While many people may consider the South of San Diego to be its pride and joy; with PB, Old Town, and La Jolla as global travel destinations, many San Diego locals will urge you to â€œhit the beaches up northâ€ for more of a quiet, beautiful, less tourist-heavy approach to SD county. North County San Diego, composed of beautiful beachfront locations like Del Mar, Solana Beach, Oceanside, Encinitas, and San Marcos, can offer a more inexpensive and authentic experience for eager San Diego travelers.
In this article, we’ll highlight the best stops in North County, from delicious authentic Mexican restaurants to local quirks. After reading, we’re sure you’ll consider planning some North County stops in your San Diego trip.
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What to see in North County
Oceanside Pier is one of several piers lining the oceanfront near San Diego, but it is truly one of the more memorable. Many visitors come here to relax and rejuvenate after an exhausting day of surfing or playing in the ocean, and after, pile into the picturesque Ruby’s diner to grab a burger and fries, or locally caught fish & chips. The native California gull, as well as pelicans and other birds, are commonly resting on the wooden walkway, and often people are found fishing off the side. Local photographers will say if you go at golden hour, right when the sun is slipping off the edge of the ocean line, you’ll get the â€œpiece-de-resistanceâ€ view that Southern California is so famous for.
Oceanside Pier, like many of North County’s best spots to stop and see, is free to the public and usually not very crowded on weekdays. Take a stroll down and see the best California Views, without all the crowds.
The City of Cardiff can be explained by its statue erected next to Cardiff Beach; â€œkookyâ€. This surfing town tucked in between Encinitas and Carlsbad is a real-life â€œSurfin Safariâ€, with surfers walking around town with their surfboards year-round, exotic clothing, blond, sun-bleached hair, and the city’s famous Cardiff Kook Statue, a term for someone who does not take to surfing well. It is home to many surf-skate clothing brand HQs like Patagonia and Hurley and is a favorite spot for artsy people, surfers, and the like.
The Cardiff Market is a seasonal event in the spring and summer that perpetuates this stereotype. With its Hispanic Swap Meet type layout, vendors and mystics pitch tents and sell anything you could imagine; beads, flower hats, palm readings, elaborate kites, sewed blankets, and everything else under the sun. While it does have many flea market vendors, the Cardiff Market also has great local fair food, local fruits and produce, and some upper-end surf equipment. Many people also love to beach camp outside the market, so they have easy access to surfing and shopping.
Cardiff Market is located in San Elijo and runs pretty consistently throughout the spring-fall. Stop by on a Tuesday for Taco Tuesday and some delicious tacos from local vendors!
Carlsbad Flower Fields
The Flower Fields in Carlsbad may be one of the most well-known internet searches relating to Carlsbad. It’s no mystery; these beautiful fields are home to a rare floral species, the Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers. These flowers were cultivated since the 1920s by Luther Gage, a settler of the area of Carlsbad. They are beautiful and extravagant, but they are only available for about 8 weeks every spring. From March to May, the flower fields open and bring in a massive wave of visitors eager to see the flowers; but as soon as they come, they go. These flowers grow dormant for months and can only survive in the semi-tropical weather of Southern California. Once in bloom, they boast magnificent reds, yellows, and oranges. Their blooming period is short as they then lapse into growth mode until the next year.
Many have also heard of the phenomenon of the Superbloom, this is an occurrence that happens in certain parts of Southern California once every 15-20 years. Dormant species of flowers, like the Ranunculus, can suddenly bloom together in a short time period, causing magnificent colors and landscapes. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll catch it while you’re there. If not; plan a trip to Carlsbad in mid-April to experience the flower fields fully.
The main Legoland Location is nestled within the flower fields, in Carlsbad, California. With Legoland locations built all over the world (the oldest and original being built in Denmark) many people are familiar with both child and adult-friendly theme parks for Lego enthusiasts. After building the Carlsbad location in 1999, Legoland saw a huge influx of visitors due to the great weather of SD county.
The Park consists of 9 sections: The Beginning, Heartlake City, Explorer Island, Miniland USA, Castle Hill, Fun Town, Pirate Shores, Land of Adventure, Imagination World, and the newer Ninjago World. Each of these sections has rides that both parent and child will enjoy, and Lego zealots of all ages find the rides and attractions refreshing and unique. Legoland also has building stations within the park, where visitors can design and build their own Lego Sets, Lightsabers, and mini-figures.
Admission for Legoland can be a great value when it is included in some of the San Diego packages. Often you can find Legoland+Seaworld+San Diego Zoo visitor packs that offer a great bang for the buck.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
While San Diego Zoo lies in the heart of San Diego itself, it’s countryside affiliate is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, CA. The city name itself means â€œhiddenâ€ in Spanish, and it lives up to its reputation; the Safari Park is virtually invisible until you reach the parking lot.
The Safari Park, being situated more out in the countryside, is different from the Zoo itself in that it has many more wide-open spaces for the animals to reside, as well as wide-open views for the residents. The Park itself has many different options for tours of the park, with the more mainstream options of a bus and cart ranging to incredible zipline and hot air balloon tours of the park.
