(for under $20!)
San Diego is a desirable destination for any traveler looking for mild year-round weather, beautiful beaches, and a wide array of things to do. Having lived there for a time as a kid and frequently going back to visit since then, I am well acquainted with some of the best spots in and around the city for families. You won’t believe how many family-friendly things you can do in San Diego on a budget. Here’s my list of 15 Free & Cheap Things To Do in San Diego with a Toddler.
Traveling to San Diego on a Budget
We live in the Phoenix Valley of Arizona, so it is a quick 5-6 hour drive or a short 1-hour flight to San Diego. Allegiant now flies from the Mesa Gateway Airport for as low as $33 each way, making flying every time a very attractive option. We are lucky enough to have a close friend who lives there that is able to accommodate us at her house. We have visited numerous times before she lived there though and always seemed to find ourselves staying in the La Jolla area. There’s so much to do in that area and we love the vibe there. Hotels can be expensive since it’s California, so try and find the best deal and book in advance.
We always try to stay somewhere that has a free breakfast if we are wanting to save some cash. This way we also know we can eat first thing in the morning and not have to search around for what sounds good. Our toddler appreciates this too because she’s hungry the moment she wakes up. Usually, this means it won’t be a 5-star hotel, but really we don’t spend a lot of time at the hotel on vacation so we don’t mind!
As I have mentioned in several other posts, Turo is our preferred method of car rental these days. If you are flying in and need a way to get around, Turo is a great option. Read all about it here: “Why You Should Use TURO for Car Rental”
1. La Jolla Cove
Your toddler, and the rest of your family, will love La Jolla Cove. Here you can see Sea Lions in their natural habitat! There are several entry points in that area that take you down to small coves along the coast where sea lions like to sunbathe. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, there are also tidepools and caves you can explore. Bring appropriate shoes if you plan to walk out on the tidepools to protect your feet. Please also be cautious and considerate of the wildlife you encounter. The “leave no trace” motto for hiking trails applies here as well! Your kids, no matter what age, will love this free aquarium experience!
2. Old Town San Diego
Spend time in the Spanish-inspired Old Town San Diego shopping, eating, and learning about the history of the area. There is free parking all around the main square and TONS of food options as you walk around. Check out the Cousin’s Candy Shop where you can watch them handmake taffy while being transported back in time. Many of the other buildings nearby have interactive exhibits where you can learn the rich history of the town. If you are there on the right night, you can also catch live entertainment near Casa de Reyes, an amazing Mexican Restaurant just off the main square. There is good Mexican food at any of the many restaurants nearby, but this one is very popular!
3. Sunset Cliffs
Watch the sun set on the sea from the edge of beautiful sandy bluffs at Sunset Cliffs. It is free to park anywhere in the neighborhood nearby the park or in the state park parking lot. Take time to walk along the path and find the perfect spot for capturing the colorful sky. Since there are steep cliffs all along the trail, be sure to keep your kids close by or attached to you. There are areas where you could lay a blanket down and have a picnic if you want to sit and relax. Our daughter enjoyed picking wildflowers along the path and sitting on the benches spread along the trail.
4. Cabrillo National Monument ($)
Cabrillo National Monument is a fun historical National Monument that will entertain everyone in the family. It’s only $20 a vehicle to enter or $10 a person if entering by foot. Anyone under 15 years old gets in for free! As you come in on Cabrillo National Drive before arriving at the monument, you will pass beautiful National Cemeteries. Once you’ve entered the National Monument, you can tour the buildings, walk up the lighthouse, and snap pictures of the gorgeous views. For more information on what is included in your day pass purchase, click here https://www.nps.gov/cabr/planyourvisit/fees.htm
5. Point Loma Tidepools
Just down the coast from Sunset Cliffs and across the street from Cabrillo National Monument, is the Point Loma Tidepools. Here you will get similarly beautiful views of the ocean as well as the adventure of discovering sea life along the way. You will want to wear water shoes or active sandals like these to protect your feet. This could be a difficult activity for a young toddler unless you can comfortably wear them in a carrier, but do it at your own risk.
Tidepools are very rocky and have uneven ground, but you get to see fascinating creatures like urchins, crabs, and anemones. Take note of low and high tide for the day you plan to visit. You will not get to see much if you try going at high tide, and you may end up getting soaked from the water coming in. It is dangerous to stay on at the tidepools if the tide is coming up, so be safe and plan accordingly.
