Top Things to Do With Kids in San Diego and Los Angeles

Macaroni Kid South Birmingham explores Southern California

By Jess Searcy October 1, 2019

Taking a trip to San Diego or Los Angeles in the near future? Looking for the best things to do with kids? We recently had the opportunity to travel to Southern California with our kids from Alabama, and we filled our days with fun places to explore, activities and things to see. Here are some of our favorites!

Palm trees, cold ocean water, kelp forests, supercars everywhere you look. Our kids had the best time exploring Southern California with us, a landscape and culture so different from Alabama! Besides visiting some of the places in this list, don't forget to allow some time to follow your kids' lead. You never know what will pique their interest until you get there. For example, our guys were fascinated by the many Teslas, Ferraris and other fancy cars we saw driving and parked around town. When Cole asked, "Do you think we'll see a Bugatti here?" the question prompted me to hop on google maps and type in "Bugatti." Little did we know, we were only ten minutes from a McLaren dealership (another car they were eager to spot) with TWO Bugattis. So we took a detour to check it out. They were ecstatic. In Santa Monica, we came across a Tesla showroom, and the salespeople were so nice, they let the kids get inside the cars to pose for pictures. It was fantastic!

San Diego

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Outdoorsy families will not want to miss visiting this preserved piece of wild California. We spent nearly the whole day here just playing on the beach, marveling at the hundreds of multi-colored surf clams, diving through waves and stacking smooth stones. At the end of the day, we drove up to the top of the cliffs to visit the nature center and do a short hike for some views. Be sure to pack a cooler with lunch and drinks, as there is no place to grab a meal in the reserve or super close by. We were lucky that a food truck came in while we were there since we had only packed snacks.

The surf was teeming with hundreds of multi-colored clams at Torrey Pines.

The guys enjoyed stacking and building with the beautiful smooth stones on the beach.
Enjoying a view from the cliffs at Torrey Pines.

One of the many beautiful views.

San Diego Zoo

I still remember when my parents took me to the San Diego Zoo when I was seven! We were on a six-week cross-country tent-camping epic road trip and this zoo is one of the places I remember the most. I even stole my Dad's souvenir t-shirt and wore it until I was in my thirties (and it literally fell apart at the seams). I wondered if the San DIego Zoo of today would live up to my childhood memories. It did. No matter how many times you've been to the zoo in your hometown, don't fall victim to thinking that this one is just another city zoo. It is gigantic, it is beautiful, it has animals you will see nowhere else. Even the animals you do see everywhere else, you will see in a whole new way here. Like how about a hippopotamus sleeping underwater from an underwater viewing area? Or a lion from the top of a doubledecker bus? The animals I got the most excited about were the okapi (looks like a crazy cross between a zebra and a giraffe), the fossa (a weird-looking predator from Madagascar) and the tapir (like prehistoric megafauna in oreo cookie suits).

One of my favorite animals at the zoo, the okapi!

Double-decker buses help you get a good overview of this vast zoo and see animals from a different perspective.
The guys enjoyed an upclose encounter with their favorite animal.

Family portrait time to remember our trip to the zoo.

Sea World San Diego

If it weren't for places like Sea World, I probably wouldn't have gotten my degree in zoology or worked as a marine biologist (in my pre-kids life) or care as much about the Earth and its living things as I do. I still remember seeing Shamu and the orca show when I was little. Times have changed and I completely applaud and respect Sea World's decision to phase out orcas in captivity. But I have to admit, it's bittersweet. I'm so glad my kids got the chance to see the orcas at Sea World while they are still there. When there are no more orcas in captivity, they will be out of reach for so many children. Out of sight and maybe (but hopefully not) out of mind. But for now, Sea World's new natural behaviors program with the orcas is just as awe-inspiring as their old entertainment-based show. Perhaps more so for me, knowing that the organization is doing its best to do what's best for the animals. The kids were simply thrilled! If you ask them what they remember about Sea World though, they won't say the orcas I'm sure. Their favorite exhibit was a touch tank filled with cleaner fish. If you held still long enough, the fish would come to your hand and start nibbling away! The guys thought this was the funniest thing ever. We had to circle back to the cleaner fish several times. What a way to learn about symbiotic relationships!

Meeting some sharks up close.

A curious orca "spy-hopping" to get a better look at Cole.

Some visitors are about to get wet.

Evan makes friends with a bat ray.

