13 Free Things to Do in San Diego with Kids

Looking for free things to do in San Diego with your kids? Our guide to the best free attractions and activities will help you plan a budget-friendly trip.
Todd Sarouhan
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Free Activities for Kids in San Diego

Kids Spoting Something at Mission Trails Regional ParkSunset at the Koi Pond at Westfield UTC Mall

San Diego is a favorite destination for family vacations and weekend getaways. If you’re planning on visiting with the whole family in tow, you might be worried about how much you’ll have to spend to ensure your trip is a success.

Luckily, it’s easy to have a great time in San Diego with your kids without spending a fortune. In fact, there are plenty of cheap and even completely free things to do in each of its diverse neighborhoods, from the sandy shores of Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach to the culture and history of Balboa Park and Old Town San Diego.

Many of the activities that make our list of the Best Things to Do in San Diego With Kids are free. These activities include adventuring to San Diego’s scenic outdoor vistas, having fun at public playgrounds, spending the day at free beaches, and learning about local history. You can even visit a famous attraction or theme park like LEGOLAND California, SeaWorld San Diego, or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for affordable rates with a Go City San Diego pass. If you use our exclusive discount code, GVSD5OFF, you can save even more!

Todd embraces his inner seafaring spirit in this tour of Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa right on Mission Bay in Mission Beach. This 4-star Polynesian themed resort exudes relaxation from its spa treatments to its koi ponds and its bayfront location.

Stay at the Catamaran Resort Hotel & Spa

The 13 Best Attractions and Activities in San Diego with Kids

Kid-friendly attractions can be found all across San Diego County. Save money when you take the family to these free activities that highlight the best of what San Diego has to offer.

Boardwalk Bridge in Sail Bay
Boardwalk Bridge in Sail Bay

1) Biking All Around Mission Bay

Neighborhood: Mission Bay Park

If you were to picture San Diego’s gorgeous coasts in your head, chances are your mental image would look a lot like the reality of Mission Bay Park. This aquatic park has all the sun and surf required for any San Diego vacation or day trip, with some beaches dedicated to full relaxation and others well suited for fun water sports.

Better yet, Mission Bay is an ideal backdrop for a walk or bike along its expansive boardwalk. Snap plenty of commemorative pictures as you bike around the bay, and cool off in the ocean when you work up a sweat. Biking is a family-friendly activity that’s great for encouraging kids to stay active and explore their surroundings, while also cultivating a love of the natural beauty on full display at Mission Bay Park.

Turn your trip into a full-on adventure as you traverse the trails and boardwalks. You can also play a few rounds of beach volleyball on one of the public courts, or stop for a picnic lunch at a scenic bay park. Stick around after the sun goes down for beach bonfires, moonlit strolls along the shore, and other cozy outdoor activities.

Kids Looking at the Tide Pools at the La Jolla Tide Pools
Kids Looking at the Tide Pools at the La Jolla Tide Pools

2) Search the Tide Pools at La Jolla Tide Pools & Marine Street Beach

Beach: La Jolla Tide Pools

There are plenty of ways to watch and learn about underwater plants and animals in San Diego. Many families visit attractions like SeaWorld San Diego and the Birch Aquariums at Scripps, both of which are cheap options when you grab a Go City San Diego pass. If you’re looking for a free way to get a glimpse of San Diego’s native sea life, however, head to La Jolla during low tide to check out the tide pools.

Hunting for tide pools is one of the Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids because it’s both entertaining and educational. As the tide goes out, pools of water form on certain beaches, catching the aquatic life before it can be swept back out to sea. Tide pools contain all sorts of creatures, including sea urchins, crabs, mussels, and the occasional octopus.

Some of the best tide pools in the city can be found at La Jolla Tide Pools and Marine Street Beach, as these coastlines have uneven dips perfect for tide pool formation. Just be sure to check the tide schedule prior to your visit!

Bike Riders Enjoying the Boardwalk at Coronado Central Beach
Bike Riders Enjoying the Boardwalk at Coronado Central Beach

3) Free Water and Beach Things to Do in San Diego with Kids at Coronado Central Beach

Beach: Coronado Central Beach

The famous Coronado Central Beach in Coronado Island is a must-visit for any family seeking fun in the sun. Coronado Central Beach is especially kid-friendly as it’s very flat and sandy with plenty of space for kids of all ages to play. It also has a friendly and laid back vibe that’s as welcoming to the average San Diegan as it is to tourists and first time visitors.

Many of the best activities at this beach are completely free. Take the kids for a walk along the shore, make sandcastles or unique sand sculptures, spend some time sunbathing or reading under an umbrella, and cool off in the calm ocean waters. Be sure to comb the beach for shells and snap a few pictures in front of the water, both of which make for great free souvenirs!

Don’t forget to stop at the nearby MooTime Creamery for a sweet treat during your trip to the beach! This ice cream shop is part of the historic Hotel del Coronado. Sample seasonal recipes or time-honored favorites made from scratch.

Looking North at Coronado Shores Beach
Looking North at Coronado Shores Beach

4) Go See a Sunken Ship at Coronado Shores Beach

Beach: Coronado Shores Beach (South Beach)

A trip to the beach is never out of place during a vacation to San Diego. Coronado Shores Beach is no exception to this rule, though it’s better known by its local nicknames, these being either South Beach or Shipwreck Beach.

Coronado Shores Beach offers visitors all the typical features you’d expect to find at a beach, including breathtaking Pacific Ocean views, golden sands, and gentle waves that are suitable for swimmers of all ages and skill levels. You can’t go wrong sunbathing or strolling at this beach, but the hidden secret of Coronado Shores is what makes it one of the Best Things to Do in San Diego With Kids.

As you might have guessed from the nickname Shipwreck Beach, Coronado Shores Beach is home to a real shipwreck that dates back to the late 1930s. Once part of the illicit Gambling Ships Row, the SS Monte Carlo drifted ashore almost 100 years ago, and it remains there to this day. The shipwreck is typically visible during low tide, and many visitors love snapping a few pictures of this local landmark.

Young Lady Posing at the Fountain at the Prado in Balboa Park
Young Lady Posing at the Fountain at the Prado in Balboa Park

5) Find Free Cultural and Historical Activities in San Diego for Kids with Kids Free in San Diego in October

Neighborhood: Balboa Park

October is the best month to find free and cheap things to do with your kids in San Diego. This is thanks to Kids Free San Diego, which happens every October. During this time of year, San Diego becomes a paradise for kids.

Museums, hotels, and more open their doors wide to invite families from all over to explore the best of San Diego. Kids enjoy free access to over 50 different attractions around San Diego when they accompany at least one paid adult. Visit a historic park, learn at interactive museums and aquariums, stay in comfy and fun hotels, and turn San Diego into your family’s own supersized playground.

Check out our article on Kids Free in San Diego in October for a more in-depth breakdown of the savings available. To keep the fun going while still going easy on your wallet, combine your October trip to San Diego with a Go City San Diego Pass, purchased using our discount code, GVSD5OFF, for even greater savings! Equipped with your Go City Pass and Kids Free San Diego discounts, you can explore everything San Diego has to offer on the cheap.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park a Great Place to Walk
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park a Great Place to Walk

6) Hike with your Kids at Sunset Cliffs, One of Many Free Ways to Enjoy the Outdoors in San Diego with Kids

San Diego Parks & Nature: Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

San Diego is filled with outdoor destinations that are all completely free to explore by bike or on foot. This makes it an ideal vacation spot if you’re hoping to soak up the sun and the beauty of nature. Spend some quality time in the great outdoors with the whole family at some of the most gorgeous locales and landscapes in Southern California.

One outstanding spot for family adventures is Sunset Cliffs National Park, which is filled with stunning backdrops and winding trails through the wilderness. Its hiking and biking trails along the cliff overlook the ocean, providing for an excellent spot for commemorative photos and long lasting memories.

Given the name, it should come as no surprise that Sunset Cliffs is also one of the best spots to watch the sunset around town. Seeing the sun dip below the horizon, its rays reflected on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, is one view you’re sure to never forget!

Sunset at the Koi Pond at Westfield UTC Mall
Sunset at the Koi Pond at Westfield UTC Mall

7) Go to a Playground at UTC Mall

Shopping in San Diego: Westfield UTC Mall San Diego

Take the family on a shopping spree at the Westfield UTC Mall, which has many great stores for children’s clothes, games, toys, and supplies. Alternatively, this outdoor mall also makes for a good spot to simply walk around and do some window shopping if you’re looking to keep purchases to a minimum, as does Seaport Village and its waterfront park near the USS Midway Museum.

For younger kids, one of the biggest draws of the UTC Mall is the big play area toward the south end of the mall. This playground is equipped with plenty of interactive installations like the fish themed play structure, plus standard playground equipment like swings and rides. You can even pick up a few books at the free little library.

