If you're even thinking of being in San Diego, check out the rest of our DestiNATION: San Diego guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do.

S an Diego was built for surfing, and vice versa. Year-round gentle weather, consistent waves, warm water, beautiful people -- if you're not a surfer when you get here, you should be by the time you leave. Whether you're Laird Hamilton or a pasty Midwesterner swinging through for Comic-Con, you have to get onto a board while in town.
From the forgiving waves of Pacific Beach to the board-breaking La Jolla reefs, this area has produced some of surfing's most storied legends. La Jolla local Butch Van Artsdalen was the first master of Hawaii's famous Pipeline. His buddy Mike Hynson, a member of the world-famous Windansea Surf Club, was featured in the cult classic The Endless Summer. We've given the world design breakthroughs like the "Fish"-style surfboard first shaped by Point Loma resident Steve Lis and christened in the waters at Sunset Cliffs in 1967.

As for the surf itself? Some of the best breaks in the country. And believe it or not, we're a friendly bunch in San Diego, glad to share. Chat up the locals, ask us a few questions. Or take some of the knowledge I developed over three decades of surfing here to better help you explore these fine beaches. Just don't tell anyone I told you.

La Jolla/Windansea Beach | Flickr/Michael Foley

La Jolla/Windansea

Experience level: Intermediate/advanced only
Best seasons to go: Summer and fall

When you're talking San Diego surf, La Jolla -- literally, the Jewel -- is the star of the show. As such, it demands care. With the days of wild beach parties, vandalism, and riots now behind us, the area remains steeped in lore and tradition. As a kid growing up on these beaches, I was taught to respect the locals from the jump. The parking lot at Windansea was, and still is, packed with scrutinizing older locals -- and, today, with their kids, who hold down the lineup to make sure they get the best waves.

The wave itself breaks far off the beach. It packs a surprising wallop, and every year seriously injures dozens of people. Both the quality and the danger make locals quick to sniff out beginners and kooks, so if that sums up your ability, maybe give this one a pass. If you're already a skilled surfer, you'll have a great time on this south swell magnet that produces rippable waves year-round.

If you're not surfing, this is still the finest beach in town. By all means, visit for the rock caves, the tide pools, and the beautiful, scantily clad people who flock to this beach in the summer months. And if you only want to watch surfing, this is your spot. The bluffs that overlook the tight surf zone create something like a natural arena, giving you a better vantage than you'd have on a flat beach. On busy days, it's the best free show in town.

Local tip: Check out El Pescador Fish Market or Verdes El Ranchero for post-surf food and cocktails.

Oceanside Beach | Jon Bilous/Shutterstock


Experience level: Beginner/intermediate
Best season to go: Summer

A sensational spot for the novice. During the summer months, south swells wrap into the beaches on shifting sandbars, offering everything from playful waves to double overhead dumping barrels. But the best reason to hang around this one-time military area? It's by far the coolest beach community in our city, it's a working man's beach town. The salt-of-the-earth local surfers are likely to be musicians, skaters, and fishermen. They don't accept everyone at first, but once you make a friend, you'll find they're the real deal.

Surfers run some of the exciting restaurants popping up, like the Beach Break Cafe and The Privateer. If you want to get to know more about the surf spots in town, you can strike up a conversation with one of the friendly owners over a cup of coffee.

Local tip: Check out Captain's Helm for killer clothing and surf accessories and have a coffee at its amazing coffee cart, Captain's Grounds. You won't be disappointed.

Pacific Beach | Flickr/Nathan Rupert

Pacific Beach

Experience level: Beginner/intermediate
Best seasons to go: All year

This is where I grew up and learned to surf back in the '80s, a glorious time to be a surfer in this town. The beaches were uncrowded, as surfing had yet to become a trend. We even had our own resident surfing legend, Skip Frye, a pillar of the sport who still surfs Tourmaline Surfing Park every day. Yes, PB as it's known, has a surfing park that none other than Richard Nixon dedicated to the city. The spot is a mecca for beginners as the wave breaks soft and mushy, perfect for kids and adults to learn on. There's even parking and bathrooms. It's the perfect place to catch your first waves.

Just down the beach to the south is Crystal Pier, which has bigger and more lined-up waves that break off the end of the pilings. If you want to stay somewhere cool, you can rent a cottage on the pier and sleep over the crashing waves.

