Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, USA
A 1,200-acre green space filled with museums, theaters, and gardens, Balboa Park is the center of art and culture in San Diego. It’s also one of the city’s most historic sites, built for the Panama–California exhibition in 1915. While the museums are definitely worth seeing, there are also a number of free attractions, including the photogenic Botanical Building, which houses more than 2,100 plants (including Venus flytraps); the Desert Garden, filled with succulents from around the world; and a sculpture court with works by Miró and Rodin. For one of the area’s best views, purchase a timed ticket to climb the California Tower in the Museum of Man. The ornate structure reopened to the public in 2015 after being closed for nearly 80 years and features a spiral staircase to the eighth floor, where you can catch a glimpse of the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Cabrillo Bridge, and even Mexico’s Coronado Islands.
One Legoland Dr, Carlsbad, CA 92008, USA
Perhaps you have a kid who’d traverse the globe for Ninjago World. Or maybe your child could spend a whole weekend creating his or her own Lego kingdom. Either way, a family trip to Legoland California is fun for all. With the water cannons of the Pirate Reef, the mummy-blasting lasers of Lost Kingdom Adventure, the double-loop of the Coastersaurus, and the recreated worlds of Lego Star Wars, the 128-acre amusement park will earn you epic parent points. But you just might earn parent of the century by throwing the letters “VIP” into the mix. Options include the Buddy VIP Experience, which gets your family a private host, priority access, and a minifigure; the Ultimate VIP Experience (which also includes valet parking, lunch, souvenir photos, a Lego gift, and a behind-the-scenes experience, such as creating a Lego replica of yourself); and the Ultimate Overnight VIP Experience (which adds a night in a themed suite at the Legoland Hotel, VIP early check-in, character escorts to breakfast and dinner, and arguably best of all, an in-room bedtime story improv show that uses your kids’ requested storylines). Pro tip: Both the Ultimate VIP Experience and the Ultimate Overnight VIP Experience include admission to the Sea Life Aquarium, so allot extra time (and energy reserves).
2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
At the world-famous San Diego Zoo, you’ll essentially take a journey around the world as you explore 100 acres of habitats that resemble everything from the Australian Outback to the South African coastline. In fact, this institution cares so much about making animal enclosures authentic that it even re-creates rock formations specific to various regions, like the jagged tsingy of Madagascar. The impressive Africa Rocks exhibition debuted in 2017 and includes six enclosures, including an Ethiopian highland for baboons and an acacia woodland for leopards. The zoo is also home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals, like Malay tigers and both Asian and African elephants.
2261 Avenida De La Playa
In and of itself, kayaking is a perfectly lovely way to spend a morning or afternoon. But when you factor in caves, sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles, gray whales, a famous fault line, and masses of docile leopard sharks, “perfectly lovely” becomes “awe-inspiring,” as you’ll discover during a tour of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve with guides from local shop Everyday California. Mind you, not all the animals are guaranteed to show: You’re likeliest to see La Jolla’s famed leopard shark aggregations in the second half of the year, and the gray whale migration from mid-December through April. Still, on any given outing, dolphins could be swimming under you as a sea turtle bobs alongside you and a sea lion pops onto your bow. You’ll also visit the fabled seven sea caves, which include the Clam (the one you can paddle through) and Sunny Jim’s (where the local lore involves everyone from bootleggers to L. Frank Baum). Just east of the White Lady—a cave named for an ill-fated 19th-century honeymooner—you’ll see another La Jolla phenomenon: the Rose Canyon Fault line, exposed in a beachside cliff. Tack snorkeling on to your trip, and you’ll swim with marigold-hued garibaldi, shovel nose guitar fish, and many other colorful characters. Pro tip: Private tours aren’t advertised, but full buyouts are available if you’d rather sail solo—or with your own exclusive crew.
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106, USA
One of California’s most significant historical landmarks, this statue marks the spot where Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the west coast of the United States. Every year at the end of September, actors re-create this historic moment as part of the Cabrillo Festival. If you don’t happen to be in San Diego then, there’s still plenty to explore here, including the two-mile Bayside Trail through tide pools and coastal sage habitat. Cabrillo died in the Channel Islands not long after coming ashore, but he lives forever in the large limestone statue here—near which you can also enjoy stunning 360-degree views of San Diego, the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, and the surrounding mountains.
10818 San Diego Mission Rd, San Diego, CA 92108, USA
An active parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá remains a tranquil place of worship and reflection. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the first of California’s 21 missions is well worth a visit for its extensive history. It was originally constructed in Presidio Park in 1769 but moved inland to its current site just five years later. Records show that it was the first place in California to cultivate olives; tree cuttings from this mission would later be used to found olive groves at other missions around the state. It’s also home to the grave of Father Luis Jayme, the state’s first Catholic martyr; he was killed when American Indians stormed the mission in 1775 and is now buried next to the altar. Destroyed many times over, the mission was most recently rebuilt in the 1930s, but looks as it would have in the early 1800s.
Mount Woodson Trail, Poway, CA 92064, USA
This steep hike is about eight miles out and back, but many are willing to make the trek because of the photo opportunity that waits near the summit. Potato Chip Rock is a sliver of granite that protrudes from a boulder. Since it’s sturdy enough to stand on, hikers often head to the edge and strike creative poses to post on Instagram. Located in Poway, the trailhead is 27 miles from downtown San Diego, but well worth the drive—the panoramic vista from the top offers a great perspective of San Diego County’s canyons and hilly topography. In addition to Potato Chip Rock, be sure to check out the other large boulders and rock formations that litter Mount Woodson.
