We fell in love with sunny San Diego and we fell hard. It’s not nicknamed “America’s Finest City’ without good reason. The perfect weather, laid back vibe, and alluring coastal landscapes were all part of what made San Diego so charming but it was the huge selection of family-friendly attractions that made it our unanimous favorite stop on our big west coast road trip. It was also the single hardest city to plan our itinerary for simply because there was so much we wanted to see. Between the beautiful beaches, historic landmarks, world-class museums, and the endless outdoor adventures I felt like we could have spent our entire vacation here and never would have run out of fun things to do. We did manage to narrow down our 3-Day San Diego itinerary to some of the best attractions and eats San Diego has to offer and I’m excited to share all the incredible things we experienced with you here on Mom Abroad. Just be prepared to be as smitten as we were.
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3-Day San Diego Itinerary – Things to Know Before You Go
There are two things before we get into our itinerary that we highly recommend if you are going to visit San Diego and the surrounding area. First, have a car, whether it is your own or a rental. San Diego is a sprawling city and no matter where you stay, you’ll want to be able to easily get to all these destinations, and some of them can be a bit of a drive.
Second, equip yourself with a Go San Diego card or a Southern California CityPass to save yourself some time and money. Most of the ticketed attractions in this post can be enjoyed with the Go San Diego Card. They have a Build Your Own pass option with savings starting at 20% off. The more attractions you add, the higher your savings will be Or, choose the All-Inclusive pass which saves up to 55% off of 35+ attractions.
Now, on to all the fabulous things to experience in San Diego with kids.
San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo inside Balboa Park topped our list of things we wanted to see so naturally we made it our first stop in the city. Home to over 3,700 animals and a beautiful display of over 700,000 exotic plants dispersed over 100 acres it is easy to see why this iconic attraction is widely regarded as one of the best zoos in the world.
We began with a three-mile guided tour aboard the zoo’s double decker buses for an overview of the zoo’s layout and top exhibits. We then walked around to explore some of the spectacular bioclimatic exhibits like the 7.5-acre Elephant Odyssey, the Polar Plunge a recreation of a summer Tundra habitat and our personal favorite; the eye-level views of the adorable tree-hugging koalas in the Australian Outback.
We even caught a ride on the free Skyfari aerial tram for a panoramic look and explored the massive aviary that allows you to walk among the free-flying birds. Young kids will also enjoy visiting the Children’s Zoo, where they can play on the Fisher-Price Discovery Playground, watch playful otters swim and interact with the mellow goats and sheep in the petting zoo.
After we wrapped up our visit to the zoo we headed up to La Jolla, an elegant, upscale coastal resort area set amid beautiful cliffs and coves. The pretty streets are lined with chocolatiers, designer clothing shops, trendy art galleries and chic restaurants but what drew us to this sublime slice of SoCal scenery is the wildlife.
Children’s Pool – Seals and Sea Lions
La Jolla is home to a colony of sea lions that can be seen (and heard!) from various viewpoints. The most popular location for seeing the harbor seals and sea lions is a small stretch of beach protected by a partial seawall called “The Children’s Pool”. The seawall was built in the 1930s’ to keep the waters calm and protected for kids to have a safe place to swim. However, the seals soon took it over. And they have stayed in all their glory sunbathing for tourists to enjoy. While the animals are quite used to humans, be safe and respectful and don’t attempt to touch them.
Sunny Jim Sea Cave
From the Children’s Pool it’s just a short walk along Coast Boulevard to Sunny Jim Sea Cave – the only sea cave accessible by land in all of Southern California. To access this hidden wonder, you’ll need to enter The Cave Store and pay the small entrance fee. From there you will descend down a 144 step, wooden staircase through a man-made tunnel that connects the store to the cave. This experience itself was a thrill for our kids but the payoff is definitely at the end where you can see the most incredible view out into the water.
Ellen Browning Scripps Park
In between the Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove is picturesque Ellen Browning Scripps Park. This was the perfect little spot to let the kids run around and explore the grassy field while we watched the paragliders who take off from La Jolla’s cliffs cruise over the ocean at dusk. The park is right near a bunch of restaurants as well which would make it the perfect place you want walk off dinner, or you can do like we did and grab some gelato after you enjoy it.
For our second day in San Diego we returned to Balboa Park to check out more of what the country’s largest urban cultural park had to offer. It’s truly a lot! Along with the world-class zoo the 1,200-acre recreation and cultural center boasts 17 museums, 9 centers dedicated to the performing arts, many magnificent gardens, 65 miles of hiking and biking trails and multiple athletic facilities including a golf complex. There are also 5 playgrounds, a carousel, a train for children and even an awesome outdoor organ!
As the location of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exposition, the lush grounds feature many Spanish Colonial Revival buildings built as temporary exhibit halls for the historic events. Many of these buildings house the museums today.
