When Surfer magazine ranked Encinitas, CA in coastal north county San Diego as one of the best places to “eat, sleep, work, and shred”, it was no surprise to locals. There are so many wonderful things to do in Encinitas!
CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have been sharing the surf line-up at Grandview and Swami’s with local teenagers here for decades. And I’ve lived here myself for 30 years.
Encinitas is Southern California at its most authentic. It’s a laid back little beach town that takes pride in bumper stickers like “Sunny and 72” and “Keep Leucadia Funky”.
It’s a place where tony soccer moms and sparkling vacation rentals mix happily with run down surf shacks and vegan yogis. (Sometimes soccer moms are the vegan yogis.)
You’ll hear locals point you to places in Leucadia (just north of downtown Encinitas) or Cardiff-by-the-Sea (just south of downtown Encinitas), but really, they are all part of the city of Encinitas.
Here are all my favorite things to do…
Best Things to Do in Encinitas
1. Get Breakfast at Pannikin
If you like your coffee with a side of seagulls, start your day at Pannikin, a converted train station with plenty of personality that’s been serving it up since 1968.
Located right on the historic 101 in the heart of Leucadia (the beachy part of Encinitas), Pannikin offers a drool-worthy selection of fresh baked pastries plus fair trade coffees from around the globe.
Or go savory. (Try the huevos rancheros with steamed eggs!) But bring a sweatshirt…you’ll likely be sitting on the deck with an early morning coastal fog wrapped around you.
Don’t fret. By noon or 1 pm, you can pretty much count on sunny and 72 (as promised).
2. Go Stand Up Paddleboarding
The best way to experience San Diego’s coastal paradise is to get out in it. And stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is an easy and rewarding way to embrace the ocean like a local.
If you’re new to the sport, it’s essentially a cross between surfing and kayaking…paddle boarders stand on their board and propel themselves with a paddle.
SUPing is everyone’s favorite outdoor activity in coastal San Diego. In fact, there are 22 active meet-ups in the county!
Beginners can join the fun without the worry of crashing waves at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon (just north of Encinitas) or Oceanside Harbor. (Just paddle to the pier or sea lion buoy to skip the surf.)
3. See the Surfing Madonna
The Surfing Madonna is a 10×10 foot mosaic of the Virgin de Guadaloupe…on a surfboard.
In 2011, Encinitas erupted in controversy when it was illegally installed under the train tracks on a busy street by the artist.
Some loved how it depicted Mexican heritage while others found it sacrilegious. The city labeled it graffiti, smacked a fine on the artist, and ordered it removed.
But the community rallied to the artist’s defense, inspiring a new not-for-profit, the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project.
In fact, it now raises more than $100,000 annually for ocean and humanitarian programs through its popular 5K/10K beach run and a brick paver project.
Today, you can see the Surfing Madonna where it was eventually relocated (just across the street from the original location) at the corner of Encinitas Boulevard and Highway 101 next to Leucadia Pizzeria.
Where to Stay in Encinitas
Option 1: Private home a block from the beach
Enjoy the beach scene without the $$$ prices in a vintage beach bungalow. It’s just a block to Stone Steps Beach!
Check price and availability on the beach bungalow here.
Option 2: A Cozy B&B with a full breakfast
Kate Stanton Inn gets top marks from visitors for its delicious breakfast, genuine hospitality, and lovely home without break-the-bank-prices.
Check price and availability at Kate Stanton Inn here.
4. Visit the San Diego Botanical Garden
I’ve been a regular visitor to the San Diego Botanical Garden for more than two decades!
You’ll find more than 5,000 varieties of plants in 29 specialty gardens here as you meander four paths that wander this landscaped paradise.
Many of these gardens represent plants you’d find in different areas in the world. From plants down under in Australia to the world’s largest bamboo garden, it’s all here.
Yes, you’ll pay an admission fee for a fun few hours here but you’ll also be supporting the garden’s robust conservation effort for rare and endangered plants.
Bring a picnic and enjoy this beautiful spot.
5. Take a Surf Lesson
As mentioned earlier, Encinitas is legendary for surfing! Swami’s is a legendary break, which really rocks in winter.
Grandview is good for longboards or shortboards.
Cardiff is a great beach for families…you’ll see lots of kids out in the surf. So one way or another, this is the place to take a lesson!
Eli Howard Surf School is a favorite for kids and has been around forever; my own kids took lessons here.
In fact, they run wonderful weekly summer surf camps (but reserve many months ahead).
Otherwise, it seems like companies offering lessons come and go. Explore options by checking current reviews on Yelp.
6. Eat Fish Tacos
Kotija Taco Shop on PCH is one of my favorite spots for cheap but excellent fish tacos, a San Diego specialty.
It’s a food staple here, so there’s no shortage of taco shops dotting the coast this side of the border.
Strong opinions on the best taco shop here are rivaled only by the debate about the merits of grilled versus battered fish.
Order one of each and decide for yourself. Or head just down the street to Juanita’s to try a California burrito (carne asada and fries!).
