Raising kids in San Diego is an absolute treat. With an abundance of sunshine, culture and kid friendly activities the possibility for a fun filled day of adventure is endless. But even with all those options, just like parents everywhere you get stuck in a rut, especially during the summertime.
I don’t know about you but I’m tired of finding the same “kid friendly activities” online. I don’t want to go where you sponsor is paying you to tell me to go; I want someplace new and let’s be real, inexpensive. You can easily spend a small fortune getting a membership to each tourist attraction but having memberships to all of them doesn’t make sense and sometimes you just don’t want to fight the crowds. So how do you break out of the pack and enjoy some new activities with your toddler?
This list is the saving grace for any parent who is tired of their same old routine. Even if you aren’t living in America’s Finest City, most of these adventures can be done anywhere. Enjoy, it’s pretty hard not to.
15 Unique Kid Friendly Activities in San Diego for under $5
1. Ride the trolley
Check out: trolley map and time table
Kids love the trolley. If you have a toddler they take a particular interest in trolleys, which to them is pretty much riding an actual train. The entire process from buying a ticket to waiting for the trolley to actually riding it BLOWS THEIR MIND!
Riding the trolley is the perfect activity for rainy days in San Diego. If you are anything like me, most of our world existing outside and when it rains, we can feel so cooped up. Riding the trolley is a great way to get out and make an adventure of the rainy weather. Also don’t forget that the trolley is air conditioned and a great idea for those super hot summer days. Buy a ticket and ride to the border and back if you have to, your kids will be way happier doing that than roasting trying to nap in a 90 degree house.
Once you are on the trolley there are countless cool places to check out. My toddler’s favorite stops to name a few are:
- Mission Valley library
- Big fountain at Rio Vista
- Fashion Valley
- Old Town
- Waterfront Park
- Children’s Museum and Seaport Village
- New Central Library
2. Ride the bus
Cost: Under $5
Just like the trolley, toddlers are fascinated with the bus. I don’t do this quite as often as it requires a review of time tables and figuring out which lines to take etc. But if your game your kids would get a kick out riding the bus with you to a cool location. At the same time, if you’re taking an elementary aged kid it’s an excellent summer lesson letting them figure out the timetables and which lines to take to get to your final destination.
3. Mission Valley Library
If you aren’t familiar with the Mission Valley library, it’s beautiful, not too big and just like Mission Valley easy to access from anywhere. Located in the center with Costco, Lowes, Ikea and Starbucks there are about ½ a dozen reasons a Mom would need to be there any given day. Running to Costco with the kids? Stop at the library for an hour before and you toddler should be tired out enough to sit in the cart the whole time at Costco without running wild in the aisles.
Here are some of the toddler highlights at the Mission Valley library:
- Children’s Garden – outside there is a completely fenced children’s garden (rock garden). There is a stream and a pond that they can throw rocks, leaves sticks and whatever into. From the garden you can see through the fence to the trolley. The trolley passes by every 15 minutes each direction.
- Reading Room – Cute circular reading room with windows that look out on the garden.
- Storytime – Every day there is a different great FREE kid’s activity – preschool story time, toddler story time, baby sign language, you name it.
- Puzzles and Coloring – at the librarian’s desk
- Computer Stations – right by the coloring and puzzle desks so that you can keep an eye on your older and younger ones at the same time
- If you aren’t already following your location San Diego Library on Facebook, do it now! And Follow the Mission Valley library (Facebook: @sdpl – Mission Valley) to check their monthly calendar right from your phone
- Elevator – Toddlers love elevators. There is located in the South East corner and takes you up to the patio.
- Upstairs Patio – This fully enclosed patio has a sprawling view of Mission Valley and looks directly down on the Fenton Parkway trolley station. If you are riding the trolley to the library your station is a stone’s throw away. If you are stopping in at the Library as you run errands, let your toddler sit up here and watch the trolleys stop and passengers get on a off. There is also a Rugby field across the tracks that when in use, is great fun for little boys to watch.
