When you think of Southern California — endless beaches, epic sunsets, surfin' safaris and golden tans — you picture the beach towns that dot San Diego County. This is heaven, the kind of place you visit and simply can't believe that people get to live here year-round. Until you're ready to make the move yourself, visit these towns and dream hard.
Perhaps the most enlightened beach city in the county, Encinitas is home to the Self Realization Fellowship, where George Harrison and Ravi Shankar used to get Zen. It's located next to the fittingly named Swami's Beach, a surfing mecca. Also be sure to visit the beautiful San Diego Botanic Garden and do a little shopping downtown, where cute boutiques and sidewalk cafés abound.
Just 20 miles north of San Diego, this picture-perfect city is home to the Del Mar Racetrack and some of the area's most beautiful beaches. At Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve, you can see the rarest pine tree in the United States while you head out on some of the best hikes in the county with views that will leave you dumbstruck. If you brought along your furry friends, be sure to take them to North Beach, AKA Dog Beach, so they can have some fun in the sand too.
If shopping is your bag, you have to check out Solana Beach, just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego. Your first stop should be Cedros Design District, which boasts numerous indie boutiques, galleries, antique shops, salons and restaurants housed in Quonset huts from the 1940s. On Sundays, farmers and local artisans gather to peddle their wares. Of course, the beaches in Solana are great too — check out Tide Beach Park and Fletcher Cove. Finish the day at Pizza Port, a pizzeria and brewery that helped usher in San Diego's craft beer boom in the 1980s.
Cardiff is technically part of Encinitas, but locals will assure you it's its own town, with an independent zip code to boot. This heavenly spot is all about surfing, and before you go hang ten, pay a visit to the "Cardiff Kook," a statue of a surfer that locals like to dress up in silly outfits. There's amazing camping at San Elijo State Beach, perched on the edge of a scenic bluff. When the sun wakes you in the morning, your first stop should be VG Donut & Bakery for a cherry iced doughnut with chocolate sprinkles.
"La Jolla" means "the jewel," and the name couldn't be more apt for this gorgeous spot on the edge of north San Diego, surrounded on three sides by the ocean. Start the day at La Jolla Cove, where you can say hi to the sea lions sunning themselves and then see more ocean critters at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. At night, be sure to get a ticket to whatever is running at the La Jolla Playhouse, one of the best theaters in the nation and where many Broadway plays and shows originate.