Balboa Park is free to enter though the museums have individual ticket fees. If you are not using the Go San Diego sightseeing pass, then we recommend purchasing the Balboa Park Explorer Pass. This provides entrance to the museums with an option to include the San Diego Zoo. The Explorer Pass is available for one-day, multi-day, or a full year of visits. The one-day pass is valid at up to five museums on the same day. The multi-day and annual passes are valid at all seventeen participating museums.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
We started our Balboa Park explorations with a visit to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate. Situated within the fascinating Ford Building the museum covers five centuries of aviation history and demonstrates the remarkable progress of flight from early balloon ascents to manned space travel. Over 60 beautifully restored aircraft and space vehicles such as the Apollo 9 Command Module are on display, both hanging from the rafters and showcased throughout the galleries. You can even sit in some of the aircraft and imagine flying yourself in one of the impressive flight simulators or catch one of the included films in the 3D/4D movie theater.
San Diego Automotive Museum
A quick walk across the parking lot took us to the San Diego Automotive Museum. Dream cars and motorcycles from around the world shine in this nostalgic museum. Since most of the vehicles displayed here are privately owned the collection is constantly changing but shiny paint jobs and white wall tires are a guarantee along with a great sense of the story that motorized vehicles have played in our history.
Fleet Science Center
One of Balboa Park’s most popular venues is the Fleet Science Center. It certainly was a hit with our kids who enjoyed all the hands-on exhibits and interactive displays throughout the museum’s eight galleries. Highlights include the Studio X and the immersive IMAX screen dome theater that shows giant-format films like Superpower Dogs, Volcanoes and Turtle Odyssey. The dome also doubles as a 360° planetarium.
San Diego Natural History Museum
Just across the courtyard from the Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Natural History Museum or ‘Nat as it is affectionately nicknamed, is home to 7.5 million specimens that include everything from fossils, to rare books and live animals. The museum’s permanent galleries spanning five floors include various exhibits regarding San Diego geology, ecosystems, and the natural history of earth over a 75-million-year timeline. Our kids particularly enjoyed “The Backyard” gallery and “Fossil Mysteries” featuring mastodons and a robotic baby dinosaur. Also located inside the 150,000 square foot facility is a giant-screen theater showing 2D and 3D nature films included with admission.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Our last stop in Balboa Park was the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Located on the lower level of Casa de Balboa and covering a staggering 27,000 square feet of space this museum is the only accredited railroad themed museum in the country and one of the largest displays anywhere in the world. It is a toy train enthusiast’s dream! Even as someone who doesn’t know much about model railroads, we could appreciate the, quality craftmanship and meticulous detail that went into the trains and extensive landscapes. Even more impressive is the fact that volunteer club members accomplish all the construction of the model railroads. Our kids enjoyed interacting with several of them as they completed a fun scavenger hunt challenge.
Picnic El Prado
It’s impossible to encounter everything at Balboa Park in a single day but you can certainly take in several of the museums if you get an early start. When it’s time to take a lunch break there are several restaurants located inside the park, but Food Trucks also line the main thoroughfare, El Prado, offering a wide selection of quick eats. We opted to try some Dang Brother Pizza –featuring pies ironically baked inside the oven of a Fire Truck and gourmet cupcakes from Lil Miss Short Cakes. We enjoyed our food truck finds while people watching.
Botanical Building and Lily Pond
After our alfresco lunch we took a stroll around the Lily Pond and the adjacent Botanical Building. One of the world’s largest lath structures the Botanical Building features not only vibrant seasonal flowers but also more than 2,100 tropical and subtropical plants, from orchids to palms. Also presented are several seasonal flower displays. Looking closely into the picturesque pond that fronts the structure you can catch a glimpse of turtles, koi and or even a group of baby ducklings.
After wrapping up our visit to the zoo we made our way towards the center of San Diego to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Staking claim as the birthplace of modern California, Old Town is where the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1769 and built the first of 21 missions in the state. Today the park commemorates the early days of the city, from the 1820s through the 1870s as a living history museum. Occupying nine square blocks, Old Town offers a charming, romantic mix of whitewashed mud-brick buildings and Spanish tile roofs. The wooden storefronts are reminiscent of many Old West towns.
The well-preserved buildings include California’s first schoolhouse, the state’s first newspaper office, a working blacksmith shop, a reconstructed cigar store, gardens and a stable complete with a carriage collection. The park also includes several historic haciendas made of original adobe brick and a variety of stores peddling souvenirs, homemade soaps, Mexican-style pottery, tinwork and more. Our kids were crazy for Cousin’s Candy shop where the freshly made taffy proved irresistible.
There’s a large park in the middle of Old Town with low lying trees for kids to play with and old cannons perfect for climbing. Our kids got a kick out of interacting with the people dressed in period costumes stationed within the various museums. They were happy to answer questions and provide an extra helping of history. The park is free to visit along with parking throughout the area making this one of the most budget friendly attractions in San Diego.
