A Local’s Guide For Must-See Destinations in Southern California with Kids!

I grew up in Southern California.  I loved adventuring with my family to new places within our community.  When I got married, Tyler and I moved and have spent all of our married life away from California.

One of the best parts about living away from this beautiful state, is getting to come back and visit with our children.  I love being able to see the boys experience the things that I got to experience as a child.  It makes being a parent so magical.  Here is a list of our very favorite things to do as a family when we come to visit.

1) Disneyland

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We love visiting Disneyland when we are in Southern California.  There is something for everyone in the family.  There are 2 parks to visit, Disneyland and California Adventure.  I love both.  We celebrated one of our sons’ birthdays this last trip and chose to stay on the Disneyland side for the whole day.  We went on almost every single ride in the park.  We left feeling accomplished and like it was totally worth every penny.  We all had a blast.  And were exhausted the next day.

Pro Tips:

Plan to go to the park(s) when you can have the next day off.  I’ve found that if I have at least one day between adventuring, my boys will have enough rest and we can avoid melt downs all together. Yay! Opt to bring a stroller, even if you don’t have kids who ride inside of them.  Strollers can help with holding bags while you are walking, extra waters, etc.  Leave your selfie sticks at home (they are not permitted in park). Get the Disneyland App.  You can get LIVE wait times for all you favorite rides, find out what rides have broken down, maps, showtimes, fastpass information, etc.  Honestly, using the app was the only way we got in as much as we did on our last trip. It is a free download, and truly invaluable.

2) Visit Parks

One of my favorite things to do with my boys, is to take them to parks.  This is, actually, not just limited to Southern California. We love visiting new places and checking out their parks.  Irvine, California has some of the BEST parks that we have been to. A few of our favorites are Adventure Playground and Treehouse Park.  We have always found parks in areas we are visiting by Googling them.  Usually, you can find useful information like if they have public restrooms, water fountains, seating, park times and see photos of the parks, as well.  The boys love to run and be free, and parks are always a good way to break-up a typical sight-seeing vacation.

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Pro Tips:

Adventure Playground has lots of different areas to play in.  There is an amazing fort-like playset, sand, dirt and lots of trucks to play with, giant legos, and a water area.  Plan on getting dirty, they have a wash station when you leave.  There are bathrooms and a couple of volunteers manning a check-in desk, in case some kiddos decide to take off without their moms or dads.  There is one entrance in and out.   Bring sunscreen, water, snacks and/or lunch and some chairs to sit on (they have a few, but they get taken quickly.)

Treehouse Park is in the middle of a community.  I have heard that they are planning on closing the park off to the public.  I had no problems accessing it.  The giant tree house is accessible to play in.  It also provides a large shaded area for kids to play underneath.  There is a ton of space to run around.  There are 2 separate play areas in addition to the treehouse area.  On one side, there is a neat toddler area with swings and a tunnel to crawl through.  And on the other side, a large area for climbing.  Those areas are in the sun.  I would recommend putting sunscreen on your kids or going in the morning when it is cooler.  There is a water bottle filling station, a drinking fountain, picnic tables and bathrooms.

3) Tide Pools

There are several different places to visit tide pools along Southern California’s coast.  Visiting tide pools is not your average beach trip.  My boys love the tide pools.  It gives them a chance to see some sea life in their natural habitat.  Some of the tide pools we have enjoyed include:

Little Corona Del Mar Tide Pools| 3712 Ocean Blvd, Corona Del Mar, CA 92625

Crystal Cove State Park| 8471 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Dana Point Tide Pools| 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, CA 92629

Pro Tips:

Little Corona Del Mar has parking off the street since it is a residential area.  You have to walk down a steep hill to get to these tide pools.  There is a shower halfway up the hill with bathrooms located there.  There is a lifeguard stand, though I have never seen it occupied by a lifeguard.  Dana Point has a parking lot behind the Ocean Institute that has free parking.  There is also a restroom located next to this parking lot.  The tide pools are to the north of the Ocean Institute, down a set of stairs.  If you hike along the rocks until the end, there is a small sea cave, that is only accessible when it is low tide.  Crystal Cove requires a fee to park.  There are several different tide pools to see here, Reef Point, Rocky Bright, Pelican Point, North End Treasure Cove.  Before you go to any tide pools, wear a good pair of shoes that have thick soles and that you don’t mind getting wet.  Remember, to always check the status of the tide.  You want to go when the tide is low so that you can see as much sea life as possible.  And take your time looking!  Many of these sea creatures are camouflaged and you would never know they were there!  You may see shells moving about that are actually crabs or if you are lucky, a small octopus that blends in with the rocks!

4) MLB Baseball Games

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Since Tyler and I have been married, we have never lived close to a city with a major league baseball team.  Which seems crazy to me, because I can remember going to games all the time when I was a girl.  I loved everything about them.  Aside from the actual game itself, the whole experience of being in a huge stadium was thrilling.  The smell of popcorn, the sounds of the crowds and snack vendors yelling out for treats like cotton candy, and doing the wave with the whole stadium.  We brought our boys to their first MLB game this summer. To say it was a hit, would be an understatement.  Both boys got caught up in the excitement and the cheering and the ICEEs.  There are a number of stadiums in Southern California.  Many offer “cheap seats” so you can catch a game for less than $20 a ticket, if you don’t mind sitting in the nosebleeds!

