If gorgeous coastlines, lush hiking trails, and a perpetually sunny disposition are your thing, you’ve certainly landed in the right city!

Located in Southern California, San Diego offers a wealth of attractions, all ranging from super cool theme parks to coastal boardwalks, museums, and gardens galore. This charming Californian city draws travelers from far and wide- and honestly, I can’t blame them!

But did you know that besides all these amazing attractions, there are heaps of hidden gems in San Diego that travelers may not necessarily know about? That’s right: I’m talking secret swings, unique bridges, and even an arduous trail leading to a nude beach.

Don’t worry if this is your first time visiting the city though. I got your back! (Don’t I always?)

In this guide, I’ve compiled a list of stuff that’ll deliver a laid-back and quieter experience away from mass tourism to ensure you have an absolutely EPIC time in the city!

An American flag and yellow NYC taxi cab
Let’s head westward to San Diago!
Photo: Nic Hilditch-Short

What’s San Diego Like?

It’s no secret that San Diego is an absolute tourist magnet. After all, what’s not to love with its sun-soaked coastline and prime location just north of the Mexican border?

Whether you’d like to stick to the regular tourist trail or venture off the beaten track, rest assured that your trip to San Diego will be nothing short of extraordinary.

Start your journey with a splash on the beach. One of my all-time favorite spots is Mission Beach. It’s an exceptionally vibrant place known for its expansive boardwalk, mini golf, amusement park rides, and an abundance of nautical activities. You’ll also find places like the Gaslamp Quarter, another lively neighborhood speckled with nightlife venues.

Families, for instance, will no doubt enjoy the USS Midway Museum, which just so happens to be one of the coolest historical sites in the city! Owing to its popularity though, this venue can get pretty packed, it’s always a good idea to get skip-the-line tickets.

But wait – we’re here to look at the lesser-known stuff, not the super-popular ones…so let’s check them out!

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    15 of the Best Hidden Spots in San Diego

    Uncovering those secret spots in San Diego wasn’t something I had actively planned on doing when I first landed there. In fact, I was equipped with a meticulously planned itinerary filled to the brim with the most famous areas to visit.

    As it so happened, I had a couple of local friends who took me off the beaten track, insisting that the real San Diego lies way beyond the usual touristy venues. And you know what? They were absolutely spot-on!

    1. Explore La Jolla Secret Swings and Sea Cave

    two persons kayaking in La Jolla Sea Cave, San Diego
    Kayaking zone detected.

    Here’s a real doozy as far as hidden gems in San Diego are concerned! Ironically enough, these secret spots are found in La Jolla, one of the best places in the city.

    The story of San Diego’s secret swings has been making the rounds online for quite a while now.  Here’s the kicker, though: the city regularly tears down the swings, but the people are quick to set them up again. If you can’t find them, be sure to try again.

    Rumor has it that there are at least 3 swings speckled in various secret spots, but the one that’s easiest to find lies at the end of the small trail behind the Birch Aquarium parking lot.

    If you’d like to spend more time in La Jolla, you can also consider this guided sea cave kayaking tour after finding the swing. With a thriving ecosystem, this zone is home to the highest concentration of marine life in all of California. So, keep your eyes peeled for whales, turtles, sea lions, and dolphins frolicking in their natural habitat!

    Oh, and since this is a protected zone, your mission here is to be a responsible traveler and to protect the beautiful nature around you. The easiest thing you can do is reduce your plastic footprint.

    • Rating: 10/10 – Hidden Gem Alert!
    • Cost: $145
    • Personal Opinion: Definitely don’t skip this one!

    2. Amble through Little Italy

    Did you know that there’s a prominent Italian community tucked away here? I didn’t either until I accidentally stumbled upon this ridiculously charming neighborhood in San Diego while ambling through the downtown area!

    street view in Little Italy , San Diago
    Let’s meet up in Little Italy.

    Depending on when you’re visiting, you can even catch a community event like the Little Italy Summer Film Festival (June to August) or the Bella Vita Fest (October).  

    One of the best ways to dig into this hidden gems is by hanging out with the locals. They know places you can’t find in guidebooks. We’re talking Sal’s Vinyl Haven, Lucia’s Art Nook, and, for foodies (like me!), Vinny’s Gelato Heaven.

