Southern California’s Best Family Friendly Activities
There is something about Southern California that keeps drawing us back. Playgrounds on the beach, long sunny days, avocado’s at every meal – all things we will never get tired of, and all just a regular part of life for California!
We’ve visited in all seasons, which has allowed us to visit a number of different activities and bring the girls throughout their little lives. Some days we feel like we will never accomplish it all because it seems the list is endless!
Here are our favorites and things we would recommend to any family visiting Southern California.
Balboa Park. You could visit San Diego for a week and come here every day for a new activity. The park has 15 museums, gardens, the San Diego Zoo, restaurants, shopping, and much more. This park is not to be missed, so plan ahead and have a game plan and a map!
Our first visit was on Christmas Eve when the girls were 1 & 2, so the majority of our day included walking around and giving them the freedom to wander throughout the botanical gardens.The park had a huge Dr. Seuss Christmas tree and plenty of street musicians singing Christmas music. This was such a fun, non-traditional Christmas Eve for us and we had such a great visit!
Big Bear. Just a few hours from San Diego & metro LA is Big Bear Lake, which is surrounded by ski resorts and snow tubing. We spent two days, one night at Big Bear and took the girls snow tubing for an afternoon. They loved it so much and we will absolutely do it again in the future!
We went on a Thursday and there were no lines or crowds. On our drive back down the mountain on Friday, we saw people sitting in hours of traffic waiting to put chains on their tires and just to come to the top of the mountain. If you can come when it may not be so busy, it’s definitely worth it!
Coronado Island. Just minutes away from downtown San Diego is the adorable Coronado Island, which we quickly fell in love with! The homes are straight out of a storybook and the palm tree lined streets will make you want to stay forever.
We brought some chairs and a picnic lunch and spent the dat at the beach in front of Hotel del Coronado, just watching the airplanes fly over us and the dolphins play in the water. Wheel Fun Rentals has a location on the property so we rented a single surrey, a first for us, and gave ourselves a tour of the island. All four of us absolutely loved it and we will definitely do it again!
The hotel has some restaurants and shops inside so there is almost no reason to ever leave. Plus, the sunsets here are about as good as they get looking towards Point Loma.
Disneyland Park. This one pretty much speaks for itself! We are big Disney fans and we visited on my 31st birthday while in town! Kids of all ages & heights can ride just about everything which makes this an easy day out with the entire family.
The girls rode their first roller coaster in Mickey’s Toontown, the Go Coaster, and Olivia LOVED it! Adele wasn’t so sure 🙂
Best tip: The security lines are where you will wait the longest so plan to get there early so that you can get to the actual park entrance when it opens. Both Disney parks here have one security line so after that, it’s smooth sailing.
Also, if you plan to go to Mickey’s Toontown, head straight there to avoid crowds since most people get caught up with big rides and the castle first.
Irvine Spectrum. Right off I-405 is a huge retail & restaurant plaza with plenty of activities to keep you busy for hours. We rode the carousel & ferris wheel, and you can also visit the movie theaters, Dave & Buster’s, and have some macarons on the lawn listening to live music. The design & architecture of the buildings are like nothing we’ve seen anywhere else, and it is completely pedestrian friendly, allowing no cars in most areas. If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit to see this beautiful outdoor center and have fun night out.
La Jolla. To say we love La Jolla is an understatement. The homes are straight out of a magazine, the beach is smooth and huge, and you can see the seals from a beach view restaurant. Sounds like paradise! Just north is La Jolla Shores which has a great playground on the beach, grills for having a cookout, and a long paved walkway to stroll along – all inside Kellogg Park. Anywhere around here is a perfect picnic & sunset spot.
The seals are really fun to watch, but take caution in renting a hotel room nearby due to the smell. We saw a lot of whales here during a visit in January so be on the lookout!
Mission San Juan Capistrano. Capistrano is a cute little town for a day visit, and the mission is a great venue to start with. Admission for our girls was free, and they really loved seeing the koi pond and the beautifully kept gardens. You can ask for fish food to feed them their lunch for $1. The ruins from the Great Stone Church still stand; the rest was ruined in the earthquake in 1812.
Down the street from the mission is a little petting zoo, Zoomars. We didn’t get a chance to visit but it’s in a cute area of town and we’d love to go back.
Mt. Soledad. The perfect spot to watch a sunset and it’s only 15 minutes from La Jolla Shores, providing a panoramic view of San Diego. We brought dinner to watch the sunset here and had a fantastic view. Come early enough to get a parking spot and to watch the sunset from start to finish.
There is also a Veterans Memorial here honoring those who fought in the Korean War. The cross has had some controversy since it represents a Christian cross on public land. There is talk of removing it permanently to represent the separation of church & state.
New Children’s Museum. This was our third children’s museum to visit and we had a great time, as expected! It’s so fun to see what kids are drawn to and what they want to play with the most. This museum had a large reading library, dress up centers, building blocks, music stations, and so much more! We spent almost 4 hours here, including lunch, and would absolutely return.
