A Southern California beach town where fish tacos reign supreme and sunsets set the tone of the evening with a vibrant display of eclectic personalities.
Surfers race with boards under arm to catch the breaks their friends are already cutting loose on.
Muscle men cruise by holding onto handlebars 5 feet high with stereo speakers and a beer shoved into their stubby holders.
A man in his mid-sixties skates by on roller blades lost in the tune of his own drum.
Young dread-locked girlfriends argue over the placement of the volleyball and fall over each other giggling, then walk towards the San Diego sunset with arms draped over each other.
And as you’ll read below, there are a ton of cool things to do in San Diego with kids!
San Diego is the definition of cool
“Cool means being able to hang with yourself. All you have to ask yourself is ‘Is there anybody I’m afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I’d get nervous?’ If not, then you’re cool.”
In San Diego, you have the freedom to rock on up and be your good self.
It’s not a “look at me” scene but more ‘This is Me”.
It’s eclectic retro soul does not stop with the people.
The boardwalk stretching from Pacific Beach to Mission Beach is a mixture of brightly painted two story homes, smaller beach shacks, and white Adobe structures with cactus gardens of all shapes and sizes.
Mixed in between are bars and taco corners.
The spirit of its beach community origin is alive and reflected in the laughter and play of everyone on its shores. There’s not much else required of you in San Diego.
San Diego’s close proximity to Mexico gives you a colorful and unique flavor. You can guarantee the fish tacos will be full of cilantro and the local beer light and citrusy
San Diego – a Kidifornia adventure for your family memories
We visited San Diego, California on a paid campaign with Visit California to share the amazing Kidifornia adventures on offer in this Golden State.
You know a family vacation in San Diego is worth sharing when you see your children quickly slip into a relaxed and joyful state.
Visiting San Diego reminded Kalyra so much of our former Australian beach home, Burleigh Heads. She could not stop sharing her memories and started to feel homesick.
She really loved the San Diego attractions we experienced and immersing herself in that beach lifestyle and energy.
They will be talking about our San Diego vacation for a long time!
Besides just soaking up the beach lifestyle, below are all our suggested fun things to do in San Diego with kids.
Things to do in San Diego with Kids
1. Bike the Beach and Bay
We arrived in San Diego after a long flight day after our initial flight leaving Raleigh was delayed (it happens).
After checking into the Bahia Resort Hotel in Mission Bay, first on our list of family activities in San Diego was jumping on a couple of bike rentals from Action Sport Rentals at Bahia, and hitting the bike path.
The tension released a little more with each new peddle and breath of fresh salty air.
This is ME!
It’s amazing how much nature and getting active with it can change your psyche.
And it’s why we do so much outdoor activities with our kids and will choose it first over any museum or attraction.
We want them to learn that nature is their friend, their place to root and ground and rely on when life feels overwhelming and exhausting.
We followed the bike path around Mission Bay, which is the quieter area for water activities, boating, kayaking and supping.
The bike path wasn’t as busy and filled with joggers and walkers like the beach path.
At the top of the bay we cut west to hit the bike path and into the San Diego energetic vibe for our first taste of the San Diego beaches, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.
This ride ended up being one of our most fun things to do in San Diego with kids. We enjoyed bike dodging between all the characters sharing the path with us.
It also became my morning running path – great way to start the San Diego day!
We cycled past Lahaina Beach House in Pacific Beach, which brought back memories of our first time in San Diego in 2006 before kids having beers on the deck watching the incredible San Diego sunsets.
It’s not a place I’d recommend you stop in San Diego with your kids, but if you keep cycling a little further, you’ll come to South Draft Mission on the beach front at Mission Beach.
2. Fuel Up with Nachos and Craft Brew at South Draft Mission
San Diego is known to have one of the top craft brew scenes in the country.
Being gluten free we can’t explore it too much, but we did find a gluten free beer on the menu at Draft!
Grab a seat on the front porch at South Draft Mission, and a nice cold beer (they do plenty of local brews) and a plate of ginormous shredded beef nachos to share.
The nachos here are one to remember – full of flavor without being too heavy.
As for beer, we had the Coconut Contender from the local Duck Foot Brewery – the founder has celiac disease, so all beers are gluten free.
We love you!!
When John Morrison started belting out Love Street as I took my first sip I couldn’t have been happier. It was my perfect California moment.
For the kids, order them a Mexican soda which is the rage in San Diego. Its soda made from pure cane sugar and nicer tasting than that other stuff.
