Ahoy there, mateys! San Diego’s beautiful waterfront provides numerous activities for the family. Mixing some history with shipboard fun provides a winning combination for the perfect family adventure.

Pirates Aboard the Californian, San Diego

Pirates Aboard the Californian. Photo Credit: Noreen Kompanik, Coast-to-Coast TravelingMom

Kids naturally love water. So, when our grandkids come in town every summer, we always make it a point to add in some fun on the San Diego Waterfront.

Maritime Museum

The Maritime Museum is a great place for kids to learn about the sea! Housing an impressive collection of ships and submarines, the museum truly offers a little something for everyone.

Five permanent exhibits cover such fascinating topics as San Diego’s Navy, the ages of steam and sail, charting the sea, and harvesting the ocean.


The salty smell of the ocean, seagulls flying overhead and the creaking of the ships moving with the swells of the bay reminds us that this is no ordinary museum, but a nautical one, indeed. One admission price grants access to all vessels in the museum’s collection which include:

Star of India

Star of India is the queen of the waterfront. Built over 150 years ago, this tall ship hails as the oldest functioning merchant sailing ship in the world.

With her wooden decks and towering masks, she harkens us back to the days of high adventure on the seas skimming through the water under huge billowing sails with the wind at her back.

Unlike many other preserved vessels, the hull, cabins and equipment about the Star of India are nearly 100% original. Kids love interacting with the captain and his mates, learning basic seamanship like tying sailor’s knots and nautical sayings like “Aye, aye, captain”.

HMS Surprise

HMS Surprise/ Photo Credit: Noreen Kompanik, Coast-to-Coast TravelingMom

HMS Surprise

Boarding a 1750’s 28 gum replica of the Royal Navy frigate featured in the movies Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean is guaranteed to bring out the swashbuckling buccaneer in all of us. The Surprise boasts cannons, crows’ nests and plenty of authentic 18th century furnishings.

A gentleman visiting from Boston excitedly proclaimed while coming aboard, “I played on this ship as a child, and now I totally feel like a kid again.” I know that our grandkids listened intently to his story of secret hiding places aboard the ship.

The Californian

The official tall ship of the State of California, the Californian is a replica of the 1847 revenue cutter hailing from the gold rush era.  Onboard educational programs are fascinating, and optional afternoon adventure sails into San Diego Harbor are available to the public.

San Salvador

The newest addition to the Museum’s flotilla is the long-awaited, magnificently constructed replica of the Portuguese galleon-and the first European vessel to reach the California coast in 1542.  Available for exterior dockside viewing only until the interior work has been completed, future plans include educational sails along the coast of California, visiting its historic cities and towns.

USS Dolphin and Soviet B-39 Submarines

For those fascinated by the Navy’s “Silent Service”, the museum offers tours of the USS Dolphin, a deep diving nuclear research submarine, and B-39, a classic Soviet diesel submarine and veteran of the Cold War.

Like the submariners in the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, our young sailors pretended to conduct missions under the waves as they looked through periscopes and explored the control rooms of this “guardian of the deep.”

USS Midway

USS Midway

USS Midway. Photo Credit: Noreen Kompanik, Coast-to-Coast TravelingMom

Welcome aboard America’s longest-serving Navy aircraft carrier. A major attraction of its own, it’s entirely possible to spend an entire day onboard and still not see everything there is to see.

Self-guided audio tours narrated by Midway sailors and aviators bring the majestic ship to life much to the delight of both the young and old. Midway veterans love to regale visitors with their adventurous tales.

The immense hangar bay offers ships models, two flight simulators and numerous military exhibits. Piped sounds of the ship add realism and it’s not hard to imagine what life must have been like for sailors aboard this floating “city at sea.”

Our kiddos were eager to climb in ship’s bunks where sailors slept, visit the massive galley kitchen, and explore the squadron ready rooms where fighter pilots gathered.

One of the most fascinating parts of the Midway, the flight deck houses 25 aircraft with stunning views of the San Diego Harbor. Atop the flight deck stands the island and bridge where the ship’s captain controlled the vessel on the high seas. Access to some of the aircraft provides the opportunity for kids to become naval aviators for a brief moment in time.

The ship’s Fantail Café provides meals and refreshments, but, you have to pass through the toy shop to get there! The highlight of the tour was when the kids picked up their Junior Pilot Wings at the information booth on the Hangar Deck before exiting the ship.

San Diego Waterfront Park

San Diego Waterfront Park/ Photo Credit: Noreen Kompanik, Coast-to-Coast TravelingMom

Hornblower Cruise

One of the best ways to explore the San Diego Bay is by taking a harbor cruise. Hornblower Cruises offers excellent, informative hour-long narrated tours north and south of the Embarcadero.

The South Itinerary features a sail under the 200 ft. high Coronado Bridge, past nautically-inspired Seaport Village, major league baseball’s Padre’s Petco Park, and the massive Navy base with its amazing array of warships.

The North Itinerary showcases the Navy’s North Island Naval Air Station, Harbor and Shelter Islands, Point Loma with its famous lighthouse, and those noisy, boisterous sea lions who’ve taken up residence here on some of the piers.

Both tours offer stunning views of the North Island aircraft carriers and the majestic San Diego skyline.

The two-hour tour combines both itineraries. Open air and covered seating is available onboard along with a snack bar. Don’t forget the binoculars though, as guaranteed they’ll be in high demand.

San Diego Waterfront Park

Who can resist a playground? Especially when that playground has waterfront views to boot and is more like a huge jungle gym.

When the 12-acre San Diego Waterfront Park opened in 2014, it gave its residents and visitors another fun place to play.

The Children’s play structures, mostly for designed for children ages 5 to 12, are unlike the playground equipment at most local parks. There are curvy climbing walls, giant circles that spin, steep metal slides, and lots of rope to climb.

And it’s always a good idea to pack a change of clothes, as it’s impossible for kids to resist the 830-foot-long fountain with 31 jets that shoot water 14 feet in the air, and unlike some fountains, encourages kids to splash around and have some fun.