Oceanside. Oceanside has one of the longest wooden piers in California and it is also a personal favorite of ours. There are plenty of fun activities around it – beachfront playground, bike rentals, fishing, plenty of animal sightings (we saw whales & dolphins all the time!), and Ruby’s Diner which has a great breakfast menu. Every Thursday, Oceanside closes some streets for a sunset market with local shopping, international cuisine, a live band, and bouncy houses for the kids!
The harbor is also a cute area to visit, and if you walk down far enough you might even see some sea lions! We love Lighthouse Restaurant and to sit on the rooftop. You can also rent boats or kayaks here to give yourself a fun tour of the harbor!
Old Town. Just outside of downtown San Diego is Old Town, which is where the original settlement of San Diego was established. The area showcases the Mexican cultural influences between the shops, dining, and architecture. Everything is brightly colored and many souvenirs have multi-colored skulls in honor of Día de los Muertos. Other fun places to visit are the Wells Fargo museum, where you can see an original Wells Fargo wagon, and a candle company that lets you dip your own candle!
Parking was easy during the week, most of Old Town doesn’t allow cars making it very pedestrian friendly, and kids eat free at most restaurants! This visit was 3-4 hours and is a perfect activity for a sunny day.
Palm Springs. While staying in Oceanside for a couple months, we spent two days in Palm Springs. The weather in Oceanside for a few days was chilly & rainy, and it was sunny and 80 in the desert, so we made our way out there! The drive was easy, and really pretty as we made our way down the winding road into the valley.
Our hotel, the Renaissance Resort & Spa, was beautifully landscaped, and decorated with fresh flowers and fountains. We spent all of our time at the pool, and Olivia even started swimming a little bit without her floaties here! We enjoyed the hot tubs, multiple swimming pools, corn hole, and ping pong tables. The big pool is zero entry, which is perfect for our small children, and there is poolside bar service so you can order lunch & drinks. We absolutely loved our time here!
Point Loma. This is a nice half day adventure just outside the city. There’s plenty of history to learn about here since it was the first place in California where European settlers landed. There are also two military bases here, a lighthouse, and the national monument of Cabrillo. The views on this peninsula are gorgeous, and you might even see whales migrating if you’re in the right season! Definitely bring a snack or pack a lunch since there is no food sold here.
San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum. Just outside of San Diego, in Escondido, is a small but really fun children’s museum. We went on a rainy day, but would recommend visiting on a dry day because it is an indoor/outdoor museum. It is much smaller than the New Children’s Museum, and in a way we enjoyed that more. It was easy to play with everything, and easily revisit all of the stations that the girls liked most. Olivia loved playing with the x-rays and learning about bones, and Adele loved playing with the food in the kitchen.
San Diego Zoo. You can’t come to Southern California, with or without kids, and not visit the San Diego Zoo! There are so many animals to see here, including the polar bears and giant pandas, and the near extinct northern white rhinos. The family bathrooms were clean and they had plenty of restaurants to choose from, but you can also bring your own lunch. We got there when it opened so parking was easy. Definitely buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid standing in any long lines. There are strollers to rent, but I would recommend bringing your umbrella stroller since it can fold up and fit on the sky buckets.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Most people have heard of or visited the San Diego Zoo, but a local told us about the Safari Park in Escondido, which has a little spin on the traditional zoo. My mom came in town to visit so we went with her and had a fantastic day! Your entrance ticket includes access to all animal exhibits (most animals are Asian or African) and a ride on the African Tram, which enters the outskirts of the safari park where you can see the animals roam free across hundreds of acres as if you/they were in Africa.
There are other scheduled tickets you can purchase to have up-close encounters with certain animals, but they have age restrictions, and at 2 & 3 our girls were too young. That’s just something to look forward to for later! We did, however, purchase the unlimited ride ticket for the carousel, which is always a big hit with our girls!
Self-Realization Meditation Gardens. These gardens are free to the public and a great place to enjoy some quiet time, or a stroll through the beautifully landscaped walkways on the sea cliffs of Encinitas. We spent a couple of hours here one morning before lunch and the girls loved playing with roly poly’s, chasing lizards, and seeing the fish in the koi pond. Many people come here to meditate, study, or pray, so it is asked that you remain quiet while roaming the property.
Torrey Pines State Reserve. There are lots of hikes around San Diego and we chose to hike at Torrey Pines State Reserve. The views here of the Pacific Ocean were so amazing! Some trails are stroller friendly and others are not so read your map ahead of time. After the hike, we walked along the shore and jumped the waves – a perfect way to cool down! Definitely bring a hat, snacks and sunscreen! The daily parking fee is $12.
At 3 years old, Olivia hiked from the top parking lot all the way down to the beach and back up, close to 2 miles round trip! We were so proud of her!
USS Midway Museum. In the heart of the San Diego harbor is the beautiful aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, which is now a wonderfully restored and very family friendly museum. There are so many different aircrafts that you can touch and sit in, which our kids love to do, and even some flight simulators to ride. We spent a little over two hours here and did just about everything. All four of us had a great time and would highly recommend it!
We hope to be back in San Diego very soon, and possibly end up here when we grow up 🙂
Are there any other fun things to do that we missed? Let me know! Thanks for reading!