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San Diego is a place near and dear to our hearts. That’s where we moved a month after we were married and where Milana was born. We go back every so often, and love all the kid friendliness the city has to offer. If you’re looking for the best things to do in San Diego with toddlers or young kids, read on! Here are the best places to visit in San Diego with kids. There are so many family things to do in San Diego that you can easily fill a week and still not see half of the popular tourist attractions!
Things to note when visiting San Diego with kids:
–San Diego is a really spread out city. It’s really hard to see the various attractions without having a rental car as they are super spread out. The public transportation is not great and you will end up spending most of the day waiting for trams/buses/etc. If you’re asking yourself if you need to rent a car in San Diego, the answer is yes!
–If you find yourself in San Diego from another state, explore the city. There are so many wonderful neighborhoods in San Diego (Hillcrest, University Heights, North Park and Kensington are some of our favorites) and most tourists tend to stick to downtown/Gaslamp/La Jolla. So many good restaurants in those neighborhoods, you certainly won’t be disappointed! We lived in Hillcrest which we absolutely loved, it’s by far our favorite neighborhood in the city with some of the best restaurants.
–Pack layers! While it may be hot during the day, it will cool down significantly once the sun goes down. Bring a hoodie and you’ll be good to go. Summers aren’t very warm here either, so don’t expect tropical weather when you come in July!
–San Diego has what is called May gray/June gloom where it’s gloomy for a good portion of the day, especially near the coast. When we lived there for several years, we dreaded the summer months! It would start in May and go all the way up to August most years. We hated the fog and overcast weather so much. It made the temperature much cooler than we wanted in the summer months! So consider this if you’re planning a “summer” trip.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN DIEGO WITH KIDS
Looking for best family hotel in San Diego? As far as hotels go, we stayed at several different places all over the city. Really, you can’t go wrong with what you choose as there are so many options. Since we are loyal to the Bonvoy properties, we always book one of them. There are a ton in the city, in just about every section, so you’re bound to find something you like. In the past, I used Marriott points and we stayed at the Courtyard San Diego Central. We got upgraded to a suite which had a separate sitting room with a couch (that can turn into a sleeper sofa if you want) and a bedroom with a king bed and another sleeper couch. It was a great room!
We have also stayed at the Marriott Marquis, which is in an awesome area and walking distance to a ton of attractions.
This most recent trip, we stayed at the TownePlace Suites San Diego Central. It was a great hotel, located right off the freeway with easy access to pretty much everywhere we wanted to go. If you have a rental car, you’ll be able to stay at a hotel that’s centrally located with free or really cheap parking as opposed to ones in the Gaslamp or Old Town that charge up to $60/night to park!
The only sections I don’t recommend staying in are Coronado and La Jolla. Getting in and out to explore other parts of the city is not easy, especially during rush hour. Though be aware that sometimes hotels list themselves as La Jolla but they are actually in UTC which is fine since it’s right off the freeway.
KID FRIENDLY SAN DIEGO RESTAURANTS
Caffe Calabria: For great coffee, head to Caffe Calabria located in North Park. The coffee here is really good (we had the mochas) and Milana loves their little salami/cheese sandwiches. This is our favorite and the best coffee in San Diego!
Hillcrest Farmers Market: Our Sunday tradition used to be walking to the Hillcrest Farmers Market when we lived within walking distance. It’s still the best farmers market we have ever been to, with a ton of prepared food vendors, serving everything from African and Mediterranean to vegan and Polish food. So much to choose from, definitely come hungry! And of course, since this is a farmers market, there are lots of fruits and vegetable vendors as well.
Some of our favorite items at the market are Thai coconut pancakes, cookies from the Cravory (they used to only sell at farmers markets but now have a store front in Point Loma), probiotic kefir soda, agua frescas in so many flavors and cheese! We all love cheese and Milana loved doing a taste test as she calls it, giving a thumbs up to every cheese she tried.
After all those cookies and cheese, we had to hit up the produce portion of the market and left with lots of fresh, organic berries. They have a ton of fruit samples at the market, Milana will eat days worth of fruit in just samples!
Prado: Inside Balboa Park is the Prado restaurant. The best thing here is the wagyu beef sushi rolls, something we would come eat on a regular basis in their bar area! This time we decided to make a reservation and sit inside. Kids get a plate with veggies while they wait for the food which is a nice touch. Dave had the paella and I ate the wagyu sushi for my meal. You have to try them, they are so good!
Veganic Thai Cafe: San Diego has lots of great Thai restaurants, but our new favorite is Veganic Thai Cafe in Hillcrest. Everything we ordered was amazing, and being vegan is a huge plus!
Evolution: In Banker’s Hill is a vegetarian drive thru restaurant called Evolution. This is a hidden gem, not many people know about it but it is so worth a visit! So much healthier than your typical fast food, and it tastes better too. We used to frequent this a lot when we lived in the area, I wish we had something like it in OC!
Hodad’s: This iconic burger shop is a must visit while in San Diego! There are multiple locations now but go to their original one in Ocean Beach. It has the true SoCal vibe and is very popular with locals!
