20 family-friendly things to do in San Diego

From building sandcastles to meeting panda bears, San Diego makes for a great getaway with kids.

Mission Bay Watersports -Brett Shoaf article
It’s easy to while away an afternoon in San Diego’s Mission Bay. Photo: Brett Shoaf

Powdery white beaches and swaying palm trees? The standard-bearer of zoos and roller coasters? If you’re pining for an extra dose of August, make a run for the border—the border of California and Mexico, that is. San Diego is in a perpetual state of summer, and the fall might be the best time to go. While it still feels like summer and the ocean is warm enough to swim in, hotel rates are a fraction of what they are in July (at an average of $125, there is a savings of about $40 per night). During the month of October (mark your calendar for next year), the city makes it even more enticing with its Kids Free San Diego promotion, which offers free admission for those 12 and under at major attractions and museums, as well as countless other incentives (free meals, trolley rides, surf lessons) at more than 100 venues. My nine-year-old daughter, Ava, and I had an absolute blast when we went to San Diego earlier this month (on our last morning, walking barefoot on the beach, Ava asked if we could move there—it was that good).

Here are just some of the things you and your kids will love.

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The Giant Dipper, a classic wooden coaster, reaches top speeds of 89 km/h. Photo: Kathryn Hayward

FOR THRILL-SEEKERS

Walking into Belmont Park, a 90-year-old amusement park on the edge of Mission Beach, feels a little like walking onto a movie set. It’s unbelievably clean and quaint, and if you go mid-week (during the off-season), there are absolutely no lineups. Go for multiple rides on the Crazy Submarine or Liberty Carousel. A ride on the Giant Dipper—a wooden roller coaster designed in 1925 (it was completely restored in 1990)—is a must for older kids. Be prepared, though: It’s not nearly as tame as it looks (“It feels like my face is melting!” my nine-year-old screamed). There is also laser tag, a zipline, minigolf and a wicked wave simulator for on-land surfing and water-skiing.

For a full-day adrenaline rush, head about 45 minutes north to Legoland, which offers more than 60 rides, a water park, famous cityscapes made of blocks and a special area for building your own creations.

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You can rent bikes to cruise down the boardwalk at Mission Beach. Credit: sandiego.org

FOR WATER BABIES

There are an inordinate number of fantastic beaches in San Diego, and each local has his or her own favourite. It’s safe to say, though, that Coronado Beach, the two-kilometre strip across from San Diego Bay, wins the beauty contest. Due to its high mica content, the white sand actually sparkles. The water entry is sloped, the waves are gentle, and there’s even a great spot for flying kites—it’s no wonder it consistently ranks in the top 10 lists of beaches in the U.S.

The five-kilometre boardwalk that links Pacific Beach and Mission Beach lends the area a Coney Island feel. Stake out your slice of sand early in the morning with an umbrella (Mission Beach Rentals has everything you need, including fat bikes outfitted with kid trailers and GoPro cameras). If you get peckish, you can choose from any of the taquerias, pizza joints and souvlaki shops nearby.

Nearby Mission Bay is generally less crowded and way more relaxed—you’ll see a lot more stand-up paddleboarders and lazy sandcastle architects. My daughter and I spent a leisurely hour tooling around the bay in a FunCat, which is essentially a floating motorized lounge chair (it was almost as refreshing as a nap). If you’re feeling more ambitious, there are 40 kilometres of shoreline trails tailor made for hiking, biking and rollerblading.

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Giant pandas spend up to 12 hours a day eating bamboo. Photo: Kathryn Hayward

FOR ANIMAL LOVERS

The San Diego Zoo was one of the first in the world to house its animals in more-natural habitats, and conservation and preservation are key planks in its mandate. A visit to the famous 100-acre park offers incredible chances to get up close and simply gape at the cute and bizarre creatures of the animal kingdom. Check out the winsome koalas endlessly chowing down on eucalyptus or the incredibly slow-moving Galapagos tortoises who take 10 seconds just to turn their heads. The zoo offers a special early bird package that lets guests in before the park officially opens. You get ample time to watch the pandas get their first meal (of many) of the day, as well as a two-hour tour of the park’s highlights. Note: The leopards get quite animated around small children (they know a tasty snack when they see one—thank goodness for heavy-duty fencing).

If you’re feeling more wild, head 48 kilometres northeast of the city to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a preserve where elephants, tigers, rhinos, gazelles and buffalo roam over 1,800 acres.

