San Diego is also referred to as America’s finest city and after visiting we can see why. It really offers everything a family could wish for the perfect family holiday.
Located on the southern coast of California, San Diego is the eighth largest city in the USA and is often overlooked by families travelling from the UK in favour of the more popular Californian cities – Los Angeles and San Francisco.
When we told friends and family that we had booked to go to San Diego, everyone asked us the same question – where is San Diego and what is there to do for the kids? (our girls are 7 and 9)
It turns out there is plenty to do from world class theme parks Seaworld and Legoland, historic sights, beautiful beaches, a world class zoo and great museums….. the list is endless.
Along with lots to keep all the family entertained it’s the San Diego weather that’s another reason why the city is well worth visiting. It offers the perfect climate all year round with mild temperatures, low humidity and little rainfall.
We visited in the spring and with temperatures in the mid 20’s and plenty of sunshine it offered the perfect climate to explore the city.
After an 11 hour transatlantic flight from London with BA we arrived in San Diego international airport.
The benefit of flying into San Diego over Los Angeles LAX is that it’s a much quieter airport coupled with the fact that it’s so close to the city centre which was where we were spending our first part of our holiday.
Hiring a car and trying to find your hotel in the dark when you are tired after such a long flight is not my idea of a relaxing start to a holiday so it was great to know that the taxi to our first hotel the Manchester Grand Hyatt was just a 10 minute drive away in downtown San Diego.
(We quickly found out that Uber or Lyft are really big in San Diego and have blanket coverage in the city. I was initially a little reluctant of using the service but after installing the UBER app on our phones it offered us cheaper fares and was much more convenient than getting a taxi.)
Our visit to San Diego was split into 5 days in downtown San Diego and 4 days on the Pacific coast in the beautiful town of Carlsbad, San Diego County which was around a 30-45 minute drive from the city.
The great thing of starting your visit in downtown San Diego is for the most part you don’t need a hire car (overnight parking at hotels can be expensive – $35 at the Grand Hyatt) and our hotel the Manchester Grand Hyatt put us within walking distance or a short cab/uber/lyft ride from most of the cities downtown attractions.
Downtown San Diego is split into several neighbourhoods including the Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado, Little Italy and the Old Town all of which provides such a vibrant mix of culture to experience.
However a hire car is recommended especially if you are planning on visiting attractions such as Seaworld, La Jolla, Legoland etc.
We pre-booked our car with BA Avis in the UK before our trip and collected it on the third day of our holiday after we had visited the attractions in downtown San Diego.
Tip – I would recommend signing up for the free Avis Preferred scheme if you are planning on renting a car with Avis. This allows you to skip the long lines at the rental desk.
What to see and do
Here is what we learned, our highlights and recommendations after visiting San Diego County.
Tip – It’s well worth purchasing the Go San Diego card which offers an easy and discounted way to see some of the top attractions in San Diego. You purchase a card online and you can get into as many of the attractions as you like for the duration of the card. It also offered us lots of inspiration and ideas on places to visit that we might not have taken the kids to
The time zone in California is 8 hours behind us in the UK, so with our body clocks still to adjust we made the most of our early morning start to visit the gigantic aircraft carrier turned museum the USS Midway which is now permanently docked in San Diego harbour and is an attraction in its own right.
This was a pleasant 10 minute walk from our hotel along the Embarcadero. En-route we stopped off at Seaport Village, with over 50 shops, cafes and restaurants.
The blend of Spanish and New England design together with its waterfront setting made this a unique shopping location.
One of our favourites was Frost Me Gourmet and their delicious cupcakes, they are so good they were champions on the TV series Cupcake Wars.
Step aboard the USS Midway
At the dockside next to the vast USS midway is a giant 25 foot tall statue called Unconditional Surrender which is a famous image of a sailor from WWII kissing his sweetheart off her feet. There were also wide open spaces for the kids to run and burn off some energy.
At 972ft long this huge aircraft carrier was literally like a floating city and played a key role in both the Vietnam and Gulf conflicts.
I did have some reservations if the kids would get bored here, but I can see why the Midway is ranked as the number one attraction in San Diego according to Trip Advisor as it appeals to all ages.
Tip – Visit the flight deck first when the ship opens and you will have the entire deck to yourself.
We had great fun climbing aboard the various planes and helicopters on the flight deck which also had great views of San Diego harbour side.
There were so many interesting ways to learn about what life was like on-board especially for kids.
The girls loved having their own child friendly version of the audio tour as we explored the multiple decks of the ship and talking to the knowledgeable tour guides – many of which were veterans of the carrier.
