There are very few places in the world that do family-friendly the way San Diego does. With cultural, adventurous and just plain fun activities the whole family will love, San Diego will have everyone smiling from ear to ear and never wanting to leave by sunset on the first day. We've rounded up just a few of the many reasons you should put this SoCal beach city on your family travel bucket list.
Is San Diego good for kids
There are very few cities on the planet that are as good for kids as San Diego. With a flip flop and shorts attitude, nothing feels stuffy or too fancy for little humans and they are always encouraged to act their age.
In fact, most of the adults in San Diego live by the play hard motto. With so many outside spaces to enjoy, kids can get out all their crazy while hanging out with mom and dad at the same time. Breweries and great food abound, as do interesting cultural activities, so parents are certainly amused, and the “kid-friendly” stuff is so fun, you'll forget it was meant for tots.
Also, the weather is phenomenal so choosing when to go won't be a problem. The family can hike together, tide pool, paddle-board, kayak, literally play all day long and crash at the end of it all with the waves lulling you to sleep at one of the many gorgeous family-friendly hotels and resorts.
Public transportation is not great, but there are bike paths galore for those comfortable on two wheels and tons of places to rent bikes, including with child seats and carriers.
A car rental will go a long way in San Diego and while the traffic can be tight on the highways, the city is pretty easy to navigate and it makes it easy to get from beach to beach. You can also get to one of the many places within a short drive that are super fun too - Legoland anyone?
Oh and here is the best part, San Diego offers kid-free October. There are literally hundreds of hotel, restaurant and attraction deals throughout the city for kids 17 and under. Most museums and attractions offer free entry or steep discounts and lots of the best hotels have fantastic deals. There really is no reason not to go!
Exploring tide pools and ocean caves
San Diego has some amazing places to get outside and appreciate the environment like Scripps Park in La Jolla.
The park overlooks La Jolla Cove, where you can head down towards the water for a day among the tide pools. The protected La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Underwater Park spans 6,000 acres of ocean floor, tidelands and tidepools teeming with marine life.
Searching for tiny crabs and sea anemones provides hours of exploration among the tide pools. Just south of La Jolla Cove you’ll find Children’s Pool, where dozens of seals raise their pups on the sheltered beach.
There are seven sea caves along the coast in La Jolla which can be accessed via snorkeling or kayaking, but for a land-based adventure, journey to the Cave Store, pay your $5 and head down the 150 steps into Sunny Jim cave. You never know who you may discover lounging on the rocks outside the cave entrance and even if you don’t see any seals, it's a wonderful view of the ocean from the cave entrance.
San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park
No trip to San Diego would be complete without a trip to San Diego Zoo. Tiers of open-air animal enclosures filled with and surrounded by carefully cultivated vegetation are spread across 100 acres of Balboa Park. San Diego Zoo was a pioneer of these cageless exhibits that recreate natural animal habitats.
The newest addition is the Africa Rocks exhibit, designed to guide visitors from the savanna to the sea and highlight the incredible biodiversity of Africa. You can watch African penguins from the south part of the continent glide through the water from below or waddle and nest in the rocks above. Or hang out with the hamadryas baboons from the north part of the continent, as they roam across the recreated desert landscape.
The zoo carefully selects volunteers, docents and zookeepers to answer questions and teach little-known facts about your favorite animals. Ask them anything – they’ll be thrilled to answer your questions.
A ticket to the zoo includes a ride on the aerial tram, a guided bus tour and all regularly scheduled shows, but if someone in your group has a particular interest in the animals, we suggest an Inside Look Tour.
A zoo expert will pick you up in the front of the zoo and escort you in a golf cart on a behind-the-scenes look at some very special animals. Give a shout if there is something you really want to see, they are happy to include your requests when they can.
Meantime, Take a walk on the “wild” side at the San Diego Safari Park, 1800-acre open-range zoo, sibling of the San Diego Zoo, in the suburban San Pasqual Valley. Giraffes graze, lions lounge and rhinos roam more or less freely on the valley floor. Add-ons such as the cart safari ride tour you around “Africa” or “Asia,” while the behind-the-scenes safari goes to visit keeper-only areas, and a zipline safari soars 2 to 3 miles over exhibits. Opening hours are later during summer.
