Cardiff Reef in San Diego's North County (All Photos: Lisa Singh)

Quiet beach time at Cardiff Reef in San Diego’s North County (All Photos: Lisa Singh)

If you’re California-bound, you’ll eventually want to see its birthplace: San Diego. And once you’ve checked out the famed Southern California city’s star attractions, like the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and La Jolla Village, you owe it to yourself to step off the well-worn tourist path and discover San Diego’s lesser-known side, where hidden gems await at nearly every turn.

The place to go is San Diego’s North County, the posh and quieter stretch of town about 25 miles north of the city. Just cruise on down Highway 101, the classic stretch of road with an array of laid-back beach towns along the way.

In the coastal beach town of Encinitas, CA, make sure to stop by the Self-Realization Fellowship. Whatever your thoughts are on this brand of bliss, which famously inspired George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” you can’t help but notice: This spiritual retreat has some seriously beautiful gardens.

Self-Realization Fellowship's Meditation Garden (Photo: Lisa Singh)

Channel your inner om in the Self-Realization Fellowship’s Meditation Garden

The 17-acre grounds come courtesy of an Indian yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, who established the retreat back in 1936; he went on to write a book here that introduced millions of Westerners to meditation and yoga. Today visitors can stroll the property’s Meditation Garden, where the sound of trickling water from a small waterfall accompanies your walk. Dotting the gardens are colorful ponds, filled with huge red, yellow and orange koi fish, and it’s all just a few feet from a cliff-side view of Swami’s Reef, a point break that lures surfers from around the world.

Feeling blissed-out yet?

Cardiff Kook (Photo: Lisa Singh)

The Cardiff Kook greets visitors to San Diego North County’s quiet beachside community of Cardiff-by-the-Sea

You may at North County’s Cardiff-by-the-Sea, another beachside town that’s home to miles of tranquil, wide-open beaches, as well as railroad tracks that cut through the center of town.

In addition to Swami’s Reef, the town’s other big star is a bronze statue of a surfer. Located on Pacific Coast Highway 101, it’s affectionately known by locals as the “Cardiff Kook.” Look at his posture, and you’ll see why. You may even be inspired to try your own version of the backside floater at Cardiff Reef, just down the hill.

Encinitas beach community of Leucadia (Photo: Lisa Singh)

Keeping it cool in the Encinitas beach community of Leucadia

In between catching glimpses of the surfing life, from the surfer “safety meetings” (don’t ask) to surfer moms holding their kids’ boogie boards after a morning out on the water, San Diego’s North County has another side: a world of diesel, fumes and leather. Lots of leather. Find it at vintage motorbike and surfer shops like Seaweed and Gravel in the Encinitas beach community of Leucadia. You’re also likely to see your share of bikers geared up in boots and helmets, cruising up and down Highway 101 on their custom-built motorbikes.

Encinitas welcome arch (Photo: Lisa Singh)

The Encinitas welcome arch in San Diego County’s coastal beach city

After a day of meditating, surfing and making biker pit stops, kick back in a wide-open space like Bier Garden in Encinitas. The light shines through, and the beer keeps on flowing, as you decide on your next move … to surf, cruise or just kick back, in a stretch of San Diego where tranquility can be found at just about every turn.

5 Responses

  1. Elly says:

    What is the best choice of hotel to stay at in northern SD? And what airport to fly into?

    • Teresa says:

      San Diego is a large county so I'm unsure how far north your traveling. There is an Embassy Suites on Pacific Highway. Since your going to San Diego I would fly into Lindbergh Field. The other option is LAX but it is a couple hours drive from San Diego. I hope this info is helpful for you and enjoy your trip!

    • Erica says:

      You could also price out Palomar Airport (by Legoland/ in Carlsbad).

  2. DBCoop says:

    With so much to see, so many activities to enjoy and miles of great beaches to swim, surf and sunbathe from La Jolla to Leucadia, Carlsbad to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Fallbrook to Fairbanks Ranch and plenty of other delightful communities, San Diego County deserves at least a two-week visit — and frequent vacations thereafter to soak it all in.

  3. hi good information thank for sharing

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Lisa SinghLisa Singh is an Interactive Producer at TravelChannel.com. Her multimedia career has spanned print and online publications. One of her first stories involved following a convicted felon into the Mexican...

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