Teens can be picky, and I don’t have the easiest teenagers myself. So on a recent long weekend getaway in San Diego, I planned out our days carefully with them in mind and hooray, it worked!
Planning is the key to a good family vacation with teens. Especially when you get your kids involved in the planning.
So if you’re trying to figure ot what to do in San Diego with teens or older kids, you’re in luck. There’s so much! Skip LEGOLAND and SeaWorld (ed: for sure), and check out these ideas instead.
Top: Surf classes at the Hotel Del Coronado
Ride bikes in Coronado
San Diego is a fabulous teen getaway inn part because of the weather, the weather, the weather! Being a Southern Californian city, you have sunshine pretty much all the time, even in the evenings, which makes bike riding a must-do.
You can easily rent bikes either in or around Hotel Del Coronado or in the downtown area.
There’s a 6-mile bike loop on Coronado that makes for a great, healthy bike ride around the island; the ride is ultra-scenic, with stopping points at sites such as Tidelands Park and Silver Strand Beach, located along the Bayshore Trail just under the Coronado Bridge. It’s a fun hour and goes quickly.
While some teens can be lazy or want to just “chill” on vacation, given the views on this journey, I imagine you won’t get many complaints.
Hit the beaches in San Diego
You can’t go wrong by planning a trip to any Southern Californian beach, with the glistening sea and white sands. It gives teens the opportunity to sunbathe, go surfing, collect seashells, go jogging, or just chill (as I was saying). Plus, there’s always ice cream!
You certainly have beach choices when you travel to San Diego: Look into La Jolla Cove, Coronado Beach, Mission Beach, Moonlight State Beach, Mission Bay Park, and Bonita Cove.
All of these beaches are good for a full day, or just a half day if you’re packing more into your weekend.
Watch the hang gliders at the Torrey Pines Gliderport…or try it yourself, if you dare!
At the Tory Pines Gliderport, a private airport in La Jolla, people can learn to fly, go tandem hang gliding, or try paragliding. But don’t worry — you don’t have sign your teens up. Unless you want to. If your teens are daredevils, kids of all ages can go paragliding tandem with an instructor.
Otherwise, visit the deck viewing space — or what has been coined as the Cliffhanger Cafe patio. My own kids didn’t go up in the air, but my flight-obsessed son loved watching the hang gliders and would have stayed all day if we had let him.
Eat amazing Mexican food…
You generally can’t go wrong with Mexican food in Southern California, and that goes double for San Diego, especially considering how close the city is to the border.
Need some recon? Our must-visit Mexican eateries in San Diego include Las Olas in Cardiff, Casa de Bandini in Carlsbad, and Puesto in either La Jolla or downtown San Diego. Your kids can get their fill of tacos and guac, while you can suck down a margarita (or two) and enjoy the down time.
….and finish it off with ice cream
Be sure to end your night with a stop at one of San Diego’s best ice cream shops. There are so many serving incredible treats. If your kids are adventurous, try Korean-inspired SOMISOMI shown here, which offers flavors like matcha & black sesame, custard, red bean, taro…and then there’s always Nutella. They have two San Diego locations, one on Convoy Street and one on Mira Mesa Blvd.
Hike Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
If you and your teenagers love the outdoors, a hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a must. The trails are wide, easy to climb, and the views of the Pacific Ocean are stunning. Plus there are caves and rocks for teens to climb on, so it’s more active than teens might imagine from a a nature reserve.
If you’re looking for a place to start, my own kids really enjoyed the Guy Fleming Trail, one of the simpler hiking routes.
Pro budget tip: There’s parking along the beach if you want to avoid the $15 parking fee.
Check out the San Diego street art
San Diego has a vibrant art scene worth exploring, and much of it is outdoors on the city’s streets.
Instagram-happy teens will want to shoot and share these incredible murals and mosaics heavily. Which can be a great way to inspire them to talk aa walk with you, should they balk at the suggestion of “looking at art.”
