Considering a family-friendly Golden State getaway that doesn’t involve Mickey or Minnie Mouse? Carlsbad, California ticks off all the boxes.
Nestled along a stretch of mostly pristine and picturesque coastline just a forty-minute drive north of San Diego, this laid-back SoCal city was founded as a mineral spring oasis back in 1882. Over the past 25 years, it has morphed into an affluent northern San Diego coastal community boasting consistently warm and sunny weather and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.
For visitors, Carlsbad is probably best known as home to the first skateboard park in the world (as well as skateboarding legend Tony Hawk), as well as for LEGOLAND California, the hugely popular theme park here based on the Danish toy line. Add miles of pristine beaches, a flourishing craft beer and culinary scene, a charming downtown core, plus plenty of other all-ages attractions and activities, and the Village by the Sea, as Carlsbad was originally called, offers all the ingredients for a fun-filled family getaway.
Featuring more than 60 rides, shows and interactive attractions and imagination-igniting play areas, LEGOLAND’s fantasy world come to life is far less flashy and commercial than its bigger, brasher California cousins, Disneyland and Seaworld. Aimed primarily at pre and elementary schoolers, it features themed sections with names like Land of Adventure, Fun Town, Pirate Shores and Castle Hill, all offering plenty of ways for the little ones to engage with those endlessly configurable plastic bricks.
A full day at LEGOLAND also includes a visit to Miniland U.S.A, which recreates iconic American city skylines and world monuments entirely from LEGO blocks, a Deep Sea Adventure submarine ride, 4-D LEGO movie experience, and more aquatic fun at the adjacent water park and SEA LIFE Aquarium.
A 10-minute drive from LEGOLAND and spread over 50 acres of hillside overlooking Carlsbad’s coastline, the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch is a giant swath of multi-coloured ranunculus flowers that bursts into full bloom each spring. Part of a working farm that ships dried flower bulbs worldwide, the Flower Fields have been attracting visitors to Carlsbad every spring for over half a century.
The best way to take in this dazzling sea of colour is aboard an antique tractor wagon ride that lets you hop on and off to stroll around and snap selfies among the blooms. Highlights include a greenhouse filled with cymbidium orchids and a huge American flag made out of red, white, and blue petunias. The Flower Fields are open from early March until mid-May.
Located right around the corner from the Flower Fields is another popular Carlsbad seasonal attraction, The Carlsbad Strawberry Company. Growers of fruits and vegetables since 1948, this family-run operation is now into its third generation.
Carlsbad’s temperate climate and proximity to the Pacific Ocean make it an ideal location for strawberry growing conditions. Although strawberries are grown and harvested here all year round, spring is the best U-Pick season, when sections of the field are set aside for families to come and load up. It doesn’t take long to fill a large bucket, and the kids will have fun competing to collect the ripest, reddest, juiciest strawberries.
The history of musical instruments from the 1890s to today is on display at Carlsbad’s fascinating Museum of Making Music, which showcases over 500 iconic instruments. The kids will love pushing banks of exhibit buttons to hear what the instruments sound like in the hands of masters and listening to audio and video clips that draw connections between what they hear on the radio and hits from long ago. And everyone can lay down their own beats and bars in the interactive room where you can make your own musical magic using drums, pianos, guitars and even a Theremin, an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact.
Sand and surf
Carlsbad’s miles of beaches are among California’s best – and best kept secrets. Wild, uncrowded and backed by low bluffs and cliffs, they offer some of the best surf in the state. Most also feature well-designed walkways and accessible sea paved walls, plus plenty of facilities, making them a great option for a lazy afternoon spent playing in the sand or a leisurely after-dinner stroll to catch the blazing orange evening sun sinking into the Pacific Ocean.
Eats and retreats
Carlsbad offers a wide range of family-friendly accommodations and dining options. Local favourites with plenty of indoor and outdoor space for kids to run around include Draft Republic, a beer-focused restaurant featuring lively table games and Park 101, Carlsbad’s unique answer to community dining in style in the heart of Carlsbad Village. Also recommended for a fun family dining experience is Campfire, a buzzing indoor/outdoor eatery serving wood-fired American fare & cocktails amid camping decor.
Accommodation-wise, if the LEGOLAND Castle Hotel amounts to primary colours sensory overload, the nearby Carlsbad Resort & Spa is a great choice. Perched atop a 50+ acre complex, it offers upscale amenities and superb service in a prime setting just minutes from all the action. Hotel guests can even access LEGOLAND through a private back entrance, allowing you to beat the lineups and let the kids hit those bricks even sooner.
This article was written by Mark Sissons, a Vancouver-based travel writer and photographer who specializes in adventure activities, family travel, and snow sports.