San Diego is known as “America’s finest city.” And what a fine city it is! With its miles of sandy beaches, family-friendly theme parks, world-class zoos and placement at the top of the list for cities with the best year-round weather, we agree with the nickname. You’ll find plenty to do for all ages, making San Diego a great family destination. If you want to get the most from your vacation, you’ll need some tips for visiting San Diego with kids. Lucky for you, we frogs can toadally help you plan the perfect getaway with the right mix of fun and relaxation.
Let's Hop to Our Guide for Visiting San Diego with Kids!
Here is what you need to know about visiting San Diego. We have tips on getting around, where to stay and what to do. From kid-friendly theme parks and world-famous zoos to sandy beaches, there is no shortage of outdoor family fun when visiting San Diego with kids. Here's what you need to know to plan the most unfrogettable San Diego vacation with your tadpoles.
Tackling Transportation while Visiting San Diego with Kids
If you’ll be flying into San Diego, the airport is conveniently close to downtown. You may be driving to San Diego, either from home or as a continuation of your journey to Los Angeles and Orange County to the north. Some people even take the train from Los Angeles and Orange County.
The San Diego area and popular family attractions are a bit spread out, so no matter how you arrive, you’ll probably want a car to explore California’s second largest city. If you don’t come by car, you’ll probably want to rent one. Chances are, you like saving money, so the good news is that Undercover Tourist has hopped into discount car rentals in the San Diego area. If you purchase your car rental at the same time as you book your hotel, you can get even better discounts in your cart — up to 50 percent off!
In Private Cars
Whether you are renting or riding in private cars while visiting San Diego with kids, it’s a good idea to know the seatbelt and car seat laws, as they may differ from the laws in your state. All drivers and passengers who are 8 and older must wear seatbelts. Children must ride in child safety seats in the rear seat until they are 8 years old or over 4’9”, or 57 inches, tall. Children must remain in rear-facing car seats until they weigh 40 pounds or more or are at least 40” tall. Children ages 8 to 16 must be properly secured in a seatbelt. You can travel with your own boosters or car seat, or look at costs for renting a booster or car seat when you make your car rental reservation. It might save a lot of money to bring one from home or even to purchase an inexpensive one upon arrival.
In Taxi Cabs and Hired Cars
If you will be taking a taxi, UberX or Lyft in San Diego with children, you will need a car seat or booster for any child under 8 years old or shorter than 57 inches tall. You can order a ride with an appropriate car seat for ages 1 year and up if you do not have your own, but that can problematic if you require multiple car seats. In taxis, only adults in the front seats are required to use seatbelts, but it’s always a good idea to buckle up.
If you use and airport shuttle to get from the airport to your hotel, all state car seat laws apply, and you’ll need to bring your own child restraints.
On Buses, Trains, Trolleys or Mass Transit
San Diego has some good public transportation options in the city and close-by areas. The trolleys are a fun way to make short local trips, and the train does travel up the coast to several quaint beach towns.
Your tadpoles do not require car seats when traveling by these methods. The main train station in San Diego servicing Amtrak, the Coaster commuter rail line, the trolley and street car is Santa Fe Depot Station. You can catch trains up to Anaheim (near Disneyland), other cities in Orange County (some stops are literally at the beach) and even up to Union Station in Los Angeles. Taking the train will take about the same amount of time as driving (depending on traffic), but it can be more relaxing. The Coaster light rail trains connect Santa Fe Depot and the Old Town station with beach towns along the coast of San Diego county. The most northern stop for that line is Oceanside. People wishing to travel further north can take Amtrak (from Santa Fe Depot or Oceanside) or Metrolink from Oceanside to get to Orange County and Los Angeles.
The trolley lines extend to areas and beaches closer to the city. There is also a vintage streetcar that makes a downtown loop every 30 minutes. It’s a fun way to get to and from places such as the Santa Fe Depot, the Civic Center, the 12th & Imperial Transit Center, Petco Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, the Convention Center and Seaport Village.
