San Diego is one of my most favorite cities in California. It is neat, sunny, beautiful and has an abundance of family friendly attractions. Not surprisingly, we visited Sand Diego 3 times in the past 3 years. A million websites can provide you information about vacation in this city so how is my San Diego family road trip itinerary different? It focuses for the most part on one particular area of San Diego and covers it in depth. That area is so compact that you can easily explore it with kids on foot and yet have tons of fun for about a week.
But let’s step back for a moment. First, you need to get to San Diego. If you plan to fly, then you may skip the next 2 paragraphs of this road trip itinerary. If you, like me, live in San Francisco Bay Area or anywhere South from there you may think about driving. It is a long journey and I hesitate to give you any time estimates because once you get to Los Angeles you may get stuck there for hours. They have a joke down there: ” Why HW 405 is named “405”? Because you can get stuck on it for 4 or 5 hours”. And you will have to drive on it, unfortunately, so you need a perfect strategy.
With or without HW 405 I always strongly suggest to break such lengthy trip in two parts. We usually break our trips South in Bakersfield, CA. I will refer you to my earlier post about our road trip itinerary to Palm Springs for recommendations about hotel, dinner and things to do in Bakersfield. Your drive to Bakersfield will be about 4.5 hours and it should be a breeze unless a major car accident happens on HW 5. What you should be concerned about is your trip from there onward. The best way to avoid LA traffic is to drive through it early morning on a weekend, preferably, before 9 am. Bakersfield is about 2 hours from LA so plan to take off around 7 am and may good fortune be with you.
Eventually, whether on a plane or in a car, you will get to San Diego and that’s where fun begins. It happened so that every time we went to San Diego we had to stay at Manchester Grand Hyatt because either me or my husband had a conference there. It is a great hotel in a perfect location. It may be on an expensive side, especially in summer, (however, if you drive you save money on airplane tickets) BUT it has a lot of special activities for kids in June-August. For example, free outdoor movie nights next to the roof top pool with free popcorn, cookie decorating (also free), free outdoor games area next to the pool etc. When you check in just ask a concierge to give you a printout of the kids program for that week.
If Grand Hyatt (two big buildings on the right in the photo above) is a bit over your budget, I still suggest finding lodging in the vicinity because this is the area we will be exploring. You may want to check VRBO for affordable condo options as well.
Day 1 San Diego family road trip itinerary. One of the biggest attractions of the area, USS Midway, is located just half a mile from the Hyatt. It is a huge aircraft carrier turned into a museum which you can spend the whole day exploring. There are many decks to visit, things to try and learn. Don’t miss jet fighter simulation experience – my boys said it was a blast (but don’t forget to take everything out of your pockets beforehand – you are out for a wild ride!). Your admission is for the whole day so you can go in the morning, leave for lunch (there are a lot of dining options next to Hyatt, specifically in the Seaport Village, which I will talk about later) and then return in the afternoon.
Day 2 San Diego family road trip itinerary. If you walk another half a mile or so past USS Midway on Harbor Drive you will get to Maritime Museum of San Diego. It has many different ships you can visit, from a famous sail ship, Star of India, to a Russian submarine.
We had a lot of fun with the boys there and the best surprise is located across the street from the Maritime Museum – it is called Waterfront Park. It has a huge playground with an enormous water play area open in summer. In all honesty, that water play area is a Saving Grace on hot days and that’s the place my boys wanted to go to every day (and it is absolutely FREE). Note, though, the water play area was not open every single day, every time when we there. I suggest you call park administration for the schedule before going (there is a phone listed on the park website – see park link above).
Day 3 San Diego family road trip itinerary. This day we will walk half a mile in the opposite direction from the hotel to the New Children’s Museum. It is a fantastic place for kids of all ages. There is an area specifically designated for toddlers, there are huge climbing structures for older kids and everything in between. The museum also has several great creative studios. I couldn’t drag my kids away from the clay studio and the best part – you can take your creations home!
