All Articles Family-friendly Spring Break in San Diego

Family-friendly Spring Break in San Diego

Christine Sarkis
By Christine SarkisApr 25, 2024 6 minutes read
Outdoor pool and deck next to ocean
Pacific Terrace Hotel

For families heading into spring break, San Diego is a beacon of light, with no beam shining brighter than the San Diego Zoo and its satellite Safari Park. Wildlife care specialist Marco Wendt grew up in nearby Escondido and got a summer job at the zoo when he was 16. Today, he’s the zoo’s Wildlife Ambassador.

“When I think about spring in San Diego, I think about the smell of sage and flowers,” he says. For local Southern Californians especially, spring is the perfect reminder of “how unique and special our ecosystem is.”

Wendt wearing green button-up shirt and standing outside
Marco Wendt

The zoo and safari park allow visitors to connect with the season through “beautiful blooms, butterflies, and a lot of animal births.” Plus, tickets help fund conservation projects around the globe. “Just by being here, you’re helping animals around the world,” says Wendt.

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But San Diego’s charm extends beyond the zoo. It’s the ultimate family spring break destination because it’s got something going on for every interest, from beach bums to history buffs to animal lovers and budding naturalists big and small. Here’s where to go, eat, and sleep on a spring getaway.

Christine Sarkis, SoCal’s Senior WeekEnder Guide

Editor’s Note: Stay up to date on weather alerts.

Things to do

Family friendly activities to make the most of spring.

Four teenage-aged children walking on rope bridge attached to tree
San Diego Zoo

For a bucket-list zoo experience, San Diego Zoo

Pretty much universally considered one of the world’s best zoos, San Diego Zoo is a massive 100 acres and has over 600 species of animals. If that sounds overwhelming, Wendt has some advice. “Number one: Visit the website.” By learning about the options before you go, you can make a plan with the fam that includes everyone’s must-see animals. Wendt also suggests families check out the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, a three-acre nature play area with everything from rope bridges to a two-story greenhouse full of butterflies and other invertebrates.

For museums, gardens, and room to roam, Balboa Park

While the San Diego Zoo is inside Balboa Park, it’s not the only reason to visit this 1,200-acre urban park. Balboa Park is packed—really packed—with things to do. You’ll find gardens, playgrounds, trails, and more than a dozen museums and centers. This includes the Natural History Museum, the Model Railroad Museum, the Air and Space Museum, multiple art museums, and the Museum of Us, dedicated to cultural anthropology. This is a long way of saying: definitely go to Balboa Park for the zoo, but come back for everything else.

Left: Ornate stone building with arched walkway; Right: View overlooking sandy beach
Balboa Park (L), La Jolla Shores Park (R)

For hikes, picnics, and wildlife spotting, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Discover more of San Diego’s wild side at this 1,750-acre park dedicated to preserving the native pine forests and sandstone canyons. With eight miles of trails, you can really choose your own adventure. For an easy intro to the park that includes ocean views, close-ups of Torrey pines (the country’s rarest pine tree), and springtime wildflowers, head out on the 0.7-mile Guy Fleming Trail loop.

For a kid-friendly beach day, La Jolla Shores Park

Small waves and a gentle slope make the sandy stretch of La Jolla Shores a perfect spot for kids of all ages, including younger kiddos. There’s plenty of shallow water for splashing and sandcastle-making, and you’ll also see slightly older kids out in the water learning the basics of body boarding and surfing. Behind the beach is a big park with plenty of grass, perfect for a picnic.

For even more wildlife, San Diego Zoo Safari Park

No, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park isn’t in San Diego proper, but if you’re coming from the north anyway, just depart early, enjoy a day at the park, and get to San Diego by check-in. With 1,800 acres and plenty of free-range enclosures, the park offers a safari-like experience for seeing giraffes, rinos, cheetahs, tigers, and more. Wendt’s tip? Don’t miss the butterflies and keep on the lookout for animal births (especially on the safaris).

Where to eat and drink

Delicious, easy-peasy options for traveling with kids.

Dumplings that look like cows and chicks, plus edamame and bao buns
Harumama Noodles and Bun

For a fun and messy meal, Crab Hut

Bibs aren’t just for babies at Crab Hut, and kids find that hilarious. But you’re not just here because your kids are going to laugh at you as you suit up to take on a Louisiana seafood boil. Adventurous eaters can dig into a boil (or a bucket) of crawfish, shrimp, or other seafood. For picky eaters, there’s tamer fare like chicken tenders or mac and cheese.

