Make This Beachy San Diego Suburb Your Next Weekend Destination

Oceanside has miles of beaches, an emerging craft beer scene, and an epic weekly food festival.

If the word “suburb” conjures up images of gated communities with manicured lawns and a Costco that’s close, but not close enough, Oceanside, California is not that. There’s a Costco in nearby Vista, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. The northernmost suburb of San Diego had, for years, barely been a blip on the road from Los Angeles to San Diego, with a downtown area that could politely be described as “unsavory.”

“Nobody wanted to go downtown,” says Kim Heim, Director of Special Projects for MainStreet Oceanside, whose mission is to attract new, pedestrian-friendly activities and businesses to Oceanside’s downtown. “Bar brawls were fairly commonplace, and the fights didn’t always end at the sidewalk,” Heim continues. “It scared people, and locals weren’t going to come downtown for dinner.”

That sentiment is echoed by Harrison Dwelley, co-owner of Beach Break Cafe in South Oceanside. “I was born in Oceanside and grew up here. There’s a photo of Gary Blair, my business partner and me when we were in Little League on the back wall. I’ve seen the changes. Downtown Oceanside was definitely pretty sketchy not so long ago. But this is one of the last undeveloped beach towns in Southern California. It’s beautiful, and it was just a matter of time before the big hotels came.”

No one is knocking the arrival of the beachside hotels, though. Tourism in Oceanside was enjoying record growth pre-COVID-19, and with travel restrictions eased, there’s plenty of pent-up demand for sun and fun getaways. Oceanside’s proximity to both Los Angeles and San Diego make it a perfect day trip or long weekend jaunt.

Dwelley takes the changes in stride. “Tourism is a bigger piece of Oceanside’s economy now, and that means people are more willing to make the investment in new businesses. A lot of former military members stay in Oceanside; they want to be part of the community, to raise their family here.”

“But even with all the growth, Oceanside is still Oceanside,” Dwelley continues. “We like it that way and we’re working to keep that local feel. So far, we’ve been successful.”

How to get there

Oceanside is easy to get to by car from either Los Angeles or San Diego—Interstate 5 or Highway 101 are the most popular routes, with CA-76 and CA-78 also running through the city. By train, take Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner from Santa Barbara or the Metrolink from LA, Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside. From San Diego, hop on the Coaster or take the Sprinter from Escondido.

Hit the beach

It’s not called Oceanside for nothing—the city enjoys near-perfect weather and what the Encyclopedia of Surfing calls “one of Southern California’s most consistent surf spots'' along its nearly four miles of coastline. The most popular beach is easily accessible on foot with a walk down Pier View Way, through a short tunnel under the railroad tracks, and straight to the Oceanside Pier, the longest wooden over-water pier on the West Coast. The most popular surfing spots are here, at Oceanside Pier View South Beach and Oceanside Pier View North Beach, which have consistently solid waves and can get crowded during good conditions. It’s also popular with non-surfers for its wide swaths of sand and proximity to restaurants and shopping. Check out nearby Wheel Fun Rentals for cruiser bikes, tandems, single and double surreys, quad sports and beach choppers to rent by the hour, half-day, and full day.

Oceanside has a total of nine named beaches that range from expansive to petite, some of which require a little foresight and may disappear completely at high tide. Keep this in mind before you decide to wander off and leave your stuff on the sand.
Oceanside Harbor is a mecca for water activities of all kinds—you’ll find deep sea fishing, whale watching, and sunset cocktail cruises here, as well as a fuel dock, launch ramp, bait receiver, and slip rentals available for those visiting by sea. It’s also a smooth, quiet place for stand up paddleboarding and kayaking, as well as having its own beaches and great surfing conditions. You can easily rent SUPs, kayaks, jet skis, electric boats, and power boats for use in the harbor at Boat Rentals of America. Grab a bite to eat or do some shopping at Harbor Village, and check out the Insta-worthy Oceanside sign, which welcomes visitors to the harbor.

