An unknown author once said, “Time spent with family is worth every second.” I think we’d all agree how very true this is.
Each summer our grandchildren who live in Alabama come to San Diego to spend a few weeks with us. This California trip is always one of the highlights of their summer; and ours.
We’re always on the lookout for new things to do in San Diego with kids that align with their ages and interests. These San Diego kid-friendly activities are mostly free or very inexpensive, but more importantly, showcase the uniqueness of our amazing town.
San Diego is world-renowned for its practically picture-perfect weather making it an outdoor lovers’ nirvana. It’s easy to have fun in the sun here while not putting a whole lot of strain on the pocketbook.
Let’s look at some of these free San Diego adventures that have provided a whole lot of fun family time –and some great memories to boot.
10 Free Things To Do in San Diego With Kids
Have fun with these San Diego free kids activities and ideas that will make your kids and your wallet happy.
It’s always fun to play in the surf, and with over 70 miles of pristine coastline, it’s easy to find a San Diego beach that’s perfect for kids.
Each has its own special vibe. One of our grandkids’ favorites is Coronado Beach, whose glittery white sands have been listed among the world’s best. Its calmer waters are ideal for swimming or body-boarding with a slow descending slope into ocean waters. Kids and big kids alike ooh and ahh over the sand castle creations by San Diego’s Bill Bavlaka, known as the King of Sandcastles.
La Jolla Shores is a mile-long stretch of crescent sand that’s a great destination for picnicking, boogie-boarding, and swimming. Anchored by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier, it’s a popular launching ground for kayakers and scuba divers. At night, you’ll love the scent and glow of beach fires. And what kid doesn’t love a fire, especially when the s’mores are calling?
Nestled along San Diego’s stunning coastline, fascinating tidal ecosystems offer curious explorers a chance to discover treasures of sea life and reefs at low tide and discuss the importance of environmental conservation.
Two excellent tide pool areas can be found at Cabrillo National Monument Tide Pools, filled with plants, invertebrates and fish along with anemones, lobsters, and even octopus.
Our kiddos also loved the tide pools near La Jolla cove with almost other-worldly rock formations, hermit crabs, mussels, barnacles, seagrass, and more fish life. It’s such a great learning experience for the entire family, and there’s always the challenge of who gets the coolest find.
Watching the Paragliders
Located on the steep sea cliffs of Torrey Pines where Charles Lindbergh took his first maiden flight, the Torrey Pines Gliderport is the place where thrill seekers take wing for an exhilarating journey to paraglide and hang glide over the Pacific.
What we did as a quick stop on our way back from the beach one day, ended up being a one-hour stay as the kids excitedly begged to see “just one more flier take off and land.” Of no surprise, one of their goals now is to be old enough to take their own flight!
Hiking Torrey Pines
San Diego has a multitude of great hiking trails, and since we love to hike, we thought it might be nice to introduce our grandchildren to the joys of hiking. We selected Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for a number of reasons. While paid parking is available within the reserve, many choose free parking along the beach.
Please note that the trails on top of the cliff are currently closed. Please check the website for current information.
We chose the Razor Point Trail with easy wilderness paths and a series of fun rocks to climb. Along the way, we learned about the local floral and fauna from guide maps provided at the entrance.
The closer we got to the ocean, the more excited the kids became. We made the experience more magical by packing plenty of drinks, snacks, a canteen, and binoculars and assigning roles – one got to be the scout, and the other a ranger.
And who would guess that the grand prize would be the spectacle of a pod of dolphins frolicking playfully in the wave breaks? The kids (big and little) were ecstatic.
Cabrillo Monument and Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Where can you hike to a lighthouse, see breathtaking views of the Pacific and downtown San Diego, watch ships pass under the Coronado Bridge, and learn about the history of San Diego all in the same day?
Located at the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula, Cabrillo National Monument marks the spot where explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the west coast in 1542. An educational museum and wayside boards located throughout the park enable kids to spot different types of Navy and civilian ships, aircraft, wildlife, and landscape features. Telescopes on the observation deck provide opportunities for closer views.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse provides an opportunity to see what life was like for families in the 1880s at this once-lonely outpost setting. If you visit there during January-April, keep an eye out for whales as this is their main migration period and this is one of the top spots for whale watching in San Diego without going on a boat.
