There’s a lot to love about the most beloved San Diego tourist attractions. From beaches to boardwalks and even theme parks, these iconic destinations have thrilled tourists and locals alike for decades.
However, top attractions draw huge crowds that make the vacation experience a bit less tranquil. As such, those searching for serenity or something unique may be eager to pinpoint hidden gems in San Diego.
The good news? A quieter, more laid-back experience is possible if you do your research and visit with care. To help, I’ve highlighted several less well-known or trafficked spots worth adding to your itinerary.
1. Black’s Beach in La Jolla
Black’s Beach is familiar to both locals and tourists, but many avoid this destination simply because it takes extra work to access. Others are reluctant to visit because of its reputation as a nudist beach.
Yes, nudists spend time here, but the beach is vast enough (and the clothing-optional area small enough) that most visitors shouldn’t expect to encounter nudity.
As far as the trek to the beach goes, a strenuous hike down to it is possible (see Ho Chi Minh Trail below), or you can take a long walk along the sand via La Jolla Shores Beach in the south or Torrey Pines State Beach in the north only during low tide. Either way, you’ll be mesmerized by the dramatic cliffs, a quieter beach, and famous surf breaks (pros only).
2. Abandoned Route 163 and Juniper Staircase at Balboa Park
As one of San Diego’s most familiar destinations, Balboa Park is rarely considered a hidden gem. However, within this space are a variety of unique features that first-time visitors and even some residents tend to miss.
For example, a former part of Route 163 was once thought of as one of the nation’s most gorgeous drives.
Built in the 1940s, this once-popular route was supposed to be expanded in the 1960s. After early construction efforts, however, San Diego locals made their displeasure known. As such, a small piece of road was never completed.
This abandoned stub of highway can now be viewed by heading down Balboa Park’s Juniper Staircase. This rugged staircase is made up of almost 100 steps that lead down to Cabrillo Canyon. You can start the Juniper Staircase descent just north of Marston Point at the southwest corner of Balboa Park. This short expedition will take you to a great view of the Cabrillo Bridge with its majestic arches, followed by a glimpse of the never-completed route.
FUN FACTThe Cabrillo Bridge was inspired by ancient Roman aqueducts and was constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. One of the first people to ride over it future President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
3. Trees for Health Garden
Balboa Park is chock full of little-known spots, many of which provide a moment of serenity just steps from the park’s busiest locations.
The Trees for Health Garden is the ultimate example of this. While everyone else is hitting up the Japanese Friendship Garden (another must-visit), those in the know can escape to this area and learn all about the medicinal uses of various plants, such as mulberry and ginkgo.
4. Palm Canyon
Yet another Balboa Park gem, Palm Canyon was made possible by an important figure who deserves credit for some of San Diego’s best scenery.
Horticulturist Kate Sessions was hugely influential throughout Southern California, where she was responsible for introducing several of the beloved plants that visitors gaze at to this day.
Her hard work has resulted in a little-known spot that can be accessed via winding paths. These lead to a true oasis, complete with dozens of palm species and many types of ornamental trees.
5. Coronado Sand Dunes
Coronado Island might seem like an odd choice for this list. After all, this heavily trafficked island is home to some of San Diego’s most iconic beaches and the Hotel del Coronado, which movie stars and politicians have been known to visit. Still, Coronado holds its fair share of secrets, and one is frequently missed if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
This ingenious idea was the brainchild of city employee Armando Moreno back in 1988, who was in charge of cleaning up huge deposits of kelp washed ashore after high tides. Rather than dispose of it, Armando created the sandy masterpiece over the next two years by burying the kelp in the sand and then planting ice plant on top of it—all in the design of the ‘Coronado’ letters.
The letters remained a secret to most, apart from Navy pilots who flew by, until Google Earth satellite photos revealed footage of it online. And Armando himself only saw his work from the sky in 2011 when a local pilot took him up.
The letters are situated just north of Beach Village at The Del. Whether you’re looking for an intense workout or a laid-back picnic, take some time away from your Coronado itinerary to see if you can notice the message from your vantage point on the beach.
6. SS Monte Carlo Shipwreck
After you’ve enjoyed your peek at the sand dunes, expand on your unique Coronado experience by searching for the SS Monte Carlo, which can be reached during very low tides during the winter season.
