At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, north of San Diego near Escondido, visitors can upgrade their visit with a ride that gives them intimate views of the wildlife.

Christopher Reynolds , Los Angeles Times

Guide to San Diego North County

  • Article by: Christopher Reynolds
  • Los Angeles Times
  • January 20, 2013 - 8:26 AM


Sure, San Diego draws sun-starved visitors. California’s second-largest city has the Embarcadero, a downtown bayfront with museums and shops; the Gaslight District and its quaint Victorian storefronts, and the Cabrillo National Monument, on a peninsula with tidepools, walking trails and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. But for a true —and diverse — immersion into SoCal culture, get out of town and head north.

In San Diego’s North County, you’ll find not only beach towns, but also rolling hills, expat giraffes and a walled kingdom of brightly colored plastic. But frankly, they had me at beach towns.

I always figured the rest — even the two marquee attractions, Legoland in Carlsbad and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido — was just gravy. Or icing on the cake. Or maybe, given San Diego’s love of beer, the chaser after the pint.

But now I’ve spent several days on and off the beaches, and it looks as if San Diego County’s northern reaches, beginning above La Jolla and ending at Camp Pendleton, deserve more attention than they get.

So here are 10 micro-itineraries in the area. They’re far from comprehensive but enough to get a beginner started. And, yes, the beaches, the beasts and the molded plastic kingdom are in here, too.

The land of Lego

Apart from that guy who whispered “Plastics!” to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” all those years ago, who suspected that little interlocking bricks would one day threaten to rule the world? The Lego people, that’s who. Long known as a theme park that’s better for younger kids than older thrill-seekers, Legoland in Carlsbad includes more than 60 rides and shows, an aquarium and water park next door, and a new 250-room hotel coming this summer. One-day admission is usually $75 for adults (13 and older) and $65 for children (ages 3-12). You’ll pay an additional $35 a person for a two-day pass that gets you into the water park and Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium. In other words, hefty fun and hefty bill. If you’re spending the night, consider the pleasant Sheraton Carlsbad Resort (1-760-827-2400; next door, which has its own Legoland entrance. Or stay along the coast highway in Carlsbad at the kid-friendly Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort (1-760-434-7020;, which backs up to the beach.

Carlsbad hangouts

Feeling naughty? Grab a sugary bite at Boxd, which serves waffle sandwiches out of a converted shipping container in the heart of town. Then jump in the ocean and see if you get cramps. (Despite what your mother told you, the evidence is thin.) After your dip, try lunch or a happy-hour dinner at Las Olas Restaurant, an ultra-casual Mexican place. If you’re roughing it (and you’ve booked well ahead), you can pitch your tent at South Carlsbad State Beach campground, 3 miles south of town (1-760-438-3143). If you’re splurging, family-style, head for the kid-friendly Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort (1-760-602-0800;, which opened in June. Everything is new and shiny, most of the rooms have ocean views and there’s a spa and a big pool with a neighboring baby pool.

Surfin’ Swami’s

Swami’s Beach in Encinitas is a great spot for surfing, strolling or running, reached by a staircase just south of the Self-Realization Fellowship’s temple grounds (hence the name Swami’s). For dinner, there are plenty of options along the coast highway, but there’s only one Q’ero Peruvian Kitchen (1-760-753-9050;, a very tasty spot.

Floral Encinitas

The San Diego Botanic Garden is a 37-acre wonderland of plants that has been open since 1971. It has flora from around the world, including a hilarious band of semi-topiary musicians in the Mexican garden and the terrific Hamilton Children’s Garden, whose “spell and smell” garden covers the alphabet from aloe to zebra grass. The kids’ area also includes a treehouse, chalk zone and mud play area. Then catch your breath and recaffeinate at Pannikin Coffee & Tea (1-760-436-5824; It’s a surfohemian (you know what I mean) coffeehouse in an 1888 train station. Pannikin, by the way, is a San Diego chain (three locations) that’s been pouring fancy coffee since 1968, when Starbuck was still best known as Ahab’s first mate in “Moby-Dick.”

Solana Beach by design

Who knew, back in the late 1940s, what the Bill Jack Scientific Instrument Co. was starting? That company, housed in a series of Quonset huts along Cedros Avenue, has receded into Solana Beach history. But those swooping rooflines remain, the space now occupied by shops and restaurants — and Cedros Avenue has been reborn as a design district. Browse its many design and antiques shops (, such as the Leaping Lotus, which sells jewelry, furniture and art. Across the street, SoLo is more sophisticated, with design books, curios and strangely compelling reclaimed industrial objects. Elsewhere on the avenue, you’ll find succulents, surf photography and camping gear.

