What to Do & Where to Go in North County San Diego
Traveling to San Diego? Don’t forget about the North County San Diego, which is the collection of cities along the coast and inland that are located within San Diego County, but north of the actual city of San Diego.
You might be thinking…you mean the suburbs of San Diego? And while these are indeed suburbs, they’re far from what you normally think of when you think of suburbs, thanks to a gorgeous coastline, incredible attractions, and world-class wineries and breweries.
Where is North County San Diego?
Before we get into all those exciting things you can do in North County San Diego, let’s cover exactly where this region is located.
On its southern end, North County San Diego begins in Del Mar, just north of the ritzy San Diego community of La Jolla. North County San Diego then goes north up the coast all the way to Oceanside, encompassing Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas, and Carlsbad along the way. Those cities are all located along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, but North County San Diego also stretches east toward Escondido and Poway, with the cities of Vista, San Marcos, and Rancho Bernardo sandwiched in between the coast and rural hills along the eastern border of San Diego County.
You’ll notice there’s a big difference as you travel west to east in North County San Diego. The laidback and heavily populated surfer towns of the coast give way to suburbia town centers flanked by farmland and vineyards. Each part is beautiful in its own way. It also gets much hotter the farther east you go away from the coastal winds, though on the flip side you’ll also escape the pesky marine layer that tends to hang heavily over the coast from April to June.
When driving around North County San Diego, you’ll find I-5 going north to south next to the coastal cities, and I-15 going north to Escondido from San Diego. Connecting coastal North County with inland North County are the 78 and 56.
The Cities of North County San Diego
Each coastal city in North County San Diego has its own little downtown area that feels like a quintessential little beach town. Here’s some more information about each city located in North County San Diego and the top things to do there.
This is a small, affluent coastal city that will cost you a pretty penny to live here. Luckily, you can just visit and soak in its beautiful beaches, marvel at its beachfront mansions, and visit some of the best restaurants in the North County San Diego.
Top Picks of What to Do in Del Mar: Hang out at dog beach and laugh at the antics of happy canines running through the surf. Get an al fresco cocktail in the downstairs bar area of El Fuego Mexican Restaurant (also an excellent place to dine) complete with koi ponds.
Solana Beach is the place to head for shopping and drinks. The downtown area has several breweries and lively bars serving up more local craft beers and California wine, some of which are located along popular Cedros Design District.
The Cedros Design District is located along Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach and is home to dozens of stores, many of which are locally owned, and which sell clothing, jewelry, artwork, and home décor.
Top Picks for What to Do in Solana Beach: Definitely spend time in the Cedros Design District and browse through Lotus for a cool souvenir to remember your trip to San Diego by. If you love live music, check out what performances are happening at Belly Up, a small space entertainment venue that is loved by locals.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea is actually a small enclave of Encinitas, but due to the parkland dividing it and its own tiny downtown area, it feels like its own little beach town. Cardiff-by-the Sea is mostly located on the side of a hill that travels down to the ocean like a California version of the Amalfi Coast. Homes are mostly located at the top with businesses and restaurants at the bottom.
Top Picks for What to Do in Cardiff-by-the-Sea: Breakfast burrito at Pipes Café, pick up some local produce or delicious sandwich at Seaside Market, pop into Patagonia and other local shops for some surf apparel. Get a drink or dinner at Chart House or Pacific Coast Grill, both of which are located right next to the sand.
I think of Encinitas as an upscale surfer town. It definitely is laidback and you’ll see a plethora of surf shops and surfer style, but located among those are high-end boutiques, salons, and restaurants. Plus, relaxed cafes and Mexican food joints. Encinitas also has some of the best nightlife in North County San Diego.
Top Picks for What to Do in Encinitas: Get breakfast at Swami’s Café. Go to Moonlight State Beach for some ocean time. For dinner, head to Bier Garden of Encinitas or Union Kitchen & Tap for farm-to-table ingredients and craft beer in cool spaces, and then head to 1st Street Bar for drinks and dancing afterward if you’re so inclined. Encinitas also has one of the only beaches where bonfires are allowed when weather/fire conditions allow – but arrive early as the firepits get claimed quickly.
Carlsbad is a place dear to my heart as I lived there for nearly ten years. Its downtown area, referred to as Carlsbad Village, is still one of my favorite places in the world to be. It has an array of boutiques, tons of dining options from laidback burger joints to fresh seafood houses to high-end international cuisine, fun bars, and is located right by the beach.
Top Picks for What to Do in Carlsbad: Legoland! If you have kids or are a kid at heart, you can’t miss Carlsbad’s top attraction: Legoland California plus its adjacent water park and aquarium. Carlsbad State Beach is also one of the best in San Diego County. Besides that, I just enjoy walking around the village and popping into shops or getting a local beer or glass of wine to enjoy on one of the many outdoor bar and restaurant patios.
Read More: Kid-Friendly Guide to Carlsbad, California
The northernmost coastal city in San Diego County has been revamped over the past decade and a half and has moved from a downtown area with a bit of a rough reputation to one that now has an exciting nightlife, chic restaurants and trendy bars, a brewery walking trail, and – as always – miles of sandy beaches.
Top Picks for What to Do in Oceanside: Walk to the end of the Oceanside pier and have a milkshake at Ruby’s Diner located at the end of the pier. Do the Oceanside Brewery Walk to try local craft beers.
Moving east now…Vista is located east of Oceanside and is a small bedroom community that is home to a historic Old Town area that is home to restaurants and breweries, plus adjacent to a large movie theater.
Top Picks for What to Do in Vista: Have lunch at the unique and delicious Yellow Deli, try a tasting at Mother Earth Brewing Company, and follow it up with a cupcake from the Cupcake Wars winning Little Cakes Cupcake Kitchen. If it’s hot out, head to the Wave Waterpark in Vista for some fun splashing in the sun.
San Marcos is mostly known for its various master-planned communities, including the popular San Elijo Hills that is located right by Carlsbad. Besides being home to a lot of houses and townhomes, San Marcos is known for being home to San Marcos Community College and Restaurant Row.
Top Picks for What to Do in San Marcos: Walk around the manicured town center of San Elijo Hills. Make reservations for dinner at San Marcos Restaurant Row, which is home to dozens of restaurants all in one convenient place (my favorite is Sublime Ale House, which has awesome macaroni and cheese and lots of local craft beers on tap). Restaurant Row is also by a movie theater, making it convenient for a dinner + movie date night.
Escondido seems like just another suburb at first glance, but explore more and you find that there’s a number of exciting things to do in this northeast part of San Diego’s North County. Escondido is surrounded by rolling hills and rural areas, but in the central part of the city, you’ll find one of San Diego’s largest malls and an eclectic Old Town area.