Encinitas offers travelers the chance to enjoy an authentic SoCal surf town experience with its rustic beaches, cool boutiques, and casual dining scene. While we’re talking here about fun things to do in Encinitas, we’re including the communities that people often forget are also part of the Encinitas incorporated city: Cardiff, Leucadia, and Olivenhain.
1. Spend the Day at Moonlight Beach (Top Pick)
Location: 400 B St, Encinitas, CA 92024
If you are ever at a loss for what to do in Encinitas, start at Moonlight State Beach. It’s one of San Diego’s best beaches and the best beach in Encinitas. I know that many North County hotel concierges send guests here, even if it’s a little further of a drive.
At this beach, you can play a game of volleyball, go swimming, or learn how to boogie board. There is also a fun playground for the kids, and the concession stand (that my husband worked at as a teenager!) is now a seasonal more gourmet, fast-casual outlet called Beach Wolf with avocado toasts and tacos. If you prefer to lounge around on the beach all day, you can even rent a beach umbrella for the day to make your stay much more comfortable.
Moonlight is one of the few beaches in San Diego County that allows real fires, and they have several firepits you can use in addition to picnic tables (in spring and winter, you can pick up grill packages from Beach Wolf). You’ll need to come really early to snag one, though, as they’re extremely popular, and the parking lot can fill up.
2. Stroll Through the San Diego Botanic Garden
Location: 230 Quail Gardens Dr, Encinitas, CA 92024
Wander through the San Diego Botanic Garden to experience the beauty of 29 themed gardens spread across 37 acres. The diversity of vegetation is huge, and the various gardens represent the unique habitats of many regions and countries worldwide.
You may even get inspired about how to make your own garden water-wise or discover new design tastes, but do check the calendar events to see what is on during your visit.
Thanks to three separate children’s areas, it’s a fantastic way to spend a day in San Diego with kids. These include the renowned Hamilton Children’s Garden, featuring the huge Toni’s Treehouse and interactive displays. Many San Diego kids even host their birthday parties here.
You can also explore the garden’s spectacular glass conservatory, which features unique plant chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that showcase beautiful and rare tropical plants from around the world.
There’s plenty of opportunity to stretch your legs as you traverse across the garden’s four miles of trails, some with pretty water features.
3. Go Surfing at Beacon’s Beach
Location: 948 Neptune Ave, Encinitas, CA 92024
Whether you want to try your hand at surfing or just want to watch the action, Beacon’s Beach is definitely the place to go. From sunrise on, you can spot adept surfers battling the waves and riding swell after swell in the lovely Pacific Ocean.
You are also welcome to bring your own gear and try it for yourself. If you do not have any of your own, head down Highway 101 to Progression Surf to rent a surfboard and other gear for the day or longer.
4. Explore the Winter Tide Pools (and Surf) at Swami’s Beach
Location: 1298 S Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92024
Sea creatures abound across this region, and Swami’s Beach is where you can go to check out their activities during winter when low tides occur during daylight. It’s located in front of the Self Realization Fellowship.
Head north toward the rocky portion of the beach to check out the local ecosystem in action. Here, you will find rather unconventionally adorable sea hares, octopuses (keep an eye out because they’re quick), anemones, and other interesting creatures moving around in these San Diego tide pools. To see fossils from nearly 45 million years ago, turn your gaze to the many large sedimentary rocks along the beach.
Tide pools aside, let’s not forget that Swami’s Beach is so famous for surfing that it received a shout-out out in Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys. You’ll find a lot of regulars here (it’s not the best place to go out as a newbie). Not a surfer? No worries, sitting on the sand to watch the action is fun on this beach in Encinitas.
5. Go Shopping on 101
Location: All along Highway 101
It’s fun to stroll down the downtown Encinitas portion of Highway 101 and check out all the fantastic shops, restaurants, and other venues. Since they are mostly locally owned and operated, you can shop and dine to your heart’s content — and feel good about it.
While here, you can visit endless beach-inspired gift and home decor stores, antique stores filled with treasures, or simply fill up your belly with fresh tacos at Fish Shop or a sit-down East Coast-inspired seafood meal at Herb & Sea. Gelato 101 is a great ice cream parlor to cool down after a hot summer shopping day.