We tried Squirt, the grapefruit flavor, which became Kalyra’s favorite California moment.
3. Stand Up Paddle Boarding and Kayaking on Mission Bay
You know by now that one of our favorite family adventure activities is stand up paddle boarding.
I love the stillness and serenity of just me being out there on the water with the salty breeze on my back. I slip into true Tao spirit on a SUP.
I’m balanced, strong and focused, yet humble, relaxed and in flow.
I love to paddle with Kalyra and watch her perform handstands, jumps and cartwheels.
I was immensely proud of her as we were paddling around Mission Bay. She stopped and fell behind me and when I turned to see what she was doing, I saw her maneuvering her board and paddle, so she could pick up a plastic water bottle she passed floating in the water.
My heart swelled.
These are the moments that make all the challenges and sacrifices of this full-time family travel life worthwhile.
Savannah is water cautious, so she doesn’t often embrace supping. However, she loves kayaking, so we jumped in the tandem kayak together to explore the bay.
You can hire paddle boards and kayak rentals from Active Sport Rentals near The Bahia Resort . They also have other locations in the Mission Bay area.
4. Get Retro and Funky at the Corvette Diner
The Corvette Diner is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
It’s a diner that pays homage to every era time has gone by since diners were a thing.
From a brightly colored 50s retro diner with a milk bar and vintage care behind the hostess, to the train room with a black and white film showing above each booth, to a modern red room dedicated to corvette car lovers.
A radio DJ booth pumps out Frank Sinatra, New York, New York and other classic tunes like Wild Thing, which matches the 70s groove room we dined in.
The black walls are painted with Fluro signs reminding us to Make Love Not War; appreciate Peace, Love and Music; and embrace Woodstock as our therapy.
Look up and you’ll continue the messaging with psychedelic posters on the celling. How did they know this was my vibe?
Waitstaff wear rainbow colored scrunchies and black dresses with Fluro trim.
Loretta, our energetic waitress stops to decorate the girls’ hair with multi colored popsicle sticks and gives the girls flashlights to draw on the table with.
They soon break into a Mashed Potato pom pom dance and gather around those having a birthday to sing to them.
The Corvette Diner is like the nightclub for families. I promise you before the night is through, you’ll be singing at the top of your lungs with the DJ – “Let’s hear it for the boys!”
When the kids are done with their hair, a bit of table art and their dinner, they can head out to the arcade out back for some good old-fashioned games.
Be sure to high five a few of the greats along the wall when you do.
Hello Elvis, you fine thing you!
5. Watch Sunset at Pacific Beach Pier
Sunset in San Diego can’t be missed! And it’s one of the best things to do in California that doesn’t have to cost a cent!
You can enjoy the sunset from any of the beaches in San Diego.
No matter where you stand you’ll see a giant orange orb dip below the ocean’s horizon. And because summer rarely sees rain in California, you’ve got great odds for a terrific nightly show.
Our girls were happy cartwheeling and playing on the sand on Pacific Beach next to the pier while we watched the sun go down.
The sunsets are one of the most beautiful things to see in San Diego, and there’s only one thing to do after such a pretty close out to the day…
Celebrate with ice cream!
6. Grab an Ice cream from Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream
Craving ice cream in San Diego? Head to Garnet Road, the main street leading to the pier at Pacific Beach.
Tucked in between a lot of great restaurants and casual cafes is local ice cream favorite, Hammond’s Gourmet ice cream.
Not sure which flavor to buy? You can taste test. Or try one of their waffle cone flights.
Ice cream is always a highlight for our girls!
They had a mint choc chip and Craig had his usual favorite, butter pecan.
Whilst we didn’t get it anywhere else, it would be hard to beat as the best ice cream in San Diego.
7. Experience Culture at Balboa Park
Looking for more San Diego attractions? Welcome to the cultural playground for children and adults.
Balboa Park, San Diego is known as one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids and has everything to suit all ages and your family’s preferences:
- art galleries
- science centers
- performing arts centers
- and even one of America’s best zoos, the San Diego Zoo!
Even just wandering around and appreciating the stunning Spanish Renaissance and Southwest architecture and beautiful gardens is enjoyable.
Balboa Park is America’s largest urban cultural park, is ranked as one of the best parks in the world, and is one of the best things to do in Southern California.
We only managed to spend a few hours at Balboa Park, and out of the 17 Balboa Park museums and endless lush and landscaped gardens, here is what we experienced.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
The Science Center is an interactive educational playground for the kids. These are the kind of places we look for to check off a few of our homeschooling boxes!
