Sections of this post are sponsored by Groupon.
When many tourists think of California, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Or the magic of Disneyland. But there’s so much more to a California vacation for families. And it’s California, so it’s all about driving. These vacation ideas make great road trip destinations too, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re exploring in the winter, spring, summer or visiting California in the fall – the weather’s great year round!
In fact, the most amazing thing about the Golden State is its variety with so many vacation destinations to choose from. Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is historic and very walkable with fantastic eats and small ethnic pockets like Olvera Street and Little Tokyo. Drive a few miles west and you are at the beach for surfing, swimming, walking and biking. Or head two hours east to breathe the fresh air of Big Bear Lake. Further north, take a California road trip from tony Tiburon near San Francisco, through the agricultural heartland of California’s central coast. Or head to one of these spots for luxury camping in California with incredible views.
And, of course, there’s wine. From south to north, California wineries abound and many, like McGrail Vineyards in Livermore Valley near San Francisco, are family friendly.
As a California native (who still finds places to explore), I always encourage out-of-town family and friends to visit more than once. Go several times, once to explore the beaches and theme parks of southern California, another time to visit the charming central coast towns like Carmel and Big Sur. Then return again to take in the natural wonders of northern California and the desert region near Palm Springs. Bring your appetite too. Palm Springs restaurants have wonderful outdoor patios to enjoy the great weather.
Whatever type of family vacation you seek, chances are California has it.
California Vacation for Families: What’s New?
California is always welcoming new hotels, museums and attractions from San Diego to the Bay Area. So, before you travel to the Golden State be sure to check Visit California for the latest news from around the state.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Looking to make the most of your travel budget while maximizing the fun? With a wide range of deals on local activities, dining, and experiences, Groupon helps you stretch your budget by offering discounted options near you.
California Vacation for Families: Southern California
This southern California city where the weather is nearly perfect year-round is definitely worth a visit. We’ve got a 2-day itinerary and a 3-day itinerary for families. But you’ll want to have plenty of time to visit San Diego’s beautiful beaches, Balboa Park, the children’s museum, the San Diego Zoo, and check out all of the free things to do in San Diego.
The museum in Balboa Park features rotating exhibits, a 4K video theater, classes and more. Good news for music lovers: The Shell is the San Diego Symphony’s permanent bayside concert venue. It’s also where the symphony’s annual Summer Pops series takes place.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Consider buying a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 7-day All-Inclusive San Diego Go City Pass for your trip. You’ll save up to 45 percent on combined admission to top attractions, tours and museums. A wide range of attractions are included, such as admission to SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California, as well as experiences such as a whale watching tour. There’s also a San Diego CityPASS that includes discounted admission on other attractions.
Within Los Angeles and Los Angeles County’s 88 incorporated cities are numerous museums, nature centers, botanical gardens and movie/TV studios. In fact, Warner Bros. in Burbank offers a really cool behind-the-scenes studio tour that’s customized for each group.
For outdoor fun, I love biking the beach and hiking the abundant trails in the Santa Monica mountains (there’s even a winery there). Not to be missed is Griffith Park, home to the L.A. Zoo and the iconic Griffith Observatory. In addition, golfers give a thumbs up to California’s many golf courses.
There’s a Go City Pass for LA, too, which includes entry to more than 40 top things to do in LA including LEGOLAND California, Knott’s Berry Farm and, if you purchase a 3, 4, 5 or 7 day pass, admission to Universal Studios Hollywood!
SheBuysTravel Tip: Parking anywhere in southern California is expensive. The public transportation system – buses and trains can take you to several of the beach towns and downtown. There’s also a Commuter Express bus that travels directly from the USC campus to Manhattan Beach.
Beach Towns of Southern California
San Diego Beaches
Home to LEGOLAND, Carlsbad has several beaches. Among them is family-friendly Tamarack-State Beach, ideal for swimming, surfing, kayaking, fishing and more. Amenities include picnic tables, restrooms and showers. The north end of the beach on a bluff is a popular spot to watch sunsets.
This town has one of the widest, white sand beaches in the county. The beaches have lifeguards and a set of ramps for wheelchairs part way out to the beach at the main lifeguard station.