Liberty Public Market: This is similar to the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. There are lots of food vendors inside, so everyone in your family can have a different meal. There are tables indoors and outdoors where you can sit and enjoy your meal. Milana chose the fresh tri-color pasta with pink sauce. There’s also a candy store inside, something she has been searching for since we arrived!
Burger Lounge: Another really great place to eat is Burger Lounge. When we first moved to San Diego, they only had a couple of locations. This is an organic, grass-fed burger places, with some of the best burgers you will ever have. They have since expanded to Orange County and LA so you will be able to find them throughout SoCal. Milana usually gets a burger, but this time she chose the kids chicken and it was some of the best chicken we have tried!
Bronx Pizza: One of our must stops while in SD is Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest. The West Coast lacks severely in the pizza department, so much in fact that Milana who devours anything refuses to eat pizza here. She had no problem eating it when visiting family in Jersey and in NYC, but West Coast pizza is just not her thing. Until she tried Bronx Pizza that is! This is the first time she actually finished a slice of pizza and enjoyed it. If you’re looking for NY style pizza, this is the place to be. They’re always packed, but they have lots of pies ready (they sell by the slice, so many options to choose from) so you won’t wait very long.
Carnita’s Snack Shack: A must visit while in San Diego is Carnita’s Snack Shack, located in the Waterfront area. The line is usually all the way down the street, but moves quickly and is so worth the wait!
Pacific Beach Fish Shop: In the mood for seafood? This is one of our favorites! Another place that we have been coming to for years, from the time that they opened. You select your fish, sauce and sides. Simple but so good! And they have a cute patio for dining.
Cucina Urbana: In Banker’s Hill, this Italian restaurant has been our favorite restaurant for years. Their jars are amazing! Our favorites is the chicken liver pate and burrata. The food is kid friendly too, Milana loves everything we have. Though they do have a separate kid’s menu if you’re looking for one!
Phil’s BBQ: Chances are you have heard of this place! It’s been featured on many tv food shows and is a very popular restaurant. We have been coming here since we moved to San Diego in 2008 and still like it to this day. The line will be huge but it does move quickly!
Snooze: A great and super popular breakfast spot is Snooze, which is in Hillcrest. The wait on weekends can be long, so go early or be prepared to wait! The food is really, really good so definitely worth the wait.
Breakfast Republic: Another awesome breakfast place in North Park. The wait on weekends can be long but so worth it! If you like French toast, this is the place to be. Milana and I loved the Mr. Presley one which was stuffed with peanut butter and topped with bananas. If you can’t decided, you can get a French toast flight. Their veggies scramble is really good to, especially the brussel sprout potatoes that we got as a side.
BEST DESSERTS IN SAN DIEGO
Ghiradelli: San Diego has lots of awesome dessert places. One day, we went to the Gaslamp because Milana asked for “chocolate like they give at Disney,” meaning Ghirardelli. She got her free samples of chocolate and we all shared the Ocean Beach sundae. Sure you can find this at other locations, but it’s really good so if you want some good old fashioned chocolate or sundaes, this is a good bet.
BabyCakes: One morning, we became parents of the year and took Milana to our favorite cupcake place anywhere for breakfast. We had coffee and she had a cupcake (ok, I did too!). If you’re looking for an excellent dessert places, BabyCakes not to be missed! It used to be on 5th Ave in Hillcrest, but has since moved to another area of the city. Still worth a visit!
Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream: If ice cream is your thing, then this is the place for you! You can get an ice cream flight to sample multiple flavors. We chose the 6 flavor flight and it’s really hard to choose the best ones! They also have vegan ice cream (6 flavors when we went), so a good option if you’re allergic to dairy.
Boba Bar and Desserts: San Diego also has lots of places with boba and awesome Asian style desserts. We went to Boba Bar and Desserts and everything was so good! I had the green Thai tea (which Milana loved), Dave had the mango tea and Milana had a bubble waffle filled with all kind of yummy things. We used to frequent this neighborhood because of the great food and desserts, though it’s not a popular tourist destination which is a shame!
Waypoint Public: Another restaurant in North Park, this one has an indoor play area for kids. Ask to be seated near it and you can enjoy some food and beer while your kids play.
Station Tavern & Burgers: If you want some burgers in a local neighborhood, this is a great restaurant for families visiting San Diego with kids. The outdoor seating is essentially a yard, with a play area for kids. They can wander and play in the enclosed yard while you eat.
Beach House Grill: If you want to grab some food or alcoholic beverages while your kids play in the sand, this is the place for you! You can dine on one of their picnic tables while your kids play in the sand right next to you. The entire place is enclosed, so bring a bucket and a couple of sand toys and you’re good to go!\
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO WITH KIDS
There are so many things to do and places to go in San Diego with kids! Here are 101 things to do in San Diego, as recommended by a local. And our list of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.
Balboa Park: This is a must visit while in San Diego. Balboa Park is probably the most popular tourist attraction in San Diego and one of the best places to visit with kids in San Diego! Visit some amazing museums, walk around the rose garden and check out some local playgrounds while here.