Located beneath the San Diego–Coronado Bridge, this public space might not be green and tranquil, but it tells a story of perseverance. In 1970, residents of the predominantly Latino Barrio Logan neighborhood staged a nonviolent takeover when the state attempted to build a California Highway Patrol station on land the city had promised would be a community park. Their protests were ultimately successful; the area was designated a park shortly thereafter. In 1973, brightly hued murals touching on Chicano identity and struggles began appearing on the concrete pillars surrounding the space. Today, visitors can see more than 50, which are considered so culturally significant that they earned the park National Historic Landmark status in 2016.
2752 Presidio Drive
Perched above Old Town and visible from many places in the city, this mission-style building is a notable landmark. Few seem to realize, however, that it’s also a museum. Founded by Franciscan monk Junípero Serra in the 18th century, the Presidio Park site was the very first European settlement in what is now known as California. Today, the tiny museum tells its history through drawings and artifacts. Outside, visitors can also enjoy hiking trails, lawns for picnicking, and sweeping views of downtown. There is no admission fee, but small donations are always welcome.
1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
As part of one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hot spots, San Diego and its environs are home to more species than many regions of similar size. To learn more, head to the Natural History Museum’s permanent Coast to Cactus in Southern California exhibition, where you can immerse yourself in large, 3-D models of the area’s unique habitats, like mountain forests and coastal sage zones. You can even climb into a multimedia-equipped Airstream trailer that comes alive with the sounds of desert critters at night, or crawl through a mudflat to see the animals that call it home. While at the museum, be sure to also check out the Cerutti Mastodon exhibit, which tells the story of the paleontologists who, in the 1990s, excavated fossils from a site in San Diego that suggest humans were in North America 115,000 years earlier than previously imagined. The show includes evidence like a mastodon tusk and rocks that scientists believe were once used to break bones.
Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park, 1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
Devoted to folk art from around the world, the Mingei International Museum is home to some of San Diego’s most intriguing works. Depending on when you visit, you might see an exhibition on Indonesian shadow puppets made from water buffalo hide, or pre-Columbian art from the museum’s permanent collection. After you’re done looking around, head to the Collector’s Gallery, which outdoes typical museum gift shops with its assemblage of ethical items from local and international artisans. Shop for jewelry, ponchos, and woven baskets, then get your caffeine fix at Café Mingei, which serves coffee from one of San Diego’s best roasters, the WestBean.
15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido, CA 92027, USA
While tourists flock to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, its Safari Park—located 30 miles away in the San Pasqual Valley—is equally interesting. Spread over 1,800 acres, it’s home to more than 3,500 animals and 260 different species as well as a huge botanical garden. Massive, open-range enclosures re-create various habitats from around the world (don’t miss African Plains, which is larger than the entire San Diego Zoo itself), while interactive exhibits allow visitors to get up close and personal with lemurs, lorikeets, bats, and more. The Safari Park began as a breeding program to supply the zoo but, over time, has become a major conservatory project. In fact, its condor-breeding efforts are behind the almost extinct bird’s successful reintroduction to the wilds of California. Note: Early mornings are the best time to see animal activity. Avoid August, September, and October, which are the area’s hottest months.
1600 Pacific Hwy, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
San Diego’s newest public space, the 12-acre Waterfront Park offers a large playground, wide expanses of green grass, jets of water for splashing, and great views of the skyline. Bring an umbrella—there isn’t a lot of shade here—then spread out with a picnic and relax. There’s a fee to leave your car in the garage under this spot, but you can easily get here by taking the Trolley to the Santa Fe Depot. The park is also a short walk from neighborhoods like Downtown, Little Italy, and the East Village.
San Diego, CA 92129, USA
Covering more than 2,300 acres, Black Mountain Open Space Park features some 20 miles of trails just 45 minutes from downtown. Take the 2.5-mile hike up to the peak for spectacular views of downtown San Diego, Point Loma, Torrey Pines, and even Mexico, or try one of the smoother walks that loop around the park to observe native plants like sage and chaparral. Great biking paths mean you’ll need to watch out for cyclists flying around corners, but the more considerate ones will ring their bell to warn you. The early morning is the best time to hike, bike, or run. If you’re visiting in the summer, bring plenty of water to combat the heat.
312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, CA 92054, USA
In 2017 California designated Oceanside one of 14 recognized Arts and Cultural Districts in the state. The community in north San Diego County is home to an active mix of artists, art galleries, and museums. The California Surf Museum, located a few blocks from the Oceanside Pier, is in a building designed to resemble a wave. Its mission is to preserve and showcase surf heritage including art and notable surfboards like the one Bethany Hamilton was riding when she was bitten by a tiger shark, and the board Eddie Aikau was last seen paddling when he disappeared off Lana’i in 1978. Museum shows have included a “Salute to Pipeline” and the thought-provoking “Surfers and the Vietnam War” that recreates the China Beach Surf Club where soldiers would go to escape the war. A small courtyard behind the museum, dubbed the Secret Spot, has murals painted by local surf cartoonist John Lamb.
2688 E Mission Bay Dr, San Diego, CA 92109, USA
At 4,235 acres, Mission Bay Park is the largest man-made aquatic park in the U.S. Here, water-sports enthusiasts can enjoy everything from kayaking, windsurfing, and wakeboarding to snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing, while landlubbers can take advantage of several trails and grassy areas. For equipment rentals, head to the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, located right on the bay.