Pacific Beach, more commonly referred to as PB by locals, is beloved for three characteristics. It’s a longtime family-friendly suburbia and a casual beach town, though over the past few decades it’s also evolved into a bar and restaurant hub favored by college students and young adults. Being aware of these three coexisting realities will help you enjoy a beach day out in Pacific Beach.
From Tourmaline Beach to North Pacific Beach to Pacific Beach, here is your complete guide to this neighborhood’s beaches.
How to Get to Pacific Beach
Bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, Interstate 5 to the east, Mission Beach to the south, and La Jolla to the north, two primary freeways offer access to the Pacific Beach neighborhood. They are Interstate 8 (running east to west) on its southern end and Interstate 5 (running south to north) on its northern end.
From I-5, take the Grand/Garnet exit west to enter Pacific Beach and follow the markers. Both Grand Avenue and Garnet Avenue cut across the neighborhood and end at the beach.
From I-8, take the W Mission Bay Drive exit, follow W Mission Bay Drive to Mission Boulevard and turn right to access the neighborhood.
If you’re traveling from La Jolla or Mission Beach, you won’t even need to hop on a freeway. Simply follow Mission Boulevard, which runs north and south, parallel to the ocean, through the entire Pacific Beach neighborhood.
What to Know Before You Go
Note from Katie about Pacific Beach: I enjoy walks on the boardwalk, especially at sunset, and we do come to PB often for this and that. Even on the quieter north end of the boardwalk, close to Law Street Beach and Pacific Terrace Hotel, you might still see and hear small clusters of homeless resting on the grassy areas along the boardwalk. I do not recommend that kids use the bathrooms on the boardwalk alone, not even teens, unless you’re watching. You might smell marijuana (it’s legal) and hear R-rated things. We’re used to it, but my many years of providing San Diego travel advice has led me to conclude that the eclectic PB crowd doesn’t suit everyone. It’s why some hotels outside of the area tell guests to go to La Jolla or Coronado beaches instead. But if you know all of this and what I’m about to share going in, you can have a nice beach experience here.
Due to its popularity, parking throughout Pacific Beach can be challenging. But, it’s not impossible to find a good spot, especially during low season (October to April) and on weekdays. High season (May to September) is more difficult, whether it’s a weekday or a weekend, due to the influx of tourists to this popular neighborhood.
Free street parking is abundant, not only along Grand and Garnet Avenues but on many side streets as well, including on the suburban streets that surround the beaches. You’ll have the best luck finding free parking during the high season if you arrive before 10 a.m.
There are also paid lots, metered parking, and a few free parking lots like the small parking lot at Tourmaline Beach. Patience is key during high season. Expect it to take some time, and you won’t get frustrated with the beach traffic.
Pay attention to parking signs that limit the length of stay. Pacific Beach contracted tow companies aggressively monitor parking. And while looking for parking spaces be mindful of the many pedestrians and bicyclists who might not always be paying close attention.
Pacific Beach is one of only nine beaches in San Diego that has permanent lifeguard stations. The beaches are patrolled from 9 a.m. until dusk by San Diego lifeguards, but you should check with staff each day to find out their specific hours.
Lifeguard towers are staffed year-round from Mission Beach to North Pacific Beach. The main lifeguard tower is situated at the end of Grand Avenue.
Note that San Diego lifeguards are part of the Fire-Rescue Department, but are considered peace officers with the power to arrest. Did you know that not following lifeguard warnings is a misdemeanor, and harming a lifeguard is a felony?
Swimming & Surfing
The two most popular activities at Pacific Beach beaches are swimming and surfing.
For everyone’s safety, swim and surf areas off each of the major beaches are separated by black and yellow checkered flags posted between the zones. Signage indicates which activity is permitted on which side of the flags. These flags are not put up during ‘off-peak’ months, and even during the summer are put up about 9 a.m. or so each day. If you’re still unsure, ask a lifeguard.
Local surfers frequent these beaches because of the consistent surf. They have a long tradition of established surf etiquette. So if you’re new to PB or just visiting, be sure to adhere to the lineup, and don’t surf waves out of turn. Everyone will have a more pleasant surf experience.
Lifeguards recommend that you never swim or surf alone. Lifeguard towers have signs illustrating rip currents, which not uncommon on Pacific Beach. It’s always best to swim unfamiliar waters near lifeguard towers to ensure your safety. If you’re in the water and hear the lifeguards on their loudspeakers (it can be hard to understand what they’re saying), they’re likely warning you of a rip current or other hazard or announcing that they’re going off duty at the end of the day. In either case, it’s wise to get out of the water. Learn what to do in a rip current.
Learning how to surf is a quintessential San Diego experience for all ages. Licensed San Diego surf schools offer lessons and rental equipment right on the beach here as well.
