Plan A San Diego Staycation or Vacation

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Our family moved to San Diego almost three years ago due to a job opportunity. We’ve been blessed by this move in so many ways. My brothers live nearby, the grandparents aren’t too far away, and we’ve come to love “America’s Finest City.” San Diego truly is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

If you live in or near San Diego County or plan to travel here on business or on vacation, you have a world of family fun at your fingertips. While you certainly could spend a fortune to enjoy everything that San Diego has to offer, you don’t have to in order to have good times with your family. In fact, there’s a wealth of good things to do and see in San Diego without spending a lot of money.

Whether you’re planning a staycation or a vacation in San Diego, here are some of the fun things to consider:

The Beach

San Diego is full of beautiful beaches. Bring the sunscreen, water bottles, a few snacks, towels, and some cash for parking and play in the Pacific Ocean. You don’t need to spend money to enjoy one of the best things about the West Coast — the coast! Whether it’s a day trip or overnight beach camping, the beach is one of San Diego’s “must dos.”

Even if the shore is overcast, as it sometimes is in the summertime, it’s still beautiful. We love to splash in the waves, build sand castles, and walk along the sand. Since the climate is mild in San Diego and in Southern California in general, there is an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy — many of them practically free.

The Harbor and the USS Midway

San Diego Bay features a wealth of attractions, shops, restaurants, parks, and beaches. While we’ve not yet been out on the water, we’ve explored a fair amount along the water front. Seaport Village is full of shops and restaurants, and the waterfront itself is beautiful. You can even see fishermen haul in the day’s catch or historic tall ships sail through the harbor.

Students of World War II will appreciate the various tributes to American veterans near the USS Midway. Statues dot the waterfront, including a special display in honor of Bob Hope, a friend of US serviceman and women.

In honor of San Diego’s 100 years of aviation history, San Diego residents can purchase discounted tickets to the USS Midway, a WW2 aircraft carrier and naval aviation museum. Buy your tickets now as the deal ends soon. Details are here.

If you’re not a San Diego County resident, you can get a free child’s admission for each adult ticket purchased. Children five and under are always free.

Coronado Island

The Coronado Bridge is an architectural wonder bridging Coronado Island with the rest of San Diego. The island is beautiful, featuring quaint vintage homes and lovely parks and beaches. It is also home to a number of hotels and resorts. The Travel Channel has rated Coronado in the top 10 for best beaches.

Petco Park

Petco Park in downtown San Diego is home to the San Diego Padres. Childhood Dodger fans, FishPapa and I have both switched our allegiances to the Padres. The stadium is beautiful with unbelievable views and we appreciate this ball club’s appreciation for the US Military. Every Sunday home game the Padres wear camouflage uniforms and feature a special military promotion.

The Padres stadium is also very family-friendly. The park features a playground as well as “Beacher Seats” where kids can play in the sand pits while the parents watch the game from bleachers nearby. In the past the playground has also been open during away games so that kids can play while parents watch the away game on a nearby big screen TV.

While baseball tickets are not free, you can find a good deal, depending on where you want to sit and where you buy them. Currently, there is an online deal where you can get $5 off each ticket over $13.50 if you buy them online. You can also get 2 for 1 tickets for Tuesday games in select seats. You can also find discounted tickets on craigslist and at Costco.


Are you and your Lego Maniacs ready? If you have children, particularly boys aged 4 to 15, you are going to want to add Legoland to your list of attractions to see this summer. Not only does Legoland California features a number of roller coasters and other thrill rides, it is also full of amazing Lego structures, including a Miniland that includes scale models of US and World landmarks as well as a Star Wars themed Miniland that depicts every memorable scene from the Star Wars saga.

Legoland California also features a Water Park and a SeaLife Aquarium. While you have to have a Legoland/Water Park ticket to go splishing and splashing, an Aquarium ticket can be purchased a la carte.

If you have a toddler or baby, you’re going to want to put a different skill set of parenting tactics into practice to truly enjoy Legoland. See my tips for doing Legoland with a two-year old.

Cabrillo National Monument

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to set foot on what is now the Western United States. Cabrillo National Monument commemorates that event. It is a beautiful location on high bluffs above the water, featuring an information center as well as Old Point Loma Lighthouse and a lighthouse museum. Take a jacket; it can get chilly.

Located on Point Loma, it is the most southwesterly point in the contiguous US. Your cell phone carrier might think that you have left the country. So be mindful of calls you make from that location.

Admission is free; parking is $5. Parking passes are good for an entire week. There are a number of National Park passes that you can buy or qualify as well.

