Beaches & Islands - 19 min read

20 Best San Diego Beaches (For Families, Swimming, & Surfing)

Town and Tourist

Town and Tourist, Updated October 3, 2022

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Beach days conjure up lazy afternoons soaking up the sunshine and fresh sea air, long summer days wading in the ocean water, and losing yourself in the day until the sun sets.

San Diego is the epitome of California dreaming, where surfing is life. Known for beach coves and protected marine life and reefs, the shores of San Diego are pretty special.

There are multiple seaside communities where you can explore local beaches spanning 70 miles starting north at Oceanside and ending south at Imperial Beach. Each beach offers something different for everyone, especially families.

Families, young adults, residents, and tourists can find glorious days discovering the surf. You can enjoy refreshing ocean swims, iconic sand volleyball games, and tide-pooling.

Families appreciate that most San Diego beaches offer lifeguards (during high season), bathrooms, and parking. Fire pits can be found at several beach sites, making it possible for fun family nights around a bonfire. Accessible wheelchairs geared toward the beachy terrain are available by asking a lifeguard.

As you plan for your next beach outing or family vacation in Southern California, let this article guide you to the best beaches in San Diego. Leave the phones and devices at home (except to take photos), grab your swimsuits, board shorts, sandals, boards, and paddles, and read on.

1. La Jolla Cove

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La Jolla Cove is a swimmer’s beach. Visitors travel worldwide for a swim, scuba, or snorkel here. In the heart of La Jolla, an oceanside town of San Diego, La Jolla Cove is located within the Underwater Park Ecological Reserve.

This Reserve protects 6,000 acres of marine life. A family snorkeling tour is a great activity. A swim or dive in this part of the Pacific Ocean gives you quite a show. The underwater visibility can be 30 feet or so.

In this habitat, you’ll see large schools of fish, leopard sharks, sting rays, sea urchins, starfish, and many more living species. La Jolla Cove is also a great spot to watch the seals and sea lions swim and bark.

Visitors can expect calm waters for open ocean swim because the beach’s rocky point protects these waters from rolling waves.

If you are interested in renting scuba or snorkeling equipment, kayaks, and paddleboards, there are plenty of shops nearby. Rental shops offer tours as well. You can see why La Jolla Cove is a must-visit beach.

2. Mission Beach

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Mission Beach is a part of the Mission Bay community. A haven for surfers, volleyball players, and swimmers, Mission Beach, gives everyone an ideal beach experience.

You can enjoy a bicycle ride on the path from this beach, fishing from the pier, whale watching, jet skiing, kayaking, and scuba diving. Mission Beach enforces safe boundaries for all water sports, including swimming.

Beach goers looking for a quieter environment at Mission Beach should head south on the beach. It is a little less crowded and more sand play and dipping toes into the ocean’s edge. Because Mission Beach is a popular area, parking can be a challenge. Locals suggest taking public transportation.

Steps away from the beach, visitors can spend a few hours playing at Belmont Park. This local amusement park has restaurants, arcades, shops, and a 100-year-old wooden roller coaster named The Giant Dipper. It is a National Historic Landmark.

Related Read: Best Time to Visit San Diego

3. Solana Beach

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Spanning 1.7 miles of majestic Southern California shoreline, Solana Beach sits quietly against the cliffs. The bluff above gives homeowners a one-of-a-kind view.

From the sand below, you, too, can experience golden hour sunsets, watch playful dolphins swim by, sunbathe and partake in a friendly game of beach volleyball.

Another great hang-out for surfers and paddleboarders, Solana Beach, is surrounded by an easy walk into town. Here you can pick up snacks or lunch to eat and picnic at the beach.

And, when you need a break from the sun, the area offers restaurants, art galleries, shopping, and taverns serving craft beers.

One of the unique traits about this beach is its proximity to Cedros Ave, where you can arrive by train. The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner travels daily from San Luis Obispo with stops along the way. Don’t forget your surfboard.

