Surfing is to Southern California what rhythm is to blues. With 70 miles of open coastline, unbeatable breaks and friendly locals, it’s no wonder San Diego is a surfer’s paradise.
Stretching down the final miles of California’s coast, San Diego’s surf beaches are celebrated the world over. From neat A-frame waves to monster swells and tumbling reef breaks, the unique waters that call San Diego home could keep you busy for a lifetime. Here are some of the best surf spots for fresh-faced Groms and WSL pros.
When the Beach Boys sang about Surfin’ USA, Imperial Beach, just north of the US/Mexico border, is exactly what they meant. IB, as the locals call it, breaks year round, with some of the best sandbars and A-frame peaks in the county – making it a perfect starting point for surf beginners, pros and everyone in between. The uncrowded golden sands and ample parking along the entire stretch mean there’s never a rush to be the first person on the beach. Better yet, as the summer weather dampens the waves up and down the coast, the swells at Imperial Beach stay strong, making it an ideal destination to beat the SoCal heat.
Just a short drive from bustling downtown, the laid-back enclave of La Jolla has long drawn visitors to its pristine beaches and upmarket restaurant scene. Lifeguard services operate year-round, while public bathrooms and plenty of parking make this neighbourhood a must-visit surf spot for families and solo travellers alike. Unlike some of the beaches along this stretch of coast, La Jolla is highly accessible – wheelchair users can access the beach along a flat, cloth-lined path leading down to the sand. Book in a lesson with one of the many surf schools that operate in the area (Surf Diva Surf School and Everyday California are popular choices), and don’t forget to make use of the public showers before stopping for a bite at stalwart foodie spot Barbarella.
Heading north up the coast, Black’s Beach is a scenic surf paradise hidden just below the world-renowned Torrey Pines golf course. This legendary surf break is known for its monster winter swells, generating consistently tall waves from a deep underwater canyon. As impressive as the hollow waves get here, they are best suited to experienced surfers and pros who can handle a harsh wipeout. Don’t get distracted by the spectators – Black’s is a nudist beach (with more salty sea dogs than mermaids making up the numbers) and dolphins also make a regular appearance to catch the show.
One of San Diego’s classic surf neighbourhoods, Ocean Beach has been inspired by surf and skate culture since the SoCal scene took off in the 1990s. Make your first stop the Ocean Beach Surf & Skate shop – an iconic store offering lessons, rentals and sage local advice to ensure you have a positive experience on the water. Surfed out for the day? Explore the beachfront bars, restaurants and shops along Newport Avenue and Voltaire Street to really get a feel for how surf culture has permeated every aspect of Ocean Beach life. Don’t miss Hodad’s, a post-surf beachfront burger shop that’s been slinging juicy sliders to locals for over 50 years.
One of the famed La Jolla reefbreaks, this expert-level spot is the place to show off your pro skills (or pick up some new techniques from the best surfers in the area). Horseshoe is an exposed reef break with unforgiving easterly winds that generate strong north-westerly swells year round. The waves aren’t always the most predictable, so it’s worth checking the forecast before you head out, but January is the best time for consistently clean waves. If all else fails, Horseshoe’s location just south of La Jolla keeps you in easy reach of some of the best bars and restaurants in San Diego. So, if the weather’s not in your favour, it’s just a short hop over to the Taco Stand on Pearl St for San Diego Mexican done right.
Cruise north along the iconic Highway 101 and you’ll soon reach Del Mar, a jewel in San Diego’s surfing crown. Locals will tell you they love Del Mar because it offers something for everyone, no matter what time of year it is. A rare reef break flanked on both sides by miles of beach breaks means exactly that: WSL pros, eager families and weekend hobbyists can all share the water and find their perfect wave. The reef at 15th Street is where you’ll find the largest crowds looking to make the most of the south swells that often bypass the rest of the coastline, but head to either side of this spot and you can largely have the water all to yourself.
A hidden surf gem, Sunset Cliffs is a series of sandy lagoons stretching across 2mi (3.2km) of coast just south of the city. Descend the rocky steps leading down from Sunset Cliffs Blvd to find yourself alone with just the sound of the waves for company. Glossy kelp beds and sandy bottoms make for perfect A-frame beach breaks that work well for long boarders as well as shorties. Catch the best surf on a mid-low tide (the 5ft/1.5m swells are unbeatable) and pack a picnic to enjoy the incredible SoCal light show at sunset.
Sunset swells, sandy lagoons, surf schools and beach bars, San Diego has it all. Find out more and start planning your trip now by visiting sandiego.org .
Funded in part with City of San Diego Tourism Marketing District Assessment Funds.