My husband, our two children and I have had the good fortune to travel the world together. From Tanzania to Turkey, passing through the Italian mountains of the Dolomites and the Atacama Desert in Chile, our adventures have traveled the world.
Our kids have their favorite places, sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as excited about a destination as they were and continue to be about San Diego. We visited this summer and when we planned the trip I expected it to be enjoyable for them. After all, with attractions like the famous San Diego Zoo and Legoland, how could it not be so? But I wasn’t sure what the city would offer an always skeptical and easily bored traveler like me.
Let me tell you that our visit left me in awe, and so much so that I would return there easily. The city, the eighth largest in the country, is full of the friendliest locals I have ever met, fantastic restaurants, beautiful beaches and an impressive number of sights, the kind you want to see.
The following five stand out the most, at least for us, and are exactly why San Diego is the premier family vacation destination.
Don’t let the name mislead you. Balboa Park is not a park in the sense of Central Park. It is in fact made up of 17 amazing museums, gardens galore and the San Diego Zoo. It covers 1,200 acres and is not too far from downtown.
Established 150 years ago, this escape within an escape would take you weeks to explore. If you only have one day, or hopefully two, I suggest heading to the Natural History Museum, Air & Space Museum. The Japanese History Center and Friendship Garden, filled with Japanese plants, koi ponds, and other aquatic features.
Do not miss the other photogenic gardens of the park like the one with plants native to California and others dedicated to cacti and roses.
Yes, it’s in the park, but you can’t visit this shrine as part of a park tour and do it justice. It’s no wonder the San Diego Zoo is considered one of the best in the world. Visitors are immersed in a tropical setting with palm trees and colorful plants, and walk through winding and scenic paths to see more than 4,000 animals. They include koalas, Galapagos turtles, leopards, penguins, baboons, weaver birds, and the list goes on and on. Programs offering animal encounters and presentations run throughout the day.
History buffs will be delighted to explore this historic aircraft carrier which boasts over 30 restored aircraft. The Midway itself was the oldest aircraft of the 20e century. It was an integral part of the Cold War and was the only ship to launch a captured German V-2 rocket. It went to the Persian Gulf in 1990 when Iraq captured Kuwait and finally opened as a museum in 2004.
Other reasons to visit besides this fascinating history include flight simulators, climb planes, ejection seats and cockpits and incredible views of downtown skyline and active US Navy ships.
Are you ready to go back in time? This is exactly what a visit to the old town is about. It is the city’s oldest enclave and the site of the first European settlement in California.
Historic sites follow one another here: the Whaley House, considered the most haunted house in the country; Casa de Estudillo, originally the home of a Spanish aristocrat in the early 19e century and a refuge for women and children after; and a school that was the first public school in San Diego.
The Old Town also has three parks, a regular lineup of art exhibitions, over 100 stores selling everything from handmade candy to local crafts, and an incredible food scene. Choose from over 25 restaurants, including some of the best Mexican places where you can dine. Many offer live music at night and are places where hours go by before you know it. As a tequila fan, I can confidently share that the selection of this spirit is vast for all of them.
If you had to pick one quintessential Southern California image, La Jolla would be this one. Located on the ocean, this gem of a location is about 30 minutes from downtown San Diego. The beaches are fabulous here and you can spot sea lions and seals from the shore. Come in the morning and stay until sunset, making it a wonderful way to end the day.
There is a lot to do and see in La Jolla. My oldest daughter loves to surf, so we had to sign her up for a course with Surf Diva, founded and run by twin sisters Izzy and Coco Tihanyi. What a fun she had – the instructors here are world class and serious surfers can even sign up for camps.
Other attractions include kayaking in the sea caves where you are likely to see dolphins crossing the water, a coastal walk, and the freshest and tastiest seafood lunch at George’s on the Cove, with a view of the sea. more water.