San Diego for Families

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San Diego for Families
Year-round mild weather, proximity to the ocean, beautiful city parks—including two fantastic zoos—and unlimited outdoor activities make San Diego a perfect destination for family vacations. The only hard part is deciding what to do.
By Rajam Roose, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Water Sports for All the Family
    The Pacific waters can be rough; for calmer water, head to San Diego Bay, Mission Bay Park, and the eastern side of Coronado Island. Several shops in these areas rent kayaks, trimarans, kite boards, paddleboards, boards for surf sailing, and other gear. A company in Mission Bay Park even gives lessons in flying water-propelled jet packs! For Jet Skis and waterskiing, multiple boat ramps are set in the water. For a more relaxed spin on the water, Marinas rent sailboats.
    Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Ocean Theme Parks and Aquariums
    San Diego has several places to learn about ocean life besides the ocean itself. Birch Aquarium is located at Scripps Institution of Oceanography near the San Diego neighborhood of La Jolla. The aquarium has dozens of fish and invertebrate habitats as well as interactive educational displays for kids. Stunning views of La Jolla cliffs and the Pacific Ocean can be enjoyed from the aquarium's back patio. SeaWorld San Diego is an ocean-themed park with rides, a giant playground for kids, and many exhibits showcasing dolphins, whales, sharks, stingrays, sea otters, and more. The Living Coast Discovery Center has an aquarium and zoo that focuses on endemic species, such as sea turtles, sharks, owls, hawks, and eagles.
    Photo courtesy of Birch Aquarium/San Diego Tourism Authority
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    San Diego Waterfront
    The 27-mile San Diego waterfront consists of marinas, museums, shops, restaurants, and parks. At the southern end is Imperial Beach and to the north is Point Loma. The portion known as Embarcadero borders downtown San Diego. The Embarcadero contains Seaport Village, a small, village-themed shopping center with shops, an art gallery featuring local artists, and restaurants. People can stroll along the paved walkway and check out the USS Midway aircraft carrier, which is now a naval museum. Just north is the iconic Star of India, another maritime museum, featuring a submarine, steamboat, and luxury yacht. Each boat holds collections of miniature models of famous sailing vessels along with exhibits documenting maritime history.
    Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Explore San Diego Harbor
    There are several different ways to explore the San Diego Harbor, which boasts stunning views of the city skyline, Coronado Bridge, Coronado Island, and the Navy shipyard. Many harbor tours can be purchased on the Embarcadero, or you can book a brunch or dinner cruise to celebrate a special family occasion. Whale-watching excursions are also popular and are a year-round event, with different species migrating during different times of the year. Among them are orcas, minke whales, humpback whales, fin whales, blue whales, and gray whales. For an alternative way to see the harbor, take the ferry across to Coronado Island, where you'll find shopping and restaurants against the backdrop of the San Diego skyline.
    Photo by Rajam Roose
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    San Diego's Renowned Zoos
    San Diego is home to a large research and animal preservation society that has developed a breeding program for zoos around the world and supports global conservation. The San Diego Zoo Global runs two parks that feature wildlife from across the globe. The San Diego Zoo is world-renowned for its open-air natural habitats and gorgeous gardens. The zoo is located in Balboa Park, just minutes from downtown San Diego. Another place to see wildlife in a safari setting is at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Researchers at this facility are responsible for bringing the California condor back from near extinction. The Safari Park houses the largest veterinary clinic in the world. Early morning visits are the best time to see animal activity.
    Photo courtesy of SDZ Safari Park/San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Family Fun on Wheels
    There are numerous fun and unusual ways to experience San Diego. Rent a Segway and explore independently, or take one of the group tours offered around the city. Enjoy the classic experience of the trolley, perfect for viewing the iconic sights of San Diego. The more adventurous can toss their city maps and rent a GoCar, which guides drivers to tourist sites and famous restaurants, providing verbal narration along the way. Alternatively, hop on an amphibious vehicle with the San Diego Seal Tour, which starts on land in Seaport Village and ends in the harbor, cruising around the bay. Take the ferry over to Coronado Island, rent a bike cruiser, and explore the Silver Strand Bikeway, which goes all the way to Imperial Beach.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Hiking San Diego
    Dozens of canyons meander through San Diego, creating a unique landscape and providing miles of trails that can be enjoyed by hikers, runners, and cyclists. The best times to explore are during the winter, spring, and early summer when there is enough rain to support plant growth, everything is green, and the weather is temperate. Late summer and fall are the hottest and driest months, so hiking is recommended only in early morning or late afternoon. Many trails don't offer much shade so bring plenty of water. Trailheads are often found in neighborhoods, so there is usually plenty of parking. Both Tecolote Canyon Natural Park and Mission Trails Regional Park have nature centers with creative exhibits about the native plants and wildlife.
    Photo by Corey Jenkins/age fotostock
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    Kid-Friendly Museums
    The whole family will enjoy San Diego's interactive and educational museums. Spark your imagination at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, where working train models traverse massive displays featuring southern California landscapes and historic towns. The Natural History Museum consistently has exciting displays about our world, and also has a play area. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center has several interactive science exhibits and a large IMAX movie theater in which to watch incredible films exploring the world and space. At The New Children's Museum, kids can climb an indoor rock wall, sit inside a rain house, build structures with blocks, and get messy with paint and chalk.
    Photo by Mark Newman/age fotostock
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    Take to the Skies
    Take to San Diego's expansive skies for a unique perspective on the city and the surrounding landscape. Several companies offer helicopter, seaplane, Cessna, and open-cockpit biplane tours. A sky tour affords the best views of San Diego's gorgeous beaches and architectural landmarks. For those who prefer a slower pace, balloon tours float along the northern part of the city; many include guided tours of the fabulous mansions in Rancho Santa Fe as well as of those along the coastline. For adventurous families, the popular Gliderport at Torrey Pines offers tandem hang-gliding rides for people of all ages.
    Photo by Rajam Roose
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    Park Life
    The mild San Diego climate encourages plenty of outdoor activity, and nowhere is this more evident than in the dozens of parks dotted around the city. Chollas Lake Park allows fishing for ages 15 and under in its 16-acre lake, and also has a path around the lake, a basketball court, picnic tables, and a play area. Other parks with playgrounds include Mission Bay Park, Crown Point Park in Pacific Beach, Spreckels Park on Coronado Island, and Kellogg Park in La Jolla. Enjoy fabulous views and a picnic on grassy lawns at Spanish Landing Park, Ruocco Park, San Diego Bayfront Park, or Dunes Park on Coronado Island. Kite flying is another popular pastime; elaborate kites are often spotted in Mission Bay Park and South Embarcadero Park.
    Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority