San Diego probably has more family-friendly things to see and do than any other major U.S. city. This includes not only formal big-ticket attractions but the great scenery, beach life and free attractions. This is our guide to San Diego’s Top 10 attractions, with a focus on the big-ticket items.
As a disclaimer, we note that with its beaches and mountains, you can have a great time in San Diego just enjoying the natural scenery. We have a separate guide to our top free and low-cost attractions. This is our ranking of the major formal attractions that charge an admission fee.
The Go San Diego Card includes all these attractions. This is a no-brainer if you are visiting San Diego for 3 or more days and want to see several major attractions. However, it is also a great option if you want to just visit 2 or more of these attractions. Go San Diego offers a build your own option where you get a 20% discount on ticket prices. Go here for more on the Go San Diego card options.
All these attractions are suitable for the entire family. These are places we have taken our kids before they were out of diapers. Of course, some attractions are more suited for younger children. Also, we have bundled some attractions such as the museums at Balboa Park and the harbor tours.
In compiling this list, we have not focused on the cost. Legoland and SeaWorld are the most expensive options, followed by the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. These are all great attractions, but they are expensive. One advantage of the Go San Diego Card is you can pay ahead one price for your vacation and not worry about cost.
1. San Diego Zoo
You fly right over the San Diego Zoo when you land at the airport. This is one of the best zoos in the world and is a must-see for animal lovers. It is right by the airport and downtown San Diego. 30 miles away is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Many San Diego locals like the Safari Park better. You can check out our comparison of the two here. Overall, we think the San Diego Zoo is best for first-time visitors.
SeaWorld is the complete package. It is a zoo focused on marine animals, as well as an amusement park complete with rides and shows. There is a great kid’s play area. In summer they have a firework show every night. There are also holiday-themed events around Halloween and Christmas.
Legoland is great for younger kids. It includes the main theme park, an aquarium and a water park. The rides are on the mild side so teenagers may not be as excited. However, adult fans of Lego will find plenty to love.
4. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is in the city of San Diego, but it is over 30 miles from downtown. Many people like the Safari Park better than the Zoo. They both cost the same, so we have put together this guide to help you determine which park to visit. Do NOT try and do both in the same day!
5. Balboa Park Museums
Balboa Park is right by downtown in the flight path of airplanes landing at Lindbergh Field. This is home to the San Diego Zoo, as well as 16 museums. You can go to the museums individually or buy a package. A 7-day Balboa Park Explorer Park Pass for $57 adults, $30 children age 3 to 12. This pass allows for unlimited admission to all museums for 7-days. This is a much better deal than a one-day pass which is $46 adults/$27 children and only allows access to 5 museums. Note the Go San Diego Card gives access to all the Balboa Park Museums. See our more detailed guide to Balboa Park.
6. USS Midway Museum and Maritime Museum of San Diego
These are actually two separate attractions. We have combined them because they are right next to each other on the San Diego Harbor and they make a great combination. These museums involve walking on actual ships. They have great exhibits and you learn a ton. The beauty is that younger children have a blast just being on the ship.
7. Belmont Park
Belmont Park is a small amusement park right on the boardwalk by the ocean in Mission Beach. It is home to an iconic wooden roller coaster. In recent years, they have opened several high-quality attractions. You can pay for rides and attractions individually or buy a reasonably priced all-in-one ticket. Check out our complete guide.
8. Getting on a Boat: Harbor Tours, Whale Watching and Other Options
San Diego is a waterfront-based town and there are all kinds of options. For a first-time visitor, the best options are off Harbor Dr in downtown San Diego, a mile from the airport. There are all kinds of boat tours available. Which one you pick is more a matter of time and personal preference. Whale watching is great in winter months. Harbor tours are great year-round. Many tours offer dinner and other options. There are even speed boat rides.
9. Birch Aquarium
The Birch Aquarium is a more low-key attraction, 12 miles north of downtown in La Jolla. It has a strong education focus and is part of the UCSD Scripps Institute of Oceanography. There are all kinds of special events and programs so be sure and check their website for the latest. This area is right next to Torrey Pines which is one of our top free/low-cost attractions.
10. Old Town Trolley Tours
Old Town Trolley offers a variety of tours around San Diego that offer hop on hop off privileges. This is a great way to see and learn about San Diego. The core tour goes from Old Town to downtown, Balboa Park and even Coronado. There is an amphibious vehicle Seal Tour which actually goes in the water at San Diego Harbor. The separate Beaches and La Jolla Tour goes along the coast from La Jolla to Pacific Beach.