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Best Things To Do in San Diego

San Diego's coastal seat makes it an ideal destination for adventurers and sun seekers. Whether you're hiking along the sandstone cliffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve, walking through the frothy surf of Coronado Beach or admiring the postcard-worthy scenery at La Jolla Cove, you'll find little reason to stray far from the city's natural wonders. Spend a day at Balboa Park – the city's definitive culturual hub – and soak up the stunning setting while exploring the many museums, theaters and gardens that call this 1,200-acre park home. Though it's tempting to spend your whole vacation exploring, don't forget to carve out some time for a San Diego history lesson: America's Finest City proudly shows off its military and maritime heritage with two well-regarded (and highly interactive) museums.

How we rank Things to Do.

#1

#1 in San Diego

Local Pick: Must-see ? Free
Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo. this 1,200-acre park is the city's cultural hub. Located in downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city center), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, bike ride or picnic. Wander around the park's many gardens while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture that permeates the grounds (the best examples are the California Building and the House of Hospitality). The Botanical Building is a great starting point in Balboa Park. The building is one of the most photographed places in Balboa Park and is one of the largest lath structures in the world. But don't just look at it. The famous botanical building features more than 2,100 permanent plants, including striking collections of tropical plants and orchids. The park also features a cactus garden, rose garden, a Japanese-style garden as well as a palm tree canyon, among many others.
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Parks and Gardens Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Balboa Park
Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo. this 1,200-acre park is the city's cultural hub. Located in downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city center), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, bike ride or picnic. Wander around the park's many gardens while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture that permeates the grounds (the best examples are the California Building and the House of Hospitality). The Botanical Building is a great starting point in Balboa Park. The building is one of the most photographed places in Balboa Park and is one of the largest lath structures in the world. But don't just look at it. The famous botanical building features more than 2,100 permanent plants, including striking collections of tropical plants and orchids. The park also features a cactus garden, rose garden, a Japanese-style garden as well as a palm tree canyon, among many others.
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#2

#2 in San Diego

Local Pick: Must-see ?
This 100-acre establishment is one of the most famous zoos in the country. The San Diego Zoo is not only one of the largest zoos in the USA but also houses one of the largest collections of rare and endangered animals in the world (3,500 to be exact). Giant pandas, giraffes, elephants, polar bears, and koalas (the largest collection outside of Australia) are just a few of the many animals that call the San Diego Zoo home. The exhibits are linked by an expansive series of trails such as the Monkey Trail, Hippo Trail or Tiger Trail. On these designated pathways, you'll come face to face with numerous exciting creatures including hippos in the Lost Forest, arctic foxes in the Northern Frontier, rhinos in the Urban Jungle or gators in the Wegeforth Bowl. You'll need plenty of energy – and a map – to see everything the zoo has to offer. Should your feet grow weary while exploring, the zoo offers a 35-minute guided bus tour of the park. There's also the Skyfari aerial tram that transports visitors from one end of the park to the other, offering a birds-eye-view of the exhibits below in between. In addition to plenty of animals to see, the zoo also hosts animal shows and animal encounter programs daily as well as 4-D movie theaters with educational films about the wildlife. 
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Zoos and Aquariums Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
This 100-acre establishment is one of the most famous zoos in the country. The San Diego Zoo is not only one of the largest zoos in the USA but also houses one of the largest collections of rare and endangered animals in the world (3,500 to be exact). Giant pandas, giraffes, elephants, polar bears, and koalas (the largest collection outside of Australia) are just a few of the many animals that call the San Diego Zoo home. The exhibits are linked by an expansive series of trails such as the Monkey Trail, Hippo Trail or Tiger Trail. On these designated pathways, you'll come face to face with numerous exciting creatures including hippos in the Lost Forest, arctic foxes in the Northern Frontier, rhinos in the Urban Jungle or gators in the Wegeforth Bowl. You'll need plenty of energy – and a map – to see everything the zoo has to offer. Should your feet grow weary while exploring, the zoo offers a 35-minute guided bus tour of the park. There's also the Skyfari aerial tram that transports visitors from one end of the park to the other, offering a birds-eye-view of the exhibits below in between. In addition to plenty of animals to see, the zoo also hosts animal shows and animal encounter programs daily as well as 4-D movie theaters with educational films about the wildlife. 
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#3