4. Moonlight State Beach

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A California state park, Moonlight State Beach, is in Encinitas. Local parents love this beach for the endless activities and convenient food concessions. Swim, play at the water’s edge, or look for seashells and build castles in the sand.

Kids also like the shaded playground with a slide, monkey bars, and climbing apparatuses. Other recreational past times offered include volleyball and tennis.

The surf at Moonlight State Beach is the big draw. New surfers can sign up for lessons from one of the many surf schools there, and seasoned surfers can catch a swell and do their thing. Surfers and swimmers each have designated areas that provide a safe experience.

Moonlight is one of the only San Diego beaches that allow bonfires. There are five fire pits, which are available until 10 p.m.

5. La Jolla Shores Beach

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La Jolla Shores Beach is a beautiful spot in Northern La Jolla. La Jolla Shores Beach is a mile long. The sandy surface is flat and easy to walk, even with the waves gently rolling onto the shore. Accessible wide-tire wheelchairs are available to folks that need them – ask the lifeguards.

Accessible to all sorts of recreation, La Jolla Shores Beach appeals to snorkelers, swimmers, body boarders, paddleboarders, kayakers, surfers, and scuba divers. If you just want to relax while the kids play close by, it’s an ideal beach for hanging out.

This beach’s water is clear, making it a prominent destination for kayakers. Paddle out to visit La Jolla Cave for swimming, diving, snorkeling, and exploring.

La Jolla Cove has calm waters, which the La Jolla Underwater Park protects. Kayakers who travel to La Jolla Sea Caves will spot leopard sharks. They will also be able to see bright orange Garibaldi, the California state fish.

6. Scripps Beach

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Beachgoers seeking a quieter atmosphere seek out Scripps Beach, which borders the campus of the University of California San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Owned by the Institute, Scripps Beach is open to the public, although the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier is not. The pier distinguishes the surfing area as North Scripps, north of the pier, and the swimming and kayaking side as South Scripps.

Both sides of the pier offer a quiet sandy beach featuring a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean and shoreline.

Here lie the most incredible marine habitats in San Diego. Scuba diving is a top choice activity at this beach. Get help navigating your dive by contacting local groups, including Divebums and San Diego Divers.

Newer and less experienced surfers come to Scripps Beach for significant wave breaks and wavelengths. And kayakers should know they should launch their kayak from the sand, which can be a little challenging getting past the surf.

Related Read: 25 Romantic Getaways in San Diego

7. Black’s Beach

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Black’s Beach, known for welcoming nudists, also has the best surfing waves and most massive swells in San Diego. Located in the neighborhood of the UCSD campus, Black’s Beach is at the southern tip of Torrey Pines State Beach.

Initially named for William Black, founder of La Jolla Farms, Black’s Beach is officially called Torrey Pines State Park and Torrey Pines City Beach.

Clothing-optional sunbathers can be found on a 1 ½ mile stretch just north of the Glider Port Trail. Surfers and clothed beachgoers prefer the south side of the trail. You can participate in many fun beach activities on whichever side you choose. However, families tend to stay on the south side.

Birding is a prevalent Black’s Beach activity. Species include sanderling, cormorants, whimbrel, red-tailed hawks, and blue heron.

This beach is tricky to access. Take the various trails through Torrey Pines State Park, La Jolla Shores, or Torrey Pines Glider Port Trail. All of these pathways are clearly marked. However, be cautious about using the Glider Port Trail. You’ll hike 1 mile with a 300-feet descent through the rugged cliffs of Torrey Pines.

8. Ocean Beach City Beach

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Once thought of as the Haight-Asbury of San Francisco, but today in San Diego, Ocean Beach is a thriving beach town and community that embodies that SoCal low-key vibe.

Locals love this city beach for a full day of sunshine, surfing, boogie boarding, and splashing in the water. When you are traveling with a wide range of ages in your family, OB is a good choice.

Along the vast beach, you’ll see many young adults sunning, playing sand games such as frisbee, and building sand castles. Ocean Beach also offers fire pits for evening bonfires. These fire pits are available first-come, first-serve. Check out SanDiego.gov for rules and regulations.

Take a walk to the Ocean Beach Pier, one of the longest piers on the West Coast. The pier is a great spot throughout the year to watch sunsets, observe local sea lions, go fishing, and have a snack. During the year, visitors go to the pier for events, including the Fourth of July fireworks.

9. Dog Beach

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Dog Beach is an official leash-free beach that welcomes dogs and their families. Situated in Ocean Beach, Dog Beach is a notable community landmark. You can find this beach by traveling to the end of Interstate-8, where the mouth of the San Diego River sits.

Dogs run freely here in and out of the water, while swimmers, surfers, and the like do the same. There are no restrictions on dog sizes and breeds.

People are expected to clean up after their dogs and ensure their pets are current in their vaccinations. Cleaner and safer beaches keep the community coming to visit. The County Department of Animal Services also requires dogs to wear their license on their collars.

10. Swami’s State Beach

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A perfect spot for a spectacular beach, tide pools, and breathtaking sunsets, Swami’s State Beach offers a little bit of everything among the bluffs in Encinitas, San Diego. Park in the lot or along 101 Highway, where you can access the pathway down to the beach.

The inviting surf in the southern area of Swami’s Beach welcomes surfers to ride the surf break. Visitors rave about the soft glittery sand, sparkling water, and black stones washed up from the ocean floor. Park yourself on the gorgeous sand and watch the surfers catch those waves.

Typically, the best time to visit San Diego’s tide pools is during the winter months of November through March. The tide is at its lowest at this time of the year. Here you’ll see all types of marine treasures, including hermit crabs, sea hares, and brittle stars. And, if you look out at the ocean, you might see a whale or two.

11. Cardiff State Beach

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Home to the coolest surf competitions and festivals like Camp Shred throughout the year, Cardiff State Beach is a fun place to go for vacationing families. It’s also an excellent place for locals too!

This beach also features a campground (San Elijo State Beach), which gives overnighters a beautiful and unique atmosphere. Surrounded by stunning cliffs, the stretch of beach is expansive at Cardiff.

Beach visitors have a lot of space to set up umbrellas, blankets, and beach chairs for a full day of sunbathing, boogie boarding, paddle boarding, and, of course, surfing. There are several hot spots for surfers, including Seaside Reef, Cardiff Reef, Tabletops, and Pipes. Fans also love to snap a pic of the infamous statue of Cardiff Kook, located in Encinitas.

For tide pooling, meet up south of Lifeguard #10. Tide poolers can explore the rocks that are 45 million years old, featuring easily seen clam fossils. Look for hermit crabs, sea anemones, sea stars, unique plant life, and so much more.

Related Read: Best Time To Visit Carlsbad Flower Fields

12. Tide Beach Park

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Tide Beach Park is a highly-rated place to spend time with and take your kids or grandkids for a memorable family day. Park south of Cardiff State Beach in Solana Beach at Solana Vista Dr. and Pacific Ave. You will see a staircase leading down to Tide Beach Park.

This beach allows guests to swim, enjoy the sunshine, and discover fascinating marine animals in the tide pools (hence, the beach’s name). Grand bluffs encircle this small and narrow beach, giving the area a quiet and secluded feel.

When tides are low, it is a close walk to the nearby cove for tide pool exploring. Take the sandy beach north toward Seaside Beach or south to Fletcher Cove to check out more incredible tide pools. Tide Beach Park also attracts surfers, scuba divers, snorkelers, and folks who enjoy surf fishing.

Walk the bluffs on the way out to catch the sights of the stunning beachside neighborhood. If you need to use a restroom, you’ll find one northbound at Seaside, just about ¼ mile away.

13. Coronado Central Beach

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Coronado Beach is the iconic beach of San Diego on everyone’s “best beaches” lists. Steps away from the famous Hotel del Coronado and a quick walk from “The Crown City,” or Coronado. The beach is vast, with sand sparkling like diamonds from its natural mica.

