San Diego is the second-largest city in California and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the USA. It’s a city filled with beautiful white sand beaches, scenic bays, surfing destinations, rolling hills, lush forests, and warm weather throughout the year. After all, they don’t call San Diego America’s finest city for nothing. But the tourist attractions aren’t the main reason for this popular nickname. For every beautiful beach, bay, or mountain, San Diego has a lot of hidden places and unusual things to do that you won’t find anywhere else. Places like these are the reason why we’re writing this article. From quirky museums and hidden spots to secluded beaches (perfect for traveling couples) and remote hills, here are some of the most interesting hidden gems in San Diego!
Sunny Jim Cave
Located in the charming neighborhood of La Jolla near the northwestern part of San Diego, Sunny Jim Cave is a historic tunnel that was dug out by a couple of Chinese laborers in the early 1900s. The tunnel was used by bootleggers during the Prohibition era for smuggling alcohol and opium into San Diego. If you like quirky historic places, visiting the cave during your trip to San Diego is a must.
Speaking of hidden gems in San Diego, we just have to mention the Secret Swings. These giant swings are hidden amidst the trees on the hillsides of La Jolla. As the name suggests, the swings aren’t very easy to find, and getting there requires hiking up from the Expedition Way. The swings are perched on cliffs on the shore and give one of the most amazing views of the Pacific Ocean you can find in San Diego. Look at it like the ultimate San Diego DIY treasure hunt.
And if you’re a fan of treasure hunt, you should definitely check out this Balboa Park treasure hunt. It’s affordable, fun, and totally worth your time!
SS Monte Carlo Shipwreck
The SS Monte Carlo was a concrete oil tanker launched in 1921. Over time, the ship became a gambling and prostitution ship that operated in international waters off the Long Beach Coast in California. This earned the ship the nickname “The Sin Ship”. The SS Monte Carlo crashed in 1937 during a storm and its wreck can still be found on a beach in Coronado.
The sin ship might be long gone but this side of San Diego’s history isn’t. Take a glimpse at it with this Brothels, Bites and Booze: San Diego Gaslamp Walking Tour
Harper’s Topiary Garden
What seems to be an average suburban neighborhood hides one of the best hidden gems in San Diego. Calling this a garden just won’t do justice to the work the Harpers have put into this place, so let’s call it a topiary museum. They were unwilling to cut the bushes just for aesthetic reasons, to Alex and Edna came up with a brilliant solution that didn’t require destroying the existing shrubs. In fact, the shrubs look better than ever! Here, you can find all kinds of exquisitely trimmed hedges in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Something that earned the owner her nickname “Edna Scissorhands”.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
No, we didn’t switch to an article about Vietnam, we’re still in San Diego. And if you’re an adventure-seeker, you’ll just love the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To get to the trail, you need to follow the pathway next to La Jolla Farms Road (there’s a sign). The trail is steep, treacherous, narrow, and connects La Jolla to Black’s Beach and offers sweeping ocean views. Just be careful if you plan to walk this route. After rainfall, the route is very slippery and even without that, it’s relatively steep and narrow.
So, if you plan to indulge in similar activities in San Diego, make sure to get some good travel insurance. Most providers wouldn’t offer coverage for extreme sports and similar activities but there certainly are exceptions. If you’re an adventure junkie like me, the best option for this is World Nomads. They have you covered no matter what happens to you on the road.
Located 15 minutes away from the city borders, Chula Vista is home to massive 40-feet-tall salt mountains sitting along the shoreline. Not surprisingly, this area is also home to the South Bay Salt Works; one of only two salt ponds in California and the second-oldest business in San Diego. This was enough to put this place on the US National Register of Historic Places.
Coronado Sand Dunes
You might think that a place located in such near proximity to one of San Diego’s most popular tourist sight (Hotel Del Coronado) should be very popular among tourists, but that’s not the case. In fact, the Coronado Sand Dunes are one of the most unfrequented hidden places in San Diego. These sand dunes came to be as a consequence of the creativity of a maintenance guy who had the task of cleaning the beach from seaweed in the 1980s.
