A day spent in La Jolla, just a 20-minute drive north of downtown San Diego, will include beautiful views of the shoreline and ocean and rugged cliffs. You can be out in nature and enjoy many activities both on land and in the water. La Jolla also offers elegant restaurants and little cafes, along with upscale shopping and art museums. There’s even a world-class research aquarium. So, whether you spend your time inside or out, you are sure to make treasured memories.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular La Jolla attractions to help you plan your perfect day.
Things To Do In La Jolla
Hit The Beach
La Jolla hugs the Pacific Coast and features 10 beautiful beaches. Some are quite small, but the main recreational beach, La Jolla Shores, is a mile long and fairly wide. Head here to splash in the water, build sandcastles, play volleyball, and sit on the sand. The lifeguard stations are staffed, and the waves tend to be gentle. One of my favorite ways to spend time here is to walk along the sand to the picturesque pier. With such a long beach, you can stroll for quite a while.
Not a fan of sand? La Jolla Shores also offers a grassy park for picnics and lawn games. This area is located between the parking lots and the beach.
Another fun way to enjoy La Jolla Shores is to have a bonfire. Several pits are located on the sand. You will need to plan ahead and reserve one by sitting by it around midday in the summer and on weekends. When night falls, you can build a roaring fire, visit with your friends, and listen to the waves crashing in the darkness. It’s magical.
Pro Tip: The two parking lots are large, but they do fill quickly, especially in the summer. Street parking is limited. Plan to go early to get a spot. You’ll find small markets and takeout food on the side streets, so you can comfortably stay as long as you’d like.
See The Sea Lions At La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a small beach with a different feel from La Jolla Shores. It’s a sheltered spread of sand surrounded by cliffs. If you enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, La Jolla Cove is a good choice, because the water is part of a marine reserve.
Serious swimmers come here to race out to buoys placed 0.25 mile and .5 mile from the shore. Others swim the 3 miles to the pier and back.
La Jolla Cove is also home to sea lions who love to sun themselves on the rocks just offshore. You can easily walk to the nearby Children’s Pool, where some sea lions live. A cement walkway allows you to view the marine life from above to avoid bothering them.
Explore The Tide Pools
Tide pooling is exploring marine life left behind by waves in the cracks and crevices of rock formations along the shore. It’s fun for all ages and can keep the little ones in your group occupied for hours. And La Jolla is one of the best areas for tide pools anywhere along San Diego’s coast.
You’ll find nooks and crannies to explore in many places in La Jolla. My favorite area is at the Ellen Browning Scripps Park along Coast Boulevard. Find a parking spot on the street and walk along the lawn down toward the shore. Look for rocks with pools of standing water in them.
Obviously, you will need to aim for low tide. Check the tide charts to plan your time at the tide pools. And take a jacket even in the summer, since you may be in cool ocean air. The nearby University of California San Diego has an excellent guide to marine life in the local tide pools. Enhance your visit by reading it before you go.
Visit The Birch Aquarium
The Birch Aquarium sits high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. While it serves as a marine research center, it’s open to the public and will enchant you with its tanks of colorful sea life. You’ll learn about the latest discoveries being made by ocean scientists. Interactive exhibits geared toward youngsters make this a place for visitors of all ages.
The Preuss Tide Pool Plaza outside the aquarium allows a hands-on experience with sea stars, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters, and sea anemones.
The Birch Aquarium is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. If you happen to be in town on one of the rare rainy days in La Jolla, you can still enjoy the mystique of the ocean during your time inside.
Hike In The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is an area of beach and cliffs at the north end of La Jolla. If you’re looking for hiking with a view, this is the place to go. Trails along the hilltop wind through fragile, lacy cliffs, and the terrain is dotted by scrubby Torrey pines. These trees are found only here and one other place and were named after a botanist’s friend in the 1800s. The soil is sandy so close to the water, but somehow these trees hang on. With their distinctive bent silhouettes, they helped guide those at sea to the shoreline before lighthouses were built.
The real attraction of a hike here is the view of the sea. Take any of the paths starting at the top of the hill -- they all lead toward the water. You can hike for a half hour or several hours, taking one easy path or some of the more demanding options. You can also access the beach down below by a set of steep stairs.
