Photo: by @famdiego at San Diego Botanic Garden
Our Summer Bucket List is obviously very different this year. I’m definitely missing some of our favorite summer activities, like the night time Zoo, but we’ve been exploring new places and making new memories nonetheless. The amazing thing about living in San Diego is how big it really is and how many places there are to still explore while being socially distanced this summer.
What I’ve chosen to include on here are places where we know it’s easier to spread out and be more socially distant. These can fluctuate from the time of day, to the days of the week. We’ve found the least crowded times are weekday mornings or weekday evenings, so that’s usually when we’re out exploring.
Just because I call this a “bucket list”, don't feel like you have to go out and accomplish everything, or anything!, on this list if you’re not comfortable with it. Everyone’s comfort levels are all over the spectrum right now so whatever you’re doing and feeling is right for your family, then that’s the right thing for you to do. Use your own judgement. Use caution. Use precautions.
Disclaimer: Since things are constantly changing, please check directly with each place before you head out in case their hours or other info have changed. And just because I have these places listed here, doesn’t mean they’re “safe” and you can’t catch COVID or anything else; I can’t and won’t guarantee that so that’s my disclaimer. Also there may be some affiliate links in this post for which I may receive a very small commission for if you click on the link and make a purchase within the 24 hours after clicking on it.
Here are some of our favorite spots to get some fresh air and be distanced from others.
-- Balboa Park --
Weekday mornings are the best time to come here. Most museums are closed, but there’s so much more than museums here. There are lots of fun trails and gardens to explore. Bring a blanket and a picnic lunch because there are lots of places to spread out and while away the day at one of our favorite spots.
-- Seaport Village --
Weekday mornings are best here as well. We don’t really come here to shop, but since it’s somewhat of a windy spot we love to fly our kites at the Embarcadero Marina Park. There’s a large grassy area that’s just perfect for kite flying and picnics. The best part here are the views: Coronado bridge, the San Diego Bay, and watching all the boats and sailboats float by. Some other good windy spots for kite flying are at Mission Bay next to the Hilton and Kate Sessions Park.
-- Old Town --
One of our top 5 favorite places in San Diego to take the kids. The plaza has a large grassy area to run around and have a picnic. Bring a picnic or grab some take out from a nearby restaurant. Barra Barra is a good option because kids eat free there, oh and they have churros. ;) Most shops and the Casa de Estudillo are closed, but there’s so much to see from just walking around. You can find the old school house and peek inside the the windows or look for the old jail cell behind the courthouse.
You can also walk up to Heritage Park where the Victorian houses are and have a picnic in the large grassy area behind them. If you peek through the trees behind the houses, you’ll find some steps that will take you up to an easy 10 minute hiking trail but it has the most spectacular view that most people have never seen before.
-- Beaches --
This is one of the most iconic San Diego summer activity. Again, go on a weekday morning or weekday evening if you can as these are still pretty crowded on weekends and parking can be hard to find. Here are some of our favorite beach spots to take the kids. Anywhere along Mission Bay because the water is calmer and they generally have a shorter schlepping distance from the car to the beach with all of the things. Imperial Beach, Pacific Beach and Oceanside Pier beaches are some of our favorites.
My favorite beach time is an evening weekday. The crowds are mostly gone, it’s still warm out but not blazing hot, the water has warmed up and you can catch some pretty sweet sunsets.
Some quick beach tips:
Splurge and get an all terrain-wagon to haul the gear and the kids.
Bring non-talc baby powder; it helps remove sand from your feet before you get in the car
(some non-talk baby powder brands: Burt’s Bees, E’ra Organics, California Baby, Ora, MOMiN, Hello Bello, Farmstead Apothecary)
Bring a gallon of water and a towel to keep in your car so you can rinse the sand off before you get in
Less is more! You don’t need that much gear for a beach day. Just bring the basics and you’ll have less to carry and less to stress.
For littles, bring a small potty for the back of your car with liners
BYO Shade umbrella or little pop up tent, it gets the kids out of the hot sun in between splashing
Bring a little cooler so you can have ice cold drinks and snacks
A waterproof beach blanket
Turkish towels to dry off with because they’re thinner and they don’t take up as much room in your bag
Sunscreen: slather it on before you dress the kids and don’t forget to reapply
-- Waterfront Park --
Most splash pads and playgrounds are closed but the fountains and wading pools at the Waterfront Park are still on and ready for kids to splash around. This place is perfect even for littles. The water is about 12 inches deep (don’t quote me on that), it’s perfect for babies to sit and splash in the water. This park is h-u-g-e so it’s the perfect place to spread out. The large grassy area is perfect for a picnic and a shade tent (there’s no shade at all here so bring your own shade with you if you plan to spend a few hours). Tip: Most people don’t even know about the fountains on the North side of the building away from the playground. Walk north just a little and you’ll find another huge fountain wading pool and large grassy area to spread out.