I would also recommend the 30 minute tour of the bridge/tower at the very top of the ship, not only was it really informative and engaging for all the family you might also get to sit in the captains seat and learn how you would steer the ship.
Visit the Gaslamp Quarter
Within walking distance of our hotel was the Gaslamp Quarter, named after the quaint green wrought iron gas lamps that still line the streets.
Once home to famous lawman Wyatt Earp it is now one of the most vibrant of San Diego’s neighbourhoods and full of hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Cycle or scoot around San Diego Harbour
One of our favourite parts of San Diego was its huge harbour and cycling was one of the most popular ways to explore this part of the city with miles of cycle paths to enjoy.
There are lots of options when it came to hiring a bike at very reasonable rates. Our favourite of which was hiring a Lime bike or scooter.
After downloading the Lime app on our smartphone we could unlock and ride any bike or scooter that we came across via GPS and once we had completed our journey we would park the bike or lock the bike with our phones.
It was such a clever and well executed system. It’s a shame that Lime scooters in particular are not in some of the UK’s cities yet as they would be so popular.
Tip – As you can see in some of our photos, the morning’s in San Diego can get a little chilly because of the marine layer. This is a low layer of clouds which rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. The weather improves as the day progresses, so pack layers to wear.
Baseball with the Padres at Petco Park
San Diego is a baseball city, and it was the fireworks set off from their home game that first drew our attention to their stadium Petco Park as we watched from our room at the Grand Hyatt.
Petco Park is considered to be the most beautiful and the best designed baseball stadium in Major League Baseball located in East Village and after visiting I can see why.
Home to the San Diego Padres, the Major League Baseball team in San Diego we took a behind the scenes tour.
Even though we are not baseball fans, we love the classic Kevin Costner baseball movie Field of Dreams and it was such a unique experience to be able to walk onto the field and dugout.
The tour took us around multiple stops around the stadium (but as the Padres were playing home that week we couldn’t visit the changing rooms) and we learnt so much about the Padres team, their beautiful stadium and baseball from our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.
Explore the city on the Old Town Trolley tour
We found that one of the best ways to see the city and get acquainted with its different neighbourhoods is taking an organised city sightseeing bus tour. However in San Diego you won’t find traditional tour buses but instead ‘tram like’ trolley tours.
The Old Town Trolley tour was fantastic and allowed us to see lots of the city in a short space of time.
Each of our drivers/tour guides was enthusiastic and so knowledgeable about the city. The other benefit of the trolley tour was the hop-on, hop-off feature allowing us to get off at various stops around the city.
Cross the water to Coronado Island
Crossing the giant Coronado Bridge from downtown onto Coronado Island on our little trolley bus you can’t help but notice just how high the bridge was!
Our tour guide told us that this was to allow the largest military ships to pass below and the views especially of Coronado Island and Downtown San Diego are fabulous from this vantage point.
It’s a unique little island as a large proportion of it is off limits as it’s home to the Naval Air Station and the U. S. Navy SEALS centre whilst the remainder is home to Coronado, with rows of lovely homes and perfectly manicured lawns.
We got off at the Trolley Tour stop in downtown Coronado which did feel like we had stepped back in time. It was such a beautiful town with quaint shops, attractive buildings, great restaurants and best of all the entire city of Coronado is smoke free.
Coronado beach is regarded as one of the best in the country and after a short stroll along this iconic white sandy beach and boardwalk we arrived at the world famous Hotel Del Coronado.
Experience the Hotel Del Coronado
It’s most probably one of the most famous hotels in California and where everyone from Marilyn Monroe to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would stay when visiting San Diego.
The girls said that the red gabled roofs and white walls of this Victorian-style hotel reminded them of the Grand Floridian in Disneyworld Orlando and it does look remarkably similar.
We later learnt that the design of the Grand Floridian was inspired by the Hotel Del and was also the inspiration for the Emerald city from the Wizard of Oz film.
Inside is as grand as its exterior and after browsing through the numerous stores at the hotel (you have to visit Spreckles Sweets and Treats candy store) we stopped for delicious ice creams at the Del and relaxed on the lawns overlooking the beach.
Go To Balboa Park
Balboa Park is San Diego’s answer to central park in New York. It was built for temporary use during the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition but has remained to be one of the cities most prized assets. It is actually bigger than central park covering 1,200 acres of land and what surprised us the most was just how gorgeous Balboa Park was.
With exquisite gardens, fountains, trees, winding pathways and so many beautiful Spanish colonial revival-style buildings, it’s a dream location if you wanted Instagrammable photos.
