If you’re looking for a sun-soaked beach vacation, with ample attractions and all the modern conveniences of a big city, you can’t do much better than San Diego, California.
Boasting lofty nicknames such as “The Birthplace of California” and “America’s Finest City”, San Diego is not only a paradise of white-sand and perfect weather but also a landmark-laden tourist destination. It’s about as rich in history as any other city in the United States.
In San Diego, you’ll find everything from museums and nightlife to state parks, live music, and world-class dining. While the San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp Quarter, and Historic Old Town may be part of your itinerary, make sure to plan ample time to visit the countless beaches that line the shores and entire coast of San Diego County.
Whether you’re looking for camping, beachfront restaurants, surfing, or scuba diving, San Diego has a beach for you!
Here are the among the top beaches in San Diego, CA, in no particular order:
Pacific Beach, Pacific Beach
If you needed to capture the essence of San Diego’s shores in one photograph, Pacific Beach would be the place to go. Miles of white-sand shores lined with palm trees and oceanfront homes set the scene for your day of swimming and sunbathing at this popular San Diego beach destination.
Pacific Beach is one of the main attractions in an area known as “The Strand”, which is also comprised of two connecting beaches, Mission Beach in the south, and North Pacific Beach in the north.
Starting just south of Pacific Beach’s Crystal Pier is Ocean Front Walk, a stretch of bars, restaurants, and shops that runs all the way down to Mission Bay Jetty. You’ll find far more than a day’s worth of things to do there.
If you plan on heading to Pacific Beach, keep in mind that it is likely to be crowded and parking won’t be easy to find. It’s best to head there early and beat the rush.
Imperial Beach City Beach, Imperial Beach
To access Imperial Beach’s idyllic shoreline, which is located just five miles north of Mexico, head all the way south to get California’s southernmost city. Imperial Beach City Beach makes up the entirety of the Imperial Beach coast and while the main attraction is the sand, there much more to enjoy throughout the city.
Imerpail Beach City Beach is comprised of four miles of perfect Southern California sand and is host to every beach activity under the sun including surfing, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, horseback riding, and volleyball.
Head over to Imperial Beach Pier for lunch or dinner at the Tin Fish and soak in the breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific coast. The pier is also a hot spot for fishing and a commonplace for spectators to enjoy watching the many surfers who frequent the beach catching waves below.
Mission Beach, Mission Beach
There aren’t many, if any, sandbars on planet earth other than Mission Beach that boasts bike paths, beach sports, a grass park, playgrounds, restaurants, bars, night clubs, and an entire amusement park.
Frankly, it’s hard to believe how many attractions are packed into this two-mile strip of land that separates Mission Bay from the Pacific Ocean, and that doesn’t even include the beach itself.
A picturesque spot for sunbathing and swimming during the day, and for gathering around a bonfire at night, Mission Beach lies just south of Pacific Beach, another destination on this list. Between the two of them, you have enough to do for three vacations or more, but wherever there are tons of attractions, there’s bound to be tons of people, so expect big crowds and plan accordingly.
Silver Strand State Beach, Coronado
For an escape from the more densely populated, commercially developed parts of San Diego, head over to Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado. While located on a thin strip of land separating the Pacific from the bay, Silver Strand Beach is nothing like Mission Beach up north.
At Silver Strand, there are no nightclubs, restaurants, or amusement parks, and that’s part of its charm. If you’re the type of person who likes their beachgoing experience to be more of communion with nature than an attraction-packed romp in the sun, this is the spot for you.
While this beach isn’t totally rugged, it also isn’t deserted. There are a few amenities and crowds can appear, but don’t worry, there’s enough beach to go around. It isn’t hard to find a serene spot to enjoy the sun and for those visiting in an RV, there is even camping allowed nearby!
Swami’s Beach, Encinitas
If you’ve come to California to surf, there are very few places that should be higher on your checklist than Swami’s Beach in Encinitas. Lauded for its excellent conditions due to having multiple breaks, the surfing world considers this spot an international mecca of the sport.
Swami’s Beach is not just a surf spot, though. Visitors often come to sunbathe, enjoy a picnic, watch whales, and check out the tide pools. There are also a number of nearby cafes and restaurants to grab lunch or dinner at when you’re ready to get out of the California sun.
Harbor Beach, Oceanside
About 40 miles north of the city of San Diego, visitors will find the coastal city of Oceanside. Of the many beautiful beaches Oceanside has to offer, Harbor Beach is its biggest, and perhaps, most popular. Things to do include all of the usual beach activities, as well as RV camping at Harbor Beach Campgrounds.
Harbor Beach is named due to its proximity to the Oceanside Harbor, a marina where you can rent a boat or charter one for deep-sea fishing, or take a whale watching tour, giving you the opportunity to experience more of the Pacific than just its sandy shores.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, Point Loma
For even more breathtaking natural beauty that will make you forget you’re technically in one of the biggest cities in the country, check out Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. The park is comprised of 68 acres of land situated alongside the Pacific coast of Point Loma. It’s a great place for scenic hikes, and it boasts the beautiful but oddly named Garbage Beach.
You won’t find much garbage at Garbage Beach, at least not enough to merit such a name, but you will find a great place to surf, swim, and partake in whale watching as well as some excellent tide pools to explore.
There is a catch, though. Garbage Beach is difficult and somewhat dangerous to reach. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park has very steep hills that lead to its shores, meaning you’re going to have to traverse one using a fixed rope to steady yourself in order to get to your destination.
La Jolla Shores Beach, La Jolla
La Jolla Shores Beach makes up one mile of coastline in the lovely seaside neighborhood of La Jolla. It’s a popular spot for all sorts of water activities including scuba diving, kayaking, and surfing. Additionally, visitors will find all the amenities you need, including beach rentals for those who don’t quite have everything they need for a day on the sand.
Check out nearby Kellogg Park if you’re looking for a place to sit down for a picturesque picnic. And if you didn’t bring your own lunch, there’s always one of the numerous nearby food spots.
Torrey Pines State Beach, Torrey Pines
Situated in the community of Torrey Pines, between Del Mar and La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Beach may be the most scenic spot on this entire list. The shores are lined with high white cliffs, above which you’ll see hang gliders soaring in from nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport, creating a mesmerizing backdrop for your day in the sun.
Torrey Pines State Beach is a part of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, where you’ll find a number of hiking trails that will lead you to some breathtaking cliffside views of the Pacific. If you come at the right time of year, you can even watch migrating whales from your clifftop perch.
Cardiff State Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Located along the southern coast of Encinitas, Cardiff State Beach is actually comprised of two different beaches: North Beach and Seaside Beach. Both beaches are popular spots for snorkeling and scuba diving, as well as surfing and kiteboarding.
Amenities are minimal on the premises, but the north side of the beach has an area called Restaurant Row, with a number of spots to eat, as well as some bars and shops to explore.
The two beaches form a strip of land that separates the Pacific Ocean from San Elijo Lagoon, where you’ll find San Elijo State Beach, a large campground with restrooms, showers, and picnic tables. Lifeguards are present, and you can swim, but the water is sometimes known to have dangerous riptides, so the area is more popular for surfers.
No matter what type of beach you’re looking for, San Diego has options for all times of travelers. And if you’re willing to drive a few hours, adding a stop to a hot spring such as Valparaiso Day Spa Aguas Termales or Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel is sure to round out your Sand Diego vacation.
Here’s a longer list of California beaches in case you’re hitting up the whole Golden State coast.