    • Rating: 8/10 – Genuine Delight
    • Cost: $81
    • Personal Opinion: An absolute haven for foodies! 
    Hidden Gems in San Diego
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    Best Western Plus Bayside InnHI San Diego Downtown HostelQuaint Little Italy Suites

    3. Hike the Ho Chi Minh Trail

    Quick note of caution before we get into that one: this trail is quite challenging and crosses through numerous sandstone formations. You really need to be an experienced hiker for this one but trust me, it’s one of the best hiking trails in the USA.

    A narrow dirt path ascending a rocky cliff in Ho Chi Minh Trail, San Diago
    Rugged terrain and steep inclines for a thrilling adventure.

    If you do have enough experience under your belt, though, believe me when I say this is easily one of the most magical places in San Diego. Packed full of treasures, this trail is often used by the locals to access one of the few nude beaches in San Diego.

    You’ll need to cross through shelf trails and slippery slots during this 3-mile hike, so remember to wear your best hiking boots. The views are absolutely worth it though since the hike takes you, through, the dramatic Torrey Pines Mesa canyon, an area known for its awe-inspiring natural beauty.

    The Ho Chi Minh Trailhead can be hard to find if you don’t know where it is. If you’re using Google Maps, you can locate it using the coordinates 32.8852 and 117.2492.

    • Rating: 9/10- Worth bragging about.
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: An impressive find you’ll tell friends about.
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    4. Go Pub Crawling in a Sidecar

    Okay, more like brewery-crawling than actual pubs, but if you’re looking for unique things to do in San Diego, this definitely is it!

    A group of tourists on a tandem sidecar tour with an American flag in San Diego

    Unlike regular tours, though, you’ll be riding in an authentic tandem sidecar as your guide takes you to different breweries and taprooms, where you can learn about the brewing process of each beverage. You’ll also learn more about how the beers differ from each other and, of course, sample some of the best brews!

    Food pairings are included in the tasting fleet, giving you the chance to sample plenty of great snacks as well.

    • Rating: 8/10 – Genuine Delight
    • Cost: $199
    • Personal Opinion: Perfect for beer lovers!

    5. Hang Out on Black’s Beach

    Nestled beneath majestic cliffs is a San Diego hideaway that few tourists know about!

    While it’s an official part of Torrey Pines State Beach, Black’s Beach is split into two sections. Managed by the City of San Diego, the south part is commonly referred to as Torrey Pines City Beach. In contrast, the California Department of Parks and Recreation manages the northern part.

    a rocky cliff overlooking a Black's Beach  in San Diago

    And if you’re wondering why I’m making that distinction, it’s because the north part of Black’s Beach is a nude area. Bear in mind that nudity isn’t allowed on the southern section of the beach, so definitely don’t go in the buff there!

    Packed full of treasures, the southern end of the beach is home to a submarine canyon, which is why it’s also a local hotspot for surfing. Because of the canyon, the lagoon can be dangerous for inexperienced swimmers.

    • Rating: 6/10 – Worth a Deeper Look
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: Great experience if you’re in the area.

    6. Discover the Hidden Gems Café

    No list of secret spots in San Diego would be complete without mentioning those hidden gem cafes and restaurants peppered across the city!

    Another activity that’s perfect for foodies, this 3.5-hour tour is led by an experienced and passionate local guide who knows everything there is to know about those San Diego hideaways.

    Street food in San Diago
    Aesthetically tasty!

    Your guide will also provide plenty of interesting tidbits about the local history and culture. You’ll meet some of the finest local chefs and explore culturally significant neighborhoods in between munching on scrumptious eats.

    While the activity offers an amazing inside look at San Diego cuisine, you’ll also receive heaps of handy tips that you can use for the rest of your stay in the city.

    • Rating: 7/10 – Off the Beaten Track
    • Cost: $100
    • Personal Opinion: Well worth the detour for a unique experience.

    7. Visit a Bee Sanctuary

    It’s no secret that bees are crucial to the ecosystem and if you’d like to learn more about them, I absolutely recommend a visit to the San Diego Bee Sanctuary.

    Personally, I think this bee sanctuary is one of the most underrated places in San Diego and is well-worth a visit! With a mission to rescue the bees and provide them with a safe environment where they can thrive.

    The drive to the sanctuary is an adventure in itself, since it’s located at the foot of Palomar Mountain. And, if you’re gearing up for a coastal road trip, this secret spot must absolutely be on your radar.

    In fact, if you’ve got some time to spare after visiting the sanctuary, I would recommend that you drive up the mountain for sweeping views of the surroundings.

    During your visit, you will be taken to the apiary, where you can have a hands-off experience with the bees if you feel like it. Honey tastings are included. Spots do fill up quickly, so I would recommend that you make reservations ahead of time.

    • Rating: 8/10 – Worth Bragging About
    • Cost: $ 64
    • Personal Opinion: A true hidden gem, sure to make you smile.

    8. Hop in a Glow Pedal Boat at Night

    Couples, this one’s for you!

    If you’re looking for romantic yet unique things to do in San Diego, I can totally vouch for this excursion in a glow pedal boat.

    Glow Pedal Boat in San Diago Bay
    Cozy vibes in San Diego Bay.

    I know that the San Diego bay ain’t some kind of hidden gem, but believe me when I say the bay offers a whole other experience at night! Best of all, the boat glows 360 degrees, creating a cozy atmosphere as you glide across the water while enjoying delightful views of the downtown area.

    For some extra panache, the boat is also equipped with a disco ball and a speaker. If you’re traveling with your pooch, you’ll be glad to learn that this activity is dog-friendly.

    • Rating: 7/10 – Off the Beaten Track
    • Cost: $ 55
    • Personal Opinion: Well worth the detour for a unique experience.

    9. Take a Ferry to Coronado

    I’m sure by now you’ve realized there are tons of magical places in San Diego, but one of my all-time favorite spots is without a doubt, Coronado!

    Offering everything you need for an awesome, off-the-beaten-track adventure, Coronado may lie just a ferry ride away, but it sure feels like a whole other world. If you’ve never visited this ridiculously charming San Diego neighborhood before, you can always consider joining this small group walking tour.

    Guide talking to two tourists in Coronado, San Diago

    Heaps of treasures await, complete with a visit to the island’s first military flying school. You’ll see the place where sailors first learned to fly, and you’ll learn more about what drew Marilyn Monroe to this beach town.

    Keep your eyes peeled for the Wizard of Oz House, located in Star Park. You’ll also visit Coronado Beach, which, on clear days, even offers views of Mexico!

    • Rating: 8/10 – Worth Bragging About
    • Cost: $55
    • Personal Opinion: A true hidden gem, sure to make you smile.

    10. Check Out the Unique Bridges

    Okay, by now you’ve probably realized there’s no shortage of hidden gems in San Diego, but the bridges are the absolute highlight of my backpacking trip in California!  

    And if you’re wondering why bridges (of all the things!) made this list, wait until you see these quirky treasures for yourself!

    Spruce Street Suspension Bridge surrounded by lush greenery in San Diago
    Hang in there!

    For example, the pedestrian Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is especially renowned for its incredible views of Kate Sessions Canyon. It’s not uncommon to see locals hanging on the bridge in the afternoon to watch the sunset or simply enjoy a moment of respite from the noise of the city.

    If you like music, there’s no better destination than the (aptly-named) Musical Bridge, located on 25th Street. You can literally make music while strolling across the bridge since chimes have been installed along the railing posts.

    • Rating: 6/10 – Worth a Deeper Look
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: Great experience if you’re in the area.

    11. Head to Wynola

    Fancy a day trip around San Diego? How about the charming yet hidden mountain town of Wynola, located just over an hour’s drive away?

    When we think of mountain towns in San Diego, travelers normally tend to flock to places like Julian. Because it’s found off the beaten track though, Wynola doesn’t usually draw a crowd – making it the perfect destination for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

    A whit ehouse with green rooftop in a green field in Wynola, San Diago
    Photo: Robin L (Flickr)

    Brimming with mountain charm and a vibrant landscape, Wynola is deeply rooted in San Diego history, since it’s rumored to be the town that revolutionized the gold rush in 1869.

    Speaking of the gold rush, you can always check out Julian Mining Company to learn more about the local history and maybe even try your luck at panning for gold!

    If all that sightseeing made you tired, rest at the Apple Tree Inn. It’s like your home away from home – ideal for recharging and gearing up for more adventures!

