My husband, our two children and me have been lucky enough to travel all over the world together. From Tanzania to Turkey to Italy’s Dolomite mountains and the Atacama Desert in Chile, our adventures have spanned the globe.
Our kids have their favorite places, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so enthusiastic about a destination as they were and continue to be about San Diego. We visited this summer, and when we were planning the trip, I expected it to be enjoyable for them. After all, with attractions like the world-famous San Diego Zoo and Legoland, how could it not be? But I wasn’t sure what the city would offer an always skeptical and easily bored traveler like me.
Let me tell you that our visit left me impressed, and so much so that I would easily go again. The city- the eight largest in the country- is full of the friendliest locals I have ever met, fantastic restaurants, beautiful beaches and an overwhelming number of sites—the kind you want see.
The following five stand out the most, at least for us, and are exactly why San Diego is the ultimate family vacation destination.
Don’t let the name mislead you. Balboa Park is not a park in the Central Park sense. It’s actually comprised of a staggering 17 museums, gardens galore and the San Diego Zoo. It spans 1,200 acres and isn’t too far from downtown.
Established 150 years ago, this escape within an escape would take you weeks to explore. If you only have a day or hopefully two, I suggest hitting the Natural History Museum, Air & Space Museum. The History Center, and the Japanese Friendship Garden, which is laden with Japanese plants, koi ponds and other water features.
You also shouldn’t miss the park’s other photogenic gardens such as the one with plants that are native to California and others dedicated to cacti and roses.
Yes, it’s in the park, but you cannot visit this sanctuary as part of a park visit and do it any justice. It’s no wonder that the San Diego Zoo is regarded as one of the best in the world. Visitors are immersed in a tropical setting with palm trees and colorful plants and walk through winding, scenic paths to see more than 4,000 animals. They include koalas, Galápagos tortoises, leopards, penguins, baboons, weaver birds, and the list goes on and on. Programs offering animal encounters and presentations happen throughout the day.
History buffs will get a thrill out of exploring this historic aircraft carrier that has more than 30 restored aircraft. The Midway itself was the longest-serving aircraft in the 20th century. It was integral during the Cold War and the only ship to launch a captured German V-2 rocket. It went to the Persian Gulf in 1990 when Iraq seized Kuwait and eventually opened as a museum in 2004.
Other reasons to visit besides this fascinating backstory include the flight simulators, climb-in aircraft, ejection seats and cockpits and incredible views of the downtown skyline and active U.S. Navy ships.
Are you ready to take a step back in time? That’s exactly what visiting Old Town is about. This is the oldest enclave in the city and the site of the first European settlement in California.
There is one historic site after another here: The Whaley House, which is regarded as the most haunted house in the country; Casa de Estudillo, originally the home of a Spanish aristocrat in the early 19th century and a haven for women and children after; and a schoolhouse that was the first publicly owned school in San Diego.
Old Town also has three parks, a regular lineup of art shows, more than 100 stores selling everything from handmade candy to local crafts and an incredible food scene. Choose from more than 25 restaurants including some of the best Mexican spots you’re bound to ever dine at. Many feature live music at night and are places where the hours pass before you know it. As a tequila fan, I can confidently share that the selection of this spirit is expansive at all of them.
If you had to pick an image of quintessential Southern California, La Jolla would be it. Set on the ocean, this gem of a place is about 30 minutes from downtown San Diego. The beaches are fabulous here, and you can spot sea lions and seals from the shore. Come in the morning and stay through sunset, which makes for a stunning way to cap off the day.
There’s a lot to do and see in La Jolla. My older daughter loves to surf so we had to sign her up for a lesson with Surf Diva, founded and run by twin sisters Izzy and Coco Tihanyi. What a blast she had- the instructors here are world-class, and serious surfers can even sign up for camps.
Other attractions include kayaking through the sea caves where you’re likely to see dolphins as you traverse the water, a coastal walk and the freshest, tastiest seafood lunch at George’s on the Cove—with water views to boot.