If you follow me on Instagram, you probably garnered that I’m pretty sad we had to leave San Diego. Due to my university schedule, we were able to travel for nearly three weeks with our kids. My parents rented a condo on Mission Beach and we had the best time at the beach, taking in the sunsets, and getting a whole lot of quality family time. I also found lots of free things to do with kids in San Diego, so I thought I’d share my top 5.
It’s not secret that I love southern California. When we moved from Irvine in 2014, it wasn’t totally by choice. Due to career opportunities, I had to move on. I wouldn’t say I regret the decision to leave because it led me to my last position that allowed me to travel to England, France, Italy, Argentina, Ireland, Portugal, Germany, South Africa, and dozens of U.S. states. But despite all of these amazing travel opportunities, I’ve realized that I sincerely miss my life in southern California.
While in San Diego last month, for the first time in a long time, I felt at peace. I wish I could describe it better. All I can say is that when I’m in southern California, I feel like the best version of myself. While I was in Irvine for work, I met with one of my good friends from the time I lived there. She is originally from PA and has lived in Orange County since 2012. When I described to her how I felt being back in CA, so understood. We’ve always been kindred spirits, but it’s more than that. As two people who have experienced the severity of winter, there is just such a lightness in CA. The people, the weather, the attitude (the access to fresh produce!). But seriously, this last trip reminded me even more that my heart is in Cali and it’s just a matter of time until I’m back there.
If you’re traveling to San Diego anytime soon (I highly suggest it), you should definitely check out these 5 free things to do with kids in San Diego. If you have preschool or early elementary-aged children, I highly suggest you also check out Legoland. We had such a blast there the two times we’ve visited.
5 Free Things to do with Kids in San Diego
1. La Jolla Cove
Our friends at Toyota loaned us the brand new 2018 C-HR and our first stop was La Jolla Cove. Before I dive into the coolness of La Jolla cove, I have to tell you a funny story about the C-HR. When it drove up, my son immediately said ‘it’s the gecko mobile’, which is a reference to one of his favorite cartoon character’s vehicles. The bright teal with white top does make it something of a super hero-esque vehicle. On several occasions in parking lots, we had complete strangers come up to us to tell us how much they loved the car. We heard adjectives like vintage and retro. The colors definitely made it stand out. What I loved most about the car, was the bumping stereo and the zippy nature of the vehicle. It acted much like a sports car in terms of speed and agility and I liked how roomie it felt for being a fairly small vehicle.
Now back to La Jolla cove — If you head to San Diego anytime soon, I suggest this is one of your first stops for a couple reasons. The reason I love La Jolla Cove so much is that you get absolutely breath-taking views of the California coast. Second, it’s like you just stepped into a zoo or aquarium. There are stairs that lead you down onto the gorgeous cliffs and you can walk right up next to California sea lions! My kids were mesmerized by watching the sea lions make noise, fight, move about, and lounge in the sun. My daughter was especially enthralled with watching them, while my son opted to climb up and down the massive rocks.
2. Bonita Cove
We were very lucky to stay in between Mission Beach and Pacific Beach this trip, so we could literally walk to Belmont Park. If you haven’t been to Mission Bay before, this is where the giant white roller coaster sits right on the beach. We did walk around Belmont Park with our kids and my nephew played some arcade games. If you’re into carnival rides, then Belmont Park is for you. Since we were going to Legoland the very next day, we opted to skip the rides and walk across the street to Bonita Cove instead.
Bonita Cove is a park situated directly across the street from Belmont Park on the Mission Bay. It’s also where I captured this shot. I’m a major fan of Bonita Cove for a couple reasons. First, it is truly beautiful there. You can look out over the bay and there are always sail boats floating around. Also, there are two different playgrounds with equipment that was perfect for my preschoolers. There is also a shoreline with a little beach, so my kids had a great time running in and out of the still water in between trips on the playground equipment. The playground has sand, so my kids ran around barefoot and had a blast. There is nothing better than free things to do for kids in San Diego, in my opinion. There is so much open access to nature that my kids are severely lacking with winter in Boston, so I wanted to take advantage of it and get them outside as much as possible.
3. Balboa Park
Probably my second favorite place to take kids for free things to do in San Diego with kids is Balboa Park. The reason I like Balboa Park is that there are just a lot of things to see to keep kids entertained. There are lots of open spaces where kids can run and explore without fear of them getting lost or injured. I’ve been to Balboa Park before, when we visited the San Diego Zoo, but this was my first time truly exploring the park.
There is so much to see, much of which is free. There are also many paid things to do like many museums, the zoo, etc. We spent an morning simply walking around the park. We walked amongst the sculpture garden, happened into a pop-up art gallery, and stared for awhile at the gorgeous fountains. During our morning there, we only saw a small portion of the park. There is also a great children’s playground on the entrance to the park that we visited on another occasion. Overall, there is a lot to do at Balboa Park, and it should definitely be on your list of free things to do with kids in San Diego.
San Diego has a lot of great beaches, duh. M personal favorite is Pacific Beach. It is cleaner and very family-friendly. Mission Beach is a good second choice. I also love the little beaches near the La Jolla cove. My least favorite beach is Ocean Beach because I personally find it a little more grungy and less family-oriented, but that’s just a personal preference. If you’re interested in a day trip, then you might want to head up to Corona Del Mar, Newport, or Laguna – some of my favorite Orange County beaches.
It’s probably obvious that you should check out the beaches while in San Diego, but I have a couple beach tips for you. First, my absolute favorite time to go to the beach is actually fairly early in the morning. By 9 or 10 am, it’s usually warm enough to enjoy the beach. If you go early, there won’t be many people there. I also love to go at low tide in the mid-to-late afternoon. My kids had the best time picking up shells and exploring the little tide pools (here’s my favorite shot from that day at low tide – oh, and this one!).
5. Tecolote Shores
Mission Bay park is a large recreation area on Mission Bay. Bonita Cove is actually part of it, as is Tecolote Shoes. I found this playground, also known as Mission Bay Playground, while doing a search for play areas for kids. Tecolote Shores is a really cool park and playground, perfect for kids of almost any age. They have so much equipment, it kept my kids entertained for more than an hour. They didn’t want to leave when I was ready to go. There are also really nice walking and biking paths that are perfect for moms with kids still in strollers. We brought the kids here a couple times because the playground area is so vast and nice.
If you do visit this playground, I suggest you bring sand toys with you. My kids had the best time digging in the sand and putting it on the equipment. There are a few wooden structures that are specifically meant for sand play. My kids just had the best time. The first time we went to the park, I didn’t bring sand toys. I improvised by giving them my empty Starbucks cup. You’d be surprised at just how effective a venti cup can be;)
Tecolote Shoes definitely has the nicest playground we visited in San Diego. They also have clean public restrooms very nearby, which is perfect for kids. If you do get to San Diego this spring or summer, definitely add the Mission Bay playground to your list. It was definitely one of my favorite free things to do with kids in San Diego.
Thank you, Toyota for loaning us the C-HR. All opinions are my own.