Beaching here is a must-stop for its scenery of the gentle waters and gorgeous mansions surrounding the area. It’s easy to walk right into the ocean without getting tumbled by waves, which is one of the many reasons families enjoy Coronado Central Beach.

Kids and adults play at the shoreline, build gigantic sandcastles and seek seashells. During tide pool season, discover this beach’s many sea life species.

Body surfers come to this Central Beach to ride the calm waves, and surfers spend their time at the Outlet catching breaks and swells. The perfect place to do this is north of the main beach near the North Island Navy Air Base.

**Note as of June 2022, check the official San Diego beach websites. Currently, Coronado and Imperial beaches are closed due to water contamination.

14. Del Mar Beach

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Del Mar, the city known for its racetrack at the famous Del Mar Fairgrounds, also has one of the finest beaches in San Diego. The beach is pretty and provides a wide sandy setting for volleyball games, sun worshippers, dogs on leashes, and family playtime.

Explore the waters by surf fishing for halibut and, sometimes, bass. Swimmers prefer the intermediate waters at the northern part of the beach, 15th Street, and River Mouth access points. And surfers enjoy Del Mar’s variety of surf and waves where there is a reef bottom. Take a lesson from one of the local surf shops and schools.

15. Windansea Beach

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When you want Hawaii-like waves in Southern California, pack your board and take it to Windansea Beach near Neptune Place in La Jolla.

Advanced surfers come here for expert surfing. Expect intense currents and waves at 2 ft. to 10 ft. high. Waves hit these heights because Windansea has a deep ocean floor and underwater reef.

Windansea is NOT a swimming beach. The rocks and strong currents make it dangerous, and the beach recommends that swimmers use caution. However, Windansea is a sunbather’s mecca.

The sandy area makes it comfortable for many people to camp for the day. This beach shape shifts to a shorter beach during the winter months, which is different from what it looks like during the summer.

Visitors come to chill out at Windansea. Find locals enjoying ocean and sunset views, reading books, napping, and taking memorable photos from the sandstone ledges. Brides and grooms, engaged couples, and families come to Windansea for the gorgeous backgrounds.

History buffs visit this beach to look at the palapa surf shack built in the 40s for families of World War 2 surfers. Today the Shack is a historical landmark.

16. Pacific Beach

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Pacific Beach, or rather PB to locals, has a variety of activities and aspects to the beach that makes it appealing to families and young adults (huzzah!).

Three miles of beach bring out the surfers, paddleboarders, swimmers, sunbathers, seashell seekers, and kids and folks of all ages who love to build sandcastles.

Families prefer North Pacific Beach. There is a wide beach area with access to Tourmaline Beach Surf Park, famous for great surf. The water is ideal for new surfers and longboarders.

Sign up for a surf lesson offered from the sand. Boards are included in the lesson packages. On breezier windy days, look for kites flying, kite surfers, and windsurfers. Also, the Crystal Pier is a lovely walking destination and public fishing pier.

Southward, Central PB looks and sounds more like spring break vacay. The party vibe appeals to young adult tourists and locals, especially during spring and summer. The PB boardwalk is a quick walk from the beach. This is where people like to get out of the sun by visiting the bars and restaurants with incredible ocean and beach views.

Related Read: 35 Best Camping Spots in San Diego

17. Shell Beach

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Kids and adults shouldn’t pass up a visit to the small yet lovely La Jolla beach destination. Shell Beach offers one of the best places for tide pools, shells, sea lions, and sea glass.

Just south of the Ellen Browning Scripps pier, your best bet is to park on Coast Blvd. and find the staircase leading down to the beach.

While not a beach for water activities, Shell Beach is a show stopper for tidepools. Tide pool aficionados tend to explore during the winter when tides are low.

However, during summertime at Shell Beach, you’ll find the occasional low tide giving visitors a surprising look into ocean life and its animals. Sea anemones, sea urchins, hermit crabs, sea stars, and sea cucumbers are a few of the many critters you may find in this area.

