San Diego can be a lot of things to a lot of people. But the most popular attractions remain the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, Legoland and the Gaslamp Quarter. If you have little kids, Legoland may be on your agenda or if you are traveling alone or with older children, you may include the Gaslamp, breweries and beaches. For us, it meant hitting the high points which would be our first visit to the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park. We were coming from Texas, so using some advice from The Points Guy (www.thepointsguy.com) we were able to get free travel for our family on Southwest Airlines.
Travel tips: If you want to learn how to fly for free, you should start to follow The Points Guy on Twitter or his blog. It’s both a game and for some a full-time profession, but even those who only dabble in what they call “travel hacking” can easily earn free travel. In addition, when you are traveling from east to west, it’s best to make plans to use the time change to your advantage. For us, that meant we would arrive in California early in the morning, so we still had time to pick up some items at a local Trader Joe’s for our trip (which saves a lot of money) and plan to arrive at the busiest places like the zoo when they opened and were less crowded.
For accommodations, you can stay almost anywhere in San Diego but we chose the Hotel Del Coronado or “the Del”. It is a historic hotel and was the inspiration for the Grand Floridian in Disney World. It has the added advantage of being located on Coronado Island which is great for traveling families. The island is a separate community where you can find shopping and dining while feeling removed from the bigger city.
Since we did arrive early (and after our quick stop for supplies), we were still early enough to use our first afternoon. So we had a quick lunch in town. Burger Lounge is a good option but you can find a number or restaurants on Coronado Island.
After some research, we decided to arrange surfing lessons with the Coronado Surfing Academy. We met them at the edge of the property after checking in. It turns out they are exact same company who does surfing lessons for the hotel but at roughly twice the rate if you book through the concierge. Their agreement with the hotel seems to be you can book with them directly but they can’t conduct outside lessons on The Del property – which is not a problem as you simply walk to the end of the pool area to meet them. We have found this to be the case at most hotels. The concierges mark up local services by a considerable amount when you could simply book them yourself with just a little pre-planning.
The surfing lessons were a highlight of the trip. The Coronado Surfing Academy brought wet suits and boards (which were much lighter than standard surf boards so almost anyone can get up) and then you spend ninety minutes learning to ride waves into the shore. Smaller children will find it easier to get up with their lighter weights and older children will get to learn more about balance and surfing. The instructor was great with children and the time was more than enough to get the full experience.
Dinner was open, so we took a recommendation from the hotel and went across the street to The Brigantine. One of the advantages of visiting California is fresh fish, so we had fish tacos and Wok Charred Ahi at the recommendation of the waiter – and he was right. And then it was an early evening after travel, surfing and dinner – and so we could get an early start at the zoo the next day.
We have found the key to visiting busy places is to take advantage of those early mornings. If you can arrive at the opening, it’s the difference between a full day of crowds and lines versus a half-a-day where you get to see twice as many things before the rush. This was especially true for the zoo. Arriving early, we went straight to the back of the zoo to see the pandas, while everyone else slowly meandered to the back stopping at each area. This allowed us to see the busiest areas by ourselves which included the pandas and polar bears. We then made our way slowly back towards the front as the crowd moved the opposite direction. We also recommend making reservations ahead of time at Alfred’s Restaurant within the park. It is well hidden (we got lost even trying to find it) but this works to your benefit as it is a shade covered patio oasis within the park. The food is overpriced and good, but the break from the zoo made it the best choice by far. We also recommend against the movie experience (we skipped it) as the reviews were pretty consistent that it was expensive and not overly entertaining.
Back on Coronado Island after four hours at the zoo, you allow have time to see Coronado Island; swim in the pool; rent bikes or enjoy dinner at the hotel. In the evening, street vendors were selling light-up sling shots with parachuting/twirling lights (the best way I can think to describe them) for just a few dollars. Everyone seemed to purchase these so children were everywhere running around on the beach; chasing and catching the falling lights.
The next morning we started with breakfast at Snooze, an A.M. Eatery. We know this chain was founded in Denver with locations in California, Arizona and now Texas (Austin and Houston and soon to be Dallas). But it is not in our home town of Dallas yet so this is the perfect spot to get breakfast. The OMG! French Toast with salted caramel, vanilla creme and strawberries is a must try. Combine this with a Pancake Flight (choose three from Peanut Butter Cup, Chocolate Chip, Blueberry and more) and you have a great breakfast to start the day. And then it is over to nearby Balboa Park.
Balboa Park is very large and filled with museums. For our children the Carousel, Fleet Science Center and Air and Space Museum were the highlights. There are also vendors selling snacks and shaved ice as you explore. Try to make a reservation ahead of time if you can for lunch at the Prado. It’s a little pricey but good food and relaxing break from the museums – especially for adults (prickly pear margaritas) and kids (fresh fruit sodas).
Again, starting early affords you time to enjoy the pool in the afternoon. Travel tip: If you are planning a trip to San Diego during the Summer, it’s important to understand “June Gloom”. This phenomenon means cheaper rates at hotels but the majority of the days will be overcast. If you are planning to spend most of your time at parks, zoos and museums, this can be good to keep temperatures low. But if you are wanting to spend time at the beach and pool, it’s best to plan for other times of the year to enjoy the sunshine.
For dinner, my husband insisted on fish and chips which meant the Islander. Afterwards, you can stroll along the street to Nado Gelato for a small dessert to enjoy while you walk back to the hotel for your final evening.
And for more details on surrounding areas see itineraries for Southern California and Ojai, Catalina or destination notes for Joshua Tree/Palm Springs, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Ojai, Catalina Island and Disneyland.