La Jolla Tidepools

The ocean community of La Jolla is a fairly affluent area, but you don’t have to be rich to enjoy the wealth of activities there. Walk along the shoreline and enjoy the beauty of the ocean. Free parking is available at Scripps Park. Just a short walk south is the Children’s Pool where the sea lions and seals sunbathe as well as tidepools that you can explore on foot.

We’ve played there on a number of occasions — and even discovered some great fish tacos in a quirky little taco restaurant.

The Movies

Regal Movie theaters are offering $1 movies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays this summer. Check out the listing for participating Regal theaters.

A So Cal City Pass

See the sights! San Diego is the home to a number of popular Southern California attractions, including Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park. While each of these venues is pretty pricey on its own, you can save some money on admission by purchasing a Southern California City Pass which includes a 3-day pass to Disneyland as well as tickets to Universal Studios, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo or Wild Animal Park.

Since Disneyland is just a hop, skip, and a jump from San Diego, the City Pass, while not cheap, is a great way to see a lot of places for one price. Plus, they’re good for two weeks from the day of purchase, allowing you to take your time to see the different attractions.

What do YOU enjoy in San Diego?

If you’ve been here or live here, I’d love to hear what you enjoy doing in “America’s Finest City.”

For more ideas on how to live in (or just visit) California on a budget, check out my series, California on a Budget.

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  1. We enjoyed our trip to San Diego last week..
    Being the nature freaks we are, loved the San Diego Zoo, Torrey Pines and Cabrillo Monument. I would have loved to visit the Sea world, but the tickets were too steep for us. We did a lot of the free activities and it was very nice. 🙂

  2. OH this is fun! We are planning our staycation this week! In addition to some of the items mentioned above we will probably visit seaport village, walk the Crystal Pier and eat at Kono’s (some “good cheap eats”), and we want to take a boat tour. Other items we love are Mission Trails, walking around Old Town and get candy from Cousins Candy Shop.

  3. Thank-you soooo much for this post! One of my friends (and her family) have relocated to San Diego and I am hoping to take my nephew (who will be 6) down there to visit next March for a week. I knew there was lots to see– but I didn’t want to have to sell a kidney to pay for it all 🙂 I can now start planning — doesn’t look like 10 days will be long enough 🙂

  4. One of my favorite cities!! This is a great list! We LOVE La Jolla cove and seeing the seals too! Great fun! Balboa park & all the museums are good thing also (some of them not too expensive). Oh and Sea World also has a special promo online right now…for the same price as a single day ticket, you can make it a “length of stay” pass good for 7 consecutive days of visiting the park! 🙂

  5. We love the Poway Train park, and the Model Railroad museum at Balboa Park. And the Fleet Science Center is great for kids – they have a toddler play area upstairs. Riding the ferry to Coronado is fun and very inexpensive, too. San Diego has so many great things to do with children!

  6. Ahhh…pictures of “home”. I great up in North County. The Wild Animal Park (which they renamed, I think…) is always a blast. The Fleet Science Center at Balboa Park is always a great place, and I believe that Balboa has free days for locals. Julian is fun in the fall for U-Pick apples and such. You can also tour Mission San Luis Rey and San Deigo as well. One place I always wanted to go and as of yet haven’t made it to are the Flower Fields in Carlsbad. So much fun stuff!

  7. My husband and I will be flying into San Diego on Sept 29th for his brother’s wedding in Carlsbad that Saturday. Just curious is you have any info on Carlsbad? We will be there from Thur-Sun and wondering what kind of sites to see there. Love your blog! Thank you:)

    1. @Tammy Lindner, a little. Carlsbad has great beaches, including a paved walkway along the beach. Legoland is in Carlsbad, too.

      We’ve had terrible experiences with restaurants there, though. Not sure what I would recommend, other than picnicking.

    2. There are beautiful beaches in Carlsbad that you can visit, I would suggest going online and type in “Carlsbad, CA” and you can find their visitors bureau website, I think they also have an “Old town” there too. There is an abundance of great shopping including a fantastic Outlet mall. Hope you have fun!

  8. We are finishing up our trip to San Diego tomorrow with our 2 and 4 year old. I absolutely love coming to San Diego, there is always so much to do and it always seems like a clean city.

    We went to Balboa Park today. We have a membership to a science museum back home and were able to get into Fleet Science Museum & Natural History Museum for free. We were going to walk around other places at Balboa but it was drizzly. I did see that on certain Tuesdays of the month residents get in free to museums.

    Something we were going to do but ran out of time was La Jolla and visit some of the old missions. I believe there is one in Mission Valley.

    I love your list!!!
    Because we were military we were able to get into Seaworld for free. We decided to do LegoLand instead of going to Disney and we did San Diego Zoo. We hunted for online coupons and to see what had military discounts as well. I never feel like I get to do everything I want to when I come here.

