San Diego in sunny Southern California is the perfect trip with the grandkids. You could easily keep busy for weeks here and never repeat an activity, but you’ll find many you’ll want to do again and again.
My daughter and I wanted to take the kids and get away for a week’s vacation. She always loves to escape our Michigan hometown and head to California. I found that flights on Independence Day had great ticket prices, so I booked a ticket for the two of us and my two young grandchildren.
With such great weather year round, it doesn’t matter when you go to San Diego. Getting outdoors is always fun. Our trip focused on wild animals and getting out on the water for the most part. So while you’ll find many more things to do in San Diego, here are the must-see stops with the grandchildren.
1. San Diego Zoo
Located in Balboa Park, The San Diego Zoo sits on 100 acres with over 12,000 animals of more than 650 species. The zoo offers six unique tours and experiences that you won’t want to miss. The first three listed are best suited for ages five and up, while three are perfect for all ages.
Note that all these tours require a ticket, no matter the child’s age. In addition, they require admission to the zoo as a separate charge.
Crazy About Cats
If you have cats at home, this 90-minute tour will bring you to the big cats, where the kiddos may see a lion, tiger, jaguar, mountain lion, leopard, fishing cat, ocelot, or serval. The tour begins before the zoo opens, where your guide will drive you around in a golf cart. They teach the littles how the zookeeper cares for the cats and how they can help cat species. Additionally, you’ll have a close-up meeting with at least one cat.
Animals In Action
The zoo features exotic cats in this interactive experience where the kids will get a close-up view of the animals. Then the wildlife experts take you behind the scenes, where you’ll have some great photo opportunities.
Early Morning Cheetah Experience
If your young grandchild asks a lot of questions, this is the tour for you. You’ll take a 60-minute guided tour led by a guide who knows all about cheetahs. They’ll tell stories about the animals and plants as they drive you around the zoo on a cart, with opportunities to get off and get a closer look. You’ll also learn about the zoo’s conservation work. They require a two-to-one ratio (one adult for every two children).
Discovery Car Tour
The Discovery Car Tour is a 60-minute guided tour using an expedition cart. You’ll have a chance to ask lots of questions and learn about how the zoo’s conservation work impacts the world.
Exclusive VIP Experience
The VIP Experience is an exclusive tour where you’ll spend 5 hours discovering the zoo with your zoo guide. They tailor what you see to your family’s interest. In addition, the zoo includes a sit-down lunch in this VIP experience.
Inside Look Tours
This 90-minute adventure offers an insider’s look at how the zoo cares for its animals. The guide shares experiences and stories while driving you around the zoo in a deluxe golf cart.
Pro Tip: ADA Compliance
The zoo operates a complimentary ADA shuttle service for those who need help with mobility. In addition, the zoo map notes ADA elevators and paths. I have some mobility challenges, so the ability to see the zoo via various golf cart tours added to my enjoyment.
2. Balboa Park
With more than 1,000 acres, Balboa Park is one place we could have spent more time. With more than 15 museums, the area will keep the whole family entertained for more than a day. Unfortunately, we only had about half a day here, and it wasn’t nearly enough. While the San Diego Zoo is in Balboa Park, you’ll find a lot of kid-friendly activities. Here are a few.
Balboa Park Carousel
Pick your favorite animal and take a ride. The carousel was built near Buffalo, New York, in 1910, reports 10 News San Diego, and in 2022, it celebrated its 100th year anniversary in Balboa Park. Amazingly, it operates with most of its original parts.
Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater
The puppet theater is fun for all ages, and even the grandparents will enjoy the show. The puppets are local San Diego puppet stars.
Balboa Park Miniature Train
The Balboa Park Miniature Train starts near the zoo and takes you on a half-mile trip around the park grounds.
Pepper Grove Playground
If the kiddos need to blow off some steam, let the kids play on the Pepper Grove Playground. You’ll find the perfect shaded bench to sit and rest on while keeping an eye on the kids. They’ll have swings, climbers, and slides to enjoy.
Pro Tip: Visitor Center
Begin at the visitor center, where they’ll orient you to all that the park offers. Maps, brochures, and free guided tours of the park are available here.
3. San Diego Wildlife Safari Park
Located about 35 miles northeast of the San Diego Zoo in Escondido, California, the San Diego Wildlife Safari Park sits on 1,800 acres. You won’t find cages with the 3,600 animals of 300 species inside. Instead, we saw the animals from an open-air safari truck. The animals mingle in a sprawling savanna. Plan your visit to last about 4 hours.
