This tour of San Diego brought to you by Colleen Lanin from TravelMamas.com.
San Diego is one of the most popular family destinations in America—and for good reason. Kid-friendly attractions galore, year-round mild weather and long stretches of sandy beaches make my hometown a spectacular spot for children and parents alike. Here are the absolute must-sees in San Diego County.
The Beach: San Diego boasts over 70 miles of beaches. Take a surfing lesson in Ocean Beach, go sea-kayaking in La Jolla or rent beach cruisers to pedal along the boardwalk in Pacific Beach. Hot summer beaches are jam-packed with picnicking families and horseshoe-playing college kids. Spring and fall offer cooler temperatures and more space to spread out your beach blanket. Those visiting in winter are sometimes surprised to find the beaches too chilly for swimming, but wetsuits are available from surf shops for die-hard ocean lovers.
San Diego Zoo: No trip to America's Finest City is complete without a trip to the San Diego Zoo, widely regarded as one of the best zoos in the world. Four thousand animals representing 800 species, from lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) to koalas, Komodo dragons and giant pandas make their home here. Kids will enjoy a visit to the Children's Zoo to climb on the Fisher-Price Discovery Playground, watch playful otters swim and dive through a bi-level exhibit, and interact with goats and sheep in the petting zoo. Take the SkyFari Aerial Tram for an uplifting ride over the zoo's canopy of leafy trees to get a bird's-eye view of the animals below.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is just as impressive as its more well-known sister property. It encompasses a whopping 1,800 acres, compared to the zoo's 100. The African Tram Safari is the park's king attraction; it transports visitors through a wide-open landscape similar to that of the African Savannah to spy on such creatures as rhinos, giraffes and Cape buffaloes. Purchase a cup of nectar at Lorikeet Landing to come nose to beak with brightly plumed lorikeet parrots. On hot days, bring swim gear so children can cool off in the animal-shaped fountains at the Savannah Cool Zone. Adventurous families can embark on an overnight safari in the park via a Roar & Snore sleepover.
Balboa Park: The location of the first-ever World's Fair, Balboa Park offers 17 museums, 19 gardens, five playgrounds, a carousel, a child-sized ride-on train, the famous Old Globe Theatre and more. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which houses one of the largest indoor model train displays in the world, is a hit with the preschooler set enthralled with all things choo-choo. Bigger kids will be too busy turning knobs and pressing buttons to realize they are learning about science at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. All ages will enjoy wandering through the park's plentiful trails and gardens, like the Balboa Park Rose Garden, with its rainbow of sweet-smelling blooms.
SeaWorld San Diego: This theme park specializes in animal shows starring killer whales like Shamu, dolphins in the Blue Horizons show and more-common creatures like dogs, cats, pigs and geese in my family's favorite show, Pets Rule. Toss fish to barking sea lions, walk through a shark-filled tunnel aquarium and get soaked on water rides. Young children will enjoy the Sesame Street Bay of Play for its splash fountains, tot-friendly rides and musical performances by Elmo, Cookie Monster, Zoe and friends.
Legoland California: While many amusement parks offer primarily passive entertainment, Legoland California's attractions are decidedly interactive. Kids drive mini cars around two-lane streets dotted with stop signs and working stoplights at the Volvo Driving School. They build and race Lego vehicles and can even program computerized Lego Mindstorms robots. The Police and Fire Academy ride gets Mom and Dad involved too; families pile into a fire truck or police car and power it by pumping levers up and down as they race other teams to put out the "fire" and stop robbers.
Purchase a park hopper to explore the onsite Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium and Legoland Water Park. The aquarium boasts underwater pop-up bubbles from which kids can get a glimpse of what it is like to live under the sea. The water park has fountains and mini waterslides for young splashers plus more-thrilling slides for bigger visitors.
Hotel del Coronado: Many people stop by "The Del" (as it is known to locals), a tourist attraction in its own right, to eat its famed brunch, enjoy its immaculate stretch of beach and peruse its swanky shops. Drive across the 2.1-mile-long Coronado Bay Bridge from downtown San Diego to reach this hotel on Coronado Island. Disney's Grand Floridian was modeled after this fairy tale-like hotel with its signature red-tiled turrets. Kidtopia Camp & Crafts (for children 4 to 12) and Vibz Teen Lounge (for teens 13 to 17) keep kids entertained while Mom and Dad relax poolside.
Residence Inn San Diego Gaslamp: Situated just a couple of blocks from San Diego's Petco Park baseball stadium, this Residence Inn is a prime spot for vacationers seeking an urban retreat. Its lovely rooftop pool provides a view of the San Diego skyline. The hotel has a modern boutique feel with the convenient touches for which this brand is renowned: suites with full kitchens, outdoor grill for barbecues, a 24-hour in-lobby market, complimentary evening socials, free hot breakfasts, and included Internet access. They'll even go grocery shopping for you at no additional charge!
West Inn & Suites: Located in San Diego's North County, West Inn & Suites is popular with vacationing families who enjoy the hotel's proximity and free shuttle to Legoland California (and anywhere else within five miles). West's lobby has the feel of a small inn or bed and breakfast with the amenities of an upscale hotel, all with an affordable pricetag. Other kid-friendly touches? There's a complimentary full breakfast every morning, a selection of board games to borrow, a microwave and refrigerator in every room and complimentary WiFi.
Corvette Diner: Milkshakes galore, jukebox tunes from the 50s through the 70s, singing and dancing waitstaff, tasty burgers and fries…what more could a kid ask for? A game room, that's what! After your meal, earn points to spend on toys and other trinkets for scoring big at air hockey, Skee-Ball and video games.
Café Coyote: San Diego's Old Town is flush with Mexican restaurants, but as a local, my favorite is Café Coyote. Others are more popular with tourists and can have notoriously long lines, but here the typical wait is short and the food is delicioso. Watch women wearing traditional Puebla dresses handcraft some of the best-tasting flour tortillas you will ever eat. As an added bonus, the restaurant offers its own underground garage in an area of town where parking spots are hard to find.
The Fish Market: This place strikes a nice balance between what parents want (a delicious, fresh seafood dinner with maybe a cocktail or two) and what kids need (a stimulating environment where children are welcomed). Kids will like watching the chefs cook fish on a huge spinning grill over a blazing fire (from behind glass).