A Native's Guide to San Diego for Kids (and Kids of All Ages)
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, November 2009
Prepare to be dazzled. San Diego in winter, bathed in warm sunshine and sheltered by the wild headland of Point Loma, is a visitor’s delight. Children and adults will find numerous attractions to fill the mild days and cool evenings of this unique cornerstone city, bordered by Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The first European settlement on the West Coast of the United States, San Diego remains one of America’s most picturesque destinations, with a vibrant mix of cultures.
The AHA annual meeting headquarters hotels (the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the San Diego Marriott) are two of the city’s newest and most elegant. Both front the natural harbor charted by conquistador Juan Cabrillo only 20 years after the fall of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). Today, visitors can step out of the hotel, push a baby carriage past glittering yachts, and tour dozens of premier, child-friendly attractions within easy walking distance or a short ride by taxi, trolley, or rental car.
Within Walking Distance from the Meeting Hotels
Seaport Village is a cluster of tourist-oriented boutiques and restaurants on the waterfront immediately adjacent to the meeting headquarters, open 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily. A wooden carousel dating from 1895 offers rides ($2 each) for children of all ages, and grassy lawns provide ample room for strolling, sunbathing, or flying kites (available at the kite store) while overlooking the bay.
The New Children’s Museum, which opened its new building in 2008, is an arts-oriented institution with hands-on activities designed to encourage artistic expression and appreciation. Located at 200 West Island Street, the museum is a short walk on level ground from the meeting hotels (five blocks). It offers indoor and outdoor spaces in which to romp, and studios in which kids can roll up their sleeves and participate in arts activities with recycled and sustainable materials. Special exhibits and features for teens and toddlers. Cost: $10 per person.
Baseball fans may enjoy walking somewhat farther (0.8 miles) to the Padres’ Petco Park. In the off-season, visitors may enter the “Park in the Park” for free to ogle the gorgeous new stadium shoehorned into the historic district. Located along “J” Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, the park has a good size playground with innovative equipment. Rubber surfacing keeps kids from getting banged up, but locals say to take care on the lush grass. It’s also a way station for area dog owners.
Hotel Del Coronado is one of California’s most beautiful, historic hotels, fashioned entirely from wood and dating from the Victorian era. Known to locals as “the Del,” this is a spectacular spot to eat an ice cream cone overlooking the Pacific (or sip a cocktail while the kids eat ice cream). From the meeting headquarters, walk half a mile to the Embarcadero, grab the 15-minute ferry across the harbor (at $6.50 round-trip, it’s also cheap way to see the harbor), and hop on the local “904” bus ($1) from the ferry landing to the hotel a couple miles away, on the opposite side of the island.
A farther but still level walk along the lively waterfront (1.6 miles) takes visitors to the San Diego Maritime Museum. Appropriately located at 1492 Harbor Drive, the museum reflects San Diego’s close connection to sailing since the European voyages of discovery. This museum features one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world, including the Star of India, an iron-hulled, fully rigged vessel billed as the world’s oldest active ship, a Soviet-era Russian submarine, an 1898 steam ferryboat, and HMS Surprise, a magnificent replica of an 18th-century royal frigate, built for the movie Master and Commander. Kids will enjoy running up and down the gangways, while adults will appreciate the exhibits located on the decks. Open 9:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., adults $14, children (6–17) $11.
Places That Are a Taxi Cab or Bus Ride Away
A short car or bus ride from downtown is Balboa Park (2.5 miles), home to many of the attractions for which San Diego is most famous. Visitors with (or without) children will be especially interested in the San Diego Zoo, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Man, and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center—but may also be charmed by the Model Train Museum, the Old Globe Theatre, the Spanish Village Art Center, the Air and Space Museum, the Automotive Museum, or the Centro Cultural de la Raza. There are 15 major museums in the park, three theatres, and an abundance of nature walks. One of the finest views of downtown is afforded by ambling across picturesque Cabrillo Bridge, which soars over one of the park’s many canyons and connects the western lawns of the park with the mesa upon which the museums sit. Another magical place is the Botanical Garden, encased in an enormous wooden arboretum that will make children feel they have entered a fairy kingdom, or shrunk into leprechauns, as they skip under giant ferns. On the eastern edge of the park is a playground with swings and slides (Pepper Grove picnic area). Visitors can purchase separate admissions to the museums and zoo, or combination passes.
