As the second-largest city in California, San Diego can be surprisingly laidback, not to mention affordable. And thanks to its more than 110 kilometres of beaches, dozens of museums and theme parks, it’s the perfect destination to bring the kids. Here’s how to please the whole family in this coastal city for less.

1. Buy a Go San Diego Card

Buy a five-day Go San Diego Card online and get entrance to the area’s best attractions for only US$50 per day (US$43 for kids). The pass includes SeaWorld San Diego, LEGOLAND California, Knott’s Berry Farm, 14 museums, a hop-on-hop-off tour, whale watching and kayak tours. Don’t miss the pandas at the San Diego Zoo or a tour of Petco Park to see where the San Diego Padres play ball.

2. Stay at Kings Inn

The retro Kings Inn located in in Mission Valley West is just a few minutes’ drive from Balboa Park and a good base for families. The double queen rooms run around US$100 per night on average, and offer mini-fridges and full-sized tubs. The kids will love the on-site Waffle Spot and the outdoor pool with floaties, while parents can try the Jacuzzi and the hotel restaurant’s tequila selection.

3. Go to Coronado Central Beach

Across San Diego Bay, Coronado Central Beach’s golden sands stretch for 2.4 kilometres. The flat beach has gentle waves and lifeguards make it safe for the little ones. Out of the water, there’s tide pools, fishing spots, a playground, a dog-friendly area and, right in front of the Hotel del Coronado, sand sculptures of cities and castles made almost daily by artist Bill Pavlacka.

4. Visit a sculpture garden for free

Head 30 minutes north of San Diego to explore the surreal Queen Califia’s Magical Circle sculpture garden created by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Visitors enter the garden through a colourful “snake wall” and through a black and white mosaic maze that leads to a central courtyard with native plants and trees. Kids can run among the nine colourful sculptures, including the mythical Queen Califia—ruler of the fictional Island of California—and eight totems inspired by the area’s Native American and Mexican cultures.

5. Explore Old Town San Diego

Dating back to 1769, the Old Town San Diego district whisks visitors back to 19th-century. Check out free outdoor performances by Folklorico dancers and mariachi performers, stop for a photo op at the covered wagon and chow down on cheap tacos at the many Mexican restaurants. Then stop by Cousin’s Candy Shop, an old-fashioned confectionery, for handmade taffy and fudge.