21 Best Things to do in California with Kids

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Catalina Island Harbor aerial view
Santa Catalina Island is situated 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

As a native Californian, mom and author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press)), I love sharing my top things to do in California with kids. The Golden State’s mild weather and changing landscape from southern to northern California offer bountiful ways to explore beaches, mountains, valleys and deserts year-round.

As you plan your family vacation to the Golden State, consider these fun things to do in California with kids. And if you have time for a road trip, even better! It’s a great way to explore California.

My kids loved watching the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

1. San Diego Zoo

Situated within the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is among the many family-friendly attractions in San Diego. The 100-acre zoo is home to more than 3,700 animals and a botanical collection with 700,000+ exotic plants.

SheBuysTravel contributor Julie Bigboy (a San Diego native) has many tips for visiting the large zoo in one day. To begin with, she recommends that you ride the 35-minute guided bus tour to get a good overview of the zoo before exploring on your own.

SheBuysTravel Tip: After a long day at the zoo, relax at one of these beachfront San Diego resorts.

entrance to LEGOLAND California, a multi-day theme park
LEGOLAND California offers fun for multiple days Photo credit: LEGOLAND

2. LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad

Carlsbad is a laid-back beach town 35 miles north of Downtown San Diego. In addition to serene beaches, Carlsbad is home to LEGOLAND California. Even though the park is primarily designed for younger children, it’s actually fun for the whole family.  Even older kids are drawn to the rides and attractions, hands-on LEGO building areas and Miniland U.S.A.

Although there’s an additional cost for the onsite LEGOLAND Water Park, it’s worth it. In addition, the adjacent SEA LIFE Aquarium offers hands-on, interactive learning in a kid-friendly setting.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to get the Granny’s Apple Fries – a LEGOLAND exclusive snack – found in the Castle Hill area! Find LEGOLAND Carlsbad tickets at a discount via our affiliate link through Get Away Today.

3. La Jolla

La Jolla may be an upscale beach town in San Diego but it welcomes families in all budget ranges. The many kid-friendly places include Torrey Pines State Park, La Jolla Cove, Seal Rock and La Jolla Shores Beach. Plus, it’s fun to explore the tide pools home to hermit crabs, sea stars, rockfish and other marine life.  

Making mistakes at Joshua Tree National Park: Wearing the wrong shoes
Hiking at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch.

4. Joshua Tree National Park

Straddling the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, the park has unique rock formations and plants, namely the twisted, bristled Joshua tree that intrigues visitors from all over the world. You can hike, climb rocks and enjoy the wonders of this dark sky. Destination. The park has several campgrounds to serve as home base.

If you prefer more comfortable digs, stay in AutoCamp Joshua Tree. Located just outside the park, the deluxe Airstreams feature many luxury amenities.

5. Laguna Beach

Nestled in Orange County, the upscale and picturesque Laguna Beach is known for its pristine beaches and numerous art galleries. Lesser known but equally impressive are the 20,000 acres of protected wilderness. Kid-friendly things to do in Laguna Beach include exploring tidepools at Main Beach and exploring Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

Disneyland in California
Anaheim is home to Disneyland, one of the biggest attractions in the city. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist

6. Disneyland Resort, Anaheim

From park reservations to hopper tickets, there are some new policies in place at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure to make your experience at the Happiest Place on Earth, well…happy.  Plan to stay at one of these hotels close to Disneyland.

7. Knotts Berry Farm, Buena Park

The 160-acre Knott’s Berry Farm is probably the most doable Southern California theme park for families. It’s an easy-to-navigate amusement park with thrill rides, family adventures, entertainment and various dining options. Camp Snoopy is a cute area for little kids. In fact, this popular area has some height restrictions that don’t permit older children or adults to ride certain attractions.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If this is your first time visiting the theme park, be sure to eat at the iconic Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Restaurant, which opened in 1934. And save room for boysenberry pie!

8. Universal Studios Hollywood

Enjoy thrill rides, see stunt shows and learn about movie-making at this theme park and working studio.

The park’s signature attraction is the Universal Studio Tour, which travels through several TV and movie sets. Other top Universal Studios attractions: the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The area features two exciting immersive attractions as well as Harry Potter-themed shops and restaurants.

9. Six Flags Magic Mountain

If your family loves roller coasters, there’s no better place for an adrenaline rush than Six Flags Magic Mountain. Located about 35 north of Downtown L.A., the amusement park has thrill rides, family rides, children’s rides and entertainment.  

There’s even a virtual reality roller coaster – New Revolution (North America’s first VR coaster). SheBuysTravel contributor Gwen Kleist experienced it and had mixed feelings.

“I liked it but didn’t love it. In my opinion, it felt like a simulator ride like the kind you’d find at Universal. And while those are plenty cool, if I am on an actual roller coaster I want to know I am on a roller coaster!” she said of The New Revolution.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The adjacent, tropical-themed Hurricane Harbor Waterpark is open June to September.

Spend a day at the beach and Santa-Monica-Pier when visiting Los Angeles, California. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist

10. Santa Monica Pier

Completed in 1909, the 1,600-foot-long Santa Monica Pier has several family-friendly attractions. Pacific Park, an amusement park, features 12 thrilling rides, including the West Coaster and Pacific Wheel, a solar-powered Ferris wheel.

