A San Diego sightseeing itinerary should include a visit to La Jolla attractions as many are the most noteworthy in the region. La Jolla delivers beautiful beaches full of marine life, spectacular views, edutainment and, of course, plenty of opportunities to enjoy our famous sunshine. Many of the best things to do in La Jolla are walkable from each other. If your favorite is missing, please let me know!
La Jolla Shores Beach
I direct people looking to spend a day at the beach to La Jolla Shores Beach. It’s the largest stretch of flat sand we have which means there is plenty of space to spread out even on busy days.
The ocean here is typically excellent for swimming but surfing is allowed on the north side. It’s actually one of the best places to learn how to surf in San Diego as the reefs cause the waves to break gently most of the time. A variety of reputable, licensed companies like Surf Diva can teach you how to hang ten here.
Adjacent to the beach is a playground and huge grassy area called Kellogg Park. A number of convenience stores and restaurants in the La Jolla Shores business district are within walking distance. You could easily spend a whole day in this casual beach area.
The parking lot fills up quickly during peak days so be sure to arrive early. You may also park on the residential streets. Dogs are allowed before 9:00 a.m. and again after 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. depending on the season.
Head to La Jolla Shores Beach and walk north to the Scripps Pier. It is one of the world’s largest working piers and enables scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to monitor changes in the Pacific Ocean as well as study sea life. The pier also pumps about 1.8 million gallons of seawater to the institute’s tanks.
Why go? This is one of the most popular places to take photos in La Jolla and in all of San Diego, actually, for family portraits, Instagram and the like. Snap a pic underneath the pylons or near the pier first thing in the morning or at sunset for a postcard-worthy shot. Occasionally, Full Moon Pier Walks are available to the public otherwise it isn’t possible to walk on the pier.
La Jolla Underwater Park
La Jolla Shores Beach is also a point of access into the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, a protected ocean area full of marine life including magnificent kelp, orange garibaldi (California’s state fish), leopard sharks, rays and more.
You can explore it by swimming out from the beach, but the experience is definitely enhanced by snorkeling, scuba diving, stand-up paddle boarding, scuba diving or kayaking around the park, including near our famous sea caves. Certain areas permit fishing (you’ll need a fishing license, however). Bring your GoPro for some fantastic photos.
And, if you come in the summer when leopard sharks incubate, you may witness the incredible spectacle above. Read more about how to see the La Jolla leopard sharks.
Sunny Jim Sea Cave
Sunny Jim Sea Cave is the only sea cave in California that is accessible by land. The old wooden staircase leading into the cave is actually inside of the Cave Store on Coast Blvd. Work on the tunnel to connect the sea cave to land began in 1902. Sunny Jim was also named by Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, because the opening of the cave looked like a mascot for a British cereal also called Sunny Jim. A platform inside the cave allows guests to enjoy the barking sea lions and rumble of the ocean. The view is quite pretty as well. You only need about 30 minutes or less to enjoy it. Be mindful that the stairway is old and can be slippery.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is small but packs a punch. There’s a little beach here for sunbathing and swimming that is flanked by rocky points on both sides where sea lions and birds hang out. The combination of wildlife and beach as well as easy entry into the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park near the sea caves makes this a must-visit on a La Jolla vacation. If tides are low, small tide pools reveal themselves here, too.
You don’t have to be on the beach to appreciate La Jolla Cove, however. A walkway along the coast wraps around La Jolla Cove and south to the Children’s Pool for a leisurely stroll with optimal ocean and wildlife viewing.
Ellen Browning Scripps Park
This wide expanse of grass is home to windblown trees thought to have influenced the Truffula trees in The Lorax, written by La Jolla’s most famous resident, Dr. Seuss. Never too crowded (unless there’s a major event happening), it’s the perfect place for kids to run freely, picnics, frisbee, dog walks and more. The little green huts lining the coastal path here are awesome to hang out in, too. This park borders La Jolla Cove and its nearby little beaches (Boomer Beach and Shell Beach) and the walkway will then lead you south to the Children’s Pool (below).
This is where the La Jolla seals mostly reside. The Children’s Pool sea wall was build in the 1930s to create a safe place for children to swim. The area filled with sand and the seals moved in. There is a rope barrier on the beach that keeps the seals protected from humans but you can capture some fantastic photos here from a respectful distance. As you can see, people just love looking at them sleep, hobble around on the sand and the like. It’s mesmerizing. If the swells cooperate, you can walk onto the sea wall.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (Closed for Renovation)
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) has a La Jolla branch on Prospect Street in a building that was the former home of local philanthropist, Ellen Browning Scripps. The ocean views from here are spectacular as is the contemporary art collection. Be sure to check the schedule in case a free public tour other similar event is happening. Not-to-be-missed is the Art Lab downstairs where you can channel creativity at leisure and the outdoor Edwards Sculpture garden. This is also a kid-friendly museum so do not be afraid to bring them along. They’ll love the pop culture art, especially.
Pair a visit with breakfast or lunch at the delicious Museum Cafe, one of my favorite places in La Jolla to grab a salad al fresco.
Map and Atlas Museum
The Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla is certainly one of our hidden gems. The museum showcases a portion of collector and La Jolla resident Michael Stone’s over 500 rare maps and atlases that span the course of five centuries. He is a leading authority on cartography and it is a place that even kids will enjoy visiting. They’ll love the celestial maps, the series of maps showing California as an island and much more. The museum will do school tours and scout patches. The museum is located on the bottom floor of the Merrill Lynch building on Fay Street.
