My family and I live in Northern California, but our hearts reside about 500 miles south in San Diego County.
Yes, we’ve got family there. And yes, we heart the weather. Heck, we crack up by reciting lines from Anchorman. But really what we love most about San Diego (or should I say, “Sun Dee-ah-go”) and the surrounding area are the diversions—family-friendly destinations and activities that could keep us busy for days.
Here, then, in no particular order, is a closer look at some of our faves.
Downtown San Diego is unique in that it mixes the traditional trappings of a big city—skyscrapers, public transportation, parks—with incredible coastline and fascinating history. These are the things we like to celebrate when we visit.
Our no. 1 favorite activity is touring the USS Midway, which is now permanently docked downtown. This giant aircraft carrier plied the seas on behalf of the U.S. Navy, and today is a piece of living history that visitors can climb aboard. Walking the ship is educational in and of itself—it’s remarkable to think about how long seamen lived in such close quarters on their tours. My middle daughter, who is obsessed with aircraft, also loves the planes on display on deck—more than a dozen specimens in all.
This past summer we discovered another reason to visit the Midway: open-air movie nights, held on the flight deck. We attended the second of three nights and saw The Peanuts Movie with hundreds of other people huddled on blankets. For true Navy buffs, the final movie every year is Top Gun.
Another downtown attraction we love is the Old Town Model Railroad Depot.
This spot, located in the oldest section of the city (that’s why it’s called Old Town, people), is free to the public and essentially exists as a labor of love. Foamers (that’s what you call people who foam at the mouth when they see trains) come and man the model railroads in the two-room facility and visitors get to watch as the grownups (mostly men) play with their toys. My kids could watch those trains for hours.
Another train they love is the miniature railroad at Balboa Park, the city’s largest public park and one of the best public parks in the entire country.
We usually spend at least a day here, riding the G-16 miniature scale train for three minutes around a 4-acre loop, giggling while we spin around the carousel, and marveling at plants in some of the park’s gardens. This past summer we also rented an Electriquette Wicker Cart, a glorified golf cart, and tooled around for about an hour. The kids loved every minute of it. Especially those moments when they were waving at passersby like the Queen of England.
Finally, no trip to downtown San Diego would be complete without at least a swing by Ocean Beach. This is where the city meets the sea, where quirk meets kitsch in a magical way. In previous years we’ve come here for the kite festival and Oktoberfest. This year we just came and wandered around, hitting the farmers’ market (it’s on Wednesdays) and soaking up local culture. It was nice to relax for a change.
La Jolla love
Heading north from downtown, one of our favorite neighborhoods in San Diego is La Jolla. This ritzy and quiet town reminds both me and my wife a ton of our hometown in Wine Country, but with one huge difference: It’s right on the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps the best place to celebrate the sea is La Jolla Cove, where on any given day you might stumble upon (hopefully not literally) dozens of California sea lions lazing in the sun. Over the years we’ve taken hundreds of pictures of the girls at various ages with sea lions in the background. The pinnipeds never really seem to mind—so long as you don’t get too close and spook them.
Viewfinder Tip: Hit La Jolla Cove early in the morning to avoid throngs of tourists snapping pictures of snoozing sea lions. Crowds usually pick up after lunch.
Another La Jolla Beach worth visiting is La Jolla Shores, where there’s a great playground overlooking the ocean, and on occasion you might spot leopard sharks.
As if we don’t get enough marine life when we’re out and about in La Jolla, we also seem to end up at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, arguably the best “museum” in this part of town. Many of the exhibits here are on par with what you’d find in a big city aquarium. Our personal favorites include the kelp forest and an exhibit about tide pools in which kids can reach into the water and grab critters such as sea stars and chitons.
This past year the aquarium also had an exhibit about sea horses, which was fascinating. Part of this exhibit was slated to be removed to make way for something new.
Finally, every trip to La Jolla ends with a visit to the Legends Gallery, which displays original artwork from arguably La Jolla’s most famous son, Theodore Geisel. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you know Geisel by his pen name—Dr. Seuss.
Fun on the outskirts
Farther north, on the way toward our family in Oceanside, the northern reaches of San Diego County offer family-friendly diversions of different kinds.
Our no. 1 stop is Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, also known as the Del Mar Race Track. This track—located in Del Mar, in case you couldn’t guess—is where locals come to bet on horses. It’s where we Villanos go when we want to bet on horses but make the kids think we’re just watching horses run around a track. Thankfully, the girls find it just as exciting as their mom and I do. Sometimes they even pick winners.
Also in Del Mar, we love the Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary, an attraction where visitors can interact with dozens of birds at one time, depending how many creatures are there on-site. The facility offers food to purchase for the birds. It also encourages people to hold the birds and give them love.
To be honest, this is perhaps the most recent addition to our usual San Diego itinerary. A friend from up north recommended it earlier this year. We visited this summer. We’re hooked.
Julian is another San Diego area spot we enjoy, especially in fall. The town, about an hour east of downtown, is known for its apple orchards, which means apple picking and cider-drinking are de rigeur. Just about all of the local orchards are good to visit; most offer U-Pick options for harvesting fruit, and many have cider tastings as a part of the experience. The town also has a colorful Gold Rush history, which means a handful of local outfitters offer tours highlighting that. I haven’t taken any of those tours, but I’ve heard they’re great. To be honest, I’m always too busy picking apples in Julian to do anything else.
(I’ve also heard that boating on 110-acre Cuyamaca Lake in kayaks, pontoons, rowboats, motorboats or peddle boats also is super-fun.)
I’d be remiss without mentioning the Palomar Observatory among the stuff we’ve enjoyed on the outskirts of the San Diego area; the facility is located about an hour’s drive from downtown, and offers incredible views of the night sky. The facility, which boasts a 200-inch Hale Telescope, is affiliated with the California Institute of Technology, and offers public appointments pretty much all year long.
We’ve only visited once, but the girls talk about the experience like it was something they’ve done 100 times. Saturn! Constellations! Shooting stars! They remember all of it. Which is precisely why I know we’ll be back.
What’s your favorite type of stuff to do with family in a new city?