La Jolla is everything we want Southern California to be. One of the country’s most exclusive enclaves, tourists amble alongside the fabulously wealthy all there to capture a piece of that California spirit. While visiting San Diego, I spent a couple of nights in La Jolla so I could experience a different side to the San Diego area. And different it was, this coastal community exists in its own little bubble, and I mean that in as positive a way as possible. I loved my time exploring La Jolla and the areas around it, so today I want to share what I think are the key steps for any visitor who wants to experience the best that this tony community has to offer.
Retro Chic at the Hotel La Jolla
Part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, this renovated boutique luxury hotel brings back all the retro-California style we crave on a visit to San Diego. Walking into the lobby I instantly knew that I had chosen well. The chic and open public spaces are reflective of a design aesthetic that carries on throughout the property and certainly into the rooms. Spacious and incredibly comfortable, my room was the ideal retreat after a long day of sightseeing and exploring. An unexpected highlight for me though was the culinary side of the house. Dining options are usually unique and delicious at Curio properties and the Hotel La Jolla is no exception. At the heart of the culinary experience is the top floor restaurant, Cusp. Expansive windows not only create a light and airy lounge and restaurant, but they allow for incredible views of La Jolla Shores and the ocean from the top floor of the hotel. For a light bite or just a drink, there are plenty of options including a special happy hour menu featuring local beers and wines and snacks that combine comfort with high-end appeal. Mealtimes share that same sensibility, mixing a relaxing dining experience with top-notch culinary skills.
Drinks and Nibbles
Like many cities around the world, San Diego has also enjoyed a culinary renaissance in recent years and especially in La Jolla. The city’s central business district is buzzing with outstanding bars, cafes and restaurants – far too many for just one trip. My first night in La Jolla I started the evening off with incredible sunset views at the popular George’s at the Cove. This multi-level restaurant and bar complex offers a little bit of everything from an exceptional menu, unique cocktails and a view of the ocean that just won’t quit. I was there to enjoy the scenery, but also to meet expert mixologist Stephen Kurpinsky. He and the entire team at George’s have created a selection of special drinks dedicated to the many neighborhoods of San Diego. The resulting book – yes, book – and cocktail menu go beyond just superficially representing the city, mixologists also bring to life the unique personalities of each neighborhood. Barrio Logan with rum and Mezcal or the Little Italy with Prosecco and Apertivo Rinamato, each cocktail is featured in bespoke glassware that matches the neighborhood and the drink itself. Starting the evening here is an absolute must for any visitor, just make sure you’re in time to see one of the best sunsets in the world.
After a cocktail or two it’s time to decide where to enjoy dinner, a nearly impossible decision in a town as food-centric as La Jolla. I had reservations though at one of the most popular restaurants in town, Puesto. A popular go-to place for gourmet Mexican street food, the menu is simple but delicious. Starting by choosing from one of the guacamole options, I then enjoyed a flight of tacos, all made using natural meats and local organic greens. One of the best meals I enjoyed while visiting San Diego, my only regret is that I couldn’t try more of their fabulously creative tacos.
Caves and Seals
As I drove into downtown La Jolla I struggled to find a parking space. The winding road was packed with tourists, all there to visit the big draw to the town, La Jolla Cove. One of the most popular places to visit in the greater San Diego region, the beauty of this small cove and beach can’t be denied, especially at sunset. One of the reasons has to do with the many seals who bask themselves on the nearby rocks. Although I was uncomfortable with how close some tourists were to the seals, it’s a remarkable opportunity to see these beautiful animals up close and personal. While you’re at seal rock, venture a little further up to visit Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave Store. The only sea cave with access from land, for a small fee you can venture down below to see this natural wonder for yourself.
Walking along the promenade there are many other scenic overlooks and special spots to enjoy, including the Children’s Pool. The wealthy philanthropist who very much created the modern allure of La Jolla, Ellen Browning Scripps, paid for the breakwater that created the pool – designed as a place where kids could play and swim protected from crashing waves. It’s now home to a colony of harbor seals who have made it their own and which, thankfully, is closed off to the public for about half of the year. Next to it though I noticed a concrete set of stairs leading down to a small beach. While definitely not a secret – several tourists were there trying to capture shots with a small group of seals – I decided to investigate and found a great spot to watch the golden sunset. I ended up spending a couple of days in La Jolla and had plenty of time to walk its streets getting to know it as well as I could which is why, I think, it really does represent everything we want Southern California to be. A little glitzy, a little laid back and radiating with beauty, there’s no place quite like it and I know that I definitely fell under its spell.
Don’t Forget About La Jolla Shores
My hotel was in La Jolla Shores, just 2 miles from the center of La Jolla proper and a wonderful neighborhood in its own right. Joining a kayak tour with local operator Everyday California, I spent the morning out and about, paddling into sea caves and keeping an eye out for wildlife. The waters surrounding La Jolla are protected, which means paddlers often encounter birds and seals. Although I didn’t see more than a snoozing seal, it was a fun way to get out, enjoy some exercise and see a different side to La Jolla. Afterwards, I grabbed a quick sandwich at a La Jolla Shores institution, the La Jolla Cheese Shop. Since 1972, owners of the Shop have been selling fine meats and cheeses along with making their own tasty sandwiches. Meats are cured or cooked on-site and don’t forget to try one of their famous homemade oatmeal cookies. They sell more than 70,000 of these cookies every year, which have developed a cult following all of their own.
Murals and More
As usual, one of my favorite experiences in La Jolla was just aimlessly wandering around the town, veering away from the main tourist thoroughfare and getting to know the community a little better. To aid me in my quest, I decided to try to find as many of the Murals of La Jolla as I could. Started in 2010 as a way to enhance the civic character of the community, city leaders commissioned public art projects on private property throughout La Jolla. With handy map in hand, I wandered the streets finding about half of them, getting to know La Jolla in the process.
Get Out of Town
One great feature of La Jolla is its location, making it easy to explore other coastal communities north of San Diego. One of the most popular without a doubt is Torrey Pines. A popular natural retreat for locals and tourists alike, Torrey Pines State Reserve features 1,750 acres of unspoiled land and some of the most stunning coastline in the world. For great cliffside views, I drove to the Torrey Pines Gliderport. You don’t have to go paragliding to enjoy the sights and sounds of this picture perfect landscape and if you’re lucky you’ll see some gliders in action. Nearby is another photo-worthy spot, the Salk Institute. Here the appeal is all about the architecture, a progressive design that is hard to ignore. Afterwards I jumped back in my car and visited still more coastal communities including Moonlight Bay, Swami’s Beach and Seaside State Beach.
La Jolla has a lot to offer visitors and it should be a big part of any visit to San Diego. With its laid-back vibe and postcard-perfect views, it’s the version of California we all yearn to experience, if only briefly.