Family Vacations to San Diego, California

San Diego Skyline, San Diego, California
San Diego Skyline (Corbis)

San Diego Highlights

  • Meet polar bears and sharks at SeaWorld.
  • Enjoy the rides for little kids at LEGOLAND.
  • Explore Balboa Park's museums.
  • Play on (and off) the beaches in Coronado and La Jolla.
  • Experience an African safari at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park.

San Diego's got it all: glorious weather, a beautiful bay, a lively arts scene, thrilling theme parks, a world-class zoo and wild animal park, and an envious 70 miles of beaches.

Families can "go native" by rooting for the home baseball team, the San Diego Padres, at PETCO Park, and by soaking up the SoCal beach scene. Join locals by bicycling, inline skating, jogging, and sunning on the sand along the three-mile boardwalk that connects Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. Coronado sports San Diego's widest sands plus a bike path that hugs the scenic shoreline and winds through Silver Strand State Beach. La Jolla, a posh suburb about 12 miles north of San Diego, is the place to hit the beach. Sea kayakers can paddle to La Jolla Shores to explore caves and little kids can look for minnows and crabs in La Jolla Cove's tidepools.

Animal encounters in San Diego abound. At the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, more than 400 species roam across 1,800 acres of varied habitat. Heart of Africa's winding trails lead through 30 acres of recreated forests, savannas, and wetlands inhabited by wattled cranes, okapi, and other animals, while the Wgasa Bush Line Railway cuts through giraffe, white rhino, and ostrich territory. For the best view, however, "float" on a tethered hot-air balloon that hovers 400 feet above the grounds.

New at the park and its sister facility, the San Diego Zoo, is iZoofari, podcasts of animal tidbits you download onto your MP3 player. Audio tours, available for download on site as well as online, include the Nairobi Village iZoofari, Monkey Trails, and Gorilla Tropics, making for a fun and fascinating way to get to know the zoo's creatures as well as the wider wild world.

Polar bears, sharks, penguins, manatees, and of course, Shamu, everybody's favorite killer whale, star at SeaWorld San Diego, a marine park combining animal attractions with thrill rides. Little kids splash and play in Shamu's Happy Harbor, while older ones get wet on Journey to Atlantis, a water coaster.

In LEGOLAND, scale models of Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and other landmarks rise up out of 20 million LEGO bricks. Unlike most parks, this one caters to young kids with a fairytale boat ride and a driving school where six-year-olds finally get to be in charge behind the wheel. The TECHNIC Coaster, for older kids, dumps riders from the ticklish but not terrifying height of 42 feet. Wild Woods Golf, the park's mini-course, features 40 LEGO creatures, some of whom clap and cheer for you as you play your round. New as of summer 2006, water-filled Pirate Shores features two rides and two play areas. Board your ship on Splash Battle to fight a water cannon skirmish with other boats and the spectators. Treasure Falls, a just-scary-enough flume ride, plunges you 12 feet. At Swabbles Deck, preschoolers prance through water jets and fountains. Soak-N-Sail has more than 60 ways to get wet, including being doused by a 300-gallon bucket of water.

At 1,200-acre, oasis-like Balboa Park, along with housing the San Diego Zoo, you find the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Aerospace Museum, and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, touted as the largest operating facility of its kind in North America. Mission Trails Regional Park, just eight miles from downtown San Diego, sprawls over 5,800 acres of hills and valleys and boasts 40 miles of trails winding through oak groves, sage, and chaparral.

Tip: With the San Diego Card (, get unlimited admission to more than 35 attractions and tours, including the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND.

Recommended Side Trips: Los Angeles, Disneyland, Santa Barbara, San Francisco's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 1 May 2008 | Last Updated: 8 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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