Want to flee the rain, sleet and snow without committing to a long flight and passport hassles? Book a direct flight to San Diego for a long weekend, where you’re practically guaranteed sun and moderate temps. Yes, Legoland, the beach, and Sea World are major attractions here, but this time around, spend your days exploring the world’s largest cultural park, and the 15 museums, 8 botanical gardens, and world-class zoo that it holds.
Balboa Park encompasses 1,200 acres, and you’d have to be a San Diego local to explore every corner of it. Depending on your family’s interests (art, trains, flora, fauna), you can plan out a few days of exploration that will satisfy every educational urge, or just stroll around enjoying the weather and the Spanish-style architecture.
What to Do:
The San Diego Zoo continues to astound with its fantastic programming and only-here exhibits. Families of animal lovers may want to spend more than one day exploring this vast crown jewel of the park, but if you’re just spending one day at the zoo, you’ll want to map out your preferred animals ahead of time to make sure you don’t tire before you get to, say, the pandas. A stop in Panda Canyon, as well as one in the Lost Forest to see the hippos and gorillas (we could watch them all day!), the koala exhibit, and the Polar Bear plunge (re-opened last year after renovations) are must-dos.
And the fairly new Elephant Odyssey exhibit (it was unveiled in 2009) pairs up modern-day animals with their prehistoric counterparts, many of whom roamed the area that is now southern California. Compare a life-size mammoth sculpture with the nearby live elephants, or a saber-toothed cat statue with the jaguar lazing behind the glass partition. It’s a huge addition to the park, size-wise, as well as being an interactive and educational history lesson. And if it’s hard to lure your kids out the park, promise them a ride on the over 100-year-old carousel just outside the zoo grounds.
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center contains an IMAX theater (the oldest in the world), where you and the fam can get lost in the Galapagos, or experience The Ultimate Wave: Tahiti, among other options. There are tons of interactive science exhibits as well (Do, Undo is a fave) and an area especially for kids under 5 called Kid City.
Whether your kid is a dino-freak or loves to look at sparkly gems, the San Diego Natural History Museum has an exhibit they can sink their teeth into. Now through April 3, kids can check out reptiles like a Burmese python and crazy colorful chameleons at the Lizards and Snakes Alive! Exhibit.
Future astrophysicists and pilots will dig the San Diego Air and Space Museum. The new Kids Aviation Action Hangar is a can’t-miss feature, containing flight simulators, a cockpit mock-up, even a an area for “moonwalks.”
Locomotive fanatics will want to chug into the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which boasts an impressive toy train gallery (Plus, admission is free for children under 15!)
Think you might have a future anthropologist on your hands? The San Diego Museum of Man is the only museum in the country devoted to anthropology, and has a Children’s Discovery Center that teaches kids about how people lived in ancient Egypt, as well as how archaeologists and anthropologists have uncovered these mysteries.
With eight different botanical gardens in the park, there are plenty of spots for strolls among the plants of California and beyond. For a calming walk that will put even the most tantrum-y of toddlers into a zen state, the Japanese Friendship Gardens are a highlight of the park. The nearby Spreckels Organ Pavilion offers free concerts every Sunday at 2 p.m., and is lit up beautifully in the evenings.
There’s more, of course, from the San Diego Museum of Art to the Junior Theatre, but you’ll have to tailor your stops to your brood’s interests (and energy level!).
Where to Eat:
Though there are plenty of coffee carts scattered throughout the park where you can pick up a quick snack, the Village Grill serves easy grub like burgers and great people-watching. There’s also the Sculpture Garden Cafe at the San Diego Museum of Art that serves up fresh pizzas and sandwiches.
Outside the park, Jimmy Carter’s Mexican, on Fifth Avenue, is a great place to bring a large group or the family, and the regional specialties listed on the board are surefire hits. Or grab supplies for a picnic at the nearby Marketplace (also on Fifth Avenue), which specializes in sandwiches and salads.
Where to Stay:
Position yourself right near the park’s northern entrance at the Balboa Park Inn, which is located near a Trader Joe’s, a pharmacy, and is in a quieter neighborhood. Rooms have some quirky outdated décor touches (plastic flowers?) but it’s clean, comfortable, and close. There are a ton of hotels in the nearby Gaslamp district, under a mile from a park entrance, but you may have to dodge some downtown nightlife revelers (and panhandlers) if you’re out late. One good budget option with larger rooms for families is the Sheraton Suites San Diego at Symphony Hall.
—Sarah M. Bossenbroek