6. Coronado Beach
This is the best beach for families in the San Diego area (in my opinion). The beach is HUGE, so you will never feel like you are invading other people’s space and your little ones will have so much space to safely run and play. The sand is compact and flat making it easy for curious crawlers and new walkers to safely have fun in the sand. Enjoy views of the Hotel Coronado, Point Loma, and mountains over the border out in the distance.
7. Coronado Tidelands Park
If you want to break up the day on Coronado Island with some playtime on a playground, or just need a good excuse to get the kids outside, this is a beautiful waterfront park. Watch boats of all kinds sail through the channel right in front of you as the kids play. There’s a big grassy area with shady spots, the perfect spot to have a picnic.
8. Coronado Bike Path
One of my all-time favorite activities in San Diego is renting bikes and riding the Coronado Bike Path. If you are not local or don’t have your own bikes, there are several bike rental companies on the island. Some even offer bike trailers for rent for the kiddos! Cruise along the beach, into town for ice cream or lunch, and loop around to see downtown San Diego from across the canal. Coronado Beach and Tidelands Park are right off this path, so you could park your car for the day and use the bikes as your mode of transportation around the island for the day!
9. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve ($)
It costs $15-$25 per car for a day pass to hike at Torrey Pines Reserve, but it is worth the peaceful trails and breathtaking views. If you don’t want to pay the daily fee, you can park at the Torrey Pines South Beach Lot for free and walk along the beach to enter the park. It is quite a walk to get to the spot where the trails connect to the sand. Because of that, I decided to just pay the fee and hike down to the beach access point.
Whichever way you do it, you need to keep in mind that you have to visit at low tide if you want to go on the sand. At high tide, the water goes all the way up to the staircase where the trail ends. My daughter really enjoyed getting out of the carrier and playing in the sand! She was also very entertained by the lizards we saw on the trail.
10. Carlsbad Flower Fields
Between March & May, the blooming flower fields are open for visitors. It is $22 per person for a day pass, $10 for ages 3-10, and free under 3 years old. Here you’ll want to snap some gorgeous pictures with the blooming ranunculus fields, take a ride on the tractor (an additional $6 per person), walk through the flower maze, and play at the playground! This can be a day packed full of fun for everyone in the family. Make sure to wear sunscreen because there is not much shade cover.
11. Butterfly Farm
Open from April to November, this educational Butterfly Farm in Encinitas is a fun activity for toddlers that is very inexpensive. The $6 entrance fee goes towards the non-profit that runs the facility and its conservation & research efforts. Although their website says 24 months and under are free, they charged me for my 18-month-old daughter because she can walk. So really, it should say “$6 per walking individual”. It’s half price for active-duty military and their dependents.
Other than walking around to see the butterflies interacting and admiring the flowers, there is not much else to do here for your toddler. This is a fun and inexpensive activity, but will only fill about an hour of your day. There is no shade cover, so come prepared with lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat to protect your little ones from the sun!
12. Seaport Village
Seaport Village is a fun, oceanfront shopping area with tons of food options for the family. Here you can find gift shops with all the cutest souvenirs and trinkets you could ever imagine! There’s an indoor carousel you can take your toddler on, a pier to see boats passing by from, and a famous statue of the nurse and sailor in front of the USS Midway to check out. Everything is within walking distance, but I would suggest using a stroller to get around Seaport Village.
13. Balboa Park
Right next to the famous San Diego Zoo is Balboa Park. This sprawling 1,200 acre park is full of museums, playgrounds, and gardens that your toddler will enjoy. Most of the museums cost to enter, but the gardens and playgrounds are free. For the full list of family friendly things to do in Balboa Park click here: https://www.balboapark.org/itinerary/kids
14. Mission Beach Park
For a fun destination with arcade games, roller coasters, souvenir shops, a playground, and a beach, you will want to visit Mission Beach Park. This can be a very busy area because of all it offers.
15. Del Mar Powerhouse Park & Beach
Our other favorite Beach in the area is Del Mar. It is such a well maintained area, you will undoubtedly feel safe bringing your family there. There’s a snack bar where you can get Thrifty ice cream, hot dogs, and other small meals. Or if you are really hungry, there’s a couple ocean view restaurants. You can also rent surf boards, boogie boards, and other beach accessories nearby. You can even pay for surfing lessons right there on the beach! There’s also a nice grassy area and playground above the beach if your kids get bored of the sand.