We recently spent a week in the San Diego area with family, rolling in the sand, splashing in the waves and exploring as much of the Southern California food scene as we could squeeze in. I hadn’t spent much time in that part of California, and it’s lovely. It’s a perfect place for a family vacation, because there’s something to appeal to every age.
This is what I’ll remember from our vacation to San Diego—Theo’s unbridled joy at playing with his Uncle Oren, snuggling with Nicole and Hannah, standing fearless against the waves, rolling unabashedly in the sand, wanting to do all the rides at Legoland with Elie, asking a million questions at the zoo, and getting to stay up late with us every night, breaking all the routines. So good, all of it.
I’m going to share all my tips for the San Diego area, but my best travel tip–talk to locals! Since Theo is an early riser, we headed out of the house first thing every morning, so the others could sleep in. We’d head to a coffee shop and chat with the people around us. Inevitably, we always find camaraderie with parents seeking their morning caffeine, little ones in tow. Many of the restaurants and activities from this trip came from the locals we met on those mornings.
With no further ado, here are my suggestions on where to stay, what to do and what to eat in Southern California.
Where to Stay
We rented a little cottage in Del Mar, only one block from the beach. The cottage itself was fairly modest, but well-equipped, and the location couldn’t have been better. It took less than five minutes to walk to the beautiful Del Mar beach, one that sports a shallow edge and gentle surf, perfect for little ones. It was also a short walk to the shops and restaurants in Del Mar’s quaint town square.
We had considered staying in La Jolla, but a friend advised against it, because of the traffic in and out of town. La Jolla is lovely, with a picturesque downtown and waterfront, so if you don’t mind the extra traffic, it’s a good option.
Next time we visit, I would also consider staying in Encinitas. It’s a little bit bigger than Del Mar, with a long line of shops and restaurants stretching along the coastal highway.
What to Do
Honestly, we spent most of our time at the beach. The weather was perfect–sunny and mid-70’s–and we took full advantage. The beach in Del Mar was perfect for both playing in the water and walking–Elie ran on the beach a few times while we were there and I took a couple of long walks. Plus, there is a playground at Powerhouse Park, right above the beach. Theo was having such a good time in the sand, we didn’t go to the playground. But if we’d stayed a little longer, I’m sure we would have. There’s also a lovely grassy area where we planned to picnic one night, but never quite got around to it.
We also went to the beach at La Jolla Shores, but it was really crowded the day we were there. On our way in to San Diego, we stopped by Mission Beach. The beach itself is gorgeous, with fine white sand. But there is an amusement park and boardwalk right there, so you have to be prepared for a carnival-like atmosphere. I preferred the tranquility of Del Mar. We also heard than Moonlight Beach in Encinitas is great for kids, but we didn’t make it over there.
When I was little, we lived in Monterey for a couple of years. Some of my favorite memories are of wading in the tide pools, looking for starfish and sea urchins, so I was really excited to take Theo to La Jolla to see the seals and explore the rocky shore. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the tide tables into account, and we arrived on an incoming tide, so everything was underwater. Mom fail. And although we did see the seals, the smell from the cliffs was so overwhelming, we didn’t stay long.
I had also really been looking forward to taking Theo to LEGOLAND, and it was just as much fun as I imagined it to be. The rest of the family went to Disneyland that day (about 90 minutes away), so it was just Elie, Theo and me. Three-and-a-half is a perfect age for this park. Theo was exactly the right height to ride almost all the rides (40 inches), and he was completely into all the themes–trucks, trains, boats and emergency vehicles. Perfect. We rode rides for four hours and then headed out of the park for a late lunch before exhaustion or over-stimulation set in. We skipped all of the LEGO building activities and shows. Next time, maybe.
If you’re in the San Diego area, don’t miss the zoo. It’s incredible. We spent about three hours wandering the exhibits, and we got to see almost every single animal. If you like to linger, it would take longer. I can see why it claims to be the number one zoo in the world. The animal areas are spacious and clean, and every animal looks extremely well cared for. There’s lots of information about the environmental impacts of humans on our planet and animals and their habitats, and it was amazing how much Theo picked up on as we walked and read. He came home talking about dinosaur bones and what it means to be extinct. (Our KiwiCo Koala Crate this month was all about dinosaurs, including an imprint of dinosaur bones. It was a perfect return-to-home activity.) Bring a stroller and wear walking shoes. You’ll get in a lot of steps while you’re there.
If you’re a horse racing fan like Uncle Oren, the track at Del Mar is really fun. Theo loved it.
If we’d had one more day, we would have gone to the Safari Park. Another one for next time.
We didn’t do any shopping, but One Paseo in Del Mar is a great outdoor mall with coffee shops, Sidecar Donuts and Salt & Straw. I also had a great workout at Soul Cycle!
Where to Eat
Coffee first, always. We had great coffee at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in Torrey Pines, Ironsmith Coffee Roasters in Encinitas, Steady State Roasting in Carlsbad, and both Blue Bottle Coffee and Parakeet Cafe in One Paseo in Del Mar. Fun fact: Parakeet Cafe serves Camber Coffee from Bellingham!
I love California’s health food scene, and so I adored Nectarine Grove in Encinitas, with all it’s gluten-free, organic and paleo offerings. Something for everyone. Elie and Theo loved it too, just for the record.
We had great salads at Mendocino Farms, and Elie says the sandwiches are delicious. Really fresh and good ingredients.
My favorite meal in San Diego was the pizza at Bueno Forchetta in Encinitas. Seriously good. They serve perfect Neapolitan-style pizzas with great ingredients. And can you believe? The offer a gluten-free crust option that has lightness and chew, just like a traditional pizza crust. I was a happy girl. If you take little ones, the restaurant is pretty loud. Try to go early and request an outside table.
I really wanted to eat at Campfire in Carlsbad, but the timing just never worked out. It’s on the next list, too.
I hope these tips are helpful for you on your next trip to the San Diego area! If you use this post, please let me know! I’d love to hear about it.