by James Han
With 70 miles of sunny coastline and more than 100 neighborhoods, sprawling pedestrian-friendly downtown centers, culinary hubs, pristine natural habitats and world-class beaches, San Diego is teeming with breathtaking scenery and picturesque views. Top it off with nearly perfect year-round weather and a leisurely Southern California stride, and it’s easy to see why tourists and locals alike can explore — and appreciate — this city time and time again. Whether you’re an adventure-seeking San Diego native or on a sun-soaked tour of California’s top destinations, we’ll share our favorite San Diego scenic spots to enjoy with a few puffs of your favorite Mistifi Pen.
1. Cedar Creek Falls
This 6-mile round-trip hike through unshaded, chaparral-speckled hills is best taken during the cooler months of spring and fall. Purchase a $6 permit ahead of time and bring it with you on the trail. As you descend along gradual switchbacks all the way down to the watering hole, take a moment to pause and experience the spectacular canyon views of the Cleveland National Forest. When you reach the bottom of the trail, you’ll be greeted by the famous 100-foot waterfall cascading down a rocky cliff into a pool. Take your time catching your breath, snapping the perfect Instagram-worthy shot and luxuriating in the refreshing water — the trek uphill is challenging and can take nearly three hours to finish. Bring at least a gallon of water to keep you hydrated, and apply liberal amounts of sunscreen.
2. San Diego Central Library
If you find yourself drifting through the packed streets of the Gaslamp Quarter after taking a hit from your favorite pen, head a few blocks southeast and you’ll stumble upon the architectural wonder that is the San Diego Central Library. Trust us — you can’t miss it. Designed by architect Rob Quigley, this nine-story structure looms with an iconic steel-and-aluminum dome that glints in sunlight and glows like a paper lantern at night. Head inside while high and ogle at the massive brutalist arch, the towering floor-to-ceiling windows and the light-filled atrium. You have nine floors to explore — and there’s a good chance you’ll leave with a book in tow.
Note: At the time of publication, browsing around the library is not permitted due to COVID-19 health and safety regulations, but we’ve included it on this list as it is truly an unmissable San Diego destination.
3. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Hands down one of the most beautiful places in San Diego’s city limits, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a vast 1,500 acres of unspoiled land that is home to maritime chaparral, the rare Torrey pine and other impressive, unique biodiversity. With five trails that span 8 miles total, Torrey Pines is an easy-to-moderate hike that features plenty of photo opportunities of sandstone formations, seasonal wildflowers, badlands, ravines and the sea. After you’re done, set up a chair and umbrella at Torrey Pines State Beach and catch a few waves before heading home.
4. Stonewall Peak Trail
Stonewall Peak, located in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, is a short and easy 4-mile climb along an oak-shaded, winding trail that leads you to an elevation of 1,000 feet. When you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree panoramic views of sparkling Lake Cuyamaca, Anza Borrego, the Laguna Mountains and everything beyond. While you’re there, take the time to explore the more than 40 other trails in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, with varying difficulty levels that take you through distinctive terrains including woodlands and creeks.
5. Coronado Ferry Landing
When you’re in a euphoric state of mind, nothing will feel better than hopping on the ferry to the island of Coronado. After the 15-minute ride across the bay — with the salt-laced wind running through your hair and spectacular city views — you’ll arrive at Coronado Ferry Landing, a quaint waterfront marketplace that boasts over 25 shops and restaurants to explore before you head to one of the gorgeous white-sand beaches. At night, you can stand on the pier and see the skyscrapers of downtown San Diego lit up across the water.
6. La Jolla
The coastline that hugs downtown La Jolla is full of activities and scenic surprises. In a single afternoon, you can experience sea-life sightings at the tide pools and walk north along the shore to admire dozens of harbor seals sunbathing and frolicking at the Children’s Pool. Continue along the path and eventually you’ll pass through Shell Beach and reach the flat grassy spread of Ellen Browning Scripps Park, a favorite spot that overlooks La Jolla Cove and offers sweeping ocean views. There’s plenty more to explore in the charming neighborhood of La Jolla by the Sea: boutiques, restaurants, smoothie shops, galleries and more. For a cool sea-cave view, check out Sunny Jim’s cave, located through a bootlegger’s tunnel in the Cave Store.
7. Cabrillo National Monument
Head to the tip of Point Loma and you’ll arrive at the Cabrillo National Monument, a mesmerizing historic site that offers gorgeous peninsular views of the San Diego skyline, trails, tide pools full of marine life, a whale overlook and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which was built in the 1800s. Named after Juan Cabrillo, who led the first European expedition of what is now the West Coast, this area is what gives San Diego its nickname as the “birthplace of California.” It’s the perfect half-day excursion, with ample opportunities to take in the scenery and snap a few unforgettable photos while you’re at it. Be sure to stop by the 68-acre Sunset Cliffs Natural Park on the drive back north to catch a sunset view that will boggle your (high) mind.
8. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a hub of San Diego culture, history and activity, with 1,200 beautiful acres that are home to world-famous institutions such as the San Diego Zoo, Botanical Gardens, Japanese Friendship Garden and 17 museums that range from space travel to photography to orchids and more. With plenty of attractions and performances (most of which are set to resume during Summer 2021) as well as restaurants, shops and even dance classes, Balboa Park is the quintessential San Diego scenic wonderland for high exploration that you’ll return to again and again.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about the most beautiful places in San Diego, check out our guide to the most photogenic views in California.
James Han is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not deep in a Google Doc, you can find him reading, watching films and taking long walks.