The Star of India still sets sail in the San Diego harbor—it’s the oldest merchant sailing vessel in use. Photo: Maritime Museum
The Star of India, the oldest merchant sailing vessel in use, still sets sail in the San Diego harbour. Photo: Maritime Museum of San Diego

FOR EXPLORERS

Wannabe pirates and sailors should book half a day to tour all the vessels at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, which is dedicated to restoring historic boats. The majestic Star of India, built in 1863, is the world’s oldest merchant sailing vessel still in operation. In the late 1800s, the ship brought hundreds of immigrants from England to New Zealand, and today you can see just how crappy and miserable their quarters were (though perhaps not as cramped as they were on the claustrophobic USS Dolphin, the deepest diving submarine in the world, and the B-39 Russian diesel submarine, which are both open for tours). The newest ship at the museum is the San Salvador, a reconstruction of the vessel that first reached the San Diego harbour in 1542.

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Inside the USS Dolphin. Photo: Kathryn Hayward

Located just a few minutes away in downtown San Diego, The New Children’s Museum lets kids learn about the arts in a very hands-on way. In an immersive exhibit about the role food plays in culture, kids can make their own food out of modelling clay, play pizza delivery or craft a tune using musical instruments made out of kitchen utensils.

Photo: Kathryn Hayward
You’ll need to allocate lots of time to check out all the details at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Photo: Kathryn Hayward

My daughter and I went into the San Diego Model Railroad Museum on a bit of a lark: She outgrew her Thomas the Tank Engine phase years ago. But this 27,000-square-foot museum is utterly mesmerizing. The scale-model layout of the Tehachapi Pass painstakingly reconstructs the single-track railroad built through the mountains. In the miniature version of the Pacific Desert Lines, there are even teeny-weeny napkin dispensers and place mats in a café (keep an eye out for the lost shark swimming in one of the backyard pools!). In another room, model train enthusiasts were busy at work putting the finishing touches on a special Halloween track, complete with zombies, “Thriller” video extras and Stormtroopers.

In the mid-50s Bali Hai on Shelter Island regularly hosted luaus. Photo: Derek Plank.
In the mid-’50s, the Bali Hai Restaurant on Shelter Island hosted regular luaus. Photo: Derek Plank

FOR NOSTALGIA TRIPPERS

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, San Diego had aspirations of being the affordable version of Hawaii and cottoned on to the tiki trend with Polynesian-themed hotels and restaurants. While many buildings have been demolished or blandly renovated, there are a few notable survivors. On Shelter Island, the Bali Hai Restaurant still beckons diners with its kitschy tiki-inspired turret, which locals refer to as “The Goof of the Roof.” A renovation in 2010 kept many of the original details (gorgeous bar, exposed wooden beams), as well as the classic cocktails (be forewarned: The mai tai is very potent). The kids’ menu offers familiar comfort foods. The panoramic views of North San Diego harbour are spectacular (we lingered over lunch so we could see the results of a sailing regatta).

With its tiki torches, lush lagoons and tidy bungalows, there is a charming early-’60s vibe to Paradise Point Resort & Spa. When the property was first developed in 1963, the goal was to create a Fantasy Island-type setting, and that feeling lingers to this day. You don’t have to be a guest of the resort to visit three of its restaurants or rent paddleboards from the marina.

Across Mission Bay, the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa is of a similar vintage. As you pass through the lava rock pillars at the entrance, the first thing you hear is the roar of a two-storey waterfall that splashes into a pond full of giant koi (this is the kind of place that a Sean Connery-era Bond might have stayed). The 310-room resort features Polynesian totem poles, 100 different species of palm trees and even a family of parrots. Its chicly modern Oceana Coastal Kitchen restaurant is open to the public (the tiered tower of seafood is totally worth the splurge).

And for a throwback of a different sort, Corvette Diner in Point Loma offers up malt shakes, giant onion rings and even more enormous burgers. Golden oldies play on the soundtrack, while classic movies play silently in a side room. And after your meal, you can play Space Invaders and Ms. Pac-Man on old-school arcade consoles.

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Balboa Park opened in 1915. Photo: Brett Shoaf

FOR CULTURE VULTURES

In addition to the San Diego Zoo, the sprawling Balboa Park is also home to 15 museums, 14 gardens and art galleries. Such a dense collection of sights makes it hard to decide what to see. If you want to stay outside, it’s easy enough to make a day of just exploring the lush grounds, checking out the carnivorous plants in the striking Balboa Park Botanical Building and listening to a free concert at the massive Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The San Diego History Center traces the development of the city with kid-friendly displays. And you can learn about the dinosaurs and sabre-toothed tigers that roamed the area thousands of years ago at the San Diego Natural History Museum, or check out the Apollo 9 Command/Service Module spacecraft at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

 

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