All of you friends who are following me on Instagram know about our sweet San Diego trip we took last month. Here are the stats: we went for a week with two kids (1 and 3), no car rental, and a small budget. So here’s where we went, what we did, and how we did it. Before I launch into the details, let met first say the most important piece of advice I have for traveling with kids anywhere. The purpose of traveling with your family is your family. Consider being together the goal of the trip. If you don’t, it is likely you’ll feel resentment and frustration for those inevitable times when the needs of your family do not match your plans for the trip.
Also, pardon the low quality pictures. They are all from my phone. Oops.
It was pretty imperative for us to find a place to stay where we had a place for our daughters to nap separate from us. Imagine us sitting outside of a hotel room for two hours each afternoon during naptime. Impossible. And skipping naps? For the 1-year-old (who is a light sleeper), also impossible. So we ended up using airbnb for the first time. We found a sweet deal (Note: If you like a place and can’t afford the asking price, message the owner and ask if they’ll take less. We had someone accept an offer that way!) on a little one bedroom apartment in Golden Hill (a mile from downtown). The girls napped in the bedroom while we were still able to hang out in the living room each afternoon. The facility also had a laundry room, a patio with a grill, and a gate to provide a little extra security in the evenings. This particular apartment had a highchair and a pack n play available on site. It was pretty much everything we needed as a traveling family.
After looking into the transportation situation of San Diego, we opted out of renting a car, saving something like $200. We ended up getting a Compass card, which allows for you to use each kind of public transit (train, bus, etc) for cheap cheap. We got 2 4-day passes each (the girls got on free), and since it gave us an extra day, we found people arriving to the city at the airport to give our cards to. We usually wore Nugget (our 1-year-old) with our Ergo and let Little Girl walk or ride in the stroller. With public transit, you have to take your kids out of the stroller, and on full buses, fold up the stroller. It’s only annoying if you have a sleeping child in said stroller. We also looked into renting bikes. Many bike rental places have kid seats you can put on the bikes or even bike trailers and they’re really not that expensive. Most of the rental places are up in Ocean Beach (a 10 mile ride from where we were staying), but there are a few downtown. We ended up not going this route because (SHOCKER) it rained pretty much every day we were there! I know, San Diego locals were in shock. If you do go the bike route, shop around. The prices differ a good bit.
We ate plenty of sweet meals out and about, but one big money saver was renting a place with a kitchen. We made breakfast everyday, lunch most days, and dinner a few times. Being able to do meals at our place made our outings a bit cheaper (coffee instead of a meal, for example). We bought a TON of uncooked tortillas, which are at every single grocery store there. You fry them up real quick on the stove for the most delicious meal of your life. We often put sweet potatoes, black beans, and cilantro in them. #Yum.
Flying with Kids
The whole reason we went to San Diego for our vacation was because Mr. P had a conference there. So he flew out before us. Toward the end of his conference, we flew out (yep, me plus a 1-year-old and 3-year-old minus the help of my husband) and met him there. If I don’t mention flying with the girls by myself, I’m kind of sugar coating this trip. This trip was truly amazing. Getting there, though, was terrible. Little Girl (3) did quite well! Yes! We’re entering into a new maturity level of being good at flying. This is huge. I prepared by packing her a bookbag full of new toys (cheap things like a coloring book, colored pencils, quirky toys from Target’s dollar spot, etc) and loading my Nook with a few age-appropriate apps. It was actually our chill child, Nugget (1), who was the big challenge. I think 1 is the hardest age to fly with. I’ve done it a couple of times and it’s just tough. They don’t want to be still or stay in a seat. They’re young enough to fly as a lap baby (what we did), so you forfeit all personal space for hours in exchange for a wrestling match with a loud, crying baby. At least, that was my experience. Nugget does not like to just sit in my lap. When I tried to give her the phone with an app on it, she was more interested in the tactile aspects of holding the phone or throwing the phone than with what was on the screen. If I had to go back and do this whole thing again, I’m not sure if I could have remedied all the challenges of flying with a 1-year-old, but I would have brought a few more toys (not apps) for her rather than Little Girl. Maybe an empty tissue box with things she could put inside of it and pull out of it, for example. The many goldfish/snacks that I brought certainly helped keep her appeased. One person flying on the plane offered to hold her, which I felt weird about accepting, but after a long struggle and feeling strung out, I took her up on the offer and it gave me a much-needed recovery. If you can fly with your spouse, do it! If you can’t, take a chill pill and do your best to go with the flow. When we had a row to ourselves on one of our flights, I let the girls play on the floor at my feet, which worked quite well. A few notes: strollers are gate checked and free to bring, so do it! If you buy tickets for your kids, remember that they can have one personal item and one carry-on each, so it’s possible that you could all travel without checking a bag. We checked one bag between the three of us and used our carry-ons to house things like diapers, snacks, blankets, etc.
Where We Went
We stayed in Golden Hill, a mile from downtown, so we took the 2 bus into downtown each day, or if we missed it, we would just walk. We seriously walked around 5 miles a day, sometimes more. It was tiring, but SO fun. We met so many people and really got to see so much of the city. That being said, because we relied on public transit and our own two feet, we stayed fairly close to downtown.
Day 1: Coronado Island
This was the place where we got to hang out with a stranger’s pet tortoise. Coronado is an island west of San Diego. If you go to the harbor downtown you can take a ferry (in and of itself fun) to the island. Upon arrival you’ll hit a touristy village with shops and places to eat, but if you can cross the island, you’ll find the best beach! So we opted for walking a few miles to the other side, played on the most gorgeous beach, worked up a hunger, grabbed Italian food, and went home to sleep like babies. The walk across the island was great. Seeing how other people live and landscape and talk is just fascinating. Fun fact: in San Diego, fake turf is a thing. Tons of people have plastic lawns that look pretty realistic. It’s the most bazaar thing I’ve ever seen.
Day 2: Waterfront Park and other downtown explorations
Waterfront Park is an innovative park near the harbor. Their equipment is unusual and clever–come to think of it, this describes almost every playground we hit up downtown. Their playgrounds were all so creative and fun! Waterfront was my favorite, though. Kids or not, this is a great place to hang out.
Other sites you’ll see at the harbor: one of the oldest (maybe the oldest) working ships, a naval museum, enormous cruise ships that make you feel small just looking at them, fantastic people watching, and the most stunning conference center. I know that last one sounds boring, but when Mr. P showed me where his conference had taken place, it felt a little bit like finding the Lost City of Atlantis. Stunning.
Eating downtown by the harbor or in the Gas Lamp Quarter felt like a waste of time to me. I’m sure there is tasty food, but it was overpriced and geared toward tourists, which isn’t my favorite way to experience a city.
The cat cafe. There is a place where you can buy a coffee and go hang out with a ton of cats. It’s hilarious. Little Girl covered one obliging kitty with pillows, which the rest of the cats were obsessed with our stroller. An experience to be had.
Day 3: Little Italy
If Little Italy was not amazing enough, it has a Saturday morning Farmer’s Market! It was delightful and stretched on for blocks. Little Girl drew pictures and handed them to strangers as gifts. Not kidding. It was hilarious and a great way to make friends. I snagged the few souvenirs we brought home from the market–a print from a local artist and a gorgeous bracelet by a jewelry maker originally from Germany.
Later that evening we enjoyed some of the best pasta of my life at one of the little restaurants on India Street. From the restaurant staff to the food, it was an authentic experience.
Day 4: Balboa Park and Ocean Beach
We tried to see as many of the parks and playgrounds as possible. Balboa Park was beautiful. There wasn’t equipment or things to see, per se, but it had a stunning natural beauty. It was extremely close to where we stayed, which made visiting it convenient too.
Ocean Beach. This was an experience. While it is not far from downtown, we were limited to public transit, so we took a bus, a train, another train, and a longer bus ride to find Ocean Beach. The commute took about 2 hours. I wish I was kidding because had we driven it would have been 20 minutes. Not kidding. I was kind of expecting the beaches I’m familiar with (South Carolina and Northern California), but when we arrived at Ocean Beach, I was surprised. It’s my first surf town experience and it was kind of weird. Imagine tons of surfers, at least half of the people on the street are intoxicated in one form or another, and an overall dirty feeling. We arrived as the sun was setting, which probably plays a big role in the atmosphere. Apparently during the day there are hula hoopers and belly dancers and all sorts of quirky things going on. Even so, it was neat to get to see and we did meet a fishing group called the Wicked Homies. They are all hardcore guys who catch shark (we watched them catch one). These guys a little crazy and great to strike up conversation with. They were the highlight of my Ocean Beach experience.
This would be as good a time as any to mention the homeless situation of San Diego. Even San Francisco does not have as many homeless people as San Diego. I’m not entirely sure why, but my best guess is that it’s one of the only places in the US where you could live outside all year round and never be in danger due to the weather. Because of the housing crisis in San Diego, they legally allow for people to camp in the streets (there literally is not enough room for the shelters to house all the homeless), so it is not uncommon to turn down a street downtown and see dozens (hundreds?) of camping tents. The homeless population is not discreet or hidden, but everywhere. Many are friendly, some are not. Many are mentally ill, like the lady who tried to kick Little Girl on the train home from Ocean Beach, but not all. The homeless presence is a part of San Diego. If you go, don’t ignore them. You probably can’t give a dollar to ever homeless person you see, but don’t be afraid of them or try to avoid eye contact. They are a large portion of the locals you will meet and many of them have some incredible stories to share.
Day 5: The New Children’s Museum and Stone Brewery
We were playing in the New Children’s Museum’s outdoor playground (it’s public–we weren’t being sneaky) and found ourselves getting interviewed by the local FOX station about the new museum. When the director heard we hadn’t visited it yet, she hooked us up with free tickets for the entire family! How incredibly generous! So we ended up going unexpectedly and were so blessed by it. This place was fascinating and creative. They originally were a children’s art museum, but they realized that children didn’t want to look at art; they wanted to touch it and be a part of it. So they closed their doors, redid things, and reopened recently. My favorite spots in here were the rain room (they had a water feature that made the same sound as rain on a metal roof in this playhouse) and their 3-story tree house! Brilliant.
There are many breweries in San Diego! Deciding on one was difficult, but we ended up going with the most convenient location, so Stone (being near the children’s museum and harbor) won. Plus, Stone is delicious. I was glad we chose an easy location because we ended up leaving early due to fussy kiddos. Beer tasting was fun and Mr. P and Little Girl got to engage in a lively game of Connect 4. So we all came out on top.
Day 6: Mosaic Church and more tootin around downtown
We had a good friend who went to Mosaic Church in LA, so when we saw they had a San Diego location, we wanted to pay a visit. Getting to see other churches and groups of believers can be such an enriching experience, so I recommend visiting churches on vacation. Mosaic was great and they seemed to really have a heart for the homeless community in San Diego, which was powerful to see.
On Sunday we were feeling pretty exhausted, so we ended up having a pretty laid back day of walking around and checking out different shops. We tried to eat at Donut Bar, but they had long sold out of donuts by the time we got there. Sad.
A few things we had on the to-do list but never got around to: San Diego Botanical Garden, hiking at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, San Diego Zoo (it would have cost around $100 for us to go–we just couldn’t quite swing it), Batiquitos Lagoon, Old Town San Diego, Cowles Mountain (highest peak in San Diego), and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We also considered visiting their public library since we encountered so much rain, but ended up passing on the idea.
What We Ate
Speaking of food, I have to begin with our favorite place: Señor Taquero! This is a little (it’s tiny) taqueria downtown with the greatest burritos of all time. We ate there 3 or 4 times. The photo above is me mourning their being closed on Sunday because I needed to eat their amazing burritos again. If you go to San Diego, you have to try a California burrito. It is a burrito with french fries, and before you hate trust me when I say it’s actually worth eating. Needless to say, I had one at Señor Taquero. Ha.
In Little Italy, we had authentic Italian coffee at Pappalecco. It was divine and the baristo called me bella and made me blush. Go there. It’s the kind of place where a cappuccino is actually 8 oz. We visited many cafés on our trip, but this one is the only one I feel is really worth a recommendation. Everywhere else was good, but Pappalecco was great.
Dinner in Little Italy was at a restaurant Trattoria Fantastica. The waiter was an older Italian man and when I tried to change the sauce on my pasta while placing my order, he told me in a thick Italian accent that I did not want to do that. Ha. And I think he was right because the dish was delicious. Probably the priciest meal of our trip, but so worth it. Delicious.
Stone Brewery was great. It had a convenient location, interesting beers, and a great vibe. If we had been longer, we had several other breweries I would have loved to try: Societe Brewing (for the Debutante beer) and Green Flash Brewing Company, to name a few.
The Cat Café had decent coffee, but was remarkable for the fact that I drank said coffee while surrounded by cats. It’s an experience for sure (and they have all the cats up for adoption).
We never got to eat at Donut Bar, but I’ve heard such good things! A few others that are on the list for next time: Hammonds Gourmet Ice Cream, Las Cuatro Milpas, Lucha Libre Taco Shop, and Blue Water Seafood.
This trip was one of a kind. I was amazed at how doable San Diego was with kids. But tell me, friends, what did I leave out? What are your must-dos and must-eats for the city? Any strategies for traveling with kids? Thanks!