Raising kids isn’t cheap, but we’re here to show you how to entertain them all over the city for pennies! Our list of free and affordable activities for kids includes summer swim-up movies, concerts under the stars, carousel rides, a visit to a fairytale garden and even free admission to LEGOLAND! After all, just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t create priceless family memories. Read on to see that some of the best things in life really are free in kid-friendly San Diego.
1. Dive on in to Summer Movies in the Park and combine your kids’ joy of swimming with their love of films. It’s quintessential summertime fun at its finest and it’s free!
2. Beat the heat by hitting up a local splash pad. You can find free water play all over San Diego to make buckets of fun for kids while keeping them cool.
3. Prevent summer slide by cuddling up with a good book next to sweet therapy dogs at Paws for Reading.
4. Jaunt up to Julian for the Julian Natural Wonderfest. This evening of fun includes education, wildlife, science, wonder, preservation and dark sky appreciation for the whole family. The gathering at Jess Martin Park includes a late night astronomy star party, camp songs, storytelling, nature games, wildlife ambassador encounters, presentations of music and art and outreach booths from land preservation and other local nature-focused organizations.
5. Take your young aviator to make like a pilot at Open Cockpit Days––where he/she can sit in a cockpit and see 31 historical aircraft up close.
6. Celebrate the 3rd Annual National Carousel Day at the historic Balboa Park Carousel. The event is free to attend and will feature musical entertainment, free carousel rides all day, face painting, food vendors, kid’s activities and more fun for the whole family. Want to take a spin on even more carousels for a song? See number 33 below for where to go.
7. Go explore Sunny Jim Sea Cave for just a few bucks. You can descend into the La Jolla Sea Cave via a century old tunnel.
8. Gather your little fishies for a trip to a public swimming pool where you can splash and play the day away. Most charge just $2 per kiddo for entry.
9. Take advantage of your local library’s free and exciting summer programming including wild animal shows like this one.
10. How sweet it is when it’s Donuts Day at Del Mar! Go down to where the turf meets the surf for free coffee, orange juice and decadent donuts to kick start your day. Enjoy delicious treats while listening to Q&A sessions led by track announcer Trevor Denman with world-class jockeys and watching the beautiful horses during their morning workouts. Your kids will love all the free activities being offered including face painting, entertainers, free prizes and a meet and greet with Del Mar Mascot, Pony Boy.
11. Everything is awesome because LEGOLAND California is celebrating its 20th birthday by giving kids ages 3-12 free admission on their birthday throughout 2019! Click here for all the details on this offer. Additionally, LEGOLAND just introduced two new characters to their family: Jake and Emily, who were named in tribute to the two most popular boy and girl baby names the year the Park opened in 1999!
13. Take a Family Discovery Hike at beautiful Mission Trails every fourth Sunday at 3 p.m. Learn about the birds, plants and animals found throughout the park. For more hiking inspo for the whole family, check out the best hiking trails for kids in San Diego.
14. Hike to a giant rock formation that’s shaped like an eagle!
15. Score a sweet deal by visiting an awesome museum for free. Click here to learn about what days our fave family-friendly museums offer free admission.
16. Fly kites, window shop, wander along the bay and watch the ships going by at Seaport Village. You can listen to live music in the food court or pack a picnic. Don’t forget to ride the antique carousel and grab an ice cream cone. Carousel rides cost $3.
17. Visit Myrtle Creek Botanical Gardens & Nursery. You’ll think you just stepped into the pages of a fairytale. Feed the goats (for a small fee), frolic among singing birds and fluttering butterflies and enjoy a picnic in nature.
18. Check out not one, but two historic San Diego ranch houses. The Los Peñasquitos Ranch House is the second oldest standing residence and was built in 1823 by the recipients of the first Mexican land grant in San Diego County. Take a hike around the area, then check out the goats, chickens, veggies, and have some fun in the large open spaces for playtime. Then head to “Carlsbad’s Sleeping Beauty” to see the Leo Carillo Ranch House and prance with the peacocks and play on authentic ranch and farming equipment. Don’t forget to pack a picnic!
