So, you’re planning a California family vacation. 

But, there are So. Many. Choices.

You’ve got mountains, beaches, National Parks, theme parks, and plenty of activities that are perfect for kids. There are literally thousands of destinations that all look amazing.

How are you ever going to narrow it all down?! 

One of our favorite ways to sort through ideas for our family vacations is to hear real experiences from others who have taken the trips we are considering.

So, we’ve reached out to some of our travel friends to hear what they had to say about California’s best family destinations. Here are their recommendations (and one of ours, of course 😉). 

Santa Monica California sunset on Pier Ferrys wheel and reflection on beach wet sand

San Diego

Contributed by: Heather from Embracing Chaos with Love

What is your favorite family vacation spot in California? 

San Diego near Mission Beach

orange and yellow sunset at mission beach in san diego on family vacation in California
Photo courtesy of Heather from Embracing Chaos with Love

What do you love about San Diego?

San Diego is close to lots of different things to do. It is a short drive to San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, or SeaWorld. Plus, the beach is not too crowded, and it is adjacent to Belmont Park.

Where did you stay? How was your experience?

We stayed in a beach condo rental right on the boardwalk. It was a big family trip, so we rented the whole top floor, and the rooms were connected by the balcony. 

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There were plenty of beach chairs and toys available to use for our beach days. The view on the balcony was amazing for the sunsets! There is also a great common BBQ area on the ground floor we used one night after a day on the beach.

Do you have any other recommendations for the best places to stay?

Another place we have stayed when it was just our family of 4 was the Homewood Suites by Hilton. It is more budget-friendly, but still very nice. It’s near SeaWorld, so if you plan to spend more time downtown, it is closer. I love the suites because you have a bedroom you can close off when the kids go to bed while the adults hang out in the living area. 

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What are your favorite things to do in San Diego?

Our favorite thing to do is to visit the zoo. The San Diego Zoo is huge, and the kids love seeing all of the animals. 

During this last trip, we went to the Safari Park for the first time. We were able to walk around with Kangaroos! It was a fantastic experience. Plus, the grounds at the zoo are beautiful. 

Another fun thing to visit was the amusement park, Belmont Park. It was a short walk from where we were staying, so that was great. The park has a ton of rides for the kids to enjoy. 

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in the area?

Some great places to eat in San Diego are The Crack ShackBallast Point, and Stone Brewing. We had a great experience at each one, and they all have great food and drinks. All are family-friendly too. 

What surprised you about San Diego?

I was surprised that Mission Beach was not that crowded where we were. It is a beautiful beach, and we were in the perfect spot so that people driving to the beach were coming into the beach farther down. 

Is there anything special families should know before visiting San Diego?

If you plan to have s’ mores on the beach, get your fire pit early, they fill up fast! We tried on two different nights but kept striking out. 

Also, get to the zoo right when it opens. You get to see more, and by the time you are wiped out and have seen most of the attractions, it is just getting busy, and you are almost done for the day. 

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Yosemite

What is your favorite family vacation spot in California? 

We loved our trip to Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Glacier Point

What do you love about Yosemite?

We were blown away by how large it was. It’s hard to understand the scale until you’re standing somewhere like Glacier Point, looking down to Yosemite Valley and across to Half Dome. 

Where did you stay in Yosemite? How was your experience?

We stayed just outside Yosemite in the Yosemite Southgate Hotel the night before we entered the park. They were very welcoming, the hotel was clean, and it was a short drive to the park entrance the next morning.

Do you have any other recommendations for the best places to stay in Yosemite?

If you’re looking for somewhere with a full kitchen, we would recommend checking out some of the Airbnb’s available in the area.

Or, you could also consider some of the campgrounds nearby.

What are your favorite things to do in Yosemite?

Hands down, one of our favorite stops was Glacier Point. The scenery was absolutely stunning, and we highly recommend getting there before the crowds of the day. We were able to soak in the beauty with very few people, but by the time we headed out mid-morning, things were definitely filling up.

Yosemite Valley is also impressive to visit, although it is likely to be crowded. We think a walk through the Ansel Adams Gallery is definitely worth it, despite the crowds. You can find out exactly how we spent a full day in Yosemite in this blog post.

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Yosemite?

We actually packed our food in a cooler for the day, because we knew there would only be a few options, and we have food allergies to consider.