#3 in San Diego

Local Pick: Must-see ?
Want to see what San Diego looked like at its founding? It's at the Torrey Pines State Reserve. This oceanfront reserve features 1,750 acres of unspoiled land, protecting the unique topography and various types of flora present from way back when, including the Torrey Pine, America's rarest pine tree. There are 3,000 Torrey Pines in the reserve alone and aside from San Diego, the only other place in the country the pines grows are on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. The reserve also houses one of Southern California's last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges. What does that mean for you? Plenty of hiking opportunities (8 miles to be exact). Trails offer a chance to get up close and personal with the attraction's famously beautiful sandstone ravines and badlands as well as breathtaking views of the coastline. And if you come during the spring, you'll see wildflowers on full display.
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Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Want to see what San Diego looked like at its founding? It's at the Torrey Pines State Reserve. This oceanfront reserve features 1,750 acres of unspoiled land, protecting the unique topography and various types of flora present from way back when, including the Torrey Pine, America's rarest pine tree. There are 3,000 Torrey Pines in the reserve alone and aside from San Diego, the only other place in the country the pines grows are on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. The reserve also houses one of Southern California's last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges. What does that mean for you? Plenty of hiking opportunities (8 miles to be exact). Trails offer a chance to get up close and personal with the attraction's famously beautiful sandstone ravines and badlands as well as breathtaking views of the coastline. And if you come during the spring, you'll see wildflowers on full display.
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#4

#4 in San Diego

Local Pick: Must-see ? Free
Compared to Mission Beach, this popular shoreline boasts fewer sunbathers and calmer waves. Just across the bay from San Diego, Coronado Beach is popular with families and couples alike thanks to its miles-long shoreline (affording plenty of room for beachgoers), clean sands, peaceful atmosphere and idyllic location in the "Crown City" (in Spanish, "Coronado" means "crowned one"). While you won't have access to a bustling boardwalk (like that at Mission Beach), you will have plenty of picturesque scenery to admire (besides the surf): magnificent mansions sit behind the beach on Ocean Boulevard. And the historic Hotel del Coronado – a 130-year-old National Historic Landmark – is perched just beyond the sand. When you're not boogie boarding or building a sand castle, heed the advice of recent visitors and simply walk the 1.5-mile-long shoreline. Even if you're visiting San Diego during the city's winter season (December through February) when the water is a little too chilly for swimming, you should still plan to make a stop here for the scenery. And if you enjoy ice skating, the Hotel Del offers the unique opportunity to ice skate right along the beach.
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Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Coronado Beach
Compared to Mission Beach, this popular shoreline boasts fewer sunbathers and calmer waves. Just across the bay from San Diego, Coronado Beach is popular with families and couples alike thanks to its miles-long shoreline (affording plenty of room for beachgoers), clean sands, peaceful atmosphere and idyllic location in the "Crown City" (in Spanish, "Coronado" means "crowned one"). While you won't have access to a bustling boardwalk (like that at Mission Beach), you will have plenty of picturesque scenery to admire (besides the surf): magnificent mansions sit behind the beach on Ocean Boulevard. And the historic Hotel del Coronado – a 130-year-old National Historic Landmark – is perched just beyond the sand. When you're not boogie boarding or building a sand castle, heed the advice of recent visitors and simply walk the 1.5-mile-long shoreline. Even if you're visiting San Diego during the city's winter season (December through February) when the water is a little too chilly for swimming, you should still plan to make a stop here for the scenery. And if you enjoy ice skating, the Hotel Del offers the unique opportunity to ice skate right along the beach.
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#5

#5 in San Diego

Local Pick: Must-see ?
San Diego is a big military town. You'll likely see bases scattered about while exploring the city, especially around parts of the San Diego Bay. The USS Midway is one of these affiliated sites that offers an insider's look into what is normally closed off to the public. The USS Midway is the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century, having played host to 225,000 sailors over the course of its life. This historical relic offers patrons the opportunity to explore 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft aboard, including some that have flown in World War II, Operation Desert Storm and the Korean War. During the self-guided audio tour, you'll see the crew's sleeping quarters, the engine room, the ship's jail and the primary flight control room, among other areas of the 4-acre flight deck. There are also flight simulators, fo'c'sle knot tying demonstrations and a cafe when you start to feel peckish on-site.
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Museums Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
USS Midway Museum
San Diego is a big military town. You'll likely see bases scattered about while exploring the city, especially around parts of the San Diego Bay. The USS Midway is one of these affiliated sites that offers an insider's look into what is normally closed off to the public. The USS Midway is the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century, having played host to 225,000 sailors over the course of its life. This historical relic offers patrons the opportunity to explore 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft aboard, including some that have flown in World War II, Operation Desert Storm and the Korean War. During the self-guided audio tour, you'll see the crew's sleeping quarters, the engine room, the ship's jail and the primary flight control room, among other areas of the 4-acre flight deck. There are also flight simulators, fo'c'sle knot tying demonstrations and a cafe when you start to feel peckish on-site.
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#6

