San Diego has been a popular international tourist destination since 1915. This SoCal getaway embraces the classic laid-back vibe of sandy beaches and perpetual sunshine. These 25 things to do in San Diego will entertain the whole family.
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1.Museum of Man
© Ritu Jethani/stock.adobe.com
San Diego’s Museum of Man has five exciting permanent exhibits. Ancient Egypt includes pottery, jewelry, carvings, and a child’s coffin, among other artifacts. Footsteps through Time is a vast collection spread over five galleries representing the history of mankind. Children’s Discovery Center is the museum’s interactive exhibition, including their archeological field camp replica. Kumeyaay is an exhibition dedicated to 13 local and four Baja, Mexico, bands of Native American culture and history. The Maya exhibition is dedicated to Maya culture in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala. Visitors will also want to tour the museum’s California Tower for one of the best views of San Diego.
1350 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-239-2001
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2.The New Children’s Museum
© The New Children’s Museum
The New Children’s Museum is situated at the west end of downtown San Diego where the Gaslamp Quarter and Marina District come together. This fascinating hands-on museum provides kids with hours of playtime. Visitors can explore 13 art installations like a 48-foot-long bridge with a smile mural, a wall-size nature matching grid, and a Desert Derby landscape. There are also art studios for tots to older makers that provide fun activities year-round. A museum shop sells fun, educational gifts, and Bean Sprouts Café delivers tasty, healthy foods. The museum is steps from Children’s Park, a small park with fountains, a duck pond, and a children’s playground in the shade.
200 West Island Avenue, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-233-8792
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3.The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
© The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum showcases the world's largest collection of historical United States Marine Corps aircraft, featuring 48 historic aircraft used between World War II and the present day. The museum, which is located at San Diego's Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, serves as one of the Marine Corps' premiere command museums and displays a wide variety of artifacts related to the history of Marine Corps Aviation. Guests can view aircraft on display at the museum's Aviation Gallery or peruse exhibits related to the history of aviation art and military working dogs. Eight galleries also display artwork, uniforms, and artifacts related to Marine operations from WWII through the present day. Special events held throughout the year include Open Cockpits Days family events and Picnic With A Pilot lunches.
4203 Anderson Ave, San Diego, CA 92145, Phone: 858-693-1723
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4.San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
© San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum is located in Escondido, California, about an hour north of downtown San Diego. Interactive museum exhibits and educational programs focus on art, science, and world cultures. There are four exhibits in the museum. The Children’s Discovery Garden is an outdoor nature-based exhibit with interactive science activities. Experiment is an exhibit focused on math, science, technology, and engineering with fun experiments to discover scientific principles. The Imagine exhibit encourages creativity, artistic expression, and language development. Explore focuses on history, social science, and world cultures. A gift shop features fun and educational products for kids.
320 North Broadway, Escondido, CA, Phone: 760-233-7755
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5.San Diego Natural History Museum
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San Diego Natural History Museum is situated in Balboa Park, the country’s biggest urban cultural park. Its signature permanent exhibition is Fossil Mysteries. This interactive, kid-friendly exhibition ponders big questions in ecology, evolution, extinction, and Earth processes. Visitors learn about the evolution of prehistoric animals and the identification of microfossils via dioramas, models, murals, and fossils. Other permanent exhibitions include Skulls with more than 200 skulls from across the globe. Water: A California Story is another fascinating and important exhibition. There are also numerous temporary exhibitions, and a vast Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias.
1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-232-3281
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6.San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Situated on more than 1,800 acres, San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 35 minutes north of the city’s downtown. This is no ordinary zoo with eight safaris to choose from. All experiences start from Safari Base Camp at the park’s entrance. From there, visitors can discover 13 animal habitats from Elephant Valley to Asian Savannah to African Plains to Butterfly Jungle. It’s as close to experiencing the real environment as one can get without being there. Different ways to explore the park are by Segway, on foot, via a free African tram, zip-line, cart, and caravan. Some are free, some are paid.
