San Diego Hidden Gems: written by a local
San Diego is home to beautiful beaches, historic culture, and tons of tourist attractions. In recent years has become a foodie paradise. Everyone wants to experience that southern California lifestyle and I can’t blame them! However, with that comes high tourism and lots of crowds.
But did you know that San Diego also has a few best-kept secrets all around the county? Well, my friends, I am here to spill all the details! Having lived in San Diego for almost 15 years I think it’s safe to say I’ve found my fair share of San Diego hidden gems. In this guide, I’ll outline all 20+ of them below!
Shelter Island Japanese Friendship Bell
Did you know that San Diego has a Japanese Friendship Bell? Well, I didn’t either! The Yokohama Friendship Bell was commemorated in 1958 as part of the Centennial Celebration of formal relations between the USA and Japan. It also marks the establishment of the two sister cities: Yokohama and San Diego. Finally, the park across the street has stunning views of the San Diego skyline.
- Free to Visit
- Located at 1401 Shelter Island Drive
Scripps Coastal Meander
My personal favorite San Diego hidden gem is the Scripps Coastal Meander. This wooden boardwalk is short but the views make up for it! Overlooking the Scripps Pier and La Jolla coastline this trail is perfect for a short morning walk. If you visit after 5 pm, check out the building at the end pictured above (it’s used for UCSD research during business hours so you can get in trouble if visiting during those times). But has some of the best sunset views in all of San Diego.
- Free to Visit
- Scripps Institution of Oceanography 9234-9218, La Jolla Shores Dr, La Jolla, CA 92037
- If you Park on La Jolla Shores Drive cramp your wheels to the curb. They give out tickets like crazy!
La Jolla Hidden Bench
The La Jolla hidden bench is a local secret that is located North of the Scripps Coastal Meander. In order to access it, you need to locate the bridge going across La Jolla Shores Drive. Go down the staircase to the bottom level, and look for a brown wooden building. Behind there you’ll see a wooden step footpath situation walk up to it and you’ll spot the hidden bench. It has the same great views as the meander but is more secluded. This video goes into more detail!
La Jolla Secret Swings
There are a few secret swings in the La Jolla area. The La Jolla secret swings are a San Diego legend and they are pretty easy to find if you know where to look. The one pictured on the left is located at the south end of the Birch Aquarium parking lot. There you will find a small path between two bushes and a hill. Hike about 100 feet to the top of that hill and the swing will be there. There have been many times where this swing was taken down so don’t be too disappointed if that happens to you. Last visited in February 2022 swing was down.
- The south end of the Birch Aquarium Parking lot
- You have to walk uphill to access so wear proper shoes
The swing on the right is located off of the Coastal Trail Walk. Once you see the white pedestrian bridge you’ll have to climb over on the left side and walk down the cliff. There is a rope to assist you and it isn’t as high up as you may think. You can even take the trail down to the water if you’re feeling adventurous.
Annie’s Canyon Hike
Did you know that San Diego has a slot canyon? Well, we do! It’s called Annies Canyon Hike and is located in Solana Beach. Annie’s Canyon Trail is a moderate 1.5-mile loop trail that takes hikers through a narrow slot canyon and up to a scenic overlook that offers views of the lagoon.
The trail is known for its unique geological formations, including sandstone cliffs and boulders that are millions of years old. The trail can be steep and rocky in places and requires a climb up a metal ladder at the end of the slot canyon. The slot canyon portion is short but it’s such a unique spot. It is hands down my favorite San Diego hidden gems. I go into more detail in this Instagram video. It has everything you need to know before visiting.
Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave
Located in a gift shop called “The Cave Store” Sunny Jims Sea Cave is an old prohibition smugglers’ cave built in 1902. If you look at the cave you can see his nose on the left hence the name Sunny Jim. The Cave Store has been operating tours of the cave since 1905. Tours are self-guided and last approximately 15 minutes. There is a long staircase in order to access the cave and is quite tight and slippery. Finally, tours are operated daily from 9 am – 4:30 pm. Find out more information here.
- Adults $10, Kids $6
- Address: 1325 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037
Harpers Topiary Garden
Harpers Topiary Garden in Mission Hills is reminiscent of Edward Scissorhand’s garden. The landscaping skill of this private home is truly off the charts. This San Diego activity is completely free. But please note, that it’s on a quiet residential street so be respectful of the neighborhood.