The girls learned more about the water cycle, energy and motion, and different knots.
We had a blast in the special exhibit (extra fee), Mythbusters. We didn’t even know it was a TV show until going inside the Science Center.
We had fun trying out the different myth busting experiments like getting changed into a superhero costume in a phone booth as fast as you can and testing how wet we’d get walking and then running under a rain shower!
There are over 100 hands on exhibits in the Fleet Science Center at Balboa Park.
Admission also includes an IMAX film. Unfortunately, we just missed the Panda film and didn’t have time to stay for the next showing.
Japanese Friendship Garden
There is an extra fee to enter the Japanese Friendship Garden, which is an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama.
There’s an upper and lower strolling path where you can see koi pond, landscaped gardens and a Zen garden viewing deck.
It’s a very tranquil space. There’s also a tea pavilion overlooking the gardens.
Spanish Village Art Center
Pop into the Spanish Village Art Center so your kids can get a look at a working artist’s studio in a charming Spanish town square.
Small adobe studios painted with blue walls and yellow trims host a variety of artists and even offer art classes, glass blowing lessons and even more to explore your creative side.
From the studios to the flowers, this place bursts with color and reflective energy. Kids will love hopscotching and cart wheeling over the rainbow chalky colored stone tiles.
The Botanical Building
The Botanical Building houses more than 2,000 tropical plants. Capturing the wood structure with the lily pond in front is one of the most photographed sections of Balboa Park.
Some other museums and Balboa Park attractions that came highly recommended were:
- the Natural History Museum Center
- San Diego Air and Space museum
- San Diego Zoo
- and The San Diego Museum of Art
This park is one of the best all-round places to visit in San Diego, with something for everyone!
8. Explore Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Looking for historic places to visit in Southern California?
San Diego County is not just about the amazing beaches and delicious food. There is deep history here to experience.
One of the best places to do that is exploring Old Town, San Diego which was the cities first downtown and represents San Diego’s Hispanic heritage from 1821 to 1872.
There are plenty of beautiful old buildings to look at such as the one-room Mason Street School, the San Diego Courthouse, and the Colorado Hotel which features the original stagecoach.
There are plenty of museums you can look at to help tell the story.
Many other buildings surround the La Plaza de Las Armas which was the place of religious procession, political activities, horse races and bull fights.
You can also interact with interpretive merchants who dress in period-attire and chat about the activities in the pueblo.
The park is free, although some of the museums may have a small entry fee.
Of course, we had to stop into visit the most haunted home in America, or so they say.
Whaley House Museum, whose haunted reputation dates back to the 1850s, is one of the top things to do in San Diego Old Town and was built on the land where Yankee Jim, a boat thief was hanged!
Savannah clung to my left leg the entire time, which made it hard for me to run from any ghostly figures.
Unfortunately, they did not want to come out to greet us.
I did enjoy looking at the theater upstairs and imagining how 150 people once fit in the small room for village entertainment.
We enjoyed walking around the market area of Festa de Reyes. There are restaurants here as well as wine and chocolate tasting rooms.
It inflamed our kids curiosity for Mexico and now wish to visit. I love how places like this can broaden their horizons. I hope they take me with them.
If you’re looking for a place to eat in Old Town, Casa Guadalajara in Old Town has award winning Mexican food.
9. Don’t Miss Ocean Beach, San Diego
Come as you are and do your thing in Ocean Beach, or OB.
All are welcome in this beach town just over the San Diego river estuary from Mission Beach.
Ocean Beach reminds me so much of Byron Bay in Australia before it became yuppified.
There are a few tidy waves out front to the right of the Ocean Beach Pier and then further around are beach volleyball courts.
When we stayed in Ocean Beach in 2004, we loved spending our days playing beach volleyball and enjoying relaxed beach living.
There’s a grassy strip out the front which is full of adults who haven’t lost the joy of unencumbered play with friends and strangers.
Groups of men and women support each other’s AcroYoga poses, another group encourages balance mastery on the slack lines, hula hoop wanabees wiggle those hips (my girls included) and others let their spirits free in drumming circles with bongo drums, acoustic guitars and voices.
It’s an experience.
Let your kids join in. Be sure to throw a couple of dollars in the tip bucket for the use of the hoops.
OB style is pure grit. You know what they say, we should all eat a little more dirt!
Definitely one of the cool places to visit in California!
