What could be more soul-soothing than seeing the sun rise from the cliffs on the California coast, watching the world go by from a cute brunch spot or getting up close to some of the most colorful marine life this side of the tropics? Check out our guide to the 10 most relaxing things to do in San Diego.
Take a Morning Walk by the Ocean
Early morning is by far the best time to get San Diego’s golden beaches all to yourself. Ok, almost all to yourself. Stroll the sands with just fisherman and curious native harbor seals for company, as they vie for the morning catch. Strike out along the wooden pier at Pacific Beach for that perfect sunrise selfie before the crowds arrive, or stroll the deserted bluffs high above La Jolla Shores for sweeping views of the shimmering ocean below. Heck, you could even take your yoga mat along to achieve maximum morning serenity, soothed by the sound of waves breaking gently on the shore.
Have Brunch in Ocean Beach
Located just south of the river, Ocean Beach is San Diego’s most laidback boho enclave, chock-full of street art, surf boutiques, organic grocery stores, brewery taprooms and tattoo parlors. There are some excellent brunch spots here too, many with outdoor seating that’s perfect for people-watching as locals and vacationers go about their daily business along bustling Newport Avenue. Dishes at the popular Breakfast Republic are inspired by Southern and Tijuana cuisine and include such lip-smacking taste sensations as shrimp and grits with hot sauce and a belly-busting California breakfast burrito. Grab an outside table at The Old Townhouse Restaurant, where buttermilk pancakes and zingy grapefruit juice will start your day right.
Visit a Garden
Sprawling Balboa Park contains many of the best places to relax in San Diego, not least its formal gardens, of which the Alcazar is among the finest. Wander among ornate fountains, bright blooms and vibrant Moorish tiling, and enjoy the tranquil views from the garden’s shaded pergola, all within view of the striking California Tower. With nearly 200 varieties, the Rose Garden is a riot of scent and color at its peak in late spring, while the neighboring Japanese Friendship Garden’s tranquil koi ponds, tinkling water features, bonsai trees and beautiful spring cherry blossoms are all you need to achieve perfect zen.
Spend the Day at Mission Bay
With 27 miles of shoreline and 4,600 acres of waterways and beaches to explore, Mission Bay is the largest man-made saltwater bay in the world. Think of a water-based activity and you’re sure to find it here: there’s wakeboarding, paddleboarding, surfing, jet skiing and sailing to name just a few. The beaches here are also ideal for kids, with tranquil waters for little feet to paddle in and oodles of sand to make all their castle-building dreams come true. Pack a picnic and slap on the sunscreen for one of San Diego’s most chilled days out.
Explore La Jolla Cove
The huge kelp forests off San Diego’s coastline attract all manner of magical marine life. Rent a kayak and paddle gently out to the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, just offshore. On a good day with clear waters, you might spot bright orange Garibaldi (the California State fish, no less) as well as friendly leopard sharks, stingrays and sea turtles swimming underneath your boat. Watch out for seals darting sleekly through the water as you make your way across the bay to the seven secret sea caves, said to have been used by smugglers of alcohol and opium back in the Prohibition era.
Picnic in Balboa Park
There are dozens of great spots to spread out your gingham blanket and unpack your wicker hamper within the 1,200 acres of Balboa Park. Find a wild spot for a quiet, romantic lunch along one of the marked walking trails around the park’s perimeter. Or – if people-watching is more your bag – tuck in to your lunchtime feast on the east or west lawn of the picture-perfect Botanical Building with its peaceful lily pond. Pro-tip: alcohol is allowed here (and in a few other designated areas around the park). But remember to bring your San Diego craft beer in a can and your Californian wine in a box, as glass receptacles are a big no-no.
Take a Hike
Hiking is a great way to get to know San Diego’s unique topography. The wild canyons and vast nature reserves here provide dozens of great walking opportunities, with many offering staggeringly good views in exchange for very little exertion. Head up to Torrey Pines on the cliffs over La Jolla, where monolithic rock formations, endangered pine trees and panoramic ocean views are the order of the day. If you prefer your hikes a little more challenging, the ruggedly handsome Mission Trails Regional Park offers over 60 miles of pathways across its 7,000 acres, and features Cowles Mountain – the highest point in San Diego – as its centerpiece. The hard-won reward for your epic climb? Dizzying 360-degree panoramas of the city and beyond.
Sink a Couple of Beers
In case you haven’t heard, San Diego lays reasonable claim to the title of America’s craft beer capital, with dozens of independent breweries to be found strewn throughout its hip neighborhoods, from Ocean Beach to North Park, and everywhere else in between. The high concentration of taprooms around North Park’s University Avenue and 30th Street make it ideal for a bar crawl, where you can sample the full gamut of imaginative local brews, from citrusy IPAs through flavored pale ales to skull-cracking sour beers and chocolatey stouts. Don’t forget the Alka Seltzer for that difficult morning after.
Visit an Aquarium
High on a La Jolla hilltop, around 12 miles north of Downtown, is where you’ll find the Birch Aquarium, a superb low-key alternative to SeaWorld that’s affiliated to San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Visit the Hall of Fishes, where 60 huge tanks teem with critters that include a rescued loggerhead turtle and an elusive giant Pacific octopus. Be mesmerized by sharks and rays cruising their 13,000-gallon habitat and – for the ultimate in unusual experiences – head to Tidepool Plaza. Here, there’s plenty hands-on fun to be had with lobsters, leopard sharks and more. So far, so normal. But we’ll let you decide whether the sensation of hundreds of tiny cleaner fish nibbling your fingers is really as relaxing as some people claim.
Watch a Sunset
Nothing says romance and relaxation like watching the California sky glow various shades of purple, orange, red and pink as the sun disappears over the horizon. Grab a chilled bottle of bubbly and head to any one of dozens of perfect vantage points along San Diego’s whopping 70 miles of coastline. Favorite spots include – deep breath – Torrey Pines, the harbor in San Diego Bay, any rooftop bar along the Mission Beach Boardwalk, Pacific Beach’s picture-perfect Crystal Pier and the aptly named Sunset Cliffs south of Ocean Beach. Perfection.
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