San Diego, California, is one of those truly “something for everyone“ destinations. There are beaches with dramatic natural scenery and abundance of wild life, there is historical old city, a myriad of interesting museums and a world famous attraction park. Last summer we have spent a packed (kid-friendly) 48 hours in the area before embarking on a South West road trip and invite you to follow along on our itinerary.
Choosing Where to Stay
Depending on what you want to do in San Diego area, your activities might be located within a considerable distance from each other. My advice would be to choose your lodging close to the area where you would be spending significant time, with easy access to your other destinations. For us, Legoland California was a big part of the 48-hour itinerary, so we specifically targeted Del Mar area for our lodging. Besides being close (12 miles) to Legoland, Del Mar offers an easy access to some of the area’s best beaches (Del Mar Beach is 1 mile away and La Jolla is 13 miles away). It is also reasonably close to historical San Diego city center (20 miles away). We stayed in Hilton San Diego/Del Mar (see our review here).
Day 1 (Arrival)
We have arrived early in the morning and after picking our rental car at the airport, drove straight to Legoland California in Carlsbad. I found the park rather pleasant and manageable for a day visit! It was not overly crowded, had several healthy food choices and lots of areas to build with the Legos! My 7-year old daughter stopped to build at every corner!
Her favorite ride was the Driving School at FUN TOWN (they have separate areas for 3-5 and 6-13 year olds ).
I was taken by the many miniature Lego creations at Miniland USA.
This was our day to explore the city of San Diego. We chose San Diego Trolley Tours and specifically its Old Town Tour for our introduction to the city. Trolley tours are not the most intimate way to explore a new place, but in the city where some of the major points of interests extend over 25 mile area- the trolley tour certainly does the job! There are 10 hop on/off stops in this live narration tour covering all major areas in downtown-waterfront. You can use your hop on/off privileges all day (the tour starts every hour and half hour so you can figure a 30-minute wait between the tour buses).
We started at Stop 1 in the morning in the Old Town, crossed San Diego Bay into Coronado Island and hoped off to see historic del Coronado Hotel, one of the United States’ oldest (it opened in 1888).
Our second hop-off stop of the day was at Balboa Park, a unique urban juncture of art, culture and nature, where we spent most of the day. They say it is the largest urban cultural center in the U.S, but I can’t think of any other urban park in the world that could rival Balboa – can you?
With its 17 museums, beautiful Colonial Revival architecture, 1200 acre of lush gardens, open air concert stages and theater pavilions, elaborate fountains, kiddie play area and an adjacent San Diego Zoo, you can easily spend a week here! (Many attractions are free, for specific fee information and schedule of events and tours, check the Balboa Park’s website).
We divided our time at Balboa between the Model Railroad Museum (largest operating model railroad collection in North America!), the Japanese Friendship Garden (it was beautiful, but we preferred Japanese Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco a little more!), San Diego Museum of Art and Timken Museum of Art, as well as Museum of Photographic Arts (all three are rather small, but Timken is considered one of the world’s greatest “small art museums”) and a couple of carousel rides (our seven year old daughter never misses a carousel!).
We hopped back on the Trolley bus and finished the tour at Old Town San Diego – a place of oldest European settlement on the West Coast of the United States (it is a state protected historical park). Old Town is a last stop on the trolley tour, and we spent about 30 minutes walking around the park. History buffs will want to check out San Diego Old Town’s website for a schedule of living history shows and demonstration from 1800s.
There are plenty of colorful Mexican restaurants in the Old Town area, but we decided to head back to our hotel for some afternoon relaxation by the pool and then dinner at the Del Mar beach near our hotel. We chose Jake’s Del Mar for its location right on the beach and loved the views and the innovative (if a bit overpriced) menu. Poseidon right next door also looked inviting and seemed to have more seafood choices on the menu. Reservations are highly recommended, especially during weekends.
Day 3 (Morning)
We were scheduled to leave town around noon to continue on our road trip through the South West, but we could not leave the area without visiting famous La Jolla and its inhabitants. (about 20 miles north of downtown San Diego, and 13 miles south of Del Mar where we stayed). La Jolla is known for its beautiful coastal scenery- with dramatic cliffs, hidden coves, and an abundance of wild life.
I don’t know whether the weather here ever gets hot enough by our Massachusetts summer “beach weather” standards, but at the end of June when we visited it was perfectly sunny and breezy for a walk on La Jolla shore side boardwalk. We observed a lot of seals playing on the beach and even some human swimmers and kayakers in wet suits – in the water!
La Jolla Cove is probably the most famous of the La Jolla beaches and it did not disappoint.
We got down to the sand and close to the seals that were everywhere on the beach.
I wish we had time to stop at La Jolla village for lunch (I have a soft spot for cute coastal towns!), but the road was calling, and besides, we had to leave something for next time!
Parking tip: we parked in the public lot for $10 on the corner of Coastal Blvd and Ocean St.
For our next visit, we would love to explore San Diego water front and seaport area (on foot and by boat), Torrey Pines Nature Reserve and more of the beautiful little coastal towns and beaches.
We received media passes to enter most of the attractions in this article. Check the attractions websites for up-to-date ticket pricing.