#6 in San Diego

Local Pick: Recommended ?
The southernmost tip of Point Loma is where you'll find the Cabrillo National Monument. The statue depicts Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who, in 1542, was the first European explorer to navigate the Californian coast. Situated about 10 miles southwest of downtown San Diego, this monument is much more than just a memorializing effigy. The main reason people make the journey to the monument is its incredible views. From the Cabrillo Monument, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific as well as the Point Loma naval base below (where Cabrillo initially docked his ships), downtown San Diego, Coronado, and on a clear day, the mountains of Tijuana, Mexico.
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Monuments and Memorials Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Cabrillo National Monument
The southernmost tip of Point Loma is where you'll find the Cabrillo National Monument. The statue depicts Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who, in 1542, was the first European explorer to navigate the Californian coast. Situated about 10 miles southwest of downtown San Diego, this monument is much more than just a memorializing effigy. The main reason people make the journey to the monument is its incredible views. From the Cabrillo Monument, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific as well as the Point Loma naval base below (where Cabrillo initially docked his ships), downtown San Diego, Coronado, and on a clear day, the mountains of Tijuana, Mexico.
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#7

#7 in San Diego

Local Pick: Recommended ? Free
The Gaslamp Quarter's 16 blocks are peppered with Victorian-style buildings that now house a variety of shops, art galleries, theatres and trendy restaurants, not to mention plenty of bars and clubs. The area stretches from L Street all the way up to Broadway, including Sixth, Fifth and Fourth avenues as well as out to First Avenue at G Street. The best place to start your tour of the Gaslamp Quarter is the Horton Plaza outdoor shopping center, situated at First and G Street. From there, you can explore the neighborhood's side streets that will eventually lead you to the main avenues. Or you can start at the Gaslamp Quarter Gate itself, located at L Street and Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue is considered downtown San Diego's main thoroughfare. You'll find the most action here, especially at night. With all of its amenities, it's important to know that the Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's premier nightlife destination. If you're not a night owl, another way to experience the Gaslamp Quarter's lively atmosphere is to take advantage of the patio seating offered at some of the neighborhood's restaurants, or venture to one of the many rooftop bars (Andaz San Diego in particular has fire pits and beds and lounge chairs for patrons to relax on). 
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Entertainment and Nightlife Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter's 16 blocks are peppered with Victorian-style buildings that now house a variety of shops, art galleries, theatres and trendy restaurants, not to mention plenty of bars and clubs. The area stretches from L Street all the way up to Broadway, including Sixth, Fifth and Fourth avenues as well as out to First Avenue at G Street. The best place to start your tour of the Gaslamp Quarter is the Horton Plaza outdoor shopping center, situated at First and G Street. From there, you can explore the neighborhood's side streets that will eventually lead you to the main avenues. Or you can start at the Gaslamp Quarter Gate itself, located at L Street and Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue is considered downtown San Diego's main thoroughfare. You'll find the most action here, especially at night. With all of its amenities, it's important to know that the Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's premier nightlife destination. If you're not a night owl, another way to experience the Gaslamp Quarter's lively atmosphere is to take advantage of the patio seating offered at some of the neighborhood's restaurants, or venture to one of the many rooftop bars (Andaz San Diego in particular has fire pits and beds and lounge chairs for patrons to relax on). 
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#8