6. Drive by the Encinitas Boathouses
Location: 726-32 3rd St, Encinitas, CA 92024
Nestled in a quiet neighborhood along F Street and two blocks from the beach, you will find a truly magnificent sight: two rather large boats standing tall and proud between the beach houses. Dubbed the SS Moonlight and SS Encinitas, these boathouses have been integral to the city since the early 1920s.
During that time, they were brought to life to serve as a hotel and bathhouse for the locals. Since then, however, they have transformed into private dwellings for rent until they are paid off. Once that happens, they will transform yet again. This time, it is a museum for all to enjoy. A fun fact is that they’ve never even been out on the water! For now, swing by and take a look because how often do you see something like this?
7. Take a Photo with the Cardiff Kook
Location: Chesterfield Dr. & S Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92007
In 2007, Cardiff Kook joined the list of must-experience things to do in Encinitas, California. Commissioned by the Cardiff Botanical Society, this sculpture was meant to show a surfer in all his glory performing a backside floater move.
Originally named ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ by its sculptor, Matthew Antichevich, the statue got its nickname Kook from locals.
Unfortunately, the funds generated for the project failed to cover the wave, leaving the surfer perched upon a surfboard on a rock. Despite that, the locals have made the best of it ever since, regularly dressing up the kook in wacky outfits. In recent years, this sculpture has bundled up for the winter, donned his partywear, and much more.
8. Walk the San Elijo Lagoon
Location: 2710 Manchester Avenue, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007
For a glimpse at some of the most stunning landscapes in Encinitas, just head over to the San Elijo Lagoon for a leisurely stroll. While walking along the trails, you will encounter many different plant communities, including salt marshes and coastal sage scrubs.
Within these areas, you may get lucky and see:
- Brown pelicans
- Great egrets
- Desert cottontails
- Long-tailed weasels
- Side-blotched lizards
- California kingsnakes (harmless)
While moving by the many waterways across the lagoon, look closely to see crabs, fishes, and other extraordinary creatures going about their business. It helps to start at the Nature Center first to get the lay of the land.
9. Become Inspired at the Self-Realization Fellowship Encinitas Temple
Location: 939 2nd St, Encinitas, CA 92024
Operating as a branch of the Self-Realization Fellowship, the Encinitas Temple provides awe-inspiring insights through lecture services, readings, and meditations.
Their calendar lists the many services and mediations that occur throughout the week. Even if you do not want to engage in their programming, it is worth stopping by to check out the garden oasis. It’s a very welcoming space to visitors, and the peaceful meditation gardens have stunning ocean views, so do stop by.
10. Tool Around the Encinitas Skate Plaza
Location: 425 Santa Fe Dr, Encinitas, CA 92024
Boasting more than 34,000 square feet of space, the Encinitas Skate Plaza gives locals and tourists alike a place to blow off some steam and strut their stuff on their skateboards.
It is also a wonderful place to sit in the spectator seating and watch everyone blast around on their skateboards, rollerblades, and more, trying out all their favorite tricks. To inspire organic tricks, the plaza mostly features street elements, like rails, stairs, and banks, though it does have a bowl shaped like a backyard pool.
The park is also known as Poods Park in honor of local skater Ian ‘Poods’ Barry, who passed away in 2012.
11. Go Camping at San Elijo State Beach
Location: 2050 S Coast Hwy 101, Cardiff, CA 92007 (campground address)
This state-run beach offers plenty of amenities for day visitors (you’ll park in the day-use lot), including restrooms, showers, picnic tables, family programming, bike trails, and more but it is one of the best places to go camping in San Diego.
There’s a camp store open from April through October for simple groceries, ice, and firewood. And lifeguards staff towers seasonally.
The beach below the campground is gorgeous and offers swimming, surfing, and other typical Southern California beach activities.
12. Visit the Local Farmers’ Markets
Location: 185 Union Street, Encinitas, CA 92024
Every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can stop by the Leucadia Farmers’ Market to experience this region’s wonderful flavors. In addition to nearly every organic fruit and vegetable imaginable, this farmers’ market regularly features fresh fish, baked goods, wildflower honey, live plants, dog treats, candles, and more.
13. Tour the Iconic ICA (formerly the Lux Art Institute)
Location: 1550 S El Camino Real, Encinitas, CA 92024
For an inside look at how all your favorite works of art are made, you can visit the Institute of Contemporary Art North. Previously known as the Lux Art Institute, this renowned gallery merged with the San Diego Art Institute in 2021. With your price of admission, you will be treated to an up-close and personal artistic experience, giving you a chance to see how artists approach the creative process.