- If you go on a Tuesday walk over to Luna Grill for lunch where kids eat free every Tuesday.
- Ikea next door has the daycare area and very kid friendly dining upstairs (food is so-so for grown ups fine for kids)
4. Splash in the fountain at Waterfront Park at County Building
See the special events and news: San Diego Waterfront Park
This newly opened park (last year) is such a treat for little ones. Since it’s been around for a year the crowds have dwindled a bit but it can still get crowded.
- The playground is great for older kids but you have to guide younger ones around more.
- The slides are fast and toddlers might be better off sliding down the hill right next to the slide (pants required). This sounds weird but see the picture and you’ll get it once you see all the kids doing it
- Little ones can spend forever climbing on the cat sculpture
- If the fountain next to the playground is packed walk to the other side of the building and there is a whole other side with an identical fountain. This side is generally empty.
- Other side of fountain is also a great solution for toddlers who want to run away to the playground when you have already transitioned everyone into their suits…out of sight, out of mind.
- The snack bar is good enough for snacks but you might as well pack your own lunch. If you end there around dinner call and order in to Burger Lounge Little Italy and then have an adult run up the street to get it while everyone stays and you don’t lose your parking.
- Trains and trolleys to the east, boats and helicopters to the west and planes and cranes to the North….it’s basically a real life I Spy.
- Follow on Facebook (County of San Diego Waterfront Park) to see what events are happening. From World Cup viewing to Hullabaloo concerts there are always some extra reasons to head over there.
5. Play at the New Children’s Museum downtown
Cost: FREE – $5
Get the scope: New Children’s Museum
This downtown museum is the cat’s pajamas. If you have been there a year ago, go back because the installations change. The building is beautiful and the learning is abstract offering such important creative play for kids.
- Located right off the trolley line this is a great trolley adventure stop
- If you don’t want to do the museum just head near it and check out the gardens and picnic in their shaded park across the street
- Avoid the big fountain park as it’s currently a homeless camp and smells like unmentionables.
- Let the kids race the trolley as they pass by in each direction every 15 minutes.
- This is a great jumping off point if you want to head to Seaport Village or downtown.
- There are two swings at the park across the street
- Even if you aren’t going in the museum kid friendly food can be purchased in the café and there is also great kid friendly seating for lunch located inside the museum building. Bringing kids own lunchboxes is totally acceptable too.
- Check out their website because I’ve seen a couple free days. Get there early and be prepared for a line.
6. See the animals at Feather Acres Nursery in Del Mar
Website: Feather Acres Nursery
UPDATE: FEATHER ACRES JUST INFORMED ME THAT THEIR ANIMALS ARE GOING INTO RETIREMENT ON JULY 26, 2015. THE ANIMALS ARE NO LONGER ACCESSIBLE AND THE PICNIC AREA IS GONE. HOWEVER THEY ARE TRANSITIONING INTO A NURSERY SO IF YOUR LITTLE ONE WANTS TO EXPLORE THEIR NURSERY, STILL FEEL FREE TO STOP BY AND THEY WILL WELCOME YOU AND THE KIDS.
If I had to choose just one awesome secret place that no one knows about, it’s Feather Acres. Located on the east side of the 5 from the fairgrounds this charming ranch is tucked in a country neighborhood. It is small and quaint with a few horses, a turkey, a goat, chickens, bunnies and ponies. There is no charge to go but since this nice couple opens up their home and need the money to help feed the animals I strong encourage (dare I say require) that you make a donation or buy a plant.
- You can purchase snacks for the horses there (you cannot bring your own)
- There are no pony rides unless you call ahead to schedule
- Great place for farm themed birthday parties
- There are bunnies in the nursery that kids can pet if they carefully sit down inside the cage
- On busy weekends there is a bunny holding station where kids can sit in chairs and hold the bunnies
- If you are the birthday kid with a party there you get to pick the eggs from the chicken coop. Super big deal to a child.