10. Eat Lunch with Amazing Views at Wonderland Ocean Pub
Poke, surfer bowls, fresh spring rolls and tacos, take your pick. Wonderland Ocean Pub in Ocean Beach is kid-friendly and the best spot to eat for ocean views and tasty food.
Grab a high table or window bench seat and enjoy watching the surfers and the carnival atmosphere of the grassy strip below.
I grabbed a guacamole for lunch, and it was delicious.
It’s not your normal guacamole, this has the California twist to it. It’s topped with sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeno relish, crushed macadamia nuts, cilantro and cotija cheese.
And of course we enjoyed fish tacos!
11. Visit Ocean Beach Farmers Market
We love visiting a good local farmers market with our kids and the Ocean Beach Farmers Market did not disappoint.
How could you not be happy with live music, fresh produce, delicious local food, alternative stores and clothes and jewelry.
They close off the main street on Wednesdays between 4 and 8pm for it.
We wandered up one side, then stopped into Belching Beaver Brewery for a quick local craft IPA brew, and the kids enjoyed a game of jenga, before wandering down the other side.
That was the side where we discovered an entire stall devoted to gluten free, dairy free desserts. Of course, we grabbed several things to try – we rarely get spoiled like that.
We also found Mystech where we spent some time learning about the natural healing energy of 7.83HZ and mother nature (duh) and bought a bracelet for all of us to counteract all the computer time we have and exposure to harmful EMFs.
We then listened to some of the live music, which had the street jammed and pumping and then grabbed a healthy quinoa bowl from Fresh of the Bowls Street Food for dinner.
We took dinner with us to Sunset Cliffs for another one of those incredible Southern California sunsets.
12. Sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Many people recommended we take in one of the famous San Diego sunsets from Sunset Cliffs, which is just a couple of miles south of the Ocean Beach pier.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a 68-acre City of San Diego regional park which extends 1½ miles along the Point Loma peninsula’s western shoreline.
You get expansive ocean views, dramatic cliff formations and caves, an intertidal area, and in some spaces plenty of space and rocks for the kids to run over way back from the edge.
Look out for the mermaid atop Ross Rock that juts out from the cliff face.
We parked on Sunset Cliffs Blvd, then walked a bit to the large open nature cliffs area.
Watch your children walking along Sunset Cliffs Blvd to get to the nature cliffs area. There are steep drop offs from the cliff.
There are pathways to get down to the beaches below for the adventurous and popular for surfers and those in their twenties.
Although we had a cloudy sunset, we still enjoyed the experience.
Head north to La Jolla, San Diego
Just up from the main Pacific Beach area of San Diego, is the small beachside community of La Jolla.
You’ll need at least half a day to explore here.
When we visited in 2006 we spent the day bumming on the beach while our new mate went surfing. La Jolla quickly became one of our favorite places to visit in San Diego County.
We didn’t have as much time in La Jolla with the kids this time around (and you know beach bumming is a thing of the past once you become a parent).
Here’s what we managed to experience.
13. Take a Coastal Hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
One of my favorite family activities was to go hiking in the Torrey Pines State National Reserve.
It is a couple of miles north of La Jolla and is 2,000 acres of coastal state park.
It has a collection of coastal hiking trails with ocean vistas and native vegetation, including the rare Torrey Pine, which is only found in Torrey Pines State Reserve and Santa Rosa Island.
The Torrey Pines hiking trails are of various levels for all ages and run along the cliff faces or switch back down to the shores below.
We hiked the Guy Fleming trail, which is an easy 2/3-mile loop walk and one of the most popular Torrey Pines hikes.
It offers a little diversity through shady pines, rugged orange cliffs, purple and white wildflowers and cactus with broad spiky leaves.
Observing the Torrey Pines near the cliff face and further back gave the girls a great lesson on erosion.
I wrote in this post how the walk quickly turned my girls from whining to giggling and feeling relaxed and grounded. Nature knows best.
I wish we had more time to do the Razor Point Trail as you pass by beautiful red sandstone cliffs and get to climb the Red Butte which we gazed at from afar.
Hiking in Torrey Pines State Park is one of the best San Diego activities for getting out in nature. We will be back !
There is a $15 access fee to drive up to the parking lots on the bluff.
Although many people can be seen walking up the road to the cliffs from the free parking down below outside the reserve!
14. Play with Seals at La Jolla Cove
The Cove is a tiny beach tucked between sandstone cliffs and one of La Jolla’s best-known spots.
La Jolla Cove is apparently a good spot for diving and snorkeling when surf conditions are calm.
Follow the smell to reach the resident seals playing and sleeping on the rocks.
There were plenty of pups around when we visited. We had a great giggle at the baby seal that sounded like a lamb as he waddled over to get some milk from Mum.
He could be a contender for the America’s Got Talent crown.
There are more seals near the Children’s Pool at Casa Beach, and seeing the seals is one of the best things to do in La Jolla with kids.
Around from the Cove are the La Jolla Caves.
You can pay to go down into one of the caves or just stand on the point to admire the views, including the many kayakers in front of you looking back to the cave ridden coastline.
La Jolla’s Shores is a mile-long beach and great for families.
The region is also well known for its seal life in the tide pools during low tide and the town is great for eating and shopping.
15. Grab a Coffee from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Bird Rock is a cute small town in the LA Jolla area as you head back to Pacific Beach.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters source sustainable beans, pay fair wages, and roast the coffee that they brew for you! It’s a popular local community minded cafe that has won awards for their coffee.
To keep our kids happy, we grabbed them one of the yummy cinnamon rolls!
Looking for Good coffee in San Diego? Go here! And next time I want to visit their location in Del Mar, the views look extraordinary.
16. Eat Fish Tacos at a Local Fave!
We asked our waiter at South Draft in Mission Beach, where is the best Mexican food in San Diego?
He immediately recommended Oscars Mexican Seafood as a great local, hole in the wall place to grab fish tacos in San Diego.
He warned us there may be lines, and we avoided them by visiting the shack near La Jolla at lunch time.
I can’t decide whether I liked the smoked fish taco or spicy grilled shrimp tacos better. Get one of both and let me know!
Grab a squirt and a space at the stool in front of the graffiti wall and dig in. Not only tasty, but one of the cheap places to eat in San Diego.
Other attractions in San Diego for Kids
We had the following places and attractions recommended as things to do in San Diego with kids.
We ran out of time for them:
- Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla
- Cabrillo National Monument – San Diego’s only national park and a popular location for tide pooling.
- SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo
- Legoland California in nearby Carlsbad
- Coronado Island
- The Donut Bar for innovative & locally sourced donuts. The menu changes daily & includes vegan choices. Next time girls. Next time!
- Belmont Park – the beachfront amusement park on Mission Beach.
Where to Stay in San Diego – The Bahia Resort Hotel, Mission Bay
Bahia Resort Hotel is a family-friendly hotel set back from the beach on Mission Bay.
It sure is hard to beat beach views from a hotel, but I liked how Bahia was a couple of blocks back.
The boardwalk running along Mission Beach to Pacific Beach can get very lively. It might not be the ideal place to stay in San Diego, especially with younger kids.
In fact, you won’t find a lot of hotels in San Diego along the boardwalk; it’s mostly beach rentals, and the odd backpacker or hotel thrown in between.
With the Bahia Hotel, you are a 3-minute walk to the beach but have complete serenity.
And you get views anyway – Mission Bay views from your own private beach!
I loved walking out my cabin door directly onto the sand to sit on the beach chair and meditate of a morning … and enjoying it with a glass of chardonnay of an evening.
Yep. This is Me.
The girls loved the trees outside our cabin, which were spectacular and great for climbing.
When you first arrive at the Bahia, you’ll think it doesn’t look much like a resort, yet once you explore San Diego, you realize it’s completely in keeping with the San Diego style.
We loved it’s laid back look and having a cabin right on the beachfront was awesome.
The resort has different events like movie nights for families, and offers bike rental, as well as kayaks and paddle boards.
There is a pool and tennis courts and a fitness center.
The food was also terrific.
We don’t usually like hotel buffet breakfasts, but this one was one to rave about. Espresso coffees were included (with almond milk) and the food choices were fresh, diverse and tasty.
If you’re looking for Mission Bay San Diego hotels, consider staying at Bahia.
We also had dinner one night at Café Bahia, the Bahia hotels signature restaurant, which was one of our favorite meals of the trip.
You do not have to be staying at the resort to eat here.
I highly recommend you add it into your San Diego itinerary.
The tequila lime shrimp had a delicious sauce which was an exciting blend of kiwi salsa and mango puree.
We were lucky enough to try the sea scallop’s specialty that was only coming out on the menu the week after we left.
It was sea scallops with grilled corn diced chorizo and chili oil on a bed of herb ricotta.
How do people even know how to put these flavors together? It was truly innovative and delicious.
And the kids were kept full and happy with items like burgers and chicken tenders!
The service here is also friendly and exceptional.