Once a sleepy little beach town, PB has morphed into a full-on college party town, with bars and tattoo parlors dotting the main strip, Garnet Ave. Longtime residents slowly moved from the area as apartment buildings went up. PB now feels run by temporary out-of-towners who ignore the history of the area. Maybe I'm just a salty old bastard, but that stuff matters to me. If you're 21, this will seem like heaven on Earth. If you're over 40, you just might leave and never come back.

Local tip: Eat at Kono's Cafe at the foot of Garnet Ave for a great breakfast overlooking the ocean. Check out Pacific Drive Skateboard Shop, one of the nation's most legendary skate shops.

Black's Beach | Flickr/Tony Webster

La Jolla/Black's Beach

Experience level: Intermediate/advanced only
Best seasons to go: All year

Even among La Jolla's dozens of world-class spots, Black's Beach is a cut above. Roughly perpendicular to the towering cliffs lies the undersea Scripps Canyon, a gorge that drops quickly to 120 deep and, further out, wanders to depths of 1,600ft. Waves coming in through the gorge bend and shift as they hit the shallow sandbars. Black's has many faces, from fun, high-performance peaks to scary "canyon" sets that break up to 25ft. It's unpredictable, though, and not recommended to anyone who's not a strong surfer or swimmer.

For as good as the surfing is, Black's is most famous as a nude beach. Take note, though, that the people most likely to be wearing the least clothes tend to be old men playing volleyball. While that image sets in, let me put it to you this way: In 30 years of surfing there, I've only seen hot babes laying out a couple of times. Maybe it has to do with the aforementioned old, naked men standing around everywhere. Anyway, leave the kids at home for this day trip.

Local tip: Park at the Torrey Pines Gliderport and take the groomed trail down the cliff. Avoid other trails, as they often leave people stranded on the steep cliffs. Pack a bag with plenty of water -- there are no amenities on the beach.

Lower Trestles | Joe Scarnici/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Lower Trestles

Experience level: Intermediate/advanced
Best seasons to go: All year

Lowers, as it's known, is one of the world's most high-profile and high-performance waves. It has been making California legends since the '70s, and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater calls it his favorite wave. While Lowers sits in the upper corner of the county, closer to San Clemente than San Diego, it's still on our side of the county line, so I'm claiming it.

Its only drawback is the insanely competitive crowd it draws -- more than 100 surfers on a good day. If you're not into crowds or jockeying for waves, leave this one off your to-do list. Instead head to one of the dozens of other fine waves around Lowers. When going, park up by the Carl's Jr. and walk under the freeway and down the path to the Train Trestle. Go South for Lowers or straight out for Upper Trestles and Cottons, both exceptionally fun waves with way more mellow crowds.

Local tip: Bring a skateboard or a bike to make transport faster. After surfing, drive up the road a couple minutes and try the world's best hamburger (I swear!) at The Riders Club.

The Shores | Flickr/SLV Native

La Jolla/the Shores

Experience level: Beginner/intermediate
Best seasons to go: All year

La Jolla Shores sits at the end of the 52 freeway, so all parts of San Diego dump right into the Shores, making it great for people-watching. Cowboys, gang members, bikers, surfers -- they all sun themselves on this vast beach where all styles are welcome. The beach access at the Shores is also the hub for a kayak tourism business that takes people on tours of the local waters and sea caves by La Jolla Cove. On busy days, it looks like a flotilla of pasty white tourists trying to invade the local beaches.

The surf on this stretch is perfect for learning and there are at least a half-dozen surf schools in the area where you can get a lesson and learn the rules the right way. One thing I will tell you is: Don't pick your feet up when walking in the water -- shuffle your feet along the ocean floor instead. This is the stingray capital of San Diego, and bathers step down on rays' stingers every day in the summer. It hurts. A lot.

While you're doing the stingray shuffle, watch for a far more pleasant annual ritual. At the end of the summer, pregnant leopard sharks flock to the warm waters to gestate their young. Don't be alarmed: They're docile and safe to swim around so long as you don't antagonize them. Keep very still and they might glide right over to you, 4ft-long and spotted. The kids'll love it.

Local tip: At lunch, head to Rimel's for the best surf-influenced burritos and bowls you've ever had. For breakfast, check out the legendary Harry's Coffee Shop. For all your surf needs, go to Mitch's Surf Shop. Mitch has been getting surfers dialed in since 1967.