This is the place to find those smelly, noisy and oh-so-cute sea lions. It’s just one of the fun things to do in La Jolla with kids. There’s also the Torrey Pines public golf course and hiking trails. Like challenging hikes? Try the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Bordering Camp Pendleton has not always been good for Oceanside tourism. But it has always been good for surfing. And now it is known for its culinary scene and casual bar scene. If you go, check out the black and blue Brussel sprouts at Local Tap House.
Situated in San Diego’s North Coastal region, Del Mar is known for its dog-friendly beaches, the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the Del Mar Racetrack. The seaside village is a happening place in summer when fans gather to wager on their favorite horses at the historic racetrack. In addition, the Del Mar Fairgrounds is home to the annual San Diego County Fair.
Orange County Beaches
Upscale and picturesque, the infamous PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) winds between the beach and touristy shops. Laguna Beach is famous for its art galleries and should be known for its 20,000 acres of protected wilderness.
This popular beach is known around the world as Surf City USA. But don’t miss the whale watching and 10 miles of beaches!
Los Angeles County Beaches
Marina Del Rey
This beach town has turned into a tourist spot.
Swanky Manhattan Beach is an upscale family-oriented beach town. There are paths for walking and bike riding along the beach and on the south side of the pier, thousands of spectators gather every year for the Manhattan Beach Open- a volleyball tournament for amateurs and pros. Roundhouse Aquarium, at the end of the pier, is a sweet spot for kids and spectacular sunset views.
Lots of surf shops and more divey than its neighbor, Manhattan, Hermosa tends to attract more singles than families. Surf stores like Becker and Spyder and beachfront beach body breakfasts at Good Stuff keep Hermosa beachy.
Read More: Things to do in Pasadena, the southern California home of the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Larger than its neighbors, Manhattan and Hermosa, and bordering both, this town is huge in comparison. Beachfront offers the Strand for biking and walking and Redondo Village has great food and coffee shops. Check out these things to do in Redondo Beach with kids.
This is where you’ll find the Costco to stock up for a week-long family getaway at the beach. It’s also probably the most affordable beach town in SoCal. A 22-mile paved bike path follows the coastline from Torrance to Will Rogers State Beach. You’ll find several bike rental shops along the way.
If you’ve taken a cruise out of southern California, you likely went to Long Beach. It’s the home of the Port of LA. It’s also where the Queen Mary is moored. If you are ghost hunting, you can spend the night on the haunted ship. In town, head to Retro Row for vintage clothing shops, including ones that sell clothes worn by some stars in movies. For a fun day trip or overnight stay, ride a high-speed catamaran to Catalina Island. Boats depart from Long Beach, Dana Point and San Pedro. The boat ride takes about an hour. Watch for dolphins along the way!
This is the hip spot that my now young adult kids like to visit. It is quite the people-watching place, especially on Venice Beach, where you can watch weightlifters work out at the infamous Muscle Beach Venice. The funky and charming Kinney Hotel has bikes for guests to tool around town. It’s about 1 mile inland from the beach but it’s got a fun aesthetic, the rooms are comfortable and stays include breakfast. You will know it by the large Robert Vargas mural of Robert Downey Jr. cannonballing.
The Santa Monica Pier, where Route 66 ends, is well known for family fun. Pacific Park is the amusement park on the pier with a solar-powered Ferris wheel, food for all budgets, and great views. Santa Monica beaches are wide and pristine. Nearby Third Street Promenade is pedestrian-only with big chain stores, restaurants and street performers.
Check out the fun eateries in Santa Monica (who wants a donut?) then look for discounts on food and drink.
If you watch enough TV or follow the antics of Hollywood elites, Malibu sounds like the place to be. I love Malibu for its fantastic hiking trails through the Santa Monica mountains like Mishe Mokwa (I just like saying that!).
Southern California Vacation for Families: Theme Parks
Southern California is a theme park bacchanalia! Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim are the stars, but there’s also Universal Studios Hollywood in L.A., the charming Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, and SeaWorld San Diego.
In addition, roller coaster fans will find thrilling attractions at Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor Water Park in Valencia, in northern L.A. County.
With a theme park, aquarium and water park, LEGOLAND in Carlsbad (near San Diego) is more than just a day trip. Check out our tips for visiting LEGOLAND.
And plan to spend some time setting up those irresistible Instagram shots of the kids posing with the colorful and incredible LEGO creations throughout the park.
