As a first time mom to a now 16-month-old, the words, “family vacation” stir up many feelings ”“ mostly fear. Of course, there’s always the hope for fun and family bonding time ”“ the rose-colored visions of frolicking on the beach while you toss your baby into the air as the sun is setting providing the perfect photo opp and memories to last a lifetime.
But more realistically, and here back on earth, it is daunting to pick a “vacation” spot and map out what to see and do with an unpredictable infant or a protesting toddler in tow ”“ I get it!
Sometimes we can barely navigate Target without a meltdown or a diaper blow out, so are we really expected to drive or (gasp) fly to an unknown destination and explore an entire city?
The answer is yes, but the right destination is key. And if the right destination is key, then San Diego will unlock the door to a happy and fun family vacation. I won’t lie to you; there WILL be crying and spit-up, and you’ll probably forget to pack a pacifier or a beloved “blanky”, but the sunny San Diego weather will make it all seem very mild and most of all, manageable.
While everyone knows about the large attractions like the famous San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, LEGOLAND, and SeaWorld, that all should still make your lists of what to see while in San Diego, I’m here to shed some light on the hidden gems that make this beautiful city a mecca for family fun, even for the fearful family with a baby or toddler in tow.
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Best places to go with a baby or toddler in San Diego
Here are my favorite mom-approved places to have fun with a baby or toddler in San Diego for visitors or mamas on a “staycation”: There are so many great things to do in San Diego with toddlers, and here a few of my favorite spots.
The Nat Backyard Sarah Kurliand- Nature Loving Mama)
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
If your toddler is anything like mine; curious and wants to test everything out on her own, then the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park is a must. Filled with interactive, kid-friendly science exhibits, you can easily spend half a day here exploring. Kids 5 and under should set aside a good amount of time for the Center’s Kid City where toddlers can enjoy playing on fire trucks, shopping at a mini-grocery store, playing music and much, much more.The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is open daily at 10:00 a.m. and is open in the evenings during summer and on weekends. For more information: www.rhfleet.org. While you’re already in Balboa Park, check out some of the other great museums and traveling exhibits and enjoy a patio lunch at The Prado while sipping their fresh-made fruit sodas (they’re incredible!)
SEA LIFE Aquarium
One of my favorite things to do in San Diego with toddlers is the SEA LIFE Aquarium. The SEA LIFE Aquarium is a part of LEGOLAND but you can buy tickets separately, and it’s usually less crowded at the aquarium than at the park itself. This aquarium is perfect for babies and toddlers because it’s stroller friendly and the aquarium windows are at a kid-friendly level so they can walk or crawl right up to the glass and come face-to-face with sharks, octopus, jellyfish and sting rays, just to name a few. Toddlers will also enjoy the tide pools where they can touch marine life like starfish. There’s also a convenient restaurant at the end of the aquarium, perfect for starving toddlers (and parents). SEA LIFE Aquarium is open daily. Save 20% off ticket prices when you purchase your tickets at least 7 days in advance online.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a beautiful spot to take your little one to see some unique birds and of course, lots of barking seals and seal pups. You can push your stroller along the ocean-front trail and stop at benches and lookout points to take in the wildlife. There’s also a huge park, perfect for picnicking or letting the baby out to crawl or run around. One of my favorite family-friendly restaurants, Cody’s, is just up the street from the Cove and serves the best lobster rolls in San Diego, along with views of the Pacific. La Jolla Cove is free and open to the public.
Of course you have to save room for some beach time! Cardiff State Beach in north county is family (and dog) friendly with convenient parking. After some sand castle building, kite flying and your baby trying to eat fistfuls of sand, pack up your stroller and cruise along the ocean-front trail that extends from Cardiff to Encinitas. You must counteract your exercise with some good ol’ San Diego Mexican food so be sure to stop off at Bull Taco, located in the San Elijo State Beach Campground. Enjoy top-notch, casual Mexican food and snow cones as you dine on picnic tables complete with sweeping views of the ocean. Bull Taco is open daily 8AM ”“ 5PM (winter hours) and daily 8AM ”“ 7PM (summer hours).
Between the months of April and October, check the Padres Baseball schedule and catch a home game at Petco Park. Buy cheap “Park in the Park” tickets so you don’t have to worry about keeping your squirmy baby entertained in stadium seating for 9 long innings (ha ha ha – yea right). These grass seats give you the baseball experience with enough room for your little one to roll around on a blanket and will keep your older toddler entertained with a playground and a kid-sized baseball field. Bonus points, there are changing tables in ALL Petco Park restrooms (men’s and women’s!) Yay, poopy diaper equality for all! Padres Season is April ”“ October. Children 3 feet and under are free. For more information: sandiego.padres.mlb.com.
Make sure to wear your walking shoes and pack your stroller so you can explore 4 miles of lush garden trails, vistas and the largest bamboo exhibit in the nation. Perfect for a relaxing and unique stroll as your baby naps in the stroller or a fun playground for your toddler who can explore the interactive Hamilton’s Children Garden and fun sandbox. Open 9:00AM ”“ 5:00PM daily. Children 2 and under are free. For more information: sdbgarden.org.
If you’re in the mood to shop, head straight to the UTC Mall in La Jolla. Not only do they have premiere retailers in a trendy, outdoor San Diego setting, this mall is very baby-friendly. Board the choo-choo train with your little one as you go ”˜round and ”˜round the track looking at all of the (fake) wild animals in the “jungle” (this was a huge hit with my 16 month old). There’s also a toddler playground in the middle of the mall, perfect for your son or daughter to run around and release some energy before mama goes back to running up the credit card bill. If you’re grabbing lunch in the food court, I highly recommend Tender Greens for some healthy and delicious shopping fuel made with local southern California produce.
Carlsbad’s hidden gem, this historic ranch of an old Hollywood actor is stroller-friendly and full of gorgeous peacocks that roam the grounds. The peacocks are a huge hit with babies and toddlers alike. You can opt for a guided tour of the grounds and the rooms, or explore on your own. Whichever you choose, make sure to have your camera phone ready to take some gorgeous photos along the way with your little one. Open Tues. ”“ Sat. 9AM ”“ 5PM and Sun. 11AM ”“ 5PM. Closed Mondays. For more information and tour schedule: www.carrillo-ranch.org.
More information on these places, like current hours and rates, check the websites.
Thanks again to Kristin Helms for sharing her favorite San Diego treasures for families. Kristin is a blogger at The Mommy Project, San Diego, writing about first-time mommy musings, tips on baby and toddler outings, family-friendly restaurants and how to stay fit in sunny San Diego. She’s also the co-founder of Tribe Magazine, an online magazine for women covering topics in travel, motherhood, recipes, fashion and health and fitness.
When not writing and editing articles, Kristin can be found running around San Diego with her family – usually eating, drinking, or playing by the beach.
Find her adventures on Instagram at tribemagazine.