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The Best San Diego Beaches to Explore and Enjoy

San Diego has plenty to keep you busy and happy during your stay here. But since you’re heading to one of America’s finest stretches of coastline, why not head to the beach?

So which beaches should you visit during your San Diego trip? While there’s no wrong answer, we have put together this list of must-see beaches to make the most of your vacation. From the Mexican border to Camp Pendleton, here are some awesome San Diego beaches to explore and enjoy.

A group of palm trees at Swami's Beach in Encinitas, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

What’s not to love about San Diego? With nearly idyllic weather year-round, spectacular natural scenery, dozens of lively neighborhoods to explore, a thriving craft beer and culinary scene, and several theme parks and additional attractions dotted throughout the region, San Diego knows how to keep the good times rolling.

While there are plenty of reasons to explore on dry land, let’s not forget the beaches that made this region famous in the first place. We’re moving south to north to guide you through these great beaches, where you’ll find everything from horseback riding to snorkeling.

Imperial Beach Pier and the Tijuana River Estuary

The waves crash onto the shore near the Imperial Beach Pier.
Photo by Ruff Tuff Cream Puff, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

As the California beach town that touches the U.S.-Mexico border, Imperial Beach has a very funky yet worldly vibe, and Imperial Beach Pier is at the center of all these good vibes. You’ll find colorful public art at parks on both sides of the pier, and down below you’ll discover some surprisingly great surfing waves.

Farther south, you’ll encounter exceptional birdwatching at the Tijuana River Estuary and Border Field State Park, and you’ll even find one of California’s only beaches where you can go horseback riding! Heading north, you can catch Highway 75 for more beaches and birdwatching opportunities at Silver Strand.

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Coronado Beach

A group of sea gulls land at the tide pools in Coronado, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

On the other side of Silver Strand Beach, you’ll land at Coronado. Perhaps you’ve already heard of the world-famous Hotel del Coronado, but there’s plenty more to enjoy beyond the hotel’s grounds. Dr. Stephen Leatherman — also known as “Dr. Beach” — has often rated Coronado’s Central Beach as one of America’s ten best beaches due to its cleanliness, its soft sand, its calm waves, and its overall safe and welcoming conditions. Even better, just south of The Del are the Coronado Tide Pools, where you can find starfish, sea anemones, moon snails, and plenty more aquatic wildlife.

Steps away from the beach are plenty of shops and restaurants to explore. Staying outdoors, across Highway 75 from the tide pools is Glorietta Bay Park, where you’ll find a scenic spot to stop and enjoy the San Diego Bay views. From there, you can follow Highway 75/Orange Avenue to Coronado Ferry Landing for some spectacular views of Downtown San Diego, as well as ferry boats to take you there.

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Santa Cruz Cliffs and the Ocean Beach Tide Pools

The waves approach the shoreline at the beach at Santa Cruz Cliffs in San Diego, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Tucked away off a residential street south of San Diego’s Ocean Beach Pier, the Santa Cruz Cliffs feel like a secluded getaway. Once you walk down the stairs, you’re suddenly transported to another landscape anchored by two small pockets of sand buffered by golden bluffs. Though the sandy beaches themselves are on the small side, they’re nonetheless great launch points to jump into the ocean. If you prefer to stay on land, check out the rock formations and sea caves for a uniquely colorful experience.

If you hop back onto the bluffs, follow the walkway north to the south side of the Ocean Beach Tide Pools. Walk along, explore the vibrant sea life that pops up in the tide pools, enjoy the stunning views that span from Sunset Cliffs to La Jolla, and make sure to watch your step, as the rocks below the walkway can get wet and slippery. If you head back onto the street, you can make your way to Ocean Beach Pier, where you’ll find the thriving cultural heart of San Diego’s Point Loma communities.

