With 70 miles of coastline and amazing year-round weather, it might not be immediately obvious which are the best beaches in San Diego, because they all seem truly fantastic. But you’re a traveler with limited time, so here’s an expertly curated list highlighting the city’s most worthwhile stretches of surf and sand.
The Best Beaches in San Diego
The best San Diego beaches range from Central Beach in the south to Moonlight State Beach in the north.
La Jolla Cove
Not only is La Jolla Cove one of the best beaches in San Diego, it’s one of the very best places in all of California. Head to this small bay for spectacular natural scenery, magnificent sunsets, and every form of water play imaginable.
From the cliffs above, you can relax and watch pelicans and sea lions. If you’d rather get in this calm water, there are plenty of outfitters who’ll equip you to kayak or snorkel the fascinating sea caves, or to scuba dive the protected underwater kelp forest, home to leopard sharks, batrays, garibaldi, and other native species.
La Jolla Shores
La Jolla Shores is a mile-long curved stretch of sand and water where the summer waves are pretty tame. This makes it a popular spot for children, swimmers, boogie boarders, kayakers, and beginner-level scuba divers. Those who’d rather stay dry enjoy jogging, biking, skating, and walking along the boardwalks.
After the beautiful sunset, beachfront bonfires light up the sand. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier juts over the water here, and this is also the site of the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which means that fishing is strictly prohibited. Amenities include restrooms, showers, and lifeguard towers.
Coronado Central Beach
Anchoring Coronado Central Beach to the south is Hotel del Coronado and all of its wonderful amenities. Walk along the cement boardwalk north of there, parallel to upscale Ocean Boulevard, to find a spot where you can enjoy some of the cleanest, softest, most sparkling sand of all the San Diego beaches.
The waves here are tame, making for easy surfing, paddling, and swimming—although the water is pretty cold, so do bring a wetsuit if you’re planning to get in. If you’d rather stay on the sand, there are fantastic places to lie out, as well as some beach volleyball courts. Low tide brings delightful tidepools full of tiny sea animals, sand dollars, and shells.
Pacific Beach, just south of Crystal Pier adjacent to Mission Beach, is the very definition of a Southern California party scene. Here beautiful young people sunbathe, socialize, and surf, or else patronize the many crowded restaurants along the sand, like Tower23’s hip JRDN eatery.
On land, beachgoers stroll the boardwalk, ride bikes, skate, and jog. In the water, surfers reign supreme, but there are also swimmers, boogie boarders and paddlers—and many lifeguards to keep an eye on it all. Other services here include bathrooms, showers, and bicycle rentals. After sunset, the party just keeps going with bonfires and lively bars.
The biggest attraction at mile-long Mission Beach is Belmont Park, a wonderful old-timey amusement park with popular thrill rides like the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, plus plenty of other arcade-style fun.
Down on the sand are a boardwalk, big crowds soaking in the perpetual sun, volleyball and picnic areas, surf schools, boat and Jet Ski rentals, showers, restrooms, and lifeguard stations. Mission Beach is right in the middle of the Golden Strand, between South Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, near SeaWorld. After dark, it glimmers with bonfires.
Black’s Beach is a unique place for several reasons: First, it’s snuggled just under 300-foot-tall cliffs, atop of which is America’s busiest gliderport. Second, it’s a nude beach, despite San Diego’s law against nudism, which doesn’t seem to be enforced here. Third, its winter swells make it a destination spot for experienced surfers—these are some of Southern California’s best waves—but be warned that there’s no reliable lifeguard presence, so surfing and swimming are at your own risk, and there’s a fierce undertow.
This two-mile strip of sand isn’t easy to get to either—it’s a bit of a hike, but the best access is via Torrey Pines State Park during low tide. For adventurous beachgoers, it’s worth the trek. There are bathroom and shower facilities here, as well as great places to sunbathe and play volleyball.
Moonlight State Beach
In Encinitas, romantically named Moonlight State Beach is one of the best beaches in San Diego. It doesn’t get too crowded and is a low-key place to go for some sandy family fun.
This wide stretch is almost always graced with perfect weather, and offers a long list of amenities: volleyball and tennis courts, a shaded children’s playground, watersports rentals, a snack bar, hiking trails, picnic facilities, geocaching, restrooms and showers with foot-washing stations, plenty of lifeguards, fire pits, and an adequately sized parking lot. Come here to relax in the sun, swim, surf, snorkel, or scuba dive.
Mile-long Ocean Beach, just north of Point Loma, is a wide and inviting swath of sand and water where beach lovers sunbathe, surf, swim, play volleyball, and light up fire pits. Amenities include restrooms, showers, and lifeguard stations, but the best amenity of all is Dog Beach, San Diego’s only 24-hour beach for off-leash dogs.
Ocean Beach has a vintage-retro vibe, with plenty of VW vans and antique stores. On Newport Avenue and Voltaire Street, check out the surf shops, taquerias, and active nightlife. Ocean Beach is also home to Ocean Beach Municipal Pier, the West Coast’s longest concrete pier, where you can walk almost a half-mile over the sea. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016, and it’s open 24 hours a day, so catch one of San Diego’s legendary sunsets, or take a starlit stroll to see seabirds and dolphins.
Mission Bay isn’t just one of the best beaches in San Diego; it’s also the biggest recreational water park in the world, offering more than 4,600 acres of watersports along 27 miles of shoreline. Every watersport imaginable is doable here, from kayaking and paddleboarding to waterskiing, sailing, surfing, boogie boarding, swimming, kayaking, Jet Skiing, and … well, you get the idea.
On land, Mission Bay visitors go biking, jogging, skating, strolling, and picnicking, and have oceanfront bonfires. Amenities here include volleyball courts and a nature preserve at Crown Point, seasonal lifeguard service, restrooms with showers, fire rings, and many free parking lots. You can take a sunset cruise on the Bahia Belle, bring the kids to the Fanuel Park playground, or bring Fido to the off-leash dog beach at Fiesta Island.
Del Mar City Beach
In northern San Diego, near the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar City Beach encompasses two miles of easy-access coastline lined with scenic bluffs. It’s family-friendly and dog-friendly, and a great place to picnic, take a cold-water swim, or simply stroll the remarkably clean strand for sand dollars.
There’s also good surfing here, as well as jogging, bicycling, volleyball, and sunbathing. Amenities include copious free parking, as well as showers and restrooms. When you start to feel hungry, head to Jake’s or Poseidon.
—Original reporting by Avital Andrews. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.