Aworld-class zoo, a real aircraft carrier you can tour, dozens of museums, beautiful beaches, an island paradise resort - and a non-stop flight that will get you there in just three hours. San Diego is calling you! We were invited to enjoy a four-day stay in the area by the San Diego Tourism Authority to experience all that the city has to offer for visiting families.
San Diego is a gorgeous coastal city in California just a half-hour north of the Mexican border and about two hours south of Los Angeles. It’s a safe, beautiful vacation destination jam-packed with endless activities to enjoy, either as part of a larger trip to the Golden State or on its own. Hotels and food can be very affordable in San Diego, so it’s a perfect destination for families with children. For a more luxurious experience, consider the Paradise Point Resort & Spa; this gorgeous resort is situated on its own private tropical island and features plenty of family-friendly activities including five pools, outdoor games, beach bonfire pits, and plenty of ocean fun. The Tidal Restaurant at the resort is a converted 1960s beach house with stunning sunset views of the water and was one of our favorite meals of the whole trip!
San Diego has a charming small-town feel. Getting around is easy on the Hop On Hop Off trolley bus tour, so there’s no need to rent a car unless you plan on leaving the city. Once you’ve got the lay of the land, head for Seaport Village. The cobblestone streets of this area are lined with boutiques, craft shops, and cafes, and street musicians provide ongoing free entertainment. From there, head along the seafront to the USS Midway. This aircraft carrier/museum features flight simulators, crews’ quarters and kitchens to be explored. Retired naval officers share their stories of service and little ones can earn their “Junior Flight Wings” after completing the tour.
Liberty Station is another must-see shopping destination with San Diego’s first year-round food hall, the San Diego Comic Art Gallery, and the incredible Corvette Diner - a 1950s-style rock & roll restaurant with family-friendly entertainment. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy a tour of Old Town San Diego, the site of the original mission and surrounding buildings from the area’s original European settlement in 1769. Today, Old Town is bustling with shops and restaurants highlighting the diverse heritage of California (originally part of Mexico) and features an excellent open-air museum explaining the history of the area. While visiting, we enjoyed dinner at Cafe Coyote, a local favorite with world-famous margaritas and delicious Mexican fare.
The Travel Lady, Lesley Keyter, has her own top pick for a day out while in the area. “A visit to the beautiful Coronado Hotel is a must,” she recommends. “Built on Coronado Beach 130 years ago, this glamorous hotel has been visited by presidents and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. The kids will probably be more interested in the beach nearby, which is consistently named one of the best beaches in the United States. Small tide pools offer safe swimming for little ones, and Moo Time Creamery is a favorite with kids and adults alike.”
Southern California is famous for its world-class family attractions: the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND, and SeaWorld are right in the city. Disneyland Resort, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Studios Hollywood, and many more famous theme parks are within two hours away by car. While it’s tempting to try to fit in as many of these attractions as possible during your visit, prices for a single day can range between $50 to $130 for a single ticket (depending on the attraction), so why not enjoy some of the natural beauty of the area instead? San Diego has 17 miles of coastline with 33 beaches, many of which are havens for marine wildlife. Look online for free and cheap events or visit one of the dozens of fabulous (but lesser known internationally) attractions in San Diego, such as the Birch Aquarium, Balboa Park, or the San Diego Air & Space Museum. For the thrill-seeker looking for a historic experience, visit Belmont Park - this seafront amusement park features the Giant Dipper, one of the oldest roller coasters in the world.
Balboa Park is home to numerous museums, lush gardens, art galleries, and dining options. We could have easily spent all four days enjoying this remarkable cultural hub. Looking for a special meal out? We recommend Panama 66 at the San Diego Museum of Art, where you can enjoy live music for all ages from Wednesday to Saturday in a unique open-air setting while you dine. For the animal-lover, San Diego’s Zoo is one famous attraction well worth the price of admission. Housing over 650 species, the San Diego Zoo is nearly 100 years old and was one of the first to feature open-air cage-free enclosures mimicking natural habitats. A one-day pass is $54 per adult and $44 per child (ages three to 11), so make the most of your day here if you decide to make the journey. Pack your own lunch to reduce costs. For a special treat, consider one of their Inside Look Tours - for two hours, you will enjoy a guided behind-the-scenes look at selected zoo animals in a small group in a shuttle cart and on foot. In our opinion, it’s well worth the extra expense!
Although California is one of the more potentially expensive vacation destinations in North America, your budget can vary substantially depending on where and when you decide to visit (and how often you take advantage of San Diego’s fantastic restaurants!). Your costs can be reduced by looking into short-stay vacation rentals (such as Airbnb), preparing your own food from local supermarkets (try Trader Joe’s), or even sharing your vacation with another family.
For more great ideas, visit sandiego.org. Bon voyage!
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