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Windansea Beach and La Jolla Cove

A seal reaches shore at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Nestled beside some of San Diego’s most expensive residential streets, La Jolla’s Windansea Beach explains why those who can afford to do so pay top dollar to live here. Expert surfers love this beach for its gnarly waves, but the current tends to be too strong for most swimmers to handle. Back on shore, the sandstone bluffs and the signature palapa (dating back to 1943) have inspired countless artists, including author Tom Wolfe and visual artist Andy Warhol, to create masterpieces.

A few blocks north of Windansea lies Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Park, perhaps the most photographed spot in all of San Diego. This park essentially functions as La Jolla’s window to the sea, and at the eastern end are a couple of staircases that lead down to one of the world’s most picturesque beaches. La Jolla Cove may be a small beach, but it’s jam-packed with tide pools, a bay that’s perfect for diving and snorkeling, amazing views of Torrey Pines to the north, and even the occasional seal sightings! Between Windansea and La Jolla Cove, you’ll find plenty more to see, do, and taste in La Jolla Village.

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Torrey Pines State Beach

A Torrey pine tree grows on top of a sandstone bluff facing the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in San Diego.
Photo by FeldBum, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

Tucked in between La Jolla and Del Mar lies Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. It’s unique for its collection of America’s rarest pine trees – the Torrey pine – in their natural habitat, and it’s extra special for providing a coastal wilderness escape amidst San Diego’s urban landscape.

On land, you can hike multiple trails and admire the spectacular sandstone rock formations perched above the shoreline. Down at the beach, you can walk the shoreline, surf the waves, and follow the marsh trail to the nearby wetlands. While there are not too many businesses in the immediate vicinity, the shops and restaurants of La Jolla and Del Mar are a short drive away.

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Swami’s Beach, “Boneyards”, and Moonlight Beach in Encinitas

Surfers walk the beach at Swami's Beach in Encinitas, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Moving up to North County, Encinitas feels like the quintessential California beach town: beautiful, laid back, and full of good vibes. This has not gone totally unnoticed: National Geographic named Encinitas as one of the world’s 20 best surf towns in 2012 thanks to its “consistent waves, inviting accommodations, friendly locals, fun nightlife, delicious food, and plenty of activities”. A great starting point to catch this action is Swami’s Beach: this ultimate surfing mecca not only has world-famous waves that local surfers relish, but it also has a charming collection of tide pools to observe the area’s aquatic wildlife. During low tide, it’s also fairly easy to walk south to San Elijo State Beach, or north to “Boneyards”.

“Boneyards” beach can get tricky to navigate from Swami’s during high tide, so be careful. On the other side of “Boneyards” lies Moonlight State Beach, which provides a much wider expanse of sandy beach that makes for easier walking and beachcombing, as well as swimming, surfing, surf fishing, beach volleyball, and tennis. A short walk east of Moonlight and north of Swami’s, Downtown Encinitas features an eclectic and fun collection of shops, restaurants, and bars that make it easy to extend your stay here.

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Oceanside Pier

A view of the pier in Oceanside, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Situated at the far north end of San Diego County, Oceanside used to have a reputation as a rough-and-tumble military town before it began to evolve into North County’s take on Brooklyn-style hipster chic. Oceanside Pier makes for a great launchpad to explore this great beach: The pier itself is one of the West Coast’s longest wooden piers at 1,942 feet long, and the beach below is world-renowned for waves so good that they host international surfing competitions every year. Beyond the surf, the beach is wide and sandy enough for strolling, sunbathing, and beach volleyball.

Where the pier meets dry land, there’s plenty more to see and do in Oceanside. Not only has the Mission Pacific Hotel become the permanent home of the Top Gun house made famous by the 1986 movie, but it also has multiple restaurants to chill out and enjoy the ocean views. A couple of blocks inland, Oceanside has become a foodie hot spot due to its fun mix of craft beer breweries and farm-to-table “flip-flop fine dining” restaurants that serve seriously delicious food with locally sourced ingredients and without any stuffy attitude.

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