Visiting the Suburbs and Small Cities of San Diego County

Surf Spot in Encinitas, California
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San Diego County, surrounding the City of San Diego, is a land of suburbs and small cities, all flowing together yet with their own unique character. Some have small-town charm and others have become destinations for visitors with attractions such as the LEGO theme park and a quaint oceanside downtown area. Whether you are visiting or looking for a home in the San Diego area, these suburbs are good ones to consider.

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Poway is a rural community, in the shadow of Mt. Woodson, off I-15 just past Mira Mesa that still holds onto some of that rustic charm. In recent years, it has developed into a desirable incorporated city with lots of outdoor recreation, family-friendly neighborhoods, plenty of amenities, and one of the best school districts around.

Poway, a destination for San Diego hikers, is surrounded by 4,700 acres of open space and has 25 parks and 55 miles of trails. A popular attraction is the Poway-Midland Railroad, a volunteer-run narrow-gauge heritage railroad that carries passengers on antique railroad cars through Old Poway Park.

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Chula Vista

Chula Vista Marina


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Chula Vista is the second largest city in the county, with over 270,000 residents, and it's probably the fastest growing due to new construction on some of the last available land in the eastern portion of the city. Those developments in the Otay Mesa area have also changed the commute into San Diego, making the South Bay commutes one of the toughest. But Chula Vista still has small time charm, and the Eastlake area has good schools and family-friendly neighborhoods.

Chula Vista has some interesting things to do for visitors. The Living Coast Discovery Center is a zoo and aquarium located on San Diego Bay where you can see sea turtles, stingrays, and even bald eagles. Kids will love Aquatica San Diego, a large water park with thrill rides and a dolphin encounter. 

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La Mesa

La Mesa, Ca

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La Mesa is one of the most popular cities in the county. It's close to everything but has that small-town charm that makes it so appealing. There are housing developments, but the charming downtown village area is the reason for La Mesa's charm and appeal. Lots of parks and amenities, good schools, and old neighborhood character enhance the quality of life in La Mesa.

You can go boating on Lake Murray, situated in the Mission Trails Regional Park and go wine tasting at San Pasqual Winery, a local family-owned winery.

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Carlsbad beach

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If you work in San Diego and live in Carlsbad, then you have to deal with the nightmarish daily I-5 commute. That said, the (mostly) coastal city of Carlsbad is a nice place if you prefer the North County coastline. Housing is quite pricey, but worth it if it's in your means.

The golf industry is based in Carlsbad (Callaway, Taylor Made, Titleist) and golfers usually find what they want at the Carlsbad Golf Center.

The town is home to LEGOLAND California Resort and theme park, the SEA LIFE Aquarium, and the Leo Carillo Ranch Historic Park. In the spring, the Carlsbad flower fields are ablaze with color. The downtown village area is the place to go for nightlife and fine dining.

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Santee, California


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Santee is an East County San Diego city with a bit of a rural feel. The people who live in Santee love living there, and it is growing in amenities, housing, and businesses so its residents don't really have to venture beyond the city limits for activities. The SR 52 and 125 freeways now make commuter access easier, as well. But it does get warm out there in the summer.

The Santee Lakes are a draw for fishing and outdoor recreation and there is a distillery and brewery scene in the town which draws visitors. Local history is kept alive by volunteers at the old Edgemoor Barn.

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Escondido water

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Escondido is the largest of the North County suburbs, and its sprawl as the county's biggest city makes it somewhat problematic. But it is a self-sufficient city of its own, with an arts scene (California Center for the Arts), shopping, industry, recreation and even some agriculture. However, it's also where the southbound I-15 morning commute bottleneck always occurs. Everything else in inland North County seemingly springs from Escondido, making it a convenient location for many entertainment options, services, and businesses. 

Scenic Escondido has quite a few parks so you can stroll, hike and picnic in a natural setting while still being in the heart of the city. Outside the city there are working ranches and lakes. The San Diego Archaeological Center in Escondido is a great place to learn about early California history.

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San Marcos

San Marcos


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If Escondido is the big hulk of North County,​ then San Marcos (and by default neighboring Vista) is the young upstart. San Marcos is one of the fastest growing cities in California, and with new housing, retail and industry continually cropping up along the SR78 corridor, including the Carlsbad-bordering master-planned community of San Elijo Hills, San Marcos is becoming an increasingly desirable place to live. Plus, it has a budding academic reputation because it's the home to CSU San Marcos, as well as Palomar College. 

San Marcos is also known for its brewery scene and parks like Discovery Lake where you can picnic, cool off at the splash pad and enjoy the trail system. 

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Back in 1986, the city of Encinitas swallowed up the quaint seaside communities of Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Leucadia, as well as Olivenhain, and it became a bigger Encinitas. Yet, it still manages to hold onto a laid-back, surfer-town feel. Like neighbor Carlsbad, Encinitas has both coastal and inland appeal, and the old Coast Highway business district provides some nightlife and gourmet restaurants. You still have to deal with the I-5 commute if you work in downtown San Diego, though. 

Visitors will want to take advantage of the beach being so close and a popular attraction is the San Diego Botanic Garden where you can stroll the beautiful trails, see rare plants, and share the Hamilton Children's Garden, the largest interactive children's garden on the West Coast, with your kids.

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Romona, California

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One of the last bastions of true rural living within commuting distance of San Diego, Ramona is kind of a western farmer town, with a quaint downtown district, homes on acre lots, and residents with livestock as pets. But development is creeping in, and as you enter the town, you'll notice the plethora of fast-food and retail chains lining the main highway. But for those seeking a respite from urban life, Ramona can still provide it.

Wine tasting and touring the local wineries and vineyards makes for a great outing in this up and coming wine region. For a fun outing with the kids, head to the Oasis Camel Dairy, featured on Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. You can pet and feed the camels and sheep and see a daily animal show.

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Coronado/Rancho Santa Fe/Del Mar

Coronado Island, San Diego, CA

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These gorgeous suburbs are the type you'll see in shows like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Coronado lies on a peninsula in San Diego Bay and is known for the ritzy Victorian Hotel del Coronado, which opened in 1888. 

Rancho Santa Fe is home to celebrities like Bill Murray and Janet Jackson. It is dotted with multi-million dollar homes and beautiful resorts.

Del Mar became famous during the golden age of the movie industry when the stars came to enjoy the beaches and the Del Mar Race Track. It is now a quaint seaside village oozing European charm with high-end restaurants and lovely resorts and homes. 

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