Casa de Reyes
You can’t come to California and not enjoy excellent Mexican food! We had some of the best for dinner at Casa de Reyes right in the heart of Old Town San Diego. The gorgeous garden setting and free live entertainment added to the ambience. We loved sitting back and enjoying one of their delicious margaritas while snacking on fresh chips and salsa and enjoying the traditional folklore dancers spin and twirl in their colorful costumes.
We finished out our day wihttps://www.gaslamp.org/th a visit to the Gaslamp Quarter. This historic part of the city is made up of roughly 16 blocks that feature almost 100 buildings from the Victorian Era. The name of the district is a nod to the gas lamps that once lit the area during Victorian times. Today, the area known for the great food and a variety of entertainment opportunities. Festivals are also held here quite often, and it close the massive San Diego Convention Center home to huge events like San Diego Comic Con. We found it to be a gorgeous spot to visit in the evening and grab yet another round of gelato! San Diego certainly has an impressive array of gelato options!
USS Midway Museum
Our first stop of the day was the USS Midway Museum. Docked along the Embarcadero, the Midway is San Diego’s maritime treasure offering a unique opportunity to experience a day in the life of a crew member aboard what was the U.S. Navy’s longest serving aircraft carrier.
We explored the massive engine room, sleep quarters, galley, brig, sick bay, barber shop and more using the fantastic self-guided audio tour narrated by former USS Midway sailors. The audio tour is included with admission and even comes in a special “kid version” with content geared specifically for 7-12-year-olds.
The four-acre flight deck has more than 20 restored aircraft and even more below. You can climb inside an F-14 fighter jet or practice aerial spins in a flight simulator. The tour of the control tower and the inspiring movie were also among our favorite activities, but the best part of the experience was talking to the veteran docents who were extremely knowledgeable about the ship and eager to share their vast military knowledge.
After disembarking from the Midway we made our way along the Embarcadero to the lively little waterfront area known as Seaport Village. Disguised as a 19th-Century California Harbor town there are over 50 unique shops and waterfront eateries here as well as a restored Loof carousel circa 1895. We grabbed a quick lunch food court style and enjoyed wandering through the colorful kite store and drooling at the cupcakes from Frost Me –winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars! It was mellow while we there, but I hear it’s quite the hot spot during the summer months and on weekends when entertainment and events are offered.
We couldn’t say good-bye to San Diego without spending some time at one it’s most beautiful beaches. Publications like Travel and Leisure have repeatedly named Coronado Beach on Coronado Island among the top ten in the nation. The pristine, soft sand has golden specks in it–a mineral called mica–that causes the ocean water to sparkle. We had never seen anything quite like it!
The waves break gently, usually, and there is so much available space on the sand that it doesn’t feel crowded even in the middle of Spring Break. If you want to get fancy you can rent a cabana, umbrellas, and lounge chairs from the Hotel Del Coronado.
The Hotel Del Coronado
Of course, we had to check out the famous hotel too! The landmark “Hotel Del” as the locals call it, is a sprawling, rust-red-and-white, Victorian-style seaside hotel, opened in 1888. The National Historic Landmark has hosted the twentieth century’s most famous celebrities from US Presidents to superstar athletes and actors. The movie Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe was filmed at the Hotel Del as well.
Even if you’re not and overnight guest you can browse through the history exhibits and photographs downstairs or enjoy a meal or drinks at one of the beachside restaurants and bars. We enjoyed just wandering through the hotel’s shops and lobby that just exudes luxury and charm. My kids loved walking barefoot on the expansive lawn which turns into an ice-skating rink during the winter. Now that would be something to see!
Wheel Fun Bike Rentals
A wonderful way we were able to appreciate more of what Coronado Island has to offer was to rent a surrey from Wheel Fun Rentals. We enjoyed renting bikes from Wheel Fun Rentals to bike the Golden Gate Bridge during our trip San Francisco so much. We were delighted to see that they also have a location right behind the Hotel del Coronado offering both bike and surrey rentals along with helmets. They generously sponsored our rental and we had a blast exploring the island by pedal power!
Fifteen miles of bike paths along the ocean gave made it easy to get around and see the Island. We rode out to Tidelands Park where we could look back on the San Diego skyline and the picturesque Coronado bridge and the sailboats out on San Diego Bay. Saving this charming island for last day was the perfect opportunity to slow down and enjoy the relaxed ambiance of this resort city.
Save Money in San Diego
I must mention once more the San Diego Go Card. We are huge fans of using all-inclusive sightseeing passes as we find they include the best attractions in any given city and they ALWAYS save us a boatload of money.
It is definitely worth purchasing this card if you are coming to San Diego with kids and planning on doing at least two of the ticketed activities mentioned above.
The other pass to consider is the Southern California CityPass. This is perfect if you plan on visiting Disneyland, California Adventure, SeaWorld and Legoland. You can also add on the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park.
There you have it! All the amazing things we did in our three days in San Diego with Kids. Had we not just visited Disneyland right before and had a little more time we would have loved to add on a day exploring SeaWorld or even to check out Legoland. We will surely have to return to San Diego someday and see even more!
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