6 FUN Southern California Family Vacation Spots

With its world-famous amusement parks, miles of beaches, sunny weather all year long, and plenty of museums, Southern California is a great destination for family vacations. The question isn’t whether you should put California on your vacation bucket-list, but which specific destinations work best for families.

If you’re planning a Southern California family vacation, this guide lays out the top 6 best places to visit in this region of California with kids.

From beaches to national parks, and of course – Disney – a family vacation in Southern California is sure to be a memorable one for your kids and for you.

LOOKING FOR OTHER PLACES TO VISIT IN CALIFORNIA? READ OUR GUIDE TO THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO WITH KIDS.

Southern California family vacation spots that are SUPER fun for kids

Having visited the Golden State numerous times with kids of varying ages – here are the Southern California family vacation destinations I recommend most.

1. Anaheim

Disney California Adventure Park - one of the top places to visit on a southern california family vacation
The Disney Resorts, like Disney’s California Adventure Park and Disneyland are the top destinations for a Southern California family trip. | Photo by Kitty from Kitty Meets World

No question about it – Anaheim is probably the first Southern California family vacation destination to come to mind when traveling with children – thanks to the world-famous Disneyland Resort – ranked among the best amusement parks in the United States.

Tickets for the two Disney parks, Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, do not come cheap but you will find plenty of motels and hotels in any price range nearby. As the ticket price per day gets lower the longer you stay, I would recommend at least three days to be able to enjoy all the parks have to offer without wearing yourself out.

If Disney doesn’t have enough theme parks for you, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park is just a couple of miles away. A less expensive alternative, it is well-known both for its traditional rides and its rollercoasters.

But you have other options while based in Anaheim – the Orange County Fair takes place just down the road in Costa Mesa every year in August. Here you will find a mix of old and new attractions as well as pretty much any fried food you can think of! 

We also had a blast at the Discovery Cube in Orange, a hands-on learning center for children. And you can easily take a trip up to LA or to a beach town either by train or car.

For a nice sandy beach in Orange County, head to Newport Beach or Crystal Cove State Park.

2. Los Angeles

the stars on the sidewalk along the hollywood walk of fame
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the top sites in Los Angeles, but the city has so much more to offer families! | Photo by Kitty from Kitty Meets World

Los Angeles has so much to offer for families that you could spend a month here without running out of things to do. As an extra bonus many of LA’s attractions are completely free

Hollywood may be tacky but especially for older kids/teens the mix of iconic sights that look like the sets of some of their favorite movies and smaller attractions is great fun. Taking in a movie at the El Capitan Theatre followed by a treat at the adjacent Ghirardelli Soda Fountain will be one of the highlights of your family trip!

The Natural History Museum and the (free!) California Science Museum are definite must-sees for kids. My children loved looking at the recreated prehistoric animals at the La Brea Tar Pits (and the distinctive smell – or more accurately stink – has an appeal of its own for kids!) 

Anyone interested in cars will love the Petersen Automotive Museum (trust me, it is even fun if you couldn’t care less about vehicles). 

Don’t forget to check for special family events when planning your Southern California family vacation. The Getty Museums as well as LACMA offer a wide variety of hands-on activities, movie showings, festivals, and concerts geared to families.

the entrance to the krustyland ride at universal studios in california
Universal Studios is another great theme park in southern California for families. | Photo by Tommao Wang from Unsplash

Of course, Universal Studios Hollywood is a must-visit for both movie lovers and theme park enthusiasts.

Of course, no trip to Los Angeles would be complete without going to the beach. Whether you opt for swanky Malibu, the upscale Santa Monica Pier, or the rather grimy Venice Beach will depend on your personal taste (and the age of your children!)

Family friendly Los Angeles hotels

3. San Diego

a boardwalk along mission beach in san diego running along the sandy beach
San Diego has a relaxed vibe with a strong Latin American influence. | Photo by Sean Mullowney from Unsplash

San Diego is one of the best spring break destinations for families. It is ideal if you are looking for a city that is a bit easier to navigate than LA but still has a lot to offer. The vibe here is much more relaxed and heavily influenced by nearby Mexico.

One caveat: If you are not specifically in town to attend Comic Con, I would recommend that you avoid visiting in late July as prices and crowds are high.

Don’t miss out on Old Town San Diego – it is a bit touristy but offers a great mix of educational activities (don’t miss the small textile museum), dining, and shopping. I love places where kids can buy cool treats or souvenirs for just a couple of dollars. Here they have the choice between Mexican sodas, old-fashioned candy, gems, and many other small treasures.

balboa park in san diego
Balboa Park is not only beautiful, but it is home to 18 museums and the San Diego Zoo. |Photo by Leslie Cross from Unsplash

Balboa Park is not only one of the biggest parks in the US but is also the home of 18 museums. Many of the museums – like the Fleet Science Center, Comic-Con Museum, the San Diego Air & Space Museum or the Model Railroad Museum – will be of special interest to families. 

