San Diego, Calif., is a destination custom-made for families, offering pleasant year-round weather, dozens of public parks, 70 miles of beaches and a myriad of family-friendly museums. Whether your kids enjoy splashing the day away by the water, seeing animals at one of the nation's preeminent zoos, or taking a day trip to an old gold mine, this southern California destination has plenty of activities to amuse children of all ages.
Find a Family-Friendly Beach
San Diego has dozens of beaches, and at some of them, you can rent boogie boards and surfboards, or even a bike. Coronado Beach is an excellent choice for families if you're staying in that part of town. La Jolla Shores has wide, gently sloping sand and fewer waves because it's protected in a cove. Meanwhile, nearby La Jolla Cove is tops for great tidepools.
Check Out the Birch Aquarium
Budding oceanographers and kids who love animals will enjoy La Jolla's Birch Aquarium, where they can see a marine laboratory, learn about products made from things in the sea and watch seahorses and leafy sea dragons floating in the water.
The Birch Aquarium is a great aquarium; it's large enough to have lots of interesting exhibits for older kids, but it's also small enough that younger children won't get too tired or lose interest.
Visit Sea World San Diego
Sea World is home to Shamu the killer whale and dozens of other marine animal acts and exhibits. It has lots of shows, a few fun rides and attractions—and some fun touch pools, too.
If you or your kids have seen the film Blackfish, you may have already decided that Sea World isn't for you. Nevertheless, it remains a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike year after year.
Go to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
The world-famous San Diego Zoo runs two parks in the San Diego area: a traditional zoo, located in Balboa Park, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park located north of town. Allow a full day to see each one if you can.
The Safari Park offers a different experience, with fewer cages and a chance to see some animals living together like they might in the wild. It's a long drive out of town and hard to reach via public transportation.
Beware that during the busiest times of year (summer), both parks can be hot during the day—and crowded.
Explore Balboa Park
Balboa Park is home to a lot more than just the zoo. Lots of families overlook Balboa Park, thinking all the museums there are boring or that the kids wouldn't like it. Besides the museums, there are lots of open, shady spaces where the kids can run and play.
Play at Mission Bay
The best skating spot for the younger crowd is along Mission Bay, which also has several playgrounds and acres of grass for kite flying. Teens will like the skating action along the Mission Beach boardwalk, which is a busy skating and biking thoroughfare.
Mission Bay is one of the San Diego's most beautiful public parks, with lots of shoreline and things to do for kids who enjoy playing in the water. It can be very crowded on weekends.
Take the Kids to Legoland
Legoland California is just north of San Diego. This park features lots of things made of the ever-popular Lego blocks and is a fun (and quiet) option for smaller children.
Legoland is the best park in California for young children, with lots of rides designed with little ones in mind. Adults enjoy all the Lego creations. Older children may be bored, especially if they're the type who like roller coasters and thrill rides.
Visit Belmont Park
Belmont Park's Mission Beach boardwalk features two restored landmarks: the Plunge, Southern California's largest indoor swimming pool when it opened in 1925 and the Giant Dipper, a restored, wooden roller coaster sporting more than 2,600 feet of tracks and 13 hills.
Visit Old Town
Old Town is home to many of San Diego's first buildings, including Presidio Park, declared in 1774, and many small houses built in the early 19th century. Adults and older children will find the architecture and historic buildings fascinating, whereas young children might enjoy the many authentic Mexican restaurants or the various celebrations throughout the year. Las Posadas, an annual holiday festival, includes a traditional nativity procession with a piñata at the end for the children.
Visit the New Children's Museum
The New Children's Museum is downtown near the Convention Center and includes a vast selection of rotating, interactive art installations that little ones will love. Past exhibitions include "Food Truckin'," where kids could design and "drive" their own miniature food truck, and "No Rules... Except," a room filled with 40 mattresses and 165 handmade, scattered tire cushions, encouraging active play.
Tour Petco Park
Sports-living kids in San Diego may enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of the San Diego Padres' home turf. Petco Park's guided tours include looks into the press box, the team's dugout, and history about the Western Metal Supply Co. If you're visiting from April through September, you can pair your game-day ticket with an "early bird" tour.
Take a Day Trip to Julian
Take a day trip to nearby Julian, a historic mining town with a gold mine open for tours and apple pies galore. (Julian is well-known of its apple orchards and accompanying bakeries.) The town is also close to the Oasis Camel Dairy, which is open to visitors about once a month.
Visit the Mount Palomar Observatory
Science-minded kids may enjoy the Mount Palomar Observatory, home to three working telescopes, including the 200-inch Hale Telescope. The observatory is open to the public daily, but also offers hour-long tours, open to kids over five years old. There's also a visitor center that's home to many exciting exhibitions about space.
Splash Around at Aquatica
This San Diego waterpark includes an exciting mix of thrilling rides, as well as relaxing wave pools and lazy rivers. Adventurous kids will love the Hooroo Run, which has a steep, 80-foot drop. Meanwhile, little ones can splash around in Slippity Dippity, a children's area with a waterfall.
Take a Surfing Lesson
Kids as young as five can give surfing a try—and there's no better place to ride the waves than in San Diego. While there are accredited schools on nearly every beach, Pacific Surf School, along Pacific Beach, is among the best, offering private and group lessons as well as longer-term camps.
Go on a Whale Watching Adventure
If you're in San Diego from December through April, take the time to go on a whale-watching cruise from downtown. During these months, more than 20,000 of the animals begin their journey from Alaska down to Mexico. (If you're visiting between June and September, you can seek out blue whales, the largest animals on earth.)
Learn About Anthropological History at the Museum of Man
The unique Museum of Man is an anthropology museum—with a twist. Exhibitions are most appropriate for older kids but include everything from Egyptian mummies to an in-depth presentation about the legends, myths, and lore behind monsters.
Get Hands-On with Science at the Fleet Science Center
Located in Balboa Park, the Fleet Science Center is home to the world's first IMAX Dome theater, as well as a 76-foot planetarium. Permanent exhibits focus on all things science, ranging from a unique exploration into San Diego's water sources to "So Watt!," a clever exhibition on energy.