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13 Hidden Gems in San Diego to Add to Your Itinerary

13 Hidden Gems in San Diego to Add to Your Itinerary

You won’t find these hidden gems on just any list. Add these cool spots to your travel itinerary and experience San Diego in a whole new way


6 min read

May 19, 2021

What comes to mind when you think of San Diego? Is it Balboa Park, Coronado Island, or the trendy Gaslamp Quarter? While no visit is complete without checking out the downtown district, San Diego’s hidden gems offer unmatched experiences. 

You won’t find these lesser known spots on just any list of things to do in San Diego—therein lies all the fun. Add these cool locales to your travel itinerary and experience San Diego in a whole new way.

San Diego's Best-Kept Secrets

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1. Secret Swing La Jolla

A getaway to La Jolla is part of any San Diego traveler’s itinerary, and for good reason. The popular destination is full of secret spots. You might’ve already heard about a secret swing in La Jolla, but did you know that there are three La Jolla secret swings? One is near the Scripps Institute, the second by Birch Aquarium, and the third is tucked behind palm trees at La Jolla Cove.

Note: You may not find all the La Jolla secret swings when you visit—they’ve been removed due to vandalism in the past.

Black's Beach is a secluded section beneath the bluffs. It's named after the Black family who had a horse ranch overlooking the beach.

2. Black's Beach 

Black’s Beach is another San Diego hidden gem you won't want to miss. Sitting along a beautiful part of the rocky La Jolla coast, this San Diego secret is notoriously hard to reach. But after tackling the steep climb, you’ll find yourself at one of the best surf spots in San Diego. The showstopper at Black’s Beach is the Mushroom House, a historical landmark built in the 1960s. 

Before you go, keep in mind that a section of Black’s Beach is legally clothing optional. So, if you see folks sunbathing in their birthday suits, don’t let it catch you by surprise.

3. Harper’s Topiary Garden

Walking 30 minutes from the previous San Diego hidden gem will get you to Harper’s Topiary Garden. This weird SoCal tourist attraction is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Edna Harper is the mastermind behind it. She’s been conceptualizing her garden and transforming it into a magical outdoor museum filled with one-of-a-kind sculptures for over a decade.

Everyone is welcome to view the topiary free of charge, but if you visit, please remember that this is a private residence—treat the imaginative creations with care and respect. Harper continuously adds new characters to her garden. So, even if you’ve visited this San Diego secret before, you’ll still find something to marvel at the next time around.

Located in the residential Bankers Hill neighborhood, the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is an inconspicuous footbridge loved by locals.

4. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

This cool San Diego secret has managed to stay fairly hidden since 1912. The 375-foot long Spruce Street Suspension Bridge offers beautiful views of the Session Canyon below.

The easiest way to get to the hidden spot is by turning west onto Spruce Street from First Avenue and driving all the way down until you see the entrance. If you’re traveling with your special someone, strolling along the secret bridge is one of the most romantic things to do in California.

5. Canfield-Wright House

The Canfield-Wright House is an architectural landmark in Del Mar. Reflecting the history of the area, it’s also known as The Pink Lady and Wrightland. The historic house was designed in the Mission and Spanish Revival styles by revered architect John C. Austin. Originally crafted for the Canefield family, the home was sold to the Wright family in 1923—hence the hyphenated name. Today, you can view the private residence from afar and admire the exterior architecture of this San Diego hidden gem.

6. Eagle and High Peak Mine

The small town of Julian is home to the Eagle and High Peak Mine—a San Diego hidden gem dating back to the 1800s. Gold and quartz were discovered running through the mountainside here in 1870. Today, the abandoned mine still stands, preserved in its original condition. 

Tour the old mine and see where they began tunneling in each direction. Find the original gear they used back in the day for a cool educational excursion.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk. It ranks among the top institutions in the country.

7. Salk Institute for Biological Studies

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a groundbreaking biological research center. The scientific research institute, completed in 1965, is also one of the coolest architectural spots in SoCal. Now, the Salk Institute is a designated historical site. Founder Dr. Jonas Salk envisioned a facility with open interiors set in a dramatic location. This way, he hoped the center would inspire creativity in researchers. Sign up to tour this San Diego hidden gem (open during normal circumstances) and admire it in all its glory.

8. Crab Carillon Musical Bridge

Between Golden Hill and Sherman Heights lies a unique San Diego hidden gem that doubles both as a bridge and a musical instrument. So what makes this bridge musical? Its railing has a carillon—a collection of bells that are typically housed together as a tower. Walk the Crab Carillon Musical Bridge and run a stick along the rail to hear the bells play the bridge’s theme song.

9. Women’s Museum of California

This San Diego museum is dedicated to celebrating women’s historic achievements and we have Mary Maschal to thank for it. Based out of Maschal's home, what is now known as the Women’s Museum of California was originally founded in 1983 as the Women’s History Reclamation Project. Collecting and preserving artifacts, Mashcal demonstrated women’s roles in San Diego and California. Her efforts eventually paid off and today, the Women’s Museum stands as a testament to her hard work.

Villa Montezuma is a Queen Anne style mansion built in 1887. It was constructed for Jesse Shepard, who moved to Paris soon after.

10. Villa Montezuma

The tales and theories surrounding this San Diego hidden gem are aplenty. Villa Montezuma in Sherman Heights is a Queen-Anne-style mansion built in 1887 for renowned composer Jesse Shepard. Two years later, Shepard sold the house.

From then on, the mansion went through a number of owners. Many of the house residents ended up in financial ruin—Shepard himself lost a lot of his money before dying an unusual death. In 1927, he was allegedly playing the piano at his friends’ house when he died immediately after striking the last chord.

The San Diego secret is allegedly a haunted mansion—locals often refer to it as the “Spook House”. Tour the museum (open during normal circumstances) and test the theories yourself.

11. 1895 Looff Carousel 

Amidst the touristy shops and restaurants of Seaport Village lies a historical San Diego hidden gem—the 1895 Looff Carousel. The iconic attraction is one of the last remaining carousels built by legendary amusement park carver Charles I.D. Looff. During his lifetime, Looff built numerous amusement parks, including his opus, the Santa Monica Pier. Take a ride on one of his remaining treasures. 

Behind the beachfront Sunny Jim Cave Store lies a spectacular, colorful sea cave with an equally colorful past.

12. Sunny Jim Cave Store

We haven’t run out of La Jolla secrets just yet. There’s a cool secret behind a wood-shingled house that doubles as a retail store—a hidden colorful sea cave. The Sunny Jim Cave Store has the only land-accessed entrance to any sea cave in California. The tunnel was the vision of Gustauf Schultz, a German painter and mining engineer. He wanted to retire by a rare view of the ocean, so he hired two laborers and started digging in 1902. 

After Shultz’s passing, his widow continued to run the shop and charge visitors to see the tunnel. The San Diego hidden gem gets its name from L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz—he named it after his visit. Allegedly, the cave mouth reminded him of a 1920s cereal cartoon mascot called Sunny Jim.

13. Self Realization Fellowship Encinitas Temple

 Founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, the Self-Realization Fellowship is a spiritual organization. There are over 500 Fellowship temples and centers worldwide, seven of which are in California. The Encinitas Temple is the most beautiful one yet.

You’ll find the Encinitas Retreat, Meditation Gardens, the Hermitage, and more at this relaxing hideaway. The koi pond, waterfalls, and tropical scenery add to the general sense of tranquility bestowed upon this San Diego hidden gem.

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