Southern California is an amazing destination for a family vacation. The area is absolutely beautiful and has so much to offer to its visitors. From beautiful weather and sandy beaches to fun attractions and experiences, it makes for the perfect West Coast family vacation spot.
San Diego and Southern California, in particular, feature a number of fun outdoor activities and attractions as well as many indoor activities on the off chance you run into a rare rainy day.
So, which activities are the best in Southern California to ensure you have a great kid-friendly vacation?
Best Time to Visit Southern California
If we’re being honest, there really isn’t a bad time to visit Southern California. It is rare to have a rainy day or inclement weather in Southern California, so you will have plenty of freedom to enjoy all of the activities you plan.
San Diego in the winter months typically enjoys mild and pleasant weather, with average temperatures ranging from the mid-40s to the mid-60s Fahrenheit. Visitors can expect mostly sunny days, with only occasional rain.
During the summer, Southern California offers warm and sunny weather, with temperatures typically ranging from the high 60s to the low 80s Fahrenheit. The city of San Diego experiences low humidity and minimal rainfall, ensuring plenty of sunny days to enjoy its beautiful coastline and outdoor attractions.
Where to Stay in Southern California
The place you choose to stay should be picked based on the activities that you plan to participate in. If you’re visiting Southern California with your kids, we recommend staying in sunny San Diego. Popular neighborhoods include Oceanside, Escondido, and Fallbrook.
If you’d rather stay closer to popular attractions, including Disneyland and Universal Studios, we would recommend staying in Los Angeles or Anaheim to be a bit closer to these attractions and save you some travel time.
A rental property or Airbnb anywhere on the Pacific Ocean coast between the two would also be a good compromise.
How to Get Around in San Diego
We have found that getting around a city like San Diego is best for traveling by car. You can choose to do this through rideshare programs/taxi services or by getting a rental car.
Rideshare services are convenient and easy to obtain, but depending on how much you are moving around, you may end up spending a lot of money on trips.
If you are flying in, we recommend considering a rental car for your Southern California vacation. Perks to having a rental car include the freedom to travel when and where you want. Plus, when it comes to cost, you really will find that the rental car is almost always worth it when you compare it to paying for daily rideshares or taxi rides.
25+ Best Things to Do in San Diego and Southern California
- Spending several days in San Diego? Consider picking up a Go San Diego Card from Go City for all the family – the savings can quickly add up on the all-inclusive pass. We’ll highlight below where it can be used.
1. San Diego Zoo – Balboa Park (Paid/Go City)
The San Diego Zoo is not just one of the best zoos in the United States, but it has actually been considered one of the best in the world for many years. There are more than 700 unique species and subspecies housed at the San Diego Zoo. Visitors get the opportunity to not just see these animals but also enjoy up close animal encounters, tours, and more.
2. San Diego Zoo Safari Park – Escondido (Paid/GoCIty)
In addition to the traditional zoo, the San Diego Safari Park is also a great experience to enjoy in the San Diego area. Here, visitors have the option to embark on a number of safari experiences, including the Wildlife Safari, a Behind the Scenes Safari, the Sun Up Cheetah Safari, and the Roar & Snore Safari.
Note that Escondido is considerably further north than the city of San Diego – best visited by car, otherwise the bus is at least a 2.5 hour journey
3. SeaWorld San Diego – Mission Bay (Paid/GoCity)
SeaWorld San Diego is a cross between an amusement park and an aquarium! Enjoy a day of fun on a variety of rides and roller coasters, plus the chance to see a number of aquatic animals, including dolphins, whales, and more!
4. Belmont Park – Mission Beach (Free/GoCity)
Belmont Park is an iconic beachfront boardwalk amusement park located at Mission Beach. The park offers free admission and parking to its guests, but if you would like to enjoy any games or rides you will need to purchase a Ride & Play Pass. One of our personal favorites includes the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, a historic wooden roller coaster originally established in 1925!
- Pro tip: If you plan to ride any rides, it’s best to not purchase ride tickets at an ala carte cost. Rather consider purchasing a general Ride & Play pass that will give you unlimited access to all rides and attractions.
