Fun things to do in Southern California with kids (that are not theme parks) on your first visit

Handpickes list of the best thigns to do in Southern California with kids on vacation

Southern California has been our family vacation destination for the last 4 years. Friends laugh at us: what there is to do in Southern California with kids that is so special you fly 10 hours each time to get there? 

The question is fair but the answer surprises many who associate Southern California with beach, sun, Disney and nothing else.

To us, Southern California is made of sea and sun (and juices, and amazing food, and a relaxed lifestyle) but it is also made of wonderful landscapes, learning opportunities and great outdoor adventures. 

This is our selection of our favorite things to do in Southern California on a summer vacation that are not theme parks.

Please note: this post contains affiliate links and, should you make a purchase through them, we might make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

What there is to do in Southern California with kids? 

Southern California stretches for hundreds of miles between the USA border with Mexico and Central California (North of LA).

It comprises one of the most famous coastal drives in the world, the Pacific Coast Highway, cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles, deserts and state parks as well as world famous family attractions such as Disneyland, Sea World, Legoland and San Diego Zoo just to name a few. 

Making a list of all there is to do in Southern California for families would make little sense and would be of little use.

Instead, I listed the reasons why we keep going to Southern California and the things I think make the most sense for first time visitors to seek out. 

Visit family friendly San Diego

San Diego is a very family friendly city and the place most locals recommended to us when they heard we were bringing the kids to SoCal. Indeed, enjoying San Diego as a family is super easy. 

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

If you love the beach, San Diego has some absolutely stunning ones offering opportunities to go tide pooling, swimming, surfing or even kayaking/paddle boarding.

For more cultural pastimes, San Diego has amazing museums, many interesting for children as well as adults such as the incredible USS Midway museum (it is a US aircraft carrier and it is incredible to visit), the many museums in Balboa Park (in the photo) Old town San Diego Historical Park, known as the birthplace of California. 

We spent 3 weeks in the San Diego area with kids and we got the feeling we could have easily spent 3 years and not get sick of it! If you are looking for a family-friendly place in Southern California, San Diego is the one!

Check out Dr Seuss’ La Jolla 

La Jolla is part of San Diego but I devote a separate paragraph to it because it is peculiar enough to deserve a specific visit, may it be a leisurely morning or a sunset-filled evening.

Friendly La Holla seals sunbathing on the beach
The famous La Jolla seals and sea lions

This is a wealthy, beautiful part of town and I recommend visiting with family for several reasons.

The first is nature: La Jolla is a hilly, seaside community with a stunning coastline offering opportunities to go tide pooling, swimming and get close and personal with seals!

La Jolla seals bathe and catch the sun on the town beach and they are cute and super friendly.

They reside on the beach just in front of the town center and you can see them from the promenade or follow the tail of tourists that (illegally) go onto the beach and take close-up shots of these furry La Jolla inhabitants.

Seeing the seals even just from the promenade is a treat for kids and adults alike and alone a reason to get La Jolla on your destination list for a family trip to southern California!

As well as nature, La Jolla has an important children connection: Dr Seuss made this town his home.

You can find memories of him in several locations: The Geisel Library holds the world’s largest collection of his work, the Legends gallery holds his artwork and the promenade holds the Lorax Tree – let your kids decide if it is the real one or not: ours spent ages debating the matter!

You can read all about our day in La Jolla with the kids here

Enjoy beautiful laid back Carlsbad  

Carlsbad is known to families as the home of Legoland California but is a great all around place for families.

This is a small coastal town, beautiful and relaxed and it has not just the theme park but lovely beaches for bathing and surfing (this is where our kids took their first surfing lesson!), nice family-friendly restaurants and, in spring, the famous flower fields

Carlsbad California, Carlsbad Village
beautiful Carslbad and its laid back charm

Carlsbad was our home base during our last holiday and we got to know it really well over 3 weeks or so and we find it one of the best beach vacation destinations in the States for families!

It is our favorite place in the area and one we would love to go back to one day so we highly recommend at least a stop here when visiting Southern California with kids.

Carlsbad is very well served but has a wonderful laid back charm that makes you want to stroll, take in the view and read books.

The town has a surprising amount of bookshops and a library and there is something about it that makes you want to sit in the shade of one of its blooming trees and immerse yourself in literature! You can find our guide to planning a vacation to Carlsbad with kids here

Learn history in the Southern California Missions

Southern California may not spark images of cultural explorations but is a great place to learn history if you take the time to look for it.

The history of Southern California is intertwined with that of Spain and Mexico and a great way to learn how complex and interesting the political and cultural relations were in this area is to go and visit the California missions. 

The missions are not just a reality of SoCal but of Northern California too (if you follow us, you may remember when we visited the one in Sonoma, at the opposite end of the Camino Real) but this area is rich with them.

Whitewashed walls and bricks in Mission St Luis Rey, Oceanside, CA
The colonial architecture of Mission St Luis Rey, Oceanside, Southern California

Some are still now in use as parish churches, like the one in Oceanside, while others are museum: however, they all have at least some area open to visitors and explanations of their history 

Become a junior ranger in  Joshua Tree National Park

My favorite place in the whole of Southern California and the one I recommend everyone to visit at any age and in any season is Joshua Tree National Park.

