San Diego Offers Vacationing Family Free Winter Fun

by Carmel L. Mooney

Holiday parades, festivals, migration of California gray whales along the coast; and lots more beckon vacationing families during the winter. A wealth of free, fun, and festive experiences are available for road-tripping families.

Brown pelicans perched on a dingy in San DiegoVacationing families can escape overcast skies and the wintry cold back home for San Diego’s brilliant sunshine and temperate climate and they can enjoy diverse wintertime experiences, many of which are free.

Here are about 20 suggestions for free activities and events, all sure to capture the imagination and lift the spirits of visiting families in San Diego during the upcoming winter months.

    • Join the festivities during Balboa Park December Nights, a two-day holiday celebration of food, entertainment, and fun held on the first Friday and Saturday each December.
    • The numerous museums and cultural institutions in Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, open their doors free of charge, and festivities include carolers, live music, holiday light displays, theater, and dance performances, and delicious foods from around the world.
    • Whale watch from the shores and cliffs of Point Loma, as California gray whales migrate south to the warm water breeding grounds off the coast of Baja, California. Spectators can catch a spectacular show from December through April when these majestic mammals pass through the waters off San Diego’s coastline.
    • Be part of a grand Holiday Celebration in December in Coronado with a festive parade along Orange Avenue, the lighting of a 75-foot Christmas tree, holiday music, and a firework show over Glorietta Bay.
    • Enjoy free organ concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park beginning at 2 p.m. each Sunday. The Organ Pavilion features the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, where organists resound holiday favorites, waltzes, and show tunes from the organ’s monstrous 32-foot lead alloy pipes.
Hotel del Coronado, a San Diego landmark for many years can be enjoyed for free
Hotel del Coronado
    • See Old Town State Historic Park decked out for the holidays during Holiday in the Park on December 10 and enjoy holiday treats, activities, and extended shopping hours, along with strolling carolers. On December 11, visitors can watch the 61st Anniversary Las Posadas, a centuries-old tradition in which actors reenact the biblical journey of Mary and Joseph through the town of Bethlehem.
    • Spread some holiday cheer at the La Jolla Christmas Parade and Holiday Festival on the first Sunday in December in downtown La Jolla. The event includes marching bands, floats, equestrian units, and vintage automobiles.
    • Drive to the mountain town of Julian for a warm mug of hot apple cider and a delicious slice of Julian’s legendary homemade apple pie.
    • On Saturdays, stroll through the quaint neighborhood streets and enjoy the sounds of wandering Christmas carolers and a living nativity scene.
    • Take a walk around Balboa Park and discover its beautiful architecture. Take advantage of the park’s variety of free offerings, including touring its spectacular gardens. Be sure not to miss the “Whoville” decorations in the plaza outside of The Old Globe Theatre, which is on display from November 19 – December 31, to coincide with the theatre’s annual holiday production of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
    • Take a walk along one of San Diego’s 70 miles of beaches, all free and open to the public, and explore the tide pools in Point Loma, Ocean Beach, and La Jolla when the tide is low to see some of the magnificent creatures of the sea.
    • Visit the village of La Mesa on the first weekend in December for Christmas in the Village. Enjoy street performers, carolers, and carriage rides.
    • Enjoy the Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade in downtown San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. Owners and their dressed-up pets march down the decorated streets of the neighborhood and end at a Pet Expo featuring an awards ceremony for best-dressed pups.
    • Take a drive to the top of Mt. Soledad in La Jolla for a panoramic view of the city all spruced up in holiday decoration. Along the way, enjoy the beautifully decorated homes in this exclusive community.
    • Drive to the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego’s East County to marvel at the wildlife and a kaleidoscope of colorful flowers amidst the desert warmth. Anza-Borrego is located just two hours from San Diego via Highway 78 and Interstate 8.
    • Gaze up at the massive balloons during the Big Bay Balloon Parade, the country’s largest balloon parade, near the end of December. Floats, balloons, and marching bands are just some of the offerings in this colorful holiday parade along San Diego Bay in downtown San Diego.
    • Enjoy the twinkling waters of San Diego Bay and more than 100 private boats decorated with holiday lights for the 40th Annual Port of San Diego Parade of Lights and the Mission Bay Christmas Boat Parade of Lights, held 2 consecutive weekends in December. The parade will proceed to the pier at Cesar Chavez Park before making the turn to Coronado. Great views are available on land from Shelter Island, Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Marina Park, and Coronado’s Ferry Landing.
Photo by Bernard Gagnon. One of the botanical buildings in Balboa Park
Balboa park, photo by Bernard Gagnon
    • Experience a white Christmas in San Diego after making the scenic, one-hour drive to the top of Mount Laguna in San Diego’s rustic East County. Sled down mountain slopes, build snowmen, and have snowball fights (weather conditions permitting).
    • Rock out at the Poinsettia Bowl Battle of the Bands in the Gaslamp Quarter on December 19. Held two days before the annual Poinsettia Bowl, which is played in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, bands representing the two Bowl football teams line up at opposite ends of Fifth Avenue in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and face off in an old-fashion battle of the bands.

Family Holiday Happiness Travel is calling in San Diego. For more information on San Diego offerings, including exciting vacation packages and valuable coupons for attractions, restaurants, and more, visit the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Web site.

In San Diego, visit the International Visitor Information Center, located along the Embarcadero at the corner of West Broadway and Harbor Drive downtown; the La Jolla Visitor Center, located at the corner of Herschel Avenue and Prospect Street in La Jolla; or the California Welcome Center, located at the Viejas Outlet Center in Alpine.

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Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist, author, and radio talk show host. She is the editor of Road Trips for Couples