Family Fun Guide to San Diego, California (With Recommendations)

Sea on the San Diego Shore

San Diego is an amazing family vacation spot. After Anne, Joy, and I traveled there for a conference in 2019, I knew that I wanted to come back with my family to visit this amazing Southern California destination.

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Anne, Joy, and I enjoyed so many things about our visit.  From driving almost all the way into Mexico to driving over the Coronado Island Bridge (not my favorite bridge).  From eating in the Gaslamp Quarter (without knowing it) to visiting the Seals and Sea Lions in La Jolla.

Then, the world shut down and no one went anywhere. By the time 2021 hit, my whole family was itching to travel. When some friends invited us to their wedding 90 minutes from San Diego, we knew we could make it happen.

Favorite Family Fun List in San Diego

We are listing adventures we loved that are free and those we determined to be worth the cost.  Scroll to the bottom to learn more about some of the most popular attractions that we didn’t get to, but wished we had had more time to explore.

Free in San Diego

la jolla sea lions sun bathing

Seals and Sea Lions, La Jolla

One of the most popular things to do in the San Diego area is to visit the seals and sea lions. We walked toward the Children’s Pool and saw the harbor seals. Then, we walked a little way up the shore and ran into the sea lions.

Sea Lion in La Jolla

What to know
1.  The seals and sea lions are completely wild.  Don’t go near them.  They are a LOT faster than you think.
2. The beach is stinky.  Very stinky.  You will adjust, but it takes a bit.
3. Park wherever you can find parking, be it a parking space or parking ramp or underground garage. This will be the only thing that costs any money at this location. Bring a lunch, and play in the water or in the tidepools or the park.  Anne, Joy, and I spent a long time there ourselves, and my kids really enjoyed it, too.

FREE (except for Parking)

Coronado Island Sunset

Sunset, Coronado Island

One night, the kids, Chris, and I grabbed some Little Caesar’s pizza and drove to Coronado Island to play on the beach and watch the sunset.  If there is one thing I recommend over and above anything else, it’s this.  The kids played and played in the surf.  We watched deep sea fishermen toss their line and leap over waves (unsuccessfully).  We ate our pizza, we wiggled our toes in the sand, we got yelled at for being in the water without lifeguards on duty, we watched the sun set, and we were together.  This memory will be one of the most precious of my life.
When the sun had completely set, we packed up our blankets and garbage and headed back to the hotel.

boys playing on the shore by Mexico

What to know
1. Bring blankets and sweatshirts. When the sun sets, it gets really cold.  In Minnesota because we are so humid, the summer heat doesn’t automatically go away when the sun goes down.  However, the arid climate gets downright chilly without the sun.  Like REALLY chilly.
2. If you’ve never been to the ocean, don’t let your kids go to far out into the surf without you.  The lifeguards weren’t on duty anymore, and as Minnesotans, we didn’t really know how to safely navigate the ocean.  So while we got yelled at by the park staff in their truck, it was a good call.
3.  Silver Strand Beach has chairs to use on the beach, but bring blankets as well.  We went in the middle of May, so there weren’t many people.  Like there were 6 others there while we were.  But during the summer, I could see it being busier.

FREE (except for Parking in the lot)

Balboa Park ArchitectureArchitecture and Culture, Balboa Park

We took an afternoon at Balboa Park. The park itself is free and there is plenty to do. Designed first in 1868, this 1400 acre park has many museums and gardens to explore. Most of the museums charge an admission fee including the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Museum of Natural History, San Diego Air and Space Museum. And there are so many more.

Since the pandemic was still in effect and since many of them weren’t open, we didn’t visit very many buildings. We probably wouldn’t have anyway because we enjoyed being outside.

We soaked in the architecture and the buildings on El Prado. We also enjoyed strolling around and seeing the street musicians, the fountains, the gardens.  And the Rose Garden was AMAZING!

What to know
1. This is a very busy and BIG park. Wear good shoes. In all actuality throughout the entirety of San Diego, you should wear good shoes. You will park and walk a lot. It’s worth the shoe investment.
2. While we couldn’t go into most of the buildings, Balboa Park was still amazing.  Make sure to stop by El Prado.  It’s beautiful and iconic.
3.  Be prepared for paying for parking.  I can’t remember exactly where we parked, but I do know that there were lots of options and even a shuttle.