The Park contains many animals native to the San Diego zoo; Elephants, Flamingos, Gorillas, Ostriches, and Meerkats; but also contains one of several few captive California Condors. After the Safari Park and several other California zoos took in these extinction-bound animals, they were able to safely repopulate to over 500 birds. If you’ve never seen a California Condor, this is the place to come; there’s a reason why Californians are proud of their 30 pound, 9 foot wingspan mega bird.
California Surf Museum
The California Surf Museum in Oceanside is a great place to visit on an off day when the family is exhausted from surfing and exploring. For a small admission fee, you can see the evolution and history of surfing; something that Californians are very proud of.
Featuring some of the famous early surfers and surf history, this museum chronicles California surf history and the impact surfing and beach living has on its community. There are exhibits on surfing music, early surf films, and different types of surfing and surf competitions. For the avid surfing enthusiast, this is a must-see if you get a chance.
The Best Restaurants in North County San Diego
The Yellow Deli
The Yellow Deli of Vista and the Yellow Deli of Valley Center are two great local food locations with an interesting background. While the restaurant itself serves great sandwiches, bakery items, and natural homemade fruit beverages, the intrigue in the Yellow Deli lies in the local religion that founded these food stops.
The Twelve Tribes is a semi-Amish society that was formed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1970s, born out of a more traditional desire to live Christianity. After forming in Tennessee and successfully launching a hometown restaurant, complete with kombucha, incense, and the â€œfruit of the spiritâ€, the somewhat psychedelic restaurant expanded to many other Twelve tribes homesteads all over the U.S., with Southern California being one.
The Restaurant has several delicious sandwiches, with the Deli Rose being our personal favorite. The restaurant offers breakfast items, hot teas and mates, and traditional bakery items like carrot cake and ginger cookies. You may find yourself a little surprised at your waiter or waitress; they are usually dressed in plain, pioneer garb, with beards and long hair; but the food is always incredible, even if it takes a little bit to get to your table.
Start up a conversation with your waiter when you come here; they’re always excited to talk about the behind the scenes of the Yellow Deli.
Named after popular local Swami’s beach, this family-owned eatery in Carlsbad California offers the entire palette range California has to offer. From locally caught seafood to Americanized Mexican food, anything you can imagine. The restaurant has now opened up multiple locations, but the most popular and visited location sits right on the east side of the 101, with a beautiful oceanfront view.
Brigantine Del Mar
Del Mar, among San Diego residents, is known for its extremely wealthy residents; many famous people own property here including Shaun White and the Marriott family. However, the wealth doesn’t only lie with the residents; it lies in the city and its food. The Brigantine in Del Mar is incredibly well known for it’s indoor/outdoor bar aesthetic, and of course, the staple beer-battered fish tacos. If you’ve never eaten freshly made fish tacos, Brigantine is the perfect place to be introduced to them; overlooking the coast in one of the most picturesque oceanfront locations in California.
Fidel’s Little Mexico
Right before North County starts to blend into La Jolla and greater SD, we find ourselves in Solana Beach, a quaint and mostly Hispanic populated town just south of Del Mar. Solana Beach is a little more normal than the glitz and glam of Del Mar and Encinitas and represents a more working-class, authentic neighborhood that prides itself on food, drink, and beachfront relaxation. Thus, it’s no surprise that the most celebrated authentic Mexican restaurant is found right here in Solana. Fidel’s Little Mexico actually started as a barbershop run my Mexican-American immigrants in the late ’90s, and eventually started selling tacos out the back. Not surprisingly, the tacos became more popular than the haircuts, and Fidel’s expanded into a multilevel adobe Mexican eatery.
This place just FEELS Mexican when you walk in. Immediately when receiving your menu, you are seated in a semi-underground indoor/outdoor Mayan feeling booth with bright colors and extravagant paintings adorning the walls. The menu consists of actual Mexican food; tortas, chile relleÃ±os, mole, and street tacos al pastor. You’ll find no shredded cheese or sour cream within 50 feet of this place; these guys are the real deal. To make it even better, there’s a live mariachi band that plays for you on your birthday- keep that in mind for your next birthday vacation!
With all these options, it may feel overwhelming to know what to visit, or which places you are willing to miss. The good news is, San Diego county has something for everyone. North County is a great place to visit because of the escapist aspect; it is a vacation destination, but much less crowded than Pacific Beach or Old Town San Diego. Whether you are wanting some open space to surf, explore some more of authentic California, or relax in the great weather and go wine tasting, you have the option to do all of these and more. The amazing weather that Southern California has makes it easier to plan your trip; it’s warm all year round.
You can do any of these as a side trip from San Diego or stay locally and possibly save some money by getting a hotel or a La Jolla Airbnb.
Use these locations as a guide to plan your visit to North County, and when you’re here, we fully expect you to take it all in whatever way possible. Enjoy the beach, eat authentic Mexican food, see the animals at the Safari Park, or take your kids to Legoland. No matter how you swing it, North County San Diego truly has something for everyone.