They regularly have new traveling artists with a variety of mediums represented. During your visit, take the time to walk along the plant-lined path to see additional awe-inspiring works face-to-face. The Institute sits on 6 acres of coastal land and it’s a peaceful and inspiring way to spend an afternoon. If you’re a local, check out the available art classes and programming for kids, teens, and adults.
14. Take a Surf Lesson at Leucadia Surf School
Location: 400 B St, Encinitas, CA 92024
Whether you’ve surfed before or are a complete novice, Encinitas beaches are a great place to brush up on your surf skills. The ocean around and along this beach town is always dotted with groups of patient surfers just waiting for the next great wave.
Leucadia Surf School at Moonlight Beach is an unassuming but popular place that was founded by local Gerry Kantor. He keeps the school’s ethos true to ‘soul surfing,’ which he describes as ‘non-competitive surfing for the sake of surfing’ (sounds good to us!).
The school offers group or private lessons, and you can hire wetsuits for an extra fee. I’m always telling visitors to give surfing lessons a try. It’s one of the quintessential things to do in San Diego especially if you want to entertain teenagers.
15. Spend Quality Time at Solterra Winery & Kitchen
Location: 934 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92024
Whenever you start hankering for tasty food and locally sourced wine, head to the Solterra Winery, a popular urban San Diego winery situated along Highway 101. Solterra has expanded over the past few years and has become quite the destination for a sophisticated but fun night out.
The restaurant is divided into two buildings: a tasting and dining room, where you can enjoy a Mediterranean-inspired menu, and the 34,000-square-foot winery, where all the oak barrels are also stored. Outside at the back, there’s a small winery with a bocce ball court, while the front of the restaurant features a cozy firepit on the front patio.
The winery’s huge open windows at the front of the main restaurant are great for people watching while sipping on warm evenings, and they have a great Happy Hour.
16. Play a Few Rounds at Encinitas Ranch Golf Course
Location: 1275 Quail Gardens Dr, Encinitas, CA 92024
When you want to keep your eye on the prize and test your skills on the green, you can treat yourself to a few rounds at the award-winning Encinitas Ranch golf course. As you work your way through their 18-hole golf course, you’ll be treated to amazing ocean views.
They also have a pristine driving range available to those who want to perfect their swing before going for a birdie on the main course. You can stop in the full bar and café to enjoy your favorite beverages, appetizers, and full meals for a break between games.
17. Stop by the San Dieguito Heritage Museum
Location: 450 Quail Gardens Dr, Encinitas, CA 92024
For a glimpse into the storied past of Encinitas and to step back in time, plan a visit to the Heritage Museum. The museum was founded by locals who were passionate about celebrating the history and diversity of the surrounding areas. You can visit many restored buildings that were originally built by modern settlers.
They also have many fun exhibits exploring different aspects of the region’s history. They are always adding new stuff, so make sure to swing by regularly so you do not miss anything.
18. Catch a Show at the La Paloma Theater
Location: 471 S Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92024
At the La Paloma Theater, you can catch a showing of classic movies while soaking up the old-timey atmosphere. Opened in 1928 with Hollywood star Mary Pickford in attendance, San Diego’s oldest theater was also one of the first to show talking movies.
Built in Spanish Colonial Revival style over 90 years ago, the historic theater has remained much the same ever since. In addition to movie showings, they regularly host live concerts by local musicians and many special events throughout the holidays.
The green flash sunset draws crowds from far and wide, as it is definitely a must-see to believe phenomenon (albeit a rare one). From any of the local beaches and scenic viewpoints, you can watch as the light refracts around the sun as it moves behind the horizon, creating a green light along the top edge. Although it only lasts a second, the vision will stick with you for a lifetime, making it well worth the wait if you can spot it.
As you identify all the key things to do in Encinitas, CA, allow for a little exploration in between, just in case you see something that strikes your fancy.
That way, you have enough time to stop in and experience all you want to see. But then again, if you do not get a chance to see it all, you can plan another fun trip to visit Encinitas soon. Thanks to the addition of some great Encinitas boutique hotels, more people are basing San Diego vacations here, which is just under 30 minutes from San Diego International Airport.