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San Diego’s best beaches: Here’s our Top 10 list

A surfer looks for entry point from Scripps Pier during sunset.
A surfer looks for an entry point from Scripps Pier during sunset.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

With 70 miles of coastline, there’s a San Diego beach for everyone

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Where would San Diego be without its beaches? There’s the luxe vibes in Coronado, the party atmosphere in Pacific Beach and the family-friendly wonderland in Encinitas, not to mention secret surf spots and majestic cliffs throughout the county. So with 70 miles of coastline, there’s a little spot of sand waiting for everyone ... and every mood. Here’s an alphabetical look at San Diego’s 10 most popular beaches:

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Carlsbad

Two people sitting at Tamarack State Beach in Carlsbad.
Two people enjoy a visit to Tamarack State Beach in Carlsbad.
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Carlsbad coastline is divided into Carlsbad City Beach (from Ocean to Elm Streets), Carlsbad State Beach (also known as Tamarack Beach) and South Carlsbad State Beach.

The scene: Surfers, sunbathers and families make Carlsbad an idyllic beach getaway. You might even spot a beachside yoga class. Keep an eye out for people walking, running, biking and walking their dogs on the sidewalk that lines Carlsbad Boulevard. For a dog-free walk, check out the Carlsbad Sea Wall, a 4-mile paved trail that runs directly on the beach from Carlsbad Village Drive to Cannon Road.

Parking: Find free parking along Oak Avenue or other residential streets. If you’re feeling lucky, check the small parking lot off Tamarack for prime beach parking. Parking is also available along Carlsbad Boulevard.

Eat and drink: For seafood as fresh as it gets, try the Carlsbad Clam Chowder or famous Fish & Chips at Harbor Fish Cafe; Dini’s Bistro offers sit-down dining and a popular bar; Park 101 boasts a hip atmosphere with options like chicken sandwiches, wings and frozen cocktails.

Nearby spots: The bustling Carlsbad Village is just steps away from the beach with trendy stores like Swirl Boutique, Blues & Shoes and more. Carlsbad Village also has a thriving restaurant and bar scene.

Best Insta spot: For the perfect portrait head to the parks above Tamarack Beach for expansive beach backgrounds.

— IANNI

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Coronado

In Coronado, follow the paths running west through the dunes near Sunset Park at Ocean Boulevard for Coronado Dog Beach.
In Coronado, follow the paths running west through the dunes near Sunset Park at Ocean Boulevard for Coronado Dog Beach.
(John Gastaldo)

Home of the luxurious Hotel Del, Coronado is the picturesque destination in the dreams of every tourist (and many locals). But with a bustling Orange Avenue and a lesser-known dog beach, there’s more to Coronado than the postcard snapshot.

The scene: Known for clean sand and expensive houses, Coronado is the definition of luxury. Its usual crowd is local and tourist families, giving it less of a party vibe. It’s also a popular place for weddings, so don’t be surprised to see a group donning gowns and tuxes instead of swimwear.

Parking: For the closest beach access, try parking along Ocean Boulevard. If there aren’t any openings, don’t fret — the expansive residential areas, comprised of wide streets lined with beautiful homes, make street parking a breeze.

Facilities: Coronado has some of the cleanest showers and restrooms out of all the San Diego beaches. As an added bonus, there’s even temperature-controlled wheelchair accessibility mats leading to the shore.

Eat and drink: While Coronado doesn’t have a boardwalk brimming with food options, the beach makes up for it with numerous offerings on Orange Avenue. Once you pack up for the day, head up a few blocks to the main strip to fuel up at Clayton’s Coffee Shop (established back in 1941), grab a craft beer at Coronado Brewing Co. or an ice cream cone at MooTime Creamery.

Nearby spots: If you want to play with your pup, head to the north end of the beach by the Naval Base for a dog-only zone. Or swap sand for cement and hit the Coronado Skatepark in Tidelands Park, advertised by the city as an “artistic sculpture.”

