Carlsbad, one of the many charming coastal communities that populate the stretch of Southern California shore between Los Angeles and San Diego, provides a laidback and scenic setting perfect for extended weekend getaways.
But don't confuse laidback with boring. The town of roughly 116,000 is home to two of the Golden State's prized attractions, LEGOLAND theme park and The Flower Fields. Plus, it offers plenty of outdoor activities (including those that can be done on 7 miles of beaches and several wildlife-filled lagoons), a dining scene that emphasizes fresh seafood and seasonal regional produce, a thriving downtown, and numerous luxurious resorts with pampering spas and challenging golf courses. In fact, you'll likely need to narrow the list of possibles down to the events, places, and pastimes that interest you most, a task our list of the top things to do in Carlsbad can help with.
Opened in 1999, this was the first LEGOLAND theme park in the U.S. It has grown to include more than 60 kid-centric rides, shows, and activities built around the ever-popular Danish toy and many of its signature lines. The world’s first LEGO waterpark, the SEA LIFE aquarium, and two theme hotels were also added over the years. Families can walk through incredibly detailed brick recreations of cities like New Orleans and Las Vegas, see how LEGOS are made on the factory tour, shop at the giant store, and hang with characters from the movie franchise like Emmet, Wyldstyle, and Unikitty. It’s geared toward kids between 2 and 12 as well as die-hard hobbyists.
There's an almost endless number of ways to enjoy the city's 7 miles of surf and sand: sunset viewing, strolling, jogging, picnicking, building sandcastles, fishing, swimming, whale-watching, flying kites, scuba diving, beach volleyball, kayaking, and wind boarding. Schedule a surfing lesson with Surfinfire Surf School or through Cape Ray Hilton. The best part is that even during the height of heat waves, beaches like Tamarack, South Ponto, and Terramar are far less packed than those in San Diego.
Every spring (roughly March to May), this 50-acre ranch explodes in a rainbow of ranunculus. Whether you want to purchase a freshly picked bouquet, stage a proposal, or roam the rows gathering FOMO-inducing content, The Flower Fields is a must-visit attraction. There are many ways to enjoy the annual burst of blooms, including yoga sessions, out-in-the-field dinners, sunset wine tastings, wagon rides, holiday festivals, and staged photo ops. The campus also includes an American flag made of flowers, a vintage playground, orchid and poinsettia greenhouses, other specialty gardens, and a living maze made out of sweet peas. Every year, the city runs the Petal To Plate promotion, where bars, restaurants, and spas create specials inspired by the flower power.
Carlsbad is home to several coastal wetland lagoons, which in turn are home to a wide variety of birds, marine life, and vegetation. The waters are often visited by migratory species and curious seals, and the best way to view them is to set out into the 400-acre Agua Hedionda Lagoon. California Watersports rents out kayaks, SUPs, swan paddle boats, and Aquacycles as well as a variety of motorized boats from their corner of the innermost lagoon section. You can also reserve a picnic spot on their sandy beach to make it an all-day affair. Pro tip: Winds tend to kick up in the afternoon and evening; unless you’re looking for a strenuous workout, book an a.m. slot.
This elegant, amenity-laden resort is one of those properties where you could ostensibly pull up to check-in and not leave until it's time to return home. Aviara, which recently wrapped up a $50 million redesign, is decked out with multiple pools and waterslide, a tennis center, a spa with 20 treatment rooms, whirlpools, a solarium, a well-curated shop and market, a Topgolf gaming suite, and a dapper golf club supporting California’s only coastal Arnold Palmer-designed course. It also outdoor exercise classes like yoga, guided walks at Batiquitos Lagoon, and several restaurants, including a brand new concept by "Top Chef" winner Richard Blais.
Fill Up at Local Favorites
It’s hard to go hungry here. Eat your way around the world at the Windmill Food Hall, a fast casual feasting zone with multiple vendors whipping up Thai treats, lobster rolls, pho, fried chicken, Mexican delights, Mediterranean fare, and pizza. With cheeky décor, there’s also a central bar and regularly scheduled entertainment like live music.
There are plenty of stand-alone restaurants as well. Jeune et Jolie is something special with its color palette pinched from Sofia Coppola’s "Marie Antoinette," sophisticated cocktails, quirky soundtrack, new romantic patio, and, most importantly, delicious layered dishes. Campfire converted a historic Quonset hut and committed wholeheartedly to the rustic outdoorsy vibe, cooking as much as it can on open flames. If the fact that 7 Mile Kitchen is a hotel restaurant keeps you from entering, you’ll be depriving yourself of some seriously good pizza. Toast Gastropub harnesses all its energy to churn out the new most important meal of the day: brunch.
Another way to enjoy the amazing weather and breathtaking seascapes is to rent bikes and go for a spin along the coastal cliffs and the Carlsbad Seawall. There are plenty of places to pull over to rest or take photos. People looking for a longer adventure should peddle the 7 miles to neighboring Oceanside, another quintessential beach town. The mostly flat trip takes you past Buena Vista Lagoon (good for birdwatching), Buccaneer Beach, and the "Top Gun" house where Kelly McGillis' character lived. Splurge on a Pedego electric bike to make battling the breeze and the few hills easier. Be forewarned that sometimes the route shares the road with cars.
A few blocks from the Pacific, Carlsbad Village is the city's welcoming buzzy hub of commercial activity. Here you'll find boutiques like Humble Olive Oils, Fahrenheit 451 Books, restaurants, galleries, bars, cafés, and sweets like old-fashioned Handel's ice cream. Take glass-blowing and pottery classes at Barrio Glassworks and Handled Pottery Studio, catch a show at the New Village Arts Theatre, see family-friendly fare at Flicks at the Fountain all summer, or attend annual events like Taste of Carlsbad, Makers Market, or the open-air Art in the Village. The farmers market happens every Wednesday and is a great place to pick up edible souvenirs to remind you of the trip once you're back at home. There is ample parking, and you can hop aboard the Coaster commuter rail at the train station to go into San Diego.
Sip Craft Beer at Numerous Local Breweries
San Diego is the nation's craft beer capital, and its seriousness about suds extends far beyond the city limits. Those with a propensity for pilsners, IPAs, porters, and just about any other type of microbrew can find plenty of places to grab a drink. Culver Beer Co. (pictured above) is where to go to pair brews with signature sammies, whereas Burgeon boasts a beer garden and often invites food trucks to gather. Barrel Republic, which focuses on renowned local labels as well as national fermenters, has 52 innovative self-serve taps (plus six wine taps) and a pay-by-the-ounce policy. Arcana Brewing Company has a steampunk aesthetic, seasonal specials like barley wine, and a dog-friendly tasting room. Rouleur Brewing is known for eschewing rules, experimenting wildly, and blending modern and Old World monastic techniques to create bold hybrid beers. Guadalupe Brewing focuses on Baja-style beers; growlers can be filled at their Carlsbad location, but for the full cervecercia experience, you'll have to drive to their tap house in Vista.
Stretch Your Legs on a Hike
Strewn throughout its many acres of open space, Carlsbad offers 38 miles of designated hiking trails in a variety of lengths, landscapes, and levels of difficulty. Traipse through canyons dotted with wildflowers and sage (Aviara Trails), around eucalyptus groves (Hosp Grove), inside an extinct volcano (Lake Calavera), along lagoon paths (Batiquitos), up to hilltops with panoramic views, and next to coastal cliffs. Many trails connect to parks, playgrounds, or picnic areas.
Flowers aren’t the area’s only prized crop. Carlsbad Strawberry Company, which opened in the 1950s and has been run by the same family for four generations, grows plump sweet berries that are showcased on menus around town. (Not to be missed are the fancy strawberry cheesecake and strawberry-rhubarb jelly donuts made by The Goods.) Or make a picturesque outing by visiting the 40-acre fruit farm and picking your own treats. The U-pick season typically runs between the end of January and mid-July. They also offer a pumpkin patch and a haunted corn maze in the fall.
McClellan-Palomar Airport, a small airport in the middle of town, is home base for several recreational flight businesses who can help visitors experience rarefied air. Icon Helicopters has room for five in their air-conditioned cabin, and offers a variety of flight plans like a sunset tour, a Temecula wine country trip, and a San Diego sightseeing package that includes a secluded mountaintop landing. Or go old school with Fun Flights in a biplane that requires Snoopy-style helmets and goggles. The front seat has room for two and the open cockpit allows for greater visibility as you fly over the water. If you're lucky, you'll be able to spot migrating whales on the way to or from Mexico.
Get Cultured at Museums
Carlsbad offers a few unique museums that warrant a morning of wandering and pondering. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the folks who invented the 4Cs of diamond grading, runs a museum on its campus. Guided tours walk visitors through exhibits of gems, jewelry, art, and sculptures including “Bahia,” a 426-pound quartz crystal pendant that hangs in the lobby. Meanwhile, NAMM’s Museum of Making Music showcases instruments, products, and gear while examining the history of the music industry through hands-on activities. Hollywood and early California rancho history collide at the former vacation retreat of "Cisco Kid" star Leo Carrillo; now a 27-acre peacock-filled park, Carrillo Ranch preserves a series of hand-crafted adobe buildings, his hacienda, barn, and stables. Private tours of the 1887 craftsman-style Magee House end with tea and rambles through the impressive rose garden.