Sunset Cliffs | Flickr/Tours Departing Daily

Sunset Cliffs

Experience level: Advanced/locals only
Best season to go: Don't

Sorry, bud, I can't talk specifics here. Growing up in this town, you just don't talk about some things, and this beautiful set of breaks is one of them. It's our last great area of underdeveloped coastline. Unfortunately, a damn college sits right above the area. Kids paddle out thinking they've discovered a new spot and often don't take time to learn the breaks, etiquette, and personalities that dictate whether you will have a good experience. This has caused the vibe in the water to sour over the years and outsiders are judged quick by surfboard logos, wetsuit colors, and style.

If you're not a good surfer, don't even think about it -- stay at the city beaches and avoid the reefs until you get well into the intermediate stage. And then, if you do find your way to Sunset Cliffs, tread lightly and leave your ’sups? at home. This is an area where localism still thrives and kooks won't be tolerated. The kids who grow up here are taught early to keep the tradition alive, so be cool to all age groups. You never know whose dad can ruin your day.

Local tip: If you get chased off, go to Point Loma Seafoods for some of the freshest fish in San Diego. Try the smoked fish on sourdough with fries and beer. Or for an evening of great music, check out the Casbah just east of Point Loma, by the airport. Bands like Nirvana, The White Stripes, and Ben Harper have taken the stage at this legendary club.

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Lifelong surfer Ken Lewis learned the action sports world by spending 30 years in the surf and skateboard industries. On Instagram he's @Hanger18.

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1. El Pescador Fish Market 634 Pearl St, La Jolla, CA 92037 (La Jolla)

Dress in your finest beach-casual attire and head to El Pescador Fish Market, a local La Jolla seafood market and restaurant that's been around since 1974. El Pescador is known for its fish sandwiches, made with your choice of fresh seafood (options include local swordfish, calamari, and sea bass) and served on a toasted torta roll. Its seafood "burros" -- aka burritos -- are also noteworthy, especially when filled with yellowtail & squid. Whole fish is also available to-go, as are seafood cocktails, oyster platters, and sashimi plates.

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2. Verdes El Ranchero 7404 La Jolla Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037 (La Jolla)

Originally opened in 1945, this cheery La Jolla spot offers authentic and traditional Mexican specialties drawn from family recipes. On offer are chile rellenos, carnitas, enchiladas, burritos, and tamales, whose bright and spicy flavors are matched by the restaurant’s vibrant color scheme and energetic atmosphere. The Ranch -- as it’s referred to colloquially -- has a can’t-miss selection of margaritas, like the Horni-Rita with Sauza Hornitos Reposado, Patron Citronage, and lime juice and the Cadillac Margarita with Patron Silver, lime juice, and Grand Marnier.

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3. Captain's Grounds Coffee , Oceanside, CA (Oceanside)

Attached to vintage resale shop Captain's Helm, this stand is the perfect pit stop for coffee and a pastry. Morning brings out a host of regulars on their way to or from surfing, and though the cart's convenient sidewalk location makes it conducive for take-away, there are a few seats to sit and stay. Aside from fresh-brewed coffee, Captain's Grounds has an impressive chai selection, a few smoothies, and morning staples like bagels, muffins, and doughnuts.

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4. Kono's Cafe 704 Garnet Ave, San Diego, CA 92109 (Pacific Beach)

This beloved Pacific Beach staple serves up hot coffee and the best breakfast on the boardwalk that won’t break the bank. Starting at 7am, seven days a week, you can get a hearty breakfast plate piled with enough food to feed a small village. Kono's is open for lunch until 3 or 4pm everyday, too, serving American classics like burgers and grilled cheeses with steak fries. Get your food at the cafe and take it down to the beach, or walk across the boardwalk to check out the ocean view from its hidden outdoor seating area overlooking Crystal Pier.

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5. Riders Club Cafe 1701 N El Camino Real, San Clemente, CA 92672

The Riders Club Café prides itself on serving “slow fast food,” otherwise known as quality meats and produce that make their way from the grill to your table as expeditiously as possible. The menu is small but mighty featuring a burger, carnitas sandwich, hot dog, and a club salad. Though homemade veggie patties and portobello mushrooms make viable meat substitutes here, the naturally juicy beef burger, made with house-ground beef and placed atop a pillowy challah bun, is a crowd favorite. Complete your meal with a couple of pours of the eight beers on draft.