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim | Anaheim, CA

Dogers | Los Angeles, CA

Padres | San Diego, CA

Pro Tips:

We always buy tickets on the MLB website.  It is easy to navigate and we have found that if you look the game up ahead of time, some games will have promotional items given out free, have themed nights, fireworks or even outdoor movies after the games.  But be aware that if you go to a game on a promo night,  its going to be packed, because lets face it, who doesn’t love free swag?

5) Beaches

The beach is a MUST every trip we visit.  Southern California has some of the best beaches I have ever seen.  These beaches have the softest sand, perfect for strolling or lounging about in.  Some people hate sand, I have come to embrace it in my child-rearing years.  It ends up being more of a headache to try and avoid it, than not!  Another bonus, there are so many beaches to chose from! You could plan a whole vacation around visiting different beaches.  Some of our favorite beaches include: Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Corona Del Mar (Big & Little), Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove, Moonlight Beach, and La Jolla.

Pro Tips:

There is SO much to do at any of these beaches… I will end up doing another blog post, dedicated to beaches!  Some of these beaches have parking lots that require fees, while others are off street parking.  It is best to look up ahead of time what is required so you can best be prepared.  Side note: Newport Beach has both off street parking, as well as parking lots.  You can pay at a machine for lot parking or you can pay from your phone with the Parkmobile App.  It is, honestly, the best way to go.  You can save all of your info in the app which makes for easy payments and you can even add time from your phone instead of having to go back to the lot to pay more money. I wish everywhere used the  Parkmobile App because it is SO easy and convenient. 

6) Museums & Missions

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One of the my favorite things about California, is the richness of it’s history.  When I was a girl in elementary school, it was a requirement that we learn about the missions of California.  I love how unique the missions are to this state!  These missions, that stud the California coastline from top to bottom, were built by the Spanish in an attempt to convert Native Americans to Catholicism in the 18th century.  Now, most of these missions still hold masses on Sundays, have a museum and are open to visitors.  For more info about the California missions, visit here.

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There are so many neat local museums to visit, as well.  My youngest son is extremely into airplanes right now and we found the coolest Air Museum behind John Wayne Airport.  The Lyon Air Museum has old, restored aircraft from WWII,  as well as some modern airplanes. The museum is in a hanger right off the tarmac.  There are planes to see inside and outside.  The best part is being, literally, RIGHT next to the airstrip at John Wayne and seeing all the planes take off.  It was easily the highlight for my little airplane fanatic.

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Some other fun museums to visit:

Discovery Cube | Santa Ana, CA

The Children’s Museum | La Habra, CA

Pretend City | Irvine, CA

International Surfing Museum | Huntington Beach, CA

Discovery Cube’s Ocean Quest | Newport Beach, CA

Surfing Heritage and Culture Center | San Clemente, CA

Balboa Park | San Diego, CAUSS Midway Museum | San Diego, CA

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum | San Diego, CA

San Diego Air & Space Museum | San Diego, CA

Pro Tips:

Look on Groupon before going to your museums to purchase tickets.  We have been able to get into many museums for half price this way, including the Lyon Air Museum.  Also look on the museums’ website.  Often times, especially during the summer months, you will see special events going on.

7) Local Shopping Places

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I love to add shopping areas into our itinerary, especially in California.  The shopping is always good and newer developments truly seem to be destinations of entertainment.  You will often find movie theaters, game centers, and other exciting activities.  Some of our favorite places to go include:

Fashion Island | Newport Beach, CA

Irvine Spectrum Center | Irvine, CA

South Coast Plaza | Costa Mesa, CA

The Camp | Costa Mesa, CA

Seaport Village | San Diego, CA

Pro Tips:

Many of these shopping areas are outdoors.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, sunglasses and water.  In the summer months, it can get a bit warm.  Bring a light jacket for evenings in case it is cooler. The Irvine Spectrum also has a splash pad, so if you plan on letting the kiddos get wet, bring a towel and change of clothes.

8) Surf City Nights Certified Farmer’s Market

This is a farmers market that happens every Tuesday on Main Street in downtown Huntington Beach from 5-9 pm.  You will find tons of local goods including produce and baked goods.  There are a variety of food vendors to eat dinner at.  Our favorite are the Papusas, which are basically a Salvadoran tamale, but the ratio of masa dough to filling is way better and it comes with salsa, pickled veggies and sour cream.  I recommend the pork.  There are also restaurants to eat at.  Another food favorite are mini bundt cakes that are sold by a vendor called Dolce Monachelli.  Do yourself a favor and get the Italian Butter Rum Cake.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I dream of and drool for these things.  They have other flavors, as well, but the butter rum is the best.  Get there early they sell out fast! On top of the amazing food finds, you can find tons of entertainment for you and the kids.  There are live bands, petting zoos, face paintings, ballon artists and lets not forget about strolling down the beach on the other side of PCH.  Don’t miss out on this one, it is so much fun for the whole family.

Pro Tips:

Make sure to bring cash.  Most of the vendors do accept cards, but a few still don’t.  And its always fun to let the kiddos give the street performers tips for the awesome job they do!

I hope you all can go on some fun adventures and enjoy exploring California like a native Californian would!

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