Things to Do in San Diego – A (Used-to-be) Locals Guide to Exploring San Diego with Kids

Ocean Beach San Diego Pier
Many years ago, I was a Navy wife in San Diego.  And for the decade that followed, I traveled from Houston to San Diego every few weeks for work.  And when I was especially lucky, I would take my kids with me.

I love Houston, but San Diego is pretty fantastic.  The temperature is usually a perfect 70 something, there are miles of beautiful beaches and, Houstonians will appreciate this… there are no mosquitoes.

My friends often ask for tips for where to visit on their San Diego vacations, so let me share my favorite spots from a (used-to-be) local mom.

Ocean Beach San Diego View from Pier
Where to Stay:

My recommendation to my friends is to stay west of Interstate 5. I like all of San Diego, but if you go too far inland, you will see shops and restaurants and businesses like Houston (but with more palm trees and nicer weather). To the west of Interstate 5, you will have miles and miles of beautiful beaches.

Let me give you a quick overview of the beaches in San Diego… and yes, it’s over simplified but will give you an idea of where to go.

In San Diego, you fly into Downtown which is very nice.  It’s changed a lot since we first moved there… the views are beautiful and there are great restaurants and shops.

Just a little south of Downtown is Coronado with giant beaches, the famous Hotel del Coronado and a Navy Base (with the other Navy Base in Downtown).

Just a little north(ish) is Point Loma and Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach is old-fashioned, laid back and the destination for a lot RVs and Volkswagen Vans. It’s also were I lived.

Further north is Mission Beach with nice beaches and a little bay (where I learned to surf). North of this is Pacific Beach with a lot of young adults, bars and restaurants.

North of this is La Jolla and then Del Mar… with zip codes that everyone dreams of having one day. Beautiful houses, nice shops and restaurants and nice beaches.

My husband was on the Navy Bases in Coronado and Downtown, we lived in Ocean Beach, and I worked near La Jolla… so this strip of coast is what I know best… and are what I always recommend to friends.  If you go further north… I bet you can also find great places by the beach.

Hotels are up and down the coast… so try to stay west of I5… or make sure you vacation takes you there!


Seaport Village San Diego View of Navy Ships
What to Do:

1.  Coronado Island:  Take the big bridge over to the island, or ride the ferry.  Here you will find really big beaches and nice shops, restaurants and the Hotel del Coronado (as seen in “Some Like It Hot” with Marilyn Monroe).

Coronado is also home to a Navy Base (and where I visited a certain Aircraft Carrier pretty frequently).  You cannot get on the base without an ID, but you might see Navy Seals training on the beach.


2.  Downtown:  When we first arrived in San Diego, Downtown was so-so and there was a constant conversation about whether or not we should gamble and buy property.  Well, 15 years later, I can say that this would have been a really good purchase.

In Downtown, you can go to a Padre’s baseball game and visit the new Children’s Museum (which I have not seen yet!).  This is also the one time I will recommend stopping by a shopping mall… Horton Plaza is an outdoor mall with the craziest design I’ve ever seen.   It has stairs and bridges darting all over the place and it is like you are in a Dr. Suess book.

Be sure to also visit Seaport Village and the Embarcadero.  Here you will find a lot of shops, great views of Navy ships, the Star of India and the USS Midway Museum (which is a ship you can tour).

In Downtown’s Gaslamp District, you will find a lot of restaurants and bars.  And, the Little Italy district, with outdoor dining and farmers markets, is where I wish we had bought that condo.


3.  Balboa Park: Very close to Downtown is the San Diego version of Houston’s Hermann Park.  Balboa Park has gardens, museums, theaters and the San Diego Zoo.

This park is beautiful and there is a lot to do and places to eat.  Check the latest Reciprocal Membership Program for where you can use your Houston memberships in San Diego.


4.  Ocean Beach:  I used to live in Ocean Beach (OB), so you can be sure that I am biased in my review.  Saying this part of San Diego is laid back is an understatement.  Here you will find a RVs, VW vans, surfers, sunbathers, restaurants, bars, local shops and a beach dedicated to dogs.  When you get to Newport Avenue, you will feel like you’ve entered a different decade.  It is unlike anywhere else in San Diego and you need to check it out.

OB has 1 of the longest piers in Southern California and has a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and bait shop in middle.  Also, each week you can visit the Farmers Market that takes over Newport Avenue.

Also, if you walk or drive along the coast from Ocean Beach towards Point Loma, you can find the most beautiful cliffs… called Sunset Cliffs.


5.  Mission Bay: Just north of Ocean Beach is Mission Bay.  The calmer bay is where I took surfing lessons (through the OB Surf Shop).  It is also the place for water sports, picnicking and playing.


6.  Pacific Beach: Just north of Mission Beach is Pacific Beach… and where a lot of college kids and young adults hang out. It’s beautiful and has nice beaches, restaurants, bars and bathing-suit-wearing rollerbladers. Feel free to go… but I’m no longer hip enough.


