Destination: San Diego
An unusually wet December for Northern California had us longing for warmer weather and a bit of sunshine without getting on a plane with a two-year-old. Remembering the frequently sunny weather from a year we lived in San Diego, we quickly booked a hotel and started planning a three day stint, revisiting some of our favorite places and checking out a few new ones, with a heavy emphasis on beaches and parks to accommodate our little one’s love of the outdoors.
Time of Year:
While it was rainy leading up to our visit, we enjoyed three days of mostly sunny weather, with a few occasional clouds and temperatures in the upper 60s to low 70s.
What I Liked:
San Diego is an easy jaunt from Northern California. The city and surrounding area has tons of kid-friendly parks, beaches, and activities while still maintaining adult-friendly spots for coffee, shopping, and eating.
What I Didn’t:
One of my favorite things of visiting a city is the ability to walk around and absorb the vibe of the city, people-watching, and checking out architecture. San Diego is a typical sprawling California city. Even the downtown area is really targeted at the people visiting for conventions, which means the only walking seems to be between hotels, the convention center, and the touristy Gaslamp District nearby. As such, we spent a lot of time in the car going from place to place.
What To Do In San Diego:
Visit Liberty Public Market at Liberty Station: One of my favorite new discoveries (although it’s been in San Diego for awhile). Liberty Station is a huge complex of buildings and outdoor space just west of San Diego’s downtown airport that was a Naval Training Center from 1923 to 1997. It’s since been repurposed as a mixed-use space, housing restaurants, shops, offices, and hosting events and classes. Aiming to be a “town square” for San Diego, it’s a really fun gathering spot. Tucked at one end is Liberty Public Market, which is full of food stalls and restaurants. While the main hall is fairly crowded and loud (I saw lots of small children with their ears covered), there are tons of options to take away. I’d recommend taking advantage of the outdoor tables near an awesome wooden boat for kids to play on or crossing the street to the large park with tons of grass. Bonus: your kids can watch planes take off and land. There’s also a small waterway that separates the airport from the park. While the Market has just about every type of food imaginable, we indulged in lobster rolls and clam chowder from Wicked Maine Lobster (and were really tempted by the lobster tacos). On a different day, I also grabbed coffee at West Bean Coffee Roasters (which has several San Diego locations) and noticed that Paraná Empanadas Argentinas next door was doing a brisk business so would be tempted to try that on a future trip. I also saw places to grab ice cream, sandwiches, and tacos, among other things. I also enjoyed checking out Moniker General, a fun store and coffee bar.
Visit the USS Midway: This is such a fun museum, truly a way to experience living history. I would definitely not recommend it with young children (steep, narrow staircase, lots of people, and a self-guided audio tour make it not toddler friendly) but older kids, especially those interested in history would love it. If you do the full self-guided tour, it takes about 3 hours (but you can skip around if you prefer. There are also fun additional things to visit, like flight simulators, and there are museum docents throughout who can add personal stories and anecdotes (when we visited years ago, we had my father-in-law along who had actually been stationed on the Midway during his years in the Navy so got his personal insight and anecdotes from having lived on the ship).
Drive out to the Cabrillo Monument at the tip of Point Loma: On a clear day, you’ll get a beautiful view of the Pacific looking towards Mexico and there’s a lighthouse and tide pools to visit. Fee per car is $10.
Visit the seals at La Jolla Cove: A longtime San Diego favorite, there are usually seals on the beach in La Jolla Cove that can be viewed from above on the cliffs or by walking out on a sea wall (which I wouldn’t recommend with little kids). Sometimes you can go down on the beach to but there’s often a rope in place so people don’t disturb the seals. There's no official site on this (that I'm aware of) but this has some good information and tips.
Take in a baseball game at Petco Park: If you’re a baseball fan (and even if you’re not) Petco Park is right in downtown San Diego and one of the nicest baseball parks I’ve been to. It’s a fun spot to take in a game during baseball season.
Visit the San Diego Zoo: I’m not a huge zoo fan but the San Diego Zoo truly is one of the best in the world and a fun spot for your kids to get to see a wide variety of animals up close and personal. While I’ve never been to the Safari Animal Park in the northern part of San Diego County that’s part of the zoo, I’ve also heard excellent things about it.
Balboa Park: One of the largest urban parks in the country, Balboa Park is filled with museums, attractions, and gardens. There are definitely areas for kids to run around, although it’s so big I have yet to find an actual traditional play structure. We let Jack run along the paths near the museums and over to some grass near where we parked. I’ll caution though that there are lots of hills and some steep terrain in various areas of the park which isn’t always great for little ones. The main area where most of the buildings and museums are is gorgeous. Seriously. The architecture looks like you’re in Spain, not San Diego. Tons of detail and truly beautiful.
Playa Pacifica Park at Mission Bay: When Matt and I lived in San Diego, we used to pick up tacos at the nearby Rubios (the original, before it was a chain) and bring them down here to Mission Bay for dinner. The lengthy park and green space stretches along the water and Jack explored every inch, running for a few miles, checking out play structures, the water, paths, and plants. He went so far I ultimately ran back for our car and drove it to the other end to pick them up!
Liberty Station NTC Park: Across from the aforementioned Liberty Station, there’s a huge stretch of green space, it’s adjacent to a waterway that connects to San Diego Bay and overlooks the airport, great for watching planes take off and land if your little ones are into airplanes.
Coronado Tidelands Park: Coronado is a fun place to take kids. There’s a cute downtown and the gorgeous Hotel del Coronado but much of it is taken up the naval base and beaches are sometimes crowded with people (and dogs on the dog beach). We took Jack to Coronado Tidelands Park, just off the bridge from downtown San Diego and were thrilled with the stop. It’s right on the water with pretty views, has a big expanse of lawn, the usual park accoutrements like bathrooms, and several play structures, including some unique features like a boat that rocks back and forth.
Recommendations to come in the future. We weren’t thrilled with the service at the hotel we chose and I’m opting to leave this empty now rather than recommend something that I didn’t feel was a great option.
The Cottage La Jolla: Our favorite breakfast spot when we lived in La Jolla for blueberry pancakes, we were eager to return and ended up eating breakfast two mornings in a row while we were in San Diego. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating. We opted for indoor the first morning, something that never goes well with Jack and so the next morning opted for a booth(!) on their outdoor patio. The staff was friendly and accommodating to our son and even more so with mama, asking if I wanted a to-go cup for my coffee when we were getting ready to leave. When I popped over to their website, I also discovered they actually have two locations in Massachusetts. While I’ve never been, if they’re anything like their San Diego counterpart, I would definitely recommend them if you’re on the East Coast!
George’s At The Cove: Full disclaimer -- I woudn’t take little ones here (although I don’t think it’s strictly adults only). I had lunch at the restaurant’s beautiful Ocean Terrace (with the most amazing views) several years back with my husband and best friend on my birthday. While I haven’t been back since, it still gets great reviews and from the look of it’s website, still has the same amazing views.
Mendocino Farms: We stumbled across this sandwich and salad spot in a shopping center near our hotel (which also had my beloved Sprinkles Cupcakes!) and ended up getting sandwiches to go for a picnic. Everything was fresh and healthy and the menu has a wide variety of options, which made it tough to pick. Turns out they’re a fairly local chain, with several spots in Los Angeles also.
West Bean Coffee Roasters: I stopped into their stall at Liberty Public Station but it looks like they also have a downtown location, as well as their roasting facility. Good coffee, would definitely go back.
Wicked Maine Lobster: I love a good lobster roll and living on the West Coast, there aren’t many opportunities to eat one so as soon as I saw this spot in Liberty Public Market, I jumped on the chance to grab one and it didn’t disappoint. They sell both Maine-style (cold with mayonnaise) or Connecticut-style (warm with butter) as well as the usual options like clam chowder, and not so usual options like lobster tacos.
Regent’s Pizza: By the end of the each day, Jack was pretty worn out and neither of us felt like taking a toddler into a crowded restaurant. We did a quick search looking for an easy pizza and discovered this spot near our hotel in La Jolla. We opted to take ours back to our hotel but they had a nice eating area and a ton of beers (looked like close to 40!) on tap. The pizza was good and there were several different options.
Bird Rock Coffee: A great independent coffee place in the Bird Rock area of La Jolla. I grabbed coffee their both days and also bought a pound of beans to take home. Love their logo of a little surfer van.
Burger Lounge: This grass-fed burger spot has tons of locations in southern California and looks like they’re expanding to northern as well. We opted for burgers, fries, and shakes from there for our second night’s dinner, when we were looking for another easy take-out option.
Coronado Brewing Company: A fun brewing company that we went to when we lived in San Diego.
Rubio’s Fish Tacos: It’s a widespread chain now but the original is right near Mission Bay and I still love their Fish Taco Especial.
Moniker General: This fun lifestyle store in Liberty Public Station has tons of cool, well-curated items and also a coffee bar in one end.
Westfield UTC: If you’re looking for anything that’s a chain store, this mall will probably have it. It’s an already big outdoor space to begin with but is currently being expanded. I hit it up to grab Jack some emergency socks (we didn’t pack enough!) after a romp through wet grass and ended up popping into Athleta and Warby Parker stores, both ones that I don’t have near me.