San Diego for Families

By: Shelley Seale

The land of sunshine — otherwise known as Southern California — is a huge vacation draw for travelers from around the world. For families in particular, San Diego offers the nearly perfect family trip: near-perfect weather, beaches, culture, sports and plenty of entertainment for kids of all ages. And the winter holidays are a great time to be there – great weather and lovely holiday things to do like Balboa Park December Nights, festivals and parades. The visitor’s bureau has a great list of 25 FREE winter/holiday activities!

Check out these top picks for a San Diego family adventure any time of year:


IMG_3777Before my most recent vacation to San Diego with family, I had visited the city numerous times on “grown-up” trips. This last time, I had my 18-month-old grandson in tow — and the first attraction on our agenda was Legoland. This adventure park is a great destination for those with young children. My grandson had a terrific time even at his young age, with plenty of activities that he could do; and the park would be fun and appropriate for children up to about eight or ten years old.

From rides to indoor and outdoor play areas, discovery centers and the dozens of intricate sculptures made out of legos (some of them containing hundreds of thousands of the little pieces), Legoland is nirvana for the young at heart. There is also an attached aquarium that makes a good add-on as well, and the adjoining hotel would complete the family adventure.

San Diego Zoo

Looking out at the zoo from the aerial tram
Looking out at the zoo from the aerial tram

I consider the San Diego Zoo the best zoo in the United States, and it’s always popular with both visitors and locals alike. Situated in the 1,200 acres of lush, sprawling Balboa Park, the zoo has some of the best animal habitats anywhere, and a highly lauded conservation program that has been saving species for over 95 years. The San Diego Zoo made international headlines with the first giant panda cubs to be born in the U.S. and survive to adulthood, and the Panda Trek remains one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits. There is even a Panda Cam for watching the panda’s antics anytime.

There is also a separate safari park just north of San Diego, offering more of a wildlife preserve experience with Africa Tram safari vehicle tours, a jungle ropes course and balloon safari that takes guests 400 feet above the grounds.

Balboa Park

IMG_3756In addition to the zoo, Balboa Park offers many other attractions and is a great place to spend an entire day. As the nation’s largest urban cultural park, Balboa Park is home to 15 major museums, several renowned performing arts venues, and acres of beautiful gardens that often host concerts and other events.

Families can start with a show at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, and then tour a portion of the park on the miniature railroad. Next you could grab lunch at Babycakes or the Dinosaur Café before taking in the Natural History Museum. Of course, don’t forget to take a ride on the Balboa Park Carousel, a piece of history from 1910 and one of the few in the world still offering the brass ring.

IMG_0596San Diego Botanic Garden

A number of different gardens make up this peaceful enclave in Encinitas, including African, bamboo, Australian, Central American, Tropical Rainforest and bird and butterfly gardens. But for families, the big draw is the Hamilton Children’s Garden, with a treehouse, rope ladders, sandbox, boating stream and numerous play areas for exploration.

The Botanic Garden hosts a number of special events, including many for children. Don’t miss Thursday Family Fun Nights, when the gardens are open until 8 pm every Thursday through August, with entertainment and special children’s activities.

Tours and Special Passes

There are a lot of other fun ways to see San Diego and some of the things it has to offer. Here are a few more recommended activities for families:

  • Old Town Trolley Tours offer a hop-on, hop-off tour that stops at the major sightseeing highlights around town.
  • San Diego Seal Tours are always a big hit with kids, as the land bus turns into a boat as it splashes into the harbor to view the sea lions.
  • The Go San Diego Card is a multi-attraction pass that includes admission to 45 attractions.
  • Explore more family fun at the Family Vacation section of the San Diego Tourism website.