7.  La Jolla: Now this is the zip code and everyone wants to have one day. Nice houses and beautiful beaches are in La Jolla.

La Jolla Cove is especially nice with shops, high end restaurants, a small family beach and a whole lot of sea lions.  La Jolla Shores is also very nice and has a bigger beach for the kids.  We’ve spent a lot of time digging and building fortresses on this beach.


8.  Theme Parks:  If you are looking for theme parks/zoos, check out San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park, Sea World and Lego Land.  I’ve been to all off them over the years and taken the kids to a few… but really, my personal preference is to spend time in the city and at the beaches rather than spending tons of time and money at the parks.  But, if your family is a theme park family… go!

Seaworld San Diego
More Information:

If you are headed to San Diego, check out for not-used-to-be-local… but living-there-everyday guide to San Diego!



San Diego USS Midway BigKidSmallCity

Taipei Taiwan, Night Markets, Stinky Tofu and Touring without knowing Mandarin Chinese

This week I’ve been in Taipei, Taiwan on business travel.  This happens to be my 3rd trip here since June.  The more I visit, the more I like the city.  I’m unable to speak or read Mandarin, but getting around the city is relatively easy.  The people are friendly, the city is safe and the street names are labeled with Chinese characters and the English alphabet.

On my first trip to Taipei, I took a tour from my hotel.  An English speaking tour guide drove a group around the city and showed us the highlights.  On later trips I started taking taxis with my destinations written on paper.  I often have a Mandarin speaking coworker with me, but even when I don’t, I still find my way back home.  If you make it to Taipei, I suggest you get a map, talk to the hotel concierge, get a couple addresses written in Mandarin, and head out into the city.  If you run into trouble, get a taxi, point to a address and get yourself back to the hotel.

For the Taipei highlights, go HERE.  My favorite thing so far has been the night markets.  When home in Houston, I love festivals, fairs and farmers markets.  The Taipei night markets pack all this excitement into nightly fairs were streets are closed down and replaced with booths, vendors and pedestrians.

Night markets have lots of shopping and lots of food.  You can find clothes, shoes, purses, keychains, watches, hair accessories, stuffed animals, toys and just about anything you can imagine.  Prices are reasonable but always super cheap.  Bartering can be done but, in my opinion, the dirt cheap treasures come from Chinese markets and not Taiwanese markets.

What the Taiwan markets have is lots of cheap street food.  Taiwan has become famous for xiaochi, or “small eats”.    At the market, vendors are selling juice, tea, fruits, dumplings, nuts, meat “kabobs” and stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu happens to be the very worst smelling food in the entire world.  Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who won’t even eat parmesan cheese because of the stink, but  the smell of stinky tofu makes me want to never eat again in my entire life.  It might actually be a good diet tool.

Stinky tofu is deep fried fermented tofu that is covered in a sweet and spicy sauce.  It’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  I did try it years ago and never will again!

Fortunately there is plenty of other food for me to eat and for booths for me to browse.  I could spend hours shopping and people watching.

I am a big fan of Taipei and I have a goal of someday bringing my kids.  I’m told that short term childcare, even at English centers, is very easy to find.  I would like to top our San Diego trip and bring the BigKidSmallCity on a Taipei business trip.

BigKidSmallCity San Diego Adventure

Back when I was a Navy wife, I lived and worked in San Diego, California. I still travel there frequently for work and I’ve always wanted to take my kids with me. Generally, it just doesn’t work, but last week, the moon and the stars aligned.

Knowing that summer days were quickly running out, I was determined to not miss out on my kids while I was away. I did not have anyone to travel out to California with me, so I got a recommendation and reserved 3 spots at Scripps Exploring Academy and booked 3 plane tickets to San Diego.

Our trip included flying to San Diego, staying in a hotel, sending kids daycare/school, working and exploring. This post reviews what we did. I’ll follow up with more details on each mini-adventure (including Seaport Village, Ocean Beach, Sea World and Legoland).

Two weeks ago, my 3 kids and I headed to the airport. Check out our airport strategies HERE. Like usual, we got a ride to the airport and dropped our bags off at the curbside check. The plane trip went fine but hit our first snag when we arrived in San Diego. On most trips, we have someone waiting to pick us up. This time it was just us vs. the world.

In San Diego, Joe and I had to get 3 car seats/boosters, 1 giant bag, 1 stroller and 1 baby, strapped to my chest, to the rental car bus, on the bus and then into the rental car. We rented a cart for $3 (available in baggage claim) and said a little prayer. It was quickly answered by a couple who was headed the same direction and wanting to help.

Fortunately we are enrolled in Avis Preferred so we had a car waiting for us and we just had to jump off the bus, with our many bags, and jump into our car. To enroll in this free program, go HERE.  We had a monster of a Lincoln Town Car and there was plenty of room for our car seats. And, it made people laugh when they saw a 5’2″, 30 something mom, with 3 kids, driving her grandfather’s car.