5. Balboa Park (Free)
Balboa Park is a beautiful park located just minutes from downtown San Diego and one of the city’s best free things to do. Here you can enjoy a number of fun activities and attractions including 17 museums, gardens, and parks!
With young kids, don’t miss out on a ride at the historic Balboa Park Carousel, originally built in 1910! The carousel features 27 intricately hand-carved horses and 25 other animal species.
In terms of the museums, some real hits with our kids have included the San Diego Natural History Museum and the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
- Top Tip: Arrive early in the day to nab a parking spot close to the attractions you want to see (otherwise you may need to got to overflow parking and catch a shuttle bus)
6. The New Children’s Museum – Downtown San Diego (Paid)
Taking the time to enjoy history and learn while on a vacation is always a great way to spend the day in our opinion! The New Children’s Museum in San Diego is incredible, featuring a number of exhibits and activities for kids to enjoy, including clay art and painting!
7. Living Coast Discovery Center – Chula Vista (Paid)
The Living Coast Discovery Center offers a number of animal encounters for its visitors, including an aquarium, the turtle lagoon, raptor row, and the beautiful native Pollinator Garden.
8. La Jolla Cove – La Jolla (Free)
La Jolla Cove is a very small beach between sandstone cliffs at La Jolla Shores. This area is small and quaint, with beautiful views that you do not want to miss out on. The cove is also an excellent spot if your family enjoys snorkeling or scuba diving!
9. Oceanside Pier – Oceanside (Free)
The beaches at Oceanside, California, are beautiful, and the Oceanside Pier has plenty of dining, attractions, and shops to enjoy for families. If the weather is suitable, enjoy a beautiful day at the beach, and if the ocean is a little too chilly, a walk on the pier will be a great way to spend the day.
10. San Diego Padres Game at Petco Park – Downtown San Diego (Paid)
If your family is a baseball fan and you visit in season, don’t miss out on the chance to see a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park! Our family loves to see the local stadiums and sports teams whenever we visit a new place.
Even it its not a match day, its possible to take a Petco Park Tour.
11. Birch Aquarium at Scripps – La Jolla (Paid/GoCity)
Birch Aquarium features more than 60 habitats with a variety of fishes and other aquatic species. Additionally, there are a number of hands-on educational exhibits that will help your family learn and enjoy the wonders of the sea!
12. Fleet Science Center – Balboa Park (Paid/GoCity)
The Fleet Science Center is a great way for your family to explore and discover how science supports our everyday lives. There are 100 hands-on, interactive exhibits that include learning about how gravity works, how things are constructed, and more!
The next few are a little further north in Greater Los Angeles but definitely worth considering as part of a broader Southern California itinerary
13. Hollywood Walk of Fame – Los Angeles (Free)
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. This gives your family the chance to see and take photos with some of Hollywood’s favorite stars!
Some of the most popular stars amongst the kids include Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Snoopy, and Winnie the Pooh. The walk is quite long, with over 2,000 stars to see, so it may be best to check out the Hollywood Walk Map to see where your favorite stars are located!
14. Hollywood Sign – Los Angeles (Free)
The Hollywood Sign is one of the most iconic signs in the US. While you can’t drive directly up to the Hollywood Sign, you can still get rather close to the sign and even get your picture with it! Some of the best viewing spots for the Hollywood sign include Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood and Highland Center, or perhaps a hike along the Mt. Hollywood Trail!
15. Disneyland/California Adventure – Anaheim (Paid)
In our opinion, you can’t take a trip to Southern California without making a stop at the happiest place on earth, Disneyland! Whether you spend just a single day or several days, your kids will surely love spending the day at Disneyland and/or California Adventure Parks.
16. Legoland California – Carlsbad (Paid/GoCity)
Any Lego lovers out there? Legoland is an amusement and entertainment park themed based on a long-time children’s favorite toy, Legos! See incredible structures, roller coasters, and more made up of Legos!