- Peek a boo ocean views and a nice breeze
- Picnic tables are for parties only
- Saw horses with cute saddles for photo ops
- Very friendly people, treat they well!
There are endless activities in Balboa Park but for my toddlers we have a quick little routine that works well. We start at the big botanical gardens building that basically looks like a giant bird cage. You can walk around and feel transported to Hawaii. We like to sit on a bench and have their morning snack while Mommy gets to catch up on work emails on her phone. Totally enclosed area and plenty to take in that the kids usually sit in silence and check it all out. Right outside the botanical garden is the big reflection pool that pretty much everyone knows about, this is where we feed the ducks. I don’t know if it’s allowed or frowned upon so we do it on the sly with a little toddler snack cup and cheerios. Once you’re done there are countless other things to do in the park so I’ll leave you here.
- Botanical gardens are free
- Botanical gardens open at 10am
- Bring a munchkins snack catcher filled with cheerios for mess free duck feeding
- You can actually drink Champagne on the lawn around the Botanical Buildings and reflection pond…seriously; this fact is such an insider’s secret!
- Head over to Panama 66 if you want to grab and bite or beer (see Top Kid Friendly Restaurant post for more details)
8. Drive out to Cabrillo Monument Lighthouse and Tide Pools
Cost: $5 Per Vehicle (pass is good for 7 days – so go back again and again)
Check out the link for info and directions: Cabrillo National Monument Website
Cabrillo Monument has one of the most breathtaking views of San Diego. Without or without kids, if you haven’t been there it’s a must. There are lots to do once you are in the park so here are the tips.
- Tide pools offer excellent exploring for kids. Watch your toddlers and bring sturdy shoes for them
- Separate parking for tide pools and go at low tide or close to it
- Visitors center has several great places to take in the breathtaking views of San Diego and the bay
- Visitors center has a tiny museum worth a 60 second look
- Plaza at the Cabrillo Status is the best photo op with the downtown backdrop
- Bayside Trail is a beautiful hike where you get to take in that gorgeous San Diego view the whole time. It starts paved and it starts steep but then pretty much levels off. No trouble for a Bob stroller and I would definitely bring some type of carrier if the kids poop out halfway through.
- Gray Whale Migration Viewing is a cool lookout over the ocean (west facing) where in the winter months, if you are lucky, you can see the gray whales migrating south.
- Old lighthouse is fun to walk around with the kids along with the old military bunker on the way to the Gray Whale Viewing.
9. Attended storytime in Coronado and play at Spreckles Park
See all the Coronado Library programs for kids: Coronado Library Programs for kids
Everyone know how gorgeous Coronado is but few people realize how kid friendly it is too. Their library is adorable and boasts one of the best story times in the county. Just look at all the strollers lined up outside and you’ll think for a minute you’ve arrived in NYC or at the dolphin show at Sea World.
- Story time is on both Tuesdays and Fridays at 10:10
- It’s ideal for children up to age 3 but older siblings probably know how to behave and be big helpers
- Walk across the street to Spreckles park for a picnic after
- The park has tons of shade and is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
- Kids loving playing on the gazebo in the center
- Stroll down the street and grab tacos or donuts at Clayton’s Coffee Shop. Their walk up donut, coffee and taco window is located on the side entrance on 10th
10. Ride the ferry across the bay
Cost: $4.75 for adults (children 3 and under are free).
Check out the schedule here: Coronado Ferry Schedule
Take the ferry from Broadway Pier across the bay to Coronado on a quick 15 minute ride that is sure to leave your toddler over the moon with excitement. If you have a bike with a wee rider bring it along for free and then take the island by storm on bike. If you don’t have a bike rent 4 seater one and let the littles in the front to have the time of their life riding.
- First ferry leaves Broadway at 9 am
- They ferry leaves on the hour every hour until 9 pm
- Don’t forget sunscreen!