7. Stroll the Meditation Gardens
It’s a secret locals only spot! And it’s free to enter.
The gorgeous flora and fauna in the meditation gardens at the Self-Realization Fellowship, also on 101 in Encinitas, are meticulously groomed in every season.
You’ll stroll through a wonderland of beauty, past a delicate koi pond, and up to a beautiful ocean overlook.
Breathe in the serenity here and enjoy a moment of gratitude for the gift of your time in coastal San Diego.
8. Window Shop the 101
Highway 101, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, stretches along the coast here and cuts straight through old Encinitas.
It’s the perfect spot to walk with a coffee in hand, before or after some beach time.
You’ll find taco places, ice cream shops, and old-timey breakfast joints galore here.
Swank women’s clothing boutiques and jewelry stores mix with art galleries and iconic Encinitas landmarks, like La Paloma Theater (see #21 below).
Head to the Lumberyard (a small outdoor mall of sorts) for all of the above, lunch at Lotus Café (for healthy Caliornia hippie fare) or an upscale brunch at St. Tropez Bistro.
The Third Corner wineshop there hosts great wine tastings, too.
To browse the best in local artists, head directly to Art N Soul which champions emerging local artists and donates to local non-profits.
I’ve been a fan for a decade…ever since they sponsored my daughter’s very first art show through her high school!
A block down, you’ll find Hansen’s surf shop, where you’ll find everything from upscale beach wear and bikinis to surfboards and wetsuits.
And Hansen’s is just across the street from Philz, my favorite coffee shop.
Order “Philz’ Way” for slightly sweet and creamy. (But try Better Buzz if you want to join the Encinitas scene.)
In summer, on the third Thursday of the month, PCH is jam packed with vintage cars for Encinitas Cruise Nights. It’s quite the sight!
9. Hit the Beach
San Diego means sunshine. And there’s no shortage of sandy beaches here to soak up some rays or go for a dip.
Walk around the corner of the Self-Realization Fellowship on the 101 and you’ll be at Swami’s, renowned for its surf break and marine sanctuary.
On your way, you’ll walk right past a huge Tiki totem, reminiscent of the huge stone statues on Easter island.
A local wood carver sculpted it out of an 80-year old Torrey Pine at Swami’s that fell to a bark beetle infestation. Today, this pine’s reincarnation watches over all beach goers.
Or head to one of the dozens of other local favorite spots for sand and surf.
Just north of Swami’s is Moonlight Beach, an excellent spot for families due to the restroom and shower facilities and a great place to perch on the bluff for sunset.
Generations of teenagers have congregated here every summer. It’s the spot.
We’ve also enjoyed lots of evening bonfires here…but to stake your claim to a firepit, you’ll need to send someone to show up early in the morning!
Beacon’s Beach is just a hop north from there, a favorite for surfers and locals avoiding the crowds. Stonesteps is beloved by runners for workouts on the steep stairs.
10. See the Cardiff Kook
The Cardiff Kook (official name “Magic Carpet Ride”) is a six foot bronze statue of a surfer that rides a wave next to San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff.
The statue’s moniker was popularized by local surfers who took issue with the kooky pose of the surfer as designed by the Botanical Society that commissioned the statue.
As a result, it’s become a local tradition to dress up the Kook in honor of local celebrations and events.
He’s been swallowed by a paper mache model of a shark, dressed in a pink bra for breast cancer awareness, and in school colors by the local high school robotics team…And that’s just for starters.
Your visit won’t be complete without a visit to see the Kook.
11. Take in a Technicolor Sunset
You’ll join a cast of local sun worshippers searching for the infamous green flash at the moment the sun dips below the horizon.
Up and down the coast, you’ll find everyone standing together, just soaking up this simple pleasure.
Claim a bench up on the bluff above Moonlight Beach or stand on the steps at Grandview Beach in Leucadia.
Top of the stairs at Swami’s Beach is great, too. Otherwise, there’s also a viewpoint at Encinitas Library.
If you’re feeling fancy, head just north of Encinitas to the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in South Carlsbad for sunset drinks on the terrace.
You’ll valet park, stroll through the elegant marble lobby and out to the mesmerizing outdoor bar. As the sun dips down, the fire pit sizzles as warm orange lamps glow table side.
12. Take a Hike
One of my favorite short hikes with a pay off is the 2.1 mile Encinitas Ranch Trail. Park at the golf course. Then enjoy a short loop with stellar views.
Otherwise, head to the Manchester Preserve.
It’s a beautiful preserve of chaparral and native plants between the coast and residential neighborhoods just inland.
Choose from an hour long walk along the Gnatcatcher Trail Loop (2.2 miles, moderate) or some steep grades along Oakcrest park and the Manchester Preserve Loop (7.1 miles, moderate).
Annie’s Canyon Trail at San Elijo Lagoon also offers beautiful hiking with sweeping ocean and lagoon views.
A 10 minute drive north will also take you to Batiquitos Lagoon in South Carlsbad. It’s one of my favorite area walks!
Watch the water birds in the lagoon as you stroll this scenic flat path framed with lots of beautiful native vegetation.