San Diego Area Airport
San Diego International Airport (SAN) is just a 10-minute drive from downtown. San Diego has nearly 500 daily flights, but only a handful of them are international, so some travelers may need to take a connection or travel to the larger LAX airport in Los Angeles. All major car rental companies operate out of the San Diego Airport, just a short shuttle ride away.
Prepare for the Weather When Visiting San Diego with Kids
Hat, check. Sunscreen, check. Flip flops, check. Swimsuit, check … if only it were that easy! While it is true that San Diego has one of the best and mildest climates, you definitely want to check the weather forecast before your trip and research when to visit San Diego to know what to expect. December through May, the average highs are in the upper 60s, and May through November, the average highs are in the 70s. The beaches are often a good 10 degrees cooler than inland areas, so the weather can vary across the region, and sunshine can definitely make it feel much warmer than it is, while clouds can make it feel cooler. February brings the most rain, and the wettest months are November through March. San Diego sees 21 to 41 days with measurable precipitation and is considered to have a borderline arid climate. On average, San Diego has 266 sunny days per year.
You might be ready for the beach come June, but keep in mind that May and June are the gloomiest months, causing locals to refer to the heavy clouds and morning fog as “May Gray” and “June Gloom.” But that inversion layer dissipates as the water temperatures heat up, leaving July through September dry and warm and beach-perfect. But even warm days convert into cool nights in San Diego, so you’ll want a sweatshirt or light jacket for after sunset, even in summer. Pack hats, sunglasses and sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s strong rays between April and October. You can protect the tadpoles with UV shirts for beach and water park visits.
The fall is pleasant and with occasional hot days popping up through October. If you are planning to visit during the cooler months, check the weather report to see if you should pack an umbrella and rain poncho, jeans and sweatshirts or even shorts and T-shirts. San Diego is a kicked-back, casual town, so unless you have fancy dinner or occasion, you can go most places in casual attire. Flip flips are great for the beach and pool, but bring good walking shoes for theme parks and zoos. No matter the season, always bring that sweatshirt or light jacket just in case for those cool nights.
Read Up Before Visiting San Diego with Kids
Before we visit a new city, we love to read books about the city or that take place there. It helps the tadpoles make connections and get excited for seeing their stories come to life. There are books for tadpoles about San Diego such as "Above Coronado," by Joy Raab, a historical fiction picture book that is perfect whether you are staying at the historic Hotel Del Coronado or just day-trippin’ to go play at the beautiful beaches there. We all know that kid who thinks bodily functions are the funniest thing out there: channel that potty humor into education with the San Diego Zoo’s book, "Who Pooped in the Zoo?" Your kid just might use that information to teach you a thing or two about, well, animals going #2, when you visit the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park. "Larry Gets Lost in San Diego," by John Skewes will take young readers though the city’s landmarks and attractions as the troublesome lost dog has to find his way back to his family.
Fun Activities to Do in San Diego
Visit Historical Sites
San Diego has some interesting historical spots that your kids will love. For instance, the only roller coaster in the U.S. to be on the National Register of Historic Places is the wooden Giant Dipper at Belmont Park in Mission Beach. One of our favorite children’s authors, Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla, a little town just north of San Diego, and the largest collection of his original works and manuscripts can be found at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. We’re grateful he changed children’s books for the better, and we love learning the history of his struggle to become published.
One of the oldest sites in the U.S. that was dedicated to public recreation usage is Balboa Park, home to the San Diego Zoo, a carousel and museums. But one of the most historic places in San Diego is Old Town, with shops, museums, tasty restaurants and even ghost stories to tell. You can head out to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and museum, or visit the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala to see the birthplace of the California Mission System.
Get a Go San Diego Card for Tours, Museums, Theme Parks, Aquariums ... and More
There are so many tours, museums and theme parks to see in San Diego. If you have a few days to spend and a full itinerary, the budget-friendly solution may be to get a multi-day Go City San Diego multi-attraction pass, which gets you free access to many attractions for a number of consecutive days. Some of the attractions include the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, a harbor Cruise, the USS Midway Museum, Whale Watching and Dolphin Cruises and more.