Sea World: Now I will preface this and say we aren’t fans of Sea World at all but received free tickets so we went to ride some of the rides and skipped any animal attractions. This of course is a huge tourist attraction in San Diego.
San Diego Zoo: If you’re in San Diego, chances are you have a trip to the famous San Diego Zoo planned. This is a must if you are visiting San Diego with kids. The zoo takes conservation very seriously and is one of the best in the country. If you have time and a car, check out the Safari Park as well. Note that pandas are no longer at the zoo as of April 2019!
Belmont Park: Located in Mission Beach is the only amusement area right by the beach. This is similar to the one in Santa Monica. There are rides, games and an arcade. A great way to spend a few hours with your kids, right by the beach!
Beach path from Mission to Pacific Beach: This is a fun way to see both beaches and the beachfront homes. The entire path is paved, so you can rent bikes, walk, scooter, etc.
Rent a boat on Mission Bay: We used to rent a boat often when we lived here and have done it a few times as visitors! They are pet friendly, so our Bulldog Porkchop always came along for the ride. It’s a fun way to see the city from the water.
New Children’s Museum: San Diego also has a children’s museum, the New Children’s Museum . We have visited a few times and while it’s not our favorite, it’s a great place to spend a rare rainy day or if you just want to get away from the constant sunshine for a bit!
Children’s Pool: This is one of our favorite parts of San Diego. Take a walk along the coast line and see some seals and sea lions right on the beach. The seals are at the Children’s Pool and definitely a must see if you’re visiting San Diego with kids!
Torrey Pines: Want to see some hang gliders? This is the place to be! Watch hang gliders take off and soar through the sky. Torrey Pines also offers some great hiking, though be aware that Black’s Beach below is a clothing optional beach and may not be suitable for kids!
Old Town: Make sure to hit up Old Town on one of your San Diego visits! Yes, it’s a huge tourist trap that we never went to when we lived there but it’s still super cute to explore for a couple of hours. There are lots of souvenir shops and of course a ton of Mexican restaurants. While the Mexican food isn’t great at any of them (try Lucha Libre not far from here but be prepared for a wait!), it will do in a pinch. We ate at Cafe Coyote on this visit.
BEST SAN DIEGO FAMILY FRIENDLY BEACHES
Of course, no trip to San Diego is complete without visiting some of the awesome beaches! But not all beaches are created equal. Here are our favorite family friendly San Diego beaches.
La Jolla Shores: This was a beach we frequented when Milana was a baby. If you use a stroller, you can roll your jogging stroller right onto the hard sand and walk along the shoreline while pushing your baby. There’s a playground, bathrooms and free parking. They even have fire pits if you want a beach bonfire. A family favorite!
Coronado Beach: I will be honest and say that I don’t recommend staying on the island as it is a pain to get in and out, especially during rush hour. Come here for the day but stay in the city of San Diego. Coronado is one of the most family friendly beaches in all of San Diego and you will see lots of families here. The famous Hotel del Coronado is here as well, and if you’re here around Christmas, you will see it all decked out for the holidays.
Del Mar City Beach: Del Mar is just north of San Diego and a great place to visit with kids! The beach here is great and their downtown is really cute. They even have a dog beach (we brought our Bulldog Porkchop here all the time!) so if your kids like dogs, go check them out at the beach!
La Jolla Cove: This is another favorite beach though it gets packed quickly! Because of the location, the waves aren’t big here and the kids can play. It’s also a popular snorkeling spot.
Moonlight Beach: This beach is up in North County and worth the drive! It’s one of the best family beaches in the county.
BEST PLAYGROUNDS IN SAN DIEGO
Looking for the best playgrounds in San Diego? There are a ton all over the city, but I will mention those that I feel are worth a visit if you’re a tourist visiting the city. Here are the best playgrounds in San Diego.
Waterfront Park: This is one of the newest playgrounds in San Diego and a must visit if you’re visiting San Diego with Kids! It was over 80 degrees in February, so the splash pad area was filled with bathing suit clad kids. Milana had a blast running around and getting soaked. You can watch the planes land at the nearby SAN airport while you soak up the rays and the kids splash and play in the water.
There are two sections with water play. One is just water play, and not very crowded. The second area is right next to the playground, and that area was very crowded. We stayed by the splash only area until she was ready for the playground, then we walked over to the actual play area. The biggest complaint we had (and we heard from others) is the lack of shade anywhere. It was a really hot day and the playground equipment was getting really hot, with no shade anywhere.
Kellogg Park: This is a newer playground right on the beach at La Jolla Shores. When we lived here, it was just a random little slide with some swings and now is really awesome! Definitely worth a visit, especially since it’s by one of the best beaches in San Diego.
Playground near Petco Park: If your hotel is near Petco Park, there is a little kids playground inside it. You can enter Petco Park during the day and walk around the area, something to keep in mind if you want to see the stadium without going to a game.
As you can see, San Diego is a very family friendly city and one of the best places for a family vacation in the US. If you have more time while visiting Southern California, head on up the coast and explore Orange County with kids!