So, yes, the sand dunes are man-made and because of this, most locals see them as nothing special. However, what’s not visible on the ground is visible from above, or perhaps via Google Satelite View. The sand dunes are arranged in a way that they spell out the word “Coronado”.
If you want to tour the sand dunes and explore the area surrounding them, this affordable Coronado Scooter tour is a great choice.
Swami’s State Beach
This list of hidden gems in San Diego wouldn’t be complete without some secluded beaches. Home to a substantial reef formation and a great surfing spot, Swami’s State Beach is one of the best hidden beaches in California. In addition to being a surfers’ paradise, Swami’s Beach is also home to some picturesque tide pools that can be seen during low tide, and a lot of crabs, starfish, sea cucumbers, and even octopuses and oyster fossils.
Pioneer Park might not be as famous as Balboa Park, Mission Bay, or even the Old Town Historic Park but it’s a great place to unwind and get off the beaten track in San Diego. Pioneer Park used to serve as Calvary Cemetery for almost a century but today, it has been reduced to a lone row of headstones displayed as a memorial for everyone buried in this park. But the bodies are still buried below and a lot of people walk around (and even children play in the grass) without knowing what lies beneath. So, if you’re not faint-hearted, don’t mind a healthy spook, or are into haunted destinations, you should definitely check out Pioneer Park. In my opinion, it’s one of the quirkiest places in San Diego.
The Musical Bridge
If you’re ever passing by near 25th Street or are just stuck in traffic and hear a melodic tune, it probably comes from the chimes of the so-called Musical Bridge. The bridge is one of the most interesting works of street art in San Diego. It’s hidden behind a railing that separates traffic from the sidewalk and it’s very easy to miss it unless you look for it or happen to hear the charming melody coming from the bridge. In case you’re wondering who designed this bridge, it was Joseph Waters in 2003 who created 488 chimes each of which responds to every step on the bridge and if you follow the sequence, you’ll end up creating a beautiful piece of music just by passing the bridge. How many other places can you name that can do that?
Are you looking for secret places in San Diego to catch a sunset? I can’t say Broken Hill is the best sunset spot in San Diego but it’s certainly up there. Sitting atop of the Torrey Pines State Reserve, Broken Hill looks like a giant cliff that’s missing a piece of the puzzle. The trail leading to the top of Broken Hill also gives you the rare chance to see the rarest pine tree in America and the mesmerizing sedimentary rocks that used to be the ocean seafloor a couple of million years ago.
Combine this with the amazing sunset views and beautiful surrounding nature and you get one of the best hidden gems in San Diego. If you’re in San Diego and want to get off the beaten track, Broken Hill is one of the first places you should visit!
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
This hidden bridge connects Fourth and Fifth Avenues over a massive canyon and is a great place to visit for hiking lovers and nature enthusiasts. This pedestrian suspension bridge is 375 feet long and gives some amazing views of Sessions Canyon 70 feet below. So, if you have a fear of height, visiting this bridge might not be the best suggestion for you. The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge was built in 1912 to connect two parts of the city that were not previously connected.
However, today, over a century later, the locals of these neighborhoods don’t have this connectivity problem and the suspension bridge has been forgotten by most people but not by us. Our list of hidden gems in San Diego wouldn’t be complete without this picturesque suspension bridge.
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
If you’re an avid trekker and looking for hidden places in San Diego, another great recommendation is Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. Los Penasquitos extends for approximately 7 miles between Torrey Hills and Rancho Penasquitos. The preserve is famous for its natural beauty, abundant natural resources, and ancient Native American historical sites.
The Park is open throughout the year but some trails might be closed due to floods or damage in different parts of the year. So, if you want to visit, it’s probably a good idea to call the park contact center to get real-time information about the trails’ status.
