La Jolla, San Diego’s Jewel, is tucked away by the Pacific Ocean somewhere in the center-west of San Diego County. It’s a spot of paradise, that sometimes reminds me of Italy, but still has that unique spirit and beauty that make it La Jolla. I moved here five years ago, and even now find it hard to believe sometimes that I am actually a resident of La Jolla!
When I first moved to San Diego, and had very few friends, I would go to the La Jolla cove, either alone or with a book, and all of the cove became my friends – the lazy sea lions and the sharp seagulls, the grassy parks and the waves of the Pacific smashing against the rocks, all of them welcomed me to San Diego. They showed me that life can be lovely here. Slowly, I made more friends, and explored places other than the La Jolla cove and beaches, but they will always have a soft spot in my heart. From my early days with a book, to lazy picnics with friends, to being proposed to at Windansea Beach, to celebrating our wedding at the La Jolla Woman’s Club, some of my happiest moments have been in La Jolla.
This guide is a list of my favorite places in La Jolla, some are famous, some I stumbled upon, some were recommended to me by my friends and family, and some are recent additions. I hope this inspires you to someday visit one of my favorite places in the world!
WHAT TO DO
1. Hang out with the Sea Lions near the La Jolla Cove
Any guide book about La Jolla will direct you to the famous La Jolla Cove, with good reason. The rocks on the cove near Prospect Street are home to a large number of Sea Lions, seeing them laze on the rocks, sunbathing, will definitely be a great start to your vacation. Pro tip : Get here early in the day before the crowds of tourists hit. Once you have your fill of Sea Lions (the smell here is not the most pleasant), head further into Scripps Park then walk down Coast Blvd for more beautiful views of the Cove.
One of my favorite picnic spots is Cuvier Park, it’s less crowded while offering beautiful secluded views.
2. Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art for the Art and the Views
The Museum of Contemporary Art, right across from Cuvier Park, is home to cool art and very gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. It’s also free for those of you under 25.
Note : Unfortunately, the Museum is currently closed for renovations.
3. Kayaking, Paddle Boarding, Snorkeling or Surfing
You can rent kayaks, paddle boards and snorkels at La Jolla Shores to enjoy some water activities. I recommend the kayak tours to the Sea Caves, especially in the summer when you can kayak with dolphins! Pro tip : Do not take your cell phone on the kayak unless it is in a waterproof case.
4. Head to the Beach!
La Jolla is full of gorgeous beaches to suit every kind of traveler. Take for instance, Torrey Pines State Beach – close to a gorgeous hike along with amazing waves for surfers. Note that this is pretty crowded as the hikes here are quite touristy.
Or maybe Black’s Beach – San Diego’s only nude beach, if you are into that old man nudie scene.
And then there is La Jolla Shores, with soft sand, palm trees, a pier, and fire pits for those evening bonfires, this is your traditional beach, where you sink your toes in the sand and build the sandcastles of your dreams.
Even the La Jolla Cove has a beach of sorts, but not really a proper one because it is mostly covered with water.
My favorite one though, is Windansea Beach, another darling of surfers but not of many tourists. It’s clean and peaceful, and one of many moods, from crashing waves, to gentle strokes on the sand. You never know what you get with this beach unless you read the timings of the tides, but what fun is that? I love to go to Windansea, watch the surfers and smell the salty air. The sunsets here are some of the most amazing I have seen!
San Diego has quite a few good hiking trails, but my favorite are the ones by the ocean.
Torrey Pines State Park has a variety of trails, the best ones are those that go down to the beach (Note : These are currently closed due to recent winter weather, but should be opening up again soon). Make sure to check the tide schedules before you go, because I have ended up having to scramble on the rocks to prevent getting drenched quite a few times! Torrey Pines does get very crowded, so try to go early in the morning. Also, if you don’t want to pay for parking, park on the street near the intersection of Carmel Valley Road and Del Mar Scenic Pkwy. There is an entrance to the state park from there.
Another hiking option is walking down to Black’s beach from the Gliderport. There are a couple of choices here depending on how you are feeling. The easier route would be the stairs down to the beach, however if you are feeling up for a challenge then take the Ho Chi Minh trail from the Gliderport.
Remember, since your car is parked at the Gliderport, you have to walk all the way back up!
Are you looking for more of an aerial view of La Jolla? Then paragliding, instead of hiking, from the Gliderport may be more your style. I still haven’t had the chance to experience it but would love to hear from anyone who tries it!
