In 1542, when Portuguese sailor Juan Cabrillo anchored his Spanish ship and planted his flag on the beach at what became Point Loma, the natives fired arrows at the intruders. The Spanish captain Sebastian Vizcaino entered the harbor aboard his flagship, the San Diego, nearly sixty years later. After surveying the promising port, he named it for that same Catholic Saint, San Diego de Alcalá.
The four tribes who already called the area home were probably not as taken with Vizcaino’s ideas, but made much of the fishing and chaparral while living here. No doubt they too enjoyed the beaches while hunting and gathering. Today, no matter your age, origin or occupation, when you think of San Diego images of surfing or sunbathing on acres of sand spring to mind.
This is an outline of some of the best beaches in this long coastal county, and their specialties.
Check the water conditions before grabbing your board but these spots are some of the most popular in the area if you’re looking to catch some waves. San Diego’s best break comes with a swell from the west. The further north you go, the more the swell breaks from the south. You’ll find these spots south of Camp Pendleton all the way down to the border region.
Swamis – Surfers hike down trails along the cliff to reach this famous break. The heights are great for watching the action. Across Highway 101, Swami’s snack shack is a popular breakfast and lunch spot.
Blacks Beach – Scripps canyon, a narrow so-called ‘submarine canyon’ is just north of the pier. Don’t be surprised by the nude sunbathers! They congregate along this remote stretch of sand.
Imperial Beach – This South county strand gets wind and waves.
Visit a pet-friendly beach and your best friend will love it to the point of exhaustion. This list is for those interested in getting some off-leash playtime.
Ocean Beach Dog Strand – Not far from the Pacific Beach neighborhood that’s stuck in a hippie time warp. The wide spit faces the channel across from the jetty, while the parking lot is on West Point Loma Boulevard at the west end.
Coronado Island Dog Beach – In front of Sunset Park at the north end of Coronado beach, Dog Run Beach is the only off-leash place on the island. Keep your pooch on leash from the parking area to the dog run.
North Beach in Del Mar – Let your pup roam freely between 29th Street north to Solana Beach. Note: It’s a seasonal freedom, for in summer — with the crowds taking over — dogs must be on leash throughout.
Fiesta Island in Mission Bay – Cross the land bridge to the small island on the one-way road with easy access to the sand. Be advised: you and your four-legged friend will be sharing the beaches with families, jet skiers, cyclists, and sporting events.
Del Mar Beach – This beach knows how to treat visitors. The community center has public restrooms, picnic tables, benches with views, and a wide green above the breakers. Several restaurants are open from lunch to dinner, and a few blocks away the Village is packed with shopping spots, hotels, and patio bars.
Moonlight Beach in Encinitas – There’s lots of parking on the hill above the beach, as well as volleyball nets, showers, and restrooms. During the summer months, lifeguards keep an eye on the water for distressed swimmers.
Imperial Beach – A wide and windy swath in south county bordered by a residential neighborhood. Each July it turns raucous with the Sun and Sea Festival, where world-class sandcastle sculptors compete. Show up early for a community parade and pancake breakfast. Plus the little ones have their own Kids ‘n Kastles competition.
Oceanside pier – This wide-open beach is lined by petite bungalows that face the long, iconic pier. The area was made famous by Tom Cruise’s antics in Top Gun. In fact, the little house used in the movie still stands, its facade fading in the setting sun. Oceanside is a Marine base town with bars and military goods shops catering to the enlisted and their fans. Not far from the pier, streets close to traffic on Thursdays for a farmer’s market that flips to food and fun vendors at sunset.
Ocean Beach pier – This spot is great for storm watching. Turbulent waves crash into a pier that has been a local fixture for over 100 years, and the rage of the ocean makes you feel small. There are tidepools along the Sunset Cliffs Trail to the south and it’s an easy spot to fish high above the water, as well as kelp that can tangle lines.
The Pacific Beach pier – A classic American pier spotted with rental cottages at the entrance. Great spot to watch surfers.
The Scripp’s Institute Pier – In La Jolla Shores. One of the most crowded beaches in the area year-round, the water here lures scuba divers and snorkelers; it’s an easy dive and a great place to view sea life. Leopard Sharks (seasonal and not dangerous) rest along the bottom, close to the Marine Room on the south end of the beach. Sea Turtles pop up to feed on rocks near the La Jolla cliffs occasionally, and rafts of Kayakers scoot past the breakers to visit the caves to the south.
Best beach hike
Torrey Pines beach and trail – Spectacular cliffs tower over beach walkers and sandpipers at this State Natural Reserve. Watch for dolphins playing in the surf and study tide pools during the low ebb. Looking for more exercise? Hike up the cliff trail where the Torrey Pines rise over the chaparral. You can also park at the top and stroll down to the car lot along the narrow road.
Bay Side Diversions
Mission Bay – A ring of sheltered beaches and picnic spots pepper the bay. There’s also a boat ramp near the old Information Station at Clairemont Drive. On the surf side of the bay, rollerblade hobbyists, bicyclists, and speed walkers scoot along the promenade in front of beach cafes and bars. The bay side walkway is much tamer and less crowded with shallow water and sand.
La Jolla Childrens Pool and Cove Beach – Watch the sea lion rookery from the breakwater walk or cliffs near the street. Cove Beach is a sheltered spot for swimmers and divers who brave San Diego’s cool waters.
Cabrillo National Monument – The first explorer would be proud of the monument museum, the cliff trails, and two lighthouses bearing his name. The lowest lighthouse along the western beach is a popular hiking spot with wind and water-carved sandstone cliffs.