If you are visiting San Diego with kids, you might want to hit some of San Diego’s amazing museums. Any "Top Gun" fans? Parents and kids alike will enjoy the family-oriented USS Midway Museum located on a historic aircraft carrier like the one in the movie, and you can even see a plane from the movie there. Kids will dive into the below-deck exhibits, flight deck exhibits, aircraft gallery and flight simulators on this floating city. Be sure to pick up the audio tour geared for youngsters and help them earn their wings by following one of Airman Sam’s activity sheets. Here are a few other museums of interest:
- The Fleet Science Center
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- San Diego Museum of Us
- San Diego Air and Space Museum
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- San Diego Museum of Art
- Museum of Contemporary Art
- Living Coast Discovery Center
- Museum of Making Music
- The New Children’s Museum
If visiting inland North County San Diego, check out the local non-profits for inexpensive, fun activities. About six minutes up the road from the SD Zoo Safari Park, there’s a small archeology center that can be fun for the tadpoles to learn about archeology. The non-profit museum isn’t very big, but it was a nice, air-conditioned break from the hot temperatures in Valley Center. It has a room full of artifacts from the San Pasqual Valley. There are some good hiking trails too!
If you’re traveling along the coast of North County, check out the butterfly garden located in Encinitas. The 3,000 square foot vivarium is open to the public from April until November from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Get Out on the Water
While you are in San Diego, take advantage of the opportunity to get out on the Pacific Ocean or even in the water of Mission Bay. There are a lot of choices based on your interests. You can rent stand-up paddleboards and sailboats in Mission Bay. Active families can go surfing, body boarding, snorkeling or take a bike and kayak tour. Froglets will leap at the chance to see dolphins in the open ocean, or maybe even whales, depending on the time of year. If you like calmer waters, stay in the Bay or consider a San Diego Harbor Cruise and Sea Lion Adventure or a dinner cruise. You can make a splash on a San Diego Seal tour on an amphibious vehicle that will take you past points of interest on land and then plunge you into the water for fantastic views of attractions and islands by sea. You can go fishing. More adventurous watersports fans may enjoy parasailing or jet skiing. Carlsbad is home to California Watersports, which offers waterski and wake surf lessons on Aqua Hedionda Lagoon. Their drivers and instructors are very skilled. You can rent paddleboards, kayaks, waverunners or aquacycles to have fun on calm waters. It's a great destination for teens and families with older kids.
Hit the Beach
San Diego has 70 miles of coastline and a variety of beaches. Most locations have lifeguards in the summer. Here are just a few family favorites if you are looking to dip your toes (or a whole lot more!) into the Pacific:
- Mission Bay Park — the largest aquatic park in the country — has eight sandy beaches for swimming and space for a lot of recreation. Fire rings are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Bonita Cove in Mission Bay has playground equipment and is popular for families with tadpoles.
- La Jolla Shores is a mile-long beach in La Jolla and is adjacent to the ecological reserve. It has soft sand and gentle waves, as well as a playground at Kellogg Park.
- Children’s Pool is a small beach that is partially protected by a seawall and a permanent lifeguard station. You might catch sight of seals and sea lions, and keep in mind that the beach is closed during harbor seal pup season between December 15 and May 15.
- Mission Beach is home to a small amusement park, Belmont Park, bike trails and swimming — but look for designated swimming areas. You can fish off of the Mission Bay Jetty or go for a walk on the boardwalk.
- Coronado Beach cannot be beat for the mild waves and white sand. The beach at the Hotel del Coronado magically sparkles with “gold” mineral mica.
- Torrey Pines State Beach is a beach and nature reserve, so bring those hiking shoes. The north part is family-friendly, whereas the southern part is clothing optional.
