A day of affordable family fun

By Wendy van Diver  |  Photos courtesy of Visit Escondido

NEXT TIME YOU WANT TO SPEND A BUDGET-FRIENDLY DAY with the family, head for Escondido. This pleasant community, located just 30 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, is easy to reach and loaded with fun things to do. Besides amazing destinations like San Diego Zoo Safari Park and California Center for the Arts, there are several lesser-known attractions to discover. Since the word “Escondido” means “hidden” in Spanish, this day trip is dedicated to places that may be new to you.

Start your adventure at Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, located within the 12-acre natural habitat in the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park. This remarkable sculpture garden was the last major international project created by the famous French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who died in 2002. Follow the black- and white-tiled maze at the garden’s entrance until you come upon a colorful oasis featuring nine brilliant large-scale sculptures depicting serpents, totems, and animal spirits.  Each sculpture is a fascinating mosaic work crafted in minute detail from pieces of ceramic, glass, and stone. It’s okay to touch them. In fact, touching, sitting, and crawling inside the orifices is the whole idea.

Kit Carson Park
Kit Carson Park

Make your next stop The San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in downtown Escondido. The museum is divided into four exhibit areas: Discover, Experiment, Imagine, and Explore. Discover is an outdoor garden with fun exhibits that teach principles of science and conservation. Experiment features a magnetic ball wall, wind tunnel, light table, and building stations. Imagine encourages creativity with a puppet theater and musical instruments. Explore is dedicated to social science and history with a discovery sailboat, play home, and toddler tide pool.

There is plenty to enlighten and amuse a wide range of ages for an hour or more, and it will be hard to peel everyone away. But when you’re ready for a change of scenery, look for the cute playground across the street from the museum, located at the north end of Grape Day Park. Besides swinging from grapevines and sliding through a bunch of grapes, the kids can see the historic buildings which line the Heritage Walk and lead to Escondido’s historic train station with an old Pullman train car.

Depending on the day you visit, you may be able to visit the shops, see demonstrations, or say hello at the Escondido History Center.

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle
The San Diego Children’s
Discovery Museum | CHRISTINE DAMMANN
The San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum | CHRISTINE DAMMANN

From there, head to the countryside. A visit to San Diego Archaeological Center is like having your own family field trip. The Center is an approachable little museum, dedicated to the study of human history and prehistory. In addition to informative maps and fascinating artifacts, you’ll enjoy the interactive exhibits geared toward children, but interesting for all ages. Excavate, dig, and stir, and learn more about the history of San Diego County together.

As you head for home through the rolling foothills, you’ll be glad if you thought in advance to go online and reserve a table at Cordiano Winery. This pretty, family-friendly spot in the hills of Highland Valley has a tiered terrace and a vista view that stretches for miles. Order a pizza or two (they’re delicious!) and relax as you sample a wine or two and drink in the view.

At day’s end, you’ll arrive home with the joyous realization that you rarely opened your wallet as you made wonderful family memories in San Diego County’s hidden city: Escondido.

San Diego Archaeological Center | SAN DIEGO ARCHAEOLOGICAL CENTER
San Diego Archaeological Center | SAN DIEGO ARCHAEOLOGICAL CENTER
Cordiano Winery
Cordiano Winery

When You Go

These points of interest are in the city of Escondido and the surrounding area. To reach downtown Escondido from downtown San Diego, take I-15 North and use GPS to find each location.

Cordiano Winery
15732 Highland Valley Rd
Escondido, CA 92025
Open Wed–Sun, 12–8 pm
Reservations required.
Free admission

Grape Day Park
321 N Broadway
Escondido, CA 92025
Open Sun–Sat, sunrise–sunset
Free admission

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden
Kit Carson Park in the Iris Sankey Arboretum
3333 Bear Valley Parkway
Escondido, CA 92025
Open Tue & Thu, 9–12pm;
2nd & 4th Sat, 9–2pm
Free admission

San Diego Archaeological Center
16666 San Pasqual Valley Rd
Escondido, CA 92027
Open Mon–Fri 9–4 pm; Sat 10–2 pm
Free admission, recommended donation $5/person

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
320 N Broadway
Escondido, CA 92025
Open Tue–Sat 9:30–4:30 pm;
Sun 12:30–4:30 pm
$11.50 regular admission/person 1 year and older


Peachy’s Market & Grill
Sunny Side Kitchen
Tamales Jovita