-- Tide Pooling --
Search for sea anemones, sea slugs, starfish, and sometimes fish even get trapped in the tide pools. The best part about tide pooling is that you never know what you’ll find! There are so many locations to go tide pooling, but the best time is at low tide. You can check tide charts online before you go. Wear old tennis shoes because you’ll likely be climbing over rocks and need some stable shoes on.
Some of our favorite spots are Scripps Pier, La Jolla and Cabrillo. There’s a park fee at Cabrillo because it's a state park and they’re only open during business hours. But Cabrillo is staying open until sunset on all weekends in August this year.
-- Coronado Ferry Ride --
This is one of my favorite things to do because you get to see San Diego from a different perspective, ON the water! Take the ferry from the Embarcadero and ride it over to the Coronado Ferry Landing. (Note: You can’t walk over to the Hotel Del or Coronado Beach from here.) When you get off the ferry landing, there’s a great little beach next to the dock and a long winding pathway to walk, run or bike along. Some of the shops and restaurants may be open. But you might want to bring a picnic lunch anyways just in case. When you’re ready, catch the ferry back across the water.
-- Torrey Pines Glider Port --
This is still a little known spot that anyone can go to. It’s where the paragliders jump off the cliff above Torrey Pines Beach and you can sit out and watch them go. It’s thrilling enough just to watch them run and jump into the air and glide up and down the coast. There’s a restaurant there, but I’m not sure if it’s closed or not. Bring a blanket and picnic lunch to spend a couple of hours because you’ll be waiting a bit in between the jumps. While you’re waiting, you can easily walk in front of the restaurant to find the hiking trails nearby and go for a quick hike. Some of the trails have large cracks or gullies and don’t go near the edges, there are signs telling you to stay back. But you can hike along some of these trails with the kids.
-- Feed the Ducks at Your Local Watering Hole --
There are many lakes and reservoirs in San Diego where you’ll find ducks waiting for you to feed them. Bring a picnic, some bikes and books so you can spend a couple of hours there. Here are some of our favorite duck watching places: Poway Lake, Lake Miramar, Chollas Lake Park, Evans Pond (next to Scripps Miramar Library), Hendrix Pond (Scripps Ranch), Webb Park (Rancho Bernardo).
Everyone will tell you not to feed ducks bread, instead you can feed them peas or corn (fresh, canned or frozen thawed out), oats, cracked corn, barley, lettuce shreds or even birdseed.
-- Kids Building Kits from Home Depot or Lowe’s --
Before the COVID pandemic, we loved going to Home Depot on the weekends for their Free Kids Workshops. Even though they don’t hold the workshops on site, they will still give the build kits to you for free. They prefer if you show up on their normal workshop days (for most stores it’s one Saturday a month), but I went to our local Home Depot on a Wednesday afternoon and patiently waited until the worker wasn’t busy and she gladly went to get me some kits for my kids. Someone told me that Lowe’s does this too, but we haven’t personally gone there yet for a build kit. You will need some basic tools at home to help your kids complete these, like a hammer, wood glue, sand paper and paint. It just depends on the kits you get. Tip: Open up the kit while you’re still in the store to read the directions about what you’ll need. If you don’t have it at home, you can easily pick them up before you leave.
-- Explore a New Neighborhood --
Drive to a new neighborhood and find a new place to picnic, a new ice cream shop, some new canyon trails to hike. I always find new places by opening up the Map on my phone or computer if you look for the green spaces, zoom in to see if there’s a link to tap on for more info. Sometimes there are reviews or photos that will help us decide if it’s a place we want to check out. If you see a dashed green line that usually means there’s a hiking trail nearby. And don’t forget to search for coffee or ice cream shops nearby too.
-- Take a Bridge Walk --
There are surprisingly some fun bridges to explore in San Diego and you can even make a day out of exploring them all. If you start at the Quince Street Bridge, you can grab some mojo from James Coffee 1 block down.
Cross the Quince Street Bridge and you can either go for a little hike underneath the bridge on the Maple Canyon Trail, or take the streets to the next bridge. If you hike the canyon, you’ll want to go up when you see the First Street Bridge. If you take the streets, continue walking strait on Quince St. for 2 blocks and then turn Left onto 1st Ave. Walk down 2 blocks to the First Street Bridge.
