San Diego is a surfing city located in the heart of a surfing state.
It was built for surfing and thanks to surf spots like La Jolla, Oceanside, Pacific Beach, and Lower Trestles, surfing has also helped to support the city’s tourism sector.
But what happens if you find yourself in “America’s Finest City” and the surf is flat?
You’ve made the journey, prepared your board, and you’re ready for the waves but the waves are not ready for you.
Fortunately, there is much more to this great city than surfing.
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Go for a Sailing Lesson
If you can’t drag yourself away from the ocean, consider temporarily swapping your surfboard for a sailing boat.
There is no shortage of rental companies in San Diego—you can even take a few lessons.
In fact, jumping into a boat for a quick sailing lesson is a great way to acclimatize yourself to this sport and to experience a side of San Diego you may have overlooked.
The Mission Bay Aquatic Center is the best place to experience sailing as a beginner.
Every year, it hosts over 30,000 visitors, teaching them everything from sailing to rowing, windsurfing, stand up paddle boarding, and more.
The intro course is open to participants aged 14+ who are comfortable with swimming at least 50 meters.
It is presented by an experienced instructor and is designed to serve as an introduction to the longer and more in-depth courses, making it ideal if you’re new to this sport.
Kayak at La Jolla Shores
If sailing isn’t your thing, maybe kayaking will be, and La Jolla Shores is the perfect place for kayaking in San Diego.
Companies like La Jolla Kayak will take you out on sunset tours, cave exploration tours, and even snorkel tours.
You can combine a little kayaking with some snorkeling, experiencing the beautiful caves and shores above the water and the majestic marine life underneath it.
You can also swim with the leopard sharks or take a bike tour courtesy of Bike and Kayak Tours.
When the surf is flat and you’ve left your board at home, these scenic tours are the perfect alternative.
If you are a little more experienced or adventurous, you can skip the guided tours and rent some basic equipment instead.
It’s not recommended for inexperienced kayakers and swimmers, but it will save you a few bucks if you know what you’re doing.
Visit Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is a good 2.5 to 3-hour trek from San Diego, so you’ll have to prepare for a day trip or weekend trip, but if you’re stuck for something to do, it’s well worth the effort.
There is a glut of great Airbnbs in the area and it’s the perfect spot for sightseeing, hiking, biking, and getting back in touch with Mother Nature.
For those not in the know, Joshua Tree is a national park that’s open all year long and spans over 800,000 acres.
It’s a dessert and while it attracts a lot of visitors, it’s vast and low on amenities and facilities, making it the ideal location when you want to escape the tourist traps.
Make sure you take your hiking supplies with you and be sure to check out the following hiking trails:
- Ryan Mountain Trail: A great workout that offers some of the best views in the park. It’s only 1.5 miles, but it will make you work for it.
- Barker Dam Trail: A 1.5-mile trek that is mostly shaded, making for a cool and scenic journey.
- Lost Horse Mine Trail: A lesser-known trail that is usually sparsely occupied and is great if the other trails are busy.
If you’re there between February and April, you may catch the Joshua Trees in bloom.
It’s a must-see, and if the climate change crisis continues, it’s a sight that might not be around much longer.
After a long day of hiking and sightseeing, pay a visit to Pioneertown and the famous Pappy & Harriet’s, a “Pioneertown Palace” that has been standing since 1982.
It’s open most days (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) and in addition to classic American fare, it hosts lots of great bands and events.
Visit Anza Borrego
If you’ve already explored Joshua Tree or fancy something a little closer, visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park instead.
It’s approximately a 2-hour drive from San Diego and along with hiking and cycling trails, it has some Instagram-worthy metal sculptures, including dinosaurs and serpentine monsters.
Despite its name, the Hell Hole is one of the best hikes in the 600,000-acre park.
You should also check out the famous Palm Canyon Trail, as well as the Pictograph and Ghost Mountain Trails, which are located to the southwest.
Enjoy Some Mexican Fare
If pizza is not your thing or you want something a little more traditional, then Mexican cuisine is the way to go.
San Diego might not be nationally renowned for its pizza, but it’s practically world-famous for its Mexican food.
Baja Betty’s is one of the best eateries serving Mexican and southwestern specialties and you should also check out El Agave, La Puerta, Tacos El Gordo De Tijuana, Miguel’s Cocina, Night & Day Café, Las Cuatro Milpas, and Puesto.
Grab a Slice of Pizza
When you think of great Italian food and famous US pizza, you think of New York and Chicago.
San Diego probably isn’t top of that list, or anywhere near, but it should be.
The authentic pizza restaurants might not be as plentiful as they are in the Big Apple, but there are still some great places to grab some unforgettable pizza.
Buona Forchetta Encinitas is arguably the best place to enjoy Italian classics in San Diego.
It serves a variety of pasta and pizza dishes and is usually packed from morning to night, with local patrons eager to sample authentic Italian cuisine.
You can dine in or out and if you want to learn a little more about pizza, there are regular pizza-making classes where the resident experts will show you how to make a traditional pizza.
See Some Museums
From just $26 per person at the door, you can visit the USS Midway museum.
The USS Midway was a veritable floating city that housed over 225,000 men during its years of service.
The Midway Museum is a homage to the ship and its history, and you can participate in interactive exhibits to experience some of this history for yourself.
It’s a great way to kill a few hours, especially if you’re into military history or just want to try your hand at a few interactive exhibits and simulations.
If you prefer sea combat to air combat, drop by the Maritime Museum of San Diego instead.
Admission is around $20 per person and it will grant you access to many historic sea vessels while also showcasing the country’s vast maritime history.
Other San Diego museums worth a visit include the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Visit San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo is probably not an unexpected inclusion on this list, and if you have spent any time in the city, there’s a good chance that it has already been ticked off your travel itinerary.
But it’s worth a mention, nonetheless.
After all, not only is San Diego one of the five biggest zoos in the United States (with more than 3,500 animals across hundreds of species) but it is consistently ranked as the highest-rated zoo on TripAdvisor.
At just over $60 per adult, it’s not a cheap experience for large families and groups of friends, but we’re talking about a vast tourist attraction that will keep you busy for several hours.
You should set aside at least 3 or 4 hours to see everything, as there is a lot to experience here.
One of the reasons that San Diego is so popular is because of its viewing areas, which make you feel like you can reach out and touch the animals.
There are big cats, primates, and hippos, but elephants are one of the star attractions.
Everyone loves elephants, but you can’t truly appreciate these majestic beasts until you get up close, and that’s the experience that San Diego Zoo provides.
The SRF Encinitas Temple
Encinitas Temple is located a stone’s throw from Swami’s surf spot in Encinitas.
It’s a branch of the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF), which was founded way back in 1920.
It’s the spiritual heart of San Diego and the perfect place to relax, unwind, and get back in touch with your spiritual side.
There are lectures on spirituality and scripture readings, but if you’re just looking for an excuse to relax, there are also meditation services where you can learn how to meditate.
Visit the Encinitas Temple website for more information, including a calendar of all upcoming events.
Summary: What to Do in San Diego
As you can see, there’s more to San Diego than surfing. You can hike, bike, climb, relax, eat, and experience some of the best outdoor and indoor entertainment venues in the state.
And the best thing about these attractions is that when you’ve had your fill and passed a few days or weeks, you can return to the city’s many surf spots and get back out on those waves!