This mysterious ship often appears right after a huge storm, only to disappear again after a few days. Surprisingly few locals know that the shipwreck exists — and even fewer are aware of its history as a gambling and prostitution den.
You’ll find it south of Hotel del Coronado when it appears, which is only a few times per year at the most.
7. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
On the hunt for a San Diego hidden gem with canyon views in the middle of a neat neighborhood? Head to Bankers Hill to search for the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge just west of the Spruce Street and 1st Avenue intersection.
Spanning 375 feet, this pedestrian bridge built in 1912 was initially meant to help locals get across Kate Sessions Canyon and access the trolley.
It’s the only one of its kind in the county and it does wiggle or sway a bit when you walk over it. (It’s a ceremonious spot for local Girl Scouts to walk over when they “bridge” to the next level. We did this and it was fun.)
9. Musical Bridge
It’s not every day you get to walk across a bridge that doubles as a musical instrument. That’s exactly what you’ll find at the 25th Street Pedestrian Bridge (video), which local children refer to as the Musical Bridge.
The rails on this memorable bridge include chimes, which inspire noisy fun among kids and adults alike. Don’t forget to bring a stick or something else you can use to strike the chimes.
9. Mission Hills Park
Often referred to as Pioneer Park, this beloved picnic spot is well-known among local families. The playground should keep young kids happy, while grassy spaces provide plenty of room to move about for visitors of all ages.
The park’s real appeal as a hidden gem lies at its outskirts, where, if you look closely, you’ll encounter a row of headstones. At first glance, this seems to suggest a small cemetery. In reality, however, this space was once home to Calvary Cemetery, in which thousands of bodies were buried.
These days, ghost hunters can often be spotted here, as they find the concept of children frolicking above thousands of buried bodies downright eerie. This brings a whole new element to the usual park-based people-watching experience. Set aside an afternoon to take in this unique atmosphere — if you dare.
10. Visions Art Museum Near Liberty Public Market
Liberty Station and Liberty Public Market are worth visiting, even if you typically prefer to avoid crowds. The bustling market exposes you to exceptional cuisine.
Stop by the museum store to grab a souvenir far more memorable than anything you’ll find at conventional tourist gift shops.
11. Los Peñasquitos Canyon Trail
Another fun San Diego hike that warrants a visit when you want to break a sweat, this canyon trail promises waterfall views along the way.
It’s easy for beginners to navigate, although experienced hikers should find plenty to pique their interest. It’s safest to stay on the main trail to avoid the poison oak and snakes — and don’t forget to pack plenty of water.
12. Sunny Jim Sea Cave
La Jolla Cove is often a top item on a typical San Diego itinerary, but many visitors have no idea of the delight that lies just north of it at Sunny Jim Sea Cave. It’s one of the only La Jolla sea caves to be accessible by land.
This unique name can be traced back to author Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame, according to legend. He felt that the shape of the cave’s opening looked a lot like the British Force Wheat Cereal mascot. The caves have also been used as a movie location for several pirate-themed flicks.
Beyond the name, Sunny Jim Cave is worth checking out not only for its rugged appeal but also because of the gift store which houses the staircase entrance to the cave.
Once thought to be a speakeasy, it now houses a cute boutique with products spanning from trendy to quirky.
13. Mar Scenic Trail
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension is an oft-missed portion of San Diego’s stunning state park. There, you’ll find a short trek known as the Mar Scenic Trail.
There’s little competition for the ocean views it provides, so bring your camera and prepare to travel slowly as you snap pictures.
Feel free to combine this short walk with a quick jaunt on the Daughters of the American Revolution trail. Use the map to find both.
14. Broken Hill Trail Loop
Another underutilized Torrey Pines option, Broken Hill is relatively easy to navigate, despite its numerous stairs.
Although it’s definitely busier than the Mar Scenic Trail, it’s not nearly as crowded as some of the area’s better-known paths, and you will see plenty of beloved Torrey pine trees.
If you’re especially determined to enjoy a tranquil hike in which you see as few people as possible, stop by early in the morning for a quiet visit.
15. Harper’s Topiary Garden
The blooms of San Diego attract a great deal of attention in the spring, and for a good reason: they’re downright stunning. Often, however, the most Instagrammable spots are also the most crowded.