6. Hike the Ho Chi Minh Trail from La Jolla Farms
If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you could try the Ho Chi Minh trail from La Jolla Farms. This is by far my favorite trail in La Jolla, because it is much less crowded and so much fun! You also get to see a slot canyon and walk through some tunnels!
If you decide to go, start near 9883 La Jolla Farms Road, not at the location Google Maps sends you if you type in Ho Chi Minh trail. After you get to the beach, you could either go back the way you came, or turn left (south), walk on the beach for a bit, and then head up the steepish path to La Jolla Farms Road enjoying some dreamy houses on the way back to your car! If you turn right at the beach, you might be subjected to some nude men, so be careful! There is a lot of scrambling involved on this trail, so don’t wear your best clothes. Full blog post on the Ho Chi Minh trail coming soon!
7. Visit the Salk Institute while at the Gliderport
The Salk Institute was founded by Jonas Salk in 1960 as a biological research institute. The campus, in La Jolla, was designed by architect Louis Kahn. It was one of the first places I saw in La Jolla because my cousin worked there, even now, I feel just as awed by the architecture as the first time I went there. On the outside it might seem plain to some, but I love how the water flows through the middle and then drops as if into the ocean, and that the building is shaped so that all the windows have an ocean view (to prevent fights between the professors?). Note : It is currently under some sort of construction, so maybe wait a few months before heading there.
8. Shop, Dine, Drink and House Hunt in Bird Rock
Bird Rock is a small community inside La Jolla, known for it’s eclectic shopping, lovely houses and roundabouts! Definitely pay at least one visit to Bird Rock, even if only to check out my favorite coffee shop Bird Rock Coffee Roasters!
9. Go shopping on Girard Avenue
Girard Avenue is lined with shops and restaurants on both sides, with a mix of designer shops, juice bars and boutiques. My favorites here are Adelaide’s Flower Shop (so dreamy!) and Warwick’s Bookstore (Fun Fact : Warwick’s is the oldest family owned bookstore in the US! They also have a giant chessboard outside for those of you who like a quick game). Of course, I also like to take a peek at Kate Spade once in a while, to see what’s new! If it rains during your visit (super unlikely but God forbid!), you could even try a cooking class at Sur La Table! (Read more about their cooking classes here).
Tip : If you cannot find parking on Girard, try Fey Ave or Eads Ave. There is usually a lot more parking there.
10. Scenic Drives
Of course, a gorgeous place like La Jolla is sure to have some amazing drives. Here is a list of my favorites :
- Drive down Prospect Street to Coast Blvd then along Coast Blvd (this is better as a walk)
- Drive up to Mt Soledad from Nautilus Street and then down via La Jolla Scenic drive. This used to be part of my commute to work for a year!
- Turn left on La Jolla Shores drive from La Jolla Village Drive and drive down La Jolla Shores Drive to the beach.
- Drive south on La Jolla Blvd to Bird Rock.
11. Scenic Walks
I love walking in La Jolla because I find something pretty and new every single time. There is just so much beauty here, be it in the most obvious backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, the mountains, the palm trees or the more subtle flowers and natural vegetation, and of course the lovely houses (some so very Tuscan, while some others Spanish, and even a couple of Tudors).
Some of my favorite places to walk include all the trails I mentioned above, Coast Blvd, Bird Rock, Girard Ave and down La Jolla Shores Drive. I also love getting lost in the streets near Windansea Beach (Nautilus Ave, Fern Glen Ave, Olivetas Ave, etc). Here you will find unassumingly beautiful houses with lovely gardens, houses that belong in the community, unlike the ostentatious houses you might see elsewhere in La Jolla.
If you do want to see ostentatious houses, walk along the by-lanes on Mount Soledad, or La Jolla Farms Road. Some of the estates are really pretty, especially the gardens in the Spring!
WHERE TO EAT
La Jolla has tons of food options, so rest assured you won’t go hungry here! But to make the most of your La Jolla experience, eat where the locals eat, and avoid the overly touristy spots.
Gelato at Bobboi
My favorite Gelato shop in La Jolla is Bobboi. It’s at the intersection of Girard and Prospect and offers stunning views of (and a short downhill walk to) the Cove. They make all their gelato and sorbet on site, the Italian owner was nice enough to give us a tour and explain the gelato making process. If you do one thing in La Jolla, it should be to get a gelato (or two!) and walk down to the Cove.