15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, CA, Phone: 760-747-8702
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7.San Diego Zoo
© Iriana Shiyan/stock.adobe.com
San Diego Zoo is situated next to iconic Balboa Park near downtown. This amazing urban zoo with open-air exhibits sprawls across 100 acres of space. Having recently celebrated its 100th birthday, it’s a San Diego icon in itself. Visitors can expect to see more than 4,000 animals from 800 species in authentically recreated natural habitats. There are several ways to experience the zoo from strolling zoo paths with a complimentary map to soaring over the top with Skyfari gondola lift to taking a guided tour on a double-decker bus. The zoo is organized into ten habitats that are easy to navigate. Nighttime Zoo is a must-do during the summer season.
2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-231-1515
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8.San Diego Botanic Garden
San Diego Botanic Garden is located 40 minutes north of San Diego in the large coastal town of Encinitas. This botanic wonderland is comprised of more than 5,000 plants in 29 themed gardens sprawled across 37 landscaped acres. It has the distinction of being a Top 10 North American Garden Tourism Award recipient. Seeds of Wonder, Tuesdays through Thursdays, has fun activities for preschoolers. Hamilton’s Children’s Garden offers 13 incredible kid-centric activities every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During December, the garden is alight with 125,000 dazzling holiday lights. There is a fabulous Garden Shop onsite too.
230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas, Phone: 760-436-3036
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9.The Original Dog Beach
Nationally renowned Dog Beach in Ocean Beach, California, is one of the country’s first official off-leash dog beaches. Dogs freely romp the sandy beach and play in the water where the beach meets the mouth of San Diego River. A rock jetty separates the area from the busy entrance to Mission Bay. Located at the corner of Voltaire Street and West Point Loma Boulevard, there is a large parking lot and plenty of street parking for dog owners. It’s also a good surf spot, and there are showers and bathrooms. Dog Beach is open 24-hours.
Ocean Beach Bike Path, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-236-5555
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© LEGOLAND California
LEGOLAND California is a theme park located 30 minutes north of San Diego in the coastal city of Carlsbad, California. The park has more than 60 rides, shows, and attractions. Miniland USA is probably the most unique feature of the park. Created from over 20 million Legos, it depicts popular U.S. tourist destinations and busts of historical figures and pop icons. Duplo Play Town and Duplo Village are big hits with the kids. SeaLife Aquarium has more than 200 aquatic animals. LEGOLAND Waterpark also has a range of water rides and attractions for all ages. There is an adjacent resort for those who just can’t get enough of this park.
1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad, CA, Phone: 888-690-5346
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11.SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is a marine mammal park best known for its entertaining, acrobatic marine animal shows. Visitors will see sharks, manta rays, dolphins, penguins, killer whales, polar bears, and more in marine animal exhibits. There are also thrilling rides like the Journey to Atlantis coaster ride, and white water rafting on Shipwreck Rapids. Little ones will also find their thrills on Elmo’s Flying Fish ride or Sesame Street rides. SeaWorld Skytower provides epic views of San Diego, Mission Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. Bayside Skyride is the park’s gondola ride over the park. All shows, rides, and exhibits are included in admission prices.
500 Sea World Drive, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-222-4732
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12.Aquatica San Diego Water Park
© Aquatica San Diego Water Park
Aquatica San Diego Water Park is a South Seas-themed waterpark located about 25 minutes south of downtown San Diego in Chula Vista, California. Visitors can expect every water experience from the extreme to the laid-back, meeting the needs of every family member. Thrill seekers get excited about the Taumata Racer, a 375-foot racing water slide with a 180-degree turn and a few tunnels. There are two dozen body and raft slides in all at the park. There’s also a 500,000-gallon wave pool with a sandy beach, kids’ water play area, and lazy river. Guests will find several dining and snack options, and plenty of places to lounge in sun or shade.