Here you’ll find kiddie rides, family rides, thrill rides and get-really-wet rides, along with animal encounters and aquarium exhibits. Here are some of our SeaWorld favorites.
It’s possible to enjoy thrill rides and let the little ones spend time in Camp Snoopy in just one day. Super easy to navigate, this amusement park started as a roadside berry stand in the 1920s.
And don’t miss a chance to eat at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. The yummy chicken dinner is still made with Mrs. Knott’s original fried chicken recipe. Share the meal and save room for boysenberry pie!
If you’re staying in SoCal a few days, buy the All-Inclusive San Diego Go City Pass. It includes skip-the-line admission to Knott’s Berry Farm.
This is the original Disney park, the place where Walt first brought to life his theme park dream. It’s much smaller that the gigantic
However, if you’re on a Southern California family vacation, expect the kids to ask to spend a day at Disneyland. Especially if you have any Star Wars fans in the group! You’ll need at least two days if you want to hit both Disneyland and California Adventure.
Universal Studios Hollywood
This is the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As every Muggle knows, it’s just about the coolest themed land at any amusement park. One of our writers, a die-hard Disneyland fan, says that’s just one reason she thinks Universal is better than Disneyland.
The Go City Pass for LA, which covers entry to more than 40 top things to do in LA, includes admission to Universal on the 3, 4, 5 and 7 day passes.-
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Thrill seekers will find some of the world’s fastest and tallest rides at this 262-acre theme park in Valencia, located 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. But even if you’re not the coaster type, the park has many family rides and entertainment.
The adjacent Hurricane Harbor Water Park is a tropical retreat in summer.
Just north of L.A. are the laid-back beach towns of Oxnard and Ventura.
This sleepy town is home to quiet beaches, Heritage Square (great for history buffs!) and the annual California Strawberry Festival in May.
The gateway to Channel Islands National Park. Composed of five rustic islands, Channel Islands National Park is a true SoCal gem. Island Packers Cruises brings visitors to the islands for off-the-beaten-path hiking, kayaking and camping. The closest island, Santa Cruz, is ideal for a day outing. One of our best adventures ever was a guided kayaking tour through several diverse sea caves around the island. We saw many orange Garibaldi fish (California’s state fish) and sea lions.
California Vacation for Families: Central Coast
With scenic beaches, farm-to-table goodness, a bounty of natural attractions, laid-back seaside towns, and the iconic Highway 1, the central coast of California is the unsung wonder of the state. It stretches from Carpinteria and Santa Barbara (the American Riviera) to Big Sur.
About 11 miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria has great beaches, nature preserves, tar pits and camping. There’s also a sandy play area for kids steps from the beach. Enjoy burgers and shakes at The Spot, and tacos at Padaro Beach Grill. And don’t miss the annual Avocado Festival in October, featuring creative avocado dishes, a guacamole contest, and entertainment.
One of my favorite cities is Santa Barbara. If you’re driving through, stop for lunch and ocean views at Stearns Wharf. Last year, the Santa Barbara Zoo debuted the Australian Walkabout, a 15,000 square-foot habitat designed to transport guests “Down Under.” Visitors can walk among the wallabies, kangaroos, emus and native birds. Spending the night? Santa Barbara has a variety of accommodations from cozy inns to posh resorts. Inland, within Santa Barbara County, are Solvang (a Danish town) and the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (an upscale dude ranch).
California Vacation for Families: Central Coast
About 95 miles north of Santa Barbara is San Luis Obispo County. Slo, a play on its laid-back vibe, is a California gem. Play at Pismo or Avila Beaches, and hike or kayak alongside sea otters in quaint Morro Bay, a small fishing village home to Morro Rock. Or go big and tour the historic Hearst Castle near San Simeon with its 38 bedrooms. If you have time, spend a night in Cambria, situated on dreamy Moonstone Beach. Another fun stop is Paso Robles, a small agricultural town with excellent wineries, breweries and mineral hot springs.