You can easily spend half a day or more at the Children’s Museum and during the time you have left for this day I suggest you explore the Seaport Village adjacent to Grand Hyatt. It is a tourist village on the waterfront full of gift shops, restaurants and cafes for all tastes and budgets. On weekends you will see artists there offering activities for kids like balloon twisting, face painting, caricature drawing, etc. (for additional charge). It is a great place for relaxing, strolling along the boardwalk, eating cookies or ice cream as well as people and yacht watching. We always went for lunch to Seaport Village since there are so many tasty options.
Day 4 San Diego family road trip itinerary. Today we will take a short ride on a city trolley to Old Town San Diego. The trolley station is right across the street from Hyatt. You will need to take Green line and ride 5 stops to Santee (~ 10 minutes). Kids will love the ride itself because it is like traveling on a train and you won’t get stuck in traffic jams as the trolley rides on it own rail track.
I believe everybody has to go to Old Town Sand Diego at least once because it is considered to be the “birthplace” of California and it is a great educational opportunity. Currently it is a state historic park and the entrance is FREE. You can visit many historic exhibits here, like fine abode hacienda, blacksmith’s shop, old school house, Mexican quarter and much more. The Park has several restaurants on site, mostly Mexican, some of them with live entertainment at certain times of the day.
Once you come back from Old Town you can re-visit Waterfront Park (kids will thank you for that) or if you want to do something different and check out a United Artists movie theater at Horton Plaza, less than a mile from Hyatt. There are a lot of kids movies showing during summer. When we were there they have just released “Finding Dory” and San Diego was a perfect place to watch it.
Day 5 San Diego family road trip itinerary. You can’t go to San Diego and not visit the zoo. No matter what’s the itinerary, each time we come to San Diego I would go to the zoo. That’s the only place you will need a car to get to but it is totally worth the additional cost – San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the world. I love it because you can see animals there that are rarely seen anywhere else, like koalas and pandas. I love the layout of it: lots of space for animals and lots of shade for people. I love their 4D experiences, kids play areas and performances. San Diego Zoo makes me feel happy on many levels. Did I already mention that I am in love with this place? You can easily spend a whole day there, may be even more.
Day 6 San Diego family road trip itinerary. That’s the end of this itinerary in San Diego proper, but not the end of our trip. You will be driving back North through LA traffic today so take a few deep breaths, think relaxing thoughts and try to accept the inevitable with grace. The good news is that you won’t be driving too far, just to Simi Valley. Why Simi Valley? Because we will be visiting a cool attraction there the next day. While you drive, think positive thoughts, like the fact that you will be soon arriving to Best Western Posada Royal where a beautiful setting, a pool with hot tub and a FREE wine reception is awaiting for you in the evening and a scrumptious breakfast in the morning.
Day 7 San Diego family road trip itinerary. Today I am going to take you for a visit to Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. It is an excellent educational opportunity for kids and adults alike and the coolest parts of it are the Oval Office (exactly like Reagan had it, with all his furnishings and little trinkets) and Air Force One. And yes, you can get on board the Air Force One airplane!! The museum also hosts some phenomenal changing special expositions: when we were there it had a huge exhibition of Vatican relics and currently as I write this post they are hosting an exhibition about Genghis Khan. This place is really a unique so I prepared a separate post about it where you can read in much more detail about it: please, follow this link to Simi Valley and Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Family Road Trip Guru.
Once you are done and heading home, I suggest you return via HW 101, it is so much prettier than HW 5. And if you need a opportunity to get out of the car and stretch you legs, you can stop at one of the great budget and family friendly wineries in Paso Robles (this is a link to our previous trip through Paso Robles which mentions 2 fantastic family friendly wineries, on eat the beginning and one at the end)
- When you go to Children’s Museum avoid Children’s Park across the strees. It does not belong to the museum, it is a city park. It looks like a beautiful place on the map but unfortunately most of the time it is occupied by shady characters.
- If you are in San Diego during the peak of grey whales migration January-March, I suggest you take one of the whale watching tours departing from a pier next to USS Midway. In my experience waters around San Diego are calm, the tour ships are big and you do see a fair amount of whales.
This is just my initial San Diego family road trip itinerary. There will be more since there is so much more to see and do in this beautiful city. If you found this family road trip itinerary useful, please do me a little favor and share this information with others, for there’s a good chance that it will help them with their travel plans. 🙂