San Diego: A Playground for Kids and Adults

This Southern California destination remains a family favorite, but cool new hotels and restaurants make it an appealing playground for adults too.

The pulse point of San Diego is its vibrant downtown, a collection of eclectic neighborhoods nestled next to the waterfront. The city center includes the revitalized Gaslamp Quarter—16 blocks of restaurants, boutique shopping and elegant hotels housed in lovingly restored 19th century Victorian architecture; the artsy East Village, site of the new Petco Park; the Harbor District, home to Seaport Village (a quaint shopping venue designed to look like an old fishing town) and the U.S.S. Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that is now open as a museum; and Little Italy, another recently gentrified neighborhood, full of Italian bistros, home furnishing retailers and designers, and stylish boutiques.

A lovely arching bridge to the south of downtown connects to the nostalgic beach community of Coronado (located on a peninsula that is often mistaken for an island). And north of downtown, along the coast, are the popular beach communities of Mission Bay (home of SeaWorld), Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach. Inland you’ll find Mission Valley—named after the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, where the city’s history began.

Must-See Attractions

Although it takes weeks to see all that San Diego has to offer (some natives would argue that it takes years), make a game plan before you arrive to ensure you and your family hit the highlights:

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a true urban oasis, located just north of downtown, and it’s the cultural heart of the city. The park is filled with ornate, rosy-hued Spanish Renaissance architecture; expansive subtropical gardens; more than a dozen museums; and three theatrical venues (including the Old Globe, recognized as one of the finest regional theaters in the country). And anchoring the northeast end of the park is the world famous San Diego Zoo.

The park’s skyline is dominated by the California Tower, an intricate mosaic-covered structure that houses a 100-bell carillon that chimes every 15 minutes. (Be outside at noon, to get the full effect.) Look for the 1910 carousel at the east end of the park—children can grab the brass ring and get a free ride. If you’re interested in checking out the museums (such as the San Diego Museum of Man), consider purchasing a park “Passport” (available in the House of Hospitality, on the main thoroughfare of the park), which will discount admission by as much as 50 percent. Located off Park Blvd., tel. 619-239-0512.

Cabrillo National Monument and Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Located at the very tip of the Point Loma peninsula, which juts into the San Diego Bay just north of downtown, the Cabrillo National Monument commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, said to be the first European to set foot on the West Coast. A sculpture of the famous conquistador overlooks the downtown skyline, the graceful Coronado bridge and—on clear days—even the mountains of Mexico.

Also on the monument grounds is the quaint Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which dates to 1854. Guests can view recreated rooms inside that show how the light keeper and his family lived. To reach some of the prettiest tide pools in the city, hike down the nearby cliffs via the steep Bayside Trail—or drive down via an access road (look for the turnoff on the west side of the park entrance). At low tide, you are likely to find anemones, dead man’s fingers, shore crabs and even tiny octopi. Be sure to stay on established pathways (the cliffs are unstable) and wear appropriate shoes, because the tide pools are slippery. 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr., tel. 619-557-5450.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

This small, whitewashed beauty was the first of 21 Spanish missions built in California. The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was established by Father Junípero Serra in 1769 and has been rebuilt several times after having been destroyed by fires; what is exhibited today is an early 20th century reconstruction built to look like the church did in 1813. The campanario, or bell tower, is nearly 50 feet tall, although only one of the bells is original. Also onsite is the Padre Luis Jayme Mission Museum, which displays artifacts like religious vestments and statuary, as well as bottles and pottery from the mission era. Archaeological excavations are ongoing, and volunteers are welcome to help with the dig on Saturdays (be sure to call ahead). 10818 San Diego Mission Rd., tel. 619-238-7319.