Fletcher Cove swim

How to begin an ideal day: Rise early. Jump into the ocean at Solana Beach’s Fletcher Cove, where a pleasant little green park meets the sea. Some locals call it the Pillbox because there was a gunnery installation here during World War II. Load up on carbohydrates, including the excellent chocolate-chip pumpkin bread, at the nearby Naked Cafe (106 S. Sierra Av., Solana Beach). Then back to the beach.

Del Mar charms

Del Mar, with its many Tudor­esque buildings, Olde English street names, stratospheric property values and well-fixed gentry, might remind you of posh Carmel, Calif. But Carmel has no horse racing (read on), and Del Mar has milder weather, busier beaches and bigger home lots. It’s the sort of place where a motel can charge $259 a night and Ranch & Coast Plastic Surgery hangs its shingle along the main drag. So it’s a surprise to find the artsy little Les Artistes Inn (1-858-755-4646,, whose 12 rooms are named and decorated for a dozen painters. There’s no pool, but a lobby fireplace is lighted most nights, the beach is a few minutes away and you can often get in for less than $200. If you need a pool, consider the Hotel Indigo (1-877-270-1392; The next morning, walk to breakfast at the Stratford Court Cafe, where flip-flops may outnumber proper shoes on the patio. For a quicker tempo, head to Americana at the busy corner of Camino del Mar and 15th Street. Then walk a few blocks to the beach, past Sea Grove and Powerhouse parks. Wind up your day with dinner at the Del Mar Rendezvous (1555 Camino del Mar, No. 102, Del Mar), where the menu is Chinese fusion.

The track and the fair

It was here at the county fairgrounds (2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar) in 1958 that a teenager named Raquel Tejada was named San Diego’s Fairest of the Fair and was launched on her way to becoming Raquel Welch. Like Raquel, the San Diego County Fair endures each summer, midway and all. But the bigger draw for celebrities and out-of-towners is the horse racing, which began in the ’30s with marquee names such as Bing Crosby (a co-founder of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club) and Seabiscuit (winner of a much-celebrated exhibition race in 1938). The racing takes place five days a week for most of the summer (the season opens July 18). Mondays and Tuesdays are usually dark.

Safari in Escondido

If the San Diego Zoo is the tidy and compressed Twitter version of the animal kingdom, then the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly the San Diego Wild Animal Park) is the New Yorker article. It rambles. The animals, scattered over 1,800 acres of dry hills in the San Pasqual Valley, are relatively free to roam. Your admission ($42 for adults, $32 for kids) includes a 25-minute narrated ride on a tram that chugs past giraffes, rhinos, gazelles and perhaps an ostrich sniffing its eggs (which weigh about 3 pounds each). It costs $40-$95 more to do the zip line, the ropes course or see animals up close from a special safari truck. Be sure to check out the lions — they often snooze in the shade right next to an observation window. For a pleasant dinner al fresco, head to the home of Arrogant Bastard Ale: Stone Brewing Co. and its World Bistro & Gardens (1-760-294-7866; The indoor-outdoor dining area is clever, and there are $3 tours in the afternoons and movie nights in summer.

Treated like royalty

There are plenty of premium golf options north of La Jolla, including hotel-adjacent courses at the Grand Del Mar (, Aviara ( and La Costa ( in Carlsbad. There’s also a less pricey option a little farther inland — the hacienda-style Rancho Bernardo Inn (1-877-517-9340, Along with its 18-hole championship course, this resort offers more than 280 guest rooms, three pools and three restaurants. (The fanciest, Bizcocho, is French.) To appease kids and art lovers who won’t be swinging clubs, head to nearby Kit Carson Park in Escondido and follow the signs to Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. It’s a sculpture garden, 120 feet in diameter, by the late French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Mosaic critters. Kaleidoscopic colors. Textured tile work. The queen herself (whose name comes from the 16th-century Spanish novel that inspired this state’s name) stands about 24 feet high, astride an eagle, surrounded by eight totems and a maze. Escondido has a gem here. These fantasy creatures make a great complement to the real ones at the Safari Park.


Travel editor Kerri Westenberg contributed to this report.


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