The North County Neighborhood Where Everyone Wants to Live
When it comes to quintessential Southern California beach communities, Encinitas (which means “Little Oaks” in Spanish) has it all: solid surf, beautiful beaches (and people), good eats and some seriously soulful vibes. Away from the sand, there’s a walkable “coastal downtown” stretch along Highway 101 that’s packed with homegrown stores, yoga studios, restaurants and coffee shops, which are all bookended by historic hangs like clifftop spiritual retreat, the Self-Realization Meditation Gardens and the 1920s-era La Paloma Theatre. It’s the stomping ground of surfing and skateboarding greats like Rob Machado and Tony Hawk too, so you never know who you might just bump into around town. Encinitas Itinerary
Stellar Surf Spots
Several San Diego beaches have inspired lyrics by the Beach Boys, including Swami’s in Encinitas, which got some love in their 1963 song, “Surfin’ USA.” Fringed by towering palm trees and edged by tide pools to the north, it’s the prettiest stretch of sand to lay out on during summer months, but come winter, the legendary right-hand reef break is one of the hottest surfing spots in North County. Other noted local beaches include D St, which is one of Encinitas’ most popular for surfing and is accessed by a wooden staircase from the bluffs just south of Moonlight Beach. At the end of Neptune Ave in Leucadia, Grandview has both left and right breaks suitable for surfers of all levels.
Spread along six miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, Encinitas is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and the Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens is its lotus-crowned jewel. Originally built in 1937 for yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, the gardens overlook Swami’s Beach and are a peaceful space to clear minds or soak up the spectacular views. For lovely themed gardens, native plants and exotic imports, including orchids and the rare “corpse flower,” head inland and explore the San Diego Botanic Garden. If a coastal walk or jog appeals, there are seven miles of hiking trails at the San Elijo Lagoon. It’s also home to the LEED Platinum-certified Nature Center, where you can learn about the ecological reserve, its shorebirds and diverse array of wildlife.
Encinitas’ hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints and beloved dive bars notwithstanding, the neighborhood has some of the best seafood in San Diego. Head to the Fish Shop along Highway 101 for customizable dishes (select everything from the fish, seasoning and cooking style across their taco, sandwich and salad plates). For date night, hit celebrity chef Brian Malarkey’s Herb & Sea restaurant. Kick things off with oysters on the half shell, the hamachi crudo and a round of cocktails before splitting an entree, such as the wood-grilled swordfish. Finally, meat-lovers should make a beeline for Seaside Market in Cardiff for their legendary tri-tip “Cardiff crack” sandwiches when the team fires up the parking lot grill on weekends.
Historic Shops and Restaurants
Perfect for an afternoon of retail therapy and people-watching, Encinitas’ Highway 101 is lined with shops and sidewalk cafes from Leucadia to Cardiff. The Potato Shack Cafe and Honey’s are local go-tos for breakfast, while newer spots include The Waverly, Piña and the soon-to-be-open Chick & Hawk. Family-owned and operated since the 1950s, Hansen is the place for surfboards and apparel. For women’s fashion and chic home goods, swing by Salt Culture, and for the comfiest activewear you’ll ever own, pop into the Vuori flagship. A stone’s throw north, vinyl junkies will love Lou’s Records, then there’s vintage apparel-meets-moto store’ Seaweed & Gravel, one-of-a-kind designs at Second Place Co., jewelry at Child of Wild and esoteric goodies at the Four Moons Spa boutique.
Surf-Inspired and Eco-Chic Hotels
Being an authentic SoCal surf town, Encinitas has boutique hotels to match, which, although petite in size, are suitably design- and experience-forward. Steps from Beacon’s Beach, guests at Surfhouse (where each room is named after a local break) are encouraged to borrow a board, schedule a surf lesson or land on yoga mats. Over on Vulcan Ave, Inn at Moonlight Beach became the world’s first WELL Certified Platinum hotel when it opened in 2017. Five suite types provide partial ocean views with the Full Moon one-bedroom being its most spacious. There’s a biodynamic urban farm and gardens to check out, plus experiential and hands-on Wellness Lab workshops for making everything from sage smudge sticks and candles to herb-infused teas.
Keri Bridgwater is a freelance writer covering travel and lifestyle. Her work has been featured in Fodor’s Travel, Marie Claire, Matador Network and InsideHook, among other outlets and publications.