Best Insta spot: Stand on the sand outside the Hotel Del Coronado to recreate the iconic Marilyn Monroe photo from her 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.”

— BUTLER

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Del Mar

Waves break against the rocks at the northern end of Dog Beach in Del Mar.
Waves break against the rocks at the northern end of Dog Beach in Del Mar.
(Gary Robbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The name Del Mar literally means “of the sea,” so you know its beaches are going to be dazzling. Starting at Via De La Valle and running south for approximately 2 miles, Del Mar beaches might take up a smaller stretch of coastline, but that makes it one of San Diego’s best “hidden” beach destinations.

The scene: A more relaxed crowd of mostly locals. Find surfers and families co-mingling on the sand and in the two main beach parks: Powerhouse Park and Seagrove Park. And as one of North County’s only official dog beaches, the area known as North Beach is filled with — you guessed it — four-legged friends and their owners, frolicking in the ocean.

Parking: Keep in mind that, in general, parking in Del Mar is an issue. There is metered parking close to the beach, but those spots fill up fast. Parking lots can be found at North Beach and 17th Street. If you’re visiting from a neighboring city, consider public transit options like the Coaster to avoid the parking hassle.

Facilities: At the beach, restrooms and showers are found near the lifeguard towers at 17th Street, and more restrooms are available at the 25th Street tower. Volleyball courts are also available.

Eat and drink: The Brigantine sits conveniently at the corner of Highway 101 and Via de la Valle, just steps from dog beach, serving its famous fish tacos. The casual Del Mar Snack Shack serves up burgers, sandwiches, nachos and more.

Nearby Spots: Just south of Del Mar is the iconic Torrey Pines State Beach and the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park hiking trails.

Best Insta Spot: The Scripps Bluff Preserve, perched above dog beach, is known for incredible full beach views, plus vibrant foliage.

— IANNI

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Encinitas (Moonlight State Beach)

A surfer rides a wave at Swami's in Encinitas.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Of course, a community as laid back as Encinitas would be home to one of San Diego’s best, most hassle-free beaches.

The scene: Moonlight is an all-inclusive experience — it has restrooms, showers, grassy picnic areas, a playground, volleyball courts and even concessions, all in one defined area. Because of this, it’s a popular place to take tots, but cool enough for teens, too.

Parking: There’s a free, dedicated parking lot, plus spots in the surrounding neighborhood are relatively easy to find.

Eat and drink: The on-site snack shop sells nachos, hot dogs, bagels, burritos, ice cream and candy bars. Nearby, along Coast Highway 101, there’s an abundance of upscale cafes and restaurants like Lofty Coffee, Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream and Modern Times Far West Lounge.

Nearby spots: If you want a more peaceful and low-key experience, head to Swami’s, a beach popular with local surfers that also has a park and picnic area.

— GARIN

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Imperial Beach

Imperial Beach Pier
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This has long been the go-to spot for people living south of the 94, but with the addition of the Pier South Resort hotel and Sea180˚ Coastal Tavern, Imperial Beach now attracts visitors from all over San Diego and Baja California.

The scene: Lots of families, kids and beach toys, Imperial Beach was once the host of a popular sand castle competition. If the water quality is good, you’ll find a lot of San Diego native surfers, too. The wooden pier is great for walks, fishing and romantic sunsets.

Parking: There are small lots scattered along Seacoast Drive, and street parking around the neighborhood.

Eat and drink: Sea180˚ Coastal Tavern is an upscale dining spot with great views and Baja-influenced dishes. There are also tons of bars and family-run restaurants along Seacoast Drive. The Tin Fish is a restaurant at the end of the pier. And Palm Avenue, the road you take into Imperial Beach, is fast-food central.

Nearby spots: Those looking for a quiet reading or meditation spot should head a few miles north to Silver Strand State Beach.

Best Insta spot: The colorful “Surfhenge” sculpture is a fun and quirky way to capture your time at this South Bay beach, and make sure to explore the other public art near the pier.

