La Jolla is a gorgeous seaside town just 15 miles north of the San Diego airport. It's also a bustling college town, a ritzy enclave with fancy restaurants, cultural activities, and art galleries, and a primo weekend getaway spot featuring fun activities for families, romantics, sun worshippers, and even adrenaline junkies. Whether kayaking around sea caves, wandering a museum, swimming with harmless leopard sharks, catching a play destined for Broadway, or stuffing your face with fresh seafood and Mexican food is your idea of a good time, it's easy to populate an itinerary for La Jolla, especially when you have this list of the top 11 things to do to guide you.
Go on a Kayak Adventure
La Jolla is one of the state's best places to go kayaking due to the large variety of trips you can take and all the cool stuff you might see from playful sea lions popping up out of the kelp forest to towering craggy cliffs and their eerie sea caves. Everyday California, an adventure tour company, offers a sea caves tour suitable for almost everyone over the age of 5 all year long as well as a combo snorkel-and-kayak tour. They also offer a truly special whale watching trip seasonally. Watch the gray whales make their way from the Arctic to Mexico (usually December 1 to March 1). You can get close in a non-threatening, non-polluting way. The company also offers surfing lessons, SUP rentals, and snorkel excursions.
See a Sea Cave (While Staying Dry)
If you prefer to stay dry but are thrilled by the prospect of spelunking in a sea cave, you're not out of luck. Hidden beneath an unassuming jewelry and gift store is a suspected bootleggers tunnel that cuts down through La Jolla Cove's sandstone cliffs and ends in Sunny Jim's Cave. The Cave Store was originally the home of Gustav Schultz, a mining engineer and entrepreneur who hired two Chinese laborers to dig out the tunnel in 1902. Legend has it a large amount of opium and alcohol came into San Diego via the sea cave during the Prohibition Era. Self-guided tours are offered daily and require visitors to climb 144 steps each way.
Hunt for Murals
Conceived in 2010 to bring vitality and creativity to the community, Murals of La Jolla commissions massive works in a variety of mediums to fill predetermined walls of varying shapes and sizes on public buildings throughout the city by visionaries like Mark Bradford, John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Kota Ezawa, and Beatriz Milhazes. The first two by Kim MacConnel and Roy McMakin are permanent, but subsequent pieces have been attached to billboard-like frames so that the art can be rotated out. Each one is on view for a minimum of two years. The best part is that this activity is open 24/7 and can be done on foot or by car or bike, during an afternoon jog, or piecemeal throughout your stay.
Find Nemo, Seahorses, and Other Marine Life at Birch Aquarium
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has maintained an aquarium and science museum for more than a century and the current colorful iteration sits atop of coastal bluff looking out at the very ocean that provides most of its exhibits. More than 60 habitats and tanks—some touchable like the outdoor tide pool—are filled with cold water creatures from the Pacific Northwest, flashy tropical swimmers that hail from Mexico, and plenty of fish, sharks, and invertebrates that live in between them. The collection emphasizes the school’s conservation efforts and research on climate, ocean science, and biology. The impressive Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit alone is worth the price of admission.
Dive Further Into Sea Science on the Scripps Pier
One of the most useful research tools at Scripps researcher's disposal is the 104-year-old Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier—which because of delicate scientific instruments and ongoing research projects housed there, is usually closed to the public. However, one Saturday morning a month, free tours of the campus include an educational stroll on the dock. The rank and file can also parade around one of the world’s most active research piers in the world by booking a full-moon tour. It usually focuses on bioluminescent organisms and hands-on activities like the plankton collection.
Paraglide Alongside a Raptor
The picturesque coastal cliffs of Torrey Pines, just north of the downtown Village, boast some of the best and most consistent flying conditions on Earth, which is why the area has played an important part in aviation history. Charles Lindbergh took his 1930 maiden voyage here, in the 1960s, the first radio-controlled model airplanes were designed and flown here, and in the '70s it bought into the new extreme sports of hang-gliding and paragliding big time.
If you dare, you can take flight or take lessons to someday soar on your own seven days a week. Or you can try a fledging endeavor—parahawking, in which you fly like an eagle in an unmotorized ultra-light aircraft alongside a trained free-flying falcon. If all of that sounds for the birds to you, stay grounded with a hike through Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, which looks a little like Bryce Canyon at the beach. It's especially gorgeous in spring when blanketed by wildflowers. Or get a different kind of thrill by strolling along Black’s Beach, one of the largest clothing-optional stretches of sand in the nation and one of the best beaches of San Diego list.
Swim With Leopard Sharks
The shallow sandy flats off La Jolla's shores are a favorite spot for leopard sharks. There are always some swimming and looking for lunch, but the numbers grow between March and October when the timid, tiny-toothed predators start gathering in mass for breeding season. By late summer and early fall, there can be thousands of them and as they mean no harm to humans, it's a cool opportunity to strap on a snorkel and observe the sharks living their best lives.
Bike & Kayak Tours will get you geared up and guide you to a good viewing spot. (Also cool: they'll let you keep the snorkel stuff after the hour tour if you want to keep swimming with sharks.) If you have the equipment, nothing is stopping you from heading out on your own. If sharks have more backbone than you, you can stay above them on a kayak tour. Either way, go on a sunny day with calm water for the best visibility.
Catch a Show at a Tony-Winning Playhouse
Founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer, the La Jolla Playhouse attracted the biggest stars of the era like Groucho Marx and Eve Arden. After a decade, it lost its luster and shuttered until 1983. The Playhouse's second act, which includes a Tony win for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 1993, has been quite productive. It has a knack for developing new works that find their way to Broadway including "Big River," "The Who’s Tommy," "Jersey Boys," and "Come From Away." Its Page To Stage New Play Development Program also birthed the Pulitzer Prize-winning "I Am My Own Wife." The Playhouse also hosts a biennial Without Walls (WOW) festival that brings interactive theater into unconventional settings like the backseat of a car or on a basketball court.
And that isn't the only show space in town. The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2019, is made up of four distinct concert spaces and is the permanent home of the La Jolla Music Society.
Tour Modern Architectural Landmark
Jonas Salk—the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants and then the first person in his family to go to college—became an epidemiology pioneer when he invented the polio vaccine. In the 1960s, he founded the Salk Institute in Torrey Pines to foster further research on diseases, genetics, neuroscience, immunology, aging, and more. To inspire bold and creative problem solving, Salk hired Louis I. Kahn to design the now iconic and controversial laboratories.
Visitors can see the concrete and teak marvel, as well as its spectacular ocean and sky views, on a guided tour. They are offered Monday through Friday with advance reservations.
Eat Tacos, Seafood, and Excellent Bread
There's so much good food on offer in La Jolla that you could spend the whole trip eating. (Which is never a bad way to spend a vacation.) Like much of California, there are several options for high-quality Mexican food. Puesto, operated by a set of first-gen brothers and cousins, are known for their Mexico City-style tacos served on non-GMO heirloom Masienda blue corn tortillas with fresh-made salsas. Galaxy Taco is another great casual choice for spicy nibbles.
With its proximity to the water and San Diego's intrepid fleet of fishing crews, seafood is always a safe bet whether you get it in sushi form (Blue Ocean), as a burrito or sammie (El Pescador Fish Market), or in a fancy fine dining setting like the old-school Marine Room. Make sure your reservation for this splurge dinner line up with high tides. A pre-code, pre-regulation build means your surf and turf might come with a show as waves regularly crash against the glass windows.
Beach towns are often brunch towns and La Jolla is no exception. Try Harry's Coffee Shop, a traditional diner with a fab counter, or The Cottage. Years later, we still occasionally dream of the lemon ricotta pancakes and fruit- and mascarpone-stuffed French toast. Grab specialty coffees at Pannikin and pastries, especially croissants, at Wayfarer Bread.
Sun and Sip at the Pink Lady's Pool
The beach is fantastic, but the beach doesn't have bubbles. However, as the consummate host, The Pink Lady (aka La Valencia Hotel) never runs out of Champagne, especially Veuve Clicquot, and provides so many lavish settings in which to enjoy it, including the hand-painted and high-ceilinged lobby bar, a table at the boozy brunch series, or from the balcony of a recently redesigned oceanview room.
But perhaps the ultimate place to sip is in the sun on the red-tiled pool deck. Surrounded by swaying palms and vibrant bougainvillea, the chaises provide prime sunset viewing over the Pacific as well. And for the first time since the rose-hued landmark opened to luxury lovers in 1926, it's available to non-guests for daily use through Resort Pass.