Well known for beautiful beaches, Legoland, and the colorful flower fields, the seaside town of Carlsbad is busiest during the spring and summer. However, it’s an equally beautiful spot to visit in the winter. While temperatures dip a bit, outdoor activities are still abundant and the likelihood of sunshine is always high. Better yet, there are no crowds.
Carlsbad is located an hour and a half south of Los Angeles and just thirty minutes north of San Diego. While its seven miles of coastline is a defining feature, there are many lesser-known sights worth exploring.
After years of making day trips to this town, my husband, Jason, and I finally had a chance to spend a night here and explore it more closely. We discovered a place deeply connected to nature with an impressive dining scene and a relaxed pace of life perfect for a relaxed getaway.
Our trip was partially hosted by Visit Carlsbad, but all opinions are my own.
1. Agua Hedionda Lagoon
For decades we’ve zipped along the freeway from our home in Orange County to San Diego and often admired the lagoons we glimpse briefly while passing through Carlsbad. Finally, we had the chance to get off the freeway, get into a kayak, and explore the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.
This 400-acre lagoon is a vital part of the local watershed, protecting hundreds of bird species along with plant and marine life. Viewed from a distance it appears uneventful, but up close it’s teeming with birds and fish. We watched as a blue heron patiently waited for fish to swim close to shore and sandpipers pecked in the sand for worms. We saw fish gliding through seagrass while above a lone pelican flew by. The water was calm making the paddling easy and enjoyable. Of the three lagoons in Carlsbad, this is the only one that permits recreational boating, so it’s a unique opportunity to see the vibrant lagoon ecosystem from the water.
Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center
Our next stop was at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center. Perched on a hilltop just above the lagoon, this is the perfect place to learn about the history of the area and see some of the native plants and animals up close.
Inside the Discovery Center are tanks filled with fish, snakes, and lizards. Outside are cages with rescued raptors, a demonstration beehive, and a native plant garden. Jason and I had the opportunity to meet a rescued Western Screech Owl named Tecolote. All the exhibits are intended to help visitors better understand the native flora and fauna and want to participate in their protection.
2. Batiquitos Lagoon
The three lagoons in Carlsbad cover over 1,000 acres offering dozens of easy and scenic hiking trails. We opted to take a hike along the shores of the Batiquitos Lagoon. This 3.4-mile easy trail is frequented by locals pushing strollers and walking their dogs, but it’s also a great place for visitors to learn more about this ecosystem. Signage along the trail points out breeding grounds for migratory birds, a trash pile from Native American tribes, as well as native and invasive plant species. If you’re not in the mood for exercise, but prefer to relax, there are many benches along the way to enjoy a great view.
At the end of the trail is a small nature center with educational displays about the ecosystem. On weekends you’ll find docents happy to answer questions.
3. Museum Of Making Music
Hidden in a business park in Carlsbad is the Museum of Making Music (MoMM), one of the most underrated museums in California. Founded by NAMM, the National Association of Music Makers, this is where you come to geek out on musical instruments.
The forced closure of museums during the pandemic allowed the MoMM to redesign its exhibits and the result is impressive. Displays of instrument groups are interspersed with hands-on play stations. Touch screens at each display give visitors a chance to listen to music or read related stories. Along the way, visitors learn the story of musical instruments in the United States.
After a short and informative tour, Jason and I immediately headed to the play stations. We tried our hand at guitar, banjo, hammered dulcimer, drums, and keyboard. Occasionally a volunteer docent would stop by to answer our questions or offer some interesting facts. This experience rekindled my interest in playing an instrument, something I haven’t done in over thirty years.
4. Carlsbad Aquafarm
Our family loves oysters, so it was a no-brainer when we had the opportunity to tour Carlsbad Aquafarm and learn to shuck our favorite shellfish. Located in the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, next to a desalination plant, the aquafarm produces and sells both oysters and mussels.
Thirty-minute farm tours take guests through the process of growing and harvesting the shellfish. Touch tanks provide an opportunity to see these creatures at all stages of development. However, the highlight was definitely the shucking class. After a quick demonstration, each guest headed to their station equipped with a shucking knife, glove, cutting board, and six oysters. We shucked and ate the oysters topped with lemon and hot sauce. You can’t possibly eat oysters that are fresher than these.
Pro Tip: Whether or not you’re interested in the tour, oysters and mussels can be purchased from the farm. Just make your purchase online and select a pick-up time.
I had long heard of the restaurant, Campfire, so I was excited to finally eat here. As diners enter they immediately notice the most prominent feature, a 12-foot wood-burning hearth in the kitchen bursting with flames. It’s these flames that cook much of the food. Campfire has been awarded a Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide and deservedly so.
The menu is seasonal, so expect dishes to change regularly. We started with mussels grilled over embers and served atop roasted yams. That was followed by the most popular dish on the menu, roasted broccoli served with a tangy chermoula. If broccoli was always this good, everyone would eat it. Then we enjoyed grilled octopus and smoked brisket. During a recent trip to Santorini, I thought I’d had the best octopus of my life. I was wrong. Campfire serves the best octopus anywhere.
It’s practically a requirement to order s’mores for dessert, so we did. A small cast iron pot of hot coal is delivered to the table to perfectly roast the marshmallow, which is then added to a thick slice of dark chocolate and served between two cookies. It was the perfect ending to an amazing meal.
Pro Tip: Campfire is a popular spot, so if you want to dine here on a weekend make your reservations several days in advance.
6. The Coastal Rail Trail
We love biking along any beach, so the chance to roll along in Carlsbad was not to be missed. The Coastal Rail Trail is 4.7 miles long, starting south of the city in Solana Beach and terminating in Oceanside. The Carlsbad portion is 3.4 miles, making it an easy ride and fun ride. If you’re looking for something longer or more challenging, check out the list of bike trails on the Visit Carlsbad website.
If you don’t own bikes or don’t want to travel with yours, there are plenty of rental locations nearby. We love to rent electric bikes and the perfect spot to do so is at Pedego Carlsbad. If you prefer a guided tour, those are available as well.
Carlsbad is well known for its collection of stylish resorts and boutique hotels, all offering a wide array of activities and amenities. We had the chance to stay at the Cassara Carlsbad, part of the Tapestry Collection by Hilton. Located a bit inland and built on a slope, the highlight of our stay was watching the sunset over the ocean while sipping a drink on the pool deck. In Southern California, winter sunsets are some of the best of the year, and this one was no exception. Dining options are limited at the hotel, but fortunately, it’s located next to Karl Strauss Brewery, which offers a great selection of beer and delicious food.
If you’re in the market for a luxury resort, you can’t go wrong with the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort and Golf Club. Located on 200 acres, this resort overlooks the Batiquitos Lagoon. For something close to the water, consider a stay at the family-owned Beach Terrace, the only hotel in Carlsbad on the beach.
After many quick trips to Carlsbad, it was a pleasure to finally spend more time here. Despite living just 45 minutes away, I didn’t appreciate all that this seaside town has to offer visitors. We will certainly be back. I’m already creating a list of what we’ll do next time.
For more information on traveling to Carlsbad, check out these articles: