Family vacations are for making memories if you do them in the right manner and go to the right places. When it comes to finding the right places to take the kids, you’ll want to go somewhere that is scenic and educational yet also has a sense of adventure. California is a paradise for adults and kids because there is no shortage of things to see and do. You could spend a lifetime visiting all of the fun and interesting destinations that the Golden State has to offer and not see them all, so what’s a parent to do? As a mom who loves to travel with her kids, I’ve narrowed the list of California destinations to eight that you’ll want to take your family to before they leave the nest.
The Famous Santa Monica Pier
Few things are more American than a big fishing pier extending into the ocean. The one in Santa Monica is one of the most iconic as it has classic arcade games, carnival rides, and traditional diner food. You’ll find more upscale far here too, along with lots of sandwiches, and of course, fresh fish. Take a ride on the Ferris Wheel with the little ones while the tweens and teens spend their time in the arcade. You’ll find something for kids of all ages to enjoy. Go for a swim or simply sit on the sand and watch people stroll past. Street performers plying their trades are in abundance here, along with traditional and caricature artists. There’s even a free walking tour if you want to learn about the pier’s history.
Golden Gate Bridge & Alcatraz Island in San Francisco
Visiting this famous bridge is an educational adventure. The first glimpse is always exciting, whether it’s your first time visiting or the tenth time. Learn how the bridge was built and why it’s a subdued shade of orange and not colored gold. Among the activities you can do is ride bikes or walk across it for a three-mile round trip. To see Golden Gate from a different perspective, take a ferry ride in the bay. No trip to this popular landmark is complete without photos, so head over to Vista Point for your shots or to the Marin Headlands for a less crowded experience.
If you love history, Alcatraz Island has plenty of it. Taking a tour is a must as it allows you to get an up-close look at the prison cells, prison life, and politics during the time that the Rock, as it was often called. Alcatraz operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Although more than a dozen inmates tried to escape over the years, no one made it out. You and your kids will learn a lot about how the prisoners lived, including infamous figures like Al Capone and the “Birdman of Alcatraz” Robert Stroud. It’s an eerie place, but the island has natural beauty, too, with tide pools and a chance to go birdwatching. Don’t forget to stop in the prison gift shop for a remembrance of your visit.
The Wonder and Awe of Disneyland
No one is too young or too old for Disneyland. For many, the original is still the best. Disneyland is a slice of heaven on earth for kids and parents who grew up with everything Mickey and Minnie. Kids love seeing their favorite characters from their favorite Disney movies come to life. Pose with one of the princesses, ride on all the classic rides, explore themed areas like Toontown, Fantasyland, Critter Country, and the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Parents will love the nostalgia of Tomorrowland. Note that some rides have height restrictions, but there are plenty of fun rides if you have little ones. Eat carnival-style food and forget about your diet for a day. Stay for the nightly fireworks show to cap off a memorable day. Every kid should experience Disneyland at least once.
San Diego’s Natural Beauty and World-Famous Zoo
San Diego has so many gorgeous and fun places to visit that you’ll need to spend several days here. Come for the world-famous zoo but stay for the area’s natural beauty, which extends to the gorgeous natural habitats inside the San Diego Zoo. This park is so big that you can easily spend the whole day here and not see all of the animals. The zoo emphasizes conservation, so in addition to learning about your favorite animals, your family will also learn about rare and endangered species and the zoo’s efforts to help save them.
Once you’ve been to the zoo, don’t forget San Diego’s other wonders. Even places like Balboa Park with its myriad museums and theaters is a great place for kids. Explore the playgrounds there or simply enjoy the outdoor art sculptures. Visit Coronado Island to stroll along the boardwalk and spend time on the beach. Head north to La Jolla to see the famous seals, explore tidal pools and enjoy dramatic views of the coastline.
Lake Tahoe’s Stellar Ski Slopes
Lake Tahoe is a playground no matter what time of year you go, but when the snow falls, it really gets lively. Go snowmobiling, sledding, and snowboarding in addition to traditional downhill skiing. This destination is great for families as many of the resorts have activities for kids of all ages. You’ll find slopes for skiers of all abilities, and you don’t have to teach your kids how to traverse the slopes, either. You’ll find ski instructors who specialize in teaching youngsters. At night, spend time around the lodge fire drinking cocoa making s’mores, and participating in games and other activities. You’ll find a lot of kid-friendly restaurants here too.
See Stars at the Griffith Observatory in LA
Get a glimpse into the universe at this incredible free observatory that is home to one of the world’s largest telescopes. Looking at the night sky through the big telescope is a must, but if you’re there during the day or on a cloudy evening, the observatory’s astronomy exhibits will have your kids dreaming big about the universe and all its possibilities. Griffith Observatory also pays tribute to some of the most iconic space journeys. This place is heaven for all space geeks, but kids will like it too, as many of the exhibits are simply fun. The observatory also has a gorgeous park where you can have a fun picnic too. Fans of the movie LaLa Land will love coming here, too, as Griffith Observatory is in one of the film’s main scenes.
The Stunning Yosemite National Park
To paraphrase John Muir, no human-made temple can compare with Yosemite. This park has inspired writers and artists for hundreds of years. You can’t help but be inspired when you stand among the sheer granite mountains, vibrant waterfalls, and pristine meadows filled with flora and fauna. Kids love towering sequoia trees and learning about nature. You’ll find hundreds of miles of trails that go past waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and wildlife. Multi-day hikes are popular and if you want a challenge, climb to the top of the Half Dome. The park has lots of campgrounds from which to choose. Fishing and watersports are popular here too. To top it off, you can take a lot of Instagram-worthy photos.
Monterey Bay’s Treasured Aquarium and Marine Life
Families that love all things to do with the sea will love California’s outstanding Monterey Aquarium with over 600 species of aquatic life on display. The water in the exhibits is even pumped in from Monterey Bay, making the environment completely authentic. this is the place to go if you want a close-up experience of ocean animals. Ocean’s Edge Wing, the aquarium’s main exhibit, has a diverse collection of marine life where you can learn about regional fish and see one of the few sunfish kept in captivity. You can also view tide pool tanks, tuna, sea otters, and many more incredible creatures. Plan to spend two to three hours here to view all of the colorful creatures.
From exploring colorful marine life to marveling at the wonder of the happiest place on earth, California offers endless opportunities for family adventure. While this list contains my all-time favorite spots to visit with kids, several “honorable mentions” include hiking the trails around Big Sur, watching the surfers catch waves in Santa Cruz, and visiting the Friendship Park at the California/Mexico border. Whether you’re a family of foodies, outdoor adventure-seekers, or live music lovers, California has it all waiting for you.
Guest Author: Bea Krasner – Passionate writer, part-time foodie, and full-time dog dad. He specializes in topic areas including exotic travel, exercise and holistic wellness, environmentally-friendly skincare, and LGBT rights advocacy.