The city of San Marcos in North County San Diego County rarely gets the attention it deserves. Because neighboring towns Carlsbad and Encinitas are on the coast, San Marcos can often get left out of the vacation itinerary. But if you take the 20-minute drive inland from the beach, you’ll find plenty to do in this attractive and very family-friendly town, including expansive mountain and lake views, a fantastic hidden resort, plus numerous opportunities for couples, groups of friends, and entire families to be entertained.
There has been major expansion and renovation in San Marcos in the last five or so years, and the city is rapidly growing. The huge ‘North City’ development, right off the I-78 and next to Cal State San Marcos University, was designed to rival downtown San Diego, hence its name. The almost 200-acre site will continue to be developed over the next few years and include a hotel and major retail spaces.
For now, though, there is plenty to do during a visit to San Marcos. Its crown jewel is Lake San Marcos, which is completely hidden from view from the road. You can literally drive the main roads around the lake and have no idea it even exists! But don’t be fooled, this waterfront oasis is definitely worth a visit, and especially a weekend stay at the beautiful Lakehouse Resort on the lake’s shore.
But the lake and its natural beauty are just part of San Marcos’s allure. And whether your idea of the perfect day in north San Diego County involves hiking, lounging by the lake, or hitting up great vineyards or breweries, you should have no trouble finding attractions in and around the town.
As a North County local, I enjoy introducing residents and vacationers alike to the hidden gems of the region, and I’ve compiled a list of the best things to do in San Marcos, CA.
1. Lake San Marcos: Stay, Play & Eat
As mentioned above, you need to know about this lake in advance as you probably won’t just stumble across it. Despite being located in the middle of a residential area, this hidden gem is entirely hidden from surrounding roads and doubles as a fantastic resort destination, thanks to the beautiful Lakehouse Resort (see below).
The stunning lake – which is around 1.3 miles long – is largely surrounded by waterfront houses in addition to the resort and is flanked to one side by the mountains of San Marcos, which are dotted with mansions and full of meandering hiking trails.
Swimming in the lake is prohibited, but you can kayak or paddleboard to your heart’s content. The marina rental office is located on the lake in front of the resort and also hires out water trikes, paddle boats, and Duffy boats. A recent addition to the water activities for those in a romantic mood are gondolas, which you can rent from The Black Swan Gondola Company.
The whole lake has a very tranquil vibe, and if you carefully explore the lake’s edge in certain parts, you’ll find plenty of small ponds and wildlife that will delight the kids. All in all, Lake San Marcos is a fantastic destination for either a day trip or a vacation.
The Lakehouse Hotel & resort
Address: 1025 La Bonita Drive, San Marcos, CA 92078
If you want to stay overnight at Lake San Marcos, check out The Lakehouse Resort. In fact, you may go to the lake for the day and not want to leave. It’s that beautiful!
This upscale hotel was completely renovated in 2013 and is now a laid-back but chic destination for families and groups of friends alike. The 140+ rooms are stylishly decorated with an aquatic theme, and you can also rent little cottages with large decks with firepits that face onto the lake.
Guests get complimentary cruiser bike rentals for exploring the lake’s many bike paths, plus a s’mores kit upon arrival for use at one of the resort’s many open firepits. Dogs are also welcome.
Address: 1035 La Bonita Dr., San Marcos, CA 92078
This huge two-level restaurant overlooking the lake is located next to (but not owned by) The Lakehouse Resort and is a major hotspot in San Marcos. It can be hard to get a table at Amalfi even early in the week, so be sure to book in advance.
It started life as Decoy Restaurant when the Lakehouse Resort first opened and quickly became popular. It was taken over and transformed into Amalfi Cucina in 2020, but the sophisticated décor remained largely unchanged.
Downstairs, the restaurant juts out slightly onto the lake, and the sides are open, so it’s great on warm evenings. It has a very friendly casual vibe, lovely tables overlooking the lake, TVs for sports, and a great bar. The upstairs restaurant is cavernous but stunningly decorated. Think elegant with a warm ambiance. It used to be pricey and more of a special occasion spot, but ever since the whole restaurant turned into Amalfi, you can enjoy fantastic Italian food upstairs in splendid style at more reasonable prices.
2. The Links at Lakehouse (formerly St. Mark Golf Club)
Address: 1750 San Pablo Dr, San Marcos, CA 92078
Golf lovers and newbies alike can enjoy a scenic day out at The Links at Lakehouse, a championship golf course designed by Harry Rainville. Part of the Lakeside Resort, the club is overlooked by mountains and set amidst tranquil lake views.
Depending on your level or time restraints, you can choose between two 18-hole golf courses: The Links is a state-of-the-art championship golf course spanning 6,400 yards or the Executive Course for a par-58 that can be played under 4 hours across 2700 yards.
The semi-private club is open to resort guests and the public and also features a driving range and a Golf Academy offering a range of private or group lessons. Plus, you can fuel up with breakfast at The Grill, the club’s resident restaurant, before hitting the links or wind down afterward for lunch or dinner. The Grill also offers brunch and live music on the weekends.