The San Diego airport is right next to downtown and the water. Since we had arrived in the morning, we had to decide if we should swing by downtown or head to the beach first. Having lived in Ocean Beach (or OB) for many years, I decided to make the quick drive over the hill to Ocean Beach.

Ocean Beach is the most laid back beach in San Diego (and that is saying something). Not a lot has changed since the 1950s and that is how OB residents like it. Hippies and Yuppies seem to get along fine as they enjoy the surf, beach, restaurants and bars.

The kids and I walked out to the Pier Cafe. The Ocean Beach Pier is about 1/2 mile long and is one of the longest in Southern California. About 200 yards out, is the Cafe. It looks like a dive, but has had great food for as long as I’ve been eating there.  On the pier the kids watched the fisherman, the surfers, and even a sea lion in the water. In the restaurant, the kids enjoyed the view and ate their grilled cheese sandwiches. I ate my giant lobster taco and waddled back to dry land.

The kids apparently had more room in their bellies, because they insisted that we stop at Lighthouse Ice Cream. I used to go here weekly, so I gave in.

Afterwards, I was expecting to play on the beach but the kids were so excited to get to the hotel that we just-had-to-leave.  I was secretly happy because in my 5 years living in Ocean Beach, I had only been in the ocean 1 time.  I really don’t like sand and seaweed and much prefer the hotel pool.  (In case you are concerned, I do like long walks on the beach and drinking margaritas as I watch the sunset.)

In the La Jolla area we checked into the Holiday Inn Express. My kids love hotel rooms. I’m not sure why, but the rooms are usually a highlight of any trip we take.  I like the Holiday Inn Express for kids because they are usually renovated, they are nice enough but not fancy, they have free breakfast and they like kids.

After jumping on beds and running circles around the room, we headed to Target to get provisions. To hold us over for the week, we got Ready to Feed Formula(for convenience, not for the price!), Baby Food, Baby Soap, Bottled Water, and some odds and ends for making school lunches.

After our 1st of 10 trips to the pool, we called it a night.  Everyone had their own bed at the hotel, but only James, in the crib, seemed to sleep alone each night.  (Lucky little guy.)

The next day our “work” began.  I had to go to the office and the kids had to go to daycare.  My kids have had several caregivers and hoped from house to house and babysitter to babysitter, but they had never been to a daycare.  I was nervous about how they would like it.

Let me just tell you that I left my kids at daycare for 9 hours each day, and when I went to pick them up, they complained because they still wanted to play. Scripps Exploring Academy is really well run and a lot of fun for the kids.  Baby James was not too sure about it at first, but after a couple of days, he was an old pro.

When the weekend rolled around, we headed out on more adventures.  On Saturday it was Legoland and then Seaport Village downtown.  We don’t usually do theme parks, but I was happy to take my Lego enthusiast.  Fortunately my kids are young so there was no interest in waiting in the 45 minute lines for the roller coasters.  The kids played in the play zone, rode a few rides and admired the Lego sculptures.

We finished around 3:00pm and wanted to fill our day with more fun.  We headed down to Seaport Village (one of my favorite San Diego attractions).  Here we admired the Navy ships across the water in Coronado and took a pedicab over to see the Midway.  Joe was very proud that his daddy used to work on these giant ships.

On Sunday, we went to Sea World.  This trip was sort of an afterthought, but turned into the highlight of the trip.  We had never been to Sea World but were delighted to find all the exhibits that let you interact and touch the animals.  Here we petted dolphins and stingrays, held starfish and got soaked by Shamu.  It was awesome.

Again, we finished around 3:00pm, and we had a special request to ride the horse and carriage in Seaport Village.  We made the short drive from Sea World to downtown and rode the princess carriage.  $30 was a little high for our short trip, but Princess Brooke was elated.

Monday meant back to work and back to Scripps Exploring Academy.  And it also meant the flu.  Brooke caught it first.  On Monday night I was wondering how on earth I would go to work and take care of my sick girl.  By Tuesday morning, I had the answer.  I also had the flu and knew we’d be staying at the hotel together.  And, then it got better.  Daycare called and both James and Joe were also throwing up.  Somehow we managed to get everyone back to the hotel, lock ourselves in, and do our best to take care of each other.

By some miracle, we all survived and rewarded ourselves with work, daycare and the mild Pho Ca Dao Vietnamese noodles on Wednesday.

A few days later, our trip came to an end and we headed back to Houston. You may have seen me at the San Diego airport. I was the single mom, with 3 kids, getting the full pat down at security. With this, I felt that I had given my kids the full travel experience!

The hardest part about this working trip was the evenings.  My work does not usually wrap up at 6:00pm, but after 6:00pm it was just me and the kids.  We usually ate dinner, went swimming and headed to bed.  Once the kids were asleep, I’d get back online and do some more work.

Even with the late nights and with the flu, I’d do this trip a hundred times over. I just love my 3 little kids and am happy for all of our little adventures. Missing them for another couple of weeks, while on yet another business trip, would have been far worse than the lack of sleep and the flu combined.