San Diego’s beach cities epitomize quintessential SoCal; they’re diverse, laid-back and full of charm. Coronado is known for the historic Hotel Del and its pristine beaches; Ocean Beach is a fun, funky community of surfers and hippies; and Mission Bay offers outdoor recreation at its best. Take your pick.
Coronado is an island of small-town quaintness amid San Diego’s big-city bustle. Well, it’s not really an island, though many locals call it that. Coronado is actually an isthmus, attached to the mainland at the southern end of Silver Strand State Beach.
Though driving there via the iconic Coronado Bridge is always a thrill, it’s also great fun to travel by sea. The Coronado/San Diego Ferry leaves on the hour from downtown’s Broadway Pier between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. (619.234.4111), while San Diego Water Taxi offers on-call transportation around the bay from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (619.235.8294). Upon arrival, check out the shops at Coronado Ferry Landing (1201 First St.), then rent a cruiser at Holland’s Bicycles (977 Orange Ave.) to explore Coronado’s quaint side streets.
Head south on the main drag of Orange Avenue to find an inviting retail district, with shops like Root 75 Flowers & Home (845 Orange Ave.); Shorelines Gallery (918 Orange Ave.) for custom artwork, jewelry and furnishings; Coronado Taste of Oils (954 Orange Ave.) to sample dozens of flavors of gourmet olive oils and vinegars; and Blue Jeans and Bikinis (971 Orange Ave.) for clothing and swimwear. Pick up a new paperback atBay Books (1029 Orange Ave.), and pop into The Attic (1011 Orange Ave.) for modern home décor pieces, antique accents and fun jewelry.
Find more boutiques inside the storybook Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave.), opened in 1888 and a National Historic Landmark. For more on the town’s history, stop by the Coronado Museum of History and Art(1100 Orange Ave.). Other Coronado gems include: Wag’n Tails (945 Orange Ave.) for pet pampering and supplies; Scottish Treasures (916 Orange Ave.) for unique accessories and gifts; Clayton’s Coffee Shop (979 Orange Ave.) for a caffeine fix; and Art & Frames by Wood Gallery (936 Orange Ave.) for art inspiration. Catch a play at Lamb’s Players Theatre (1142 Orange Ave.), the area’s best ensemble outfit.
Shelter Island / Harbor Island
Shelter Island and Harbor Island aren’t really “islands” either; they’re connected to the mainland and were created more than 35 years ago with tons of sand dredged from the floor of the bay. Shelter Island, with its many bars, restaurants and nautically themed stores, is the departure point for various sportfishing charters. The area is also home to Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay, a 1,400-seat outdoor theater that hosts jazz, blues and pop headliners in warmer months. Nearby Harbor Island has its own, smaller outdoor festival site, Spanish Landing Park, and several bayview restaurants. Both islands offer postcard vistas of the downtown skyline, plus flat paths for walks and bike rides.
Ocean Beach and Point Loma
“O.B.” for short, this neighborhood is truly one of San Diego’s most unique. It’s an endless summer of love in O.B., an aggregation of aging hippies, surfers, bikers, artists, musicians and other free spirits. “OBceans” possess a strong sense of community and territorial pride best summed up by a once-popular bumper sticker: “U.S. out of O.B.”
The main drag, Newport Avenue, smells of incense and has many shops catering to the O.B. lifestyle, but also plenty of antiques dealers at places like Newport Avenue Antiques (4836 Newport Ave.). Music junkies will love the vintage vinyl at Cow Records (5040 Newport Ave.), while Galactic Comics (4981 Newport Ave.) is heaven for graphic-novel fans. The Corner Store (4873 Newport Ave.) is home to an array of shabby-chic furnishings, tea sets, vintage costume jewelry and other home and garden treasures. Just off Newport, Noon Design Shop (4993 Niagara Ave.) has handmade letterpress cards and jewelry.
Wind down the day with a leisurely stroll along the Ocean Beach Pier, which, at 1,971 feet, is one of the longest concrete piers in the country. A casual café is situated about halfway down the pier, making for a nice refueling point.
Nearby Point Loma is home to a small but charming array of restaurants and cafés, as well as the Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and military installations. The Cabrillo National Monument offers panoramic vistas stretching from San Diego to Mexico. There are also hiking trails, tidepools, a historic lighthouse, a bookstore and museum exhibits about conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the founder of San Diego.
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach
Two of San Diego’s most popular beaches, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach form an unbroken band of sand that stretches for three miles, from the mouth of Mission Bay to the rocky points of La Jolla. Both are overflowing with restaurants, bars and boutiques.
South Mission Beach is home to serious beach volleyball and bayside basketball games. Farther north, check out the star attraction at the Belmont Park amusement park: the Giant Dipper, a famously restored 1925 wooden roller coaster.
Another landmark dating back to 1925 is Crystal Pier, at the foot of Garnet Avenue in P.B. This 400-foot-long wooden pier is gated and lined with rental cottages. However, the pier is open to the public during the day and is always popular with fishermen.
The best way to experience this area is to walk along the boardwalk, where people-watching is not just encouraged; it’s a must. If the nonstop parade of skateboarders, in-liners, bikers, joggers and walkers gets to be too much, walk across Mission Boulevard to the quieter bayside boardwalk. Garnet Avenue and Mission Boulevard form the backbone of this funky, retro retail district, which boasts dozens of small shops filled with surfing gear, swimsuits and casual wear. Begin the 10-block shopping stroll where the two main streets intersect, then head east. (Note: These are long blocks.)
First order of business: Find that perfect bikini. SunSplash (979 Garnet Ave.) can help, with stylish swimwear and casual beachwear in a wide array of sizes. For the rest of the outfit, try The Fabulous Rag Boutique (829 Garnet Ave.), a quaint shop on the main drag selling women’s clothing in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere.
Farther up Garnet Avenue is Rusty Spokes Vintage Bicycles (1344 Garnet Ave.), which specializes in antique and classic cycles.
Heading south brings you to Mission Beach, home to popular bikini emporium Pilar’s Beachwear (3790 Mission Blvd.).
Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay Park is a 4,000-acre gathering spot for locals and visitors to enjoy outdoor activities including running, biking, skating, kite-flying, sailing and boating.
Several sportfishing charters depart daily from Mission Bay, and a variety of watercraft can be rented from nearby shops. If you’re feeling adventurous, try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding.
The west side of the bay is also home to several resort hotels and world-renowned SeaWorld. Don’t miss the thrilling Shark Encounter and the Turtle Reef exhibition and ride.
Click HERE for a detailed map of the beach neighborhoods.