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Looking for the best family-friendly San Diego beaches? This TravelingMom is a native and frequent beach-goer, with all the local tips for your day on the sand. Grab your sunscreen and check out this West coast guide to the best beaches in San Diego.
Best Beaches in San Diego
When planning a family beach vacation, you can’t go wrong with the beaches in San Diego! No trip to Southern California is complete without a walk along the sandy shoreline. Beaches in San Diego are annually highlighted as the top in the country. But with all those miles of coastline, which are the best beaches in San Diego for families?
Whether you’re looking for adventure on the water in SoCal or just sunbathing on the sand, this guide is sure to help you find your perfect beach.
Tips for Beachgoers
- Parking can be very difficult in many locations, especially on weekends and summer months. Consider using a ride share service to take you to and from your hotel to your chosen beach location.
- Not all San Diego beaches have lifeguards on duty year-round. Watch for signs and use caution when traveling with inexperienced swimmers. The undertow and risk of jellyfish stings can be extremely dangerous.
- Some beaches in San Diego only offer a cliff-side descent to reach the water. This is to be avoided as beach-goers have fallen to their deaths. Even if you see others climbing down the dirt trails, do not proceed. Only visit beaches with safe access and stay away from the edges of cliffs.
- Pacific Ocean water in San Diego errs on the chilly side with protected bay waters slightly warmer. In late summer, waters begin to warm but fall in San Diego is when water temperatures are at their peak.
- Some hotels offer beach toy “rentals” for the day. Check at the front desk.
- Restrooms aren’t available at all coastal locations.
- “May Gray” and “June Gloom” refer to the overcast coastal conditions that affect many San Diego beaches. Plan ahead by bringing a sweatshirt and blanket for morning hours. The cloud cover often burns off by mid-morning. However you can still get sunburned through the clouds so wear sun protectant!
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Traveling Mom Tip: Wondering what to pack for a day at the beach? Flip-flops and towels are a must, but this printable beach packing list will help you fill in the gaps on the rest!
Top-Rated Beach in San Diego
La Jolla is “the jewel” of San Diego and this gem of a beach has a lot to offer. 300-foot sea cliffs are dramatic against the crashing waves. With grassy areas for picnics and sunset watching, sandy beaches, hiking spots, and areas for snorkeling, La Jolla is ideal for multiple-day visits.
The “Children’s Pool” has been taken over by seals. While you can’t swim here anymore, it’s still a fun place to walk along the jetty and watch the seals sunbathing on the sand. Rental equipment is available for those wanting to explore La Jolla Coves. Snorkel into the small bay and caves to spot marine life including Garibaldi fish. Parking can be very hard to come by, so arrive earlier to grab the nearest spots.
Best Beaches for Families
Hands-down, Mission Beach is the go-to San Diego beach for families. You’ve got it all here, including a 2-mile long boardwalk for walking or biking, an amusement park and plenty of sand and water! Belmont Park, with its Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, is a highlight for kids. Free public parking lots are plentiful but arrive early and be prepared for a walk. Lots of lifeguard stations and bathrooms make Mission Beach great for an all-day stay.
With lighter crowds than the southern beaches, Oceanside in North County offers well-rounded family fun. “The Strand” is where kids can swim, boogie board, or use the playground. Walk the pier and dine at Ruby’s for burgers and milkshakes with a view that can’t be beaten.
Best Beaches in San Diego for Little Kids
Little kids can be easily overwhelmed by the heavy crowds and loud crashing surf on the bigger beaches. These kid-friendly locations are best for families with younger children.
Compared to the strong waves at Mission Beach, Mission Bay Park offers more for younger kids. There is an expansive area with grassy lots, sandy beaches and tame waters that are perfect for little ones. Nearby bathrooms and lots of parking are a plus!
Glorietta Bay in Coronado includes a small beach area for sand and water play, bathrooms, grass, and a play structure. There are also some amazing views here of the Coronado Bay Bridge.
Fletcher Cove offers a playground and grass areas with picnic tables for lunch. Put little ones in a wagon then pull them down to the sand via the concrete ramp for easy access to the beach.
Best Beaches for Camping
The summer and fall climate in San Diego is excellent for camping and these surf-side locations are very popular. If you plan on doing beach camping in San Diego, do your research on the reservation site for each location. Some locations do not offer utility hook-up. Find out how far ahead your reservation can be made, then be sure to book your reservation exactly on that day. These slots fill up quickly!
TravelingMom Tip: One of our favorite things to do when taking a beach vacation is to hire a photographer for family photos. This is a special gift and souvenir that we cherish. We use Flytographer to book a local photographer located in the area that we're traveling to. Use this link and you will get $25 off your photo session.
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- San Onofre is right next to the beach in North County, with hiking trails.
- Campland On the Bay in Mission Bay is great for its proximity to local attractions including SeaWorld San Diego.
- Located in Cardiff-by-the-Sea San Elijo is a gorgeous beach site with bike trails.
- Paradise by the Sea RV Resort in Oceanside is near Buccaneer Park with a kid-friendly pirate-themed playground.
- South Carlsbad state beach offers overnight camping on the bluffs, with stair access to the sand.
- Silver Strand is a 7-mile long strip, connecting Imperial Beach to Coronado. Bring your fishing rods for the chance to catch dinner from the ocean!
Best Beaches for Pups
Brought your doggies on vacation? Yes, there are places for dogs to run off-leash along the beach. Do your research and verify where dogs are permitted.
- Fiesta Island is an off-leash dog beach (the only Mission Bay location that allows dogs).
- Dog Beach in Ocean Beach where your four-legged family member can go off-leash to splash in the waves.
- North Beach in Coronado.
- Dog Beach in Del Mar offers shallow sandbars that are more ideal for splashing than swimming.
Most Instagram-Worthy Beaches in San Diego
If you don’t share your vacation pictures on social media, did it even really happen? For those who looking for that Instagram-worthy share, these locations will give you the trendy shots.
Capture that amazing shot of hang gliders drifting over the Pacific at Torrey Pines State Beach as they launch off the cliff perches above.
With a plethora of walkable dining, bars, and nightlife, Pacific Beach is popular with college students. During the day, watch the surfers at Tourmaline or walk along Crystal Pier. Enjoy a bonfire on the sand then hit the club for dancing after dark.
Take a ride across the picturesque Coronado Bay Bridge where the white sand beach literally sparkles (from bits of mica in the sand). You can’t miss the famous Hotel Del Coronado and gorgeous Coronado Beach.
Best Surfing in San Diego
Watching local surfers take on the waves is one of the best pastimes in San Diego. If you’re looking to surf yourself, consider booking a lesson (you’ll want to rent the wet suit, the water is cold!) Some of these locations do not have lifeguards on duty but it’s okay if you’re just going to watch the surfers.
- Tourmaline in Pacific Beach
- Windansea in La Jolla
- Leucadia is a secluded beach near Encinitas
- Tamarack in Carlsbad
- Seaside in Solana Beach
- Swami’s surf break in southern Encinitas
- Trestles and Old Man’s in San Onofre
Black’s Beach offers surfers stunning waves and something else – it’s well known as San Diego’s nude beach. Though illegal to go naked in public, nudists and die-hard surfers still make the difficult trek into Black’s Beach. Families looking for a more tame beach experience should go elsewhere.
Best San Diego Beaches for Exploring
For road-schooling families or for kids who love to learn on vacation, the beaches in San Diego are fantastic for exploration. Learn about local flora on one of the trails or explore marine life at tide pools.
- Take time to explore the Cabrillo National monument in Point Loma and some of the best San Diego tidepools. This is one of the best free things to do in San Diego.
- Tide Beach in Solana Beach for tidepooling.
- 8 miles of trails in the Torrey Pines State preserve offer unprecedented views including about 3000 of the nation’s rarest pine tree, wildflowers and gray whale migrations in the Pacific. Some of the trails are for experienced hikers (and there’s no food or water), so families with young kids should be advised.
- Underwater exploration in La Jolla Cove, snorkeling to see marine life and bright orange Garibaldi fish.
- Kids will get a kick out of the long strands of seaweed that lace the sand in areas like Pacific Beach.
Best for Water Sports and Exercise
San Diego is known for its great outdoor recreational areas. Fortunately, there are lots of spots along the shoreline to get your physical fitness in, all with a gorgeous view!
- Crown Point is known as a great spot for beach volleyball.
- Santa Clara Point offers water sports rental equipment and instructions.
- Dunes Park in Imperial Beach has a playground for young kids, bike paths and a basketball court. Or just run across the grassy fields and sandy beach.
- My husband is an avid kayak fisherman and his favorite spot to launch is La Jolla Shores. Didn’t bring your kayak? There are spots to rent them if you want to get out on the water.
- Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad offers areas for boating, skiing, sailing, windsurfing, and fishing.
TravelingMom Tip: Even if you’ve planned for a safe day on the sand, accidents can happen. Read up on beach first aid safety and what to bring with you just in case.
Best Beaches in San Diego for Foodies
Take a walk along the half-mile long pier to work up an appetite in Imperial Beach. The surrounding area is an eclectic mix of shopping and dining, including the popular burger shop Hodad’s (arrive before opening to grab a seat). You can’t go wrong at either Raglan Public House, OB Noodle House or even just grabbing a California burrito at one of the local taco shops. Plan to arrive early as parking is hard to find on the streets.
Near the 7-mile long sandy beach is Carlsbad Village, with tons of dining and shopping. The casual hot spot Pizza Port for fun for custom pies and craft brews. Señor Grubby’s is awesome for excellent Mexican dishes to eat there or to-go. Carlsbad is also home to LEGOLAND California theme park, ideal for families with kids aged 2-8.
Take the ferry from downtown San Diego across the bay to Coronado’s Ferry Landing Marketplace. Grab a milkshake at Clayton’s Coffee Shop, a retro diner. Miguel’s is always great for full-service Mexican dining (don’t forget the queso Blanco!) For an upscale seafood experience, Peohe’s is the gold standard (change out of your swimsuit into something fancy).
Best Beach for a Picnic or Sunset Watching
Some of the beaches in San Diego offer more than just a stretch of sand. You’ll find picnic tables, clean bathrooms, and shade trees at the following locations. Local grocery stores (like Vons, Sprouts or Whole Foods) offer sandwiches and all the fixings. And you can’t go wrong with grabbing Mexican food at the taco shop!
- Sea Cliff Park in Encinitas.
- Ski Beach in Mission Bay is great for an evening picnic and bonfire on the beach.
- Pack a picnic for lunch along the shoreline in Del Mar’s coastal parks, Powerhouse or Seagrove.
- Bring a picnic dinner and your lawn chair to sit on the grass at Scripps Park in La Jolla.
- There aren’t any actual beaches in Point Loma, but still plenty of fresh ocean air and awesome views of the cliffs. Watch the sunset from the appropriately named Sunset Cliffs Park.