- Carlsbad, home to LEGOLAND, has several beaches in north county. Tamarack Beach is good for surfing. South Ponto Beach also has surfing, but offers Batiquitos Lagoon and is good for exploring and finding stones, shells and creatures the tide leaves behind when it rolls out.
Dig Up Some Local Eats
San Diego is known for having good Mexican food and fish tacos, being just north of the border, so definitely get some tacos and guacamole whether you are in Old Town or you happen across a good taco stand. The tadpoles will get a kick out of watching them make the tortillas at Old Town Mexican Café, and the food is tasty, too! El Indio Mexican Restaurant counter service restaurant is not fancy, but they’ve been serving crowds since the 1940s and they left us wanting to come back for more.
After a day of LEGOLAND, explore some of the village of Carlsbad and grab some grub at Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, where we found the tastiest salsa and chips. Or, eat like a local and enjoy a breakfast burrito after a morning surf session, or bring some with you to the beach. Everything tastes better in the salty air!
Sushi is a popular local food, and if you find yourself in Oceanside, definitely hop into the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub for some unorthodox, divine creations. We love the Chronic roll, but everything is delicious and carefully chosen, grown by them and made from scratch. And no trip to SoCal is complete without a trip to In-N-Out Burger for their fresh hamburgers, fresh-cut fries and thick shakes for ridiculously affordable prices. It’s a local favorite.
Speaking of “Top Gun,” the house from the film is in Oceanside (about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego). It was recently moved and converted into a pie shop. This place is toadally awesome and right next to the beach and pier. Plus, who doesn’t love pie?!
Cheer on a Sports Team
If you are a baseball fan and visiting during baseball season, catch a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park. For hockey fans, the San Diego Gulls are in the Pechanga Arena in San Diego. San Diego doesn’t have an NFL team anymore (the Chargers now play in LA), but it does have college football teams, such as the SDSU Aztecs.
Visit a Theme Park or Zoo
We are theme park frogs and animal lovers, so we jump for joy over the family-friendly choices in San Diego. SeaWorld is located near Mission Bay and has many animal interactions, shows and rides. Dive in and follow these tips to maximize your time at SeaWorld San Diego. It’s included in the Go San Diego 3+ day ticket, or you can get a jump on discount tickets for SeaWorld and other theme parks and zoos at through Undercover Tourist.
The newest San Diego theme park is Lily's new favorite. Sesame Place San Diego is located in Chula Vista. It has a water park (open in spring and summer) with rides even our tween Tad can enjoy. The wave pool, lazy river, and shallow pools with smaller slides are open year-round. Your tadpoles can meet their favorite characters, enjoy small rides, see shows and wave to their Sesame Street friends in a parade.
LEGOLAND in Carlsbad is perfect for young froglets through age 12, with a theme park, water park and aquarium. If you want to use the water park, which is accessible only from inside LEGOLAND but requires a separate admission, then definitely get a Resort Hopper ticket (which includes the theme park, water park and aquarium) in advance to save some significant money compared to buying separately and on-site. Here are more tips for building a perfect day at LEGOLAND California.
There are two San Diego Zoos you can visit, and you should wear your walking shoes for either of these sprawling properties. The San Diego Zoo, located near the city of San Diego in Balboa Park, is home to rarely-seen animals such as red pandas and koalas, along with over 650 species and more than 3,500 animals. Here are some San Diego Zoo tips so you can have a roaring good time. The new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp has fun animal exhibits, climbing structures and even some water play areas if you want to bring swimsuits.
The San Diego Safari Park is a unique zoo in Escondido, about 35 minutes from the San Diego Zoo. The Safari Park is large and houses over 3,500 animals spread out over 1,800 acres. The animals are kept in more open enclosures with a mix of species that more closely mimics a natural environment. You can take different tours to get closer to them. There are cool adventures available at this park, such as going up in a balloon, zip lining, watching a cheetah run at top speed and different kinds of safaris to interact with the animals. Follow these San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips to make the most of your adventure.
