San Diego Vacation
May 19, 2015 5:39 AM   Subscribe

I would like to take my wife and two kids ( 4 & 6 ) to the San Diego Zoo. Outside of that, what else is awesome to do in San Diego? We will rent a car. We will be going sometime in July. Where should we stay? Give me all the cool things we should do during a 5 day period.
posted by jasondigitized to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Legoland! It's like 20 minutes from the city and your kids will love it, as will you.

Make sure you eat a ton of tacos. They have really good tacos in San Diego.

Some more ideas when I asked a similar question here.
posted by bondcliff at 5:50 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

In addition to or instead of the Zoo, you should consider visiting the Zoo's Safari Park. The kids can see the animals in those giant enclosures. My kids (now 10, 7, and 4) have really enjoyed that on past visits.

Legoland is also a great place to spend a day. You can stay at the hotel there, which is so much fun for kids, or just drive up for the day. We've done both and have had a great time.

You should also just plan some time at the beach, which will be easier if you staying near one.
posted by Area Man at 6:39 AM on May 19, 2015

My family and I were in San Diego over spring break in March, and the things we enjoyed the most were a random visit to Torrey Pines State Reserve and the San Diego Botanical Garden. Yes, it was mostly walking around looking at plants, but the plants and the landscape, particularly at Torrey Pines, were so different than what we are used to (we live in the Upper Midwest) that it was really interesting to all of us -- 2 adults and an 11-year-old. If you go to the Botanical Garden, absolutely do not miss the tiny little restaurant tucked inside a nearby nursery -- Betty's Pie Whole. Savory and sweet pies available, and absolutely delicious.
posted by Janta at 6:53 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you have any idea when you're going, or is this open-ended? If you have room to plan, you may want to time your trip to hit/miss certain events. First, ComiCon is July 9-12 this year, and that has a HUGE impact on hotels all around town, and it even trickles down to making some restaurants kind of difficult to go to. Downtown during that period will be insanely crowded, although you may not plan on really being in that area anyway. Second, Pride is the weekend of July 17. It isn't as much of an impact as ComiCon, but can make things difficult around Balboa Park (where the zoo is). Third, the horse races at Del Mar start on July 16; also not a huge deal, but can cause traffic backups if you're trying to get to someplace north of the track or back (i.e. Legoland). Something your kids might be interested in is the San Diego County Fair from early June to early July - it's your typical county fair, for a county with 3 million + people in it. There's lots of stuff for kids to do - a large Midway section with rides and games, a specialized kids area in the middle of the racetrack infield (it's held at the same place as the horse races) that has exhibits and tamer rides, ridiculous fried food, etc.

Aside from those events, you may want to take weather into consideration - May and June are usually pretty cloudy along the coast, with the possibility of the clouds burning off in the afternoon, but it doesn't always happen. The clouds keep the temperature moderate though, and things start to heat up a bit inland or after July. The hottest days of the year usually seem to be in late August or early September.

If you have a car, you may want to visit the zoo's other half, the Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park), near Escondido, well north and inland of San Diego. It sort of turns the zoo inside out - most animals in the park co-habitate in large free-range areas while visitors are limited to viewing them from the periphery or a tram ride that's included in your ticket price. Anything beyond walking around and taking the tram can get expensive, and there's a charge for parking, unlike at the zoo. They do have a bunch of other things to do (tethered balloon ride, rope course, zip line), but expect to pay $40 or so to do them.

There's also Sea World, but I found it sort of depressing even before the whole Blackfish thing.

You should be good just hanging out in Balboa Park for a couple days - there's the zoo, and a ton of museums and other things that have exhibits for kids: a science museum that's mostly hands-on and kid-oriented, a model railroad museum, natural history, aerospace, etc. If you go on a Sunday, there's a collection of cottages near the aerospace museum that represent different countries, and they'll have open houses with cookies or other snacks available (for purchase).

And there's always the beach.

With a car and kids you may want to stay somewhere in Mission Valley. It's fairly central, a lot of the hotels are more "resort-y" with pools and other features if you just want some downtime. A lot of them will charge for parking, but guests may get it free or discounted; I'd expect downtown hotels to charge no matter what.
posted by LionIndex at 7:01 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

We travel to San Diego from the east coast each summer to visit a family member. When our kids were that age, we particularly enjoyed seeing the tide pools at the Cabrillo National Monument and also visiting the Monument itself for the lighthouse and cool views. (We actually still enjoy those things!) The beach in Ocean Beach can be fun, not only because it is a beach, but also because the airplanes taking off from the airport often fly directly overhead.

Your kids might like the koi pond and conservatory in Balboa Park - the plants in the conservatory can be neat to see and it's not terribly large. We also like the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. These are quiet. non-time consuming outdoor activities that might be fun with young children.

N'thing Legoland. Bring your swimsuits for the water park there.

La Jolla can be tricky, parking-wise, but my kids LOVED the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla when they were your kids' ages, and I would highly recommend a visit there. It is small and manageable but fun.