Fuel up

You’ll need plenty of energy to do all the fun things on your itinerary, and Oceanside’s burgeoning culinary scene has a plethora of new and OG local favorites. From stacks of buttery pancakes in the morning to vegan sushi at night, you’ll find a wide range of choices to satisfy your cravings. Some of our favorites include:

Beach Break Cafe
Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

Start your day at Beach Break Cafe, South Oceanside’s wildly popular breakfast and lunch spot, where your coffee cup is always full and the plates of food are always enormous. Do not sleep on the coffee cake, a buttery, warm slice loaded with crunchy, cinnamony streusel that comes as a side with most dishes, but you really should get an extra piece to go. Corned beef hash fans will love the big chunks of meat and potatoes under perfectly cooked eggs, but there’s also a case to be made for Banana Crunch French Toast, starring thick, custardy wedges piled high with sliced bananas and mounds of whipped cream. Lunchtime selections run the gamut from hearty sandwiches and salads to tacos and burritos.

Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

The brainchild of Jen Byard, Communal offers a full craft coffee and drink menu, seasonal food dishes, fresh flowers, and curated goods in an inspired space that fosters community and creative thinking. The anchor of Tremont Collective, a community of like-minded businesses, it has a private patio, designated flower shop, and a home decor shop next door dubbed “The Annex.” Menu items include bagels, breakfast sandwiches, bowls, and latte flights, plus a toast bar, pizzettas, salads, and entrees, with craft cocktails and beer and wine by the glass.

The Plot
Photo by Mary Beth Abate

The chic ambiance and diverse menu aren’t the only things to love about The Plot. It’s also the city’s only zero-waste restaurant, where more than 99% of the produce and dry goods are utilized, as compared with a 4–10% industry average. Even the stems from romaine lettuce aren’t wasted—owners Davin and Jessica Waite’s rescue tortoise, Winston Churchill, takes care of those. Plant-based proteins are made nearly exclusively in-house (the exception is their organic tofu from San Diego Soy Dairy), including an imitation crӓb using San Diego’s Mindful Mushroom’s lion’s mane mushrooms. Standouts include the customer favorite Chronic, a tempura fried roll stuffed with crӓb, spicy tüna, and avocado, drizzled with sweet and spicy citrus and mäyo; Chickën and Waffles, made with “maple love”; and rib-sticking Shepherd’s Pie.

Just about a block away from The Plot is the Waite’s sister restaurant, Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub, where Chef Davin crafts cutting-edge dishes that often utilize lesser known fish species and kitchen garden ingredients; you might find a scattering of nasturtium petals or a mint stem sauce under your impeccably prepared sea bream. Dry-aged fish, a more recent innovation, and a vegan omakase menu are available, and there’s a handful of daily specials to choose from as well.

The Privateer Coal Fire Pizza
Photo courtesy of The Privateer Coal Fire Pizza

Childhood friends Charlie Anderson and Jamey Stone grew up together in Oceanside and dreamed of one day opening a pizza joint in their hometown. Sometimes dreams do come true, and that includes dreams of chewy, crispy coal-fired crust, topped with fresh, local ingredients. Their signature dish, The Privateer Pie, may raise an eyebrow with its chicken breast and walnut pesto topping, as does The Captain Fin Pie, slathered in white sauce, provolone, potatoes, bacon, and black pepper, but trust us, they work deliciously. Traditional combos like Brixton Pie, with tomato sauce, Grana Padano, and pepperoni gets a tweak of fresh lemon zest ricotta, while Raen Pie combines white sauce, provolone, fior di latte, prosciutto di Parma, arugula, and black pepper. The extensive wine list is one of the largest in North County.

A Balinese-inspired fusion menu that perfectly complements the exhilarating cocktail menu is the draw at Dija Mara. Dishes like Beef Short Rib or Tofu Pendang play flavorfully against signature drinks like Cardinal Sin, featuring Dija’s house-spiced fermented rum, or the earthiness of the beetroot-infused wine-based gin in Beets by Bali. They also have Oceanside's only all-natural wine program, featuring domestic and international bottles not often seen on SoCal wine lists. Check them out on Sundays for sparkling brunchtails and local faves like Dija Hangover burritos and Kaya French Toast.