Some of the cities museums for kids can be found at the park (dinosaurs at San Diego Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the interactive play area in the Museum of Man) along with arguably the world’s best zoo – San Diego Zoo.
With the smell of freshly baked pizza filling the streets, it really did feel like we had been transported to Italy when we arrived in this part of downtown San Diego.
Along with being home to the cities best Italian restaurants, every Saturday morning Little Italy transforms into a bustling farmers market with lots of food stands, live music and unique craft gifts to purchase.
Step back in time at Old Town San Diego
When we got off the trolley bus at Old Town it felt like stepping into a traditional Mexican village crossed with an Old Western town and had a totally different feel compared to the rest of the city.
Old Town San Diego was the first European settlement in what is now California with whitewashed buildings and Spanish tile roofs. Here you will find some of the city’s best Mexican restaurants, Mariachi musicians and shops selling authentic Mexican arts and crafts.
Go sea lion spotting on a Harbour Cruise
We started our day with a cruise around San Diego Bay after we had read that this was a great way to enjoy San Diego from a different perspective.
There were multiple cruise options available but when the kids found out that one had the chance to see Sea lions close up they quickly had us get us tickets for the harbour cruise.
Shortly after leaving the harbour the girls excitedly called to us that they could see Sea lions and it was such a great experience to be able to get so close to them.
Tip – If you love Sea lions the other great place to see them from land is at La Jolla cove
The one-hour cruise was a great way to see the skyline of San Diego from a different vantage point and the live commentary was really informative and highlighted key landmarks during our cruise including Point Loma Lighthouse and Cabrillo National Monument.
Mission Bay & Belmont Park
Belmont Park is your classic American beachfront amusement park and a must see when in the city. Highlights are the iconic wooden roller coaster which was built in 1925 along with arcade games, thrill rides and bumper cars. The Mission Bay area of San Diego is also home to Seaworld.
SeaWorld San Diego is one of the most popular attractions to visit when in San Diego. It has been several years since we had visited SeaWorld Orlando and ever since the girls have been asking to return and SeaWorld San Diego didn’t disappoint.
This is the original SeaWorld park and we thought it was better than its sister park in Orlando.
The reason why we all loved SeaWorld so much was because it offered the perfect mix of animal interactions, great educational shows and rides that all the family could enjoy
San Diego Zoo
This world famous zoo is a must visit when in the city and is one of its most iconic attractions. We have been to lots of great zoos however, San Diego Zoo is on a completely different scale – it was amazing and was one of our favourite days during our holiday.
You need to look at spending a full day here as it is huge – with over 3,000 animals spread across 100 acres of land. Although there is the sky tram and a guided bus tour, be prepared for a lot of walking to fully appreciate this beautiful zoo.
It’s definitely worth the effort as the theming is world class, as are the animals including koala bears, gorillas, elephants and the iconic panda.
There were lots of areas and exhibits for the girls to enjoy including the petting zoo, fun play areas such as the koala klimber and lots of animal encounters throughout the day where we could learn more about the animals in the zoo.
If that’s not enough there is also the San Diego Zoo safari park covering a 1,800-acre area where its 2,600 animals roam like they would in their natural habitat. It’s one attraction that we wished we had visited but there was so much to do we literally ran out of time.
It’s 32 miles north from the city of San Diego but offers a totally different experience to the zoo including a variety of safari experiences including a hot-air balloon safari to a flightline safari where you soar 130 ft above the giraffes, rhinos and other wildlife which roam beneath you.
Try a craft brew
Ok this one is for adults, but San Diego is the craft beer capital of America with a huge range of breweries to visit and sample their produce! A favourite of my husband’s was Stone IPA, one of the city’s most famous beers.
Who loves Top Gun?
The Top Gun movie had scenes throughout the city and opposite our hotel at the Manchester Grand Hyatt was Kansas City BBQ.
This restaurant shot to fame after being a setting in the film and it was fab to see this iconic location, all it needed was for “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” to be playing on the jukebox!
One of our favourite things to do when in America is shopping and San Diego certainly didn’t disappoint.
Across San Diego County we found an enticing combination of malls, outlets and independent stores.
That’s what we loved about shopping in San Diego, from the unique independent stores at Seaport Village, La Jolla and Carlsbad to the mega malls that you would find at any major US city.
The best discounts can typically be found at the outlet malls and there are two options in San Diego – Las Americas Premium Outlets which is basically on the border with Mexico or where we visited at Carlsbad Premium Outlets.
For those who have been to outlets in Orlando at Carlsbad it was such a nicer experience – with no queues or excessive crowds and humidity.