In addition to the playground, the UTC Mall also has a family lounge equipped with plenty of seating and a changing center for parents’ convenience. The majority of restaurants in the mall are family friendly too, so you can sit down for a tasty meal or grab something quick on your way to another of San Diego’s Top Kid-Friendly Attractions.

Windskating on the Beach in Mission Beach
Windskating on the Beach in Mission Beach

8) Fly a Kite on the Beach in Mission Beach

Beach: Mission Beach

San Diego beaches come in all shapes and sizes. Some are rocky and uneven, making them perfect for tide pool hunting, while others are big and sandy. One such stretch of shoreline is Mission Beach, which is flat with plenty of space to stretch out and enjoy beach day activities on the sand.

One popular activity in Mission Beach is flying kites. For the best kite flying experience, you’ll need lots of open air and plenty of space to move around. Luckily, there aren’t too many people camped out on Mission Beach on most days compared to some of San Diego’s more popular beaches, especially if you decide to visit early in the day or on a weekday instead of the more popular weekends.

With lots of open space and minimal crowds once you move away from the Belmont Park area, this beach offers optimal conditions for flying kites with the kids in the sea breeze. Check the weather conditions and plan the perfect trip, complete with a picnic lunch from a local restaurant.

Walking Through Corn Mazes
Walking Through Corn Mazes

9) Solve a Corn Maze at a Local Pumpkin Patch

Holidays in San Diego: Best Pumpkin Patches in San Diego 2023

San Diego’s year-round warm weather might not call to mind the chilly winds and warm drinks typically associated with the fall season, but don’t be fooled; there are still plenty of fall themed celebrations to enjoy during September and October!

As the harvest season begins, local farms and pumpkin patches offer an array of fun activities for people of all ages to enjoy. Whether you’re seeking a field of pumpkins where you can pick your own future jack-o’-lanterns or you’re craving fall favorites like hot apple cider, San Diego’s Best Pumpkin Patches pull out all the stops this time of year.

Many local pumpkin patches also have their own apple orchards and corn fields. If you’re looking for something fun to do with the kids in early- to mid-October, try solving a corn maze! Younger kids are sure to have fun navigating their way through the maze by day, while older kids can visit after dusk for spooky Halloween events like haunted hay rides.

Pumpkin Patch in San Diego, is an incredibly fun and festive experience that allows you to embrace the autumn spirit while exploring the charming pumpkin patches scattered throughout the city.

Don’t forget to check out Kids Free San Diego in October if you’re looking for more fun things to do during October.

Unique Crosswalk in Encinitas
Unique Crosswalk in Encinitas

10) Go For a Drive on the Historic Highway 101 in North County San Diego

Neighborhood: Encinitas

Highway 101 runs up and down the coast of California, spanning over 900 miles. It passes through a number of beachside towns and quaint neighborhoods, offering drivers incredible views of the sea. Drive part of Highway 101 where it passes through Encinitas to admire North County.

Highway 101 isn’t just known for being a scenic drive. It’s also a historic road that was originally constructed by Junipero Serra as a wagon road in the 1700s. In 1998, Highway 101 was designated as a historic site to honor the important role it played in California history.

The road, known as El Camino Real or “The Royal Road,” connected California’s earliest settlements known as Missions. These Missions weren’t just a place for people to live, but also served as places of education and military bases during conflicts with local tribes of Kumeyaay Native Americans.

Looking to learn more about this historic road? Stop by the Junipero Serra Museum and see one of the first ever California Missions for yourself, or read up on California Mission's History before your trip.

One of the many Grassy area great for a Picnic at Balboa Park
One of the many Grassy area great for a Picnic at Balboa Park

11) Have a Picnic at Balboa Park

Neighborhood: Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a must-see spot for anyone in Downtown San Diego. This large, grassy area breaks up the urban metropolis of surrounding neighborhoods, offering visitors a place to relax away from the bustle of the city.

Balboa Park is best known for containing fifteen different museums, which are free when you buy a Go City San Diego pass using our discount code, GVSD5OFF. Popular kids attractions include the San Diego Museum of Natural History, San Diego Zoo, and The Fleet Science Center. However, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the park without spending a dime if you so choose.

Start with an afternoon of walking the many hiking trails spread throughout the park. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, stretch out a picnic blanket and tuck into lunch from one of the nearby restaurants or something homemade with ingredients from local farmers markets. Balboa Park also has lots of space for playing frisbee, and even some dog parks and playgrounds perfect for the whole family.

