As I type this, it’s a sunny day during the first week of May in San Diego. The fury of emails landing in my inbox daily signal that since people are unable or uncomfortable heading overseas for summer vacations, Southern California is the “it” destination.

Summer for many families starts in May, but there is a lot to know if you want to visit my city during this popular month. You’ll need to be aware of an annual weather pattern that may impact what you do and pack.

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San Diego Weather in May

A Mai Tai cocktail sits on a ledge with the ocean and beach behind it.
A mai tai from the Beach and Taco Shack at Hotel del Coronado that I ordered in May.

Let’s address the elephant in the room that residents know well, but many travelers may not be aware of. San Diego (and coastal Southern California) experiences a weather phenomenon called “May Gray.”

The non-technical explanation for this is as follows. On any given day, we might have coastal low cloud cover in the morning that can sometimes burn off in the afternoon.

In El Nino years, with warmer ocean temperatures, the morning cloud cover tends not to form. Last year wasn’t an El Nino year, but we didn’t have much May Gray in 2020 (though we were under a stay-at-home order and couldn’t enjoy it anyway).

Our Microclimates

We have four microclimates in San Diego: coastal, inland valleys, mountains, and desert. The thing about May is that while it might be foggy on the coast, that’s not usually the case inland.

Our local television stations give weather forecasts by microclimates. However, if just punch in “San Diego” on your weather app, it’s may not give you the data you’re looking for. It’s giving you data for the City of San Diego in the coastal region, not for the full county.

Put in the city within San Diego County that you’re headed to like:

  • Coastal: Coronado, La Jolla, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Downtown San Diego
  • Inland Valleys: Rancho Bernardo, Escondido (where San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located), Ramona
  • Mountains: Alpine, Julian
  • Desert: Borrego Springs (where Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located)

Looking at the weather in each microclimate will help you decide what to pack (layers).

Here are your San Diego March weather statistics (coastal region):

  • Average temperature (high/low): 69°F/59°F
  • Rainfall: .1 inches
  • Days of rain: 1
  • Days of sunshine: 59%
  • Daylight: 14 hours
  • Ocean temperature (high/low): 64.5°F/60.7°F

Can You Go to the Beach in May?

Kids love the sandcastle man in front of Hotel Del Coronado
A May morning on the beach in Coroando.

Yes! You will start to see more San Diegans enjoying beaches in San Diego in May (especially later in the month) because the ambient weather is warmer and the ocean temperatures are ever-so-slightly warmer.

The time has changed and the days are longer. More people will be staying on the beaches to watch the sunset, maybe even scoring some fire pits where available for evening grilling.

What It’s Like to Swim in the Ocean

You’ll see people without wetsuits enjoying the ocean. Kids especially don’t seem to mind the chilly water. But, for water sports, you’ll want more warmth.

You can rent wetsuits, including kids’ sizes (call ahead for availability) at various surf shops and surfing schools around San Diego.


Advice for Booking Hotels in May

If you are thinking of visiting San Diego during the summer of 2021, please book your trip now. Many popular hotels are full already during some summer dates. Prices will only rise between now and September.

One question that I’m asked frequently is whether it’s still worth spending more for San Diego hotels on the beach during May Gray.

I say yes, because we may not have May Gray at all. Plus, most of the time, it burns off by the afternoon when most people go to the beach anyway.

However, if you want to avoid coastal cloud cover, you could stay inland, but this isn’t a guarantee of perpetual sunshine. You can check into the lovely Rancho Bernardo Inn (a great option in any weather but located in our Inland Valley microclimate).

The spa pool at Rancho Bernardo Inn, one of the best luxury hotels in San Diego.
The spa pool at Rancho Bernardo Inn

You’ll be near San Diego Zoo Safari Park, have easy access to golf and spa on the resort, great pools, and they’ll take good care of you.

When it comes to price, the earlier you can come in May, the happier your wallet will be. As schools let out, the prices start to rise later in the month.

Book as soon as possible (I literally can’t say this enough because you never know what a difference a day makes — sometimes it’s $100/night).


San Diego May Events

May events in San Diego this year are food and drink related.

CINCO DE MAYO

Sure, a variety of our bars and restaurants offer special Cinco de Mayo promotions.

However, one of the best places to go in San Diego on Cinco de Mayo is Old Town San Diego. This year, they hosted a free-to-enter Fiesta Old Town Mercado – a Cinco de Mayo artisan mercado and dining event where many restaurants offered a variety of food and drink specials.

Why? The birthplace of California is one of the best places to experience the culture of Mexico without crossing the border.