Shell and sea glass combing is an everyday activity at Shell Beach. Pack your kids’ sand filters and buckets to collect sea glass, clam shells, sea snail shells, and more. Visit earlier in the day to pick up sea glass near the Children’s Pool, where families of seals live.

Shell Beach is an uncrowded spot to picnic and watch the sea lions and seals nap and play. It’s an ideal 2-hour activity for families.

18. Ponto Beach

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Ponto Beach is a family favorite to visit. Split into two sections, North and South, Ponto Beach is located within South Carlsbad State Park. Together, they create 5 miles of beach. Both beaches offer a myriad of activities for families of all ages.

North Ponto is not too crowded and narrow. Some folks avoid this side when the tide is high. However, the beach is still a good destination for swimming, playing, hanging out, and fantastic for surfers.

Often you’ll see a group of professional surfers out on the water. The average length of shorter waves is 150 feet. Imagine what the regular waves look like.

South Ponto Beach features a wide stretch of sand perfect for volleyball, basking in the sun, and collecting polished rocks. You do have to bring your ball and volleyball net.

From the shore, keep your eyes wide open for dolphins swimming by. This beach fills up quickly in the morning during the summer months. Parking fees in the lots range from $10 to $15 per vehicle for a full day.

At South Ponto Beach, bring the family to see Batiquitos Lagoon, the gorgeous sunsets, and high dunes. Campsites and generators are located above this beach on the bluffs. Check the California Department of Parks and Recreation for camping details.

19. Silver Strand State Beach

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Swimming, surfing, and water-skiing are among many fun activities to partake in at Silver Strand State Beach. At Silver Strand, water lovers can access San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. This beach has many family-friendly features, making it a fun destination for the day or overnight.

A day at Silver Strand entails the option to spend the day on the bay side or the ocean side of this beach. Families with younger kids prefer the bay side for the warmer temperatures of the water. The gentle bay is ideal for swimming, sailing, paddle boarding, and kite surfing.

On the ocean side, you’ll find the usual beach suspects such as surfers, swimmers, sunbathers, volleyball players, and much more. Fishing is allowed at Silver Strand Beach, where enthusiasts opt for angling to catch grunion, corbina, perch, and yellow-fin croaker.

Kids and adults love to walk south on the beach, which is part of a natural preserve. Comb the shoreline for sand collars, snail shells, and cockle shells.

Bring your bikes to ride the Bayshore Bikeway, which has peaceful viewpoints of the bay. The end of the day is a perfect time to build a fire in one of the fire rings offered. Folks gather for dinner, cookouts, and bonfires.

Another feature to note about Silver Strand is that beaches north and south are property of the U.S. Military.

20. Imperial Beach

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Sitting about 5 miles from the border of Tijuana, Mexico, Imperial Beach is the most southern beach in California. Imperial embodies 4 miles of beach you can soak in the views of the south end of San Diego Bay.

Surfing and sport fishing are the main activities at Imperial Beach. Families come to spend the day near the Imperial Beach Pier for swimming, where the water is clean and calm. Surfing is fabulous for the beach breaks, where waves break at the shoreline.

If you are thinking about horseback riding on Imperial Beach, get in touch with one of the many companies that offer guided rides and tours on the beach geared to all ages. Surfside Ranch and Sea Horse Adventure are a few places to inquire about booking a ride.

Imperial Beach is also one of the best places for birding. The area has 370 bird species, some endangered, and you are encouraged to visit the Tijuana River Estuary at Imperial Beach. Bring binoculars and a camera, so you don’t miss out. The Living Coast Discovery Center is also an affordable and good break from the sun aquarium activity for the kids.

Imperial Beach hosts an annual Sun & Sea Festival, an entertaining option for families in July. The day-long event invites families, visitors, and community members to compete in the Mayor’s Pier Swim and Paddle. There’s also a 3k beach walk and run, and a professional sand sculpting and castle building contest.

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