— GARIN

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La Jolla

Kayakers float above leopard sharks in the clear, shallow waters of La Jolla Shores.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

With gentle waves and a central location, this is one of San Diego’s more popular beach spots. Locals and tourists learn to surf and kayak here, plus the adjacent grassy areas make it perfect for picnics and family gatherings.

The scene: In the morning, you’ll see walkers and runners along the shore. Throughout the day, there’s a mix of families with elaborate beach set-ups, groups of sunbathing teens and water sports types. Be sure to watch out for stingrays — they like to come out when the water’s warm.

Parking: There’s a free parking lot, and if you want to try your luck, turn on some music and be patient — you’ll likely be driving in circles for a while. If you’re OK with walking a bit, there are spots throughout the neighborhood. Just make sure you’re not in someone’s driveway because you will be towed.

Eat and drink: If you’re on the shore, walk toward Scripps Pier and you’ll run into Caroline’s Seaside Cafe, which serves gourmet but casual breakfast and lunch. On your way into the beach, you can pick up snacks and coffee at The Corner Mercantile & Eatery. And stop for post-beach Mexican food and margaritas at Galaxy Taco.

Nearby spots: Need a surf lesson? The internationally known Surf Diva school is on Avenida de la Playa, the beach’s main drag. Drive a few miles west you’ll find the famed seals at The Children’s Pool. The iconic Windansea surf shack is also nearby, just off Nautilus Avenue.

Best Insta spot: There’s a row of palm trees at the La Jolla Shores playground that will give you the ultimate SoCal aesthetic.

— GARIN

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Mission Beach

The Wave House entertainment and sports complex is a major presence on the Mission Beach boardwalk.
(K.C. Alfred)

At Mission Beach, you’ll find a busy boardwalk packed with runners and skateboards, as well as large groups headed to the shore loaded up with umbrellas, chairs and coolers.

The scene: With two universities nearby, Mission Beach is home to a lot of college kids. Many families also flock here to check out Belmont Park, a beach amusement park featuring the historic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Rent gear from Mission Beach Surf and Skate (also known as Hamel’s) to take a bike cruise along the boardwalk or boogie board in the ocean.

Parking: There are multiple parking lots surrounding Belmont Park, which is a quick walk to the ocean. You can also try street parking, but stick to spots along Mission Boulevard and avoid residential areas, which are notorious for small alleys your car is definitely not welcome in.

Eat and drink: Ventura Place, a short street that dead ends into the Mission Beach Boardwalk, hosts a slew of casual restaurants offering tacos, pizza and burgers, including eateries like Sandbar Sports Grill and Mr. Ruribertos Mexican Food. A lot of trendy spots, like The Mission and Better Buzz Coffee Roasters, are a quick drive up Mission Boulevard.

Nearby spots: If waves aren’t what you’re after, head to Mission Bay. While swimming is prohibited, the calmer waters are ideal for water sports like stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and boating.

Best Insta spot: Get a friend to snap a shot you riding the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster at Belmont Park, or take picture at the end of Ventura Place with the Hamel’s castle as your backdrop.

— BUTLER

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Ocean Beach

A small group of surfers return from surfing below the cliffs at Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Filled with local artists, surfers and dogs, Ocean Beach is known for having heart. The neighborhood isn’t afraid to be quirky and fully embrace its unofficial slogan: “Keep O.B. weird.”

The scene: This chill wonderland is full of hippies, history and laid-back vibes. You’ll likely find people selling art on the sidewalk — or at the Farmers Market on Wednesdays — as well as yogis and acrobats doing tricks on the grassy patches next to the sand, surfers catching waves at the surf-only section near the pier, and lots of friendly pups at Dog Beach.

Parking: There are two free parking lots near the lifeguard station, and one adjacent to Dog Beach. Stalled spots are also available along Newport Avenue, as well as lots of parallel parking along the residential streets — just be prepared for a longer walk or mild hike to the sand.

Facilities: The restrooms by the lifeguard station aren’t the most well-kept, so it’s best to utilize the showers to rinse off any seaweed and sand, then use the restrooms at a nearby establishment (as long as you’re a paying customer).