#8 in San Diego

Local Pick: Recommended ?
The Maritime Museum offers a hands-on look at San Diego's days as a bustling seaport. You can tour all types of historic vessels, from sailing ships to submarines, including the world's oldest active ship, the Star of India. Recent visitors said the boat tours gave them a new understanding of the workmanship and skill required of sailors. Past travelers also note that you should plan to wear pants and sturdy shoes to easily maneuver the narrow, low corridors inside the ships. Along with the boat tours, you can also explore several permanent and visiting exhibits that detail San Diego's maritime legacy using art and artifacts. Travelers say the exhibits are fascinating, even for youngsters. 
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Museums Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Maritime Museum of San Diego
The Maritime Museum offers a hands-on look at San Diego's days as a bustling seaport. You can tour all types of historic vessels, from sailing ships to submarines, including the world's oldest active ship, the Star of India. Recent visitors said the boat tours gave them a new understanding of the workmanship and skill required of sailors. Past travelers also note that you should plan to wear pants and sturdy shoes to easily maneuver the narrow, low corridors inside the ships. Along with the boat tours, you can also explore several permanent and visiting exhibits that detail San Diego's maritime legacy using art and artifacts. Travelers say the exhibits are fascinating, even for youngsters. 
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#9

#9 in San Diego

Local Pick: Recommended ?
Though you may spot wildlife at any one of San Diego's beaches (especially Pacific and Mission Beach) none put on quite as good a show as the performers at SeaWorld. Here you'll get to see a range of animals, including dolphins, California sea lions, California otters and sea turtles, among others. As for the rides, travelers love the lightning fast Manta Ray rollercoaster, but caution against the Journey to Atlantis or Ship Wreck Rapids ride if you don't want to get wet. For something a little more low-key, head to any one of the park's animal exhibits, like the shark underwater viewing tunnel, the penguin habitat, which features nearly 300 penguins, or the vast Wild Arctic ride/exhibit, which features the chance to see beluga whales and polar bears. There's also the Sesame Street Bay of Play, which features various playgrounds wet and dry as well as arcade facilities and smaller mechanical rides for the really little ones.
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Amusement Parks Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
SeaWorld San Diego
Though you may spot wildlife at any one of San Diego's beaches (especially Pacific and Mission Beach) none put on quite as good a show as the performers at SeaWorld. Here you'll get to see a range of animals, including dolphins, California sea lions, California otters and sea turtles, among others. As for the rides, travelers love the lightning fast Manta Ray rollercoaster, but caution against the Journey to Atlantis or Ship Wreck Rapids ride if you don't want to get wet. For something a little more low-key, head to any one of the park's animal exhibits, like the shark underwater viewing tunnel, the penguin habitat, which features nearly 300 penguins, or the vast Wild Arctic ride/exhibit, which features the chance to see beluga whales and polar bears. There's also the Sesame Street Bay of Play, which features various playgrounds wet and dry as well as arcade facilities and smaller mechanical rides for the really little ones.
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#10

#10 in San Diego

Local Pick: Recommended ? Free
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are one giant, connected shoreline in San Diego. While not as pristine as Coronado Beach, the area is just as popular thanks to all the nearby attractions and amenities. This miles-long stretch of sand fits the SoCal stereotype to a T: throngs of surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers crowd the shores every summer, while the nearby boardwalk is usually packed with inline skaters and bicyclists. The beach is a popular spot in San Diego for surfing as well, offering swells both high and low, perfect for beginners and seasoned surfers (there are numerous water sports equipment rental shops strewn around the neighborhood). Belmont Park, which acts as the border between the two beaches, is a beachfront amusement park featuring arcades and numerous rides, including the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – a more than 100-year-old National Historic Landmark. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk or Mission Boulevard (the area's main thoroughfare), or have a picnic at Bonita Cove, the bayfront park located across the street from Belmont Park.
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Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are one giant, connected shoreline in San Diego. While not as pristine as Coronado Beach, the area is just as popular thanks to all the nearby attractions and amenities. This miles-long stretch of sand fits the SoCal stereotype to a T: throngs of surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers crowd the shores every summer, while the nearby boardwalk is usually packed with inline skaters and bicyclists. The beach is a popular spot in San Diego for surfing as well, offering swells both high and low, perfect for beginners and seasoned surfers (there are numerous water sports equipment rental shops strewn around the neighborhood). Belmont Park, which acts as the border between the two beaches, is a beachfront amusement park featuring arcades and numerous rides, including the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – a more than 100-year-old National Historic Landmark. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk or Mission Boulevard (the area's main thoroughfare), or have a picnic at Bonita Cove, the bayfront park located across the street from Belmont Park.
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#11

