These Are the Best San Diego Parks and Beaches for Al Fresco Dining

Get out of the house already!

After nearly a year of lockdowns and sheltering in place, it’s a wonder we don’t all look like Tom Hanks in the second hour of Castaway. We say, shed the sweats, grab your mask, and head to the nearest park or beach for an al fresco meal. Whether you’re grabbing a quick sandwich during your lunch break or heading out for an all-day excursion, we’ve assembled a handy list of San Diego’s best parks and beaches, plus our favorite nearby eateries, to keep you safe, sane and well-fed.

outdoor tacos
Liberty Public Market

Liberty Station 
This lovely urban park in trendy Liberty Station has wide, soft walking/running paths all along the little boating channel just north of Harbor Island, winding past a small launching area for your kayak or SUP (you can also rent one there most days), wide expanses of green grass, basketball courts, playgrounds, the somber 52 Boats Memorial, and botanical areas that range from massive wild agaves to manicured roses. There’s plenty of benches, grills, picnic tables and grassy areas throughout, and unlike many urban parks, there’s an abundance of free street or lot parking. You’ll find dozens of places to grab lunch or a snack from Oggi’s Pizza and Brewing Company, Ototo Sushi and Issara Thai in South Point, The Fig Tree/Eggies, Ikiru Sushi and Luna Grill at The Quarter, and, in the Arts District, the Liberty Public Market and the newly reopened Con Pane.

balboa park
City of San Diego

Balboa Park 
We love all 1,200 acres of Balboa Park, especially since you can visit as often as you want and still find fresh places to enjoy. But let’s say that you’re in the mood to enjoy an adult beverage or two with your picnic. Not to worry — there are several areas of the park where it’s perfectly legal to drink from 12pm-8pm. Our favorites are the East Lawn and West Lawn of the Botanical Building and the Moreton Bay Fig Lawn, but there are six other areas as well, so there’s plenty of room to spread out. Nearly all the restaurants in Balboa Park itself are closed due to COVID-19, but you can still find grab and go bowls, salads, ficelle sandwiches, canned beer, and wine and cocktails at Panama 66, or hit Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Cafe, Donna Jean or Pizzaria Luigi before you get to the park.

Coronado Beach
The beach on Coronado Island is long and wide, with soft, glittery sand that’s perfect for lounging while you take in views of Point Loma, Mexico, the Islas Coronado, and naval ships and aircraft carriers coming in and out of the base, which also sits on the island. Dogs are welcome on the North Beach, where surfers and swimmers gather, or explore the tidepools at low tide on Central Beach. If you’re visiting on the weekend, there are a couple of takeout places at the Hotel Del Coronado, like the Beach + Taco Shack, but for more variety (and better prices) you can’t beat Clayton's Coffee Shop for classic diner fare or Parakeet Cafe’s all day breakfasts, salads and bowls and an assortment of coffee drinks.  

This 28-acre park is home to a big community center, sports courts (basketball, tennis, pickleball) and playgrounds, but also offers loads of well-maintained green space, covered picnic areas, benches, walking paths, the historic ruins of an adobe stagecoach stop and a riparian area of the Encinitas Creek willow woodland wildlife habitat. Lots of parking, including auto charging stations, are a plus. Stagecoach Community Park is conveniently located across from a neighborhood shopping plaza, so you can easily call ahead and pick up lunch from Crust Pizzeria, Bigfoot Natural Cafe or Cotija’s Taco Shop on your way.

FISH 101 Restaurant
FISH 101 Restaurant

Ponto Beach

One of San Diego’s wilder, rockier stretches of beach, North and South Ponto boast spectacular vistas, occasional gray whale sightings, and are especially popular at sunset. You’ll want to arrive early to stake out your spot; check out the southern end’s high sand dunes for secluded spots to lounge as the light fades. The French Corner offers everything you need for a romantic picnic, but don’t wait too long; they close at 4 pm. Also nearby are Primo Pizza and Pasta and Fish 101 Leucadia; both are open for lunch and dinner to go.

swamis breakfast
Swami's Cafe Carlsbad

Named after the late Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, a leader in the practice of modern yoga, Swami’s Beach is one of San Diego’s most beautiful and famous surfing spots. The park at Swami’s has shaded picnicking areas, tables and benches scattered about, and is situated perfectly for watching the surfers. Just up the bluffs you’ll find Swami’s Cafe (of course) with a large, varied menu, manhole cover-sized pancakes at Potato Shack Cafe (cash only, ATM available) or hearty, healthy fare at Lotus Cafe and Juice Bar.