13. Check out the Boat Houses
A few blocks south of Moonlight Beach at 726 3rd Street, you’ll find two huge dry docked boats sandwiched in between quaint beach shacks.
If you’re riding your bike along here, you’re likely to do a double take.
With their 19 portholes, the SS Encinitas and SS Moonlight have never been to sea, however. An architect built them back in the 1920’s with salvaged timber.
Today, they’re recognized as early examples of California courtyard architecture. (I was today years old when I learned that was a thing.)
And yes, renters live in them.
14. Visit the Garden Day Spa
This is spa-going Encinitas-style. If you’re thinking you’d rather lounge poolside at a high end hotel, head to the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa on El Camino Real instead.
Fun fact: The Omni is home to the Deepak Chopra empire.
By contrast, Garden Day Spa is a gem of a little place tucked into Leucadia on the Coast Highway.
When you pull up, you’ll be surprised to find a bamboo gazebo for couples massages, a koi pond, and a serene vibe.
Guests give top marks to massage therapists and skin care gurus here. It’s just such an unexpected pleasure. It’s quite close to the Pannikin coffeehouse.
15. Shop the Leucadia Farmer’s Market
I’ve been to a lot of farmer’s markets but Leucadia Farmer’s Market is still one of my favorites in the U.S.!
This outdoor market next to Paul Ecke Elementary School is open Sundays from 10 am to 2 pm. You’ll want to get here early to find parking. It’s a popular place!
Not only do they have incredible local organic fruits and vegetables, but the specialty vendors are out of this world.
Taste meats and cheeses. Try the Bitchin’ Sauce. It’s famous and made in nearby Carlsbad.
Buy a wind chime or artisan soaps. Tasty, creative fare is everywhere here.
Also, if you go, plan to lunch here. There are all kinds of food carts serving up delicious fare you won’t want to miss.
16. Kayak Agua Hedionda
This one is technically not in Encinitas, but it is just five minutes north in South Carlsbad. And it’s one of my favorite local activities so I had to include it!
Agua Hedionda is a beautiful lagoon that empties into the ocean. In fact, Highway 5 crosses it just north of Encinitas.
And it’s the perfect place to rent a kayak or a paddle boat for a half day.
For $25 to $35 per hour, you can head into the water and get up close and personal with a variety of water birds that call this lagoon home. It’s a beautiful way to spend the day.
17. Explore the Tide Pools
In Encinitas, the best tide pools are at Cardiff State Beach. Check the tide tables for low tide, then head south of the beach parking lot to find them.
Otherwise, head to Tide Beach Park south in Solana Beach.
Tidepooling is the only reason to choose this beach over other better beaches, in my opinion.
South Carlsbad State Beach has fantastic tide pools too. I’ve personally seen them at their best in winter. They’re located near Cerezo Street and the 101.
You can just park along the highway here. Look for the set of stairs down to the beach just south of the the last house on the bluff here.
18. Visit the Encinitas Historical Society
The Encinitas Historical Society is located in a white clapboard cottage that made its debut as a schoolhouse here in 1883…back when Encinitas had just eight students!
This is such a great way to get a picture of the people, places, and landmarks that gave this cute little beach town its start. Plus, they host walking tours.
19. See Orchid Nirvana
Okay, it’s not really called that…but that’s how it feels at Cal-Pacific Orchid Farm. If you’ve got a fondnes for exotic flowers, you’ve gotta go!
This greenhouse is tucked up a long steep gravel path on a tiny road in Leucadia.
Step inside and prepare to be gobsmacked by the beauty of the most diverse and colorful display of orchids you’ve ever seen.
I challenge you to leave without buying anything. Best of all, if you’re local they’ll babysit your orchid for you when it’s not blooming.
It’s ridiculously cheap. They just call you when your orchid is about to bloom.
20. Wind Down with Local Music
After dark, the Encinitas street scene comes alive on the historic 101.
So duck into a bar for live music…The Roxy’s been a local favorite since 1978 with over 570 live music shows per year and ambiance to spare.
Or head to Le Papagayo just north on the coast. It’s one of my favorite spots to take out of town guests for a true local vibe.
They serve excellent Mediterranean and Latin fusion fare with live music most nights.
21. Catch a Show at La Paloma
La Paloma Theater is San Diego’s oldest theater. It’s been here since 1928 and was one of the very first theaters to host “talking pictures.”
I’ve been here for dozens of live music performances, local documentaries, and poetry slams over the years.
I even saw Sean and Sarah Watkins, formerly of the band Nickel Creek, perform here a month before they won a grammy.
In fact, I chatted with them in the line for popcorn. (They’re local legends.)
La Paloma has so much ambiance and character. It doesn’t matter what’s on…just go for the yesteryear experience!
The Best Things to Do in Encinitas Are Free
While there are plenty of excellent restaurants and cute boutiques in town, the best of Encinitas is all about experiencing the chill vibe here.
Whether you’re catching a wave on the stunning shoreline here or dipping into local haunts on the 101 highway, you just can’t go wrong. Enjoy!