Soaking It Up in San Diego

Getting off the beach while vacationing in San Diego can be hard, at least for me. By the time my husband and I have lugged the car seats off the airplane, or worse, let the poor dog out of the back of the car after a nine-hour drive, about the only thing we want to do for the rest of our stay is to sink our toes in the sand.

Recently, however, an unexpected two-month stay in San Diego left us itching to do more than slather on more sunscreen and fuss over the barbeque. Two weeks into our stay, our kids began peppering us with the dreaded question: “So, what are we going to do today?” Could it be? My kids were actually bored with the beach!

With some reluctance, I peeled myself off my lounge chair and set out to discover everything else San Diego has to offer vacationing families.


San Diego at a Glance

San Diego is the second-largest city in California, and the eighth-largest in the country. The city of San Diego holds 1.3 million residents, while the rest of the 4,200-square-mile county is home to 3 million people in 18 incorporated cities.

San Diego is home to the Chargers football team and the Padres baseball team. It also contains the West Coast’s largest naval base, home to 13 piers and 20,000 military personnel over 977 acres of land and 326 acres of water.

San Diego is blessed with mild weather almost year round, with cool coastal areas and often scorching hot inland areas. The peak tourist season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when tourists and locals alike swarm to the beaches to beat the heat. If you do go during the summer months, tend toward the later side of the season, like July or August, to avoid the overcast of “May Gray” and “June Gloom.”

Of course, there are a slew of beaches in San Diego to choose from, but if you want one that offers something for everyone, check out the family-friendly Mission Beach. Just remember to leave the brewskies off the sand. San Diego has a ban on alcohol on all beaches. 

All of Mission Beach’s action – and most of the people – can be found clumped together on the north side at Belmont Park, where the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster, games, rides and restaurants will easily distract kids from making sandcastles.

You can sign up for surf classes at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. Touted as the world’s largest instructional waterfront facility, it also offers classes in wakeboarding, sailing, water-skiing, rowing, kayaking and windsurfing.

If, however, you’re too cool for school, opt for day rentals of boogie boards and more at the Wave House Athletic Club. The club also boasts a wave simulator made famous by MTV and a workout facility, offering day passes, beach boot camps and Southern California’s largest indoor pool.

Mission Beach’s south side is quieter, with a collection of low-key beach rentals, fishermen and volleyball players. Connecting the two, and continuing north to Pacific Beach, is a boardwalk, making it the perfect place to jog or simply see and be seen. For families with small yet water-curious kids, Mission Bay is a short walk away, providing calm, shallow waters, perfect for paddling.

When you’re done with the beach, there are plenty of activities to entertain the family while still enjoying the sunshine.


Activities Close By

SeaWorld. Since 1964, this marine-life park has remained San Diego’s leading tourist destination. It spans 189 acres with an array of animal shows, heart-dropping rides, aquariums and, of course, its collection of killer whales. You can even eat right next to them at the Dine with Shamu buffet.  

San Diego Zoo. One of only four zoos in the country to house giant pandas, the zoo, which is a pioneer in cageless exhibits, is also home to 4,000 animals and more than 800 species, including African elephants, gorillas, polar bears and penguins. 

Balboa Park. Home to the San Diego Zoo, the park boasts 15 major museums and a botanical building with 2,100 tropical plants. Kids can learn about cars, trains, planes, dinosaurs and planets, as well as ride the Balboa Park carousel and miniature train. Plus, there are numerous performing arts venues, including the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theater. 

The New Children’s Museum. Features kid-friendly exhibitions, messy, hands-on creative opportunities, classes and camps, as well as an organic café and outdoor park. My kids especially got a kick out of painting a real-life Volkswagen Beetle. 

Maritime Museum. This museum restores, maintains and operates one of the largest collections of historic sea vessels in the country, including the Star of India, the world’s oldest active ship. Plus, it’s a great place to start or end a walk along Harbor Drive, where there is a revolving display of urban art. 

Old Town. Learn about San Diego’s history as California’s first permanent Spanish settlement and the site of the first mission founded by Father Junipero Serra. In addition to five original adobes, it’s also home to a shopping bazaar and the Whaley House, which many consider haunted. 

Birch Aquarium. The public exploration center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, it features more than 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico.


Activities Farther Afield

San Diego Safari Park. In partnership with the zoo, the 1,800-acre animal park is a wildlife sanctuary to more than 3,500 animals from 400 species. It is located 30 miles north of downtown San Diego in the San Pasqual Valley. 

Legoland. This Lego-themed park is divided into nine sections that include Dino Island, Knight’s Kingdom and Pirate Shores. Prepare to get wet and pack accordingly. There is an adjacent aquarium, but don’t bother. It’s not worth the extra $20, and, besides, there’s too much to do in the main park. Located 30 miles north of downtown San Diego in Carlsbad. 

Coronado. Take a ferry or drive over the two-mile Coronado Bridge for a change of scenery. This island’s pristine beach made it onto The Travel Channel’s list of America’s top 10 beaches. It’s also home to the Hotel del Coronado, a historic landmark that is San Diego’s only true beachfront hotel. 


Where to Stay

Beach rentals. Stay close to the beach and enjoy a homemade barbeque as the sun goes down. While there are several rental companies to choose from, these two have been around the longest: Penny Realty, 866-522-4116 and Cairncross Rentals, 858-490-1450.

Bahia Resort Hotel. Perched on a 14-acre peninsula on Mission Bay, the Bahia provides close access to Mission Beach and is centrally located to just about everything else. 

Manchester Grand Hyatt. Boasting spectacular waterfront views, this family-friendly resort offers tennis, swimming and spa amenities, all conveniently located downtown. 

La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. A family favorite for decades, this resort in nearby La Jolla offers championship tennis courts, par-3 golf, swimming pool, kids’ club and beachfront relaxation.


Millicent Skiles is a former associate editor of Bay Area Parent and a mother of three.

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