San Diego, CA Top Attractions

A family trip to San Diego is not complete without visits to the following sites:

San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park

The San Diego Zoo (619.234.3153) is one of the most beloved attractions in the city. The famous zoological park covers a little more than 100 acres and houses more than 3,500 animals and 700,000 plants—many of which are endangered species. Highlights include the panda exhibit, the Polar Bear Plunge (the enclosure is an aquatic tank that allows the arctic cuties to frolic), and Monkey Trails—a series of pathways that meander through a tropical forest much like the kind found in Asia. Children especially enjoy the treetop walkways, which allow them to see eye to eye with monkeys.

Also well worth a visit is the San Diego Wild Animal Park (760.747.8702) the zoo’s east county site (about 30 miles northeast of downtown), where enclosures are kept as natural—and large—as possible. Animals roam expansive field exhibits and mingle with other species they would encounter naturally. In addition to 3,000 animals, the park is home to miles of marked trails and lush landscaping. Kids can purchase food to feed animals like lorikeets, deer, and even giraffes. The park offers a child-pleasing overnight program that allows visitors to camp in tents on the property.


Coming in at a close second in popularity with families is SeaWorld (800.257.4268), a marine zoological park on south Mission Bay. Part amusement park, part aquarium, SeaWorld is deservedly famous, and its star—killer whale Shamu—has been San Diego’s unofficial mascot for years. Shamu’s live show, Believe, is a park favorite; you’ll also find shows featuring dolphins, otters, and sea lions; animal exhibits housing penguins, sharks, and stingrays (kids can feed and pet the rays, which have had their stingers removed); and thrill rides. (Don’t miss Journey to Atlantis, a water rollercoaster set to a soundtrack of dolphin calls.)

Legoland and Sea Life Aquarium

Pride of the North County, Legoland (760.918.5346) in Carlsbad is an oversized advertisement for the colorful namesake building bricks. Tens of millions of Legos make up miniature reproductions of cities like San Francisco, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.. In addition to the tiny architecture scattered throughout, the park boasts more than 50 rides and attractions, many of which run on kid power via rope pulling, pedal pushing, and water squirting. There’s also a miniature golf course onsite, a massive jungle gym, and several water-play zones. New in 2008 is the 1920s Egyptian-themed Land of Adventure, where guests can search for hidden treasures.

In mid-August, a new sister attraction called Sea Life Aquarium opened next door, featuring marine life, imaginatively designed aquariums, and interactive science exhibits. A highlight is the Lost City of Atlantis, complete with an underwater statue of Poseidon and a ten-foot-long submarine made entirely of Legos. (A separate entrance fee is required, although discounts apply when purchased in conjunction with Legoland tickets.)

Balboa Park

Balboa Park (619.239.0512) is an urban oasis just north of downtown comprising subtropical gardens, expanses of grassy lawn, a Frisbee golf course, a 1920s-era carousel, several theater venues, and more than a dozen museums. The Reuben H.Fleet Science Center (619.238.1233) is a special favorite with kids, thanks to the numerous interactive exhibits and the IMAX Dome Theater. Other family-pleasing museums in the park include the San Diego Air and Space Museum (619.234.8291), the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (619.696.0199), and the San Diego Natural History Museum (619.232.3821). If you plan to visit several of these, purchase a park passport at the Visitor Center (located in the Hospitality House), which can save as much as 50% off full-price admissions.

New Children’s Museum

Opened in mid-2008, the New Children’s Museum (619.233.8792) downtown is housed in a glass and concrete space with soaring ceilings and floating staircases. Throughout are murals kids can color in, blackboards they can draw on, and graphitised walls they can climb. There is also a rotating exhibit space that highlights thought-provoking pieces by renown artists. This attraction is best saved for the ankle-biter set (seven and younger).

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Perched above La Jolla Shores, Birch Aquarium at Scripps (858.534.3474) is part of the outreach program of the acclaimed Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This small aquarium features an inside exhibit space that houses exotic specimens from around the world. There is also an extensive hands-on exhibit on global warming—which was visited by Al Gore himself on opening day. Outside is a tide pool exhibit where children can touch creatures like sea cucumbers and starfish while learning about tides.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

The collection of restored structures in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (619.220.5422) highlight the early Pueblo era of 1821 to 1872. Shopkeepers and park rangers dress in period costumes and occasionally take part in historic reenactments. Exhibits highlight the commercial and personal lives of the first missionaries and colonists, as well as the native Kumeyaay Indians. Children will enjoy a walk through the Blackhawk Livery Stables to see antique buggies and carriages. The park is also home to Plaza del Posado a lively period-themed shopping and restaurant district.

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