Note from Katie: My daughter and her friends learn how to surf at San Diego Surf School summer camps that can run half-day or full-day. Tourists can drop in for a day or an entire week. Private lessons are also available and a nice family activity. The boards are made from foam, and they usually can get you up on one in a matter of a morning.
Scuba Diving & Snorkeling
Both scuba diving and snorkeling are permitted activities at PB beaches, but there are other better spots along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline. If you do plan on engaging in either activity here, contact the Beach Information Line at 619-221-8824 to get the latest surf information first. You must always check in with lifeguards before diving.
Ocean Front Walk
Ocean Front Walk is a 2.3-mile paved walkway simply referred to as “the boardwalk” by locals. It runs from the north end of North Pacific Beach to the jetty at the south end of Mission Beach.
It’s a popular place to walk, jog, Rollerblade, and bike. Keep an eye out for local characters like Slomo and the bubble man. Near Crystal Pier begins the row of numerous bars, restaurants, and shops, including places for bike rentals. Note that the boardwalk speed limit is 8 mph.
Historic Crystal Pier roughly separates North Pacific Beach from Pacific Beach. It’s an excellent vantage point for watching North Pacific Beach surfers. You can capture great photos of both the surfers and the shoreline.
Access to the pier on foot is free and open to the public. Don’t let the gates at the Mission Blvd entrance dissuade you. It’s also home to quaint Cape-Cod-style cottages that are available for rent (imagine the lull of ocean waves beneath your cottage), but you’ll need to plan way ahead for this in-demand experience.
You might get lucky during whale watching season by keeping an eye out at the end of the Pier. Bring a camera any time of the year.
Crystal Pier is the only public fishing pier in Pacific Beach. There is a seasonal tackle and bait shop on the pier that sells snacks and nonalcoholic beverages. You are not required to have a fishing license to fish from the pier, but catch regulations are strictly enforced. Check with the bait shop if you’re unsure of catch regulations.
There are no boat launches at any beaches in Pacific Beach. The closest boat launches are across Mission Boulevard on Mission Bay. San Diego’s only oceanfront boat launch area is at La Jolla Shores beach in La Jolla.
Beach fire pits are extremely popular on San Diego beaches on cool summer evenings, but of the three beaches in Pacific Beach, they’re only available at Tourmaline Beach. Even then, these pits are in a grassy picnic area adjacent to the parking lot, and not on the beach itself] .
There are some rules and regulations for their use. First, they’re available on a first come, first served basis, and are typically only available during the summer months. Fires can’t be outside the container, and must be extinguished by midnight. (No fires between midnight and 5 a.m.) You can only burn wood, paper products, and charcoal. Burning rubbish is prohibited.
You can use fuel for fires, but flames can’t exceed 12 inches above the fire container’s upper edge. All extinguished coals must be removed and deposited in designated hot coal containers before you leave the beach.
Pets at the Beach
While there are some pet-friendly beaches in San Diego where dogs can run wild and free, Pacific Beaches aren’t among them. PB beaches do NOT allow dogs on the beach between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. during summer, and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. the rest of the year.
This includes the boardwalk and adjacent parks. Dogs must be on-leash during dog walking hours. Restrictions don’t apply to service animals. Owners must clean up after their pets.
The closest place for off-leash dogs is Fiesta Island in Mission Bay.
The boardwalk and the beach areas adjacent to the boardwalk are wheelchair accessible, and the main lifeguard tower off Grand Avenue offers a limited number of wide-tire beach wheelchairs for those who request them.
Some beach regulations that apply to all three PB beaches, plus adjacent bluffs, walkways, sea walls, parking lots, and park areas. Regulations include no alcoholic beverages, no smoking, no littering, no glass containers, no overnight sleeping or camping, and no disturbing noises like loudspeakers and blow horns.
Large Group Limits
Any social gathering of 50 or more people requires a permit from the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department. This is also a requirement for any weddings, athletic events, water events, and the use of music or voice amplification as well as specialized equipment like a canopy, party jump, or dunk tank.
The Three Beaches of Pacific Beach
Nestled between the La Jolla and Mission Beach neighborhoods, Pacific Beach offers three unique beaches, each with its own personality and amenities. They are Tourmaline Beach, North Pacific Beach, and Pacific Beach. Here’s what to expect.
Tourmaline Beach: Surfers’ Paradise
The northernmost beach in Pacific Beach is Tourmaline Beach and Surf Park. It sits on the border of Pacific Beach and La Jolla and is a surfers’ paradise. You’ll find it off La Jolla Boulevard at the end of Tourmaline Street.
This rocky beach is popular with local surfers (you’ll see regulars congregating and talking in the parking lot). Beachgoers with varied interests enjoy it too. There are those who walk their dogs, sunbathe, get in a quick beach jog, explore the tide pools on the north end, or take in a picturesque sunset.
