One day in San Diego with kids: how to spend a perfect day in the city

Detailed family itinerary to spend one day in San Diego with kids.

When we told our American friends we were looking at Southern California for a summer home swap, they all had one reaction: ‘Go to San Diego! San Diego is the best for kids!’

I hadn’t really considered San Diego as a destination. However, as soon as I started researching the area, it became obvious the city is indeed very family friendly and full of children attractions.

In the end, we found a home swap in the charming seaside town of Carlsbad, just North of San Diego, and spent three wonderful weeks in the area.

One of the places we visited was of course San Diego city: this is how we planned one day in San Diego with the kids.

One day in San Diego with kids:natural history museum entrance with child climbing
San Diego is home to wonderful family friendly museums

One day in San Diego with kids: how to choose what to do

San Diego has many child friendly attractions and spending one day only here means inevitably making some compromises.

In our case, we decided the compromise would be ticketed attractions such as San Diego Zoo and instead we opted for a cultured filled day in San Diego city and a visit to Old Town San Diego followed by time in Balboa Park.

This turned out to be a great way for us to discover San Diego on a budget and meant we did strike a good balance between kid friendly activities and an interesting day for the adults.

For this visit, we decided to use the car.

San Diego is vast and depending what you want to see you may get away with using public transport.

If you plan on following this itinerary for a fun family day in San Diego, however I highly recommend you to drive.  In both the areas we visited the parking was abundant and free.

One day in San Diego family itinerary
Our family itinerary to spend one fun filled family day in San Diego

One day in San Diego with kids morning: Old Town San Diego

The first stop on our family day in San Diego was Old Town San Diego historic park.

Located immediately to the North of San Diego city centre, Old town is an interesting attraction with something for all ages.

The historic park was the site of the first European settlement in California and is dubbed ‘the birthplace’ of California.

Father Junipero Serra built here the first mission in 1769 and this was the first of the 21 missions that ended up dotting the California map (the first one we saw what at the other end of the mission trail, Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma).

Around this mission a small community of Mexican settled and El Pueblo de San Diego was formed. 

Mexican restaurant in Old town San Diego with colorful flags hanging across a yard
The colorful Mexican inspired restaurants in San Diego Old town

The State of California nominated this area State Historic park and now it is a place that mixes history and cultural sites with food joints and shopping opportunities: perfect for families!

How to visit Old Town San Diego

We got to Old town mid morning and left the car just outside the state park. If you are not familiar with the area, it may take a while to find the right exit from the highway, but once you leave the car, the visit is very easy.

The historic park is well signposted from the parking area and entrance is free.

Once in, you are in an old village closed to traffic with large pedestrian streets, lovely historical buildings, restaurants and souvenir shops. 

We visited on a hot and sticky summer morning so the first thing we did was to get into the history of the place to then find refuge in a restaurant.

Learning about old town is fun and easy: the kids can run around freely thanks to the lack of cars and some of the exhibits such as the carts and carriages are a huge draw for them.

The museums have artifacts, old vehicles and a lot of information and it explains the history of the California vaqueros (cowboys) and about the populations and cultures that lived in the area.

Overall, the State park has over 23 historic sites and they go from museums to theaters and even ‘America’s most haunted house’! 

Girl in front of historic carriage and hotel in Old Town San Diego
Living History in Old Town San Diego

We spent a lovely morning wandering aimlessly among the sights and local shops: the place has a wonderful mix of old western vibes and Mexican colors and we took our time sipping cold drinks and having tacos in the wonderfully bright decorated restaurants.

Child friendly lunch in Old Town San Diego

We stopped in a couple of shops to look at the sugar creations and Mexican inspired sweets and eventfully had lunch in a Mexican restaurant on the main street.

Little Ms E decided to have a major meltdown and declared she didn’t like Mexican food (not that she had tried it!) but thankfully we found many non Mexican joints offering a wide variety of foods. 

After placating everyone’s hunger and bad mood, we hopped back onto the car and headed to Balboa Park.

One afternoon in San Diego with kids: Balboa park

Balboa park is San Diego’s most famous park and is absolutely gorgeous. We went there by car and as we drove in, my jaw dropped.

The park is vast, with luscious vegetation and has some stunning buildings now hosting restaurants, theaters and museums. 

Balboa Park main esplanade, perfect location for one day in San Diego children in tow
The impressive esplanade at the entrance of Balboa Park San Diego

We parked the car in one of the designate spaces and started wondering. The place is huge!

What to see in Balboa Park

You can easily spend a full day in Balboa par and this is very much what we did. Or first stop was in the area around the Globe theater and museum buildings.

Here you have several restaurants and cafes if you need some respite from the heath and some of the park most famous museums.

Balboa park has no less than 17 museums (!) and some of them are of great interest to children such as the Museum of Man, the Natural History Museum and the Model Railroad Museum and it is also hone to one of the biggest children attractions in the city: San Diego Zoo!

As mentioned above, we decided not to visit the zoo this time but the park kept us entertained for a long time.

We had snacks, played with a street performer who though the kids how to blow massive soap bubbles, went to the playground (there is a handy map with playground locations in the park) and in the end went for dinner, all in Balboa.

Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture in San Diego
Balboa Park has some wonderful sculptures kids can climb onto!

The end of a perfect day in San Diego with kids: dinner and theater

To finish our day, we also did something truly special which was seeing a show at the Globe.

They had a performance of The Lorax and it was simply magical. The Globe is a wonderful theater and very well served by surrounding shops and restaurants.

There was no better way to finish our culture filled day in San Diego with kids. if you can stay until late in the evening, I highly recommend checking their program. 

I hope this post helped you decide what to do with one day in San Diego with kids and has encouraged to explore this beautiful city. Safe travels!

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