How to spend one day in La Jolla, California, with kids

All you can do in one day in La Jolla with kids: practical tips for families visiting this stunning and family-friendly California beach town.

When I looked into things to do in SoCal with kids, a visit to La Jolla, San Diego, perched itself very high on my list.

A wealthy part of San Diego, La Jolla seemed to have a lot to offer for a family day out: wonderful coastline, seal spotting opportunities and Dr. Seuss connections all conjured to make me want to go and so one day in summer, we did.

This is how we spent our day in La Jolla with the kids and why I recommend to go visit.  

We liked it so much, we think is it one of the best beach vacation destinations in the USA for families with kids!

Also a fab place if you want to enjoy a winter sun holiday with family.

La Jolla with kids: ocean view
La Jolla, Ca, has great access to water, beautiful views over the ocean and lovely areas for kids to play

Where is La Jolla?

La Jolla is a seaside community within the city of San Diego, at the northern end of the city limit. It is a hilly, coastal area with wonderful views over the Pacific Ocean.

The name la Jolla (pronunciation:  La-hoy-a) is peculiar and indeed, of controversial origin.

Some say that it comes from the Spanish word to mean ‘jewel’, and that would refer to the beauty of its location.

This would explain why many travel articles about this community talk about it as the jewel of Southern California.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the case or at least, not as such, as the word ‘jolla’ happens not to exist in Spanish!

What does exist, however, is the word ‘joya’, which indeed does mean ‘jewel’, so it is possible that Spanish settlers called it la joya and the spelling got slowly corrupted into one with a double L.

Before the arrival of Spanish speakers, the name of the city seems to have been that of Kulaaxuuy: this is a native word meaning ‘land of holes’ and topographers believe may refer to the sea caves in the area. 

Whatever the actual origin of the word may be, both versions pick up on elements of the truth. In terms of topography, the coastline here does have interesting sea caves and rock formations and in terms of settlement, this area did see a strong Spanish influence.

To top it all, La Jolla truly is beautiful so whether the meaning of ‘jewel’ is true or made up, we believe it fits it really well!

How to visit La Jolla with kids – do you need the car?

We visited La Jolla on a  day rip from Carlsbad and we reached it by car.

We found on-street parking to be reasonably easy to find and free, even in the middle of summer: however, this type of parking is time-limited, so make sure you are able to come back to the car swiftly should you choose this option.

If you want more time, you may opt for one of the several parking lots available.  

Depending on what you want to do, having the car in La Jolla can be good or a pain. For what we wanted to do, we quickly realized the car was not needed.

The village part of La Jolla and several of its beaches are easily accessible on foot. 

Restaurants, shops, the so-called children’s pool with the seals, the beach and the Lorax Tree are all beside each other and you can walk from one to the other. 

If you want to venture farther afield such as to the Birch Aquarium you will need the car. The car is also the easiest way to reach this seaside community from pretty much anywhere in the area.

What to do in La Jolla with kids: visit the seals

The first thing we did in La Jolla was looking for its famous seals and sea lions.

I had seen innumerable photos of these furry La Jolla inhabitants sunbathing on the beach but I had also read that they were not as common to spot as they used to be so did not prep the children for their presence, fearing disappointment.

However, contrary to my expectations, the seals were there and in huge numbers!

We first spotted them from the promenade, just a couple catching the sun, and as we got closer, we saw more and more of them, some even with pups!

Sea lions in La Jolla
The famous La Jolla sea lions catch the sun on the sandy Southern California shores!

They were the cutest sight.

La Jolla promenade is higher than sea level and you can spot the seals from above, or you can follow the many tourists venturing on the beach to get up close and personal with them.

Getting close to them can be harmful to the seals and especially if they have pups you should not go near them but they are a wonderful sight even from a bit of a distance. 

The ones we saw were catching the sun, swimming, playing on the sand and not bothered at all by tourists.

We managed to get some good photos of them and they stay as one of our most cherished moments of the holiday and one of your recommended things to do in San Diego with kids.  

Our kids adored the seals and we ended up spending most of the day here.

The only thing that brought us away was the call of hunger, which got us to venture and test out the famous La Jolla food scene. 

Take a break with a child-friendly lunch in La Jolla

When we set off to look for a lunch spot in La Jolla, we quickly realized just how many options exist in this area of San Diego.

This neighborhood simply teems with restaurants and eateries: in the space of a few yards, we saw grills promising amazing cuts of meat, a very tempting pancake house, Hawaiian-inspired child-friendly eateries and amazing food shops. 

The limit here is your budget and the palate of your kids and, in our case, they both conjured to us ending up in Bubba’s smokehouse BBQ.

This choice didn’t make my non-carnivore husband very happy but filled myself and my burger-loving kids with that red meat fix we so wish we didn’t crave but do. 

See the original Lorax Tree 

Our kids love Dr. Seuss’s books in general and the Lorax in particular so there was no doubt that we would go and seek out the Lorax Tree said to be in La Jolla and to have inspired the illustrations of this famous tale.

It turns out, finding the Lorax Tree in La Jolla was super easy: it is right in the center of the promenade and there is very little chance of you missing it if you have Dr. Seuss eyes to see!

The tree that inpsired Dr Seuss The Lorax tree illustrations

The tree lives in Scripps Park, near where Dr. Seuss lived and within view from his window and while it is a Monterey cypress rather than a truffula tree, it is hard not to see where the truffula inspiration came from.

The tree hasn’t got a plaque or any particular sign for marking it but is easy to find and all locals will tell you how to reach if you asked – however, chances are you won’t need to.

Considering how many people were taking photos of it, it is not exactly a well-kept secret!

Our kids thought it was fabulous and got to compare it with the Joshua trees, also Dr Seussian, that they had seen in Joshua Tree National Park

Other things you can do on your day in La Jolla with the kids

Our day in La Jolla with the kids was spent wandering and soaking up the atmosphere of this lovely community. However, there are several children’s attractions and activities in La Jolla you can enjoy.

La Jolla tide pools 

If visiting La Jolla between the end of October and March, children can join local kids going tide pooling.

La Jolla tide pools are famous as they allow you to catch a glimpse of great marine life and they are easy to reach from almost anywhere in town. 

Here you can see sea crabs, sea stars, limpets, fish and much more. This is an easy and free outdoor pastime kids can enjoy over and over again and funnily enough, an activity our kids are very familiar with, thanks to the tide pools back home in Ireland! 

This is a family favorite at home and one activity we do seek out on tidal coastal locations. 

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

For a much more comprehensive glance at marine life, you can bring the children to the Birch Aquarium.

The Birch aquarium is part of the  Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. It hosts over 5000 fish in over 60 habitats and has several interactive installations and activities that teach kids about marine life and oceanographic research.

This is a wonderful place for a day out and also has amazing views over the ocean: a great plus!

Go to a family-friendly beach: La Jolla beaches for kids

Kids who prefer to be in the water rather than learning about it can also enjoy the beautiful La Jolla ocean hands-on.

La Jolla has several beautiful beaches, but not all of them are suitable for kids or inexperienced swimmers as the tide and rift can get very strong here and cause accidents. 

Among the ones we were recommended for families, there are La Jolla Shores, great for sunbathing and splashing (it is one of the best family beaches in San Diego) the water and La Jolla Cove, best for water exploration since it offers access to the marine reserve.

Despite the name, the famous La Jolla children’s pool is now claimed by sea lions rather than kids: so don’t be surprised if the children you see there are baby seals! 

e loved our day in La Jolla with kids and highly encourage you to stop in this seaside community if in the area. Safe travels!

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