Eat and drink: Newport Avenue is the main strip of Ocean Beach lines with a diverse collection of restaurants and bars. Grab tacos at South Beach Bar and Grill, or enjoy a brew at Ocean Beach Brewery. And of course, the famous Hodad’s Burgers always has a line out the door.

Nearby spots: If you’re up for a drive, take a trip to Sunset Cliffs. Sandwiched between Ocean Beach and Point Loma, these bluffs offer a breathtaking panorama, best experienced or photographed once the sun goes down.

Best Insta spot: Though many Ocean Beach residents strongly opposed Target joining the neighborhood last year, the silver lining is a large, blue-hued mural that graces one of the store’s exterior walls, painted by local female artist duo Pandr Design Co.

— BUTLER

10

Oceanside

Mark and Shannon Finnigan of Oceanside, with their dogs, Rugby and Cody, watch the King Tide waves.
Mark and Shannon Finnigan of Oceanside, with their dogs, Rugby and Cody, watch the King Tide waves at Buccaneer Beach, January 10, 2020 in Oceanside, California.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Oceanside’s slice of the California coastline starts at the Oceanside Marina and stretches south approximately three miles through the Buena Vista Lagoon.

The scene: Without a doubt, the hub of Oceanside’s beaches is the historic Oceanside Pier, which also doubles as the city’s landmark. At its base an is an amphitheater and community center, both named after Oceanside’s hometown hero, Junior Seau. Along the shore you’ll see surfers, families (many military, due to the proximity to Camp Pendleton), tourists and locals.

Parking: Like most beaches, on a busy day, parking can be tough. While there is some free parking, it’s mostly metered and paid as you get closer to the coast, although sometimes you can get lucky with a free spot in a residential area. Tip: try areas around the Oceanside Transit Center, which is a short walk to the beach.

Facilities: Oceanside has picnic tables, barbecue grills, showers, restrooms, telephones, volleyball courts, gazebos and fire rings scattered throughout the coastline.

Eat and drink: Ruby’s Diner, a ’50s-style restaurant, sits at the end of the pier, while at the base, Tin Fish serves up classic SoCal comfort food. For a more upscale experience, 333 Pacific is across the street from the pier and offers steaks, seafood and signature martinis, plus killer ocean views.

Claim to fame: Film fans will want to check out the historic Graves House (also known as the “Top Gun” house), the iconic Victorian home where scenes from the 1980s classic film were shot. The house, which used to sit at 102 N. Pacific Street, was recently renovated and relocated to the soon-to-open Oceanside Beach Resort, where it will live permanently.

— IANNI

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Pacific Beach

Jeremy Caveness, left, and Ryan Guest watch the sunset after a surf in Pacific Beach.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

P.B. has a party reputation, but that’s just one facet of this beachside community. Beyond the bars, vintage shops and casual restaurants, you’ll also find some beloved locals-only spots and the historic Crystal Pier Hotel cottages.

The scene: The summer months bring out high school and college students for daylong adventures in the waves and along Garnet Avenue. North of Crystal Pier you’ll find calmer waters and plenty of lifeguards, which is where local families flock.

Parking: Good luck! Seriously, though, there are limited street and metered spots off Garnet Avenue and neighboring streets.

Facilities: There are bathrooms and showers off Grand Avenue, and also off Law Street.

Eat and drink: You can find just about anything — tacos, sushi, burgers, coffee — along Grand and Garnet avenues. Still, there always seems to be a line at The Baked Bear for homemade ice cream sandwiches and at Breakfast Republic for brunch. JRDN restaurant at Tower 23 Hotel is where to go if you’re feeling fancy.

Nearby spots: Tourmaline Surf Park is a surfing-only beach, equally popular with beginners and older surfers thanks to slow, “slopey” waves. It’s also great for SUP (paddle boarding) and windsurfing.

Best Insta spot: You can get lots of fun angles and shadows under Crystal Pier.

— GARIN


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