The nonprofit San Diego Zoo is the largest attraction in the park. The zoo has been a leader worldwide in the conservation of animals, plants, and habitats since 1915. Its exceptionally beautiful exhibits include soaring, free-flight aviaries through which families can stroll, a brand new elephant mesa, a hippo pool that can be observed underwater, and a Giant Panda pavilion. The Children’s Zoo has a petting paddock and a nursery that allows visitors to view newborns. Parents of children with tired feet will appreciate tour buses that circulate within the park and the Skyfari gondolas that soar above the trees and cut across the 100-acre park. Although the zoo is home to more than 800 species (beasts of every description, really) its botanical collections are even rarer and more costly than its animal collections. The best value is a two-day ticket that includes the hop-on, hop-off tour bus and unlimited Skyfari use ($40 adults; $30 kids). Make sure not to miss the Miniature Train ride just outside the zoo entrance—the highlight for me as a child, and for my children, too.
At a Trolley Distance
San Diego’s transportation infrastructure is one of its weak points, but bright-red, light-rail trolleys nonetheless link visitors to some of the city’s most interesting destinations. Walk five blocks to the Santa Fe train depot (a romantic destination in its own right for train buffs) and take the trolley north four miles to Old Town State Historic Park. The original Mexican pueblo is built around a central, sleepy plaza that leads onto several free museums, including Seeley Stables (a fine collection of horse-drawn buggies, wagons, carriages, and other western memorabilia), the Wells Fargo Museum, and the Mason Street School, California’s first public schoolhouse. The Whaley House museum, San Diego’s oldest brick building, is supposedly haunted (a fantasy for ghostbusters of all ages), and the Casa de Estudillo is one of the finest examples of a historic adobe hacienda. Child-friendly restaurants with outdoor patios make dining easy for families, and ice cream and candy shops will delight at every turn.
The trolley also takes visitors south to the San Ysidro border crossing. Walk across the border, hail a cab, and within five minutes you’ll be on Avenida Revolución, Tijuana’s original main street and now the best place to shop for high-quality Mexican handicrafts (and low-priced junk), as well as observe a jai alai game or catch a cab to a bullfight. Readers wishing to cross the border should consult the U.S. State Department advisories at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html.
Journeys Needing a (Rental) Car
There are enough high-quality, unusual attractions to keep visitors nonstop busy near the hotel. But for those interested in exploring farther afield, a rental car will put you within easy distance of other unique sights.
San Diego is renowned for its glorious coastal fringe. From honky-tonk Mission Beach (popular with teenagers and college students) to the serene, natural beauty of Sunset Cliffs, to glamorous La Jolla Cove (and Shores), to the remote, swimsuit-optional Black’s Beach at Torrey Pines—San Diego has a beach for every personality. Although winter is not optimal swimming weather, San Diego can be warm enough in January to make even surfing possible (with a wet suit). Ocean Beach offers a spectacular fishing pier (the longest on the West Coast at 1/3 mile), which is also a gorgeous place to eat fish tacos, view surrounding bays and hills, and enjoy the sunset over the Pacific. Kids will love running its length over the pounding waves. No fishing license is required. And if you make it to La Jolla, don’t miss the rugged Children’s Cove. It offers the closest look at wild harbor seals anywhere on the west coast of North America.
For kids scared by waves, Mission Bay Aquatic Park (at 4,325 acres, the largest manmade aquatic park in the nation, and only seven miles from downtown) is a good bet, with multiple playgrounds and placid wading. Sidewalks for skateboarding, strolling, and jogging meander through the park. The intrepid can rent sailboats, powerboats, catamarans, kayaks, sailboards, and pedal boats.
Two other marine attractions for children are Sea World, a stunning theme park on Mission Bay that features animal exhibits as well as rides, and the Birch Aquarium, located another 12 miles north, on the grounds of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Both emphasize conservation, but the Birch Aquarium has the stronger educational focus, while Sea World is a genuine amusement park with lots of play opportunities, including a theme area based on Sesame Street. (This may be your child’s first and last opportunity to meet Big Bird in the flesh—or feathers.) The difference is reflected in the price: $12 for the aquarium, $65 for Sea World. Both attractions have hands-on exhibits that allow children to handle marine life.
Southern California is renowned for its theme parks. For visitors coming a long distance, options to consider are Legoland (33 miles north) or even Disneyland (95 miles north). For locals, Disneyland is a day trip: get up at dawn, descend on the park the minute it opens, and stay until the fireworks after dark. Although you may need to park a toddler under a tree for an hour, the smiles on seeing Dumbo or Peter Pan are worth every minute on the road.
San Diego is an amazing destination with myriad attractions. But with the city’s brilliant sunshine and relaxed atmosphere, you never have to leave the hotel to have a memorable family vacation. You may ultimately choose to do what children love most and San Diegans do best: grab a towel, head for the pool, and hang out.
—Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is Dwight E. Stanford Professor of American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University. She has done research in archives on four continents, but always comes home.