La Jolla: The Jewel by the Sea

Sophistication, culture and a beautiful coastline make this a favorite Southern California vacation destination.


Imagine the rugged cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, the boutiques of Rodeo Drive, the galleries of New York City, the restaurants of Miami and the laid-back attitude of, well, anyplace in Southern California: That’s La Jolla.

This small city (which falls on the coastline within San Diego County, about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego), boasts miles of breathtaking shoreline; one of the most pristine nature preserves in the West (see accompanying article on Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve); world-class scientific research centers like Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Salk Institute and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD); and a vibrant arts and theater scene—the famous La Jolla Playhouse has sent dozens of plays to Broadway. [Read more about the Salk Institute in our Editor’s Take.]

Must-See La Jolla Attractions

When planning your La Jolla travel, whether for a romantic weekend getaway or a La Jolla family vacation, don’t miss these must-see sites.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps (2300 Expedition Wy.; tel. 858-534-3474). This small aquarium is part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It’s located just down the hill from UCSD, its parent institution, and has sweeping views across La Jolla Shores and the blue Pacific. Inside are dozens of sea-life exhibits, including my daughter’s favorite, the ethereal leafy sea dragons: She describes them as something out of a Dr. Seuss book. (Ted Geisel—a.k.a. Dr. Seuss—spent the last decades of his life living only a few miles from the aquarium, so perhaps the resemblance is more than a coincidence.)

Guests will also find an oversized tank with a recreation of a kelp forest teeming with sharks; darkened tanks that show off bioluminescent jellyfish (i.e., they glow in the dark); and enormous lobsters that may make you think twice about ordering the fierce crustaceans for dinner. A new exhibit on global warming (Al Gore himself attended the unveiling of this exhibit) offers hands-on opportunities to understand the phenomenon. Outside is an extensive tide pool exhibit that features local sea creatures that kids can touch, like sea stars and sea cucumbers.

Children’s Pool (850 Coast Blvd., south of La Jolla Cove). Decades ago, the city built a wave break to enclose this crescent-shaped shoreline, in the hopes of providing a safe and shallow swimming beach for young children. Since then, however, harbor seals and California sea lions have taken over. On any given day, you’re apt to find dozens of the creatures beached onshore here. To protect the animals, life guards keep the beach closed most of the time—and frankly, the smell is appalling, so it isn’t a place most people want to linger. My young nephew, however, can spend hours on the walkway overlooking Children’s Pool, watching the antics of the seals. Look also for over-domesticated squirrels begging for handouts and cormorants drying themselves on the nearby cliffs.

Mt. Soledad Park (north of Mt. Soledad Road, at the top of Via Capri). Although the 43-foot cross that is part of a war memorial on top of Mt. Soledad has been a source of recent controversy (some argue that a religious symbol should not be displayed on city property), the ocean views from the small, mountain-high park are stellar. On really clear days, you can see Mexico and the Channel Islands. The city lights are also gorgeous once the sun sets (that’s probably why so many teenagers park here at night).

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (700 Prospect St.; tel. 858-454-3541). The striking architecture of this museum is thanks to world-renowned Irving Gill, who sited the lovely structure (a home in the early 20th century) on a spectacular vantage point on the La Jolla cliffs overlooking the ocean. When approaching from the coastline, look for an installation comprising small fishing boats and surfboards that seems to explode out the back of the museum. There are more than 3,000 pieces (including paintings, photography, sculpture and multimedia works) in the permanent collection. In addition, the museum hosts some of the most important touring exhibits of contemporary art. Adults $10; guests 25 and younger, free.

Sunny Jim Cave (northeast of La Jolla Cove). Although there are a handful of other ocean-cliff caves in La Jolla that are accessible by water, this is one of the few that is accessible by land. Sunny Jim Cave—named after a 1920s character that the opening of the cave is said to resemble—can be reached via a tunnel and network of 145 steps, starting in the Cave Store (1325 Cave St.). Look for colorful mineral deposits from iron oxide and iodine that have been deposited here from kelp. (Make sure children wear appropriate shoes; the steps are often wet and slippery.)

Torrey Pines Golf Course (11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd.; tel. 800-985-4653). Backdrop of the U.S. Open in June last year (and site of major tournaments every year), world-famous Torrey Pines is one of the nation’s premier municipal golf facilities. Challenging holes and ocean views make this a favorite with locals. Hint: The North Course is a little less challenging than the South, but it’s the prettier of the two, and it’s generally easier to get a tee time here. 

La Jolla Beaches

A big draw for visitors to La Jolla is its jaw-dropping beaches. Water quality is among the most pristine in Southern California, and whether you’re looking to ride a wave or just sit back and watch them, La Jolla offers a beach to suit your purposes.