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6. Rimel's Rotisserie 1030 Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037 (La Jolla)

In La Jolla since the early 90s, Rimel's is a cozy family restaurant known for its Mexican-meets-Asian menu of rice bowls, tacos & burritos, and rotisserie chicken plates. The interior is dim and homey, while the outdoor patio is sunny and comfortable. Though poultry is the founding signature here, don't forgo the oak-fired freshly caught fish.

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7. Harry's Coffee Shop 7545 Girard Ave, La Jolla, CA 92037 (La Jolla)

This New York-style diner in the heart of California surfer territory ditches the NYC attitude, while serving up 12 styles of omelets and creative coffee options, like a mocha with Mexican chocolate and espresso. What’s more, Harry’s Coffee Shop is the genius force behind the B.W. Benny, a nationally acclaimed recipe that takes a golden brown waffle stuffed and topped with bacon, adds grilled ham and poached eggs, and drowns it in hollandaise.

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8. Point Loma Seafoods 2805 Emerson St, San Diego, CA 92106 (Point Loma)

Point Loma Seafoods is ubiquitous in San Diego for its fresh seafood and smoked fish. Part-lunch spot, part-seafood market, Point Loma buys fish directly from local fisherman and either sells it by the pound or prepares it in simple but satisfying ways. The fried fish sandwiches here are a standout, comprised of fresh shellfish (get the clam strips) and fresh-baked sourdough bread. If you aren't one for fried food, sushi rolls, oysters on the half-shell, and seafood cocktails are also available. Point Loma smokes its fish with real hickory wood, and if you're feeling ambitious, you can bring in your own catch and the market will fillet and smoke it for you.

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9. Black's Beach Torrey Pines Scenic Dr, La Jolla, CA 92037 (La Jolla)

Black’s Beach is known best as San Diego’s gay and nude-friendly beach, but you'll also find many families with young children here enjoying some of the most stunning beach scenery in the county. Nestled under the bluffs at Torrey Pines State Reserve, Black’s Beach offers views of La Jolla to the south and San Diego’s coastal towns to the north. The best parking is by the Torrey Pines Gliderport, where gliders soar off cliffs while beachgoers start the steep, heart-pumping hike down the cliffs and onto the sand. A favorite path down is the harrowing Ho Chi Minh Trail, named in the ’60s by a group of surfers.

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10. Pacific Beach Boardwalk , San Diego, CA 92109 (Pacific Beach)

PB is the spot for beachside bars and casual fun, fueled mostly by college students and energetic twenty-somethings. Surfers flock here, too, as the neighborhood’s Tourmaline Surf Park has a break that’s accessible for all levels. If you’re not the type to paddle out, post up and watch surfers from the sand instead.

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11. Coronado State Beach , Coronado, CA (Coronado)

Coronado Beach is home to the iconic Hotel Del Coronado -- that beautiful red-roofed, Victorian-style hotel that dates back to the late 1800s. The beach on Coronado Island is long and wide, with street parking easy to find if you’re willing to walk a few blocks. While lounging on the beach, visitors are treated to views of Point Loma, Mexico, and Naval ships and aircraft carriers coming in and out of the base, which also sits on the island.

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12. Windansea Beach 6800 Neptune Pl, La Jolla, CA 92037 (La Jolla)

Tucked away in a La Jolla cove just south of town, this beach is marked by boulder outcroppings and stretches of wide sandy beaches. With cliffside mansions and palm trees popping up all around the beach, you'll feel as though you're in an island paradise... until you remember that you’re still actually in a city. Note the retired 40-year-olds with a lot of plastic surgery living their best lives alongside long-time surfers and Instagram-focused tourists.

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13. Ocean Beach 5091 Niagara Ave, San Diego, CA 92107 (Ocean Beach)

Just north of Downtown is San Diego’s home for all things hippie. Ocean Beach is the classic, old-school California beach neighborhood: much of the architecture hasn’t been updated since the 70s, VW vans dot the sidewalks, stores selling crystals line the main drag of Newport Avenue, barefoot surfers troll the streets looking for the next best wave, and there’s always a rogue guitarist -- or five -- setting up shop along the beachfront.



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