2052 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista, CA, Phone: 619-222-4732
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13.San Diego Air and Space Museum
© San Diego Air and Space Museum
San Diego Air and Space Museum, located in Balboa Park, is one of ten Smithsonian Institute affiliated aerospace museums in the country. Replicas of the Apollo 9 Command Module and Spirit of St. Louis plane are visitor favorites. The museum has six permanent galleries featuring exhibits ranging from a WWI gallery to a Modern Jet and Space Age gallery. Beyond the fascinating exhibits in this interactive museum, there are riding simulators, 4D theater presentations, and lots of ongoing temporary activities.
2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-234-8291
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Belmont Park is a historic, waterfront amusement park in Mission Beach that has been entertaining families since 1925. Guests will find everything from the Giant Dipper, the park’s original roller coaster, to the high-tech FlowBarrel and FlowRider surf experiences in the Wave House. Parents will love the nostalgic feel of the park with throwback rides and Midway Games of chance. There’s a miniature golf course, rock climbing wall, ropes adventure course, and laser tag center. Visitors will also find three great restaurants in the park complex – Cannonball (epic ocean views from the second-floor terrace), Draft Mission Beach, and the Beach House, plus numerous shops for quick bites and treats.
3146 Mission Boulevard, San Diego, CA, Phone: 858-488-1549
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15.Old Town San Diego
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Old Town was the first settlement in California, built in 1769, and was once San Diego’s downtown. A hub of cultural heritage, visitors can indulge in authentic Mexican food, cultural entertainment, and beautiful fountains in an outdoor garden patio setting at Fiesta de Reyes. Bazaar del Mundo offers specialty shops from around the world. Visitors will find 30 restaurants, more than 100 specialty stores, and 25 historic buildings in Old Town. It is also home to Old Town San Diego State Park where San Diego’s Mexican-American history comes to life. Volunteers in period dress lead tours of historic sites. A tour of the famously haunted Whaley House is another must-do.
4002 Wallace Street, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-220-5422
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Seaport Village is situated along beautiful San Diego Bay. This enchanting collection of more than 70 one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, and galleries sit on 14 acres of lush landscaping. There are fountains, ponds, wooden bridges, exotic plants, and lush greenery. Four miles of walkways wind through the village where visitors will discover everything from salsas and hammocks to cruise wear and jewelry. A central food court hosts live entertainment including Flamenco guitar, jazz, blues, Latin American Folk, and other musical performances. Artists draw cartoon portraits and paint faces, and buskers perform. Dining ranges from upscale fine dining to casual restaurants with bay vies. Stands and carts serve every imaginable treat.
849 West Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-530-0704
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Balboa Park, near downtown San Diego, is the country’s biggest urban cultural park. It occupies 1,200 acres and offers fifteen important museums, several performing arts venues, a number of gorgeous gardens, and of course, the San Diego Zoo. El Prado is the park’s main pedestrian walkway where visitors can access many of the ornate Spanish Renaissance-style museums and landmarks. A visitor center is located in the House of Hospitality on El Prado. This beautifully landscaped park is also home to the Old Globe Theater, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Japanese Friendship Garden, and the mesmerizing Botanical Building and Lily Pond, all worthy destinations on their own. There is no admission fee to the park, and parking is free.
1549 El Prado, San Diego, Phone: 619-239-0512
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18.Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
© Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
Although it was built decades after most buildings in Balboa Park, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center maintained the Spanish Renaissance-style of other museums along El Prado pedestrian walkway. Situated at the end of El Prado pedestrian walkway across from Bea Evenson Fountain, the Fleet Center is home to over 100 interactive science displays. Twelve permanent exhibits explore the relationship between science and man. Gallery of Illusions and Perceptions is one of the museum’s most popular exhibitions. Giant Dome Theater, the first IMAX theater in the world, provides a 3D, multisensory experience with regular shows. Galileo Café serves grab-and-go food, and North Star Science Store offers a range of gifts.