Tip – Sign up for the VIP club for free to get exclusive extra discounts https://www.premiumoutlets.com/vip
Horton Plaza was the main mall in the city but we preferred the more upscale Fashion Valley Mall at Mission Valley a 15 minute drive from the city centre.
This large outdoor mall is one of the biggest in California and had all of the major department stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Niemen Marcus along one of my favourites Bath and Body works – why don’t they have this in the UK!
Tip – Macy’s offers overseas visitors an 11 per cent discount – visit guest services with your passport / photo driving licence to get your discount pass.
The girls loved the shops here, especially as it had some of their favourite stores including Abercrombie, Disney Store, Build a Bear and Geppetto’s toys. When visiting San Diego you must visit Geppetto’s, it’s a lovely independent toy shop with stores in the Seaport Village and Fashion Valley.
Westfield Mission Valley – https://www.westfield.com/missionvalley
Westfield Horton Plaza – https://www.westfield.com/hortonplaza
Las Americas Premium Outlets – http://www.premiumoutlets.com/outlet/las-americas
Carlsbad Premium Outlets – http://www.premiumoutlets.com/outlet/carlsbad
The Shoppes at Carlsbad – http://www.theshoppesatcarlsbad.com
The Shops at La Jolla Village – http://theshopsatlajollavillage.com
Visit the beaches
You can’t visit San Diego and not visit the beach as you are really spoilt for choice with 70 miles of beautiful Pacific coastline on offer.
Popular options include Coronado Beach, Mission Bay, Sunset Cliffs and La Jolla cove but our favourite was at Carlsbad opposite our hotel the Hilton Del Rey.
Being able to walk to the beach every day and enjoy the seven miles of uncrowded beaches, building sandcastles and swimming in the Pacific Ocean was such a memorable moment of our holiday.
If we had had more time we would have also tried surfing as there were lots of opportunities to learn as the beaches were a popular spot for surfers.
Legoland California and Legoland Water Park
It’s well worth making the journey to Legoland from San Diego as it’s the perfect place to visit with primary school aged children.
What we loved about Legoland California apart from the gorgeous weather was the fact that there were so many rides and attractions that were unique to this park compared to the flagship Legoland Windsor park in the UK.
Our favourites included getting soaked at splash battle, riding Coastersaurus and spotting all the amazing LEGO landmarks in Miniland USA.
There were also lots of the favourites that you would find at the UK park such as the Dragon, Ninjago and getting your driving license after completing the driving school.
There are also two great LEGO themed waterparks to enjoy – Legoland water park and CHIMA water park. The waterparks were great to get a respite from the heat and with LEGO rafts to build before taking on the lazy river and lots of great water slides it was difficult to coax the girls out of the water so we could explore the rest of the park.
If that wasn’t enough there is also a Sea Life Aquarium to visit at Legoland. There is so much to do at Legoland its water parks and Sea Life you really need two full days to have the time to enjoy all of its attractions.
We couldn’t do everything during our trip to San Diego, because there was so much to see and do.
Below are suggestions which were recommended to us for other things to see and do when visiting the area including Birch Aquarium at Scripps, New Children’s Museum, Snorkelling at La Jolla Cove, Torrey Pines State Natural Park and San Diego Safari Park whilst the Mexican border town of Tijuana was just a short drive away.
For a full list of things to do when visiting San Diego, take a look at the excellent Visit San Diego website at https://www.sandiego.org/explore/things-to-do.aspx
Where to stay
We literally had less than a week to arrange our accommodation after booking our flights last minute. After extensive research and spending hours on forums we selected the following hotels for our visit.
Manchester Grand Hyatt
We stayed at the impressive Manchester Grand Hyatt located in the waterfront area of downtown San Diego with its two towers dominating the city skyline.
As I mentioned earlier in the article the benefit of staying in downtown San Diego is that so many of the cities attractions, restaurants and shops are close by so we didn’t need to hire a car for the first part of our holiday.
Our Grand Club room located on the 29th floor of the hotel (club rooms occupy the top floors of the hotel) ensured that we had amazing views over the city, the bay and Coronado bridge from our floor to ceiling windows. On a clear day we could also see the hills of Mexico in the distance.
One of my favourite things during our stay at the Grand Hyatt was opening the curtains each morning to see this spectacular view, I could never get tired of it.
One reason why it’s well worth booking a Grand Club room is for access to its Grand Club lounge on the 33rd floor where we enjoyed breakfast each morning.
After busy days exploring the sights of San Diego it was a lovely area to call back to relax and enjoy afternoon snacks, drinks and evening hors d’oeuvres.
My husband and I loved the luxurious interiors and the pool deck was one of the girls favourite parts of the hotel with a large freeform pool, hotubs and games areas.
