the field, autograph signings and more.
San Diego Theme Parks for Kids
Click the red links to find out how you can purchase discount tickets to these popular attractions!
Sea World San Diego – Everyone can make a splash at the aquariums, thrill rides and family fun theme park. SeaWorld San Diego has a focus on animal education and learning in a safe environment with touch pools, shows and sealife interaction.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park – These are the animals you’d see on safari. Bring your walking shoes, this 1800 acre park in Escondido covers a lot of ground. Don’t miss the Africa Tram, you’ll be able to get a closer view of the animals. This guide will give you all the tips for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park with kids.
LEGOLAND California and Waterpark – LEGOLAND is a family favorite with amusement park rides that are best suited for ages 3-10. The LEGOLAND waterpark is a newer addition that just keeps growing. It’s a great place for teens and adults as well with giant wave pools and adventurous slides.
Best Beaches in San Diego for Kids
I share more details about the best beaches in San Diego for kids here, with additional tips for families and a free printable packing list.
Mission Beach – Arrive early to grab free parking in one of the lots to enjoy this popular boardwalk beach with lots of sand and waves. Mission Beach also houses Belmont Park with amusements like the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, Wave House and other kid-friendly activities. I’m partial to nearby Mission Bay, with the grassy parks and playgrounds. Consider a stay at the Bahia Resort Hotel, right along beautiful Mission Bay.
Carlsbad – There are 2 great beach spots for families here including Tamarack-State Beach and South Ponto Beach. Both have lifeguards on duty and public restrooms with showers.
Snorkling in La Jolla Cove – You’ll find Garibaldi and leopard sharks (both tame to swim around) in the beautiful waters of La Jolla. Bring your snorkle to spy these creatures. The beach here is very tiny and extremely popular so arrive early to stake out parking and a spot on the sand.
This post originally published April 3, 2018 and has been updated and republished.