A typical tourist itinerary for San Diego usually involves a visit to the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and attractions like the USS Midway located in the downtown area. If you are visiting with kids, or if you are staying downtown for a convention these are probably good things to see. But if you are coming to San Diego as part of a vacation to Southern California these aren’t the attractions I would recommend. California is all about the sunshine, the coast and the spectacular scenery. San Diego has a number of classic southern California beach towns like Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and La Jolla that combine fantastic beaches with unique activities like stand up paddle boarding, seal watching, snorkelling, farmers markets, cycling and beach boardwalks. In addition, a short drive north from downtown will take you to the jaw dropping hiking and scenery of Torrey Pines State Reserve, and great seaside towns like Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas.
This San Diego Coast and Northern Beaches Itinerary was built to let you explore all the hidden beauty of the San Diego and north coast area.
Day 1 – Where to Stay in San Diego
Where should you stay in San Diego? Most of the big hotels are downtown and accommodate large business conferences. The easiest way to explore the San Diego coast and some of the towns to the north is to stay somewhere slightly north of downtown. Two of my favourite areas are Mission Bay and La Jolla. Mission Bay doesn’t have many hotels, but there are a large number of vacation rentals (apartments, townhouses, houses) on sites like Airbnb and Homeaway. La Jolla is a little more upscale and has a number of larger hotels. I prefer Mission Bay. Mission Beach is just a few blocks away.
If you want a relaxing afternoon on your first day, take a stroll along the Mission Beach boardwalk and grab dinner at one of the numerous restaurants along the boardwalk or on Mission Blvd.
Day 2 – Explore La Jolla
On your second day explore the dramatic coastline and popular beaches of La Jolla. Surrounded on three sides by the sea and backed by the steep slopes of Mt. Soledad, La Jolla’s natural beauty, abundance of activities and upscale village lifestyle ensure that it lives up to its nickname as “the jewel” of San Diego.
If you want to spend some time at the beach, head to La Jolla Shores Beach, a one mile long stretch of beach that sits just south of downtown La Jolla. This beach is great for families with small kids, surfers, and kayakers. The beach is comfortable and makes for a great picnic spot, with plenty of grassy area at nearby Kellogg Park. There is also a large playground area for kids, as well as bathrooms and showers, fire pits, and volleyball courts.
Next, check out La Jolla Cove, a small beach that is flanked by rocky points on both sides where sea lions and birds hang out. The combination of wildlife and beach as well as easy entry into the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park near the sea caves makes this a must-visit. If tides are low, small tide pools reveal themselves here, too.
If you’re on a family vacation, definitely visit the kid-friendly public exploration center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. The Birch Aquarium is a fun visit for a few hours to see the over 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and beyond.
If you’re interested in shopping after the beach, head to Prospect Street and Girard Ave which are in the heart of downtown right next to the beach. This area is known for its mix of unique boutique shops, mall stores, and higher-end establishments like Cartier. If you need a break from browsing, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants sprinkled amongst the shops.
Day 3 – Drive up the Coast to Del Mar and Solana Beach
On day 3, start your exploration of the quaint seaside villages to the north of San Diego. Located just 20 miles north of San Diego, Del Mar Village has a vibrant small-town atmosphere, great beaches, award-winning cuisine, and unique shops. Del Mar is also home to the renowned Del Mar Racetrack (July to November) and San Diego County Fair (usually in June).
There are about two plus miles of fine sandy beaches in Del Mar, making it perfect for sunbathing, walking, or having a picnic. Del Mar City Beach is the most popular, and the northern part between the River Mouth and 15th street is considered the best in the entire San Diego area, with moderate surf and great swimming.
Del Mar Plaza is the central hub of the downtown area, just a few blocks away from the beach. Because the open-air plaza faces west, it’s an ideal place to watch the sunset or really take in ocean breezes any time of the day. Here you’ll find a collection of restaurants and high-end shops.
Flower Hill Promenade is east of the I-5 freeway and constantly adding new stores and restaurants. It’s an outdoor shopping area that’s walkable in a few minutes from end-to-end but dense with specialty stores ranging from gourmet cheeses to designer luggage to souvenirs.
Next explore the charming, seaside community of Solana Beach. Nestled along the coast north of Del Mar, it is approximately a 30 minute drive from downtown San Diego. Much of the action—fab stores, good eats, and a Sunday farmers’ market—centers on Cedros Avenue. Start in the design district, known for its furniture and housewares shops, on the street’s south end.
After visiting Solana Beach,, head for dinner at Jake’s Del Mar. Situated on the beach, the restaurant has both a great atmosphere and a great selection of food. Jake’s offers lunch, dinner, and bar menus but is most famous for its extensive Sunday brunch offerings.
Day 4 – Ocean Beach for Classic Southern California Vibes
If it’s Wednesday, it’s time to stroll the Ocean Beach Farmer’s Market. Ocean Beach is a small beach town just south of Mission Beach, which is a favorite among locals who spend their days surfing, sunbathing around the pier, hanging out in their vintage VW vans, and strolling through the many surf shops, taco stands and antique malls. Ocean Beach has a throw-back groovy vibe of vintage SoCal, coupled with friendly locals, great dining and micro brews, and a vibrant nightlife scene.
Newport Avenue, in downtown Ocean Beach, is lined with antiques shops, beachwear and surf boutiques, organic groceries, taquerias and brewpubs. At 4 PM head to the Farmers Market. Here you’ll find fresh produce, tasty ready to eat meals, unique homemade arts and crafts, and live music to help set the tone for a fun and exciting evening out.
Day 5 – Hiking at Torrey Pines State Reserve
Just north of La Jolla you will find Torrey Pines State Reserve. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is home to approximately 3,000 of our nation’s rarest pine tree—Pinus Torreyana, which only grow here and on Santa Rosa Island off the coast near Santa Barbara. The park preserves not only the trees, but also one of the last great salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. Eight miles of hiking trails offer a variety of distances and different experiences. Many of the trails take you along the rocky cliffs just over the ocean. If you’re looking for an easy hike, the Guy Fleming Trail is a ⅔ mile loop. This is an easy loop that takes you to 2 incredible look out points. You make your way to the cliffs that overlook the ocean and then walk north, parallel to the coastline. Winding back towards the trail’s beginning, you’ll find yourself amongst pines that appear to be permanently swept back towards the land. At the North Overlook you can inspect the Torrey Pines up close and view the Peñasquitos Marsh, while the South Overlook features views of La Jolla to the south, and on some days as far as San Clemente to the north, and perhaps as far out to sea as the Santa Catalina Islands. Spring rains bring abundant wildflowers, and in winter, views of gray whales migrating up and down the coastline.To work in a longer day of hiking, we suggest hiking this loop and then continuing on to another hike when you return to the main path.
After getting some exercise you can head over to Torrey Pine State Beach, a beautiful wild stretch of beach right next to the Park.
Day 6 – Ride the Coaster Train along the Coast to Encinitas
Ride the Coaster train to Encinitas! The Coaster train links San Diego to Oceanside via a number of stops along the coast. Not only do you get where you want to go, but you can enjoy the beautiful coastal scenery at the same time. The Coaster makes a number of daily trips and you can buy a ticket and board at one of the San Diego stations like the Old Town Transportation Center. The Coaster makes a stop at the quaint town of Encinitas (takes about 40 minutes from San Diego). Recently named among the 20 best surf towns in the world by National Geographic, Encinitas wears its surf history proudly. The city’s eclectic downtown has long drawn surfers and hippies with its unique and dynamic blend of San Diego’s top surf shops, coffeehouses and record stores, not to mention the beaches in Encinitas are coveted by locals as hidden gems. Once you get off the train in Encinitas, everything is within walking distance. Stroll the shops along Hwy 101, have lunch at one of the seafood restaurants, and spend some time at one of Encinitas’ great beaches.
Encinitas’ six miles of beautiful beaches are definitely worth discovering, too. Its eight public beaches are a haven for surfing, swimming, skin diving, fishing, ocean kayaking, sunbathing and walking. In fact, Surfer magazine rated its beaches among the top ten best in the world. And National Geographic Traveler named Encinitas one of the 12 best surf towns in the world. Encinitas’ most popular beach is Moonlight Beach, which is at the foot of Encinitas Boulevard. Newly improved with 14,500 sq. ft. of increased open sand and beach area, new restrooms, concession stands and fire rings is perfect for sunbathers, surfers or swimmers, the beach also has volleyball courts, picnic facilities and free parking.
Residents of Encinitas are rightfully proud of their world-renowned San Diego Botanic Garden at 230 Quail Gardens Dr. This hidden treasure is home to one of the most diverse and botanically important plant collections in the world. You’ll see more than 3,500 species of plants on 37 beautifully landscaped acres of scenic walks and trails.
Later in the afternoon take the train back home.
Day 7 – Take a Bike Ride on the Mission Beach Pathways
Day 7 of the San Diego North Coast itinerary. If you have time before your flight, rent a bike or grab one of the ubiquitous scooter rentals (like Bird) and take a cruise around the Mission Bay path. Stop off for a picnic lunch at Crown Point park which can be reached via the Mission Bay path. If you’re looking for a longer bike ride continue all the way to Fiesta Island, take a ride around the island and then head back.
If you’re staying longer than a week or want to visit other areas of southern california, see our One Week in Southern California Itinerary
Tip – To quickly find more details on San Diego attractions, see the clickable attractions on our California map