19. Get a free lunch or dinner at one of the many delicious restaurants in San Diego where kids eat free.
20. Visit Balboa Park to gain access to an abundance of museums participating in the Kids Free in October promotion we mentioned in #1 on this list. Along the Prado, you’ll also find buskers in the park showcasing their musical talents. It’s a fun way to explore new music for free. Near the Air and Space Museum, find the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre. For only $5 per person (kids under age 2 are free), your family can experience a live show that’s short and sweet. Afterwards, sit with a picnic on a grassy knoll and watch the many planes that fly by on their way to the airport.
21. Head to Old Town to see the birthplace of California. Settled in 1769, many of the buildings in Old Town were built in the early 1800s, which is pretty amazing in itself. See the mission, run around on the green or walk through the village, taking in the sights and scents of old San Diego.
22. Take a trip to North Park for a community art class at Art Produce. Held each Saturday from noon-2 p.m. this drop-in program is perfect for creative kids to try a variety of techniques. Classes are led by professionals who help young artists experiment with an ever-changing array of materials such as paint, pencils, clay, found objects and more. While there, explore the beautiful urban garden and art gallery. Pay what you can/a $5 donation is suggested to cover the cost of supplies.
23. Just under the Coronado Bridge lies Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. Vivid, lively murals depict aspects of San Diego’s Mexican-American heritage including mythology and immigration. Kids especially love the Children’s Mural, which represents drawings and paintings from kids that attended two local elementary schools. Chicano Park is a great place to give kids an art lesson. Visit the park’s interactive website to explore the murals’ history and artists before your visit.
24. Spend a weekend afternoon at Old Poway Park. Located in the heart of Poway, Old Poway Park has everything for a perfect weekend: trains, good food and a place to run around. The Hamburger Factory Restaurant features Old West decor and down-home delicious pancakes, biscuits and hamburgers. After breakfast or lunch, you can hop aboard the train that runs on weekends alongside the park. The train staff is even dressed in vintage clothing. Check the train schedule online for times. Note that the train doesn’t run on the second Sunday of each month. There’s plenty of green grass for kids to play and spaces for you to picnic too. Make a day of it and explore the replica historic schoolhouse and blacksmith. Train rides cost $1-$3.50/person.
25. Check out the Sanford Children’s Library at the Central Library. The library’s Dr. Seuss murals and thousands of books make it a fun, inviting space for kids. Park in the underground lot and get validation to park free for the first two hours.
26. Strike a pose and capture a super hip photo op at one of these Instagrammable murals.
27. Hit the beach. From stretches of shimmery sand at Coronado’s Silver Strand to boogie boarding near the cliffs of Torrey Pines and making waves in Del Mar, nothing is more iconic than a beach day here in San Diego. Want to explore a new beach this summer? Check out our guides to the best local beaches for the kids and your pooch.
28. Go stargazing! Here are the 7 best spots around San Diego to put a twinkle in your eye.
29. Head to one of the best playgrounds in San Diego where kids can slide through a giant bunch of grapes or commandeer a pirate ship!
photo: KJ N. via Yelp
30. See San Diego through a new lens by touring the quirkiest sites in the city: a house perched off the edge of a building, a towering kissing sculpture and more unbelievable sights will wow and delight your brood.
31. Take a family bike ride along one of our favorite kid-friendly bike trails in San Diego!
32. Take a day trip train ride your kids will go loco for! Chug-chug down our brilliant list of 8 train and trolley rides to fast track a good time with your crew. Bonus: Four of these rides are free for kids ages five and under!
33. Pony up (a small amount) for the ride of your kid’s life on one of the most whimsical carousels in SoCal.
35. If your kids are up with the sunrise on a Sunday morning, down some coffee and then strike up some fun by taking advantage of super cheap bowling prices at Mira Mesa Lanes which offers $1.50 games and $1.50 shoe rentals for games purchased prior to 10 a.m. and completed before 11 a.m.
––Cherie Gough, Leah R. Singer, Allison Stabile & Beth Shea