Brunch in La Jolla is a big deal. Every weekend, you see lines forming in front of the popular brunch spots, and wait times around 11 am could exceed an hour. Pro tip : Head to brunch early (around 10 am) or late (around 1 pm) and skip the lines! I have tried most of La Jolla’s popular brunches and so this list is carefully curated. Although I do have a La Jolla brunch list, I would recommend you to venture out of La Jolla to Solana Beach for brunch at Claire’s on Cedros. That’s my favorite brunch place in San Diego!
- Coffee Cup – I initially visited this restaurant because they had a waiter that looked like Ryan Gosling (sadly, I don’t think he works there anymore), but their food is top notch too.
- Bernini’s Bistro – This is a cute spot if you want to avoid the long lines elsewhere in La Jolla. Their lemon ricotta pancakes are delicious and the mimosas are strong.
- Bella Vista – I suggest Bella Vista because it is the cheapest (but still good) brunch with a view around here – it is very close to the Salk institute and the Gliderport so you could have a bite here if you plan to go to either of those places. Tip : To save money I often order items from the kid’s menu, the quantities are still pretty filling.
- Cusp Dining and Drinks – This is a brunch place with a top notch view, and “almost” bottomless mimosas (you pay a $1 per refill). Ladies, definitely visit the powder room to get the best views over La Jolla and the Pacific.
- Cody’s La Jolla – Cody’s is a cute place on Girard Ave past Prospect, right next to Ellen Browning Scripps Park. The food is good, but made better by the ambience. Remember, this is one of those hour wait at 11 am places.
My favorite coffee shop in San Diego / La Jolla is Bird Rock Coffee Roasters. The coffee, of course, is delicious, the beans are free-trade and roasted on site, but the ambience is what makes me go back to this coffee shop. The open environment, with a fresh sea breeze from the windows, cool art on the wall, and different types of seats for different types of coffee drinkers – Bird Rock Coffee has definitely made a very inviting coffee shop. This is a do-not-miss place in San Diego.
When you walk to Elixir Espresso and Wine Bar on Girard Ave, you might think for a second that you have walked into Europe. The tiled steps, the clean designs and the beautiful tiled walls kind of have that vibe. The cappuccinos too are as good as any you would get in Europe (their espresso is strong, so be warned), and their almond croissant is decent too. A lovely coffee shop to get a spot of work done, or meet up with a small group of friends.
3. La Clochette du Coin on La Jolla Blvd
This French coffee shop is perfect for working, they have great cappuccinos and chocolate croissants! Make sure to check their timings before you head there, they are unfortunately closed in the evenings.
Note : You can get your coffee to go from any of these coffee shops, and walk west, down to the ocean, to enjoy some amazing views as you sip your coffee. Each of them is located near a different beach (Bird Rock Coffee is not exactly close to a beach, more to cliffs), so it’s definitely not repetitive.
La Jolla is about 30 miles from the Mexico border, and so has some delicious tacos. My favorites are :
- The fish and shrimp tacos at Oscars Mexican Seafood
- The chicken tacos, fresh guacamole and margaritas at Puesto
- The Taco Stand is supposed to be pretty amazing too, judging by the long lines at all hours of the day
- Piatti – La Jolla Shores – this is a cute Italian restaurant in La Jolla Shores and has a lovely garden patio at the back, so ask to be seated there! Their bread and olive oil dip is the most delicious in San Diego! Tip : If Piatti is too crowded and has a long wait, try Osteria Romantica across the street. The food is almost as good, and the ambience is still pretty cute!
- Regents Pizza – A pizza place in the UTC area with ample parking and tons of beer on tap. They have decent Chicago deep dish pizzas that you can buy by the slice as well.
- Carino’s Pizza – A hole in the wall pizza place on La Jolla Blvd, serving fresh, delicious pizzas. Try their veggie pizza – it’s worth the calories!
Indian Food at Masala Street
As an Indian, I miss Indian food if I don’t eat it every few days. So trust me when I say that I have tried most of the Indian restaurants in San Diego and 98% of them suck. However, Masala Street, a new contemporary Indian restaurant in La Jolla, stands out. The chef is the son of the famous Chef Hemant Oberoi of Taj Hotels, and he knows what he’s doing. The ambience is really cool too!
Pro Tip : Get all of the appetizers and the kathi rolls, skip the entrees.
1. Fried Chicken Sliders at Eureka! – This restaurant at the UTC mall is my go to restaurant when I am craving some fried chicken, ask for extra fresh jalapeños and the firecracker sauce if you like your food spicy! This is also a good hangout spot with a larger group, try the benches in the outside seating area.