One of our favourite things to do in the evenings when staying in hotels in the US is roasting s’mores at the firepit and the setting at the Grand Hyatt was fantastic. Roasting marshmallows at night with views of the skyscrapers of San Diego and the bay certainly created some magical memories for us.
Cape Rey Carlsbad – A Hilton Resort
For the second part of our visit to San Diego we stayed at the trendy Hilton Cape Rey Carlsbad, 25 minutes north of downtown San Diego.
Being Hilton Gold members certainly helped influence us choosing the Cape Rey over the likes of the Fairmont Grand Del Mar and Park Hyatt Aviara, but what really made our decision was because of its location.
Across the road from the Cape Rey was miles of sandy beach and the Pacific Ocean whilst Legoland California was just a 5-10 minute drive away.
This made it the perfect place to chill out after a hectic few days in LA.
Like most upscale US hotels there was a daily resort fee to pay, but this included bike hire, a beach butler service and thoughtful touches included cookies, fruit platter and complimentary buckets and spades for the girls.
With just over 200 rooms the hotel maintained a small and exclusive feel. Our family room had a view of the ocean, but it was the outdoor amenities that made this a great hotel to stay at.
The pool was great for kids, al-fresco breakfast and dinner at Chandler’s restaurant overlooking the sea was excellent and we would typically end our day roasting s’mores on the fire pits with the noise of the waves from the Pacific Ocean in the background.
Other hotels that were highly recommended and worth checking out are below
Downtown San Diego
Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel
Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina
Loews Coronado Bay Resort
Hotel del Coronado
San Diego County
Fairmont Grand Del Mar
Omni La Costa Resort & Spa
La Valencia La Jolla
Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine
Park Hyatt Aviara
Where to dine with kids
Dine – Taco heaven at Puesto
Being so close to the Mexican border (just 20 miles away) ensures that there is an abundance of great Mexican restaurants to dine at in San Diego.
If you love Mexican cuisine you are really spoilt for choice and one of our favourites was at Puesto located in the Headquarters at Seaport. Once the former headquarters to the San Diego Police Department, the seaport now contains lots of great shops and restaurants.
The tacos at Puesto are out of this world and there is a great child friendly menu.
Go Italian at the Old Spaghetti Factory
Located in the Gaslamp Quarter the Old Spaghetti Factory was recommended to us as a place to dine with the kids. It was really family friendly, great value and more importantly the meals were excellent.
A taste of Asia at PF Changs
If you are looking for a family friendly Asian restaurant you can’t go wrong at PF Changs. The meals are well priced and the menu is vast catering for even the fussiest eaters.
Rock n Roll at Corvette Diner in Liberty Station
Liberty station has a great choice of places to eat and kids in particular will love the Corvette Diner. This was such a fun restaurant to visit with a distinctly 50’s theme, from the interior decor to the waiting staff.
Try the fab cakes at the Cheesecake Factory
We always try to visit the Cheesecake Factory when we are in America, it’s a great family restaurant with a huge menu selection and some of the most amazing flavour cheesecakes.
The girls loved visiting the Cheesecake Factory so much and their iconic cakes ( in particular their celebration cake) that we also visited their restaurant during our stay in Carlsbad.
How to save money on attraction tickets
Like in the UK buying attraction tickets online in advance is cheaper than paying the gate prices. It’s also worth checking out Groupon and looking at the latest deals and offers on the Visit San Diego website.
There are also two discount cards that could bring savings dependent on what you decide to visit.
The two most popular are below.
The Go San Diego Card claims savings of up to 55% when visiting the cities top attractions including the zoo, SeaWorld and Legoland but how much you actually save is dependent on which and how many attractions you visit.
You can read my review of the Go San Diego card to find out more about how it works and if we thought getting one was worthwhile.
If you are planning on also visiting Disneyland during your trip to Southern California then take a look at the Southern California CityPASS.
This combo ticket gets you into SeaWorld, Legoland California and a 3 day park hopper ticket with one magic morning to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure. This saves you £468.46 based on a family of 4 compared to buying separate tickets for each attraction.
So as you can see there are so many fun things to do in San Diego for kids and adults. From theme parks and one of the world’s greatest zoos to incredible landmarks and history plus great restaurants and family friendly hotels, there is something for all interests.
It really is the perfect place for a family holiday, so if you are visiting California don’t ignore San Diego and don’t try and rush visiting in a day or two – you won’t be disappointed. It has cemented it’s place in our hearts and is now one of our favourite cities in America – we can’t wait to return.
British Airways has a daily direct service from London Heathrow to San Diego, with return fares from £500.