Be Street Smart When Visiting San Diego with Kids
San Diego is a safe city, and you should not encounter any trouble in the popular tourist areas, but you should always travel smart and be aware of your surroundings. Here are a few safety reminders when traveling to San Diego:
- Do not leave valuables unattended on the beach, such as money, wallets, camera, car keys or cellphones.
- Lock your car and do not leave valuables in it, especially in plain sight.
- Do not accept help from strangers with your luggage.
- Watch out for pickpockets in tourist areas.
- Be aware that there are a lot of homeless people in Southern California. They are generally not a problem, but they can be unpredictable, so give them some space.
- Look both ways when crossing the streets.
- Use caution near train tracks and trolley lines.
- Use a crosswalk — no jaywalking!
- Discuss a plan in case you become separated.
- Note your hotel address — you can pick up a business card when you check in.
- Keep valuables in a safe. Do not carry money or ID in a backpack.
- Keep money and credit cards hidden on your body.
- Don’t leave purses or wallets unattended or in the open — they can be swept right off your restaurant table.
- Take valuables with you when you park your stroller.
- Ask for directions if you are not sure where to go.
- Hold hands when visiting theme parks.
- Just use your street smarts, keep valuables and cell phones safely stowed and out of sight, and keep the kids close to you whether you are on the street, in a theme park or using public transportation.
Kid-Friendly San Diego Hotels
There are a number of kid-friendly hotels in San Diego. Where you want to be and your budget can help you to decide where to stay. There are options at the beach, in the harbor, in the city or near theme parks. When visiting San Diego with kids, you’ll want to pick a kid-friendly hotel near your must-see attractions. If you will spending a few days in the San Diego area and few more in Orange County or even Los Angeles, you might want to split your stay to avoid unnecessary driving between these areas. Undercover Tourist is now booking discount hotel rooms in San Diego. Here are a few suggestions for hotels in great locations.
- If it is within your budget, the Hotel Del Coronado (as low as $440 a night) is a historic Victorian hotel with an amazing beach and a friendly, luxurious ambience. They have a kid’s activity center, a year-round heated pool and recreational activities. You can even take a Mermaid Fitness class — mermaid tail included!
- A more budget-friendly option is the Loews Coronado Bay Resort (as low as $217 a night),with great recreation options, three heated pools (including a children’s pool) and complimentary beach chairs, towels and boogie boards during the summer months. You can walk or take a shuttle to the beach.
- You can find more affordable accommodations in the city of San Diego and off the water; however, a budget-friendly hotel that is still on the water is The Dana on Mission Bay (as low as $176 a night). It’s the closest hotel to SeaWorld and you can rent paddleboats, kayaks and bicycles to explore the Bay.
- We are always fans of included breakfast buffet when traveling to save time and money, and you can find a great hot breakfast (and an evening social hour Monday through Thursday) and a pool and your own kitchen in your spacious accommodations at the Homewood Suites by Hilton San Diego/Del Mar (as low as $177 a night). Bonus: They provide complimentary transportation within 5 miles. It’s a good choice for larger families, and Del Mar is generally an upscale area with great shops and restaurants.
- If LEGOLAND is at the top of your to-do list and your kids are Lego fanatics, then definitely consider staying at the LEGOLAND California Hotel (as low as $195 a night). You can get a free breakfast buffet, and all rooms have a king size bed and a bunk bed with a trundle. Some rooms sleep seven. Plus, hotel guests get early access to the park! With character dance parties, a heated pool, Lego interactive opportunities and the most fun you’ll ever have on an elevator, this place is designed for kids. Be sure to research all of the different themed rooms to choose the right adventure for your family. It’s not quiet, but the kids will love it. You might split your stay here with a few days at the beach to unwind.
San Diego makes a great family vacation, no matter how old your tadpoles are. With these tips for visiting San Diego with kids, you’ll be off to a great start.
Have tips for visiting San Diego with kids? Please share them in the comment section below.
Related: When to Visit San Diego