While there is a $10 nominal entrance fee for adults, children 15 and under are free, and groups are capped at $20 total. Many families I know have also purchased a $35 annual pass that gives unlimited access for the entire year.
Picnic in Del Mar
What is it about picnics that’s so much fun?
Pulling out our family-sized picnic basket and beach blanket, we packed our chicken dinner, drinks, snacks, games, and beach toys and headed to the grassy bluffs overlooking the Del Mar Beach. If you throw in some surprise snacks or sweets, the kids will love you even more.
There’s something about being in the great outdoors on the ocean that makes food taste so much better. Throw in a beach walk, frisbee, and a stunning sunset, and it makes for a wonderful family outing.
Bike the Beach & Bay
If you have beach bikes and a bike carrier, you can head out for a fun ride along miles of oceanfront and bay. Our favorites? If it’s the beach, we’re all about Pacific Beach Boardwalk. Not only is it great for people watching, but the terrain is fairly flat, the views are spectacular, and there’s plenty of places to stop for breaks, drinks or snacks.
Mission Bay Bike Path is a paved trail that loops almost completely around San Diego’s Mission Bay. The great part is that there are several places to start or end a picturesque biking trip, so, take into consideration how far the kiddos, especially those with short legs, can travel.
Explore Old Town San Diego State National Park
Old Town is a year-round place for food, fun, and fiesta. Known as the birthplace of California, many of its buildings hail from the early 1800s. Even if you think your kids or grandkids aren’t into history, Old Town is a whole ‘nother ball game.
Bazaar del Mundo is the festively colorful entrance to the park capturing the warmth of Old Mexico filled with amazing shops and restaurants. If you can get the kids past all the fun items they can buy with their allowance money, you can transport them to the past by exploring fascinating historic sites like adobe houses, an old schoolhouse, stables, stagecoaches, and living history programs with blacksmiths and woodworkers.
For older kids, a visit to the haunted Whaley House might be fun. There is a cover charge for older kids and adults (kids under 5 are free), but you can also just tell them the story of the Whaley House while you walk by it.
On weekends, Fiesta del Reyes is a lively place to celebrate the music and dance of Mexico with mariachi bands and musical performances. It’s our go-to place in Old Town filled with fountains, international shops, and authentic Mexican restaurants.
Visit a Farmer’s Market
Are kids really into a farmer’s market? Well, a few years back, the answer was clear. A farmer’s market isn’t just about buying something as we were able to make it a real learning opportunity for our grandchildren. Here’s why.
Farmers markets have fresh, seasonal produce practically at kids’ eye level. It helps them notice that foods vary from season to season, and why they won’t see a watermelon in January. These markets introduce children to healthy new food choices, and help them learn the difference between organic and non-organic produce. One example is learning the difference between a shiny cucumber in the grocery store, and the homegrown one that’s not.
It’s also great to let the kiddos be in charge of a small purchase. Our little ones loved making their own buying decisions, holding the money, and counting the change. Each time they come out to San Diego; we try to fit in time for a local farmer’s market.
>>Read our guide on the best Farmers Markets in San Diego
Check out Downtown’s Central Library
If you’ve never checked out the San Diego Central Library (part of the San Diego County library system) located near Petco Park, you really should.
Just walking into the library is awe-inspiring. Located on the first floor of the library, the Denny Sanford Children’s Library features 16-foot murals of classic Dr. Seuss characters over the walls, brightly colored chairs, short tables and desks and lots of space for reading in comfy seating. The 9,000-square-foot-area boasts more than 70,000 books and other items.
As a child, I recall the excitement of signing up for my very first library card. Just like today, books can be checked out for a specific period of time and give children a chance to explore a number of different publications, story types, and authors.
Have fun with these San Diego free kids activities and ideas, and let us know which you enjoyed most!