Sunset Market
Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Abate

Eat your way around the world at The Sunset Market

If at all possible, plan to visit on a Thursday, when Oceanside gathers together for the Oceanside Sunset Market, a celebration of food, music, and community. Now in its fifteenth year, the Sunset Market features more than 200 vendors over a four-block expanse and happens from 5-9 pm every Thursday except Thanksgiving and during inclement weather. There’s an international food court, a world market, live music, and Fresh and Ready Row, where you’ll find gourmet grab-and-go goodies.

If you love Thai food, The Pad Thai Stand is a must-visit—they make five different regional versions of the beloved noodle dish, including a standout Southern style that pops with vibrant spices and silky coconut milk, and all are made fresh when you order. Sabor Piri Piri Kitchen serves up Mozambique-inspired comfort food like Chicken Peanut Curry and Kale with Black-Eyed Peas in a coconut curry sauce over rice. There’s also classic fare like dogs, bbq, cajun and East Coast specialties and fried chicken, island favorites from Jamaica and Hawaii, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern delicacies, and Latin America is well-represented with diverse offerings from Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, and Guatemala. There’s even a full street with nothing but desserts!

If this all seems overwhelming, make your first stop a visit to the MainStreet Oceanside tent, where Kim Heim and the crew will give you the lay of the land so you can narrow down your search. We recommend that you eat (or just buy) dessert first, especially if it’s something that will keep fairly well. Most people naturally visit the savory side of the street first, then go hunting for a sweet finish, causing the lines at the dessert stands to get longer as the night goes on.

Travel the O’Side Sips Trail

Thirsty travelers will want to check out O’Side Sips, a free, web-based passport program that currently features 29 locations serving up local beers, cocktails and spirits, wine, coffee and tea, and juices. Scroll through the list of participation businesses and plot your route, take advantage of exclusive discounts, and check in at locations to accumulate points, redeemable for cool travel swag at the California Welcome Center Oceanside. Can’t miss stops on the trail include:

Bagby Beer Company
Bagby Beer

Bagby Beer Company has been an Oceanside favorite for nearly a decade. The brewery features a rotating cast of beers (if you happen to be there when the You’re The Best is on tap, get it), as well as a unique menu that features everything from Saucy Frites, a riff on classic poutine, to a Cheddar Smashburger, and Lomo Saltado, all of which can be made vegan on request. Not into beer? There’s also an impressive list of cocktails with handcrafted syrups and fresh juices, boozy slushies and equally thoughtful, buzz-free non-alcoholic libations.

Banana Dang Coffee
Photo courtesy of Banana Dang Coffee

Banana Dang Coffee features delicious coffee drinks, banana-based smoothies, sweet and savory toasts and vegan pastries in a quirky, fun little gem of a shop. Doodle away in one of the available notebooks or pen a quick ode to your favorite things to do in O’side and your artwork might appear in their Doodle Gallery.

Pacific Coast Spirits

Head distiller Nicholas Hammond at Pacific Coast Spirits may have roots in winemaking, but he’s spent the better part of a decade learning the art of distilling from experts both stateside and in Mexico and Chile. Boasting an impressive list of spirits that includes a white rye, a single malt, American and London gins, and a pisco-style immature brandy, the 12,000-square-foot distillery includes a massive cocktail lounge and a farm-to-table kitchen that serves up shareable plates like Albacore Tuna Rolls, masa-fried Cauliflower Tacos, and a smashing Fried Chicken and Cheddar Biscuits combo.

Where to stay

Top Gun House | Photo by Jakob Layman

If you’re spending more than a day in Oceanside, you’ve got plenty of options for accommodations. Brand new oceanfront hotels, The Seabird Resort and Mission Pacific Hotel, both Hyatt Hotels brands, are steps from the beach and Oceanside Pier. The Seabird is reminiscent of a classic beachfront resort, with three restaurants, a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and a full service spa. Mission Pacific Hotel boasts a rooftop pool, three restaurants, including Valle from acclaimed chef Roberto Alcocer, and Oceanside’s first rooftop bar, aptly named The Rooftop Bar, also helmed by chef Alcocer. In the courtyard, you’ll find the historic Graves House, better known as the Top Gun House, which has been beautifully restored and houses The HIGH-Pie, with apple or cherry hand pies-on-a-stick that can be dipped in toppings like chocolate, sea salt caramel, and lemon curd, or filled a la mode-style.

