San Diego has such a special spot in my heart. There, my roots grew deeply and firmly in this country when so many good things came into my life. It became home.
However, my personal experiences are not the only reason I love that city so much. San Diego is well-known for its family-friendly appeal, and among its many qualities and attractions, it has near-perfect weather, allowing residents and tourists to enjoy outdoor activities almost all year long. Trails, parks, and beaches are just a few of the places where people can appreciate the unbeatable clime.
The list could be much longer, but here are my favorite spots that I would visit with family, friends, or just alone.
When in California, spending time on the beach is a must. The ocean makes me feel better, and helps me to relax. When living there, I’d drive on the coastline whenever I had a chance. It would quiet my mind.
My daughter always had a great time on the beach. It was guaranteed to be a fun day whenever we’d watch her improve her surfing skills, splash in the water or play on the sand. By the end of the day, I’d hear that it was the best day ever. Priceless!
San Diego offers a variety of family friendly beaches from Coronado Island to Encinitas. Our most visited beaches (simply for convenience) were Torrey Pines State Beach and Del Mar Beach. At Torrey Pines, we’d go for short hikes at the end of the day while our daughter would collect shells. The sunsets there are superb.
Coronado Beach, a long 1.5 mile stretch of beach, is commonly listed as one of the best beaches in the country. Sunbathing on the white sand, enjoying the tidepools during low tide, or adventuring on the water by surfing, paddle boarding, or boogie boarding, are just some options that ensure a good time in that area. If you want to extend your day in Coronado, stroll on Orange Avenue and explore the several options for restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Looking for a little bit more adventure? Check out some surf camps. Our daughter had a chance to attend the Menehune Camp in Del Mar for few years and it was always the highlight of her summer.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
If you love hikes and beautiful views, you must visit Torrey Pines State Reserve, a 2,000-acre reserve located near La Jolla with high broken cliffs and deep canyons overlooking the Pacific.
Parking is easy. There are two locations, one at the base of the mountain, at South Beach, and the other one on Carmel Valley Road, at North Beach. If you use the one near the base of the mountain, you have the option to drive up the hill, but space is limited. If you arrive early, you can find free parking by the beach, but they do fill up early, especially on weekends and during summer.
I have hiked this place many times on different trails, all of them with incredible panoramic ocean views. My favorite way to do that was to hike up on the side of the road, and when on the top, choose one of the trails that would lead me down to the beach. The views from the top were my award!
La Jolla is another great spot. From stunning views and gorgeous beaches to hotels, shops, restaurants, cafes, and water related activities, this neighborhood is definitely a good place to explore. The sunset can be incredible!
Check out the sea lions and seals that love to hangout along Coast Boulevard, especially at the Children’s Pool. A stairway provides access to the beach and you can get very close, but a rope will be protecting the animals from human physical contact.
Kayaking and snorkeling in the calm water of the protected cove is super fun. The sea caves contain a variety of marine life such as sea turtles, fish, seals, and leopard sharks (small and harmless to humans) that will fascinate you and your little ones. Sometimes is possible to spot dolphins, seals, and sea lions swimming nearby.
Kayaks and snorkel gear can be rented from different companies in the area.
Balboa Park has tons of activities! The first thing you will notice is the beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture, so with that I must give you a quick glimpse of this place’s history. Most of the Park was built to hold the Panama-California Exposition from 1915 to 1917, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. The buildings at Balboa Park were only meant to be temporary, despite the fact they were impressively decorated. Bea Evenson was responsible for saving many of the beautiful buildings, including the Museum of Man and Casa del Prado. A big fountain located at the East end on the main street was named after her.
Balboa Park is considered the cultural heart of San Diego because of its architecture and many museums, art centers, theaters, and gardens. On weekends it gets busy when visitors explore the area for a stroll, cultural activities, or eating at one of the restaurants. In the main street you may see musicians, painters, and other performers showing their talent.