My granddaughter was the first to spot a newborn animal that the guide reported to the veterinarians the day we visited. It was an exciting morning.
Pro Tip: Age Restrictions
Some safaris are for all ages, while others are for kids 3 and older. Before purchasing your ticket, note the age restrictions for the trip you plan to take.
4. San Diego Whale Watching Cruise
The San Diego Whale Watching Cruise is an amazing 3-hour cruise for any age. We visited in July during the migration of the blue whales, the largest animal on earth. Mighty fin whales are abundant in the summer too. Although taking the cruise doesn’t guarantee you’ll see a whale, if you don’t, the guides offer you the chance to come back another day and take another cruise.
You’ll want to bring a camera to record the blowing and tails. Although capturing it all on camera isn’t easy, I found a video to work best. This trip was so much fun. My granddaughters are still talking about it.
Pro Tip: What To Wear
Remember that the temperature is 10 to 15 degrees cooler on the water than on land, so add an extra layer, maybe a light jacket or heavy sweatshirt. Wear flat, closed-toe shoes as you may want to stand while the boat is in motion. You’ll also want sunglasses and sunscreen.
5. San Diego SEAL Tour
The amphibious San Diego SEAL Tour is fantastic fun for the younger grandkids. Of course, they are used to driving on land in cars and trucks, but this vehicle driving into the water was an exciting surprise to my granddaughter.
The 90-minute tour is just the right length to keep their interest, with about 30 minutes on land and 60 on the water. My granddaughter was particularly interested in the animals. While you’ll see various birds, like California brown pelicans and egrets, other wildlife is also often on view.
Note that while you’ll most likely see sea lions and maybe some seals on tour, SEAL Tour stands for Sea And Land Tour and not the animals.
Pro Tip: Parking
Parking may prove to be a challenge during the summer months and school breaks, so arrive about an hour before the departure of your tour.
6. Maritime Museum Of San Diego
If your grandkids are into pirates, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is a stop you won’t want to miss. While the museum offers a variety of exhibits, including an interesting one for the kids on dispelling the myths of sea monsters, they also feature a pirate show that takes you out onto San Diego Bay.
The kids are part of the interactive show, where they become part of the crew, learn how to bail water from a sinking ship, fight with swords, and swab the decks. The 90-minute performances are a dream come true for the kids. They are right in the middle of it all.
If you’re looking for more things to do on the water, check out this article on the best things to do on San Diego Bay.
7. Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego is San Diego’s walkable historic district. So when the grandkids need to get out and walk around, this makes the perfect place to explore.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
While you explore Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you’ll find several museums and restored buildings in the park. The ones that particularly appeal to the kiddos are:
The schoolhouse will interest the littles as you can draw comparisons from their school to what life was like in the late 1800s. The one-room schoolhouse has a wood-framed structure with a shingle roof and 10-foot ceilings. Be sure to point out the water bucket and ladle instead of a water bottle or drinking fountain. Also, contrast the current heat registers to the pot-bellied stove.
Blackhawk Livery Stables
These stables housed horses and wagons in San Diego’s early days. Today they feature woodworking and blacksmith demonstrations.
The Seeley Stable
This stable includes a Concord stagecoach, a two-wagon freighter, an ox-drawn cart, and a mud wagon. Draw comparisons to how we travel today to add interest for the kids.
San Diego Sheriff’s Museum And Education Center
With its interactive displays, the San Diego Sheriff’s Museum was a fun stop for our family. The museum shows the 150-year history of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. It features an old patrol car and a real helicopter. In addition, we used the courtroom and jail cell to take some memory-making photos.
While in Old Town, stop for a casual, relaxed lunch or dinner at Café Coyote. The beloved Mexican restaurant features house-made tortillas that are transformed into various traditional Mexican dishes — tacos, tostadas, and burritos. Refried beans and Mexican-style rice come with most of the offerings. For the kids, the Pup menu has only Mexican favorites; but for those fussy eaters, they also have kid-friendly American food like chicken nuggets. They also offer a separate vegetarian menu. Of course, the adults will appreciate the Margarita flights.
The colorful outdoor patio seating is perfect for those kids who have a hard time sitting still. They’ll also enjoy watching the tortilla makers and listening to the Mariachi singers.
Pro Tip: Discover Old Town
Discover Old Town offers a fun Kids History Hunt and some money-saving coupons.
For more help in planning your trip to San Diego, check out these articles: