With an endless array of breathtaking beaches along 70 miles of stunning coastline, close-to-perfect weather nearly all year round, delicious local eateries and charming hotels to boot, this laidback SoCal city is a sun worshipper’s dream.
Not sure which San Diego beach is best for your needs? Look no further. Our comprehensive surf-and-sand guide breaks down the best beaches for any number of outdoor activities and unique interests. Whether you’re looking to hit the waves to surf, snorkel, or paddle board; or simply want to relax with a good book and soak up some rays in total solitude, we’ve got you covered – with a few insider tips along the way.
From the mesmerizing white sandy shores of Coronado Beach to the steep rocky cliffs of Torrey Pines State Park in La Jolla, San Diego’s breathtaking beach scene is vast and varied – and very, very beautiful.
Leucadia and Encinitas
Best beaches for catching waves
Fun fact: This North County area inspired the Beach Boys’ hit song “Surfin’ USA,” so it goes without saying that if you’re a serious surfer, you’ll feel right at home here. Grandview, Beacon’s, and Stone Steps are the popular surf spots where you’ll find big waves, narrow cobblestone-strewn shores, and an enchanting underwater preserve that attracts adventurous snorkelers, too. Skip this beach if you’re toting along little ones or anyone with mobility issues, as there is a sizable staircase leading to the narrow strip of sand down below.
Instead, cruise over to Moonlight State Beach, a charming coastal park near downtown Encinitas that's perfectly suited for sunning and picnicking, and features inviting beach volleyball courts, too.
Best beach for all-day activities
Cardiff State Beach is the long sandy strip along the west side of San Elijo Lagoon, a large wetlands and ecological reserve. Cardiff sits between the more well known neighboring areas of Solana Beach and Del Mar, and offers fairly strong rip currents, overnight camping areas, and a handful of casual restaurants (don’t miss VG Donuts or Pipes Cafe for solid breakfast burritos) in the charming neighborhood, all within walking distance to the beach.
This area is ideal for any number of ocean activities like surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking and kitesurfing. It's also easily accessible and friendly for families, too. At low tide, the reef reveals itself with impressive tide pools, where plants and sea creatures are ready for their close-up.
Pose for a quick photo next to Cardiff Kook – a quirky surfer statue that unabashedly pokes fun at California’s iconic sport, and is often adorned with props or costumes when locals are feeling mischievous.
Best beach for long walks in the sand
With a dazzling backdrop of the iconic Hotel del Coronado, this prime getaway spot is picturesque, utterly romantic, and altogether grandiose in an Old World way. The long sandy beaches quite literally sparkle, thanks to the mineral mica in its glittering white sand, which is one of the reasons Coronado Beach is consistently voted one of America’s finest beaches by countless guides and travel publications, year after year.
Swimming, boogie boarding, and sunbathing are easy and inviting here, thanks to gentle waves, soft warm sand, and pretty rocks that make for the perfect Instagram-worthy prop. Kites are often flown on the southern end of the beach, while the area behind the lifeguard station is reserved for friendly bouts of beach volleyball. All in all, it doesn’t get more idyllic than this.
Pacific and Mission Beaches
Best beach for living it up
Popular among the 20-something sunkissed crowd, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are connected by a groovy three-mile oceanfront boardwalk, with a steady stream of inline skaters, skateboarders, runners, bikers, and energetic beachgoers alike. Fishing is permissible along the Mission Bay jetty, and swimming is allowed in designated areas (marked by signs) during the summer months. Both beaches boast wide sandy beaches, easy access from the street at every block, and spectacular sunsets, which draws a notably young social scene and all-day beach volleyball games.
Adjacent to Mission Beach is Belmont Park, where you can revel in its vintage “Giant Dipper” roller coaster and other amusement merriment like carnival games, bike rentals, bumper cars, and more.
For an upscale rooftop vibe, skip over to Tower 23 Hotel on the north side of Pacific Beach, where the views are impeccable and the cocktails are just right. This 3-story boutique hotel is perfectly positioned on the sand, and an overall ambiance that is quintessentially cool and modern, a welcome contrast to the revelry down below.
Catering to families is Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa, a tiki-inspired venue trimmed with palm trees, lush vegetation, koi ponds, waterfalls, exotic birds, and more. With spectacular views all around, this tropical property has the best of both worlds: prime location just steps away from the beach and sparkling Mission Bay in its gorgeous backyard. The grassy area by the water often plays host to a number of activities like outdoor movies.
Further reading: 21 best free things to do in San Diego
La Jolla Shores
Best beach for families
Known as “the jewel” of San Diego, La Jolla is an upscale area that is famous for countless reasons, including its dramatic sea cliffs, rocky reefs, enchanting coves, resident seals and sea lions, and soft sandy shores. It goes without saying that no visit to San Diego is complete without a jaunt to La Jolla, where families can sprawl out on the grassy areas for leisurely picnics and games before or after enjoying the beach and surrounding areas.
La Jolla Cove is a small deep water bay, flanked by sea caves accessible to explorers in kayaks and on foot, depending on the tides. The beach itself is small, but with typically tame waters, it makes for a treasure trove for swimmers and snorkelers hoping to get a peek at local marine life. The magical sunsets here are arguably some of the best you’ll ever see in Southern California.
Windansea Beach is a must-see beach with stunning scenery, smooth rocky formations for yoga or meditating, a Polynesian-style surf hut for shade, and tide pools aplenty. With strong waves and underwater reefs at the shoreline, this spot easily attracts surfers year round, but is also very inviting for beachgoers of all ages. Tip: Swimming and bodyboarding are best on the south half of the beach.
Point Loma and Shelter Island
Best beach for daredevil surfers and sunsets
If you’re a daring surfer with some serious experience under your belt, try your hand at Sunset Cliffs in pretty Point Loma. With jagged cliffs and a rocky bottom, the scene here isn’t exactly a walk in the park, and certainly not recommended for beginner surfers; but undoubtedly rewarding for those willing to take the risk.
For everyone else, this unique area offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean (you may even spot a whale if you’re lucky!) and the bay, plus some rather eye-catching rock formations. This is not the spot for sunbathing or swimming, but definitely worth a visit for those looking to get in touch with nature and feel far removed from city life. Connect with your zen for an awe-inspiring meditation moment that beats any indoor space.
Across the way from Sunset Cliffs is nautical and adorable Shelter Island, one of San Diego's principal boating centers, dotted with fun landmarks like resort hotels and the Yokohama Friendship Bell, a large bronze bell housed in a pagoda structure, a gift from the city in Japan in 1958 to commemorate the sister city relationship.
For a relaxing reprieve, book a stay at Kona Kai Resort and Spa, the only property in San Diego with its own private beach, so you can truly relax and unwind without a worry in the world.
Further reading: Best time to visit San Diego
Best beach for groups
Just five miles north of the Mexico border, Imperial Beach is often overlooked but not forgotten when it comes to San Diego beaches worth checking out. The iconic neon signage is great for a quick selfie, and the wide stretches of sand and minimal crowds make it a hidden gem, in our humble opinion. This beach is quiet and spacious – which makes it ideal for spreading out and staking your claim. Across the way is the estuary, one of the top birding spots in San Diego with many endangered birds and wildlife.
Don’t miss the daily donation-based yoga classes on the grassy areas out front, casual eateries all around, and friendly fishermen along the pier. We love IB for its impressively quick access from street to sand with zero hassle. There’s even a wide and cushy landing strip for beachgoers to walk on (or wheel coolers, carts, strollers, etc.), so the walking-in-the-sand struggle is minimized as much as possible.
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