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Taking the kids: Three days in San Diego

Kids want nothing more than to play on the beach? No problem -  San Diego offers 70 miles of sandy fun. Mom and Dad are museum junkies?
Californians enjoy weather along ocean in San Diego
Californians enjoy the weather along the ocean at Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego Jan. 6, 2006. High temperatures have brought summer-like weather to southern California in the middle of winter.Mike Blake / Reuters file
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Kids want nothing more than to play on the beach? No problem - San Diego offers 70 miles of sandy fun. Mom and Dad are museum junkies? Balboa Park offers a collection of the world's finest in one place. And when you're ready for something you'll all enjoy together, you can head straight to the San Diego Zoo or Sea World - because no matter how young or old you are, these places always please.

San Diego is small enough to feel manageable and large enough to offer plenty of choices in the way of hotels and dining to fit into every budget. You can easily take in all the city's attractions in three days and have plenty of time left over for building sandcastles.

Amazing Freebies Worth Pursuing
Admission to the San Diego Zoo every day in October for kids under 12 and on the first Monday of October for everyone; tours of Balboa Park (four different tours leave from the visitors center); admission to Balboa Park museums on Tuesdays (rotating basis); watching the whale migration every December through March at the Whale Overlook in Point Loma; exploring the marine life of Point Loma's tide pools; walking tours of Old Town (twice daily); fishing from any of the city's municipal piers.

Home Away From Home
It's not just the fact that the Holiday Inn San Diego Hotel on the Bay is centrally located on San Diego's Embarcadero, but this good value chain, which caters to families, also has a pool and an on-site restaurant (great for those nights when you're simply too tired to go out).

For families who want the full-service experience, including a kids' activity center, surfing lessons, a teen lounge and a beach rated as one of the best for families in America, try the legendary Hotel del Coronado. This pricey and historic property is across the bridge from San Diego's urban center. Other pluses? A plethora of restaurants, both on-property and nearby, that cater to appetites of all kinds.

Day One
Start your visit to San Diego by visiting its most famous attraction: the San Diego Zoo. The zoo is one of the best in the world and houses the largest number of giant pandas outside of mainland China; the squeals of delight heard at the sighting of a pregnant panda last spring were just as frequently coming from adults as kids. (Since my visit in May, a cub was just born at the zoo and named Su-Lin, meaning "a little bit of something very cute.") When you arrive at the zoo, get your bearings by taking a bus tour or the Skyfari tram. Many of the animals get sleepy mid-day and might be harder to see while they nap - making this an opportune time to get some lunch and let your kids rest too.

Young children will love the Children's Zoo where they can pet animals, watch baby creatures being bottle-fed, take in a science show and visit Bugtown, where insect species are showcased in miniature versions of their natural habitats - it's known as The Itty-Bitty City. Admission to the Children's Zoo is included in the price of your general admission.

The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park; pick one of the thousands of acres of grass to settle in with a picnic lunch. The park encompasses a collection of some of the world's best museums, and a free tram runs through the park every 10 minutes. Chances are your kids won't get thrills from ancient art or sculptures, but they will enjoy a stop at the Natural History Museum. You can take a break from the sun and take in one of the nature-themed films featured in the museum's giant screened theater or learn about endangered species through the many exhibits.

After the museum, take the kids to see a puppet show presented by the Balboa Park puppet Guild in the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, located in the Pan American area of the park. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids. Hours vary depending on the season.

You can easily get to and from the zoo and the rest of Balboa Park on the #7 bus from downtown San Diego. Admission to the zoo is $32 for adults and $19.75 for kids age 3 - 11. Admission to the Natural History Museum is $9 for adults and $5 for kids age 3 - 17.

Tip: It would cost $103.50 for a family of four to enter the zoo. Instead, purchase a Dual Membership at $86 or $99, depending on your zip code. This membership gives two adults in the same household free admission plus two free guest passes, free rides on the Skyfari, four discount guest coupons, four two-for-one Zoo Bus Tour coupons and a magazine subscription. In addition, your membership is fully tax-deductible.

Head back to the city and spend the remainder of the afternoon strolling the Embarcadero, a mile-long path along the bay. You can visit the Maritime Museum and see the collection of historic ships, or just look at the beautiful vessels from the path. The most impressive is the Star of India, the world's oldest active ship.

Also along the Embarcadero path is Seaport Village, a collection of souvenir shops and gift stores. There are many casual, family-friendly restaurants serving burgers, pizza, pasta and Mexican food. Two that stand out as particularly family-friendly are San Diego Burger Company (burgers and chicken nuggets for kids, and ostrich and buffalo burgers for parents) and Asaggio (outdoor seating and great views along with deep-dish and thin-crust pizzas). After dinner, take the kids for ice cream and end your evening with a ride on the Carousel.

Day Two
Spend today at one of San Diego's several theme parks. If the kids didn't get enough wildlife at the zoo yesterday, head to the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. It's 35 miles north of San Diego in Escondido and is most easily accessible by car. You can observe the animals roaming much as they do in their native Asia and Africa. The most popular activity is the Wgasa Bush Line Railway, a 60-minute guided tour included with the cost of your admission. Admission is $28.50 for adults and $17.50 for kids. If you are visiting both the zoo and the park, consider buying a two-park ticket, which is more economical than purchasing separately. Both tickets must be used within five days of one another.

SeaWorld is another possibility for today, sure to be a hit with marine life-loving kids. Besides the major shows put on by Shamu the killer whale and sea lions Clyde and Seymour, kids will also love the hands-on interaction, like petting a dolphin or feeding bat rays. Admission to SeaWorld San Diego is $50.95 for adults and $40.95 for kids.

LEGOLAND is one of Southern California's biggest family draws. Located in Carlsbad, about 30 minutes north of San Diego, there are more than 15,000 LEGO models in the Park created from over 30 million LEGO bricks. Miniland USA is made up of reproductions of the best-known landmarks in major cities - the White House in Washington, D.C., Times Square in New York and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are just a few of the highlights. The possibilities for interactive play are limitless - kids can build LEGO car and test it on a digitally timed track or go to "driving school," where they can earn a LEGOLAND driver's license. Admission is $46.95 for adults and $38.95 for kids and seniors.

Tonight, if you have the strength, head out for an adventurous dinner. Kids will love Buca di Beppo (705 6th Avenue), an Italian outpost in the heart of the Gaslamp District - or simply stroll the streets and see which of the more than 200 restaurants gets the family vote. Another nearby option: walk over to Little Italy for San Diego's best pizza; the decor at Filippis features the proverbial red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and what you'll find is little pretension - and plenty of great food.

Day Three
Today's the day to see what makes San Diego such a special city: its beaches! There are over 70 miles of sand, but the best family beach in San Diego and possibly the country is Coronado Beach, just across the bay from downtown San Diego. The calm, temperate waters and broad expanse of sparkling (the mineral mica, also known as sugar sand, is what makes it twinkle) white sand are kid-friendly and great for adults who want to relax.

Situated on the beach is the famous Hotel del Coronado, which is definitely worth a look around. The famous resort has been operating for more than a century, and over the years has hosted the rich and famous - if you're a fan of Marilyn Monroe, check out the tablecloth signed by her and the entire cast of "Some Like it Hot," filmed at the hotel in 1958. The hotel also has a number of excellent restaurants and upscale shops to explore when you need a break from the sun and sand. Among the restaurants are several casual dining spots that welcome kids - try the Sun Deck Bar & Grill, the Splash Bar & Deli (seasonal) and the Boardwalk Cafe (seasonal). All serve light fare for the kids and drinks for the grown-ups.

Once you tire of the beach, head into the town of Coronado. Orange Avenue is the main drag and is excellent for window shopping and dining. The easiest way to get to Coronado is via the ferry. It leaves every hour on the hour from San Diego and every hour on the half-hour from Coronado. A round-trip ticket is $4.50. The ferry terminal is located at Broadway Pier, right next to the cruise ship terminal on Harbor Drive.

If your day on the beach doesn't last all day, take the family to San Diego's Old Town. This was the original center of San Diego and today is a state historical park that offers visitors a look at San Diego's real, as opposed to ersatz, history. You can wander in the preserved adobes or take a free guided walking tour of the area.

On one hand, Old Town is very touristy and the abundance of gift shops distracts from the area's significance and authenticity. On the other hand, a visit to Old Town does provide visitors with the chance to interact with the city's large but often overlooked Mexican population. Don't miss the Serra Museum at the site of the original California mission, moved six miles north in the late 1700's. Once you've seen the sights, head to dinner at one of the many Mexican restaurants in Old Town. One of the best is the Old Town Mexican Cafe, where kids will enjoy watching tortillas being made and adults will enjoy fun of another kind - there are over 80 kinds of tequila to make you the perfect margarita.

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