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The truth is California’s coastal enclaves are unfairly photogenic, and then some and it’s especially true in San Diego. Located just north of San Diego city proper, the question is not what to do in La Jolla but how to fit it all into your next trip.
This town packs all of the things on our must-do list whenever we travel: Excellent local food and markets, inspiring design, plus al fresco options with beautiful beaches and coastline to move our bodies.
What is The History Of La Jolla?
Before we get into what to do in La Jolla, first, a bit of history, what was once a smattering of modest seaside bungalows has transformed over the last 50 years into one of Southern California’s top places to visit for its pristine beaches, a top-notch golf course, and a walkable village with great restaurants and shopping.
As such, there’s renewed momentum in this picturesque city driven mainly by a new crop of openings (and re-openings) within its local food and cultural scenes.
Where is La Jolla, California?
La Jolla is a coastal city located within central San Diego County and just 13 miles north of downtown San Diego. The nearest freeway is I-5 which runs North and South and is the easiest way to reach La Jolla.
What is La Jolla Famous For?
La Jolla is known for its sparkly beaches and seals, upscale shopping, luxury hotels, and more. It’s also home to world-class academic and research institutions, including the University of California, San Diego, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Torrey Pines Golf Course and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve are also draws.
What To Do In La Jolla
Here are our picks of what to do in La Jolla, from where to eat, where to get the best ocean views, where to hike, and where to stay whether you’re passing through on a California road trip or diving deep into all things San Diego and its surroundings have to offer.
Where to Eat and Drink in La Jolla
When it comes to what to do in La Jolla, are, first things first: dining spots. Let’s talk menu options for breakfast, brunch, and dinner, including a great place for a San Diego sunset and Pacific Ocean views.
When we crave an aperitif and want to roll right into dinner thereafter, we head to Marisi. The restaurant opened in the summer of 2022 with a generous nod to Italy, from fluffy warm focaccia to delicate pappardelle with duck balanced with preserved lemon—but not before first starting with a glass of Bordiga vermouth or homemade limoncello.
Marisi is drenched in pastels, botanical-inspired wallpaper, and arched details. The go-to table, in our opinion, is on the covered patio.
The Marine Room
Since the Pacific is a huge part of La Jolla’s appeal, The Marine Room delivers a full-frontal view of the waves from the iconic oceanfront restaurants large wraparound windows. It’s upscale yet unpretentious and has been around since 1941. The focus is on local and sustainable seafood-centric dishes.
It reopened in 2022 after a brief closure to introduce a cozy lounge with its surf and turf-inspired menus like dry-aged local bluefin tuna carpaccio and playful salmon cones. Go for sunset, though know that this is peak dining hour, so make a reservation.
When we want a super fresh lunch option and a superfood-infused caffeine jolt Parakeet Cafe hits the spot. Think beet-cured salmon toasts, grain bowls, and salads like the Golden Goddess with fresh dill, turmeric, and lemon vinaigrette.
Dishes lean vegetarian and plant-based though there are options to add an animal protein like chicken and eggs. Drinks offer a wellness bent, too, like its matcha with blue spirulina and raw honey. Plus, whether you’re vegan or not, its banana oat muffin is the perfect amount of dense and spiced.
Where To Eat Tacos In La Jolla
San Diego is practically synonymous with tacos, so when you’re considering what to do in La Jolla, a taco or two should be on the bucket list. We’re into El Pescador Fish Market or Karina’s Cantina, which also serves ceviches and aguachile.
Where To Brunch
Weekend brunch can get hectic in these parts but it’s a favorite among locals if you ask them what to do in La Jolla.
Our strategy is to head to Fay Avenue in La Jolla Village (considered downtown La Jolla), put our names on the list at Sugar and Scribe or The Cottage, and sit at whichever restaurant calls our name first. It’s doable as they’re located across the street.
The former does an eclectic menu from a full Irish breakfast to lemon curd pancakes with orange cardamom syrup and lobster rolls. The latter has a lineup of omelets, benedicts, pancakes, chilaquiles, and housemade guajillo salsa. Both are intimate and dog-friendly spots with ample outdoor patio space.
