San Diego's beaches and coastal communities define the city. It's a reflection of the San Diego lifestyle and attitude—laidback and loving life. From the border of Mexico up to Camp Pendleton lies many beach neighborhoods in San Diego, and each of these beach communities has its own unique personality and attraction. From the funky neo-hippie aura of Ocean Beach to the cool, upscale vibe of Del Mar, San Diego's beach communities and towns have something for everyone. Here is a roundup of San Diego's beach neighborhoods and cities, traveling south to north.
Imperial Beach is the most southwesterly town in the United States, and it's probably the most low-key and unassuming of San Diego's beach communities. Imperial Beach is an ideal surfing spot, with four miles of sandy beachfront. The immediate beach area isn't nearly as commercial as other beach towns, so if you're looking for hot action, Imperial Beach isn't your destination. But if you want a mellow day at the beach, this is the place.
Don't miss: Stroll along the Imperial Beach Pier, the central point of the beach.
Well, what more can you say? Coronado Beach was voted the Top Beach in the United States for 2012 by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, in his annual survey. And rightly, so, because living in this little upscale city across the San Diego Bay Bridge is quite idyllic. It's a veritable Mayberry with quiet streets, manicured lawns, and pricey oceanfront mansions. If you want that rowdy beach life to go with your beach, Coronado is not your place. But if you want a wholesome smalltown vibe, head to Coronado.
Don't miss: The Hotel Del Coronado, the Village Theater and the Ferry Landing for views of downtown.
Of all San Diego's beach communities, none exemplify the community and neighborhood ethos better than Ocean Beach. This funky beach town sits between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the more upscale enclave of Point Loma on the hill to the east. It's laidback and less rowdy (relatively speaking) than its brethren Mission Beach and Pacific Beach a few miles north. Where other beach communities have embraced commercialism, OB remains fiercely independent and skeptical of wholesale change, and that's what makes it so cool.
Don't miss: A stroll along the Newport Street business district, Hodad's for arguably the best burgers anywhere, Dog Beach and the massive OB pier.
Do you want the quintessential SoCal beach lifestyle? Then Mission Beach is your place: surf, sun, sand, beach babes, beach bums, crowds, and noise. Occupying the most southerly part of an isthmus that separates the ocean from Mission Bay, Mission Beach is all about the beach and the boardwalk. This is the place where you go to soak up the iconic California sun, where you go to be noticed, and where you go to hang out and watch those wanting to be noticed. Throw in the old school Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, cruising on the boardwalk, and sunbathing next to sand volleyball players, and this is your place.
Don't miss: Belmont Amusement Park and the roller coaster, the boardwalk and peeking into the oceanfront condos.
Pacific Beach (PB)
If you take Mission Beach, throw in a pier, 10 times more bars and the main drag of retail and restaurants, you have Pacific Beach. Travel north on Mission Boulevard from Mission Beach and you quickly find yourself in PB. In fact, the boardwalk runs from the jetty in South Mission beach all the way up into and through PB, which makes it an awesome people watching trek. The sandy beach is an extension of Mission Beach, and it culminates at the iconic Crystal Pier. Pacific Beach is a residential community—if you're a young adult and you move to San Diego from out of town and want to live at the beach, chances are you end up in PB. With lots of nightlife and places to eat and shop, PB is a self-contained community.
Don't miss: the Crystal Pier Hotel and its cabins over the water, an amble down Garnet Avenue.
Just about everyone wishes they could live in La Jolla. And just about everyone knows they can't. So the next best thing is to visit its scenic beaches. There are actually a couple areas of La Jolla: there is the old, ritzy enclave of the village area, with its pristine downtown, awesome rocky La Jolla Cove, and family friendly La Jolla Shores; then there's the Bird Rock area south of the village, transitioning from Pacific Beach to the exclusive old money part of La Jolla. Bird Rock is a little more casual (but still pricey), and it's the location of the iconic Windansea Beach, immortalized in Tom Wolf's "The Pump House Gang."
Don't miss: the Cove, Bird Rock neighborhood, Children's Pool, and the Munchkin Homes of La Jolla.
If you're wealthy and you can't find a place to buy in La Jolla, then your next best bet is to head just north to Del Mar. Known as the town for the annual San Diego County Fair and the Del Mar Horse Races, Del Mar is an upscale but relaxed community with some fine surfing beaches. The village business district along Camino Del Mar is the central point of the small city, with upscale eateries and shopping. The beach near the old train depot is a nice, scenic spot, and a stroll north along the beach gives you a glimpse of the oceanfront homes owned by the rich and famous. At the north of Del Mar beach is Dog Beach, a favorite place for pooches.
Don't miss: the Village area, Torrey Pines State Beach immediately to the south, the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Solana Beach is where Coast Highway 101 begins and heads north through San Diego's famous coastal beach communities. Solana Beach is a small city, with some nice beaches that hug the coastal cliffs that the North County San Diego coast is known for. The beaches of Solana Beach are not as readily accessible and often involve a hike down and up long staircases, which means the beaches aren't as crowded. The Coaster and Amtrak trains make a stop at the Solana Beach station, just a few yards from popular Fletcher Cove Beach.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea is actually a part of the much larger city of Encinitas, but it still maintains its own identity: that of a small beachside neighborhood with great surfing found at Swami's Beach. Cardiff is one of those "local" spots; most of the people who hang out in Cardiff live in Cardiff. It has a small town center with a few restaurants and retail shops, but Cardiff is mostly all about its beaches, accessible off Highway 101. Cardiff is also known for San Elijo Lagoon and the very popular San Elijo State Beach Campground, and its Restaurant Row, where you can dine literally on the beach.
Don't miss: San Elijo State Beach, Swami's Beach, Restaurant Row, and the infamous Cardiff Kook statue.
Encinitas is a fairly large city that sprawls well beyond the coast on to the east inland. But along the immediate coast, Encinitas still is a charming beach town with a cool downtown business district along Coast Hwy 101, and some very nice beaches, the most popular being Moonlight State Beach. If you're checking out the north coast beaches, Encinitas is a great place to stop and do some strolling and dining in Old Encinitas.
Don't miss: Moonlight State Beach, Lou's Records for vinyl, La Paloma Theater for surf movies, the Lumberyard for shopping.
Like Cardiff, Leucadia is actually a neighborhood of the larger Encinitas, but it still retains its original character as a surfer-friendly beach town. Probably the most unassuming, along with Imperial Beach, of all the beach communities, Leucadia means "sheltered paradise and is indeed just that; kind of artsy with minimal commercial though that is getting to be less the case with each passing year. While there are a few businesses along Coast Hwy 101, Leucadia is largely a quiet residential beach neighborhood, with a few miles of beaches beneath the immediate coastal cliffs. In the past, Leucadia was known for its flower horticulture, with some greenhouses still dotting the landscape.
Don't miss: the Pannikin Coffee house, which is housed in an old train depot, and Beacon's Beach.
Carlsbad is a bustling, sprawling city with a corporate center that includes golf manufacturers like Callaway, Taylor Made, and Titleist; attractions like Legoland and the Carlsbad Flower Fields; and master-planned residential communities. Carlsbad is also a seaside beach town with Carlsbad State Beach being the sandy centerpiece and a favorite of North County residents because it's a great beach for families (of which Carlsbad has many). The campground at the state beach is also popular. Old Carlsbad Village is a quaint shopping and dining area adjacent to the beach.
Don't miss: Carlsbad Premium Outlet Center, Museum of Making Music, Legoland, Carlsbad Flower Fields and the Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa.
San Diego's beach communities end at the northernmost point in the county with Oceanside. The city adjacent to Camp Pendleton is known as a big military community and its residents frequent the lively beach area. The downtown is seeing a big resurgence after some hard years, and the harbor area is a popular gathering spot. The Oceanside Pier is a favorite for anglers and walkers and families enjoy Tyson Street Beach.
Don't miss: Oceanside Pier, California Surf Museum, Buccaneer Beach Park.
Edited by Gina Tarnacki.