Some of these activities were sponsored, however, all opinions are my own.
For the better part of last year, Isla had her mind set on flying on an airplane. When I asked where we would go, she matter of factly answered, “The beach!” Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but when we thought about destinations for our annual trip, San Diego sounded like a perfect idea. We were able to find cheap fares from Sacramento, and set to work planning the rest.
Flying With Kids
This was our first attempt at air travel with kids. With a 4.5 and nearly 3 year old, it seemed slightly more doable than when they were younger. Luckily, it was only a quick hour and fifteen minute flight. Any longer and I don’t think we would have been able to handle it! Nolan was not happy with having to put electronics away and buckle up again at landing and let’s just say there was some physical restraint required. I will circle the globe with Isla though. She was a champ.
The San Diego Airport is fairly small, which makes navigating it while corralling children slightly easier. We were able to find the rental car shuttles easily, but carrying luggage, car seats and kids is no joke!
You will definitely need to rent a car if you plan to explore the city. There is so much to do and see and the city is big. We borrowed a Mitsubishi Outlander GT for our visit. The compact size made it easy to park in the tiny beach communities and the gas mileage was ideal for the longer trips to farther destinations like Legoland. We even named her Ruby, at my daughter’s request. But, with a super tall husband (he’s 6’5″!) and Grandma along for the trip, we definitely missed the space of our minivan at home. It was such a smooth ride, it event got my kids to nap, which never happens!
Where to Stay
Because we were staying with three generations (my mom joined us for a few days too!), we decided on an AirBNB versus a hotel. The biggest pro to this was that it wasn’t lights out for everyone once the kids were in bed. We were able to stick them in a back bedroom and still utilize the living room. We found a great place in Mission Beach. The bay was just steps away one direction and the ocean was a few blocks in the opposite direction. It included parking and was just steps aways from Mission Bay Boulevard which had tons of charming restaurants and shops. Uber and Lyft scooters line the streets, which makes kid-free transportation easy too. The weather wasn’t exactly beach friendly when we were there and I was sad we couldn’t utilize the location to it’s full potential.
For The Parents
One non negotiable while in town was to meet up with friends from college. We needed a place to accommodating to the four kids between us, but also a place that adults could also enjoy. Alesmith Brewing was the perfect place. They were kind enough to host us for a tour and tasting, which thrilled my craft beer obsessed husband! The brewery had a great indoor outdoor feel, plenty of space for kids and an awesome food truck.
We also had dinner at Ballast Point, which is just around the corner. Not as kid friendly as Alesmith, but they accommodated us!
Another night, my husband and I were able to sneak out for some dessert at The Baked Bear. Definitely a place the kids are welcome, but if you get a chance to bring a grandparent on a trip so you can go alone- do it! The Baked Bear has fresh baked cookies that you can pair with ice cream flavors to create unique ice cream sandwiches. They were gigantic and delicious and worth every second of my eyes being bigger than my stomach!
For The Kids
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo lives up to the hype. My husband and I had been there years ago before kids, but it was so much fun to go back with them. It was drizzling that day, but in hindsight, we enjoyed that more than scorching heat. I think it also kept the crowds down a bit. Definitely rent or bring a stroller. There are several large hills and little legs get tired fast. Nolan is a runner and not having a place to contain him was a rookie mistake. There is a bus you can hop on and off of which will save you from some walking, but we always seemed to miss it.
Viewing of the animals is great and the kids were able to see just about every animal. We even got to see the pandas on their very last day in San Diego. They were on loan from China and had been there for over two decades. I had heard prior to our visit they were leaving and thought we had missed them by one day, so I was very excited to hear we had made it in the knick of time!
When we planned time to go to Legoland, I will admit, I was hesitant. I thought my kids might be too young or disinterested. They have a bin of Duplos at home, and they play with them only occasionally. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong! They were the perfect ages and could ride almost everything. There were a handful of rides Nolan wasn’t tall enough for, but there was always an activity nearby to distract him with while big sister rode. The whole place is really set up for families with young children. There are even play tables for your little ones to build while the grown ups wait in lines- so, so smart! There were also many features that made it easier on Isla as well. She is autistic and there were many touches that made it a successful day for her as well. I was so glad we ended up spending time there, because it was easily the highlight of the trip!
Another place we had intended to visit, but ran out of time, was The New Children’s Museum. It came highly recommended by locals and sounded perfect for our busy, hands on kids. Finding places to burn energy is key when traveling with kids. It would also be a great option if there is heavy rain during your visit.
The weather during our visit was not the quintessential Southern California sunshine I had hoped for. It’s been a rainy, rainy winter in Northern California and I was hoping to escape that, but most of our time was spent in drizzly weather. The positive of this was that it thinned the crowds at the zoo and Legoland, but it limited our time at the beach. On our last day, we headed for La Jolla, rain or shine. Our gamble payed off and we got our only day of sunshine and found the perfect little beach spot!
La Jolla Children’s Pool is surrounded by a man made concrete breakwater, which was intended to make it an ideal place for children to play in the ocean. Turns out, it’s an even better place for seals to hang out! We all loved being able to observe them laying on the beach and rocks and playing in the water.
Just on the other side of the breakwater is a tiny cove. We got their early enough (and it was midweek which probably helped) and had it all to ourselves for a bit. It was the perfect spot to soak up the sun and have the kids play in the waves and build sand castles. I wouldn’t recommend this beach for older kids who are strong enough swimmers to go further in the surf. The seals were just beyond the break and while they kept their distance and seemed very used to humans being nearby, I would be hesitant to swim too close to them. But, we enjoyed watching them bob in and out of the water from the shore.
San Diego is a great destination for families! We are new to traveling with kids and thought twice about San Diego. We had only been as childless adults who spent time in the Gaslamp Quarter at the bars and restaurants, which is definitely not ideal for kids, so we were pleasantly surprised how much there was for us to do. In fact, we feel like we need another trip because there were so many things we ran out of time for! The USS Midway Museum, Coronado Island, Torrey Pines- there really is so much to do an see for families of young children!
What is your favorite spot in San Diego for kids?
This looks like such a fun trip! I have San Diego on our bucket list, and will now add lego land. I too was hesitant with littler kids but it sounds like it is worth it.
It is a must!
Mary Leigh says
This looks like such a fun trip for the kids and parents! If we ever get out to California – how in the world will I be able to decide where to go first?! So many great spots!
Maybe when your boys are a little older! But I’m scarred after that flight with my two LOL!
I loooooove San Diego! The zoo is awesome and the weather is perfect. I’ve never been to legoland though.
It is such a fun city to explore!
San Diego is definitely on our short list of vacation spots to take our kiddos! Thank you for your comprehensive travel list!
Laura Dixon says
We took our 5 and 2 year old to San Diego in October and had a great time. For future reference, kids are free many places in SD in October including the zoo and Legoland.
Oh, good to know! Thank you for sharing!