In addition, the San Diego Zoo is located in the famous park near Downtown San Diego. If you enjoy animal parks and have a car, the zoo’s sister institution, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido makes for an easy excursion.

The beach is part of what makes San Diego special. Our favorite Southern California family vacation activity in San Diego is to take the ferry across to Coronado, explore the iconic Hotel del Coronado, spend time at the beach, and stroll along the cute main street with its many restaurants and local shops.

4. Carlsbad

a beach in Carlsbad California
The beaches in Carlsbad are beautiful and make for a great family vacation spot in Southern California. | Photo by Samantha Jean from Unsplash

All the beach towns along Southern California’s coast make a great destination for families. However, Carlsbad is an especially good choice due to its central location and the nearby family attractions.

Especially with smaller children, Legoland California will make for a great day out. Aside from the usual rides the whole family can admire Miniland USA with Lego-recreations of famous US cities and sights and take part in a factory tour. This amusement park is a bit more hands-on than most and offers kids a chance to build and play. But whatever you do, don’t miss out on trying Granny’s Apple Fries, a truly delicious treat!

a statue of liberty replica built from LEGOs
MiniLand USA is a fun exhibit to see at LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, California. | Photo by Samuel Ramos from Unsplash

Next to the main park you will also find a Sealife Aquarium and the Lego Water Park so you can easily keep everyone entertained for a couple of days. And if you happen to be in town during the spring, the nearby Flower Fields will be in bloom and adds another unique highlight to Southern California family vacations.

The town of Carlsbad with its vaguely European vibe boasts plenty of restaurants as well as gorgeous beaches. But if you run out of things to do in town, Carlsbad is a great base for easy day trips to the Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, hiking at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve or even a road trip to San Diego.

5. Big Bear

boats docked on Big Bear Lake in southern california
During the summer months, Big Bear Lake is a wonderful place for outdoor adventures on a Southern California family vacation. | Photo by Kitty from Kitty Meets World

Big Bear is the closest ski area to LA and very popular all year long. It makes a great destination if you are looking for nature and a slower pace than you will find in Southern California’s big cities and amusement parks.

Aside from hiking and spending time on the lake, the Big Bear Alpine Zoo is a big draw. This rehabilitation center houses injured or orphaned animals as well as bears that posed a danger to humans and had to be contained. Depending on circumstances, the animals either stay there permanently or are prepared for a return to life in the wild.

Families will have a blast at the Big Bear Discovery Center, a visitor center staffed by volunteers. We took part in an orienteering activity and a rocket-building competition. Both were well-run and great fun for the entire family. They also had a gold panning activity (with fake gold) that my kids loved so much they begged to do it twice. 

If visiting in winter, Big Bear is a great place to teach young children to ski. Just be sure to pack the right ski clothing. Winter temperatures in Big Bear are much different than they are in many of the other Southern California family vacation spots. 

6. Palm Springs

the view from the aerial tram in Palm Springs
A Scenic Ride Up The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Is One Of The Best Things To Do In Palm Springs For Families. | Photo By Jess Joyce On Unsplash

Palm Springs is less well known as a family destination but well worth considering. We visited in early September and while we did have a great time it was incredibly hot. If you do not fancy spending a good part of the day inside, try to avoid summer.

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens has a strong focus on animals living in hot and arid zones. They offer a variety of interactive activities – beware though: on our visit it was so hot that the giraffes had no interest in being fed! The Discovery Center offers a welcome break from the sun and heat as well as interesting educational talks.

If visiting Palm Springs with kids, your little ones will have lots of fun at the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert. It has been closed for a while now but is slated to re-open in March of 2024. Based on our past experience it is definitely worth checking out!

Another not to be missed activity for families is of course the Aerial Tramway. In about ten minutes, the tram cars will whisk you up to the Mountain Station in Mt. San Jacinto State Park at an elevation of 8,516 feet. The view from the top of the tram is stunning! From there you can take part in guided nature walks or hike on your own. And due to the higher altitude, this is another chance to escape the stifling heat of the desert.

a rocky desert landscape in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park Is Known For Its Beautiful Desert Landscapes. | Photo By Roberto Nickson On Unsplash

If time allows, make the short drive to Joshua Tree National Park. This 800,000-acre desert park is an amazing place for a family-friendly rock climbing tour, a hike, or even a camp out in one of the International Dark Sky Parks. 

But don’t underestimate the fun to be had just hanging out at the hotel pool. Due to the warm climate, you will find much better and nicer pools in the Palm Springs area than in most of the rest of Southern California. So, make sure you have enough time during your family vacation in Southern California to just chill out and relax!

Final Thoughts on the best family vacations in Southern California

Southern California truly has it all when it comes to family vacations. As one of the most historical states to visit in the USA, you’ll find so much to do in SoCal with kids.

Whether you enjoy shopping, museums, historical sights, nature, the beach or a combination thereof – you can easily find something to love for all the people in your family.

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Do you have a question or comment about any of these family vacations in Southern California? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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