For a dinner your kids will talk about for months, Kura Revolving Sushi Bar

If there’s one thing I know about kids, it’s that if you take them to a restaurant where plates of food come to you on a moving surface, they will have a good time. If there’s one thing I know about adults, it’s that they like sushi. Choose from nigiri, classic rolls, or Temaki-style hand rolls, or order udon or ramen with fam-fave sides like gyoza, tempura, and teriyaki chicken.

Left: Two kids, with one eating crab legs; Right: Tent-covered table and chandelier
Crab Hut (L), One Door North (R)

For pasta lovers young and old, Cesarina

Pasta is funny because it’s both a fussy-eater's dream and a culinary art form, which makes it perfect for families. It’s also what makes Cesarina easy to love. This Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant (read: affordable and amazing), honors “the Italian matriarchy” with handmade pastas and regional specialties like pappardelle al cinghiale. The shockingly affordable kids’ menu gives kids the choice of pasta shape and sauce. It’s also vegetarian and vegan friendly, and just generally pretty friendly.

For camping inspired food and decor, One Door North

Imagine a chef and an interior designer invite you camping—that’s the vibe at One Door North. Tree-lined wallpaper and antler chandeliers give the place a woodsy feel. Book a table in a tent for maximum roughing-it-but-not-really energy, and dig into camp-inspired dishes like cast-iron half chicken, stone baked flatbreads, and s’mores platters. Bonus: Ingredients are sourced locally, seasonally, and sustainably.

For the cutest buns in town, Harumama Noodles and Buns

Yes, the hand-decorated buns are adorable and kids and kawaii-loving adults are definitely going to lose their minds over them. But Harumama isn’t just for show, it’s also delicious. The character bun lineup is as follows: chicken, cow, and pig for savories, all decorated like the cutest version of the animal. And for sweet buns: bunny (nutella), koala (strawberries and cream), and unicorn (ube, obvi). The San Diego location of this mini-chain is in Little Italy, but there are other outposts in spots like La Jolla and Carlsbad.

Places to stay

Great options at a variety of price points around town.

Two kids jumping into outdoor swimming pool
Kings Inn

For beachside bliss, Pacific Terrace Hotel

The Pacific Terrace Hotel is a real Goldilocks find: It’s not too big and not too small and has everything you need for a great family beachside stay–including an oceanfront heated pool and easy beach access, plus beach chairs, towels, umbrellas, and boogie boards for you to borrow. Rooms are big and comfortable, and many include pull-out sofas for added sleeping space. Oh, and freshly baked cookies in the afternoon literally sweeten the deal.

For an affordable retro motel, Kings Inn

Kings Inn balances a 1960s retro motor lodge vibe with modern comfort and style. Think bright, colorblocked sun umbrellas around a groovy jelly bean-shaped pool, but also crisp white duvet covers on big comfortable beds and moody surfing photographs on the walls. Prices are comparatively low, though the family-run motel does charge for parking. Pro tip: Some rooms get freeway noise, so request a room facing away from Highway 8.

Left: Exterior of street lined with buildings; Right: Living space with couch and dining table overlooking water
The Westin (L), Loews Coronado Bay Resort (R)

For a Gaslamp Quarter homebase, The Westin

If you want to be within walking distance of all the action, this is your spot. Solidly in downtown San Diego, The Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter is close to Petco Park, Little Italy, and of course the restaurant-and-bar-filled Gaslamp Quarter. Famously comfortable beds, a rooftop pool, and views of the surrounding city combine to make a San Diego getaway feel comfortably cosmopolitan.

For a new family tradition, Loews Coronado Bay Resort

The island of Coronado in the San Diego Bay has been welcoming weekenders for well over a century, and Loews keeps the party going with resort amenities and the feeling that you’re a thousand miles away (even though you’re only about a 20-minute drive from downtown). Bask by one of the three pools, head to the beach (Silver Strand Beach is a short walk away), join a group exercise class, or rent bikes, kayaks, or jet skis. Loews has a great lending program for families with gear like pack ‘n’ plays, bottle warmers, kids’ books, and toys.

For stays near other top family attractions, Bandy Canyon Ranch or LEGOLAND California Hotel

Not all of San Diego’s top family attractions are in San Diego. For instance, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is about 40 minutes northeast in Escondido, and LEGOLAND California is 45 minutes northwest in Carlsbad. For a great (and thematic) stay near the Safari Park, Bandy Canyon Ranch is a 104-acre property dotted with cute cabins and anchored by a gorgeous pool (with cabanas to rent). It also has an on-property animal sanctuary you can visit. Over at LEGOLAND, you can’t get closer than the LEGO palace that is LEGOLAND California Hotel. Here, you get LEGO-themed rooms with separate sleeping areas for kids and nightly family entertainment.

Christine Sarkis
Christine Sarkis is a travel writer and parent. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, SmarterTravel, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine.