Ever been to Carlsbad? No, I don’t mean LEGOLAND. I mean have you ever taken time during a family vacation to explore the city famous for LEGOLAND itself?

Carlsbad is a quiet, seaside community about 40 minutes north of San Diego that is a great place for traveling with kids. It’s easy to pass by on the freeway. Many people do, on their way to the big city. But if you’re looking for a low-key, relaxing place to go for a short family vacation –out of town, but not too far out of town – then put on the brakes at the Carlsbad exit.

Spring, it’s the ideal time to visit Carlsbad. Temperatures average in the upper 60s and the world-famous Flower Fields are in full bloom. 

Where to Stay

There are ample choices. I HIGHLY recommend the West Inn & Suites, westinnandsuites.com a boutique hotel right off the 5 freeway that took me by surprise. I stayed there free as a guest of the hotel, but to be honest, I was expecting a Rodeway Inn-type hotel, where we could park and sleep. Little did I realize how luxurious it would be: large, spacious rooms with a separate living room and extra flat-screen TV, king-size pillow-top beds and best of all, a FREE buffet breakfast every morning with all the trimmings, which will save an average family of four about $100 in food. They also offer two on-site restaurants – a nice steakhouse if you’re feeling fancy one night and Bistro West, for more casual dining.

West Inn & Suites is also centrally located to all the hot spots – within walking distance of the beaches, right down the street from LEGOLAND and a half-hour’s drive from the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park.  Although this trip was set up by the Carlsbad Convention and Visitors Bureau and we got free passes to several attractions, they are are worth the entry fee and we’ll definitely be back.

What to Do

LEGOLAND: If you haven’t taken your little ones to this one-of-a-kind amusement park yet, you ought to.  Created by the Danish toy manufacturer, LEGOLAND features kid-friendly rides, including a few roller coasters that will give even parents a thrill, lively shows (we saw a fantastic ventriloquist!) and plenty of LEGO displays to marvel at. The miniature replica of major U.S. landmarks created from more than 20 million LEGO bricks is a must-see. LEGOLAND is best for the younger set — kids ages 1-13 – but my 14-year-old enjoyed herself, too, especially at the driving school, where she got to drive an electric car (at low speeds) through a pretend LEGO pretend town. The Carlsbad location is the only one in the U.S.  You can find other LEGOLAND parks in Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom.  A one-day ticket costs $59 for adults (ages 13-59) and $47 for children (ages 3-12). 

Museum of Making Music:  Do you have any up-and-coming musicians in the family?  They’re sure to be in music heaven during a family vacation here. Visitors can wander in and out of five separate rooms at this museum, each tracing the growth of American music from the 1800’s to today. The best part about the MMM is that it’s interactive – you can push buttons to hear songs or a few notes from a certain instrument. More than 450 vintage instruments are on display. My oldest daughter couldn’t resist playing “Canon in D Minor” on a white, baby grand piano.  She drew quite an audience, and I was happy to see all those years of music lessons paying off. We spent several hours here, and surprisingly, my musically gifted daughters said they had more fun here than at LEGOLAND, especially in the last room where they got a chance to play to play drums, guitar, violin and other instruments I couldn’t identify.  I was perfectly in tune with the gift shop, where I picked up several unique souvenirs that I’ve never seen anywhere else for my blues-lovin’ brother-in-law. General admission is $5; students (ages 4-18) pay $3; and children under 3 get in free.

K1 Speed: It’s an indoor, electric kart racing track. If you have sons, it’s a great place for them to burn off all that boy energy.  To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to driving dangerously, with cars on every side of me, trying to outpace the guy behind me. Seemed too much like my daily commute on the 405. But my14 laps around this curvy track were exhilarating, even if I did come in dead last.  A 12-lap race costs $15. For another $5, you get lunch and a drink. 

Carlsbad Flower Fields:  visit.theflowerfields.com Every spring, from March to May, nearly 50 acres of  hillsides in Carlsbad come alive with rainbows of colorful ranunculus – millions of them! It’s really quite a sight to see from the freeway and especially up close, where you can walk through row after row of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus on this working flower farm. The vibrant colors create a beautiful backdrop for family photos. My children also had fun winding through the Sweet Pea flower maze, and the Arts & Crafts Faire is open for business two weekends in April. I recommend you pack a picnic lunch and spend a few hours here surrounded by the kaleidoscopic beauty of Mother Nature. It’s the perfect place to teach your very young ones about colors.  Admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for children (ages 3-10) and children 2 and under are free. Wagon rides are available, too.

Quail Botanical Gardens: qbgardens.org If your family loves the outdoors, put this destination on your day-trip list. You’ll discover more than 4,000 plants from 15 bio-geographical regions, including rare bamboo groves, desert gardens, tropical rainforests, California native plants and the Undersea Succulent Garden. Let your young ones explore “Seeds of Wonder,” a special garden just for kids. Admission: Free for members; $10 for non-members; seniors, students and active military, $7; children under 12, $5.

Carlsbad beaches: I’ve heard for years that Carlsbad beaches are the “best-kept secret” in San Diego, and now I know why. They’re stunning and clean, and not as packed with people as some of the beaches to the north in Orange County. The Carlsbad coastline stretches for about six miles and is home to two beaches – Carlsbad State Beach and South Carlsbad State Beach, which offers beachside camping (tents and RVs). Your family can enjoy all the typical beach offerings – swimming, sunning, surfing, fishing, diving, jogging and picnicking (on the beach and the bluff). Or take a leisurely stroll on the nearly 1-mile-long seawall that adjoins the beach.  Pack up some chairs, a big beach bag and sunscreen, and make a family day out of it.

Freelance writer and blogger Lynn Armitage and her two daughters will never drive by Carlsbad again without stopping.