Where To Get Outside In La Jolla
If your list of what to do in La Jolla includes moving your body and soaking up jaw-dropping ocean views, you’ve got multiple ways to do so whether you consider yourself part of the adventurers’ crew or the more leisurely crowd:
- Kayak: Kayaking past sea caves or snorkeling (lots of places to rent snorkel gear, btw) at La Jolla Shores and its surrounds. During summer, you can even snorkel with leopard sharks
- Stroll: Walking or jogging along the area’s coastal pathway
- Beach Visits: Beach hopping, including picnics at La Jolla Shores, sunbathing and watching the surfers at Windansea Beach, exploring La Jolla tide pools during low tide at the Children’s Pool (which is a beach)
- Get In The Water: Commune with sea life by scuba diving at San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve. The underwater park is also home to kelp forests, reefs, and canyons. The park spans from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores Beach and the area around Scripps Pier
- Shop Farmers Markets: Strolling the farmers market on Sundays
Hiking in La Jolla
Top on your list of what to do in La Jolla should be hiking. Specifically, hiking at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Not gonna lie; this place gets busy, so plan to hit the trails as early as possible for a more serene experience.
The state park is known for time-worn-and-weathered sandstone bluffs, wildflowers, and its famous yet rare Torrey Pine trees—they only grow in these coastal areas and Santa Rosa Island off the Central Coast. A handful of short walking and hiking trails clock in at less than 1.5 miles per trail, though most of them connect if you’re after a little more sweat yet don’t have time for a longer day hike.
For example, make a two-mile loop by combining the Beach Trail that leads 300 feet from a cliff down a set of stairs to the shore (accessible during low tide) and back up and around through the Broken Hill Trail.
Where To Do Art & Design in La Jolla
La Jolla offers no shortage of performing arts and design-related attractions including the La Jolla Playhouse, and our faves the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Salk Institute.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD)
The Museum of Contemporary Art reopened in spring 2022 with quadruple the gallery space, meaning more space for its permanent collection and visiting pieces from artists including from San Diego and Tijuana.
Salk Institute of Biological Studies
As for modern architecture, Salk Institute of Biological Studies is widely considered modernist architect Louis I. Kahn’s most celebrated project and it’s situated on La Jolla’s bluffs. The stunning research labs were built from concrete and teak, with a channel of water that splits its travertine plaza and flows toward the ocean.
Where To Stay In La Jolla
Visitors to La Jolla typically stay in one of the area’s upscale hotels as there are many options from major chains like several Hiltons to boutiques and resorts like Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa and The Lodge at Torrey Pines.
La Valencia—aka the Pink Lady—stands out as one of our go-to hotels in La Jolla, not just because of its flamingo pink color and spacious villas. It’s also got midcentury history (it opened in 1926) and Spanish Revival-style décors like hand-painted ceilings and tiles. Its central courtyard is anchored by an ocean-facing pool and secluded jacuzzi and peppered with chaise lounges and bougainvillea.
Find it in the pedestrian-friendly La Jolla Village, close to cafes, retail boutiques, and La Jolla Cove where the area’s seals and sea lions love to sunbathe and humans like to snorkel and kayak in nearby La Jolla Shores. Another perk is its pink golf cart introduced in 2022 for its 95th anniversary, which takes guests anywhere within a 1-mile radius of the property.
How To Get To La Jolla
The best (and truthfully only) way to reach these various La Jolla attractions is by car via the interstate I-5. Since this is San Diego, the best time to visit La Jolla is any time of year really, though know that beaches get packed during summer.
As for parking, while there are a few parking garages around town, you’ll mostly find metered street parking everywhere else.
More San Diego Travel Tips
Headed to San Diego soon? Find even more of our favorite things to do there:
- Get To Know Northern County San Diego
- Unexpected Activities In San Diego
- Explore San Diego’s Little Italy
Have Us Plan Your California Trip
If this sounds like your kind of vacation, our travel planning team at Salt & Wind is here to help you make it all happen all over California and beyond, including Italy and Mexico. Contact us today to learn more.
Photo Credit: Opening photo by Dave Newman; Torrey Pines Natural Reserve Photo by Manuela Durson
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