Finally, arranging your transportation to the preserve might be challenging, so it’s probably a good idea to rent a car. Check out AutoEurope and compare the best deals from all rental car providers in the San Diego area. This way, you can make sure you’re always getting the best deal!
Even though technically, this place is a part of Escondido, it’s still a part of the San Diego County, so we decided to include the legendary Escondido 1950 hotel in this list of hidden gems in San Diego. Also known as the Heartbreak Hotel, this place is a haven for vintage lovers. The “hotel” was created by Andre Villa guided by his love for 1950s memorabilia. Inside the Heartbreak Hotel, you’ll find a lot of awesome knick-knacks and antiquities from the mid-20th century, including posters from Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Janes Dean, and even a Big Boy Burgers sculpture, and several samples of classic Americana.
Solana Beach Canyon Trail
If you’re looking for unique trekking opportunities, this one is for you. The Solana Beach Canyon Trail also known as Annie’s Canyon Trail takes trekkers through narrow and cramped sandstone canyons in the heart of the San Elijo Lagoon. The trail is not very long, it’s extremely narrow and not recommendable for claustrophobic people, and leads to a beautiful canyon not too far away from the Pacific Coast. Trekkers who make it to the end of the trail are rewarded with beautiful panoramic views of the canyon and mesmerizing blue lagoons.
If you happen to pass by near Downtown San Diego, you’ll inevitably notice the “invasion” of the aliens from the iconic Atari game. For years, this was only a small exhibit but throughout the years, it turned into one of the most interesting scavenger hunts in San Diego. Especially for 1980s gaming fans! There are even several maps that document the invasion and lead visitors on a quirky treasure hunt.
The exhibition is named “Viva La Revolucion: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscapes” and many famous street artists from across the country participated in creating this hidden gem in Downtown San Diego.
Louie Mattar’s Fabulous Car
If you’re a fan of epic journeys, I’m sure you’ll have some respect for the 1947 Cadillac that made the longest nonstop run from Anchorage (Alaska) to Mexico City (7,482 miles) and the longest nonstop run in the US (from San Diego to New York and back). For this purpose, the car’s trailer was equipped with a shower, a bar, a kitchen sink, a washing machine, and even a hookah.
The car belonged to Louie Mattar and he embarked on both of these journeys with two other drivers and also rigged an apparatus that enabled tires and oil to be changed automatically and gas to be refilled while the car is still in motion. No wonder he set records that are still hard to beat even today.
We just can’t complete this list of hidden gems in San Diego without mentioning the Villa Montezuma. Located in the Sherman Heights Neighborhood, Villa Montezuma is a beautiful red mansion that was built in the late 19th century and happens to be one of the most haunted houses in San Diego. The house belonged to the renowned composer Jesse Shepard but had many owners throughout the years and most of them were involved in and were practicing some kind of spiritual seances inside the house.
Until recently, the house was regularly open for visitors and some people even had their wedding parties there. However, in 2006, the house was closed due to “safety concerns”. After this, the house experienced a series of renovations and has never been fully open to the public but a few interior tours have been held without a lot of publicity and the house is still referred to as “The Spook House” by San Diego locals.
The Historic Goldmine of Eagle Mining Co.
Finally, we round up this list of hidden places in San Diego with this 150-years-old goldmine that gives visitors a glimpse of how gold mining used to look like back in the late 1800s. The Eagle Mine consists of several levels, with each of them having an intricate series of tunnels. Visitors can walk through these 1,000-feet long rock tunnels on guided tours in which a guide explains the history of the mine and the local town. The property has been open to the public since 1968 and interestingly, the admission fee has always remained the same ($10).
Helpful resources for traveling to San Diego
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Finally, let’s not forget about travel insurance. Personally, I warmly recommend (and use myself) WorldNomads. I know, they can be expensive but they cover practically anything that can happen to you on the road.
If you’re traveling around the US West Coast/Pacific, also check out some of our other articles for some more inspiration!
Did you like this list of hidden gems in San Diego? What are some of your favorite secret places in San Diego off the beaten track? Let us know in the comments.
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