The beauty of San Diego’s beach communities is that, despite everything around them “growing up” and changing rapidly, they’ve managed to retain their old school, laidback, retro California vibes.
San Diegans think of Camp Pendleton — the marine base that spans the north of the county and buts up against Orange County — as a physical and cultural demarcation with the rest of SoCal. Though we’re glad to have it there for a city break, “real world” fix, or an international flight, Orange County and Los Angeles conjure up images of traffic and hard-to-access beaches.
You may have heard that San Diego’s downtown neighborhoods are undergoing culinary and cultural renaissances, but the beach towns north of the city are well worth a visit, all on their own.
Here’s our guide to North County San Diego, heavy on the beach vibes and low on the hustle and bustle:
Where To Stay
Without a doubt, the most swoon-worthy addition to the coast’s hotel options is Surfhouse, a boutique motel on the corner of the 101 in Encinitas. Don’t be fooled by the moniker “motel” -- Surfhouse has all the chic decor and bells and whistles of any boutique hotel, they just prefer to keep it casual in true San Diego style.
The breezy, bright rooms are all uniquely designed with pieces from local artists and craft artisans. Each booking comes with use of a communal outdoor cabana, surf equipment from Firewire surfboards, use of Electra bikes to cruise around town as well as free wifi and parking.
Steps away from Surfhouse is the lively downtown of Encinitas, which boasts some of North County’s best bars and restaurants as well as some of San Diego’s best beaches (would-be guests can book using Airbnb).
Where To Eat & Drink
San Diego’s current culinary explosion is by no means limited to city and these spots in North County prove just that.
The county’s northernmost town of Oceanside is home to Wrench & Rodent Sebasstropub, the creative and sustainable sushi temple helmed by Davin and Jessica Waite. The Whet Noodle, just next door, offers up their take on ramen, as well.
For an after-dinner drink, 101 Proof is a speakeasy behind Urge Gastropub and has a stacked whiskey selection and bartenders that whip up creative craft cocktails. The Privateer Coal Fire Pizza does double duty as a wine bar and has an excellent selection of local wine, including options from nearby Baja California.
Just down the 101 is Carlsbad, which plays host to two of our favorite restaurants in the whole county: Campfire and The Land & Water Company.
Campfire opened just over a year ago and pays tribute to live fire cooking alongside its whimsical cocktail list. The decor plays tribute to the great outdoors with camping accents, a teepee for kids to play in, and hybrid indoor-outdoor seating with impeccable design.
A few blocks away is The Land & Water Company, which shacks up in a historical victorian house and is famous for its sustainable sushi creations from chef Rob Ruiz. The menu isn’t limited to seafood, though, and pretty much anything you order is bound to be a home run, like their famous pork belly, jalapeno and cornbread bites. One of San Diego County’s newest craft breweries, Rouleur Brewing Co., recently opened with its cycling-themed beers.
Leucadia, Encinitas, and Solana Beach
A little further down the way in Leucadia, Encinitas and Solana Beach are a bevy of other options, too.
We’re gonna come right out and claim it: Moto Deli has the best sandwiches this side of “the 5.” Fish 101 is one of the go-to spots for famous Baja-style fish tacos. Coffee lovers shouldn’t skip Ironsmith, in Encinitas, or Lofty Coffee Co., in Solana Beach (where your correspondent has seen many a sighting of Jason Mraz and various “stars” from The Bachelor franchise).
Farm-to-table lovers need to look no further than The Miller’s Table, which has a strong beer and wine list alongside its small plates, salads and sandwiches featuring the bounty from local farms. And gluten-free friends, don’t fret: 2Good2Be in Encinitas has a full range of gluten-free bakery items along with is near-perfect breakfast and brunch options.
Where To Shop
For shoppers, some of San Diego’s best options for both high-end and boutique browsing aren’t had in the city, but in North County.
Cedros Avenue’s Design District in Solana Beach is packed with independent clothing boutiques carrying everything from Alexander Wang to custom-made shoes from Cydwoq in Los Angeles. Our favorites are Pink Lagoon, which offers styling services and carries top designers, and Cedros Soles, which is the go-to for chic but casual beachside style.
Those looking for home goods should make a stop at SoLo, which is an eclectic and stylish boutique curated by owner Carole Carden. Further up the coast in Leucadia is Seaweed & Gravel, an edgy collective of motorcycle, surf, skate and other casual clothing and accessories. Keep an eye out for their various pop ups or evening events, all with the backdrop of a classic California surf town.
Where To Play
Music lovers should look no further than The Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, which regularly features big acts in an intimate venue. Upcoming features include The Wailers and Buddy Guy with new acts being added constantly.
Those looking to bliss out can do so in Encinitas, which is one of the original homes of yoga and meditation in the western world. Credited with bringing yoga to the west, Paramahansa Yogananda set up shop here during the 1920s, 30s and 40s and founded the Self Realization Fellowship, a meditation center open to the public and focused on yogic philosophy. Just adjacent is the San Diego Botanic Garden, another place to find zen while gazing out over the bluffs at the Pacific Ocean.
No trip to San Diego would be complete without some significant beach time, and North County is home to some of the area’s best strips of sand. We’re partial to Swami’s, which sits just under the Self Realization Fellowship and is named for Yogananda. Apart from being a famous surf spot, it’s a stunningly beautiful beach with good people watching and even better natural scenery.
Further north, in Carlsbad, is South Ponto Beach, which has pits available for bonfires--one of San Diego’s famous waterbound pastimes. Further south on the 101, in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, is Cardiff State Beach and San Elijo State Beach, which in addition to having good surf breaks and iconic California beach scenery also have walking access to shops, restaurants and bars.
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Opening photo by Cheyenne Knowles