Known for its wonderful weather year-round, friendly locals, safe neighbourhoods and enviable beach culture, San Diego is as close as any city comes to being family-centric. No matter how old your kids are, this action-packed city on California’s Pacific Coast offers activities and attractions that will help you create memories that’ll be shared ‘round the dinner table for years to come. Be sure to take advantage of the attraction packages to save money so you can splurge a little, too. But a word of warning: spend even just a weekend in San Diego and you may never want to leave.
San Diego for Toddlers, Tweens and Teens
Stop what you’re doing and grab a pen and piece of paper. Now write “San Diego” at the top of your newly minted Bucket List.
After spending 10 days exploring as much of the city’s activities as we could squeeze in between eating and shopping, I realized that it hadn’t been high on my own Bucket List. I don’t want you to make the same mistake.
Between San Diego’s near-perfect weather, easy-to-use public transportation, family-friendly vibe and countless things to do and see, this is a city you need to explore with your kids. Stat.
Stuff for Toddlers
Spark imagination at an immersive and participatory art-based museum just for kids—The New Children’s Museum (200 West Island Avenue). Children can play among the art or create their own. Better still, we watched little ones play on the various art installations! There’s a Tot Studio for littles four and under, and if you’re there on a Friday, check out the special toddler programming at 10 a.m.
If you’re into zoos, the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive) is a an educational mecca. It’s also a visual treat unlike any other zoo we’ve visited, bursting with tropical greenery at every turn. Your zoo ticket includes an open-air, double-decker guided bus tour, which proved helpful for even the smallest of toddlers on our bus because they could see a good chunk of the park’s animals from on high without having to walk. There’s also a free hop-on and -off Kangaroo Bus and the Skyfari aerial tram. Both get you to every corner of the zoo without covering all that ground on foot.
Stuff for Tweens
Although it’s just beyond San Diego’s downtown core, iFLY indoor skydiving (2385 Camino Del Rio North) will give your tween a taste of skydiving in a safe environment. After a quick instructional video, we joined our personal guide—who had logged thousands of hours in the sky—in a wind tunnel for an exhilarating experience. You could really see the extra boost of confidence the kids came out with after their “dives.”
If your kids prefer seeing animals in their natural habitat, Old Town Trolley’s La Jolla & San Diego Beaches Tour is a must. We sat for hours watching hundreds of sea lions lounge, swim and play along La Jolla’s seawall. We regretted not packing our swimsuits and leaving enough time on the tour to hit Pacific Beach—ideal for a wave-filled family frolic. (Just be aware of the undertow, which we hear can be strong in spots.)
Stuff for Teens
The best way to see San Diego’s massive Balboa Park is by Segway, and Wheel Fun Rentals (1355 N. Harbor Drive) offers a fantastic two-hour tour for those 14 and older. After practicing for five minutes, we mastered the Segway and managed to cover more of Balboa Park – America’s largest urban park – than we ever could on foot. It turned out to be a super-fun way to scout out the park’s museums, performing arts centers and stunning gardens to decide what to focus on the next time we visited. (Hint: we just had to return to the Artist’s At Work area, where 27 working artists have studio shops.)
For history buffs, the USS Midway (910 N. Harbor Drive) should not be missed. Often cited as the No. 1 attraction in San Diego, this massive aircraft carrier at Pier 41 is essentially a floating city at sea dripping in interesting exhibits. It’ll cost you a few dollars extra, but we definitely recommend trying the flight simulators. We loved channeling our inner Maverick and Goose!
Zip over the bridge to Coronado Island for its Historic Walking Tour—far and away the best tour I’ve personally taken anywhere. The tour starts at the beautiful Glorietta Bay Inn (1630 Glorietta Blvd.) and makes its way through the notorious Hotel Del Coronado grounds and past the old Tent City. We heard fascinating stories of royalty and movie stars and saw Point Loma in the distance as we learned more about the Navy SEALs training ground.
Although younger kids may also enjoy the Hornblower Whale & Dolphin Watching Cruise, keep in mind that it’s about four hours long. Our boat found a pod of 500 dolphins and two hammerhead sharks! We didn’t happen upon a whale, though, so the company gave every guest a Whale Check to return for a free cruise another day.
Save to Splurge in San Diego
If you’re indulging in great restaurants and the best hotels, you might want to save a few bucks here and there to balance things out.
Starting at $29 per person, the Balboa Park Multi-Day Explorer Pass gives you admission to each of the 17 participating Balboa Park museums for seven consecutive days. Check out the Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego Air and Space Museum, San Diego Natural History Museum and many more museums with this pass.
San Diego’s GO City Card is an attraction pass available for 1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 days that—for a much lower cost than if you paid full admission prices at the gates—provides access to a number of the city’s best parks and activities. LEGOLAND California, the San Diego Sports Museum and Knott’s Soak City Waterpark are just three examples.
Look for the “Kids Free in October” programming across the city if you’re there in autumn. It offers two free child admissions for every paying adult at participating partners. SCORE! The Birch Aquarium, California Surf Museum, Fleet Science Center and San Diego Model Railroad Museum are only a few of the many attractions taking part. On Saturdays and Sundays throughout October, the Metropolitan Transit System invites two children (12 and under) to ride free with a paid adult; children five and under can ride free with adults all the time.
Now—about that pen and paper…