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San Diego for Families

Family Water Sports
San Diego for Families
Mild weather, close proximity to the ocean, unlimited outdoor activities, and beautiful city parks—including two fantastic zoos—make San Diego the perfect destination for a family vacation. The only hard part will be choosing what to do.
By Rajam Roose, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Family Water Sports
    Family Water Sports
    The Pacific Ocean can be rough, so families with small children should head to Mission Bay Park, where several outfitters rent kayaks, paddleboards, Jet Skis, and other gear for exploring the calmer waters. Also worth trying are Coronado Central Beach and the Cabrillo National Monument, which both feature tide pools full of aquatic critters like periwinkle snails, California mussels, and sea urchins. Those with children old enough to try boogie boarding should check out La Jolla Shores. The typically gentle break there makes for the perfect place to bodysurf.
    Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    On the Waterfront
    On the Waterfront
    Once the domain of kitschy gift shops and subpar restaurants, San Diego’s waterfront is evolving, thanks to governmentally funded projects that have created more green space, better facilities, and even public artworks. The Embarcadero, located next to downtown, is a wonderful place for a walk, while Waterfront Park, built around the art deco–era county building, offers interactive fountains and lawns for picnicking. Along the wide esplanade lined with date palms, visitors will also find a Carnitas’ Snack Shack, a restroom that doubles as a work of art, and nods to the city’s maritime history. Check out the USS Midway, which now functions as a naval museum with a fascinating collection of military aircraft.
    Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    San Diego’s Renowned Zoos
    San Diego’s Renowned Zoos
    A conservation organization dedicated to saving species worldwide, San Diego Zoo Global operates two “campuses” in San Diego. The San Diego Zoo is famous for its open-air habitats and gorgeous gardens, while the San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers the chance to see wildlife in a natural setting just over 30 minutes from the city center. Both locations also act as breeding centers, with researchers at the Safari Park having helped to rescue the California condor from near extinction. The Safari Park is even home to one of the most sophisticated veterinary hospitals in the world. Visit either spot during the early morning or late afternoon for the best chance of seeing animal activity.
    Photo courtesy of SDZ Safari Park/San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Getting around Town
    Getting around Town
    There are numerous ways to tour San Diego. The city’s light-rail system, known as the Trolley, is good for getting around the heart of town while seeing the sights. For the best route, stick to the Green Line, which has stops in Old Town, the Gaslamp Quarter, and the historic Santa Fe Depot. The more adventurous can toss their maps aside and rent a GoCar, which guides drivers to tourist sites and famous restaurants, providing verbal narration along the way. If you want to get out on the water, hop on the ferry from the Embarcadero over to Coronado Island. Once there, you can rent cruisers and explore the Silver Strand bikeway, which goes all the way to Imperial Beach. To get up to North County without renting a car, take the Pacific Surfliner train, which departs from the Santa Fe Depot and stops in Solana Beach, Oceanside, and Carlsbad.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Hiking San Diego
    Hiking San Diego
    San Diego’s unique landscape makes for a dramatic setting for running, biking, and hiking. To get spectacular ocean views—and an up-close look at the fragile coastal sage ecosystem—head north of La Jolla to Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, where the shorter loops are suitable for children of all ages. Those with older kids can check out the extensive trails at Black Mountain Open Space Park, or tackle the sometimes steep, eight-miles-out-and-back path at Mount Woodson. During winter, spring, and early summer, the weather is mild and everything is relatively green; late summer and fall, however, can be hot and dry, and hiking in the early morning or late afternoon is advised. Many trails don’t offer much shade—so bring plenty of water.
    Photo by Corey Jenkins/age fotostock
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    Kid-Friendly Museums
    Kid-Friendly Museums
    San Diego’s plethora of educational museums means visiting families are spoiled for choice. Since many of these institutions are located in Balboa Park, you can even visit two or three in a single day. The San Diego Natural History Museum will spark your child’s imagination with immersive exhibits, dinosaur fossils, and 3-D movies on subjects like predators and the Ice Age. Across the park, the Fleet Science Center features interactive exhibitions, while the San Diego Model Railroad Museum boasts the largest indoor model-railroad show in North America. At the New Children’s Museum downtown, kids can sit inside a rain house, build structures with blocks, and get creative with paint and chalk.
    Photo by Mark Newman/age fotostock
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    Park Life
    Park Life
    Thanks to San Diego’s temperate climate, you can explore the city’s vast park system all year long. Balboa Park offers a public swimming pool, miles of biking and hiking trails, and one of the world’s original disc golf courses. For playgrounds, head to Mission Bay Park or Waterfront Park, where the children’s play zone includes multiple swings, slides, and a jet-equipped reflecting pool.
    Photo courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Family-Friendly Restaurants
    Family-Friendly Restaurants
    Many of San Diego’s best restaurants are laid-back joints with picnic tables and play areas, making dining with kids a breeze. Adults and children alike will love South Park’s Station Tavern, which offers a simple menu of burgers and tater tots as well as a chalkboard and a wooden trolley. Also worth visiting is Campfire in Carlsbad, where you can enjoy char-grilled oysters and roasted broccoli while your kids play in the full-size tepee. (There are even s’mores for dessert.) At Liberty Public Market, a food hall in a historic building, each member of the family can choose their own dinner, from empanadas to gourmet brats, before congregating on the spacious patio.
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