Old Town State Historic Park

Old Town, just north of the city center, is where the earliest San Diegans settled outside of the mission. The restored and reconstructed buildings in Old Town are like a Westernized version of Colonial Williamsburg. Guides and shopkeepers dress in period costumes, and visitors will find historic reenactments of military maneuvers, period artisan demonstrations like rope making and nearly 40 themed buildings—including museums and shops—that highlight the early pueblo era of 1821-1872.

Young children will enjoy a trip to the Blackhawk Livery Stables to view historic carriages. My daughter’s favorite attraction is La Casa de Estudillo, an expansive home built for the former commander of the mission presidio, which has been restored with period furniture and decorations. The Plaza del Posado (a themed shopping and dining area) within Old Town offers several period-style restaurants. We love the churro stand, which sells hot, sugary Mexican donuts. 4002 Wallace St., tel. 619-220-5422.

Petco Park

The spectacular home of baseball’s San Diego Padres draws locals and tourists to the revitalized East Village to enjoy the park-like surroundings. Catch home games from early April through October. For only a few dollars, visitors can watch the game from the extremely popular Park in the Park located behind center field; this is a pretty grassy park adjacent to the actual ballpark. The area is elevated so that patrons can see the game field. Kids love to run the bases of the small baseball diamond that’s located in the Park in the Park.

There are also “beach” seats (bleachers located in a sandy lot near the field), as well as standard park tickets. Baseball fans can arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of Petco any time of the year, and the Park in the Park is open and free on nongame days. Parking and traffic in baseball season will challenge anyone’s patience; be sure to come early and plan to stay late, to let the worst of the crowds dissipate before you try the roads. (Better yet, take the bright red San Diego Trolley to Petco; the nearest stop is a short walk from the stands.) 100 Park Blvd., tel. 619-795-5011.

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is the city’s best-known tourist attraction and widely acknowledged as one of the finest zoos in the world. Guests will find more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals housed in realistic enclosures spread across more than 100 acres. My favorite exhibit is the Polar Bear Plunge, a 130,000-gallon water tank where two sets of twin polar bears are on display. The bears frolic and seem to interact with onlookers: Several years ago, when my daughter was 6 or 7, one of the bears looked through the glass tank and directly into her eyes as he played with an oversized volleyball. Other favorites include Gorilla Tropics, the Koala Exhibit (note that these adorable nocturnal animals are generally asleep during the day), the Giant Panda Research Station (expect long lines to view the pandas, especially Zhen Zhen, the newest panda baby), and Monkey Trails, a series of lush pathways meandering through a tropical forest that mimics what would be found in Asia and Africa.

The Children’s Zoo, near the front entrance, offers kids the chance to pet and feed deer and other gentle animals. Don’t miss the Skyfari Aerial Tram, a gondola-and-cable ride that will carry you over the tops of the enclosures and offers tremendous views of the city beyond. (The “Skyfari” terminal near the entrance is usually quite crowded. Walk to the west end of the park and board near the polar bear exhibit; you’ll have a much shorter wait.) 2920 Zoo Dr., tel. 619-234-3153.

For visitors looking for a more adventurous animal excursion, make plans to see the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, located about 35 miles north of San Diego, near Escondido. This attraction is mostly a wildlife sanctuary with more than 3,500 animals, many from Africa, Asia and Australia, spread across 1,800 acres. The park offers nighttime safaris, and this summer added its Wild Animal Camp program for kids, entering grades 1-9.


Rivaling the San Diego Zoo’s popularity as a tourist destination, SeaWorld on south Mission Bay is part aquarium, part amusement park and part botanical garden—and deservedly beloved. Animal shows are the draw; be sure to get a map and show schedule at the front entrance when you arrive. Plan your day around “Believe,” which features Shamu and other killer whales in a performance mixed with live action, video and music, staged in and around a saltwater tank that holds more than six million gallons of water. Plan to arrive about 45 minutes before the show to get a good seat—and watch where you sit! Marked bleachers in the first dozen or so rows are within the “soak zone,” guaranteeing patrons sitting here will get drenched. (This might sound like fun on a hot day, but remember that the water is about 50 degrees and smells like fish. Consider yourself warned.)

Look for other shows starring leaping bottlenose dolphins and noisy sea lions (the Clyde and Seamore show is always the silliest in the park—and a real favorite for the under-6 set). If you haven’t been to SeaWorld in several years, you’ll be surprised to find there are now thrill rides in the park, including Journey to Atlantis, a water rollercoaster ride that plunges 60 feet to the tunes of recorded dolphin calls; Shipwreck Rapids, a whitewater raft ride through waterfalls and spouting water jets; and Wild Arctic, a simulator that takes you onboard a helicopter to see polar bears as you ride out an avalanche. New this summer is the Bay of Play, a Sesame Street-themed zone designed for young children and featuring characters from the beloved PBS show and gentle rides perfect for little ones 5 and younger. 500 Sea World Dr., tel. 800-257-4268.

Legoland California

About 30 miles north of San Diego, in the seaside community of Carlsbad in North San Diego County, Legoland California is a world of impressive engineering done on a tiny scale. Tens of millions of Legos have been used to create scale models of famous cities like New Orleans (listen for the buxom Lego women shouting, “Mister, throw me some beads”); Paris; and Washington, D.C., which are scattered throughout the park.

In addition to the ubiquitous building blocks and beautiful tropical landscaping, Legoland offers rides, live entertainment, and play opportunities (including a miniature golf course within the park, a water-play zone, and an oversized jungle gym).

New this summer is the 1920s Egyptian-themed Land of Adventure, where guests can recover lost treasures as they fight off spiders and mummies. And in mid-August, a new sister park called Sea Life Aquarium will open next door, featuring local marine life and interactive exhibits (a separate entrance fee will apply). Note that although there are a few thrill rides that will appeal to older children, the park is really aimed at kids 10 and younger. 1 Legoland Dr., Carlsbad, tel. 760-918-5346.

Editor’s Note: Ask your hotel if they offer SeaWorld or Legoland discount coupons. Many accommodations do.

Beaches for All Ages

Lots of folks come to San Diego for the nearly perfect weather and the miles of lovely beaches. I personally find the water too cold for swimming most of the year (in August and September, I can usually wade in), but the chilly waves don’t dissuade my 12-year-old (although she generally uses a wetsuit). Families looking for fun in the sun will find it, and then some, at these beaches:

Best for Babies and Toddlers

Mission Bay Park (Located off Mission Bay Dr.)
This picturesque bay-front park isn’t really a beach (the still water isn’t recommended for swimming because of pollution), but it offers numerous recreational activities and lots of room for families with young children. There are a half dozen playgrounds; a 2.5-mile paved, flat bike path that winds along the waterfront (a little crowded on weekends, but navigable even for kids on tricycles); and acres of palm-studded grassy lawn, perfect for picnics and flying kites.

Best for Children 5 to 11

Coronado Beach (Take the bridge to Coronado and follow the signs from Orange Ave.)
This picturesque shoreline has the widest expanse of sand of all San Diego beaches, and the waves are generally small. The 1950s Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like It Hot was filmed in part on this beach, with the lovely Hotel del Coronado as a backdrop. Parking can be a headache anywhere in Coronado, especially within walking distance of the shore, so come early for the best chance to snag a spot.

Silver Strand State Beach (Take the bridge to Coronado, take Orange Ave., and drive south past Coronado Beach.)
South of Coronado, this is the best beach in town to find seashells; head out at dawn and keep your eyes peeled to find washed-ashore treasures. This is an especially good swimming beach for small children because the water gets deep very gradually.

Best for Children 12 and Older

Mission Beach (South off Mission Blvd.)
These two miles of sand are packed throughout the summer and just about every weekend, as well. There is a wide boardwalk, which is popular with rollerbladers, bikers and pedestrians. Families will like the southern portion of the beach best—the north end is rougher and gets rowdy (although new alcohol bans have curtailed much of the disorderly action).

