The awesome thing about San Diego is that it offers so many different vacation experiences: stretches of perfect southern California beach, a surfeit of family-friendly attractions, and picturesque, walkable waterfront. Knowing what kind of trip you're looking for can help you determine where to stay and how to apportion your time. Unsure when to go? Don't sweat it. San Diego's climate is welcoming year-round (though May and June can be foggy, and drizzle isn't unknown in December and January). If you can manage a trip in October, you'll find that many of the city's best attractions, including the zoo and the Air & Space Museum, have kids-free policies all month (check individual venues for information).
Beaching it? Bunk down in the classic SoCal beach towns of La Jolla or Encinitas, or the family-friendly Coronado neighborhood. For an urban vibe, well-priced hotels, and easy access to the waterfront and Balboa Park, stay downtown. Great vistas abound in Mission Beach and Mission Bay (both a short hop to SeaWorld), where you can now cycle the entire 14-mile perimeter of Mission Bay Park, thanks to a new bike and pedestrian bridge.
The San Diego Trolley (sdmts.com) is fun and can transport you around the core of the city, but to really experience spread- out San Diego, you'll need a car.
For sheer variety, the restaurants on University Avenue in Hillcrest (including the 1950s-themed Corvette Diner) are unmatched. Fans of locally grown, organic produce will find it in many of the welcoming eateries in North and South Park. Where's the pasta? In Little Italy, of course. And nearly 60 different food trucks serve everything from sushi to patty melts all around the city (sdfoodtrucks.com). Want to eat like a San Diegan? "You can't come to SoCal and not have fish tacos," says native Amy Maikkula, who recommends Roberto's (a local chain with locations across San Diego).
Walk or cycle the downtown waterfront and, in addition to wonderful views across San Diego Bay, you'll find the San Diego Maritime Museum, with maritime exhibits and ten historic vessels to explore (sdmaritime.org), plus the U.S.S. Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier and museum (midway.org). Also part of the waterfront are Seaport Village, a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex (seaportvillage.com), and the fishing piers of Embarcadero Marina Parks (North and South), as well as Broadway Pier (portofsandiego.org/ recreation), where you can book a harbor excursion or catch a ferry to Coronado (sdhe.com).
Gorgeous surf, an expanse of sand that glitters with golden flecks of mica, tide pools, and kid-friendly restaurants nearby make Coronado an ideal family beach. You'll find quiet surf and bonfire rings at La Jolla Shores, tide pools and kayak rentals at nearby La Jolla Cove. "Fire rings go fast, so get there early in the morning and 'reserve' one by tossing in a bunch of wood and leaning your gear on the side," says blogger Local Wally. (Even so, you might have to share.) Get wood at a local supermarket or have it delivered by Rings Afire (ringsafiresd.com). Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve has hiking trails, breathtaking scenery, an uncrowded stretch of sand—and hang gliders (torreypine.org). Amenities of Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, popular with surfers, families, and (often) dolphins, include a great playground, a lifeguard, a concession stand on weekends, and fire rings. (Find information on all beaches at parks.ca.gov.)
Sandiego.org: Official site of the San Diego Visitors and Convention Bureau.Localwally.com: Inside info, including best-of awards and a top 10 list of free and inexpensive things to do.Enlightenedexplorer.com: A guide to the city's top destinations, plus discounted tickets to many popular attractions.Sandiegobargainmama.com: An ever-changing list of events and bargains in and around SD.San Diego Essential Guide app: Covers major attractions and local favorites, with 2,700 photos, directions, pricing, and insider tips. ($2.99, iOS)
1. Download a map or mobile app from the Balboa Park website to help you navigate its 1,200 gorgeously landscaped acres, more than a dozen museums, numerous performing arts venues, eye-popping gardens, and more. (The park is free; to save on museum admissions, buy passes online; balboapark.org; 619-239-0512.)
2. Call ahead to find out if the famous giant pandas will be on view at the San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park. "On cloudier days [common in May and June], the animals tend to be a lot more active," notes mom and San Diegan Aki Martin. ($42 adults, $32 kids 3 to 11; sandiegozoo.org; 619-231-1515)
3. LegoLand boasts kid-sized rides and mind-boggling Lego creations—and a water park. Bring your swimsuits and don't miss Pirate Reef, where you can "battle" fellow guests with water cannons. (LegoLand plus Water Park: $89 adults, $79 kids; california.legoland.com; 760-918-LEGO)
4. The splashy rides and animal shows at SeaWorld are just that, so bring along a change of clothes or rain gear (you can buy ponchos at the park, but they're pricey). If your kids are wild about sea life, consider spending extra for up-close encounters with dolphins, belugas, or penguins. (General admission: $78 adults, $70 kids; seaworld.com; 800-25-SHAMU)