17. Universal Studios Hollywood (Paid)
Another popular theme park in the area is Universal Studios Hollywood. Here, you can enjoy rides and attractions based on some of the most famous motion pictures in Universal Studios history, and you will even get the chance to see a behind-the-scenes look at a real film studio on the backstage tour!
18. Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica (Free)
The Santa Monica Pier is very popular as it is part of the famous Route 66! Whether you are looking for a day to spend at the beach or you simply visit for fun on the pier, your family will be sure to have a great time! The Pier features fun rides and attractions, including a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and more.
19. Venice Beach (Free)
Venice Beach is one of the most famous beaches in California. The Venice Beach Boardwalk is more than two miles long and hosts hundreds of vendors, restaurants, and retail shops to enjoy. In addition to these vendors there is also a fishing pier, skate park, and recreation center offering activities such as basketball, paddle tennis, and more.
20. San Diego Botanic Garden – Encinitas (Free)
The San Diego Botanic Garden features 29 incredible gardens with hundreds of beautiful plant species to enjoy. Taking a stroll through the garden is a great way to spend a couple of hours of quality time taking in nature with your family. Some popular gardens amongst kids include the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden and the Dragon Tree Grove!
21. Museum of Making Music – Carlsbad (Paid)
The Museum of Making Music is a can’t-miss stop if you have kids who love music! Not only will they learn how music is made and how instruments work, but you can even get hands-on in the instrument room where you can actually pick and play hundreds of various instruments from all around the world and be featured in a number of musical genres.
22. Old Town San Diego (Free)
A visit to Old Town San Diego gives you the opportunity to see the history of California and take in the culture around you. The town features a number of great attractions, including The Whaley House and the Old Town State Historic Park, retail shops, and restaurants that serve fantastic Mexican food!
23. Sesame Place San Diego – Chula Vista (Paid)
This theme park is based completely on Sesame Street! The park features a number of rides and attractions in a combination of dry and water rides. Additionally, you can visit the Sesame Street Neighborhood where you can see and meet the iconic characters from Sesame Street and even see the iconic 123 stoop!
24. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – La Jolla (Free)
The Reserve is home to the rare Torrey Pine tree and is a great location for spending the day outdoors with the family. There are a number of hiking trails, beautiful views, and natural beauty to take in. A few great trails to embark on, particularly with younger children, include the Guy Fleming Trail and the Discovery Trail.
25. Waterfront Park – Downtown San Diego (Free)
If you’re looking for somewhere to cool down and have some fun, a visit to Waterfront Park is a great way to enjoy the day! This park features playground equipment, grassy areas perfect for a picnic, and fun interactive water fountains that are perfectly okay for the little ones to play in and enjoy.
26. Seaport Village – Downtown San Diego (Free)
Seaport Village features over 50 places to shop, dine, and entertain the whole family. There are fun activities, including face painting, balloon art, an excellent video game arcade, and even a ride on the historic carousel! Be sure to check out the Seaport Village events calendar in order to see what special events may be occurring while you’re in town.
27. SEAL Tour – Downtown San Diego (Paid)
The SEAL Tour departs from Seaport Village and takes riders down through the San Diego Harbor. During this narrated tour, visitors will learn about the history of San Diego and enjoy beautiful views as they cruise through the water.
More To See And Do In California
We hope this guide to fun kids activities in San Diego and Southern California has inspired you in plotting out your family adventure on the West Coast of the USA.
If you are seeking some further family road trip planning inspiration, you may want to expand your trip further to include:
- A drive from San Diego to the Grand Canyon – with fabulous stopping points along the way including Joshua Tree National park.
- A complete road trip guide around California’s National Parks – set aside 3 weeks for this spectacular scenic drive throughout the state.
- Unmissable stops on the drive from Phoenix to San Diego (I-8 & I-10 routes explored).
- Take on the coastal challenge from San Francisco to San Diego – options for taking the PCH and the slightly less bendy inland routes!
- Still trying to decide where to focus on visiting during a Cali road trip? It’s a huge state, so we’ve broken down the highlights of Southern California vs Northern California to help you decide which would fit your family’s interests best.
© Family Road Trip