The Brick Hotel
Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

A few blocks from the beach is a beauty of a boutique hotel called The Brick Hotel, built on the bones of an 1888 hardware store and showcasing the lovingly restored brick facade after which it’s named. Enjoy a cocktail at Frankie’s Cocktail Lounge, or visit the Stone Brewing Tap Room for some of San Diego’s favorite brews. Additional options for food and beverages are expected to open soon, including executive chef Quinnton Austin’s namesake Q&A Restaurant & Oyster Bar, serving chargrilled oysters and other NOLA-inspired eats (and eventually, a separate menu of food offerings to both Frankies and Stone Tap Room), Cococabana Rooftop Bar, and the return of the Succulent Cafe, a beloved coffee shop that’s lush with the current darling of the plant world.

The Green Room Hotel
Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

The Green Room Hotel, just a bit down the road, offers the quintessential South O’side experience in the city’s newest boutique hotel. This funky little 1950’s motel underwent a major makeover, and now sports matte black walls accented by crisp white trim on the outside, and a boho-chic, minimalist interior. There are twelve individually curated rooms, including studios, one-bedroom suites, and a two-story, two-bedroom suite that’s ideal for families. Each has luxurious Tuft & Needle king or queen beds and premium Comphy bedding, contactless check in with Igloo home smart locks set to a unique entry code, and artwork by local artists. Some include mini kitchenettes with cute, retro-looking appliances, and an outdoor patio where you can relax with a glass of wine after a hard day at the beach. There’s also a cozy common area with comfy chairs, a fire pit, an outdoor shower, and an old school cedar hot tub, plus free access to foam core grab-and-go surfboards, boogie boards, and beach cruisers. Best of all, it’s next door to Municipal Taco & Mezcal, where you can score $2 tacos from 8:30 pm until closing Monday through Saturday, and just a couple of blocks from The Pour House, a cool dive bar that brings in live music several nights a week.

The Oceanside Museum of Art
Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

The Oceanside Museum of Art, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is adjacent to the beautiful Oceanside Library and City Hall buildings at the corner of North Ditmar Street and Pier View Way. The galleries feature a rotation of exhibits—currently there’s six different presentations, including Shinpei Takeda: Limit Of Your Safe Space, an exploration of societal changes and interactions in the era of a global pandemic and military conflict, and James E. Watts: Storyteller, with whimsical sculptures from classic stories, fashioned out of repurposed metal cookie tins, lunch boxes, and other assorted metal objects with exquisitely carved alabaster accents.

The California Surf Museum
Photo by Mary Beth Abate for Thrillist

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin invented the swim fin when he was just eleven years old? Even if you’re not a surfer, you’ll love the California Surf Museum, a few blocks down Pier View Way from the Oceanside Museum of Art. It was founded in 1986, and is dedicated to surf culture worldwide. For the best experience, let the encyclopedic docents guide you around the galleries, but it’s equally fascinating if you prefer a self-guided tour. A rotation of exhibits—currently there’s at least nine different presentations—take you through the history and culture of wave riding, including a tribute to renowned surfboard shaper Donald Takayama, and a delightfully nerdy Where’s The Surf? Find Swell Direction With Wave Science, featuring The Coastal Data Information Program’s (CDIP) near real-time network of monitoring sites for waves and beaches across the US. You can also take a deep dive into the history of boogie boarding, explore a timeline of surfboard development, and be amazed by the most popular exhibit; Courageous Inspiration: Bethany Hamilton, the compelling story of the then-thirteen year old surfer who lost her left arm when she was attacked by a fourteen-foot tiger shark off the coast of Kaua’i in 2003. The display includes the surfboard she was using at the time, minus a big, bite-shaped chunk, her bathing suit, and an inspirational tribute to her recovery and triumphant return to competitive surfing a mere two and a half months later.

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.