#11 in San Diego

Local Pick: If Time Allows ? Free
Next to the Cabrillo Monument, travelers say this is the next best place for ocean views in Point Loma. Situated a little more than 9 miles due west of downtown San Diego, Sunset Cliffs stretches across 68 acres and runs 1.5 miles along Point Loma peninsula's western shoreline. The dramatic sandstone cliffs and untouched vegetation along with its stunning ocean vistas make for an unforgettable stroll both during the day and at night. The area is also home to a few secluded beaches as well, though getting to them can be tricky. There is a beach popular with locals at the beginning of Cordova Street off of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, but you have to traverse down the rocky bluffs to get there. For an easier descent, head to the end of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at Ladera Street and take a walk down the available stairway. It won't lead you to the beach but it will get you just above the crashing waves. That area is pretty popular with surfers, so expect to see lots of locals catching waves. If you venture farther up into Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, you'll find plenty of walking trails right along the ocean and through the coastal scrub that dot the area. 
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Hiking Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Sunset Cliffs
Next to the Cabrillo Monument, travelers say this is the next best place for ocean views in Point Loma. Situated a little more than 9 miles due west of downtown San Diego, Sunset Cliffs stretches across 68 acres and runs 1.5 miles along Point Loma peninsula's western shoreline. The dramatic sandstone cliffs and untouched vegetation along with its stunning ocean vistas make for an unforgettable stroll both during the day and at night. The area is also home to a few secluded beaches as well, though getting to them can be tricky. There is a beach popular with locals at the beginning of Cordova Street off of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, but you have to traverse down the rocky bluffs to get there. For an easier descent, head to the end of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at Ladera Street and take a walk down the available stairway. It won't lead you to the beach but it will get you just above the crashing waves. That area is pretty popular with surfers, so expect to see lots of locals catching waves. If you venture farther up into Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, you'll find plenty of walking trails right along the ocean and through the coastal scrub that dot the area. 
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Free
La Jolla Cove is the jewel of La Jolla. Located across the water from La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Cove may not be much in terms of a beach, but its striking beauty and snorkeling reputation more than make up for it among recent visitors. The site is an ecologically protected area that is home to vibrant wildlife both in and out of the water. In fact, it's not uncommon to spot sea lions hanging close to the cove's bluffs and tide pools. Oftentimes, they even come on the beach. 
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Beaches Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is the jewel of La Jolla. Located across the water from La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Cove may not be much in terms of a beach, but its striking beauty and snorkeling reputation more than make up for it among recent visitors. The site is an ecologically protected area that is home to vibrant wildlife both in and out of the water. In fact, it's not uncommon to spot sea lions hanging close to the cove's bluffs and tide pools. Oftentimes, they even come on the beach. 
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Free
Known for its gentle waves and active beachgoers, La Jolla Shores is an ideal place to relax for a few hours. Locals and tourists hit this beach to surf, see marine life and enjoy the clean ocean water and sand. Families flock to La Jolla Shores and appreciate the reliable lifeguard presence and ample public restrooms. Adjacent to the beach is the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which houses two artificial reefs meant to attract marine life. Its perimeter is marked with buoys to enforce the strict no fishing rules. Along with fishing, collecting seashells is prohibited, as the area is part of the Marine Life Refuge used by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography for research. Away from the protected refuge, surfers and boogie boarders come to catch waves in designated zones. Additionally, kayak and snorkeling gear rentals are available and visitors can sign up for scuba diving classes ahead of time. La Jolla Kayak and San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours are two companies that offer rental equipment.
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Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
La Jolla Shores
Known for its gentle waves and active beachgoers, La Jolla Shores is an ideal place to relax for a few hours. Locals and tourists hit this beach to surf, see marine life and enjoy the clean ocean water and sand. Families flock to La Jolla Shores and appreciate the reliable lifeguard presence and ample public restrooms. Adjacent to the beach is the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which houses two artificial reefs meant to attract marine life. Its perimeter is marked with buoys to enforce the strict no fishing rules. Along with fishing, collecting seashells is prohibited, as the area is part of the Marine Life Refuge used by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography for research. Away from the protected refuge, surfers and boogie boarders come to catch waves in designated zones. Additionally, kayak and snorkeling gear rentals are available and visitors can sign up for scuba diving classes ahead of time. La Jolla Kayak and San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours are two companies that offer rental equipment.
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