- Free to visit
- Address: 3549 Union St, San Diego, CA 92103
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is a pedestrian bridge. It was built in 1912 and is located in Bankers Hill/Mission Hills. It spans a deep canyon and offers visitors a unique and thrilling experience as they walk across the bridge while it sways and bounces. This local spot has beautiful views over the canyon (70 feet below) and is part of “San Diego’s 7 Bridges Hike“.
- Free to visit
- Address: W Spruce St, San Diego, 92103
- The bridge moves as you walk so be aware!
Sunset Cliffs Open Ceiling Cave
One of those places that you have to see to believe. This massive sea cave is an incredible spot to check out. It’s extremely difficult to reach and can only be done during the negative tide. This article outlines how to get to the open ceiling cave. Before attempting to do so, make sure you are a skilled swimmer, have some rock climbing knowledge, and have the proper gear.
Coronado Sand Dunes
Did you know that there is a secret message hidden in the Coronado Sand Dunes? They may just look like regular sand dunes to the naked eye but from a birds-eye view it reads “Coronado”. Back in the 1980s, the man in charge of cleaning up the seaweed didn’t know what to do with all of it so he wrote out this secret message. Fun fact! Find out more at coronadotimes.com (above photo credit).
Balboa Park Japanese Friendship Garden
The Japanese Friendship Garden is such a hidden gem! This 12-acre garden within Balboa Park opened to the public in 1991. It’s an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city Yokohama. The most popular time to visit the garden is during the Cherry Blossom Festival in March. It’s home to over 200 Cherry Blossom trees and is truly a magical experience if you can visit during that time. You can purchase tickets online here.
- Tickets are $12 per person
- Address: 2215 Pan American Rd E. San Diego, CA 92101
- San Diego residents are free to enter every third Tuesday of the Month
Balboa Park Cactus Garden
The historic Old Cactus Garden was developed back in 1935 and is still intact today. Some of the largest succulents located in the park are here and have a unique view of the Cabrillo Bridge. It’s located behind the Balboa Park Club building and is home to many feral cats.
El Prado Courtyard
In Balboa Park, the El Prado Courtyard is such a hidden gem! It’s hard to notice but once you catch a glimpse you’ll be drawn to the charming architecture, string lights, and tiled fountain. Finally, the El Prado restaurant is a favorite Mexican spot for San Diego locals
Self Realization Fellowship in Encinitas
The Self Realization Fellowship was founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda. It is home to multiple meditation gardens providing the community with a place to pray, study, or relax. It’s filled with koi ponds, beautiful flora, and sweeping views of the Encinitas coastline. It’s completely free to visit and the gardens are open Tuesday – Saturday 9 am – 5 pm.
- Free to Visit
- Address: 215 W. K Street, Encinitas
- More info here
San Diego Hidden Gems: Encinitas Boat Houses
The Encinitas Boat Houses are an Encinitas legend. They are small residential houses shaped like boats. They’re so unique and make for a perfect photo opportunity. These are private residences so please be respectful and visit during normal hours. If you walk a few blocks over you can visit H Street Park. Which has stunning views over the Encinitas cliffs.
- Free to visit
- 726 3rd St, Encinitas, CA
Robert’s Cottages in Oceanside
This charming historical landmark called “Roberts Cottages” is located in Oceanside directly across from the beach. They’re vintage beach homes that are all individually owned today. You feel as though you have stepped back into time when visiting here. especially if a vintage van drives by!
Currently, you can rent these cottages out but only for a 7-day minimum. Finally, it’s perfect for a cute photo moment or to just take a walk down memory lane.
Bankers Hill Mini Mansions
I love coming to this area and marveling at all the gorgeous homes or “mini-mansions” as San Diego likes to call them. They make for some incredible backdrops and the above photo is located at 435 W Thorn Ave. It’s the most perfect Italian-style villa of my dreams!
Thank you for reading my “20 San Diego Hidden Gems – written by a local” post! I hope you enjoy these fun activities and for more Things to Do in San Diego – check out my Ultimate San Diego Travel Guide.
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Very fun article. Thanks for sharing, looking forward to checking out these locations.