Boulders and Yuccas in Joshua tree National Park California
Boulders and Yuccas in Joshua tree National Park California

Located at the meeting point between two desert systems, Joshua Tree is incredible and alone a reason to visit this part of the work, at any age. 

If you think of Southern California as the land of Disney, Joshua Tree will be the place to show there is much else in this wonderful state.

You can visit the park in as little as one day and, with kids, it will be a fantastic opportunity to learn about an environment they may not be familiar with and get involved in nature conservation by joining the fun and informative junior ranger program.

You can learn more about why and how to prepare for a trip to Joshua tree with kids in our article here

Chill out and play in gorgeous Hermosa Beach

If you want your Southern California family vacation to have a relaxed beach vibe but also the option of tapping into all LA has to offer, then you simply must have Hermosa Beach as your base!

We were lucky to call this gorgeous beach-town home for the summer and love every inch of its golden beach, stunning ocean, delicious restaurants and kid-friendly vibe (it has a fabulous playground!).

You can easily spend weeks here and visit LA like a local. You can see more about what we loved at Hermosa beach here.

See the show that is Venice beach boardwalk

If you travel to show your kids (and yourself) how varied humanity can be, then you will be hard pressed finding a better place for people watching than the Venice beach boardwalk in Los Angeles.

Venice beach is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is so unique it is an experience itself: here, rollerbladers and cyclists mix with street performers of huge and not quite as huge talent, tattoo parlors, smoke shops and seaside cafes.

It is the opposite of the refined and sanitized version of humanity you have in outlets and shopping malls and it is both amazing and overwhelming.

We loved visiting it as much as we loved escaping it in the nearby hipster and overpriced eateries of Abbot Kinney Boulevard (guilty as charged: I love sanitized and hipster as much as I love mad!). 

While not quintessentially family friendly, a visit to Venice LA can be a fantastic fun thing to do in so cal with kids. 

Read exactly what to expect when visiting Venice boardwalk with kids and see if it may be for you in our article here

Explore the family friendly side of Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a world and a great one to visit with kids.

Here you can explore downtown LA and its interesting street art, enjoy its amazing museums (the Getty Center, LACMA and La Brea Tar Pits just to name a couple are incredible), learn about space in Griffith observatory and of course learn about the movie industry with a visit to Hollywood and its studios. 

Kids looking at Los Angeles view from the Getty Centre terrace
Looking at LA from the heights of the Getty Center

Most of all you can explore the city and its many areas taking in the different vibes, plus play a ticking-off-game of ‘what do you recognize from TV?’.

From Old Hollywood to Baywatch and Sing, in Los Angeles, you will feel that very peculiar feeling of being in a new place that you already know and the special privilege of putting reality behind locations the silver screen has made iconic and familiar.

You can find all our favorite things to do in Los Angeles with kids here

Play and relax in Santa Monica

One of our favorite family-friendly hang out in the LA area in Santa Monica, an independent city on the LA coast. Unlike many other parts of Los Angeles, Santa Monica is pedestrian-friendly and you can enjoy it mostly without a car.

Restaurants, shops, the fun Santa Monica pier and the gorgeous Santa Monica beach are all walking distance from each other and great fun for kids. 

You can read all you can do while visiting Santa Monica with the children in our visitors’ guide here

Lifeguard station on Santa Monica beach
Sandy Santa Monica beach and its TV friendly lifeguard posts!

Get sporty surfing and hiking

As well as sightseeing and beach bathing, Southern California is great if you love the outdoors.

The beach and surfing are the first activities that come to mind for many but hiking is also a huge pastime for locals and one worth pursuing.

You know those famous Hollywood hills? Movies and beautiful mansions aside, they are home to great hikes, many family-friendly. 

Farther afield you can also discover the desert and, in winter, even go skiing! One more reason to go to this part of the work with kids: you have so much on your doorstep!

Drive Highway 1

I am going to finish this list with Highway one, the stunning drive that follows the whole of the California coast from its Southern tip in San Diego all the way to San Francisco. 

view from highway 1 California

Highway one is one of the most famous drives in the world and one that is generous of viewpoints and breathtaking sights pretty much no matter where along the road you are.

We drove it with the kids in two days but had the chance to drive parts of it in its Southern (and Northern) stretches more than once.

The Southern part of the drive is mostly flat and allows easy access to the ocean and the beach, should you feel like a dip while driving: with the kids, one of your favorite places was Laguna, home of sandy Victoria beach and the impressive Laguna pirate tower!

The wildest and most scenic parts of highway one are along the central coast and Big Sur but even in Southern California you have good reasons to linger on this road.

Take your time to stop in the many villages and towns on the way, get a feel for the different styles of Encinitas, Del Mar, La Jolla beach and play the game of ‘where would I live if I could afford a home in Southern California’?

Four years in, we are unable to answer this question: we love it all too much!

I hope you found this overview useful and it helped answer the question: what are some fun things to do in Southern California with kids, beside the theme parks?

Loved this post? Share it or pin it for later!