At Harper’s Topiary Garden, however, you’ll discover a scene far different than the hustle and bustle of other green spaces. This unique spot proves that even an ordinary home can become an attraction when talented, hardworking residents are involved. There are around 50 life-sized figurines – all trimmed by hand, and the house/garden owners chose the various shapes by drawing inspiration from their travels through Asia, Europe, North Africa, and North America.
Just keep in mind that it is a private residence. Drive or walk by and keep going. It’s a quick stop but worth visiting on your way to Pioneer Park or the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge.
16. La Jolla Secret Swings
Most of the locations on this list can easily be found either by wandering around a particular neighborhood or simply using your favorite navigation app on your phone.
The La Jolla Secret Swings are a bit different. They exist in a few different locations (which can change), and they can often be taken down by the City, probably for safety reasons. This makes for either a frustrating hunt or a fun expedition — it all depends on your perspective.
Some are just a short hike from the Birch Aquarium par, and there’s one in the La Jolla Cove area – but these could have already changed! You can check Instagram for recent sightings and to see if anyone has been swinging on one lately.
17. South Bay Salt Works
The Industrial Revolution might not seem like a time you want to pay homage to while visiting Southern California, but this San Diego hidden gem should convince you otherwise.
Located near Chula Vista, the destination is unlike anything else you’ll see while exploring San Diego. Be sure to stop by if you’re in the mood for something unique.
An active operation, the South Bay Salt Works harnesses the power of evaporation to extract salt from seawater. The salt ponds found there also provide a much-needed refuge for several endangered species.
They can be accessed via a path from nearby Swiss Park. This area is also great for bike riding, so rent wheels and explore at your own pace.
18. Terramar Beach
The main stretch of this beach is actually right alongside Highway 101, but it mostly looks inaccessible due to seemingly dipping below the road so that the sandy part of the beach is hard to spot. It’s most definitely worth a visit, though.
Once on the beach, it can be a surprise to discover that it’s much bigger than you’d ever imagine having only seen it from the road, and the walk from one end to the other is exquisite. It’s peaceful, feels totally unspoiled, and is largely hidden from the street view.
You can access the beach from either the very north end (down a long flight of stairs) or the very south end. Parking is limited at both ends, and it’s definitely best to visit at low tide if you want to walk the entire width of the beach. The north end is completely cut off from the rest of the beach during high tide, but it’s still fun to sit on the rocks and watch surfers or the sunset during this time.
19. Swami’s Beach
Staying in north county San Diego, you’ll want to check out another amazing beach hidden from view, this time in Encinitas. Even locals often overlook Swami’s in favor of more popular family-friendly beaches like Moonlight Beach. But provided you can find it, this hidden paradise is a whole different San Diego beach experience.
You have to access the beach via a tiny parking lot and a long and winding staircase that leads to the sand. The view from the top of the staircase is stunning in itself, though, and looks like a view you would expect in Thailand. Tall skinny palms sway along the coastline and you can spot the pretty cove as it unfolds along the shoreline. The actual beach is not that deep up to the bluffs, but it never feels crowded simply because it’s largely unknown, and the steep stair access puts some people off.
Due to limited parking at the actual beach and the stairs, Swami’s is great for taking towels, an umbrella, and not much else. You can nearly always find free street parking along the road next to the Encinitas Temple and Meditation Gardens.
20. Ho Chi Minh Trail in La Jolla
Ho Chi Minh Trail (also called Saigon Trail) has been used by surfers since the 1960s, and its unique name was inspired by the infamous jungle trail the Viet Cong used during the Vietnam War. It takes you to Black’s Beach in La Jolla and some interesting photo opportunities.
We used to have it higher on this list, and I thought about removing it completely. However, I want you to know a few things about it. This hike is not for the faint of heart as it can be treacherous. Anyone afraid of tight spaces will want to avoid it. Lifeguards have had to perform rescues here because people attempt it uninformed, diverting resources away from others.
Plus, some opportunists have decided to lead hiking tours here, degrading the trail, much to the dismay of people who know and use it. So, please keep all of the above in mind before attempting this hike.
Set Aside Time for San Diego Hidden Gems
Secret spots abound throughout San Diego and its surrounding communities. There’s no need to deal with tons of tourists when you can enjoy the peace and exclusivity of the best hidden gems in San Diego.
Please remember that these are typically not high-trafficked areas, so please visit with care and leave them as you found them.