From missions to amusement parks to miles of pristine beaches, San Diego is a world-famous vacation destination. But San Diego’s Mission Bay neighborhood is the local’s secret weapon that is perfect for families: a hidden gem that includes calm bay waters, hotels that invoke Fantasy Island and miles and miles of shoreline to explore.  Plan your next tropical vacation without leaving the lower 48 (no passport required) using our guide to San Diego’s Mission Bay neighborhood.

catamaran beach view san diegoPhoto: Catamaran Resort’s beach by Amber Guetebier

Stay

The Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa (3999 Mission Blvd., San Diego, Ca. 858-488-1081 catamaranresort.com) is a throwback to the early days of Hawaiian travel. Just follow the Tiki torchlight to the fine, white sand. The lobby greets you with a rush of the tropics: a waterfall and lush bromeliads quickly lead you to believe you are in Waikiki. The hotel has plenty of modern amenities ideal for the a vacationing family. Even if you don’t score a bay front room you’ll still be just a quick stroll through a tropical courtyard from the beach. Suites include a separate sleeping area and a pullout couch, which means you can close the door for the little ones with earlier bedtimes or let the tweens giggle the night away while you catch some zzzs. From June through Labor Day the hotel includes nightly movies on the beach, daily morning yoga, poolside crafts and an evening cruise on the Bahia Bell, a turn-of-the century sternwheeler. There’s even a twice-weekly luau complete with Polynesian dancers and a 3 p.m. bird show where beautiful talking parrots will amuse the littles (and you!). If the Catamaran is booked, try their sister property, the Bahia Resort Hotel (998 W. Mission Blvd., San Diego, Ca 858-488-0551, bahiahotel.com) just a few minutes across the Bay which offers similar rooms and a family friendly atmosphere. Rates start at $179.

Insider tip: Less than a half-mile from the Catamaran along the breezy bay-front walk is a playground.

San Diego: catamaran lobby Photo of Catamaran lobby by Amber Guetebier

If you want to feel like a celebrity trying to escape the paparazzi, the Paradise Point Resort & Spa (1404 Vacation Rd., San Diego, Ca 858-274-4630, paradisepoint.com) offers chic bungalows in a tropical oasis. This once-secret getaway for Hollywood glitterati was built by Jack Skirball, a movie exec and set builder who wanted a personal island getaway. Sure, the 44-acre resort has hosted such memorable guests as Johnny Cash, but don’t be intimidated. This place is as family friendly as they come, with a Surf School, bike rentals, bocce ball, the Island Adventure Club for younger ones and more. The spa actually has special treatments catered to kids! Rates start at $175.

Insider tip: Hidden around the island are iconic movie pieces, like the porpoise fountain from the set of Cleopatra!

paradise point sunset from Tidal patioPhoto of sunset at Paradise Point by Amber Guetebier

Play

Mission Bay offers calm waters and is a great spot for the kids to try out sea kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding or sailing. Most of the resorts offer rentals and lessons. You can grab bikes and segways for rent and explore the 27 miles of path along the Bay. Many hotels, including the Catamaran, offer ticket packages for San Diego’s big attractions including SeaWorld (500 Sea World Dr., San Diego, Ca seaworldparks.com) which is right on Mission Bay and in the summertime hosts nightly fireworks). From the Paradise Point you can grab a water taxi right to SeaWorld!

Mommy’s Lil’ Helper: Don’t forget to book a treatment at one of the resort spas. Even if you aren’t a guest at the Catamaran you can use the spa facilities for $35 and that includes the steam room, sauna and Vitamin-C infused showers. Better yet, book a treatment. C’mon, you’re in paradise! 

Belmont Park -Courtesy SanDiego.org                                                                                        Photo of Belmont Park courtesy sandiego.org

Mission Bay borders Pacific Beach (locals answers vary on the exact border). It’s the quintessential SoCal beach: white sand, surfers and plenty of sunshine. Just steps from the beachfront promenade you’ll find Belmont Park, an amusement park that offers a number of rides including many for the under 42-inch crowd. Featuring one of the West Coast’s oldest roller coasters (relax, it’s just one minute and forty-five seconds of your life flashing before your eyes), as well as a zipline, a climbing wall, an arcade, bumper cars and more, it’s just big enough to wow the kids and manageable enough to not exhaust mom and dad.

Insider tip: Be on the lookout for Slomo, the infamous slow roller skater whose become a local legend.

cannonball at belmont park san diegoPhoto of Cannonball view by Amber Guetebier

Eat

There is no shortage of exquisite food in this part of San Diego. At the Catamaran, Moray’s features tons of edibles the kids will love plus a live tank of jellyfish in the inside (though we think you’ll probably want a beach-view table on the patio). On “the island” at the Paradise Point the award-winning Tidal offers absolute gourmet with a vibe and a view that is not-to-be-missed. On site at the Paradise there’s also the Barefoot Bar & Grill which hosts a family concert every Sunday through Sep. 27.

At Pacific Beach, try Cannonball, (3105 Ocean Front Walk, San Diego, Ca 858-228-9304 cannonballsd.com) a Japanese influenced rooftop restaurant that looks like you’re in a pool. It’s just a few yards from Belmont Park and offers an uninterrupted view of the sea. For a date night sans kids hit JRDN (pronounced “Jordan”) at the Tower23 Hotel (723 Felspar St. San Diego, Ca t23hotel/dining.com. As artful as it is delicious with seafood so fresh it’s like the chef just scooped it right from the ocean, this is one of the most upscale joints in the area. But true to San Diego’s overall laid back vibe, sandals and shorts are always acceptable attire. Just a stone’s throw from the Catamaran La Playa Tacos (3973 Mission Blvd,, San Diego, Ca 858-488-7405) is a great spot to fill up those little tummies with some of the best fish tacos in the area. Locals love Kono’s Cafe (704 Garnet Ave., San Diego, Ca, 858-483-1669, konoscafe.com) for breakfast. Check out The Patio on Lamont (4445 Lamont St., San Diego, Ca, patioonlamont.com) for a brunch-all-day kinda vibe that includes cocktails served as early as 9 a.m. (because, you know, you’re on vacation!) Cheers!

Have you explored Mission Bay with your family? Let us know your go-to spots in the comments below. 

—Amber Guetebier