However, you do have a few options, and when we were walking past some of them they smelled amazing! Here are a few to check out:

What surprised you about Yosemite?

Honestly, we alluded to it before, but how massive the cliffs and rocks are from the valley floor. It’s one of those places that is incredibly humbling to experience.

Is there anything special families should know before visiting this destination?

You are in bear country, so you’ll want to be sure to take the proper precautions with food and on hikes. We would also recommend deciding which places are most important to you and try to get to them as early as possible for the lightest crowds. 

Mendocino

Contributed by: Margie DQ of DQ Family Travel

What is your favorite family vacation spot in California?

Mendocino.

view of rivers in mendocino on family vacation in california with green trees against a blue sky and blue waters of river below
Photo courtesy of Margie of DQ Family Travel

What do you love about Mendocino?

We loved that Mendocino was a small coastal town and had access to beautiful beaches, state parks, and outdoor fun. It was not crowded, had some delicious restaurants, and unique outdoor activities. 

Where did you stay? How was your experience?

We stayed in MacCallum House, which was a beautiful and charming bed and breakfast located downtown. Usually, not many bed and breakfasts allow kids, and this one did so it was nice to show them how these are different from traditional hotels. The food was delicious too.

Do you have any other recommendations for the best places to stay?

We visited later on for a “parents weekend” and stayed at Glendeven Inn. It is a spectacular waterfront adult-only property with wine happy hours, beach and trail access steps away and a secluded feel.

What are your favorite things to do in Mendocino?

We loved kayaking through the sea caves from Van Damme State Park. It was such a unique and challenging activity. 

Another fun activity was biking around Mendocino Headlands State Park. We then went wading through the Little River and Big River, which was great, especially in the section where it meets the Pacific Ocean. 

The downtown area of Mendocino is also very charming. There are a couple of small museums and many great restaurants within walking distance. Russian Gulch State Park is only two miles away and offers scenic trails right by the water. 

For a little day trip, we loved visiting Jackson State Forest and Mendocino National Forest for camping, boating, and walking amongst the majestic redwoods.

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in the area?

We loved Trillium Cafe & InnMendocino Cafe, and Fog Eater Cafe located right in downtown. 

We also loved Frankie’s, which is a local pizzeria. Their ice cream was surprisingly wonderful too!

What surprised you about Mendocino?

Everything! 

It was only a 3-hour drive from San Francisco but felt like a world away. It was also much less crowded than other California cities, which I loved. 

The fact that there were so many small hiking trails were an added bonus too. 

Is there anything special families should know before visiting Mendocino?

Getting to Mendocino can be a little dicey if you get car sick or have a fear of heights and bridges. As you approach the town, the road winds for about 45 minutes and everyone in the car was feeling a little dizzy. 

Just before you arrive, you have to cross a couple of very high, narrow bridges with gorgeous views but a little nerve-wracking.

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Los Angeles

Contributed by: Melissa of The Family Voyage

What is your favorite family vacation spot in California? 

Los Angeles

Santa Monica California sunset on Pier Ferrys wheel and reflection on beach wet sand
Sunset at Santa Monica

What do you love about Los Angeles?

Los Angeles has it all; you just have to know where to find it! 

You can find tons of great outdoor activities for daytime and wrap up the evening with world-class dining and entertainment.

Where did you stay in Los Angeles? How was your experience?

I recommend that visitors stay in Santa Monica. It has a great vibe and is close to the beach, hiking, shopping, and more.

Do you have any other recommendations for the best places to stay in Los Angeles?

Thanks to the new Expo Line light rail, Santa Monica has a nice range of hotels available. 

For budget-friendly, family-friendly accommodations, check out the Hampton Inn and the Courtyard by Marriott. For a splurge, try the beachside twins of Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar.

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What are your favorite things to do in Los Angeles?

Head up to Will Rogers State Beach and rent bikes (with trailers, if necessary) from Perry’s. You can easily ride all the way down to the marina. In between, you’ll find lots of great stops to enjoy the beach, the world-famous Santa Monica Pier, the Heal the Bay Aquarium, the spectacles of Venice Beach, and more. It’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Los Angeles. 

On the other side of the city, kids will love visiting the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s a fascinating side of LA’s history when woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats roamed during the last Ice Age. It’s the world’s only active Ice Age excavation site and is so important that it’s being completely redone over the next few years. Admission to the Tar Pits is free, and if you want to dive deeper, you can also visit the adjacent Page Museum (free with an ASTC member card).

