Only have 48 hours in San Diego, California? This southern California metropolis has so much to offer families, from beaches to history and family fun. San Diego is comprised of several neighborhoods and beach towns each with their own distinct personality. These include Old Town, La Jolla, Mission Bay, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Coronado, Point Loma, Gaslamp quarter and more. Here’s how to see the best of family-friendly San Diego in a weekend.
While there may be no way to pack in all of the fun of San Diego into a weekend getaway, it is possible to cover all the bases. What are your priorities – beach time, family attractions, ocean life or history? Our family of four managed to cover all of those on our last family vacation. So let us help you narrow down things to do with your family in San Diego when you have just a couple of days to explore.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted on this trip by La Jolla Shores, Kona Kai Resort and Sea World San Diego. All opinions, however, are her own.
Start Your 2-Day San Diego Itinerary with La Jolla
Beach Time in La Jolla
You have chosen to enjoy a San Diego weekend with your family. It will be important to slide your feet into a sandy beach and splash in the water. We suggest starting your visit in La Jolla. La Jolla Shores beach is a beautiful sandy beach with a beachfront park for the kids. Kayakers and surfers hit the water from here. Your family may not have time for surfing and kayaking this weekend, but you can at least live vicariously by watching others enjoy the ocean. It is also a short 5 minute drive to La Jolla Coves, where you can check out the sea lions at the Children’s Beach.
Start your San Diego weekend by checking into your hotel in La Jolla and heading out to the beach. If you go at low tide, be sure to head towards the southern end of La Jolla Shores to explore the tide pools. Then head to dinner. This would be the time to take advantage of a beachfront restaurant like La Jolla Shores Restaurant. You can either take in sunset during dinner or eat and then step down to the beach for a sunset stroll.
Birch Aquarium is the perfect place to learn a little more about sea life and kelp forests. All ages will enjoy this colorful and interactive aquarium, but especially toddlers and preschoolers. Here they can dip their fingers in the water and watch divers feed a huge black sea bass at the Kelp Forest Show. Plan on one to two hours to explore the aquarium, and to take in the views of the Pacific Ocean from the deck with outdoor interactive exhibits.
Optional Substitution: Coronado is another beautiful Californian beach. You could visit Coronado instead of La Jolla and splurge on the historic Hotel del Coronado.
Morning #1 of 2-Day San Diego Itinerary
Rise early and sneak in another visit to the beach. Grab a quick and hearty breakfast and head out to Sea World to arrive just before opening.
Sea World San Diego
Sea World really is a must-see on a San Diego weekend visit. Ocean and sea animal education is such an important cause for this coastal city. And Sea World really has made strides in their conservation efforts.
Splurge on the close-in or VIP parking to get in and start with the more popular rides such as Shipwreck Rapids, Manta or Journey to Atlantis before the lines get long.
TravelingMom Tip: Sneak out of the Orca, Dolphin or other shows a couple of minutes early to beat the crowds to your next ride. Stop to cool off at the Wild Arctic exhibit. Wait until you are departing to put your hands in the water at Explorer’s Reef to let fish tickle your fingers.
While it would be easy to spend a couple of days here and still be entertained, we’d recommend bringing snacks to tide you over and leaving in time to get a late lunch off site, perhaps in Balboa Park. After all, there’s still much more to see and do!
Optional Substitution: Not into Sea World, or have already been? Replace Sea World with a visit to the San Diego Zoo. The San Diego Zoo is the most visited zoo in the United States. It houses 3,500 animals on 100 acres.
Balboa Park, San Diego
If your family still has energy after Sea World and lunch, there are plenty of museums to discover in Balboa Park. Spend a little time here. Balboa Park is home to the Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center and even a Model Railroad Museum that is ideal for toddlers and preschoolers. The 100 year old Spanish architecture is stunning!
More Beach & Pool Time
Use the afternoon to relax and again enjoy the beach. There are actually hotels close to downtown San Diego and most area attractions on the waterfront. We found one on Shelter Island San Diego, Koa Kai Resort, that was a hit with our family. Here we were able to enjoy another afternoon on the beach and in the pool.
Again, dine with water views. Shelter Island has a couple of fun options. One is Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle. Here you can enjoy a casual meal while watching pelicans and seagulls trying to score your own. Or sit on the patio at Vessel Restaurant at Kona Kai Resort. The patio overlooks the marina, pool and beach and has an excellent happy hour. Then roast s’mores on the beach to finish a day of San Diego fun.
Optional substitution: San Diego boasts a variety of authentic Japanese, Italian and Mexican foods. If you still have the energy, venture out into one of these districts like Little Italy, where you are sure to find food to please the whole family.
Morning #2 of 2-Day San Diego Itinerary
Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument is on Point Loma and has an old lighthouse, as well as interesting tide pools. It opens at 9 a.m. Arrive at opening and spend one to two hours here. It is a spectacular vantage point. Cabrillo National Monument is open year-round. In the winter you may be able to spot whales. One to two hours should cover a brief visit to the Visitors Center, the lighthouse and then down to the tide pools.
Next head over to the USS Midway.
USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway Museum is a really fun and important piece of American history. The museum is housed aboard this famous and permanently docked aircraft carrier that was the longest serving of the 20th century. It is really eye opening to see how the sailors, pilots and officers lived aboard the ship from 1945 to 1992.
Be sure to make time for the tour of the bridge to see where the carrier is steered and how the captain oversees flight operations. It was here that we learned about the new nuclear powered aircraft carriers that only have to refuel after 20 years. Imagine how excited we were to spot one of the only ten of these that the United States Navy operates later from our resort balcony! On the way out, it is worth the splurge to let the kids experience the virtual reality flight simulator.
This itinerary wraps up a busy and perfect weekend for families in San Diego.
San Diego Hotels
Looking for family-friendly hotels in San Diego? Here are two that we really enjoyed!
La Jolla Shores Hotel
La Jolla Shores Hotel is set directly on the beach, with easy access. The kid-friendly beachfront patio restaurant, spacious rooms some with kitchenettes and neighboring park make this the ultimate family friendly San Diego hotel. It also has old Spanish charm along with ping pong tables and other fun family activities scattered throughout the property. The village area surrounding it has delightful restaurants and an authentic non-touristy beachfront charm.
Kona Kai Resort
Kona Kai is an unexpectedly family friendly resort. Trendy, yet still welcoming to families, this resort welcomes kids with heir own check in desk and prize for completing their registration. Yet it was the in room binoculars to watch the ships go by and the lemon tree by the pool that delighted our kids the most. However, in summer month there are also movies by the pool and a kids club. While we visited just before summer kicked in, we were offered sand toys, cruiser bikes and so much more to keep the entire family occupied.