Pacific Beach (North off Mission Blvd.)
PB (as it is called by locals) runs from the north end of Mission Beach (where the boardwalk becomes a sidewalk) north to Crystal Pier. This is another heavily trafficked beach, popular with surfers and sunbathers alike. There are plenty of restrooms, but parking is a nightmare. Note that PB is often raucous, and thus not ideal for young children, although older teenagers will enjoy the scene.

New Downtown Hotels

In addition to a number of family-friendly hotels in the city (see accompanying article), there are a handful of new options for couples and singles wishing to stay in downtown San Diego.

The Keating

Located at the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, The Keating’s sleek look is the product of the Italian firm Pininfarina, the masterminds behind the designs of Ferrari and Maserati. Expect top-of-the-line audio and video equipment (as well as ultraexpensive espresso machines—I’m afraid to touch them!) at this upscale boutique hotel, stunningly modern bathrooms (they are integrated into the guestrooms themselves—and thus don’t offer much privacy), and luxurious amenities like Frette linens and goose-down duvets. 432 F St., tel. 619-814-5700.

W San Diego

Although a bit of a hike to the hottest parts of town, the somewhat isolated W San Diego nevertheless provides both a sanctuary from the noise that can characterize the big city (thanks to guestrooms with a soothing color palette and Asian-inspired design) and a hint of excitement (thanks to the popular rooftop bar, called Beach, which boasts real sand that is heated to keep bare feet warm). 421 West B St., tel. 619-231-8220.

Ivy Hotel

The Ivy Hotel is the newest kid on the Gaslamp block and contender for favorite grown-up lodging. Standard accommodations are stunning—with modern, fresh design, luxurious fabrics and spa-like bathrooms—and suites offer more than a little pizzazz, with extras like stripper poles (classy ones, really!); palatial soaking tubs; and private cabanas that look over the rooftop pool. Guests enjoy preferential admission to Envy, the hotel’s exclusive onsite nightclub. 600 F St., tel. 619-814-1000.

U.S. Grant Hotel

Although hardly a new property in town, the U.S. Grant Hotel has new life, thanks to a $56 million renovation completed a couple years ago that has given this aging 1910 beauty a successful facelift. The plush lobby done up in chocolate brown and icy blue is an art deco masterpiece, rich in historical details. Guestrooms are sumptuous, each accented with original artwork, theatrical lighting and high-end televisions. Indulgent suites feature a “shower experience” in the bathrooms—a large walk-in affair with nearly a dozen showerheads. (Although I’m usually conscientious about conserving water, I admit to standing in one of these showers for close to an hour, so blissful was the experience.) 326 Broadway, tel. 619-232-3121.

Destinations: San Diego

Themes: Amusement Parks, Art and Museums, Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Parks and Playgrounds, Sightseeing, Swimming

User Comments

Lego Land... My 5 year old son loves this place (as do I), but the lines during the weekend are really long. After my son commented "Dad, this isn't fun" while waiting in a 25 minute line, I vowed never to go back during a weekend or holiday.

Time to return It's been too long since I've visited San Deigo. This article gives me a good list of things to do on my next visit.

San Diego crew and zoo I've been to San Diego a couple of times to race in crew boats on Mission Bay. The "San Diego Crew Classic" happens in April when 8's from all over the US gather to compete - from Juniors to College to Masters level. It's an amazing festival and set in a great town. Sea World backs on to Mission Bay so we caught a glimpse of the shows from the water - it's on my list to visit properly next time. I did visit San Diego Zoo and highly recommend it. Lots to see and do, well laid out and great for all ages - even without kids. I'd love to visit again and see it through the eyes of my daughter - she is seriously into the Jungle Book just now - monkeys!! If you have time take a trip out to the upmarket town of La Jolla - we had brunch there and it's got some great restaurants, beaches and shops.