Highlights: This Could Be You in Little Italy, Greetings from San Diego in North Park, and What’s Your Favorite Color in La Jolla.
Smile, at 1st Ave and C Street (by Pandr Design Co, shown above) is basically made for social media — you’ll all love it.
Take a Walk on Mission Beach Boardwalk
If your teenagers love a good walk, head to Mission Beach’s boardwalk, which goes on for 3.5 miles from North Pacific Beach to Mission Beach and then onto South Mission Beach. Don’t worry, there’s plenty to see and do that teens will love — and so will you.
Mission Beach is a throwback for adults and teens alike, with nostalgic, good, old-fashioned fun. Older kids can go biking or roller-skating on the boardwalk; in fact, let them go on their own. They’ll appreciate getting some adult-free time, and hey, it’s your vacation too. One of the cool things about travel with teens is being able to split up from time to time.
You can also head to an amusement park, sit down for a snack, grab an ice cream, or just stroll around to people watch and window shop.
Go seal and sea lion spotting at La Jolla Cove
If your teens are budding photographers or just love animals, have them get their cameras ready during a visit to La Jolla Cove, part of a marine ecological reserve. Here you’ll find sea lions and gulls galore with the magnificent Pacific Ocean in the background.
It’s totally worth the 30 minute walk along Coast Boulevard to see the seals and sea lions up close. Pro tip: Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave, the Children’s Pool, and La Jolla Cove are my favorite viewing spots.
It’s also part of the Coastal Walk to La Jolla Shores, should you want to turn your visit into the start of a beach day.
Shop until you all drop
My teens are big shoppers, so when they start to show signs of fatigue from sight-seeing, we hit the stores. And San Diego has some great shopping districts.
Start at the Gaslamp Quarter, for sure. Beyond stores, they have a cool Artisan Market on 5th, every Sunday.
But also check out Westfield Horton Plaza (downtown), East Village, the Form in Carlsbad, and Hillcrest Fashion Valley in Mission Valley are terrific neighborhoods, with the kids of shops kids like. As in, more Urban Outfitters, less Gucci.
Spend time at the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park
You may think that it’s not a “teen thing,” but the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park will appeal to even cynical teens, because the animals there are so rare. Make it a priority to visit their three panda bears, Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Xiao Liwu, or at least the two open to the viewing public.
Other must-sees include the Polar Bear Plunge, a ride on the Skyfari Aerial Tram, and seeing the elephants, hippos, and koalas. Plus, there are some decent stop for lunch beyond the expected fast food fare. Albert’s Restaurant is a favorite, and they even take reservations.
While you’re in the area, there’s a lot to do in Balboa Park, including a modern railroad museum, craft fairs and concerts, and lovely little Japanese gardens. Check to see what events are happening during your time in San Diego.
Stay at the Hotel Del Coronado and never leave
If you’re not doing a budget trip, teens will love staying at the Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Island. This legendary resort was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, and so many films have been shot there, it’s fun to see all the familiar locales. (Perhaps the most famous: Some Like it Hot.) Especially if you take a tour of the hotel.
It’s nothing like a time share tour, promise!
It was built as a seaside resort so of course it has a stunning beach, along with onsite restaurants, multiple swimming pools, and activities like kayaking, surfing, and tennis. There are also spa treatments for teens if you’re indulging, and teens have their own lounge which is pretty cool.
Even the fitness classes have teen appeal — mermaid fitness (yes, really!) accepts teens 14 and up provided you join them.
My kids love the s’mores roasting opportunities and movies on the beach at night, their haunted happenings tours, and tacos by the water. It’s so amazing, you may be tempted to want to stay there your entire trip. I know I did!
But there’s so much to do and see in San Diego with teens, I’m really glad we got out.
San Diego is great! But don’t go to the zoo trying to see the Pandas because I believe May 2019 they were sent back to a China.
Thanks, Meredith! I updated the article. The pandas are surely missed.