As for things you might wish to skip, my personal sense is that the Gaslamp Quarter is rather adult-oriented and isn't much fun for kids that age. I also think SeaWorld is a dud - there are, of course, serious concerns about animal welfare at SeaWorld (as noted by LionIndex), but beyond that it is just never seemed very interesting to our family. Your kids are probably too young for the USS Midway. Seaport Village is OK but not too terribly interesting, either.

As for lodging, the hotels in the Hotel Circle area are located in a convenient area, near the major freeways. I've also had good luck also with some of the hotels in the Sorrento Valley area, near the junction of the 805 and Mira Mesa Blvd. It's a fairly corporate/office park-ish area but the area is reasonably convenient to many locations.

Finally, as much as I love the Mexican food in San Diego (we are partial to El Indio on India Street), I LOVE the seafood at Point Loma Seafood even more. It is fresh and fast and you can sit there, eat, check out the fishing boats coming and going in the harbor, and enjoy America's Finest City!
posted by cheapskatebay at 7:08 AM on May 19, 2015

My two year old loved the USS Midway, for what it's worth. We wandered around at our own pace and she got to touch lots of helicopters which was not really an interest before the trip. The volunteers there were all quite warm and friendly with the kids.

Make sure to check the tide schedule before going to any tidepools, it's not fun to go and not see anything.

We also really liked Balboa Park and spending lots of time on the beach.
posted by stowaway at 8:11 AM on May 19, 2015

Second the recommendation for Birch Aquarium, good variety of sea creatures and educational fun for probably 2-3 hours.

There's a spot in La Jolla called "Children's Pool" where, depending on time of day/weather, you have a good chance of seeing a multitude of seals sunbathing on the sand and swimming in the water. I don't think you're allowed on the sand there but watching them on the beach from a distance is still fascinating.

Pacific Beach Fish Shop has delicious sandwiches.
posted by hummingbird at 10:44 AM on May 19, 2015

I've said this in all the other San Diego threads, but I strongly recommend looking up in North County for a place to stay. That puts you near Legoland and the Safari Park, the non-party beaches, the tide pools and other kinds of kid-friendly nature. There are lots of hotels, and also lots of vacation rentals if you'd rather do a place with a kitchen.

I like Carlsbad in particular (that's where Legoland is, and don't miss Tip Top Meats for breakfast or lunch), but Encinitas/Cardiff/Leucadia/Solana Beach are also good options.

My other favorite place is indeed Children's Pool and Scripps Park (it's all one long stretch, including some swimmable beach at the Underwater Park), where you are guaranteed excellent sea lion sightings any time of day.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:48 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just popping in to say that if you are going in July, make sure you do NOT go during Comic Con (July 8-12.) The city bulges at the seams and it makes all tourist amenities very hard to come by (taxis, restaurant reservations, hotel rooms, etc.)
posted by np312 at 12:55 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

We did the area last year when our kids were 4 and 8 and Legland and the beach day were our biggest hits-two days at Legland and could have done more (right now they have a buy one day, get five days)-and their waterpark is awesome for little ones. Zoo was fun enough, but definitely a distant third in their opinion.
posted by purenitrous at 2:15 PM on May 19, 2015

Others will cover all kinds of fun stuff, but I happen to be a cheapskate, so here's a bunch of free or low-cost things to do.

Balboa Park is jam-packed and is a great place for kids to run around between more focused activities. The Gardens are excellent and free. If you want to give your kids a taste of the museum experience, I recommend the Timken Museum of Art. It's free so whenever the kids get squirmy you can go onto the next thing without feeling all "Grrrr, we just spent $40 for 10 minutes of entertainment."

You'll have a car, but you can also make use of the excellent Trolley System. It provides easy transport to Old Town and other popular tourist spots that are less fun when you've got to wrangle traffic and parking. Depending on where you live, riding on a trolley may be an adventure for the kids.

No matter how you feel about visiting SeaWorld, the summertime fireworks are a lot of fun. You can get great views of them by heading out to Fiesta Island.
posted by annaramma at 3:56 PM on May 19, 2015

Specific to the San Diego Zoo visit -- definitely take the double-decker bus tour, and sit up top on the "passenger" (right-hand) side to see giraffes, elephants, etc. from a terrific vantage point. Also, the big cats sleep most of the day (in the shady, far end of their habitat) so if one of your party is especially keen to see them, try heading over there first thing in the morning.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:12 PM on May 19, 2015

A nice little beautiful walk and will be a little cooler than the mainland is Coronado Island. About the time you are in San Diego it should be pretty hot and Coronado stays about 5-10 degrees cooler than the mainland. There is also a beautiful little ferry ride from downtown San Diego to Coronado that is inexpensive and quite nice. And you can always enjoy checking out the Hotel Del Coronado made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the film Some like it hot.

I also highly recommend the restaurant Super Cocina. Off the beaten path and in a little bit of a rough area but the food, in my opinion, is outstanding and worth the adventure (I'm a San Diego native now moved out of state and whenever I return to San Diego my parents always ask when I want to schedule our meal at Super Cocina.)

- Mr. Eggkeeper
posted by eggkeeper at 7:57 PM on May 19, 2015

There are wonderful beaches. My kids enjoyed the Carlsbad beaches the best.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:34 PM on May 19, 2015

Seconding the USS Midway.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:40 AM on May 20, 2015

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