With 27 miles of shoreline, including 19 miles of powdery soft sand beaches and dedicated areas for swimming, water skiing, and personal watercraft, plus 14 miles of bike and walking paths, Mission Bay Park hits all the right notes for a day-off getaway. Plan ahead if you want to bring your dog, though, while some parts of the park are leash-free, other areas don’t allow them at all. Refuel at Cheesy Express, a counter-service spot that serves up grilled cheese stuffed with goodies like pulled pork, Korean bbq beef or chili fries, along with dessert melts and milkshakes or Southern Comfort Kitchen’s chicken served fried, bbq, and Nashville hot.

Port of San Diego
Port of San Diego

Shelter Island
Built as a collaborative project between architecture students from San Diego, Vladivostok, Tijuana, and Yantai, under the supervision of artists, artisans, and local contractors, the “Pearl of the Pacific” is one of seven “friendship parks” around the Pacific Ocean created by the Pacific Rim Park program. The tilework and structural elements symbolize the connection between the students' homelands, and the installation itself is a great jumping off point for the Port of San Diego’sImmerse Yourself in the Arts self-guided walking tour of other works along the Shelter Island embarcadero. There’s slim pickings for eats within walking distance, though, so until the return of Fathom Bistro Bait and Tackle, plan to hit up Point Loma Seafood for sushi, sandwiches and salads, Mitch’s Seafood for one of San Diego’s finest fish tacos, or a burger and fries at Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern ahead of your visit. 

Little Italy Food Hall
Little Italy Food Hall

Little Italy
Amici Park’s biggest draws, the bocce ball courts and dog park, are temporarily closed, but the amphitheatre steps are still a fine place to enjoy lunch and an hour or so of people watching. Besides, where else can you find bronze sculptures that contain recipes for marinara sauce, stuffed artichokes and, um, fava beans? You’ll also have a nearly limitless choice of restaurants, including the Little Italy Food Hall in Plaza della Famiglia, ramen at Underbelly, or just ditch lunch altogether and head to Salt & Straw for ice cream.

Another candidate for an all-day excursion, Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve is a privately owned 194-acre park and campground with seven picturesque lakes that are stocked for year-round fishing. Run, walk or bike along more than five miles of trails, or cruise around the islands in a rented rowboat or canoe and see how many of the over 200 species of birds you can spot. The preserve’s General Store is currently under renovation, but just outside the gates are loads of restaurants where you’ll find portable meals, like The Chicken Shop’s catfish, beer-battered cod, and grilled or fried tenders, Thai comfort food from Sab-E-Lee or finger-licking ribs at Phil’s BBQ. Day passes to the preserve are $4 per car on weekdays and $6 per car on weekends.

Dirty Birds Pacific Beach
Dirty Birds Pacific Beach

Quintessentially San Diegan, Ocean Beach is home to hippies, surfers, and other groovy types who lend their bohemian vibe to the shops, restaurants, and of course, the beach. Take a walk on the Ocean Beach Pier, where you can fish without a license (as long as you’re following all the other rules for size and limits), check out the tidepools at low tide or let your pup run with the pack at Dog Beach, a nationally famous no-leash beach. Grab the best California burrito in town at Mike’s Taco Club, a juicy burger and fries at Raglan Public House, or 37 flavors of award-winning wings at Dirty Birds.

beach picnic
La Jolla Cove, Ca

La Jolla
You’ll think you’ve been transported to an island paradise at Windansea, a small beach just south of La Jolla that’s punctuated with boulder outcroppings across a narrow strip of soft sand and secluded rest areas among the rocks. A longtime favorite of surfers for its strong reef breaks, be sure to check out the surf shack at the southern point — it was built by local surfers in 1947 and was designated a historical landmark in 1998. It’s right in the middle of a charming shopping area too; check out The Promiscuous Fork for burgers, bowls, and stuffed sandwiches, or bagel and panini sandwiches, smoothies and shakes at Cafe Vahik.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.