    • Rating: 7/10 – Off the Beaten Track
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: Well worth the detour for a unique experience.
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    12. Stroll Through a Slot Canyon

    We can’t talk about San Diego hideaways without mentioning Annie’s Canyon, which is found in Solana Beach!

    Several travelers don’t know that San Diego has a slot canyon – at least, I didn’t until a local friend of mine told me about it. This area is known for its moderate 1.5-mile loop trail that crosses the canyon and offers beautiful views of the lagoon.

    A narrow slot canyon with sandstone walls in Solana Beach, San Diago
    Hidden Gem detected!

    Along the way, you’ll see plenty of geological formations, including boulders and cliffs that are said to be over a million years old!

    I did say it’s a moderate trail, but bear in mind that some sections can be rocky and steep. There’s a metal ladder at the far end of the canyon that you can use to climb up, so remember to shoe up adequately.

    • Rating: 7/10 – Off the Beaten Track
    • Cost: $55
    • Personal Opinion: Well worth the detour for a unique experience.

    13. See the World’s Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ

    Next up on our list of secret spots in San Diego is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, in Balboa Park. Featuring a Renaissance archway, this century-old pavilion is home to the oldest outdoor pipe organ in the world. I’m talking around 5,000 pipes, some measuring up to 32 feet.

    white benches in front of a stage in Spreckels Organ Pavilion, in Balboa Park, San Diago
    The Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park.

    What makes this organ doubly special is the fact that it can easily make sounds for just about every instrument, including piano, horns, and even hi-hats. Best of all, the pavilion hosts a free concert at 2 p.m. every Sunday afternoon.

    This place regularly hosts events such as the San Diego International Summer Organ Festival. So, be sure to check the official calendar to see if there’s anything you’d like to catch during your stay in the city.  

    • Rating: 7/10 – Off the Beaten Track
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: Well worth the detour for a unique experience.

    14. Stroll through a Whimsical Sculpture Garden

    Just a half hour’s drive from San Diego’s city center takes you to Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden, a quirky venue that’ll please kids and adults alike.

    Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden in San Diago
    Photo: Mike Souza (Flickr)

    This place may be off the beaten track, but I promise it’s well worth the detour! Designed to represent California’s cultural, historic, and mythical roots, the garden is made up of 9 almost life-size sculptures. There’s also a maze and an interior plaza with native plants.

    What makes this place really special, though, is the 400-foot-long circular wall adorned by serpent mosaics. Oh, and did I mention that the entrance to the garden is completely free?

    • Rating: 8/10 – Worth Bragging About
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: A true hidden gem, sure to make you smile.

    15. Explore the Abandoned Route 163

    Let’s conclude our list of hidden gems in San Diego with one of my favorite spots in the city!

    I have to admit that I’m a total sucker for abandoned places and Route 163 certainly did not disappoint! This abandoned road crosses through Balboa Park, but it doesn’t receive as many visitors as other parts of the park.

    An aerial view of Route 163, San diago with a plan crossing the sky and cars cruising below

    The original Route 163 was built in the 1940s. By the 1960s, the city wanted to expand it into a 10-lane road. The public protested against the expansion, but a portion of the 193 had already been constructed by then. You can still see the abandoned part of the road today.

    It’s not just about the road, though; this area has quite a few treasures, starting with the ancient Juniper Staircase that snakes through the trees and leads to the abandoned road. You’ll also see the historic Cabrillo Bridge, which connects Uptown San Diego to Balboa Park.

    • Rating: 6/10 – Worth a Deeper Look
    • Cost: FREE
    • Personal Opinion: Great experience if you’re in the area.

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    FAQs About Hidden Gems in San Diego

    Here are some common questions people ask about hidden gems in San Diego.

    Final Thoughts on Hidden Gems in San Diego

    By now, it’s no secret that there’s something in San Diego for all sorts of travelers. From hidden gem cafes and restaurants to quirky gardens, secret swings, and charming neighborhoods, this is definitely the kind of city that’ll please even the pickiest of travelers!

    If you’ve got some extra time to spare, you can always plan a backpacking trip across San Diego to properly take in all these incredible sights.

    Looking for more info on visiting California and the USA?
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    Photo: @audyscala

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