3. North City
Address: 250 N City Dr, San Marcos, CA 92078
As mentioned in the intro, North City is the current huge development project underway in San Marcos. While there’s still plenty to be built, North City has a fantastic cluster of restaurants just off Barham Drive and Twin Oaks Valley Road. These include the huge and very family-friendly brewpub Draft Republic, upscale Italian eatery Buona Forchetta, the often-packed Umami Japanese Restaurant, a stylish but rather pricey coffee shop (Copa Vida), and the award-winning and locally-owned Wynston’s Ice Cream Co.
North City features large, attractive buildings rented out to students at California State University San Marcos, which is right across the street. The whole area is lovely to walk around, and there’s a great farmer’s market every Tuesday from 3–7 p.m., where you can enjoy live music on the lawn next door. There are also rotating live music acts here every Friday and Saturday evening.
If you’re a cycling fan or you happen to be in San Marcos in late April, North City plays host to the world-famous Belgian Waffle Ride. Get there early, though, as the crowds get huge.
4. Draft Republic
Address: 255 Redel Rd., San Marcos, CA 92078
A special shout-out should go out to this great location for families, thanks to its stylish 8-lane bowling alley, Full Swing Golf Simulator, video arcade, and large outdoor area with kids games plus shuffleboard and corn hole.
Draft Republic really feels like the centerpiece of North City with its whopping 28,000 sq ft space, even though it’s to one side of it. Did I mention the 40+ beer taps, stylish wooden bar, and great food? I highly recommend the Spicy Vegan Cauliflower Tacos or Surf & Turf Quesadilla.
Address: 285 Industrial St., San Marcos, CA 92078
Right next door to Draft Republic, and pretty much towering above it, is this world-class climbing center. The enormous space opens into what looks like a huge tunnel of various climbing walls, including a speed climbing wall. The impressive bouldering area upstairs includes an array of climbing options, including a slab wall, a spray wall, a competition wall, and an overhanging wall. There’s even a kids climbing wall to get the little ones started.
The Center also offers daily fitness and yoga classes and features a fully decked-out fitness room. Prices start at just $31 for a Day Pass ($21 for 4–7 yrs), or you can upgrade to Weekly or Monthly passes. Mesa Rim is a great option for a fun family day out or a laser-focused challenge for experienced climbers.
6. Golden Door Spa
Address: 777 Deer Springs Rd, San Marcos, CA 92069
This exceptional award-winning destination spa is world-famous for good reason. Founded in 1958, and renovated in 1973, the spa has played host to Hollywood greats from Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood to current-day luminaries Nicole Kidman and Oprah Winfrey. Specializing in week-long retreats, the Golden Door’s highly customized packages promise to rejuvenate your mind, body, and soul.
A week-long stay costs around $12,000 and includes up to 80 rejuvenating classes from art to fitness to dance (including Drum & Dance and 80’s Dance Party!), exquisite farm-to-table meals, and a daily massage.
Nestled in 600 acres of nature’s splendor, the spa’s grounds include Japanese gardens, avocado orchards, citrus orchards, bee hives, and tea gardens. Katie has been there, so you can read her Golden Door Spa review for more details. Guests typically book in for Sunday to Sunday stays, but occasionally, you can book in Sunday–Wednesday or Wednesday–Sunday.
The Golden Door Spa is renowned for its focus on nutrition and bio-intensive farming methods for guests, but if you prefer to feast on their amazing produce in your own home, you can visit their pretty country store in San Marcos to purchase seasonal, organic, and nutrient-rich harvests fare. The store also sells the spa’s hugely popular skincare brand.
The country store is located at 314 Deer Springs Road, San Marcos, and is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
7. Jack’s Pond Park and Nature Center
Address: 986 La Moree Road, San Marcos, CA 92069
The 23-acre park features a great Nature Center that’s full of hands-on exploratory activities and nature study for children, plus there’s a great playground, picnic areas, and restroom facilities. Tour the park at your own pace or sign up for one of the interpretive hikes.
The Nature Center is staffed by volunteers and aims to be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.–1 p.m., but I recommend calling ahead of your visit to double-check.
You’ll find the actual Jack’s Pond along a pretty hiking trail, but the water level can be pretty low. You should spot ducks, though, and plenty of flora and fauna along the trail. Just watch out for the Prickly Pear Cactus!
8. Double Peak Park
Address: 900 Double Peak Drive, San Marcos, CA 92078
Head to beautiful Double Peak Park for breathtaking scenic views. From this amazing vantage point of North County’s highest peak you can see downtown San Diego and Tijuana to the south on a clear day, and to the north you can spot Catalina Island. Plus you can gaze at the hot air balloons drifting along the coastline near Encinitas when they’re up.
You can drive right up to the park or park below and hike up the circular road. It’s not for the faint-hearted, though, as it’s a steep climb, but the spectacular views are worth it. Double Peak Park offers multiple hiking trails, where you can see for miles to the ocean — and often, you can even observe the often snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains from afar.
