Family Travel Survival Guide: San Diego, CA

With dozens of white-sand beaches, near-perfect year-round weather, and a handful of world-class zoos, aquariums, and theme parks, San Diego, California, is a sure bet for a fun-filled family vacation. Although there is no shortage of activities for children, there’s plenty for adults to enjoy as well—especially the revitalized downtown district, which in the past decade has transformed into one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan city centers in the country.

San Diego’s got it all: glorious weather, a beautiful bay, a lively arts scene, thrilling theme parks, a world-class zoo and wild animal park, and an envious 70 miles of beaches.

Families can “go native” by rooting for the home baseball team, the San Diego Padres, at PETCO Park, and by soaking up the SoCal beach scene. Join locals by bicycling, inline skating, jogging, and sunning on the sand along the three-mile boardwalk that connects Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. Coronado sports San Diego’s widest sands plus a bike path that hugs the scenic shoreline and winds through Silver Strand State Beach. La Jolla, a posh suburb about 12 miles north of San Diego, is the place to hit the beach. Sea kayakers can paddle to La Jolla Shores to explore caves and little kids can look for minnows and crabs in La Jolla Cove’s tidepools.

Animal encounters in San Diego abound. At the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, more than 400 species roam across 1,800 acres of varied habitat. Heart of Africa’s winding trails lead through 30 acres of recreated forests, savannas, and wetlands inhabited by wattled cranes, okapi, and other animals, while the Wgasa Bush Line Railway cuts through giraffe, white rhino, and ostrich territory. For the best view, however, “float” on a tethered hot-air balloon that hovers 400 feet above the grounds.

New at the park and its sister facility, the San Diego Zoo, is iZoofari, podcasts of animal tidbits you download onto your MP3 player. Audio tours, available for download on site as well as online, include the Nairobi Village iZoofari, Monkey Trails, and Gorilla Tropics, making for a fun and fascinating way to get to know the zoo’s creatures as well as the wider wild world.

Polar bears, sharks, penguins, manatees, and of course, Shamu, everybody’s favorite killer whale, star at SeaWorld San Diego, a marine park combining animal attractions with thrill rides. Little kids splash and play in Shamu’s Happy Harbor, while older ones get wet on Journey to Atlantis, a water coaster.

In LEGOLAND, scale models of Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and other landmarks rise up out of 20 million LEGO bricks. Unlike most parks, this one caters to young kids with a fairytale boat ride and a driving school where six-year-olds finally get to be in charge behind the wheel. The TECHNIC Coaster, for older kids, dumps riders from the ticklish but not terrifying height of 42 feet. Wild Woods Golf, the park’s mini-course, features 40 LEGO creatures, some of whom clap and cheer for you as you play your round. New as of summer 2006, water-filled Pirate Shores features two rides and two play areas. Board your ship on Splash Battle to fight a water cannon skirmish with other boats and the spectators. Treasure Falls, a just-scary-enough flume ride, plunges you 12 feet. At Swabbles Deck, preschoolers prance through water jets and fountains. Soak-N-Sail has more than 60 ways to get wet, including being doused by a 300-gallon bucket of water.

At 1,200-acre, oasis-like Balboa Park, along with housing the San Diego Zoo, you find the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Aerospace Museum, and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, touted as the largest operating facility of its kind in North America. Mission Trails Regional Park, just eight miles from downtown San Diego, sprawls over 5,800 acres of hills and valleys and boasts 40 miles of trails winding through oak groves, sage, and chaparral.

Tip: With the San Diego Card (, get unlimited admission to more than 35 attractions and tours, including the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND.

Recommended Side Trips: Los Angeles, Disneyland, Santa Barbara, San Francisco

Lay of the Land

San Diego is big—larger than some New England states (more than 4,200 square miles), comprising a sprawling network of neighborhoods connected via mega-freeways. Public transportation (easy to use and fun via the bright red San Diego Trolley) and foot power will get you around downtown, but it’s nearly impossible to navigate the rest of the far-flung city without a car. The good news is that the freeway system is easy to understand, routes are well marked, and exits are announced with plenty of warning. The bad news is that traffic often chokes the major thoroughfares. Visitors will have fewer headaches if they allow extra travel time and avoid rush hours; the worst of the traffic on weekdays is heading south and west in the morning and north and east in the evening. On weekends, expect the morning flow to move westward, toward the beaches, and the evening flow to move southward, toward downtown.

San Diego Neighborhoods

Most tourist attractions are downtown and in the beach communities that line the coast. The heart of San Diego is the revitalized Gaslamp Quarter, 16 blocks of upscale restaurants, shopping, and boutique hotels housed in beautifully restored Victorian structures. Also downtown is the artsy East Village; the largely rebuilt Harbor District overlooking the San Diego Bay; and Little Italy, another recently revamped district in the northernmost section of downtown. Across the bay is Coronado, an isthmus connected to the city by the graceful Coronado Bay Bridge. The Uptown District is a few miles north of downtown and overflows with ethnic eateries, comfort-food diners, and kitschy shopping.

Imagine the coastline communities of San Diego like a string of beads running northward, starting with iconoclastic Ocean Beach; youth-centric Mission Beach—and just inland, peaceful Mission Bay; Pacific Beach, heady with laid-back bars and bikini shops; La Jolla, a tony community with multimillion-dollar homes and a vibrant cultural scene; upscale Del Mar (home to the famous Del Mar Racetrack); Encinitas, a trendy surfing town; and Carlsbad, a quaint European-style village and site of Legoland.

San Diego Family Travel Tips

  • Planning ahead makes San Diego’s larger attractions (SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park) more personal and memorable. Prearranged tours and experiences, like a private meet-and-greet with bottlenose dolphins or an overnight safari, give your kids more one-on-one time with the animals.
  • Coronado’s beaches are perfect for picnics, sandcastles, and kite-flying. Fourth of July brings a particularly festive small-town charm, with a parade down Orange Avenue and fireworks over Glorietta Bay.
  • Balboa Park has something for everyone: museums like the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum and the San Diego Air & Space Museum; the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with its IMAX Dome Theater; a miniature railroad; a carousel; and even puppet shows.
  • At the New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego, art is interactive, with lots of things to touch, make, and do. The second Sunday of each month is free; Monday mornings, Thursday afternoons, and Saturday mornings have fewer crowds.
  • Take public transit, as it’s easy, fun, and inexpensive. On the weekends, two kids younger than 12 ride free with a paying adult. You can get to the attractions at Balboa Park (including the zoo), Coronado, and even SeaWorld on the bus and trolley.

Next Page: San Diego Attractions

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