Continuing the drive, Highway 1 hugs the rocky coastline, offering those breathtaking, Instagrammable views of the Pacific Ocean waves crashing ashore in Carmel. Don’t miss a stop along the way to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
California Vacation for Families: Northern California
San Francisco is the main attraction. Yes, it’s expensive. But the City by the Bay is worth it. First, stop to take in the view of the world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge (or bike over it), then spend the day exploring this list of things to do in San Francisco. A must-do attraction is a boat ride to Alcatraz Island. Day and night tours are available, but make your reservation well in advance. Also, Take a ferry to Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the west.
Bay Area Wine Country
Napa Valley gets all the glory – and it is wonderful – but there are less pricey and equally tasty wineries in Sonoma County. One of my favorite towns is Healdsburg, a sustainable wine region with a rural lifestyle. The charming downtown has tasting rooms, mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, art galleries, and boutique hotels. If you visit, I recommend the elegant Jordan Vineyard & Winery, which produces one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon brands in California. Also worth a visit is nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a hidden forest with hiking trails.
Another option is to head 90 minutes northeast of San Francisco to the state capital of Sacramento. There are plenty of fun things to do in Sacramento as well as plenty of free things to do in this historic town. This is the place where gold was first discovered in California, launching the famous gold rush of 1849. Learn about that history at Sutter’s Fort and let the kids pan for their own golden nuggets. Take a boat tour or get discounts on food and drink.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Read these tips from a SheBuysTravel contributor who fights wildfires before visiting California in wildfire season.
Continue another two hours inland from Sacramento, almost to the Nevada state line, and you’ll be in Lake Tahoe, California’s premier skiing destination in the winter and lake playground in the summer.
My family enjoys the serenity of Truckee, an authentic Old West town that’s a short drive from Tahoe’s North Shore. We like to rent a cabin on Donner Lake and take leisurely floats along the Truckee River. History buffs may be interested to know about the Donner Party. A group of American pioneers on its way to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento were snowbound in Truckee in 1846–1847. Only half survived, including eight-year-old Patty Reed, who carried a small doll with her. Visitors can see that doll today at Sutter’s Fort.
Upstate California (upper half of northern California)
This NorCal region represents 20 rural counties, including the Shasta Cascade Region. Home to Redding, the largest city in the region, Shasta County is an outdoor lover’s paradise. An area highlight is Shasta Caverns. A catamaran cruise brings you to the historic limestone caves for guided tours.
Further north is Trinity in Humboldt County, a secluded getaway with rugged beaches and coves. Explore lesser known (and typically uncrowded) national and state parks including McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Castle Crags State Park, and Lava Beds National Monument.
Also in Humboldt County is the port city of Eureka, home to the Sequoia Park Zoo. The 100-foot-high Redwood Sky Walk gives visitors a bird’s eye view of the forest, zoo and nature preserve.
More California State and National Parks
It’s no surprise that a state as large as California has nine national parks and many state parks as well as national forests. You can even do an epic national parks road trip that would encompass Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley National Park, the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park (in southern California).
Southern California State Parks and National Forests
Angeles National Forest
While in the L.A. area, take a drive along Angeles Crest Highway. This scenic route leads to several picnic places and hiking trails. Our favorites are Charlton Flats and Switzer Falls. But get there early to find parking. The historic Mt. Wilson Observatory is another great stop. From there, you’ll get a birds-eye view of L.A. County.
She Buys Travel Tip. An Adventure Pass is required to park in Angeles National Forest. The Clear Creek Information Center on the highway sells day ($5) and annual passes ($30). You can also find them at 7-11 stores.
Topanga State Park
Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga State Park offers several hiking trails. Enjoy views from the Temescal Canyon trail. It’s a three-mile loop that occasionally includes a waterfall and is accessible to all levels.
Central California National Parks
Yosemite National Park is perhaps the best known of California’s national parks. And no wonder. Majestic granite domes, numerous waterfalls, meadows and the Merced River attract families, hikers and rock climbers. One of my family’s favorite hikes is Vernal Falls. And my son recently climbed Half Dome, a rock formation that’s popular with experienced hikers. Visitors should know the importance of staying on trails. Accidents happen when hikers stray off trails to catch that perfect Instagram shot. This national treasure is less than 5 hours from Los Angeles by car.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Bass Lake is a gateway to Yosemite National Park. Situated in the Sierra National Forest, Bass Lake is about 14 miles from the park’s south entrance. A destination in itself, Bass Lake has cabins and campgrounds for enjoying water activities.