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Los Angeles?

  • La Res is a wonderful Mexican restaurant with great ambiance, and there are often mariachi musicians walking around! 
  • For a casual lunch, it doesn’t get more local than Bay Cities Italian Deli – order online about 30 minutes ahead and then take it with you for a picnic lunch. 
  • When you’re in the mood for a sweet treat, stop by either Sweet Rose Creamery or Coolhaus. Sweet Rose Creamery is known for their extremely fresh, seasonal ice cream and sorbet flavors – a truly gourmet experience. Coolhaus has lots of wonderfully unique ice cream flavors, and they’re known for their customizable ice cream sandwiches.

What surprised you about Los Angeles?

So many visitors to LA are surprised to find that there’s so much beyond movie industry attractions. While LA can sometimes feel like a huge, sprawling mess, you can look at the silver lining and realize that it affords the opportunity for any kind of experience you want, ranging from secluded canyon hikes to cultural highlights like Olvera Street.

Is there anything special families should know before visiting this destination?

While it’s possible to get around LA on public transportation, the system isn’t very efficient for the “last mile.” I recommend renting a car to make the most of your time and have access to some out-of-the-way gems.

Lake Tahoe

Contributed by: Sierra of Free to Travel Mama

What is your favorite family vacation spot in California? 

Lake Tahoe

image of blue waters at lake tahoe with green trees along the shoreline on a family vacation
Photo courtesy of Sierra from Free to Travel Mama

What did you love about Lake Tahoe?

We have visited Lake Tahoe many times in every season of the year. The most incredible thing about this gorgeous lake in the basin of the mountains is that it is so incredibly beautiful in every season of the year. Snow-capped mountains in the winter, gushing waterfall hikes in spring, crystal clear water to swim in the summer, and beautiful changing colors of the leaves in the fall.

Where did you stay in Lake Tahoe? How was your experience?

Our favorite way to experience Lake Tahoe is by camping at Sugar Pine Point State Park in their gorgeous, spacious campsites under the trees.

Many Airbnb’s are also available in the area. Several of them are charming cabins, which are especially lovely in the snow. 

Do you have any other recommendations for the best places to stay in Lake Tahoe?

  • Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel: Great family and budget-friendly option on the South Shore with multi-room lodging options and full breakfast included.
  • Ritz-Carlton: Best luxury hotel on the lake.

What are your favorite things to do in Lake Tahoe?

Lake Tahoe is perfect for anyone who loves the outdoors. Our family loves to swim and kayak in the gorgeous (but chilly!) water in Meeks Bay and in Sugar Pine Point State Park. 

Paddleboarding is also a popular choice at Camp Richardson and Sand Harbor. The views can’t be beaten from the lookout at Emerald Bay. 

If you’re a fan of hikes, take the short but steep hike down to Vikingsholm Mansion for a historical tour and swim in the bay. Other popular hikes include the Fallen Leaf Lake Trail and Eagle Falls Trail. 

If you are visiting in winter, skiing and snowboarding options abound at plenty of resorts around the lake, like Sugar Bowl, Heavenly, and Northstar.

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Lake Tahoe?

What surprised you about Lake Tahoe?

I have visited Lake Tahoe many times since I was a child. Lake Tahoe’s beauty is breathtaking! 

Photos do not do it justice, and one cannot prepare for the natural beauty of a clear blue lake nestled in the basin of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Is there anything special families should know before visiting this destination?

Lake Tahoe is so stunningly beautiful that it can get very crowded as well. Weekdays are lighter, as well as Spring and Fall. 

If you are visiting in winter, be sure to carry snow chains and check the weather report carefully. Snowfall often closes the roads until they can be plowed, which can take hours.

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4 Comments

  1. Such a great list! I have never been to Mendocino or Tahoe- definitely on the list!

    Other great places would be Catalina Island, Torrey Pines (great hiking on cliffs by the beach in San Diego), La Jolla Cove in San Diego where you can see sea lions, and Julian- a quaint town just East of San Diego towards the mountains.

    1. Thank you! We had such a great time learning about other spots from real families! Thanks for your suggestions – I’ve never heard of Julian. It sounds like it might be right up our alley!