The waves are “slow rollers,” ideal for beginners and longboard enthusiasts. You’ll often see locals gathered in the parking lot chatting and watching the waves.
On certain days when the wind is up, you’ll even find a few kiteboarders and windsurfers shredding along the shoreline. This is not a swimmers’ beach.
- Sunset Watching
- Dog Walking (leashed, before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m.)
- Picnicking/gathering around fire pits
- Winter tide pooling
Amenities: Just off the parking lot, there is a public bathroom and showers (the bathroom can be gritty). There is also a small picnic area on one side of the parking lot with picnic tables and BBQs. The beach is lifeguard protected.
Parking: The free, medium capacity parking lot is free although it may be difficult (okay, let’s call it typically impossible) to score a spot during peak season. The lot is most likely to have available spots during low season on weekdays.
North Pacific Beach
Running south from Tourmaline Beach to almost the iconic Crystal Pier, North Pacific Beach is a wide stretch of beach. It’s an especially popular area for tourists since both Tower23 and Pacific Terrace hotels are located here.
There are two permanent lifeguard towers on this beach; one is located at Law Street, and the other is located on Diamond Street. Both locations have public restrooms nearby.
Among the beaches in Pacific Beach, this beach at Law Street is the one I prefer the most for my family, and we do meet friends here often in the summer.
There are lifeguard protected swim areas, and San Diego Surf School sets up here for officially licensed surf camps, lessons, and rentals. It’s a good place to learn how to surf since the waters tend to be calmer and the waves are usually good for beginners (see above notes about surfing school).
This beach is also where the Ocean Walk boardwalk begins, so there are a lot of restaurants and shops within walking distance. Tower23 Hotel with JRDN restaurant inside is at the south end of the beach here.
- Boogie Boarding
- Fishing (Crystal Pier only)
- Walking/Jogging/Cycling along Ocean Front Walk boardwalk
Amenities: There are bathroom facilities located at both Law and Diamond Streets. The bathrooms located at Law were recently renovated and are pretty nice as far as beach bathrooms go. Be sure to accompany children, even teens, to the one near Diamond Street.
Grassy parks and benches along the boardwalk atop the bluffs offer beautiful ocean views. There are two permanent lifeguard towers, plus additional towers during high season (May to September).
Parking: There isn’t a main parking lot available along North Pacific Beach. You may find a few paid lots in the area surrounding the beach, but your best bet is residential street parking. Thankfully, it’s pretty plentiful on many side streets, including Diamond and Law Streets. During the summer it will be harder to find a spot, and you should expect a trek to the beach once you do locate one. It’s best to come before 10 a.m. during peak season.
Dropping one adult off with the kids and gear at the beach while the other finds parking is a good strategy. There are stairs from the bluffs to the beach at five side streets: Felspar Street, Diamond Street, Chalcedony Street, Law Street, Crystal Drive, and Loring Street.
Wide, sandy Pacific Beach is by far one of the most popular beaches in all of San Diego. Running from roughly Crystal Pier to Reed Avenue (the indistinguishable start of Mission Beach) near Lahaina’s, this beach was once the party beach for college students and young adults before the community voted for a beach ban on alcohol.
As the neighborhood demographic continues to evolve, so will the vibe of this beach. For now, it’s still predominantly a younger crowd. Expect young, tan singles in board shorts and bikinis playing Frisbee, horseshoes, and beach volleyball among the mass of sunbathers.
Positioned at the end of both Grand and Garnet Avenues, Pacific Beach is central to all the action. This is where the most popular restaurants, bars, coffee shops, ice cream stands, fashion boutiques, and surf shops call home.
The boardwalk is teeming with young folks lounging on the sea wall watching the throngs of sunbathers on the beach and keeping tabs on the flow of traffic along the boardwalk. You’ll find everything from kitschy souvenirs to bicycle rentals to beachfront bars along the boardwalk here.
- Walking/Running/Cycling along the boardwalk
- Fishing at Crystal Pier
- Bar hopping
Amenities: There are two main lifeguard stations, one is located on Grand Avenue and one at Pacific Beach Drive. You’ll find bathroom and shower facilities near each. Shower facilities can also be found at the end of Garnet Avenue near Crystal Pier.
Parking: There are small parking lots available at the end of Grand Avenue and Pacific Beach Drive, although these fill up quickly. There is plenty of available street parking along Mission Boulevard, Garnet and Grand Avenues, and on many side streets that run perpendicular and parallel to the beach. You will also be able to find a few paid parking lots nearby. On holiday weekends, some local residents even offer up their yards to parking for a fee.
Where do you like to go to the beach in Pacific Beach?