Black’s Beach (north of the Scripps Pier). Back in the ‘70s, this surfers’ favorite was designated as a swimsuit-optional beach. Although nudity has long since been officially banned, the seclusion that the adjacent cliffs provide and the relative difficulty of reaching the beach still draw uninhibited folks. There are no signs to designate the beginning of the nude zone, so keep your wits about you. If you walk north along La Jolla Shores, you’ll find Black’s just beyond the Scripps Pier. If you’re game to try the beach, keep an eye on high tide: Water sometimes engulfs the shoreline completely, and it’s easy to get stranded if you stray too far north. Just above the beach is the Torrey Pines Gliderport, a key spot for hang gliding enthusiasts.

La Jolla Cove (off Coast Boulevard, west of Prospect Street). This perfect little C-shaped beach is protected by cliffs and sea caves, and as a result has some of the mildest waves in Southern California. The waters are clear and even a tiny bit warmer here than at other local beaches, making them ideal for children who are just learning to swim. I also like that the area is accessible only by stairs—so young kids remain relatively contained and thus easier to keep an eye on. Because of the incredible natural beauty of the beach, it’s enormously popular (in the morning, you’ll see dozens of rough-water swimmers head out from here—even in the coldest months). Parking is next to impossible on weekends and holidays. My advice? Come early, and expect to hike in from a distance.

La Jolla Shores (off Camino del Oro). An expansive stretch of white sand, sparkling blue waters, calm waves and views of the delicate Scripps Pier make this one of the most scenic beaches in the city. It’s also one of the most popular: Sun worshippers and surfers come by the thousands on warm days, and on weekends the sand can be packed body to body. Again, parking is a challenge. Although there is an adjacent parking lot, it is much too small. The surrounding area is mostly residential, so the nearby neighborhood offers only a few spots from which to park and hike in. A better alternative for this beach is to take public transportation—or come very early, before the morning haze has burned off.

Windansea (off Nautilus Street). Thanks to an offshore reef that sometimes makes for huge waves, Windansea is a world-class surfing destination. The rocky shoreline secludes the beach a bit, which makes it a quiet alternative for sunbathing as well. Given the ferocity of the waves and occasional rip tides, this is not the best beach for young children. In addition, there are no public restroom facilities here. 

Water Sports: Water, Water, Everywhere

Nothing makes me happier than a day spent in a beach chair, listening to the waves and reading a good book. But my daughter and husband are looking for more action at the shore, and La Jolla is one of the best places to find it in the form of a multitude of water sports.

Kayaking: Ocean kayaking is especially popular in La Jolla, where you can launch a craft across the relatively mild waves at La Jolla Shores or you can take a kayaking tour through the ocean caves surrounding La Jolla Cove. La Jolla Kayak (tel. 858-459-1114) rents boats to experienced paddlers and, for novices, offers guided tours, including a special sunset trip. Kayaking here is accessible for most people, even young children. Several years back, my daughter and I braved a blustery day at the Shores with a mother-daughter group that included kindergarteners, and we all came out smiling (albeit a little wet). Hike Bike Kayak San Diego (tel. 858-551-9510) is another recommended operator. [Read our Editor's Take for more on kayaking in La Jolla.]

Snorkeling and Scuba Diving: The 6,000-acre San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Preserve runs just off the coast of La Jolla Cove, north to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This marine preserve offers good visibility and relatively calm waters for snorkelers and divers—and because no fishing is allowed, sea life is abundant. In addition to the state fish, the golden garibaldi (bright orange, with blue markings in young fish), you can expect to see sculpin, lobsters and even harmless sharks. (Note: Last year there was a fatal great white shark attack, just a few miles north of La Jolla, in Solana Beach. This was believed to be a highly unusual accident, as these animals generally do not frequent the shorelines of Southern California.)

Surfing: Local surfers are territorial. The waves are littered with boards on any given morning, and if you’re going to surf these breaks, you better make sure you know what you’re doing. If you’re a beginner, there are several local businesses that will get you up on a board in no time. I especially like the local Surf Diva organization (tel. 858-454-8273), which offers girls- and women-only classes in what is otherwise a heavily male-dominated sport. 

Additional Planning Tips

If you can, visit La Jolla off-season for less crowded beaches and streets. Late September and October offer the best beach weather—the June Gloom (which often extends well into August along the shore) is long gone and the water is at its warmest.

To find the best places to stay, read our Best La Jolla Hotels article. If looking for restaurant options, including those that are good for families, check out our La Jolla Restaurants piece.

Destinations: La Jolla

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Kayaking, Surfing, Swimming

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