1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-238-1233
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19.Birch Aquarium at Scripps
© Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Although Scripps Oceanography pledged in the early 1900s to always maintain a public aquarium presenting scientific findings to the public, it wasn’t until 1992 that the newest iteration was created. The goal these days is to promote conservation of our oceans, provide marine science education, and explain Scripps oceanography research. Hall of Fishes has over 60 habitats, and Elasmo Beach Exhibit features a 13,000-gallon leopard shark tank. There are two exhibits dedicated to natural resources, three interactive displays including coral and seahorses, and a tide pool display. There are also several temporary exhibits throughout the year.
2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA, Phone: 858-534-3474
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20.Children’s Pool Beach
Often at the center of conflict between animal rights activists and beach access advocates, Children’s Pool Beach presents an opportunity to see sea lions and harbor seals up close. Originally, the beach was intended for children to safely play in the ocean when a local philanthropist built the protective seawall in the 1930s. Now, visitors can go out on the seawall to watch the marine mammals lounge on the beach. During the months of June to November, the beach is open for playing on the beach and swimming. The beach is closed December through May for pupping season. Grassy Scripps Park overlooks the beach and is a good place for a picnic.
834 Coast Boulevard, La Jolla, CA, Phone: 858-454-5718 (Information Center phone)
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21.Lighthouse Ice Cream
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Named one of the best ice cream shops in San Diego, the Lighthouse Ice Cream shop’s claim to fame is their Hot Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich. This Ocean Beach favorite also serves up a variety of cones, sundaes, malts, yogurts, and sorbets. The family-owned business has been serving happy OB residents and tourists since 1997. Now, patrons can also order Hot Pancake Ice Cream Sandwiches. The shop uses San Francisco’s Double Rainbow ice cream and Oregon’s Cascade Ice Cream in their treats. Non-dairy and sugar free options are available. Guests can also get their hands on locally famous fresh-baked Julian Apple Pies here.
5059 Newport Avenue #102, San Diego, CA, Phone: 609-222-8600
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© Corvette Diner
Corvette Diner is located in Point Loma’s popular Liberty Station. The 50s-themed diner is a fun throwback to the days of fat burgers and crispy fries delivered by sassy servers in poodle skirts. This restaurant’s expansive menu offers ten kinds of hamburgers, over a dozen specialty sandwiches, plated dinners, soups, salads, appetizers, desserts, and so much more. The big hit with families is the restaurant’s Gamer Garage Arcade where guests can dive into 64 games from Skee Ball to Pinball, to Air Hockey. There’s even a prize counter bursting with prizes for both kids and adults.
2965 Historic Decatur Road, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-542-1476
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23.The Sparks Gallery
© The Sparks Gallery
The Sparks Gallery is a delightful contemporary art gallery in San Diego's historic Gaslamp Quarter, located within the renovated historic Sterling Hardware Building, originally constructed in 1924. The gallery, which was opened to the public in 2013 by Sonya Sparks, was awarded the People in Preservation Award for Adaptive Reuse in 2015 for its use of historic public space by the Save Our Heritage Organization. Rotating exhibitions showcase the works of contemporary artists living and working throughout Southern California, with an emphasis on San Diego-area artists. Exhibitions include group shows, gallery selections, and showcases of area student works. A variety of public special events are offered throughout the year, including demonstrations, gallery talks, meet the artist events, and exhibition opening receptions.
530 Sixth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 619-696-1416
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24.California Surf Museum
The California Surf Museum in Oceanside, California, is 40 minutes north of downtown San Diego. It has become an important attraction with over 600,000 visitors and counting. Founded in 1986, it was recently relocated to its brand new bigger space downtown. Permanent exhibits include a history of surfboards from wood to fiberglass, measuring surface temperature and wave directions, body surfing and handplanes, the first surf camera housing, and surfing art and culture. Long-term displays include Bethany Hamilton’s surfboard, Kelly Slater’s surfboard, and Eddie Aikau’s rescue board, among others. There are also temporary exhibits like China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Power of Waves. Seasoned and budding surfers alike will be intrigued.
