The Key of Sea: 48 Hours with Kids in San Diego

San DiegoWant a quick dose of summer, sand and sea life at any time of the year? San Diego's 70 miles of Southern California coastline is just the start of what makes the city one of the most popular destinations for families in the U.S.

The city has countless attractions, museums and year-round spectacular weather to enjoy them, plus most of what it has to offer is within a relatively short driving distance no matter where you stay. Here are our top recommendations for a family weekend (or long weekend) visit.

Day 1

9 a.m. Enjoy bagels, great coffee and baked goods on the outdoor patio at Pannikin Coffee & Tea, north of the city in La Jolla on your way to the nearby 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a spectacular local treasure where you can get a glimpse of what the California coast looked like hundreds of years ago. There are 8 miles of trails with ocean views, wild beaches, the rare Torrey pine trees, and migrating birds. Plan on a full day of outdoor fun on land and in the sea, starting with a free guided nature walk at 10 a.m. if going on a weekend or holiday.

Torrey Pines, courtesy of San Diego TourismIf you explore on your own, the Guy Fleming Trail is a two-third mile loop that is a good choice for families with small children.

After exploring the trails, the rest of the day can be spent at the three-mile long Torrey Pines State Beach. The north section that runs adjacent to the highway is the best place for swimming. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at the beach. 

6 p.m. After washing up back at your hotel, go to dinner at the Corvette Diner in Liberty Station near the airport. A meal here returns guests to the 50s, combining rock n’ roll, classic cars and waitresses in poodle skirts and bouffant hair-dos with great burgers and shakes. 

Or if you're looking for something more authentic, combine Mexican favorites with cultural music at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town. Every night from 6 to 9 p.m., the live music will get your kids in the mood to eat traditional favorites, and with a kids' menu, the price is just right.

Day 2

Day two should start early at Richard Walker’s Pancake House in downtown San Diego. The apple pancakes are our favorites.

San Diego's Embarcadero, San Diego's downtown waterfront, is your morning destination. First stop is the Maritime Museum. The kids will love climbing aboard and exploring the historic vessels, including the Star of India, the world's oldest active sailing ship. You can even opt for an afternoon four-hour Adventure Sail aboard the schooner Californian. Check in is at noon.

If you decide not to take the afternoon sail, head to Seaport Village along the Embarcadero path for lunch. It is made up of more than 50 shops and 17 dining venues. Live music is played every day in the food court from noon to 4 p.m. Another option for lunch is the San Diego Pier Café, which offers great views as the restaurant literally sits on top of the water. The kids' menu includes more than seafood for your picky eaters. 

After lunch, drive about 10 minutes to SeaWorld San Diego in Mission Bay. The almost 200-acre park features shows, rides, attractions and exhibits with a marine life focus. In our 10-plus trips to San Diego over the years, my kids have grown from preschoolers to teens and the park is a match for all ages. Preschoolers can meet Elmo and friends, while older kids will love getting wet and screaming loud on the Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis thrill rides.

LegolandPlan to get there around 3 p.m. and take advantage of the extended hours in the spring and summer. (Editor's note: Since this article was published, the release of the movie Blackfish, has stirred debate around Seaworld's treatment of animals and killer whales in particular. It's worth watching the film and reading about before a visit.)

Optional Day 3

Balboa Park in downtown San Diego has more than 15 museums and cultural attractions to explore including the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The zoo’s steep hills are especially tiring when pushing a stroller so, depending on your situation, the double-decker narrated bus tours may be the best way to get around. Kids love sitting on the top and seeing all from high above. Don’t miss the Children’s Zoo and sea lion show.

Or head to LEGOLAND California, to spend a night in the world’s first LEGOLAND Hotel, which opened in April. You can not only take advantage of LEGO-themed guest rooms with two separate sleeping areas for parents and kids, but also get early entrance into the park to enjoy select rides and attractions.


La Jolla beachIf you go ...

Places to Stay: Embassy Suites San Diego Bay - Downtown is across the street from Seaport Village. A one bedroom suite offers extra room and includes a microwave, refrigerator and coffee-maker. Plus, a cooked-to-order breakfast and evening reception are included in the rate.

At La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, kids will have fun at Splash Landing, a waterslide park that boasts three slides, a water play zone and a kiddie pool with sand and zero entry. The resort boasts Spanish architecture, with white-washed stucco buildings and terra cotta shingled roofs.

Family Deals: The Go San Diego Card gets you into more than 55 San Diego attractions, activities and tours, including family favorites LEGOLAND California, the San Diego Zoo and more. Rates start at $77 for a one-day adult card (ages 13 and older) and $67 for child card ages 3 to 12. More Information: Visit the San Diego Tourism Authority's website at

Stacey Zable is an award-winning veteran travel writer and family travel expert. Send travel questions and comments to Stacey at


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