Before you go, take a look at the six main trail options online and plan your time. Due to the extent of erosion, some of the trails may be closed. Trails extend north and south of Torrey Pines, so if you’re up for a longer hike, you can map out those options.
Pro Tip: You’ll first encounter large parking lots at the beach level. Drive to the top of the Torrey Pines trails if you want to skip the hike up the steep, wide road. Ample parking is usually available in the lots across from the trail access points.
Go Kayaking Or Snorkeling
Are you interested in water activities? You will find many fun ways to enjoy the ocean in La Jolla. You can rent kayaks at La Jolla Shores and paddle out as part of a tour or on your own to explore caves carved out of the sandstone, the biggest and easiest to reach being Clam Cave. Be aware of the tides so that you don’t get surprised by the water coming in.
Snorkeling along the shore is also popular. You’ll discover a wide variety of sea life. One of the main attractions for snorkelers is the thousands of leopard sharks that migrate through La Jolla from June through December seeking warmer waters.
You can rent both snorkels and kayaks, and you can combine your rental to use both on the same day.
Stop By The Museums And Art Galleries
If you’re in search of arts and culture, La Jolla is a great place to experience museums and galleries. Downtown offers the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla, the La Jolla Historical Society, and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.
Art galleries in La Jolla include the Madison Gallery and the Thumbprint Gallery. The author known as Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Ted Geisel, lived in La Jolla, and you can view the artwork of this local celebrity at the Legends Gallery.
Best Restaurants In La Jolla
You’ll find many types of cuisine in La Jolla. Specialties include seafood and Mexican dishes. Many of the restaurants come with a panoramic view of the ocean, too. Here are a few of my favorites.
For breakfast, you can’t top The Cottage, a bustling restaurant located in a historic house downtown. Munch on fresh scones or cinnamon French toast as you relax on the patio under colorful umbrellas. The Cottage also has a new wellness menu that includes vegan and vegetarian dishes.
Caroline’s Seaside Cafe
Climb the stairs above a university meeting hall, and you’ll be on the deck of Caroline’s Seaside Cafe. The ocean and pier will be at your feet as you enjoy breakfast or lunch at this informal outdoor cafe. Sandwiches such as the Caprese, Avocado, and Curried Chicken Salad are favorites.
The Marine Room
The draw here is that giant waves crash against the bay windows as you dine. And the food is gourmet. While pricey, The Marine Room is not only a restaurant, but also an experience. A handy tide chart on the website will help you plan to catch the highest waves. Reserve in advance to secure a table during peak times.
This restaurant is a good middle-ground option between informal and expensive dining. The Crab Catcher occupies a corner in downtown and features views of the nearby water. The menu focuses on locally caught seafood, and the specialty is red king crab legs.
George’s At The Cove
Another elegant La Jolla landmark, George’s at the Cove offers visitors the chance to dine out on the Ocean Terrace overlooking the Pacific. If you want to grab a drink instead of a meal, try the elevated bar at George’s and take in the same fabulous view.
Where To Shop In La Jolla
Downtown La Jolla hugs the shore and then moves inland several blocks. Look for Girard and Prospect on a map, and you’ll find it. This area is known for boutique shops and high-end stores such as Cartier. You can always stick to window shopping to spare your budget. Lots of cafes and ice cream places are here, too, in case you need a break. La Jolla provides a handy list of the best places to shop in the area.
Best Hotels In La Jolla
You can find chain hotels such as Hilton in La Jolla, or you can easily stay in downtown San Diego and spend the day in La Jolla. If you want to stay in La Jolla, here are two of my favorite unique hotels.
The Lodge At Torrey Pines
This hotel majors in luxury. Located at the edge of the Torrey Pines Golf Course, The Lodge at Torrey Pines is inviting, with its dark wood accents and comfortable furnishings. A fine-dining restaurant is on-site, and the property overlooks the Pacific. What more could you ask for?
La Valencia Hotel
This elegant hotel is in the heart of downtown La Jolla. La Valencia has occupied this prime real estate since it opened in 1926. Views of the ocean come with what the hotel perfectly describes as “Hollywood glamour on the California Riviera.” With its Mediterranean architecture and hand-painted murals, you will feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the 1920s.
If you are in search of outdoor fun on the water, sunbathing on the beach, science and marine life at the aquarium, or fresh seafood -- or maybe all of those -- you will savor your day in beautiful La Jolla.