Every East Coast child should experience California. The beaches are totally different, the laid-back vibe is super cool, and it’s loaded with kids’ attractions. Plus, the state is huge. We’re talking 158, 706 square miles— so don’t try to see it all in one day. But you can get a sweeping view of the state in a week or two. Simply rent a car and motor your way up from San Diego to San Francisco, stopping off to see as many places as your time and energy allow. Which attractions are worth pulling over for? Here are some of the best, just right for families.

Southern California San Diego to Los Angeles

San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, www.sandiegozoo.org
Stocked with 3,700 rare and endangered animals, the zoo is a must-see attraction. Where else can your kids view pandas, meerkats, and a Jurassic Park-like enclosure for elephants? For a more in-the-wild experience, visit its sister property, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Balboa Park, 1549 El Prado, San Diego, www.balboapark.org
This sprawling park boasts 15 museums, a handful of theaters, 19 gardens and a bunch of kids’ attractions, including a carousel, miniature railroad, and the San Diego Zoo. Check in advance for special exhibitions and events.

La Jolla, 850 Coast Boulevard, La Jolla, www.sandiego.com
Just north of San Diego, this upscale community has a beautiful, Mediterranean-like coastline. Stroll the beachfront path and head to the Children’s Pool area to spot harbor seals and sea lions.

Balboa Island, Newport Beach, www.balboaisland.com
It’s tempting to keep this charming little island a secret, but you really should go. Ride the mini ferry connecting the Newport peninsula to Balboa Island, play skee ball at the Fun Zone, stroll the waterfront boardwalk and eat fish tacos at Picante Martins.

Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Boulevard & Vine Street, Hollywood, www.walkoffame.com
Touristy and tacky, it’s still worthwhile. Kids of all ages will find familiar names from The Muppets to Matt Damon.

Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour, 3400 Riverside Drive, Burbank, vipstudiotour.warnerbros.com/vip-tour/
If you have a kid who’s into Pretty Little Liars or if you’re a former Friends groupie, consider this studio tour that takes you through backlots, sound stages and the props department. Note: Little ones with short attention spans will do better back at the hotel.

Northern California Big Sur to San Francisco

Big Sur, Highway 1, Big Sur, www.bigsurcalifornia.org
Just south of the Monterey Peninsula, this gorgeous coastal region where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise suddenly (and steeply!) from the Pacific is home to stunning views and a national marine sanctuary. Drive Highway 1 for breathtaking sea and cliff views.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, www.montereybayaquarium.org
Sharks, penguins, and jellies live harmoniously in this seaside aquarium. New exhibitions pop up regularly. Look for updates online.

Muir Woods, Mill Valley, www.nps.gov/muwo
If you’re in San Francisco and don’t have time to drive 325 miles to Redwood National Park, head to Muir Woods, just 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The grove of ancient redwoods has a flat plank walkway for little legs and longer trails for older explorers. And wow, those trees are really tall!

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, www.goldengatebridge.org
Sure, you can drive. But if you cross it on bike or on foot, this famous orange bridge with sweeping cables will make a huge imprint on your kids. When you get to the north end, revel in the expansive views at Vista Point.

Lands End, San Francisco, www.parksconservancy.org
If you like the idea of sitting atop a rock perched on a cliff and gazing out across the Pacific Ocean (toward Japan!), head straight for this pocket of heaven in northwestern San Francisco. You’ll find hillsides, wildflowers, views of old shipwrecks, and a block of old bathhouse ruins.

Hotel Sweet Hotel

Break up the trip with these family-friendly properties.

  • Loews Coronado Bay, San Diego, www.loewshotels.com. Bayside marshmallow roasts, live animal shows, luxury suites.
  • Laguna Cliffs Marriott, Dana Point, www.lagunacliffs.com. Friendly kids’ club, cool pool structures, luxurious rooms.
  • Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, Los Angeles, www.centuryplaza.hyatt.com. Organic kids menu created by California cuisine pioneer Alice Waters.
  • Hotel Palomar, San Francisco, www.hotelpalomar-sf.com. Ideal downtown location, funky art, super-spacious rooms.

Planning Tips

  • Book an open-jaw flight by searching “multiple cities” when purchasing tickets. Arrive in San Diego; depart from San Francisco.
  • Choose a one-way car rental, pick it up at one airport and drop it off at the other.
  • Pack a personal DVD player, iPod or tablet for every child. Remember the chargers.

We’d like to add one more must-do activity to your California itinerary. Wherever you are, keep your eyes peeled for a local strawberry stand. Pull over. Buy a bushel if you can. Just one bite, and you’ll never forget the sweetness of a freshly picked California strawberry. Neither will your kids.