There’s also the Looff Hippodrome, which houses an old-timey carousel. In addition, you can fish, grab a bite to eat and shop for souvenirs. While at the pier, take a stroll or rent a bike to pedal along the beach boardwalk. No matter what you do, be sure to stay long enough to watch the sun dip into the blue Pacific Ocean.

11. Griffith Observatory

The iconic Griffith Observatory is the crowning jewel of Griffith Park, a 4,210 acre-urban parkland with numerous trails and attractions like the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. From the observatory’s hilltop location, you’ll get the best views of Los Angeles both day and night. The observatory contains exhibits, artifacts, models and telescopes that provide a peek into the universe. Daily shows are presented in the 290-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium theater.

SheBuysTravel Tip: While in Griffith Park, visit Travel Town, featuring a train ride and historic locomotives. Ferndell Park is a nice spot for a picnic.

12, La Brea Tar Pits

It’s almost hard to imagine mammoths, saber tooth tigers and other Ice Age animals roaming the land now known as L.A. But you can still see traces of them at the La Brea Tar Pits, where plants and animals from the last 50,000 years are still being discovered on site nearly every day.

In fact, it’s the only active urban fossil dig site in the world.

It’s free to watch excavators carve and dig fossils at the outdoor dig sites. In addition, the onsite Page Museum (requires paid admission) contains exhibits and a Fossil Lab where scientists sort microfossils, clean mammoth tusks and do other tasks.

Things to do in California with kids include Avalon Bay
View of Avalon Bay. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

13. Catalina Island

Easily accessible by a one-hour boat ride, Catalina Island is a fun day trip or weekend getaway. With the exception of a handful of tour vehicles, Catalina is car-free. Residents and tourists get around the small town of Avalon by walking, biking, and driving golf carts.

In fact, renting a golf cart for an hour or two is a really fun way to see historic sites, gardens, residential homes and Pacific Ocean views. Biking is another good option for taking in the sights.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Rent kayaks and have lunch at Descanso Beach (the island’s nicest beach).

Things to do in California with kids include boat tours from Island Packers of the Channel Islands.
Island Packers offers boat tours to the islands and through the harbor. Photo credit: Doug Mangum

14. Channel Islands National Park, Ventura

While you can see the islands from shore, it’s more fun to sail there on a boat tour. Comprising five islands, the Channel Islands offer opportunities for kayaking, snorkeling, hiking and camping. Santa Cruz Island is the closest and makes a great day trip. Or, take an Island Packers boat tour to see both Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. Whale-watching tours are also available.

In addition, Island Packers offers a one-hour Evening Harbor Cruise from 6 – 7 pm aboard a 64-foot catamaran in Ventura Harbor on select Saturdays from June through October 2023. See boats, marine birds and waterfront homes.

15. Santa Barbara

The beautiful city of Santa Barbara is located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s not just tourists that flock to the posh city’s beaches, wineries, boutiques and historic sites. It’s where locals (like me!) go for day trips and weekend getaways. Santa Barbara is also very dog friendly. In addition to seaside strolls, activities like biking and kayaking are great ways to enjoy the sunshine and ocean breezes.

16. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey is an enchanting city on California’s rugged central coast. A top attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. No matter how many other aquariums you may have seen, don’t skip this one. As a leader in animal conservation, the aquarium has exceptional exhibits for viewing and learning about regional marine life.

17. San Francisco

From the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf to the Exploratorium and Alcatraz Island, San Francisco’s diverse attractions make it one of the most popular cities in California. And riding a cable car is always a thrill for kids (and adults) of all ages.

It’s challenging to drive a car around San Francisco (and parking is expensive). So, consider using the city’s reliable public transit system.

Here’s our list of family-friendly hotels in San Francisco.

Things to do in California with kids include the giant trees in Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia National Park. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

18. Sequoia National Park

Sequoia may not be not the most popular national park but it’s my favorite. I’ve been there countless times since childhood and always enjoy its earthy forest smell and towering Sequoia and redwood trees.

Park highlights include Sunset Rock, Crescent Meadow and the Kaweah River. And be sure to climb Moro Rock. It’s a short but very steep climb that leads to panoramic vistas.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to visit adjacent Kings Canyon National Park. The General Kings Highway connects the parks.

19. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bubbling mud pots, steam vents, lava rocks and forest trails comprise Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. Expect snow through April but by late spring or early summer, meadows pop with colorful wildflowers.

Things to do in California with kids include Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite National Park. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

20. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of California’s top attractions. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite has spectacular waterfalls, granite peaks and vistas. If you’re a thrill seeker (like my son), you can climb the imposing Half Dome (a permit is required). Spring is the best time of year to see gushing waterfalls and blooming wildflowers.

There are lots of great hotels near Yosemite.

21. Lake Tahoe

Straddling the state line between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is North America’s largest alpine lake, spanning 22 miles from north to south and 12 miles across. Lake Tahoe is a year-round, family-friendly destination.

Summer activities include water sports, hiking trails, mountain biking and sightseeing cruises. In winter, Lake Tahoe’s 15 world-class ski resorts attract skiers and snowboarders. More winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and sledding.

These are our favorite Lake Tahoe resorts for families.

Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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