Wild Seals and Sea Lions in La Jolla Cove

If you visit Children's Pool and La Jolla Cove in La Jolla, California, you can see seals and sea lions up close. We saw a mama sea lion nursing a pup, large male sea lions barking in the surf and numerous others basking in the sun. The coolest thing though was watching a group of sea lions surfing in the waves! Five or six would ride a wave in and then one or two would do a flying leap out, maybe doing a backflip in the air. The guys were mesmerized! I've seen plenty of sea lions in my life, but watching them surf the waves was one of the most fascinating! If you visit, be sure to keep your distance and don't follow the lead of fellow tourists Just like in Yellowstone National Park, these wild animals are acclimated to human presence, but they are still wild. We witnessed tourists getting way too close to them to take pictures.

This little sea lion pup was one of many at La Jolla Cove.

Los Angeles Area

La Brea Tar Pits

Ever since we studied prehistoric animals last year and learned about La Brea Tar Pits, I knew we had to take the opportunity to see this fascinating place in real life. With the city of Los Angeles growing up right around them, these tar pits have been bubbling up sticky, black tar for thousands upon thousands of years trapping thousands of unsuspecting animals. Now you can see the tar pits, both active and in various stages of excavation, along with hundreds of skeletons of prehistoric creatures that are on display in the adjacent museum. We really enjoyed the 3D film "Titans of the Ice Age," showing in the museum theatre just as we arrived. It really brought everything to life and set the guys up for a greater understanding of what they would later see in the museum's exhibits. I wish we would have been able to see the museum's "Ice Age Encounters" live theatre show, with a very realistic looking saber-toothed cat puppet! Cole's favorite exhbit was the one where you try pulling varying sized pipes up and out of sticky tar to see how hard it would be to escape if you were unfortunate tar pit victim.

Evan watches scientists working on specimens at La Brea Tar Pits.

A mammoth skeleton on display towers over a visitor.
Find out what it's like to be stuck in the tar pits with this interactive exhibit.

See what the scientists are currently excavating at one of the tar pits.

Catalina Island

Catalina Island holds a very special nook in my heart since I worked there for several years as an Outdoor Education Instructor and SCUBA Divemaster at Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI). It was due to a CIMI alumni staff reunion that we made the trek to California this year. I wanted the guys to see some more of the island before our stay at camp, so we took the hour-long ferry trip over to stay a couple of nights in Avalon first. They were so excited to finally get to use their snorkeling skills in the ocean and see ocean-sized fish! I couldn't wait to show them the kelp forest and the beautiful desert landscapes and walk them around the cozy, 1-square mile town of Avalon. If you visit Los Angeles or anywhere close, Catalina is a must. I'm pretty sure the kids will remember seeing four-foot long leopard sharks and an octopus while snorkeling, don't you?

Taking the ferry over to the island is an adventure all by itself.

Me and my guys in a special spot on the Green Pier, where I have a picture of Evan and I ten years earlier!

Visit our Instagram for more photos and videos from this trip!

A Tip on Where to Stay

Of course, there are a million hotels to stay in wherever you travel in Southern California. But, we discovered that renting a condo, apartment or even a small cottage was cheaper AND more comfortable. It even allowed us to travel lighter since most places had a washer and dryer available. Be sure to search multiple sites to get the best deal.

More Ideas

Hopefully, we've given you a few major items for your Southern California bucket list! Be sure to visit our Instagram page for more pictures and video of our trip. And here are a few more ideas for visiting Los Angeles and San Diego with kids.

  • Sports, Luxury and Supercar Spotting - the guys spent most of their time on the road looking for cars to add to their life lists. Visit a dealership, or if you're really adventurous, rent a fancy car!
  • Get a treat at The Baked Bear - make a custom ice cream sandwich with cookies or brownies at this cool treat shop. And good news, Alabamians! There's one in Tuscaloosa!
  • Visit the world-famous Santa Monica Pier and downtown Santa Monica - the iconic Ferris wheel and roller coaster make a fun backdrop for an easy-going beach day. Before you go, or on your way back, stop at Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee for a delicious treat.
  • Long Beach Aquarium - we didn't get a chance to visit this time, but I've been many times and it's a great place to see Southern California ocean life. Just outside the aquarium, you might spot a tall ship docked in the marina.
  • Visit Balboa Park in San Diego and go museum hopping - I remember climbing on the gigantic Moreton Bay fig tree here when I was a kid. Luckily for the tree, arborists realized that the tree was getting too much love and you can no longer climb on it. But that means it is still around for you to see, and it is one of the biggest trees in California! The park is surrounded by many fabulous museums too. I so wished we had more time here. If you go, be sure to read this awesome picture book first, The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever.

Disclosure: We received media passes to enter some of the attractions listed in this article. All opinions are my own.


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