2. Fried Chicken and Waffles at Streetcar Merchants – This restaurant recently opened a branch in La Jolla. They couple interesting interiors with yummy fried chicken and melt in your mouth waffles! The service is great too! If you like fried chicken, I highly recommend this place. Pro Tip : skip the collard greens
3. Dinner at Whisknladle – For a nicer dinner, head to Whisknladle, where you will be served delicious food prepared with fresh ingredients. Ask for a table outside, dinner under the twinkly lights is dreamy.
Thai Food at Turmeric Thai Kitchen
This is, in my opinion, the best Thai food in San Diego, because it is fresh and flavorful. The ambience is also cute and could be a nice date spot. They are byob with no cover charge for alcohol, so save a little money and bring your own wine…or champagne…
Mediterranean Food at Amardeen Cafe
Don’t be put off because this restaurant is in a strip mall next to a CVS pharmacy. It’s totally worth a visit! My favorite dish here is the Chicken Shawerma wrap. Their hummus is delicious, and the falafels are good too! Pro tip : Order the wraps (you could get rice as a side), because they are a lot cheaper than the entrees, but still very filling.
Fresh Fish at El Pescador
You can be assured of eating the freshest, locally caught fish at El Pescador Market on Pearl Street. If you can’t find parking on Pearl, try turning left on Draper or Cuvier Street instead of right. The left is more residential, so it is usually easier to find parking.
1. Catania Happy Hour – Catania is a relatively new Italian restaurant on Girard Ave, and their food is good, if a bit pricey. However, happy hour on the terrace there is amazing, try to go for a gorgeous sunset view.
2. Georges at the Cove Terrace – Georges at the Cove is usually the #1 recommended restaurant in La Jolla, especially for dates. And yes, in the daytime, the views from the terrace are spectacular. But do you really want to spend $100 on a sub-par meal? I suggest going to Georges Terrace for cocktails and desserts at an odd time when it isn’t very busy for lunch or dinner, for the ultimate drink with a view.
3. Karl Strauss Brewery – San Diego is kinda into the microbrewery scene, so it’s good to try some while you are here. Karl Strauss has one called Windansea Wheat which my husband recommends. They also have IPAs if that is more to your liking. I recommend their hummus and boneless chicken wings!
4. Beaumonts La Jolla – Good drinks, live music, decent food and a fun atmosphere in Bird Rock, very close to Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.
5. Eureka! – Along with your fried chicken sliders, you will be able to sample dozens of different brews on tap, as well as cocktails and whisky concoctions.
WHEN TO VISIT
The best time to visit is March/April or September – November. However, La Jolla is just as beautiful all year round!
The temperatures in the winter, November – February, do drop to the point where water activities might not be as much fun anymore, but for everything else, it’s still lovely.
May and June unfortunately bring gloomy skies to La Jolla, so I wouldn’t call this the best time to see her in her full beauty.
The summer months of July and August are very crowded and you see hotel prices soaring, so stay away if you can.
WHERE TO STAY
The prettiest hotels in La Jolla are :
- Estancia La Jolla – this hotel has a lovely spa and is very close to the Torrey Pines Gliderport!
- La Valencia – this gorgeous hotel is right in Downtown La Jolla and has beautiful rooms overlooking the cove. It is close to amazing restaurants, shopping, and water activities.
- The Empress Hotel – this is also in Downtown La Jolla with slightly less impressive views than La Valencia but much better prices. The rooms are great and the service is impeccable.
- The Bed and Breakfast Inn at La Jolla – for a more quaint experience, stay in this cute little B&B, and walk to Cuvier Park with a breakfast picnic. It is also right across from the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Where to stay if you think Downtown La Jolla hotels are too pricey :
La Jolla Hotels tend to err more on the expensive side. Of course, if you ask me, staying in La Jolla is still totally worth it, so here are a few cheaper options.
- Airbnb – Predictably, Airbnb saves the day with locals offering up everything from shared rooms to gorgeous five bedroom houses. Take your pick!
- La Jolla Travelodge – this hotel is slightly further away from the hustle and bustle of the village, but it is a block and half away from my favorite beach – Windansea!
- Holiday Inn Express La Jolla – same as La Jolla Travelodge but with better rooms. It was recently renovated, and the rooms are excellent for the price.
If you want to go even cheaper, you could look for accommodation in Pacific Beach or further east in San Diego, and drive in to La Jolla.
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Hope this travel guide is useful to everyone visiting this jewel of a town, and if you haven’t planned a visit, I hope this inspires you to! Please message me for any more tips and help with your La Jolla vacation.
Do you have any La Jolla favorites? I’d love to hear about them!