10 Free Things to Do in San Diego When Your Kids Say 'I'm Bored!'
Kids can drive you up a wall with boredom, but we have the solutions!
The combination of kids, heat, and lots of free time can often put the whole family on edge -- and includes babysitters and nannies, too. And while there are plenty of awesome things to do that cost some dough -- hey, San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Legoland, we’re looking at you! -- there’s also plenty to do that will cost you only what it takes to get there and back, and maybe some sunblock and snacks. In fact, many families may not realize that the San Diego area is a cornucopia of free, fun activities for kids and families!
This means that even families on an extremely tight budget can take part in cultural events and fun experiences that will create beautiful memories for everyone. The beaches are always available, but the San Diego area has so much to offer before you hit the shoreline and ocean. Make a list and stick it on your fridge, or just print this one! And the next time your kids groan about being bored, grab the list and set out on a cost-free adventure!
Address: 14134 Midland Road, Poway, CA 92064
Hours: Open daily, sunrise - sunset | Train runs Sat 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. & Sun 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. (closed second Sunday of month)
There are streams, rivers, and even waterfalls all over San Diego, and many of them are on excellent hiking trails. Some are in parks, like Poway’s Old Poway Park, which has a running stream through its center where frogs croak and grass and flowers grow on the banks. You can find kids splashing in this shallow stream at all hours of the day, scooping up rocks, sliding down the not-too-steep bank sides, and sailing small play boats down the length of the water.
Old Poway Train Park also has the benefit of a large recreational area with a beautiful fountain, two small museums that hold items documenting Poway’s founding and beginning years, and a train that loops around the park. While not free, the ride is extremely cheap at $1 per child.
Address: 1100 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA 92118
Hours: Open daily, sunrise - sunset
The ocean and sandy beach in front of the glamorous and famous Hotel del Coronado, opened in 1888, are among the most thrilling getaways for local San Diegans looking for that “vacation thrill” without the cost. The main beach, Coronado Central Beach, stretches out in the sun 1.5 miles behind the amazing houses on Ocean Boulevard. (Fun fact: The Hotel del Coronado was used in Marilyn Monroe’s 1959 hit “Some Like It Hot.”)
Settle in during the early morning and take a leisurely walk through the streets, which hold charming stores for all ages. Spend the afternoon on the beach’s glorious white sand, swimming, body surfing, or checking out the tide pools. Kids will love these pools, which are satisfyingly full of mysterious rocky holes stuffed with seaweed and crabs. There’s even a dog beach to the north, if you want to spend the day with the family pooch.
Address: 10845 Woodside Ave., Santee, CA 92071
Hours: Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. | Saturday, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. | Sunday, 1 a.m - 4 p.m.
Load up the kids in the car and head out to one of San Diego’s many pet stores. Their live animals offer a great way to enjoy an afternoon without spending money on a petting zoo. Not only will the kids be entranced by the live animals, but they can often learn something about creature care. East County Feed & Supply has a magical, rustic charm and often carries bunnies, kittens, and chickens. The kids can peek at the baby chicks and their irresistible yellow fluff, and maybe even throw some feed.
Going to a new part of town to spend some hours can also be a fun time to stop and eat lunch or simply have an ice cream, if you do have a few dollars to spend. Rita’s Italian Ice or Penguin Yogurt Factory are both great options in Santee for a cold treat.
Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Hours: Open 24/7 | Museum hours vary.
The famous Balboa Park is a sprawling wonderland of family fun. It offers everything from gardens to museums to an oversized fountain (kids can jump in!) And there are free museum days for residents of San Diego, and also for active military and their dependents. Clicking on the Balboa Park link above will show you a list of the free days and corresponding museums, which include the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History.
It’s fun to make a whole afternoon of a visit to Balboa Park. You can walk through the gardens, take in the beautiful koi ponds, mingle around the fountain, and be amused by the mimes and balloon artists who line the streets. There are small shops for snacks and drinks, and bathrooms are readily available. And, of course, if you wanted to tack on a non-free activity, the zoo is also located here!
Phone: 760-745-3023 (San Diego County Farm Bureau)
San Diego is bursting with more than 50 farmers markets on every day of the week. The whole family can browse the vendor offerings and take in the local scenery. Often the farmers markets will have free activities that kids enjoy, like an attached park or lake. You can usually bring your leashed canine friends, too.
Some markets have live music playing, or face painters or balloon artists to enjoy. The Del Mar Certified Farmers Market is handily located right next to a beach. Pack the car with supplies, enjoy the market, and then head off for a day in the waves!
Address: 2415 San Diego Ave., Ste. 104, San Diego CA 92110
Old Town, founded in 1769 and known as the birthplace of California, offers a fun and educational way to spend an afternoon with your family. Around Old Town are different spots to take in free entertainment, like the live mariachi bands or hosts dressed in period attire -- something that typically delights kids. Start at the visitor’s center, where you can pick up an Old Town map and dining guide, which includes a history hunt for the kids. There is also Seeley Stables, which has donkeys (always amusing), as well as stagecoaches and a blacksmith.
Each Saturday during the summer, Stagecoach Days in Old Town will highlight a different aspect of San Diego history with activities and entertainment, like cannon firings, historical reenactments, and crafts. Take a video tour here.
Address: 2710 Manchester Ave., Cardiff, CA 92007
Hours: Open daily, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
The San Elijo Lagoon and Conservatory is one of San Diego’s most amazing free opportunies: a 1,000-mile coastal wetland full of animal life and activities. There are hiking trails geared toward various ages, with the Nature Center Loop Trail being a great choice for smaller kids.
A nature center and interactive museum are available on-site, as well, but you don’t even have to visit those to get a beautiful experience looking at the lagoons, salt marshes, and the native animal and insect life that buzz throughout. Every first Sunday of the month, Family Fun Days provides free guided walks and crafts.
Address: 10710 Scripps Lake Drive, San Diego, CA 92131
Hours: Open daily, 5:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Lake Miramar is the perfect place to picnic and spend the day with your family. A 5-mile track circles the lake, so on days when you want to get some exercise, make your way around the entire loop. The shores push up against a lake full of ducks, geese, and fish, and kids love to throw feed out to the squawking birds.
Lake Miramar also has a large park area with climbing structures, swings, and sand for kids, and picnic tables scattered throughout the green, grassy banks. Trees provide shade, and the wind off the lake is cooling on hot days.
Address: 850 Coast Blvd., La Jolla, CA 92037
Hours: Open daily, sunrise - sunset
Most San Diegans know that La Jolla’s Children’s Pool was supposed to be a swimming area for kids -- hence, the name. In 1931 a sea wall was built to protect the area against hard waves. Eventually that cove filled with sand to form a tiny, beautiful beach where seals made their home in the early ‘90s.
Take your family and visit the seals, and remember the Children’s Pool is closed for the seal pupping season between Dec. 15 and May 15. Kids and adults love visiting these intelligent, funny creatures and watching them swim, play, and roll in the sun. There are plenty of coffee shops, eateries, and ice cream and smoothie shops nearby.
Hours: Starts at sunset
Contact: Via email on website
The County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation started a movement to “take back our parks” with this free movie night that families can enjoy in National City, La Mesa, San Marcos, Poway, Oceanside, Lemon Grove, and several other cities. The 2017 summer season will feature a total of 33 movies at parks and pools all over San Diego area!
Beginning May 20, these family-friendly movies are shown on a 28-foot inflatable widescreen. Parking is usually simple and free, and families can bring a blanket and chairs and have a picnic on the grass while watching the film.