Don’t forget to check out the Spanish Village Art Center, a unique courtyard of art shops with artist studios for painters, sculptors, jewelry designers and more. Totally worth a visit.
San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park
The famous San Diego Zoo is among the largest zoos in the world, also located in Balboa Park. There you will see just about every animal that you can think of.
If you want to see all exhibits, plan to be there all day and wear comfortable shoes because there will be lots of walking. A bus is available to take you around accompanied by a staff member describing the exhibitions when at each site.
At the San Diego Safari Park, you can not only see many animals, but also have extra fun experiences like riding an open-air safari truck, experiencing a behind the scenes tour of the Rhino Rescue Center or the Tiger Trail, or having a customized visit based on your interests. For each, you will get a deeper understanding of the animals. Very cool!
The Park also offers two, 130-foot, zip lines, called Flightline Safari, which will give you a spectacular view of rhinos, giraffes, and other animals from above.
Not enough? How about spending a night at the San Diego Safari Park? Doing that, campers have a chance to do guided night walks and see the wild animals after-hours.
The San Diego Safari Park is located in Escondido, northeast of downtown. It can get hot there during the Summer, so bring hats, sunscreen, and lots of water.
Potato Chip Rock
Potato Chip Rock, located in Ramona, is a frequently photographed landmark due to the snack-like appearance of the rock formation.
Two options will get you there.
1) Drive from Poway towards CA-67 N, turning left on Mt. Woodson Road where you should park. From there you will hike a short distance to the Potato Chip Rock. Great option when you have kids with you.
2) A more challenging hike through Mount Woodson Trail, about 7 miles round trip, starts in the city of Poway, near Lake Poway.
We chose the second option. We drove to Lake Poway using 14644 Lake Poway Rd., Poway as our parking lot destination. After paying $8 for parking, we looked for the starting point of the trail. It is near the bathrooms and it loops around the lake.
On our way up, we took our time taking photos and appreciating the beautiful rocks everywhere. Halfway up, there was a tree and some boulders that seemed to be the spot where everyone would take a break. The trail is well maintained, easy to follow, and the views were incredible. Definitely a good way to see the beauty of San Diego from a different angle.
The trail itself transitions from moderate to hard due to the inclination, lack of shade, and heat during the summer. However, there is a big payoff with a view of mountains and fabulous rock formations along the way. Make sure to bring water and a few snacks to pump up your stamina.
We spent about 1 hour at the highlight of our adventure. It was quite busy, and a line had formed. Everyone was waiting for their turn to climb the edge of the thin rock and snap a fun picture. To get to the top of Potato Chip Rock, we had to jump from the top of a big boulder to the inclined side of the rock, and then walk a few steps to the tip. It does require some skill, but luckily, a couple of gentlemen who were there, helped us to complete our mission.
It can be a little bit frightening, but it is certainly worth it.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
One of our family traditions each year was to visit the Carlsbad Flower Fields, located off Interstate 5 in North San Diego. The beautifully colored flower fields are truly a celebration of spring. Rows and rows of ranunculus flowers bloom for approximately six to eight weeks each year (from early March through early May). Many, many other flowers are on exhibit, as well. It’s an annual explosion of colors that attracts thousands of visitors.
Guests can take a tractor-powered wagon trip through the fields to ride in style (which includes an audio commentary of the history of the Flower Fields), or walk the dirt paths and get close to the blossoms to get fantastic snapshots. In fact, we have done both, and I think the second option was always more fun. I’d just bring my camera and take advantage of the beautiful scenery to take as many pictures as I could possibly shoot.
Every year, I’d come and spend a few hours there. Between a small playground on the site, the fields, and a treasure hunt game that the little ones love, the time would fly by.
San Diego is a fascinating vacation destination with plenty of things to choose from that will entertain parents and kids. From parks and gardens, to museums, restaurants, and activities to thrill the whole family, the city is definitely an exciting place to explore.