Pacific & Mission Beach
San Diego does beach city right and while there are lots of beaches to choose from, Pacific Beach has it all. Rent bikes from Cheap Rentals where you can get kids’ bike tag-alongs, child trailers or child seats for your cruiser as well as e-scooters, rollerblades and skateboards to cruise the Ocean Front Walk from South Mission Jetty to Pacific Beach Point. It’s a great way to people watch, check out the beach shops and find a spot to spend some time in the sand.
Dog-friendly Ocean Beach is the hippy haven of San Diego beaches, with pizza joints, breweries and a fantastic Wednesday farmer's market. Grab a fresh picnic and head to the beach for the sunset with the locals. The drum circles add a nice soundtrack to the spectacle.
The New Children's Museum
It happens on every trip: the weather changes and the rain comes pouring down. While San Diego has sunny days for much of the year, and maintains its 70-something degree temperature pretty much always, you just never know. But there is no need to fret, San Diego has rainy days covered too.
The New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego is full of adventures for your little ones. With a giant room dedicated to mass creativity, the museum makes creating art an all-inclusive experience. Upstairs there is what can only be described as a fully immersive no-parents-allowed secret fort.
The newest edition to the museum is an exhibit dubbed No Rules ... Except. Originally designed by artist Allan Kaprow, the exhibit has been reimagined by Brian Dick and filled with pillow tires and mattresses, it was created to give kids a place to literally bounce off the walls.
Check out Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla. The wild and wonderful sea dragon is a main draw at the aquarium but there is lots to see. The Hall of Fishes has more than 60 fish tanks, simulating marine habitats from the Pacific Northwest to tropical seas.
The Tide Pool Plaza, with its fabulous ocean views, is the place to get touchy-feely with sea stars, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters and tidal-zone critters.
Marine scientists were working at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) as early as 1910 and, helped by donations from the ever-generous Scripps family, the institute has grown to be one of the world’s largest marine research institutions. It is now a part of University of California (UC) San Diego.
Balboa Park is a 1200-acre space with more than 16 museums and cultural institutions, including key attractions San Diego History Center, San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Natural History Museum and San Diego Zoo. All attractions are easily walkable, or jump aboard the park's tram to whizz around them all at speed.
One-day explorer tickets include admission to five museums; multiday explorer tickets include admission for 16 museums over seven consecutive days and you can add the zoo for a little extra.
Balboa Park includes a number of gardens, reflecting different horticultural styles and environments, including Alcazar Garden, a formal, Spanish-style garden; Palm Canyon, with more than 50 species of palms; Japanese Friendship Garden; Australian Garden; Rose Garden; and Desert Garden (best in spring). Florida Canyon gives an idea of the San Diego landscape before Spanish settlement. Free tours depart the Balboa Park Visitors Center each week (Tuesdays at 11am), covering various themes from botany to architecture.
Where to eat in San Diego with kids
San Diego loves its kids. There is no better place to witness that than in the dining scene. Most restaurants don’t bat an eye when families show up with little ones in tow, so there are some fantastic choices. However, for pure kitschy fun check out the Corvette Diner.
Servers in costume treat your kids like the star of the show while balloon men wander around making full fairy and knight regalia for your tiny pretenders. There is an arcade for older ones to disappear for a little while and full bar, so mom and dad can have a drink and listen to the oldies.
For breakfast, check out Breakfast Republic. With pancake choices like Oreo cookies and churro along with breakfast hot dogs, you may be too full for your surf lessons. Or head to Woody’s on Pacific Beach for a laid-back and delicious breakfast or lunch, and watch the surfers from the top deck.
Finally, for the foodie family, check out Galaxy Tacos in La Jolla. Everyone will enjoy the attention to detail from a chef who insists on preparing every item from scratch. From the blue corn tortillas to the zesty guacamole you can taste the care that goes into each and every dish.
Sarah Stocking traveled to San Diego with support from the San Diego Tourism Board. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.
This article was originally published in 2018 and updated in 2021