What to Do in San Diego for Families

December 24, 2017

in california, family travel, history, travel tips, trip planning, vacation

San Diego is a city I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Seeing pictures of it reminded me of Sydney. Sweeping views of the harbor, turquoise beaches and marine life, blonde people with tans, local beer—its look and lifestyle seemed to mirror that of my old home.

Jetblue credit expiring in April forced us to book a trip by the end of the year. I originally wanted the Caribbean–with two kids under four and having just returned to work in August from maternity leave, I envisioned being on a beach with a fruity cocktail while Brendan and I utilized a resort’s baby-sitting service to have some time alone. But flight prices to the islands over Thanksgiving or Christmas would have resulted in hundreds of dollars over our credit amount. San Diego quickly came up as an alternative for its warmer weather and family-friendly offerings. So instead, we opted to fly west for eight days and only $44 extra. If you’re wondering what to do in San Diego for families, here are a few of the places we visited and things we did as a family of four.

Note: San Diego does have a large homeless population, and we did see a number of individuals using drugs out in the open. It’s something to be aware of when deciding what to do in San Diego for families.

Ferry to Coronado

In a city that reminds me of Sydney, it was fitting to use a mode of transport I used often there—the ferry. We took the ferry to Coronado for $4.75 each way (kids 3 and under are free). Once you get onto the island, there are buses you can take to the Hotel del Coronado, a historic resort hotel on the ocean, in addition to beaches, parks and various restaurants and shops. After checking out the hotel, we got lunch at the Coronado Brewpub, which has beer flights and large appetizers like islander ahi poke and fish and chips.

boat on san diego harbor Hotel del Coronado Beer flight

San Diego Zoo

At the top of the list of what to do in San Diego for families: the San Diego Zoo. World-renowned and the home of two pandas, the zoo, set in Balboa Park, has over 3,700 animals belonging to over 650 species and subspecies. Bus rides that are part of your ticket give an overview of the park while other buses serve the sole purpose of taking you to different sections of the 100-acre zoo.

Panda at San Diego Zoo

Bus to La Jolla and Old Town

A car doesn’t need to factor into what to do in San Diego for families. We decided not to rent a car for most of our trip and instead took the bus pretty much everywhere. We discovered the $14 all-day passes for two adults and took them to the zoo, Balboa Park and the beach towns northwest of the city. La Jolla is known for its sea lions but what I was not expecting was that the turquoise-tinged water and rocky coastline would remind me so much of a Sydney. There were scuba divers and snorkelers, which brought me back to my time exploring Sydney’s eastern beaches. After walking around La Jolla Cove, snapping pics of the sea lions and tossing the football in the park, we had lunch at Cody’s, where Finn threw an epic tantrum and then passed out on two chairs while his parents downed two alcoholic beverages apiece.

On the bus ride back, we hit up Old Town, which has various historic sites like the Church of the Immaculate Conception and Casa de Estudillo. Finn and Brendan played more football in the park, we stopped and watched a band play Mexican music, and then Brendan bought Finn a Rey Mysterio mask that was super hilarious and stopped passerby in their tracks. This historic spot should definitely make your list of what to do in San Diego for families.

La Jolla Cove, San DiegoSea lions at La Jolla CoveToddler in Rey Mysterio mask

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a 1200-acre space with over a dozen museums, gardens and other venues that is a must when deciding what to do in San Diego for families. I have never visited a place like it. For $46 per adult, $27 per kid 3 and up, you can see five museums in one day which, to be honest, is kind of difficult to do, particularly with two children. But we made it to four, starting with the Natural History Museum, complete with skulls, herpetology collections (think snakes and other fun stuff preserved in fluid-filled jars). We followed with pre-made sandwiches and beers at Panama 66, the Air & Space Museum, Automotive Museum and the Museum of Photographic Arts
Little boy cranking wheel to produce water in museum
King crab at Natural History Museum, San DiegoBoy and father in racing car


This turned out to be the absolute best day of the trip and a must when considering what to do in San Diego for families. Both kids were in good form and the adults had a blast. First of all, the things built with LEGOS® around the park are amazing, particularly Miniland, where there replicas of New York City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Southern California, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Like many amusement parks, LEGOLAND is separated into smaller themed areas such as Fun Town and Land of Adventure. Finn went to Junior Driving School, helped his dad put out fires at the Police and Fire Academy, flew planes and fought off the Great Devourer in the super-cool 3D ride NINJAGO®. Finn is on the tall side so could go on most of the rides alone or with an adult. LEGOLAND took me back to being a kid. And then I got to be a kid with my kid–pretty cool! Definitely make this a destination when considering what to do in San Diego for families. Family of four outside LEGOLANDToddler driving car at LEGOLANDtoddler on helicopter ride with dad, LEGOLANDLEGO replica of NYC

Point Loma

We decided to take advantage of our car rental for our last day and first drove to the murals in Chicano Park, where there was this divine Prince painting. We then drove to Point Loma to check out the tide pools and Cabrillo National Monument which offers a spectacular view of San Diego. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is a military graveyard located there with more than 100,000 graves, lined up in perfect rows of white. Afterward, we ate lunch at the San Diego Taproom in Palm Beach and had some park time before catching the sunset over the ocean on our final night in town. 

View of San Diego from Point Loma Rocky outcrop Point Loma Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery 


I hope this has been a valuable guide to figuring out what to do in San Diego for families. There is plenty more we didn’t even get to explore—we’ll just have to plan a trip back!

I did receive two complimentary passes to LEGOLAND, but all opinions about the park and other sites in this post are my own. 

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