Turn around and walk back the way you just came on 1st St. Walk up about 4 blocks and turn Left onto W Spruce St. This is a dead end street and there’ll you’ll find the most famous of all the bridges in San Diego…the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge.
This one is a bit scary for littles to cross so be extra careful if you do and be sure to hold hands. I’ve done it several times with babes in the baby carrier or gripping their hands all the way across. Cross the bridge out and come back to where you started.
You'll walk back up on Spruce St. about 4 blocks until you reach Fourth Ave. If you walk south down Fourth Ave. 2 blocks you’ll be back at the Quince Street Bridge where you started. Or, you can keep walking up Spruce St. one more block to Fifth Ave. and you’ll find some good restaurants because you’ll hungry after all that walking.
Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Cafe is available for take outs, Juice Alchemy and Cafe Bassam are good choices. Then continue walking down Fifth Ave. 2 blocks until you reach Quince St. and 1 block west down to the bridge. You’ll also find Extraordinary Desserts right next to James Coffee so that might be a good way to end your bridge walking tour. ;)
-- Art Walking Tours --
There are two really good places to walk around outside and find some amazing works of art.
The most well known place is on the UCSD Campus in La Jolla; where you can walk around the beautiful campus and find some gravity defying works of art and sculptures.
The other lesser known art tour is at Liberty Station in Pt. Loma. When you're walking around look for the black placard signs in front of various sculptures, statues and installations and it'll tell you all about it. They're pretty spread out but you can look for a guide here. Don't forget to look UP! and walk up stairs to the tops of buildings where it looks like you can't go, you can and you'll be surprised by what you might find.
Bring a picnic lunch to spend a few hours during your art walking tour. Maybe bring some paper, paint pens or other mixed media to create your own works of art inspired by what you find. I’m not sure if bathrooms are open at UCSD, but they are at Liberty Station. Make sure you either bring a little potty or a Travel John pee bag to use in your car. As for food, I'm also not sure if any food spots are open on the UCSD Campus, but there's a food hub with some great restaurants nearby. Pick up some sandwiches to go from Mendocino Farms and take with you for your campus walking tour. At Liberty Station, you can pick up some great food from the Public Market.
-- Find the Secret Swings --
Finding the Secret Swings in San Diego is one of the best kept secrets and honestly they're fun leaving them as a secret for others to find and discover on their own. I won't give them away here because half of the fun in finding them is the mystery and journey to get there so I'll just give you the general area if you're so inclined to find them. The most famous one is in La Jolla, a cute neighborhood one in Normal Heights, a fun little fairy tree swing in Pt. Loma, and my favorite one is in Sunset Cliffs. Don't ask me how to find these because I likely won't tell you. Sometimes these swings get taken down for liability or other reasons, so there's no guarantee you''ll find one when you get there, but you may get lucky.
I will share these not-so-secret swings with you that @MorningSwings has recently been installing in North County to give people something fun to look for during COVID. They post geographic coordinates that when you put into your Google maps will take you there. You'll still have to do a little hiking and sleuthing to get to the exact spot and find the swings, but they make it easy by sharing on their Instagram. Some of these have also been taken down, so again no guarantee you'll find them, but if you do it'll make for a super special memory.
-- Get a Hole in One at Pelley's in Del Mar --
Pelley’s Miniature Golf is one of the remaining mini-golf centers around since Boomers closed up. We love Pelley’s for their fun whimsical golf course characters. You can bring your own clubs (or rent them there), but they do ask that you use their golf balls because they sanitize them after each use.
-- Stop and Smell the Roses at One of our Favorite Gardens --
We love the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon so much that it’s one of our kids' top 5 favorite places to go in all of San Diego. The gravel and dirt pathways are flat and perfect for kids to run on, it’s good for all terrain strollers too. Stop and watch the fish swim in the pond or find the tortoises across from the gift shop. Beware of the water ball fountain, you may need to bring a change of clothing. There are bathrooms here and free parking. Bring a picnic to spread out and spend a couple of hours here relaxing in their shaded gazebo or shaded amphitheater.
Some other fun gardens to explore are the Alta Vista Botanical Gardens in Vista, Myrtle Creek Botanic Gardens in Fallbrook, Pt. Loma Native Plant Garden, all of the gardens at Balboa Park and of course the largest one at the San Diego Botanic Gardens. The SDBG requires an advance timed ticket and the children’s gardens are closed, but there’s still plenty to see and space to run around. Find the lookout tower where your kids can pretend they’re pirates looking for gold through the telescope.
There are so many more fun places to discover in San Diego, but these made my list for this year's Summer Bucketlist COVID-Style. Follow me on Instagram @famdiego for even more ideas and adventure inspiration.