9. Discovery Lake
Address: 650 Foxhall Drive, San Marcos, CA 92078
This local lake is a popular place to sit back and relax as you observe the many bird species that inhabit the area. There is also a flat trail around the lake of around half a mile, which is a great option for jogging, scooting or just a regular walk.
The lake trail is also a pet-friendly location for leashed dogs. It’s a great alternative to the aforementioned rigors of Double Peak Park. The wooden pier is also a favorite for children to watch the ducks – just bear in mind it’s forbidden to feed them.
There’s a decent amount of park and street parking at the entrance of the park, and there’s also a playground where parents can kick back and watch the little ones play. There’s also a fun large fountain that kids are allowed to splash around in just before the trail leads down to the lake.
After circling the lake, you can climb higher into the surrounding hills on various trails if you prefer more of a challenge. A great option is the Discovery Lake to Double Peak trail, which is 4.2 miles long. It’s a little challenging due to the hills you’ll climb but the views of the surrounding nature are stunning. There have been mountain lion and coyote sightings but they’re rare.
10. Goat Yoga at The Blissful Goat
Address: It’s on private property, so the San Marcos address will be emailed to you upon booking.
The Goat Yoga craze first made news back in 2016, but it’s alive and kicking (hopefully not literally) – and definitely one of the most unique things to do – in San Marcos.
The Blissful Goat is run by chiropractor and life coach Dr. Star Bailey, who first brought goats to her San Marcos farm for the health benefits of their milk over ten years ago. She evolved the idea into a goat yoga practice when the craze took off, and it’s been a hit ever since.
While yoga may be awash with animal poses (downward dog, cat pose, frog, etc.) no animal quite gets in on the act like goats. During classes, Dr. Bailey’s furry friends roam around the space, jump from participant’s back to back, and provide a gentle massage as you ease into – and hold – poses.
The classes are all outdoors and last 75 minutes long to allow for cuddles and photos after. You can rent yoga mats for $3 or bring your own. The Blissful Goat also offers meditation, Neuro-Emotional Technique, and life coaching classes.
11. The Antique Village
Address: 850 Los Vallecitos Blvd, San Marcos, CA 92069
If you’re an antique lover and have some time on your hands, head to this unique indoor village where you can rummage around for hours in search of treasure. The Antique Village is home to over sixty unique booths, spans over 10,000 square feet, and is stocked with new merchandise daily. Favorite items to score here include furniture, pottery, tools, and fine china.
The Village is right next door to the Sky Zone trampoline park, so if you’re with kids who are getting bored of knick knack hunting, you can pop next door afterward where they can use up some of their energy.
12. Sunshine Mountain Vineyard
Address: 2286 Sunshine Mountain Rd, San Marcos, CA 92069
Test your knowledge of grapes with an adventure at the Sunshine Mountain Vineyard. Enjoy the elegant tasting room or take a seat on the outdoor patio around a firepit to savor the flavor of assorted wines while soaking up magnificent mountain views. You can also explore the vineyard’s three earthen caves, where their wines are aged to perfection in oak barrels.
A food menu is also available with assorted appetizers, entrees, enticing cheese platters, pizza, and desserts. This San Marcos vineyard is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday from noon to 7 p.m.
13. Meadiocrity Mead
Address: 1365 Grand Ave Suite 100, San Marcos, CA 92078
If you’re looking for an alternative to San Marcos’s many beer or wine options, check out Meadiocrity Mead. Mead is basically alcohol made from honey. It’s a fermented alcoholic beverage, which is also known as ‘honey wine,’ and is made primarily from honey, water, and yeast. It has quite the history and was a favorite alcoholic beverage eons before beer and wine. You may have heard mead mentioned in TV shows like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings.
Take a step back in time at Meadiocrity Mead’s tasting room in San Marcos, where you’ll find a variety of intriguing growlers and bottles. The outdoor space is lovely and you can order a flight and experiment with a variety of enticing flavors.
Address: 945 W. San Marcos Blvd, San Marcos, CA 92078
For a fun night out, hit up Bowlero with the family. This may be part of a chain, but the San Marcos location is definitely worth visiting. It has 40 bowling lanes, plus billiards and pool tables, an arcade full of state-of-the-art video games and pinball machines — and even beer pong for the adults.
Bowlero offers Night Strike and After Party options for those who want to bowl late into the night.
Address: 1180 W San Marcos Blvd, San Marcos, CA 92069
With ongoing schedules of new releases, this San Marcos theater offers various choices suitable for adults, teens, and small children. The family-friendly venue has top flicks showing during the day and evening, so you can stop by whenever you’re in the mood for a movie. Plush seating will keep you comfy, while snacks from the concession stand will surely get your mouth watering.
You can have a fantastic and varied experience if you hit up the many things to do in San Marcos, CA that include the attractions, recreational destinations, entertainment venues, and educational sites highlighted above. Start planning your San Marcos adventure today!