With its enchanting beaches, bistros, bars, boutiques—and even some of the finest botanical gardens found anywhere—Encinitas does not lack for chill vibes. It’s easy to see why it’s been a longtime haven for surfers, artists, and families looking to live the good life without sacrificing culture. No matter how much or how little you’re looking to do, there’s nowhere better than this small beach town a short drive from downtown San Diego.
Where: 230 Quail Gardens Dr
Among the very best botanic gardens anywhere, these 37 acres comprise 5,000 plant species, dozens of themed gardens, and incalculable natural beauty. Open every day of the year except Christmas Day, the gardens host numerous classes and events for adults and kids alike including a trendy meditative experience called nature bathing. But there’s nothing wrong with simply strolling the four miles of trails and admiring the endlessly rich plant life.
Where: 1550 S El Camino Real
This artist-in-residence program doubles as a unique type of museum: the public is invited to watch as emerging artists create works of numerous kinds. The institute also houses permanent collections of indoor and outdoor pieces. Its award-winning grounds overlooking the San Elijo Lagoon are worthy of a visit on their own.
Where: 510 N Coast Hwy 101
You can’t miss the canary yellow Encinitas Depot while driving through Leucadia on Highway 101. Built in 1888, the former Santa Fe Railroad Station now makes an idyllic setting to take refuge under an umbrella and tuck into breakfast and lunch fare and baked goods with house-roasted coffee.
Where: 1108 S Coast Hwy 101
A wide ranging menu of brunch-to-dinner fare (spanning chicken and waffles, kale salad, and filet mignon) that leans fancier than at your average gastropub. Of course, there’s always the Union burger and sweet potato fries for a tried-and-true companion to craft cocktails and a solid list of frosty local brews.
Where: 407 Encinitas Blvd
Immaculately fried chicken in sandwiches or a la carte with your choice of sauces and comfort foods ranging from biscuits to poutine and soft serve, plus a selection of craft beer and wine. Dine under an attractive wood ceiling in the spacious interior or on the breezy patio.
Where: 1010 S Coast Hwy 101
Pick a seafood, pick a marinade, pick a style. That’s how it’s done at this fast casual spot where albacore, scallops, shrimp, lobster, and mahi mahi are offered daily. The seasonings and sauces are handmade. The tacos come piled high with toppings. And there’s an impressive list of local beer on draft and in bottles, plus a large wine selection.
Where: 937 S Coast Hwy 101
From-scratch ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, waffle cones, and sauces, made with organic dairy (vegan flavors are made with organic coconut milk and housemade cashew milk). Every ice cream comes with a free cookie.
Where: 569 S Coast Hwy 101
Among the newest additions to Encinitas, the organic Baja-style cuisine and cocktails drawn from the extensive agave spirits selection has quickly made it a favorite. Against the backdrop of a mermaid-and-surfer mural, the kitchen, led by an alum of Top Chef All-Stars, crafts fine takes on Mexican classics like ceviche, aguachile, elote, Spanish octopus, and elevated street tacos filled with ingredients like purple potatoes, duroc pork, beef cheek, and aged cheese.
Where: 1051 S Coast Hwy 101
The expression “Good on ya” must be Australian for “virtually every item is organic, wild, and Fair Trade.” The breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus burst with fresh and healthy ingredients stuffing their wraps, burritos, bowls, sandwiches, burgers, chicken entrees, pizzas, and housemade ice cream sandwiches.
Where: 918 N Coast Hwy 101
Casual vibes prevail at this sushi bar. High quality fish is the backbone of sushi, sashimi, and poke. But experimentation comes in the form of fun specialty rolls topped with things like edible flowers.
All of Encinitas’ beaches are beautiful, but Moonlight State Beach and Swami’s Beach are not to be missed. Named for the founder of the ashram on the bluff, Swami’s is an iconic surf spot and enchanting sandy beach. Take in the vista from the bluff top Swami’s Seaside Park, then descend the wooden stairs to the sand. Don’t leave without stopping into the Self-Realization Fellowship’s lavish public gardens. With its wide sand, grassy park, volleyball and tennis courts, lifeguards, fire rings, and good restrooms, Moonlight is a hub of beachy activity. Spend a day with the family. Or do like early settlers and enjoy a picnic by the light of the moon; the beach stays open until 2:00 AM.