Do check opening hours before going. Right now, the museum is open every Wednesday and Thursday as well as the first and third Saturdays of each month from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (closed on major holidays). Admission is always free.
La Jolla Recreation Center
I’m learning to appreciate the La Jolla Recreation Center more and more as the years go by. It used to be a place to burn off steam after preschool. My daughter and her friends still love the play structures and bolting across the blacktop to play wall ball or whatever.
The thing is, adults can and should enjoy it, too. Shoot hoops on the basketball courts or practice tennis solo on the backboards. In exchange for your driver’s license, it’s possible to check out balls and other sports equipment from the office. Rest or refuel at the picnic tables, too. Of course, there are classes and other programming to take advantage of. The Museum of Contemporary Art is right across the street. This isn’t a place to go out of your way to visit on vacation, but it’s perfect if you’re in hotel in the downtown La Jolla area and the kids need to burn off steam.
If on a family vacation in La Jolla, definitely visit the kid-friendly public exploration center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. The Birch Aquarium is a fun visit for a few hours to see the over 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and beyond.
The museum showcases the climate, earth and ocean discoveries of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography throughout including some fun hands-on exhibits. There is a fun tide pool display on the outdoor patio (in addition a spectacular panoramic ocean view) where docents share tidbits about the types of creatures who live in them like sea stars, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs and more. You can even touch some of them.
See also: Best Guide to Birch Aquarium at Scripps
The Stuart Collection, is an amazing series of 18 pieces public art to enjoy on the campus of UC San Diego. Once you park, it’s free to explore and makes for an interesting scavenger hunt of sorts for yourself or with kids in tow. The sculptures are enormous with some integrated into buildings and existing landscaping. For an enriching self-guided tour, download the iPhone app which features videos explaining each piece from conception to installation. Download and print a map that will guide you around campus in more or less a circle to see the entire collection.
Torry Pines Gliderport
A somewhat hidden gem, the Torrey Pines Gliderport makes a worthwhile visit even if you have no intention of gliding off the cliffs. But, if you do, there are tandem rides for those who want to try it and instructors to teach those who want to learn to fly solo. It’s one of the most historic aviation sites in the country with over 100 years of flying history.
Most people come for the panoramic views made even more spectacular by colorful gliders in the sky. It’s quite zen up here, actually—the kind of place you don’t want to be in a hurry to leave. You could bring a picnic but the sandwiches at the Cliffhanger Cafe here are pretty good. It’s a super casual experience with usually plenty of parking in the dirt lot and a nice way to unwind perhaps after hiking Torrey Pines State Park or visiting Birch Aquarium as they are all up here near UC San Diego.
La Jolla Playhouse
The Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse rests on the campus of UC San Diego and hosts a number of productions that eventually make it big on Broadway (I saw Rent here decades ago and was a season ticket holder until parenthood got in the way). When visiting La Jolla, be sure to check their calendar of events to see if there is a performance that piques your interest. Highly recommend for a nice evening out.
Torrey Pines State Park
Home to the rare Torrey Pine tree (pictured above), our state park lies on the border of La Jolla and Del Mar. It’s an excellent place for a leisurely hike with the kids or without. The park is perched upon bluffs above the beach which means that you may be able to see dolphins or even whales during their annual migrations.
It is one of the few parks in our state system to have reserve status. This means that it is important to keep in mind that a number of rare plants and threatened animals call Torrey Pines State Park home. Only water is allowed to be brought in (no food). Dogs are not permitted. Do bring your camera. The park is open from 7:15 a.m. to sunset every day.
Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course
Yes, people come to La Jolla to follow in Tiger’s footsteps and play the famous Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course which is home San Diego’s prestigious annual PGA golf tournament, the Farmer’s Insurance Open. The courses are owned by the City of San Diego and border the ocean for spectacular views. Non-residents can call for reservations 8 to 90 days in advance. Residents with a valid City Resident Card and PIN can call 7 days in advance. Check rates and full tee time details.
Mt Soledad Vetaran’s Memorial
One of the best views in all of San Diego can be enjoyed from Mt. Soledad Veteran’s Memorial. Perched on the top of Mount Soledad, it’s a popular stop for the San Diego Trolley, a number of bike tours and many other visitors and residents. Unless there is rare heavy cloud cover, it’s possible to see over Mission Bay and down to Mexico, east over the mountains, north to La Jolla Shores, the pretty Mormon Temple and beyond. A grassy area provides a small space for kids to play on and picnics.
However, it is a veteran’s memorial. Over 3300 black granite plaques honor living and deceased veterans from the Revolutionary War through current day conflicts. Honorees include President Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, General Patton and many more. Docents are usually on hand to answer questions and show you where the more famous honorees are.
I would classify WindanSea Beach as more of a local’s spot but it’s worth mentioning if you happen to be staying in this part of La Jolla or like to surf. It’s not a beach for beach-going as the surf does pound against the rocks here, but it’s quite scenic. The iconic WindanSea shack is another popular spot for taking photos and generates a ton of nostalgia for people who grew up here. The shack was beaten down by El Nino, but I’m sure will be eventually resurrected.
Map of Things to Do in La Jolla
This map of La Jolla attractions gives you an idea of where everything is located. I was unable to pin the Scripps Pier but you can’t miss it once you arrive to La Jolla Shores Beach.
What are your favorite things to do in La Jolla?