Mother’s Day

This year, take mom to brunch at one of these fantastic restaurants offering Mother’s Day brunches.

SeaWorld Seven Seas Food Festival

Between now and May 31, head over to SeaWorld San Diego to taste your way around the world at their Seven Seas Food Festival.

The rides are not open in a limited capacity! There are also shows and indoor exhibits that are open. I’ve written in detail about how to buy discount SeaWorld San Diego tickets.


Things to Do in San Diego in May

In May 2021, there are thankfully much more things to do in San Diego in May than there were last year.

Visit the Carlsbad Flower Fields

Rows of ranunculus with the Pacific Ocean in the background.
You can see the ocean, too, from this part of coastal Carlsbad, California.

Mother’s Day is the final day to fill your Instagram feed with photos from the Carlsbad Flower Fields. Rows of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers cover a hillside near the coast in Carlsbad.

You can learn from Master Gardeners, let kids enjoy the playgrounds, shop for plants and flowers, and much more.

Pay Tribute to Our Military Service Personnel

Memorial Day is also in May and as a city full of U.S. Armed Forces members, there are plenty of fun and educational ways to honor and learn more about our armed forces. Here are a few:

  • Mount Soledad Veteran’s Memorial: It’s free to visit Mount Soledad to enjoy the views and read the stories of the people who served our country on the thousands of plaques that line the walls of the memorial.
  • USS Midway Museum: Our famous aircraft carrier turned museum hosts a weeklong virtual and onsite commemoration of Memorial Day called Legacy Week.
  • The Veterans Museum in Balboa Park: This museum also documents individual stories of U.S. Armed Forces members to preserve legacies and educate the public.

Go Grunion Running

Check the calendar of expected runs and head down to any of our wide sandy beaches at night to observe grunion spawning on the sand. During May, you are only allowed to observe them (no fishing).

ENJOY OUR THEME PARKS (CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS ONLY)

SeaWorld San Diego Manta roller coaster

Both LEGOLAND California and SeaWorld San Diego are open as theme parks to only California residents. This means that if you are a California resident, now is the time to ride the rides and visit before the out-of-state crowds come.

And, from what I can see, they are coming and rumor has it they’ll be allowed to visit starting in July (possibly in June right after our tier system lifts).

Reservations are necessary and you are to visit with no more than three households in total. I think LEGOLAND tickets are better off purchased directly right now but you can buy discount tickets to SeaWorld San Diego.

San Diego Zoo & San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Reservations are required but you can pick a day and go any time. Some activities have been modified but since their exhibits are outdoors anyway, you can enjoy a full day at either park.

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Grab a Hotel Pool Day Pass

In line with with taking advantage of theme parks when only CA residents are allowed, you may want to take advantage of local hotel pool cabana and day passes before June 15.

Hotel pool decks are less crowded thanks to fewer lounge chairs and people to meet proper distancing requirements. I have a hunch, that pool chairs will be added back in after that. And, that some pools that currently require reservations will no longer require them.

Whether your an in-house guest or a day guest, our hotels book their pool cabanas, chairs, and other activities through ResortPass. Pool decks you can take advantage of include:

Browse all San Diego ResortPass hotels and resorts.


What to Wear in San Diego in May

Your San Diego packing list for May includes layers. You’ll need shorts and t-shirts for when the May Gray disappears, but will likely want to bundle up in the mornings. A jacket or sweater is still necessary at night, specially in the beginning of the month.

Here’s what to put in your suitcase:

  • Face coverings — they are still required everywhere you’re not 6′ away from someone and in many attractions no matter the distance between you and other guests
  • Lightweight jacket for the afternoons and evenings
  • Athleisure (a San Diego wardrobe staple for both men and women — like Athleta or Lululemon)
  • Hiking shoes for trails
  • Bathing suit and cover-up
  • Rashguard or UV shirt for sun protection and warmth
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat for sun protection
  • Flip flops
  • Shorts
  • T-Shirts
  • Pants or jeans
  • Sweaters or sweatshirts
  • Comfortable walking shoes for sightseeing
  • Casual cotton dress or collared shirt, sweater, and nice jeans (if you plan to dine in one of our nicer restaurants )
  • Sweaters and sweatshirts for after sunset at the beach

Lifestyle: What Residents Are Up To

Aside from wearing face coverings when out and about, life is starting to feel more “normal” here.

It’s a fantastic time to be a tourist at home before the peak summer season. Our restaurants are open, most of our museums are open, our beaches are open, and even our movie theaters are starting to reopen.

Weather and temperature sources: seatemperature.org, currentresults.com, NOAA