Practically FREE (except for parking)

Not Free but Worth Every Penny

Cabrillo Lighthouse

Cabrillo National Monument

The most expensive day we had was our visit to Point Loma.  Point Loma is a peninsula in the Pacific Ocean to the west of downtown and Coronado Island. It’s beautiful as most things around there are. We paid for a day pass to the National Monument and enjoyed the entire morning exploring the Tide Pools and the Old  Point Loma Lighthouse located in the  Cabrillo National Monument.

intertidal pools on Point LomaTide Pools

The tide pools–also called Intertidal Pools–on Point Loma are the best ones in San Diego.  They spread out below sandstone cliffs that we crawled down to get to. We enjoyed big crabs, little crabs, hermit crabs (my favorite), lots of cool rocks, kelp, barnacles, and little fishes. Everything about visiting the tide pools was fun. Including almost sliding into a tide pool myself. The only thing that saved me was my sure-footed  high school girl.

Our exploration of the cliffs and water was windy and a little cold.  So after a while, we needed to warm up and headed to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.

Cabrillo National Monument Sign outside of San DiegoOld Point Loma Lighthouse

The Lighthouse Visitor Center had a museum to explore as well as a gift shop to enjoy.  We were also able to tour the actual lighthouse and lightkeeper’s equipment. A volunteer docent taught us about  World War II and  about how Germany and Japan were connected. Some of our family discovered the historic military building northwest of the lighthouse.

When we were finished with our trip through history, we walked out to the lookout point and watched the planes at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island just across San Diego Bay

Lunch and Dinner Recommendations

  • Fish Tacos in Gaslamp Quarter
    Fish Tacos with all the fixings
    Joy, Anne, and I ate our fish tacos at Oscar’s right near Padre Park in Gaslamp Quarter.  I don’t believe it’s there anymore, but there are two or three Oscar’s near the ocean. Our tacos were delicious.  I don’t think you can go wrong with fish tacos in San Diego
  • Burgers at Hodad’s
    restaurant wall in Hodad's
    Our family splurged big time by going to Hodad’s, and boy-howdy did they take care of us.  The California-cool serving staff lavished us with copious amounts of food and stickers and experience!  We went to the Hodad’s in Ocean Beach (just north of Cabrillo), but there is also one downtown.
  • Traditional Mexican Lamb Barbecue at Aqui Es Texcoco in Chula Vista
    Lamb Barbocoa
    Our first night in San Diego we wanted to try some real Mexican food.  So we headed to Aqui Es Texcoco.  The restaurant ambiance is nothing to write home about, but none of us had ever heard of traditional Mexican Lamb Barbecue.
    We ordered the Plato de Barbacoa and ate family style.  Our kids were a little apprehensive, but they did really well even if it wasn’t their favorite.  Everyone enjoyed something.  The beans were the best beans any of us had ever eaten.

boy standing on the shore in La Jolla Beach

Even with just two days in town, we really enjoyed our time together in San Diego. Probably the most helpful is that we did not visit on a Saturday or Sunday. And we vacationed in mid-May. We also kept our activities to a minimum. We picked the top 4 activities and left plenty of margin for eating and relaxing.

More Family Fun Ideas In San Diego

We had just 2 days in San Diego and needed to be very judicious about how we spent our time and money. Here’s what would have been fun to do if we had had the time.
Legoland:  We determined that our kids were a little too old for this expense.
SeaWorld: Chris and I had both visited SeaWorld when we were kids and didn’t want to spend the day in a theme park when we could be exploring the actual ocean.
Entrance to San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo: This world-famous zoo sounds amazing.  However, it is so expensive, and we knew we would want to spend the whole day there. This was higher on our priority list than SeaWorld, but we still didn’t want to be stuck in one place when there was so much more to explore.
USS Midway Museum: We wanted to do this tour so much, but with the health restrictions in place, we weren’t able to. The museum sounds awesome, and if we ever get a chance to visit again, we will make it our top priority.

Looking for more places to travel?

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Trips Abroad

Tide Pools near San Diego

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