Free things to do with kids in San Diego, California
The San Diego area is lovely, and contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of things to do that won’t cost you a penny. From enjoying wildlife viewing at La Jolla Cove (with free on-street parking) to wandering the gigantic Balboa Park to visiting local libraries, there are plenty of free things do to with kids in San Diego and surrounding areas. Here is a list of things we did with our kids during our short time in the region, plus some more ideas for an inexpensive and fun time in San Diego.
If you enjoy the outdoors and unique entertainment, Balboa Park in San Diego offers plenty of free things to do with kids. We parked the RV for free at a public parking lot, and there was plenty of room, even on a weekend. It’s worth noting that we visited in the winter. It’s possible that in the summer the parking lot might be more full.
Balboa Park is gigantic, and there are a tonne of things to do that are free. If you want to do all of them, you’ll need to set aside a good 3-5 days or more. Just wandering through the park is already awesome for any family that enjoys being outdoors, but there’s plenty more to do for free or almost free.
We did three free activities that the whole family enjoyed: we visited the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages (and watched the presentations in the lawn), enjoyed a big playground, and watched the free outdoor organ concert.
Balboa Park International Cottages
The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages have been at Balboa Park since the 1935 exposition, and since then, more cottages and temporary displays have been added. It was lovely to visit the little houses and learn something about the countries they represent.
As a Canadian visiting a land where I can’t just walk into any fast food place and order hot tea, I was delighted to visit the House of England and sit down for a nice, steaming cup of black tea with sugar, and it was delicious.
At the House of Denmark, I found an absolutely gorgeous mosaic of a Viking ship, and was somewhat embarrassed to realize I never knew Lego came from Denmark. The kids played Lego for a bit, and we looked around at the different displays.
At the House of Ukraine, we learned about pysanki, what many now call “Ukranian Easter eggs,” but which originated in pre-Christian times. There is a cabinet full of gorgeous pysanki in various sizes and with many different designs, each design having its own symbolism.
In the House of Italy, we saw a painted ceiling and the kids ate gelato.
In the House of Ireland, we watched highland dancers performing to live fiddle music.
In the House of Israel, the kids were given a Hebrew alphabet card, and we learned about some incredible technological developments originating from Israel.
In the House of Poland, we saw traditional wear on mannequins.
We wandered through several of the houses and learned a bit about each country as we visited. We didn’t go to all of them, as I was still in pain with my sore feet, and we wanted to see other places in the park. One day I’d like to come back and see each house in more detail.
Going into the houses is free, and almost all of them serve treats that are by donation. We didn’t have any American cash with us, but the volunteers still insisted that the kids try some of the treats regardless, which we found very kind. If you can bring some cash and donate to the houses, it helps them with their continued programming.
Wondering through these cottages is fun for adults and kids alike, and it’s a great learning experience. If you live in the San Diego area, you also have the opportunity to join the cottages and help with their programs, too.
The cottages are open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5, and it’s a great outing for young families.
House of Pacific Relations Lawn Program
In addition to the cottages, there’s also free lawn programming on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. from March through October. When we were there, the House of Chamorros were performing traditional dances from the Mariana Islands and Guam, and they were beautiful to watch.
You can see which houses will perform each Sunday by checking the calendar here. This was one of my favourite things in Balboa Park. But there’s much more to do there, including hearing a free concert on an absolutely gorgeous outdoor organ.
Free outdoor organ concert
You’ll be in for a treat if you come see the Spreckles Organ, the largest outdoor organ in the world, also located in Balboa Park. Even if you come on a day the organ is not being played, it’s still a beautiful treat for the eyes.
This is an absolutely gorgeous instrument, mesmerizing to observe. But if you can come when there is a concert, that will be even better, of course. We happened to come when the organ was being played, and it was amazing.
All concerts are free and open to the public, as agreed upon when John D. and Adolph Spreckles donated the organ to San Diego for the Panama-California Exposition in 1914. Concerts are held every Sunday at 2:00 p.m., rain or shine, and I definitely recommend it as an outing for the whole family. Be aware, however, that the organ, as might be expected, is very, very loud, so be conscious of little ones with sensitive ears or who might be easily overwhelmed by loud noises.
A walk in the park
Walking through Balboa Park is always free, and it’s a beautiful place for a stroll. We enjoy hiking with our kids, so walking through the park was nice. I wish I could have done more, but I’m still recovering from injuring both feet. So we contended ourselves with the little I could do, and we still saw some gorgeous sights.
Pepper Grove Playground in Balboa Park
What kid doesn’t love the playground? Balboa Park has several. We ended our day with a visit to the Pepper Grove Playground, and the kids had a blast playing and making friends. I met another world-travelling family, and we had fun talking about the different places we’ve visited and lived. Turns out the guy’s mother is from Newfoundland—small world. Of course, the playground is free, and is another of many free things to do with kids in San Diego.
More Free Things to do with kids in San Diego and surrounding areas
We had a blast at Balboa Park, and some day, I’d like to come back to San Diego, stay a while, and really experience everything the park has to offer.
In addition to the park, we also enjoyed some of the wonderful free activities in the surrounding areas of San Diego. We enjoyed the gorgeous beaches, of course, and miraculously found on-street free parking for our 32-foot RV when we went to La Jolla. We also enjoyed a national monument.
With our America the Beautiful Pass (which we highly recommend getting if you plan on travelling a lot), entrance to all national parks and several historic sites is included. So if you purchase this pass, you won’t need to pay go get in to Cabrillo National Monument.
Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument is a beautiful to spot to visit, with some gorgeous sights. And if you come at the right time of year, you could even see some whales. We were a bit late for that, but we still enjoyed the view.
Visiting the lighthouse was interesting as well. It was pretty windy when we came, and the kids were getting uncomfortable, so we didn’t stay long, but we enjoyed ourselves for the short time we were here.
Even more free things to do in San Diego with kids
We were only in San Diego for a few days, so we chose to visit Balboa Park, some of the beaches, and Cabrillo National Monument. But there are plenty more free activities to do with kids in the San Diego area.
San Diego seems like an awesome hub for the arts, and it’d be lovely to come back and visit some of the museums, many of which offer free visits one day per week or per month.
There are also several other parks and playgrounds in San Diego that you can visit with your kids, all without paying a dime.
You could walk through Old Town San Diego and see all the historic buildings in what’s know as the “birthplace of California.”
In the summer, you can enjoy free movies in several San Diego area parks. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and enjoy an evening out with the family.
Visit he library. If you’ve been reading this blog or following me on Instagram a while, you know my family is crazy about libraries. One of the highlights of this trip is that we get to see all these different, awesome libraries, read books, and make use of the services each of them provides while we’re in town.
While we didn’t get to see the San Diego Central Library this time around, it’s worth putting it on your visit list if you come to the area. But you don’t necessarily have to come to the Central building. With over 30 branches, the San Diego Library makes it super convenient for you to have a day indoors, reading, enjoying free wifi, or just having a rest from touring around.
In short, while Southern California has a reputation for being a really expensive place to visit, there are plenty of free things to do with kids in San Diego. And if you’d like to park your RV and stay a while, there’s affordable camping at Sweetwater Summit Regional Park, less than a 30-minute drive from the heart of the city.
We really enjoyed San Diego, and I hope to come back some day and spend more time here, really getting to know all the wonderful things this area has to offer.
Have you ever been to San Diego? What was your favourite thing to do there?