The best way to get to Imperial Beach is a cruise along the scenic Silver Strand Highway (CA-75 south), where sand dunes sit atop wide, sandy beaches facing the Pacific. To the east, views of San Diego Bay juxtapose coastal wetlands and gigantic, ships in the distance.
Imperial Beach in South Bay has just as much scenery as any other coastal town in San Diego, and yet, it remains a less-trodden destination for city dwellers than, say, always cool Ocean Beach. Nevertheless, it's steadily on the rise in the food department, and will always have its natural beauty, and unique situation next to the Tijuana River Valley Estuary.
Whether you're into surfing, building sandcastles or hiking amid rare, wide open landscapes that connect directly to the beach, head to IB for chill vibes, cheap eats and less of a crowd.
Take a ride
Silver Strand State Beach
Though technically considered Coronado , this 2.5-mile stretch of sandy beach on the road to IB is too good to pass up. Besides being sparsely populated in comparison to other local beaches, it literally gleams thanks to bits of silver shells everywhere. Since it's a state beach, there's just one designated parking lot with $10 day rates. But the payoff comes with convenient, pedestrian tunnel access to the bay side where you can swim in warm, calm waters, or rent kayaks from nearby Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
4000 Coronado Bay Road. (619) 424-4000 or loewshotels.com/coronado-bay-resort
From Silver Strand State Beach, it's a nearly 5-mile bike ride south to the Imperial Beach Pier. Along the way, your efforts will be rewarded with views of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex to the east, and IB looming to the west.
Once you're at the Imperial Beach Pier, there's plenty of sand to stretch out, playgrounds for kiddos and several waterfront cheap eats with some fun shopping in the mix. Check out these spots for an affordable good time at the beach.
ParAmour is a tiny French bakery and café with breakfast sandwiches, crepes, salads and a variety of freshly made pretzels ranging in flavor from banana to Parmesan cheese. For under $5, you get a fresh pretzel with your choice of dipping sauce (try the Himalayan sea salt pretzel with a side of Nutella); the breakfast wraps are actually crepes filled with soft scrambled eggs and your choice of mix-ins, then folded up like a package and best enjoyed with a fork and knife. The delish ham, egg and cheese will set you back $6.75. In front of the café, there's picnic table seating with umbrellas that overlook the pier.
10 Evergreen Ave. Suite D. (619) 423-1434.
Just a couple months old now, IB Street Tacos is the latest project by the owners of North Park sensation, City Tacos. Here, you're going to find more traditional, TJ street tacos, all under two bucks, plus more simple offerings like mayo- and parmesan-covered elote with lots of tangy Tajin chili salt. The star of the show here is the fish taco, perfectly fried and served in a thin flour tortilla with spicy chipotle creama, cabbage and salsa fresca. You can't beat this quality for only $1.99.
805 Seacoast Drive.
If beach sports are your thing and having the proper equipment not so much, you can rent just about everything you need from boards to wetsuits at Surf Hut. There's also no shortage of bikinis, board shorts, skateboards and general beach gear for sale here, making it an all-around winner and staple in the community. Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Call to inquire about surf lessons.
710 Secoast Drive, Suite D. (619) 575-7873.
You can't miss nearby Bibbey's Shell Shop, a building with a crazy beach themed paintjob that includes a surfing dragon and dancing penguin, to name a couple oddities. Inside, the 30-year-old quirky business sells a plethora of exotic sea creature remains acquired from Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines, plus rare rocks, corrals, other fossils and some cheesy gifts in the mix. For collectors and D-I-Y crafty types alike, the place is kind of like a beach shack museum where natural art ranges in price from 50-cents to upwards of $600. If nothing else, it's a blast looking around at all the odd beauties.
903 Seacoast Drive. (619) 423-5133.
Speaking of character...
It's no secret that Imperial Beach is home to perhaps the most iconic donut shop in San Diego: Stardust. Besides making off-beat flavors since the 70s, Stardust bears even more significance as a local business because its owners are third generation donut makers in San Diego. That's a long time, a lot of donuts, and a whole lot of commitment to our happiness. It's no wonder that cops, North Island bound military, soccer moms and weekend warriors alike have loved this place for decades. Go for the signature cinnamon roll with peanuts, cakey old fashioned, and peanut butter and jelly filled donuts. Ranging in price from .95 to $1.95, there's no reason to leave with just one. Pro tip: This cash-only donut shack has odd hours, so call ahead before making the voyage.
698 Highway 75, (619) 424-6200.