- Bring a suit for the kids because even if you don’t make it to the beach side
11. Go to Petco and see the animals
This is an activity we do about once a month. It’s great for those days filled with errands and groceries in the car preventing us from taking a leisurely play at the park before naps. Or even for when you have an extra 15 minutes and want something fun to do instead of show up early or entertain your toddlers.
Animals to see:
- Bird cages
- Fish section
- Cats for adoption
12. Drive through the car wash
Talk about killing two birds with one stone! Ever had sick toddlers that aren’t well enough to go out but want to get out, drive through Starbucks and then drive through the car wash. I’ve literally had days with work emails coming in that need my attention and the kids just won’t give me the 5 minutes I need to read and respond. Those are the days I’ve heading up the street to the car wash and buying myself 5 minutes to get my work done and do a mental reset.
- Find a drive through car wash near a drive through Starbucks and you might actually get to drink your coffee warm while checking your Instagram feed.
- Consider exclusively washing your car at a drive through car wash and only when you need that 5 minute break
- We are in a drought in San Diego so if you need a break from your kids and your car is freshly washed I recommend a lollipop bribe to get your those 5 minutes instead.
13. 7-11 for Slurpee’s
Who doesn’t love a Slurpee?! Toddlers love the adventure of heading into a convenience stores, I take my kids to a fair share of grocery stores but there is something about colorful swirling Slurpee’s that come out by pulling a lever that leave kids in awe.
- This is an excellent bribe
- Don’t want your kids running around on a sugar high, just don’t fill the cup up all the way!
- Just the act of picking out the straw color and taking a few sips can be enough to satisfy their intrigue while leaving plenty of this yummy treat for Mommy.
- Sugar free diet be damned, get one for yourself too!
- Free Slurpee’s every July 11th!
14. Tierrasanta Community Pool
Cost: Adults $4 / Children $2
Sometimes the beach with toddlers is just too much for a Momma to do alone. If you don’t have access to your own pool, this is a great alternative. Heck, I even have a community pool and have still gone here because the kids like it so much!
- The pool brochure with detailed information can be found here; Tierrasanta Pool
- Children’s pool is for ages 6 and under
- If your kids are fearless don’t expect a leisurely afternoon on a lounge chair, you’ll be trekking all around still watching them closely. I’ve gone with 2 kids and ended up deciding my own pool is easier to watch them.
- If you have a Sea World membership and your kid like the splash pad, this is the next level and way cheaper, and no one is in captivity.
- Children’s pool Summer hours are Mon-Thurs 11:30am – 3:30 and Fri/Sat/Sun from 12:00pm – 4:00 pm
15. Dog Agility Competition
If your kids love the Pet Show at Sea World, this will be a total hit with them. Then they will be beside themselves watching the Dog Agility shows in Liberty Station. It’s just what it sounds like, dogs going through obstacle courses as fast as they can. What’s not to like!
The owner and animals take the competition very serious! To be perfectly honest about half of them don’t appreciate our pint sized spectators. But with that said, if they are going to do their competition in the middle of Liberty Station there is obviously middle ground. So make sure you follow the protocol and don’t let your kids act as a distraction to the dogs and everyone should be able to live in harmony.
- Check out the schedule here: dogquestagility.com
- Don’t let your kids close to the fence or hang on it
- Try to keep your little ones quiet while the dogs are running the course and being timed. In between that it’s fair game
- Also your toddler will be dying to try to compete with the dogs, definitely don’t turn your back to find them going through it. Some people will laugh and some will give you the stare of death.
The Bottom Line
Having a great time with your toddlers in San Diego doesn’t have to cost you your second born’s college fund! Break out of your usual routine with these fun activities that won’t break the bank while offering your toddler some adventure. Whether you are looking for a long activity to fill your morning before naptime comes or just need a quick fix while you kill time between pickups and drop offs, this will give you plenty of ammunition. I could go on for days with dozens of new ideas but….I need to go out and enjoy some of these for myself.