One of the fastest growing cities in the United States, San Diego is a treasure trove of historical sites, marine life and ever-glowing sunlight. A lot of travelers forego this SoCal city for its flashier older brother, Los Angeles, but make no mistake: this sunsoaked locale is more than just a beachy escape (even if it’s positively riddled with beaches to escape to). Families visiting the area will be thrilled with all of the fun kid-friendly attractions, like the world-famous SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND. The city even has a San Diego Go Card that allows families discount entry and line priority to 48 attractions in the city, including free admission to SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, Safari Park, the USS Midway Museum and more! For eight recommended destinations for families visiting San Diego, read on!
Cement some album-worthy family memories at the legendary SeaWorld San Diego. Between rip-roaring rides, kids can get well acquainted with their favorite creatures at their many exhibits and shows at every turn. There are interactive attractions with dolphins, belugas, penguins, sea lions and more, as well as exhibits for every age group – so even little tykes get to begin their relationship with exotic marine life early. Those visiting during the high season shouldn’t miss out on the Shamu Story, an informative and entertaining show that takes its guests behind the scenes into the training sessions and the history of this world-famous killer whale. Their food options include everything from the quintessential waffle cones and funnel cakes to the Calypso Bay Smokehouse, an authentic mesquite grill. Visiting families averse to getting splashed might want to be cautious at some of their shows and exhibits, as some of the larger marine animals sure like to kick up a lot of water!
Visiting families looking for a deeper look into the continent’s marine life for a lower price point than SeaWorld ought to stop by the Birch Aquarium at the internationally renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. They might not have the explosive rides or Shamu, but Birch offers over 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates found locally and internationally as well as a mandate to educate its visitors about ocean conservation. Located high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this stunning institution opened its doors as a public aquarium in 1905 and has grown from a modest boathouse into a gorgeous outdoor complex, housing a Hall of Fishes (featuring over 60 tanks of Pacific fishes and more, including a 70,000-gallon kelp forest), a 13,000-gallon shark reef, living tide pools where visitors can touch and closely inspect its starfish, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters and others. Throughout the week, trainers and docents hold special feedings and interactive exhibits, so check the schedule before heading out!
One of the last beach and boardwalk amusement parks in California, Belmont Park has been a family destination center for nearly 100 years. Their Giant Dipper roller coaster and Plunge Olympic pool (the largest indoor pool in San Diego) have been staples of the park since 1925, and it’s only grown and improved exponentially since. Their WaveHouse is home to two controlled wave riding environments so kids can safely surf and bob and even scale an endless barreling wave from a machine pumping 100,000 gallons of water per minute. Beyond the wet and wild, park adventurers can check out the RUSH Arcade, play classic midway games, practice their putt in the Tiki Town Adventure Golf mini course, swing around the Sky Ropes course, and make their rounds over the oceanfront coasters and rides. Visitors who just want to scope out the beach and boardwalk and soak up some excitement without shelling out on big amusement park prices can park and stroll around cheaply, since they don’t charge for admission or parking. Parents of young children, however, should be aware that they don’t offer strollers.
One of the most famous zoos in the world, the San Diego Zoo was founded in 1916 and has seen generations of families walking through its grounds, gawking at the larger than life animals. This not-for-profit organization is home to giant pandas, koalas, leopards of all kinds, elephants, Chinese alligators and many, many more animal species in their ten bioclimatic zones from arctic tundra to the rainforest. The zoo has organized a number of fun tours and ways to see the large grounds: families can get on a guided bus tour, take a horticultural tour through their botanical garden of over 700,000 plants, and get on their 44-year-old Skyfari Aerial Tram to check out the animals from up top. The zoo and parking lot fill up quickly, especially during the high season, so families are recommended to get there early in the day.
This timeless toy classic for both kids and adults comes to life at LEGOLAND California. Visitors get to explore the pixellated LEGO interpretations of everywhere from New Orleans, San Francisco, a Tin Tin-esque 1920’s Egypt, a Medieval castle and even the Star Wars universe in this 128-acre amusement park. There are minimum height requirements for a few rides, but the entire park and its 60 family friendly rides are optimized for the enjoyment of kids from 2 to 12 years of age. Parents who grew up with LEGO can also admire the creative artistry of its massive installations. Swimsuits are recommended for their large new Water Park, which includes such attractions as Build-A-Raft River, where kids can build their own raft out of large soft LEGO bricks to float on down a lazy river, interactive splash zones and huge open body slides. On dry land, don’t miss the Block of Fame in Miniland USA, a three-dimensional art gallery filled with reinterpreted classic works of art and busts of historical figures, or the Junior Driving School, where little ones learn to drive their own electric LEGO car and receive an official LEGOLAND driver’s license. Families who love this place so much they can’t leave can check into the LEGOLAND Hotel, which has 250 themed guestrooms.
What kid hasn’t wanted to make like an explorer and sail on a lavish European vessel? How about a B-39 submarine from the early 1970s that was part of the Soviet Pacific Fleet? The Maritime Museum’s HMS Surprise is a replica of an 18th-century Royal Navy frigate and was a part of the set for the movies Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4; the Star of India is the world’s oldest active sailing ship, dating back to 1863; the San Salvador was the first European vessel to sail along Southern California in 1542 and is now under a meticulous restoration. Visitors to the San Diego Maritime Museum can walk around the ships, yachts, subs docked at this expansive outdoor museum and learn about the history of American seafaring. For $5 extra on the ticket price, visitors can take a 45 minute cruise aboard Pilot around the San Diego Bay. Check out the events on their website for other cruise tours and festivals.
Paying homage to the neighborhood pie joints in New York and Jersey, Bronx Pizza in San Diego doesn’t look like much from the outside, just a big white and green box shop with a pick-up window and depending on the hour, a line-up of people out front waiting for a slice. However, upon a first taste, one finally understands its massive appeal: paper-thin and crisp crust, runny tomato sauce, a scorch-marked layer of mozza, tables permanently set with shakers of parmesan, red pepper and oregano and a biting attitude to boot. It’s remarkable the kinds of things that transport people back home, or even a form of home they never really had but associate with anyway, but pizza and the people who deliver them are definitely on the list. Bronx Pizza is one of the leading San Diego pizzerias that have led the city to number in the recent round-up of Best Pizza Cities in America, beating out New York, Boston and Chicago (a city that didn’t even make the top 10) in TripAdvisor’s ranking. So for a real New York-style thin crust slice, go to Bronx Pizza, in San Diego.
One of the last remaining pieces of the wooden Victorian beach resort, a quintessentially American architectural genre, the Hotel del Coronado in the city of Coronado, located just across the San Diego Bay, has entertained golden Hollywood starlets, past presidents, American cultural heroes, World War II pilots and families of officers and more since it was built in 1888. Current guests of the hotel can choose between a vast array of suites, guestrooms and villas, each with their own breathtaking views of either the water or the city. Families staying at the hotel will be happy to know that the hotel offers babysitting and childcare services in case parents want a night out without the kids, and every room has a Nintendo GameCube for testy teenagers. Outside of the room, the Del complex offers a Kidtopia Camp & Crafts and a Teen Lounge, as well as teen-oriented treatments at the Spa & Salon.