Picnicking also makes our lists of the Best Things to Do in Balboa Park and the Best Things to Do in Downtown San Diego.

12) Find the Secret Swings in La Jolla

Neighborhood: La Jolla

La Jolla houses a secret - and it’s not the neighborhood’s stunning beaches or their incredible surfing conditions!

No, these rumors surround a tree swing tucked away in the woods of La Jolla, far off the beaten path and typically undiscovered by most visitors to San Diego. The tree swing overlooks La Jolla Cove and offers incredible views of the surrounding forest and ocean, on top of being a fun activity for kids.

If you’re hoping to track down this hidden tree swing, your best bet is to start at the Birch Aquarium’s parking lot. Head to its southern end and follow a narrow trail into the woods toward a wooden plank walkway. From here, you only need to head up the slope, and you’re just a few minutes away from the swing.

If you’re looking for a more adventurous hike, you can also reach the secret swings from Discovery Way near the entrance to UCSD Coastal Apartments. Right across the street, you’ll find an electric box and four metal poles indicating the start of the path. Follow the trail uphill, then take the narrow dirt path down to a copse of trees housing the swing.

Beautiful Trails at Mission Trails Regional Park
Beautiful Trails at Mission Trails Regional Park

13) Hike at Fortuna Mountain Trail

San Diego Parks & Nature: Mission Trails Regional Park

Among the many hiking spots around San Diego County, Mission Trails Regional Park has some of the best trails for families. These paths provide a comfortable challenge without being too exhausting for younger members of the family, making them a perfect fit for people who want to enjoy the scenery and spend some time outside without having to pay park admission.

The park surrounds Fortuna Mountain, which is the namesake of the Fortuna Mountain Trail. The trail is split up into five sections, these being Cowles Mountain, Mission Gorge, Lake Murray, West Fortuna, and East Fortuna. All sections are filled with nature, from gorgeous wildflowers in full bloom to sun-dappled trails through the woods and along the bluffs.

If you’re looking for an easy hike with the kids, consider starting with the Visitor’s Center Loop, which spans 1.5 miles with minimal uphill sections. Father Junipero Serra Trail is longer at 4.5 miles, but it’s well paved which makes it suitable for people on bikes, in wheelchairs, and pushing baby strollers. Be sure to bring lots of water and stop to admire the scenery as you enjoy a picnic lunch!

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Kids looking at knight at LEGOLAND California
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Create family memories at LEGOLAND California! Admission is included with your All-Inclusive Go City pass - enjoy over 60 rides and attractions! Bundle admission with Birch Aquarium at Scripps or the Safari Park for the ultimate day of savings!
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What attractions are included with a Go City San Diego pass?

Attractions that you can visit with a Go City San Diego pass include:

The San Diego Zoo, Birch Aquarium, SeaWorld, Safari Park, LEGOLAND, Harbor Cruise, USS Midway Museum, the NAT Museum, Whaley House, PETCO Park Tour, iFLY San Diego and many, many more!

Want to save more? Use our exclusive discount code GVSD5OFF to save an extra 5%!

How to Make Your Day with Family Outstanding for Free

Vacations and day trips can get pricey, but San Diego makes it easy to plan an affordable route around the city that’s still tons of fun for kids. Use these tips and important things to know before you go to minimize spending while maximizing adventure!

Take Advantage of Kids Days

Many museums and other notable attractions have dedicated kids days, where children under a certain age can enter for free or reduced admission. In addition to Kids Free in October, some attractions hold kids days throughout the year, so be sure to check their official websites for more information.

Save More With the Go City San Diego Pass

Interested in visiting top attractions and trying beach day activities with the kids, but still looking to keep costs low?

With a Go City San Diego pass purchased using our discount code, GVSD5OFF, you can get major discounts on admission to some of San Diego’s Top Kid-Friendly Attractions, plus savings on rentals for surfboards, kayaks, and other gear. While not completely free, buying discounted passes for the whole family is a budget-friendly way to do a lot without spending a fortune.

Some of our favorite attractions for kids that are included on the Go City San Diego pass are the New Children’s Museum, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, Maritime Museum, Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma and of course the world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park.

Explore the Great Outdoors

The vast majority of San Diego’s nature parks, beaches, and other outdoor attractions are completely free to visit.

Thanks to the sunny year-round weather, you’ll likely want to spend as much time outdoors as possible, so this is a perfect match if you’re planning a budget-friendly vacation! This includes everything from exploring parks to walking around Seaport Village.

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