Our post, 7 fun San Diego family activities, first appeared on Santa Fe Travelers in April 2015 and was updated and republished on 9/21/16.
Families heading to San Diego for some sun and fun often have Sea World, Leggo Land, the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari on their itineraries. But, there are more great San Diego family activities, some may be off your radar. Here are our picks of some less known fun San Diego family activities and places to visit that we think the kids would enjoy.
San Diego family activities
You may know Balboa Park, celebrating its centennial anniversary in 2015, as home to the San Diego Zoo but it offers a lot more. The park, originally built for the Panama Exposition in 1915, offers many other attractions including museums, gardens, and even a carousel and miniature railroad. Family-friendly museums at the park include:|
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a great place for families. It offers over 100 interactive exhibits including “Kid City” as well as traveling shows that will engage your kids and parents alike..
San Diego Air and Space Museum features the Kid’s Aviation Action Hangar where ther are attractions for children of all ages. Preschoolers will love the magnetic toys and pedal planes they can drive around the kid-sized airport. For grade school kids there’s the “U-Fly-It” machine, a flight simulator in a wind tunnel atmosphere. They can also don a spacesuit and explore the simulated moon surface.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum, a great destination for train buffs of all ages, is the “world’s largest operating model railroad museum.” There are four separate layouts, built by railroad clubs, depicting railroads of the Southwest in O, HO, and N scales as well as a Toy Train Gallery with an interactive Lionel layout that will captivate the kids.
San Diego Natural History Museum has permanent and ever-changing exhibitions to engage the entire family.
La Jolla Children’s Pool
The Pacific Ocean has strong currents. In 1932, the La Jolla Children’s Pool was opened in the city’s La Jolla neithborhood. The sheltered area, protected by a seawall, was designed as a safe place for kids to swim. Local harbor seals and sea lions were attracted by the protected cove and have taken the Children’s Pool over. Today, you may see hundreds of these mammals, including babies, basking on the sand and frolicking and feeding in the water. Although it’s no longer a safe place for swimming it attracts people who want to see seals up close. Bring a camera and binoculars.
The San Diego shore is very rocky at places. When the tide recedes some water remains in depressions in the rocks known as tide pools. These are often filled with animal and plant life. You can easily explore these on your own. Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of Point Loma where San Diego Bay meets the Pacific Ocean is a popular tide pool spot. If you want a guided adventure, Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute offers tide pool adventures at Dike Rock and False Point each winter. Dates and space are limited so reserve early. Our daughter-in-law, a great travel planner, reserved a spot for the family on a tide pool adventure offered when they were there. Years later, the kids still remember this experience. Their guide was very knowledgeable and patient with them and made it an enjoyable as well as educational time. They highly recommend it.
Torrey Pines Gliderport
We discovered the Torrey Pines Gliderport by accident. We saw the sign while we were exploring the coast north of La Jolla. The site, adjacent to the fabled Torrey Pines Golf Course, offers both hang glider and paraglider rides from February through April. Brave parents can even book a flight for themselves. We were fascinated by radio-controlled model sailplanes that several aficionados were launching. The site, opened to gliding in 1930, is listed on the list of National Landmarks of Soaring.
San Diego offers prime whale watching seasonally. From December to April over 20,000 gray whales make the trip from Alaska to Baja California where the females give birth to their babies. After the birth, they spend a few months allowing the calves time to grow strong enough to complete the over 5,000 mile return journey to Alaska.
The waters off San Diego are also home to blue whales, the largest creatures on earth. They can be spotted from mid-June through September. The largest group of blue whales in the world (two to three thousand), spend the summer months feeding off the California coast, many around San Diego. There are also humpbacks, and minke, and dolphin sightings in these waters. Several companies offer excursions. We had an exciting whale watching adventure as guests of Flagship Cruises and Events. Docents from the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography provide a comprehensive harbor tour as the boat passes through San Diego Harbor on its journey to the open sea (and on the return trip as well) as well as interesting whale facts. Once the boat is on the open seas they serve as whale spotters. We saw a number of gray whales and a dolphin while we were out. There’s no way to guarantee that you’ll spot whales, but the being out on the ocean was thrill enough for us. Even if we hadn’t seen a few whales we still would have loved this adventure. The seas were pretty rough the day we were out but we really enjoyed being up on deck in the sun and wind. Bring a jacket or sweater; even on a warm day it can get chilly out on the water.
San Diego Botanic Gardens
It’s worth a trip to the northern reaches of San Diego County to see the 37-acre San Diego Botanic Garden. Composed of 30 separate themed gardens, it’s a beautiful spot to spend the day. Kids will love the Hamilton Children’s Garden where they can climb Toni’s Tree House, discover an elephant foot tree forest, see live quail, and play in a “mountain stream.” They’ll also enjoy the Bird and Butterfly Garden with its colorful plantings that attract butterflies and hummingbirds in season as well as the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden with its interactive garden designed especially for preschool age children. It features a dinosaur garden, playhouse, topiary, and a miniature garden railroad. The Native Plants and Native People Trail, has a traditional home site as well as native plants used by the Kumeyaay, the area’s earliest inhabitants, will enthrall older children. Like great water features? Take a walk through the verdant tropical forest leading to the Waterfall View Deck. The entire family will enjoy a day at the San Diego Botanic Garden. On the first Tuesday of the month admission is free.
Anza Borego Desert State Park
Five years after our family, including our two grandsons (aged 6 and 8 at the time) toured Anza Borego Desert State Park (California’s largest) with California Overland Desert Excursions, they still remember the fun riding in the old army truck and learning about this amazing desert spot that sits atop the San Jacinto Fault, the most active fault-line in Southern California. Typically between two and 30 tremors are felt here daily (most small and imperceptible). The Fonts Point Tour took them to a range of desert environments. From Fonts Point you can see the Great Salton Sea. Anza Borego Desert State Park is about a two hour drive from downtown San Diego, but the trip up through the Laguna Mountains is scenic and the park is worth it.
If you’re looking for a great spot for an activity-packed family vacation, check out San Diego. There are so many cool San Diego family activities. Here are some we’ve experienced. Six years later our grandsons remember their San Diego vacation and would love to go back.
What are your favorite San Diego family activities?
Author’s note: We were hosted by San Diego Botanical Gardens. Flagship Cruises and Events and the San Diego Zoo.