312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, CA, Phone: 760-721-6876
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25.Cabrillo National Monument
A visit to Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood should begin with a stop at the Visitor Center. Rangers and volunteers guide visitors in the best way to experience the area. There are also cool things to peruse from 16th-century navigational instruments to an Age of Exploration exhibit, and even some films. Touring the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is another must-do here, especially for kids. Point Loma tide pools and their inhabitants are wildly popular with locals, and should be explored with care. Families will also love the two-mile coastal hiking trail providing epic ocean and harbor views, perfect for photography buffs.
3640 Colorado Hwy 125, P.O. Box 379, Granby, CO, Phone: 970-887-3344
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25 Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
- Museum of Man, Photo: Ritu Jethani/stock.adobe.com
- The New Children’s Museum, Photo: The New Children’s Museum
- The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, Photo: The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
- San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, Photo: San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
- San Diego Natural History Museum, Photo: Steve Minkler/stock.adobe.com
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Photo: Ranjani/stock.adobe.com
- San Diego Zoo, Photo: Iriana Shiyan/stock.adobe.com
- San Diego Botanic Garden, Photo: f8grapher/stock.adobe.com
- The Original Dog Beach, Photo: sherryvsmith/stock.adobe.com
- LEGOLAND California, Photo: LEGOLAND California
- SeaWorld San Diego, Photo: desertsolitaire/stock.adobe.com
- Aquatica San Diego Water Park, Photo: Aquatica San Diego Water Park
- San Diego Air and Space Museum, Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum
- Belmont Park, Photo: Anita Romero/stock.adobe.com
- Old Town San Diego, Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/stock.adobe.com
- Seaport Village, Photo: Jo Ann Snover/stock.adobe.com
- Balboa Park, Photo: Andy/stock.adobe.com
- Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Photo: Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
- Birch Aquarium at Scripps, Photo: Birch Aquarium at Scripps
- Children’s Pool Beach, Photo: sherryvsmith/stock.adobe.com
- Lighthouse Ice Cream, Photo: Lukas Gojda/stock.adobe.com
- Corvette Diner, Photo: Corvette Diner
- The Sparks Gallery, Photo: The Sparks Gallery
- California Surf Museum, Photo: soupstock/stock.adobe.com
- Cabrillo National Monument, Photo: Ganeshkumar/stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: Bill Chizek/stock.adobe.com
Queen Califia's Magical Circle
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, is a whimsical sculpture garden, located 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego in Escondido, California. These mesmerizing sculptures, created by sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle, were inspired by the legends and tales of California. Visitors can find the fantastical sculpture garden, named after a fictional warrior queen, in Kit Carson Park. A 400-foot wall topped with vibrantly colored snakes encircles a central plaza that visitors access by going through a maze. A 24-foot-tall sculpture of Queen Califia atop a rainbow eagle sits at the center of the plaza. Eight magical totems surround the Queen. Families will want to bring a camera for some wild and colorful photos.
3333 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido, CA, Phone: 760-839-4691
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
San Diego Model Railroad Museum is one of the biggest railroad-themed museums in the world, and the only one accredited in the U.S. Visitors will find extravagant railway layouts that cover 27,000 square feet. Layout dioramas are exceptionally detailed, designed and built by four local nonprofits of volunteer train enthusiasts. The most popular railway exhibit is San Diego and Arizona Eastern, a scale model of a real life train that ran between San Diego and El Centro called “the impossible railroad.” Other highlights include, a high-tech, computer-operated display, an electric trolley line, and a kid-friendly, interactive Toy Train Gallery.
1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA, Phone: 619-696-0199