San Diego is such a beautiful city and its location on the coast in Southern California means that it offers a pretty inviting climate year round. It is a great family vacation destination because there are so many fun things to do with kids. My husband and I first visited San Diego with my daughter when she was almost one. I recently attended a Visit California #kidifornia press trip where I was able to explore San Diego with my daughter again. This time my daughter is almost 11 but we did many of the same San Diego activities because they are just so much fun for kids of all ages (including me). San Diego with kids is a very manageable family vacation destination where it is easy to pack in all different kinds of fun in one easy to navigate city.
Things To Do In San Diego With Kids
1. San Diego Zoo With Kids
San Diego has one of the top zoos in the United States. If fact, Fodor’s named it one of “America’s 10 Best Zoos” with over 3,700 animals. It is broken down into Northern Frontier, Elephant Odyssey, Africa Rocks, Outback, Urban Jungle, Asian Passage, Panda Canyon, Lost Forest, Wegeforth Bowl, and Discovery Outpost. There are so many awesome animals to see from Tasmanian Devils to koalas to tapirs.
The San Diego Zoo has so much to see that I think I could spend several days just leisurely strolling around each area of the zoo. However, it is also possible to see many of the highlights of San Diego Zoo with kids in a super speedy way- the guided bus tour of the San Diego Zoo, which is included with all admission tickets.
We tried this 35 minute trip on a double-decker bus and I was a little skeptical about whether we would be able to get any good views but I was very pleasantly surprised with the amazing views we were able to get of some animals, like the polar bear, giraffe, and rhinos.
Of course, there were still some animals that I had to go back and visit by foot for the views I wanted like the hippos and other animals that you could not see at all from the bus like the orangutans.
If you have only one day or only one afternoon to spend at San Diego Zoo with kids, the bus is the way to go. Then you go visit your peak areas of interest by foot and enjoy all the beautiful plants in the San Diego Zoo botanical collection as you go.
Take the Skyfari® Aerial Tram (extra cost) back to the start and get great views on the way. Notice the red large red circle at the top of the sign poles with a number in it? You can use those to locate yourself on the zoo maps easily.
One more thing we found to be totally cool? San Diego Zoo has statues of life-size extinct animals that I didn’t even know existed in the Elephant Odyssey. Did you know that there was a Giant Ground Sloth that used to be widely distributed across the U.S.A.?
Also in the photos are the extinct mammoth and extinct American lion.
While you are at the San Diego Zoo with kids, there is lots more fun to be had in the humongous Balboa Park with over 1,200 lushly planted acres.
2. SeaWorld San Diego With Kids
SeaWorld is another must see attraction for San Diego with kids. SeaWorld is designed to inspire a love of sea life through exposure to it’s fascinating animals. SeaWorld offers interactive exhibits such as Explorer’s Reef where kids can touch white-spotted bamboo sharks, cleaner fish, and horseshoe crabs.
You can also catch shows that feature the many intelligent sea mammals such as Sea Lions LIVE, Dolphin Days, and the Killer Whale presentation.
There are even amazing opportunities to get up close and personal with sea life through add on experiences like Dine with Shamu, Dolphin Encounter, and a Behind-the-Scenes Tour (extra cost involved).
Dine With Shamu is an amazing experience that my daughter and I will always remember. It is not everyday that a 5,000 pound orca comes out of the water and onto the platform right in front of you.
The Dolphin Encounter at Dolphin Point is another amazing adventure- we were able to actually feed and touch a dolphin. So cool!! If money is not a factor, you can even make reservations to swim with the dolphins (the Dolphin Interaction Program).
The Behind-the-Scenes Tour was actually one of my favorite parts because I absolutely love seeing the work they do to rescue sea animals that need help and return them to the wild. We were able to meet with an employee who has been working for SeaWorld for 40 years and he told us all about his work. We got to see real actual things that have been removed from animal’s bellies, faces, and bodies- like plastics, hooks, and fishing nets. It moves me to tears to see all those adorable baby sea lions, baby elephant seals and baby harbor seals that they are able to help transition back into the wild. There was also an injured sea lion who was recuperating from what they speculate was a boat propeller wound. It is pretty inspiring work and it a good reminder to pick up trash on the beach and dispose of old fishing gear properly.
Another element of SeaWorld, one that I skipped on our last trip when my daughter was a baby but that was perfect for my tween this time around, were the SeaWorld Rides. There are 5 SeaWorld rides to enjoy such as the Journey to Atlantis, Riptide Rescue, and Wild Artic Ride. The Manta and the Shipwreck Rapidswater ride were my daughter’s favorites.
One more exciting piece of information- SeaWorld has many new things in the works with coming dates estimated for this summer. Keep your eyes open for Ocean Explorer, Electric Ocean, and Orca Encounter.
3. Belmont Park
I was surprised as we pulled onto San Diego’s Misson Boulevard , to spot a roller coaster right there on the street. Turns out that Belmont Park offers rides such as The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, Vertical Plunge, and Bumper Cars as well as an indoor children’s play center and fun arcade games that make for a great evening activity just before a tasty dinner on the Ocean Front Walk. We ate at Draft which features a kids menu. I enjoyed a moist and flavorful salmon burger. My daughter enjoyed an Ahi Tuna Salad but she did find the dressing to be a tad spicy (just wanted to forewarn you). Word to the wise- get the chocolate hazelnut creme brulee– it is fantastic, 10/10.
4. San Diego Beaches
Of course, while in San Diego with kids, you should take advantage of the beaches. On my last visit we took an evening stroll on the beach and watched the sunset. We also took a tour of a naval ship and left our daughter with her grandma while we went kyaking. This time, my daughter and I collected shells and made a sand castle. Whether you rent a kayak, a mini catamaran, or a paddle board or simply enjoy a spot on the beach and make sand castles, you will love the views, the sun, and the salt water.
5. Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa
The Catamaran Resort is fantastic for San Diego with kids. It is right there on Mission Bay so you can enjoy spectacular views of the beach. But that is not all, the Catamaran Resort grounds are just so inviting for kids.
It is like a tropical jungle with amazing landscaping, lots of ducks, birds, and coy fish ponds. The heated outdoor pool and the hot tub deliver on a huge part of what makes a vacation fun- relaxing poolside!
Oh, and the food. I suggest you eat at the Oceana Kitchen on the Catamaran Resort grounds. It is sooo good and the restaurant decor is also amazing. You can enjoy a tasty plate of California sea bass with farro and beets while you watch jellyfish swim by in their lighted tank or sit out on the patio by the crystal rock fire pits and enjoy the bayside view. They have a kids menu and both the breakfast and the dinner I had were delicious.
6. San Diego Museums
I also happened to notice that San Diego has lots of museums. In fact, there are over 45 museums in San Diego county. If you have enough time, you and your kids may enjoy the Museum of Man or the San Diego Museum of Art. Here are top museum picks from Trip Advisor.
San Diego with kids is a fantastic family bonding time. With so much to see, and do, and eat, the only trick will be getting them back on the plane to go home. I know my own daughter was ready to move there after just watching how pretty it was out the airplane window when we landed! I hope you have a fabulous time in San Diego and if you have any additional ideas for San Diego with kids, please feel free to share them in the comments below. Happy travels.
Oh, one more tip- if you go to San Diego in October, check with SanDiego.org for details on their special kids free offerings at selected locations.