Top things to do in California for families

Wall-to-wall sunshine, pristine beaches, epic wilderness and some of the world’s coolest cities. California really does have everything for the perfect family holiday in the USA. Whether your kids are toddlers or teens there’s plenty to amuse and amaze them.

Here are just a few of our favourite things to do with kids in California:

Head out on a road trip along Route One

The USA is the spiritual home of the automobile and driving holidays in the USA are real favourites with families. You’re in complete control, so you can stop off wherever you fancy. California’s Route One is one of the country’s most scenic drives. The Pacific Coast Highway is packed with sparkling views of the rugged coastline and golden sandy beaches.

The most popular section for families starts in San Francisco and ends in Los Angeles, taking three days or so to make the journey. You can stop off at atmospheric beach resort towns like Monterey and Pismo Beach. Think golden sand fringed with waving palm trees, boardwalks perfect for strolling in the sun and warm waters just made for a swim or a paddle. And you can get up close to the amazing wildlife too. Hop aboard a boat for a whale and dolphin-watching expedition. You may see sea lions and seals along the way too.

Learn to surf in San Diego

If you have older kids in tow, then you’ll know they need plenty to keep them occupied. So how about getting them some surf lessons? Teens will love the challenge of trying to stand up on a board, while younger ones can have a go at boogie-boarding, which is much easier. San Diego is a great spot to hit the waves. The water is warm, the waves are regular and not too big, and the sunshine is guaranteed. Instructors here are really good at helping children overcome fear and discover the exhilaration of catching a wave. And as a parent there’s nothing better than watching your kids learn a new skill, is there? San Diego is also a lovely spot to kick back and do a little shopping. The old Gaslamp Quarter is packed with independent boutiques and restaurants, while Old San Diego has atmospheric houses from the Spanish colonial era, interesting museums and (of course) more shops.

Hang out in funky Los Angeles

The city of Angels is a feast of fun for family holidays. For starters, you have lots of theme parks right on the doorstep. Older kids will love the adrenaline thrills of rollercoaster crazy Six Flags, younger ones will thrill to the sight of their friends at Disneyland, while film fans will love the behind-the-scenes tours at Hollywood and Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Of course, there’s Hollywood Boulevard where you can find the names of your favourite actors on the stars in the pavements.

Want to make them think a little? Head for some of LA’s great child-friendly museums like the excellent California Science Center (with the Natural History Museum next door) or Discovery Cube Los Angeles which is packed with hands-on exhibits. And there’s the beach too. Funky Venice Beach has a boardwalk that’s almost like a circus with people rollerblading, juggling and busking in the sunshine. You don’t have to just walk it. Why not rent bikes and go for a cycle?

Get a natural high in Lake Tahoe

It’s not just the coastline of California that offers sparkling waters and sandy shores. Mighty Lake Tahoe is a natural paradise with lots of child-friendly walks on offer through pristine forests and rolling meadows. In winter it’s a ski resort and the slopes are ideal for beginners, with wide, gentle descents and an excellent ski school for kids. You can ride the gondola in summer too. From the Heavenly Village Gondola Centre head up to the peak and then walk back down. It’s an easy walk and the views of mountains and the lake shimmering in the sunshine are unbeatable.

If walking feels a bit too sedate, there are summertime adrenaline activities too. Heavenly Ski Resort turns into a huge adventure playground in summer. You can hurtle down the mountain on zip wires, toboggans and even huge rubber rings. Or how about exploring the tree canopy on a high-level rope course? There’s a range of different levels for many of these activities so even younger kids can have fun.

Immerse yourself in the buzz of San Francisco

There is so much to see and do in San Francisco. For starters, there’s Golden Gate bridge itself. If you have a head for heights you can walk across it. Or why not hop on a bike and take a tour which includes cycling over? Close by, Golden Gate Park is perfect for kids. It features fairground rides, a Japanese tea garden and the excellent California Academy of Sciences. In fact, San Francisco is a great museum city. At the Children’s Creativity Museum kids can learn to make movies and the Fire Department and Cable Car museums will have junior engineers in rapt attention. One of the more atmospheric museums is Alcatraz island. The boat ride out to the world’s most famous prison is a highlight in itself offering amazing views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Or how about this for a fun way to learn about the city? A Treasure Hunt around China Town and the business district, finishing up in Fisherman’s Wharf.

Step back in time in Gold Country

When gold was discovered here in 1848, nearly 300,000 people rushed to California in the hope of finding their fortune. The western foothills of the Sierra Nevada are still known as Gold Country and learning about the crazy rush for gold is great fun. At places like Coloma and Jamestown, you can wade in the river and try to find flecks of gold. Prospecting shops sell pans and will show you the swirling technique for separating the gold from the grit. You can hire a guide to show you how it’s done too. There are historic shops and houses from the gold rush era to admire and at Jamestown, there’s the Railtown 1897 Historic Park where you can ride historic steam trains for a six mile journey through the Sierra foothills. At Columbia State Historic Park, costumed actors bring the re-created gold rush town to life and in Old Sacramento, you can explore restored gold rush era houses, a school, and even a riverboat.

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Speak to our travel specialist, Emma

Start planning your next family adventure with Emma, our travel specialist for the USA. She'll work with you until your itinerary is exactly how you want it, leaving you to enjoy your family holiday, stress-free.

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