  9. Wow! You are quick on the reply! Thank you. I wish Legoland was an option, but we are leaving the kiddos at home this time. We live in Jeffersonville, Indiana and are flying out of Louisville, Kentucky. We were hoping to find something to do as a couple on Thursday night since we will have the rehearsal dinner on Friday, wedding on Saturday, and flying back home on Sunday afternoon. Picnic on the beach sounds good, but since this will be a date night on Thursday, we were kinda hoping for a nice dinner out somewhere. Oh well……picnic on beach and a great hotel room could be nice as well! And even better with no pitter patter of little feet! ha ha Thank you again!

    1. @Tammy Lindner, well, we haven’t exhausted all the restaurant options. LOL. But, Tip Top Meats and Claim Jumper were both awful, awful experiences. Avoid those, K?

  10. We love visiting Old Town Historical Park and eating at El Indio Mexican Restaurant for lunch!

  11. Sometimes it’s like you’re reading my mind. We are planning a trip to San Diego this summer — from a couple hours north. 🙂 It’s almost like a staycation but not quite — a “playcation”? Okay I tried.

    Anyway, I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on where a family of four might stay for cheap? We’d actually love to find a rental of some kind (a condo or some such), some place where we could cook our own food most nights. A hotel with suites would work too. Obviously staying close to the beach would be ideal but I’m most curious about less expensive areas — even slightly out of town if need be. I’d really appreciate your thoughts!

    1. @centsability, I love playcations! I have actually never stayed in a hotel here, so I have no idea. But, I know that when we’ve gone other places it has been worth it to pay a little extra for a full kitchen so that I could bring…. FREEZER MEALS! We saved so much money on food that way — and it was much tastier than endless take-out.

      1. @Jessica Fisher, Ha, I should have remembered people who actually LIVE in a town can’t recommend a hotel! I was the same way when I lived in San Francisco — never knew where to send people. But thanks for the freezer cooking tip. What an excellent idea, especially since we can store stuff in a cooler for the drive down.

        Personally, my husband and I both burn out on restaurant food real quick when we’re traveling. His first thought when I suggested getting a kitchen or kitchenette was the cost — but I reminded him of how blah we feel after just a few meals out (especially at “family” or chain restaurants where everything is greasy and heavy) and also how much it costs. He changed his tune pretty quick. 🙂

  12. One of the things we look forward to when visiting in San Diego (we have relatives there) would be easily accessible in Carlsbad: great fastfood! In and Out, Rubios, and El Pollo Loco have tasty food. They have some healthy alternatives on their menu. AND my hubby and I can share a meal because the portions are large. I totally agree with all of those who are saying it’s much better to eat in, it’s not always the best alternative when you’re running around.

  13. Thank you so much for your list. I found you through Smockity Frocks, and I plan to save this link and refer to it often as we plan the details of our trip to San Diego next month for my sister-in-law’s wedding. Several family members have blessed us by helping with plane tickets and offering guest rooms. We were wondering how much fun stuff we could squeeze into our tiny budget. Do you know anything about the Train Museum? My soon to be 4yr old son is train-crazy right now.

  14. I’m so glad you posted this. Coronado is my hometown, one of the best things that Coronado has to offer in the summer are the Concerts in The Park every Sunday evening starting Memorial Day weekend. The concerts happen in Spreckles Park (at the gazebo you have a photo of in your post) bring a blanket, chairs, and picnic and enjoy the music. I live in South Carolina now, but will be visiting next month and am so excited to go!

    1. I never knew what that park was called! We call it Subway Park because we pick up Subway on the way there. LOL

  15. Hi–I enjoy reading your blog, and I’d like to thank you for this particular post because we are heading to San Diego next month for our honeymoon (got married 10 days ago). This post is so helpful–thank you so much!

  16. I love love love this post so much! I just moved to San Diego (last week) and can’t wait to check these things out!

    1. Just popped over to your blog. Yummy stuff! I can’t wait to hear what you find in San Diego. We haven’t found “great” yet. Do you have your San Diego “bucket list” ready?

  17. We are heading to San Diego next month for 5 days of fun. It’s a sort of playcation as we’re about 2 hours north of there. We really want to see a Padres’ game while we’re there, but are thinking of Sunday afternoon game. Any suggestions for finding inexpensive tickets? There are 5 of us total. Also, we plan to eat out for dinner each night. We’re staying in the Mission Bay area. Any restaurant suggestions?

  18. One more thing…we’re also in need of a good beach to play at. Our kids are 9 and 2. The 2 year old has never been to the beach before, so something will mild waves would be great. Thanks!

    1. @Michelle, we usually do beaches farther up the coast, so I’m not sure I can help there. Mission Bay is supposed to be wonderful for kids, though.