A Visitors’ Guide to Secret San Diego Spots
Many San Diego visitors come to “America’s Finest City” to experience our famous, must-see attractions. Can’t-miss stops like Balboa Park, SeaWorld, and the Gaslamp Quarter draw millions of visitors every year. Even so, our city also has its fair share of well-kept secrets — hidden gems that locals treasure, but that can go overlooked when guests stop by. Read on to check out a few of our favorite San Diego Secret Spots.
San Diego’s “Hidden Swings” are the stuff of legend around here. Occasionally, someone in the area will stumble across a solo playground-style swing hung in a sturdy tree, usually with a beautiful view of the ocean. Nobody’s really sure who put them up. Sometimes they disappear for a while, only to reappear later — either in the same place or somewhere else entirely. It’s a mystery! One thing’s for sure: The search for these carefree delights is often an enjoyable scavenger hunt. And once you find one, you’re in for a renewed sense of childlike wonder when you have a seat, and start swinging.
Speakeasies — a.k.a. hidden bars — began out of necessity during America’s Prohibition era. But since there’s something that just feels a little taboo about them, their popularity has persisted to the present day. The entrances to these hush-hush spots are often less than obvious (such as obscured doors behind bookcases, or false lobbies leading to expansive interiors), and many even require passwords for entry. Want in? Take a look at our previous post “The Coolest Speakeasy Bars in San Diego” and get an insiders’ peek at some of San Diego’s must-visit speakeasies.
Washington Street Skate Park (5.3 miles away)
Skateboarding was invented in southern California by surfers who wanted to maintain their techniques even when the waves were harsh. Once it took off, the sport gave rise to spots like this sub rosa skate park, hidden beneath a highway in the city’s Five Points neighborhood. After a rocky start (thanks to some buzzkill city officials who protested its construction), the park has since become a local institution. Even if you’re not a board rider yourself, stop by to check out the murals, mosaics, and other fun n’ funky features.
Washington Street, Pacific Hwy US 101, San Diego, CA 92101
Harper’s Topiary Garden (6.1 miles away)
Alex and Edna Harper have created an amazing sight at their home in Middletown. Topiary is the practice of shaping shrubbery into whimsical forms, and the Harpers have turned their front garden into one a showcase of this botanical art. Their display includes countless bushes trimmed into the form of animals, geometric shapes, human figures, and more. Visitors are welcome to stop by — as long as they respect the Harpers’ space.
3549 Union St, San Diego, CA 92103
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge (7.3 miles away)
This pedestrian-only footpath is tucked away in the Banker’s Hill neighborhood. It spans nearly 400 feet across Sessions Canyon, and sits 70 feet above it. The bridge was built in 1912 in order to connect a new trolley stop to a residential area, and has remained in place as a favorite spot for locals to take a gently swaying stroll above the treetops. This secret span is an adventure and a destination in one, so you’ll want to pay it a visit.
W Spruce St, San Diego, CA 92103
Balboa Park Palm Canyon (9.2 miles away)
While renowned Balboa Park is hardly a secret given its abundance of museums, restaurants, and public art, there is a hidden corner of it that many locals don’t even know about. Famed horticulturist Kate Sessions — who was responsible for introducing several plant species to southern California — helped establish a two-acre plot within the park that features a wide range of palm species. It can be accessed via a winding, secluded path and exists as a sanctuary within an oasis. It’s hidden, but worth the search.
1549 El Prado San Diego, CA 92101
Sunny Jim Cave (10.5 miles away)
Originally hand-dug beneath the home of miner Gustav Schultz in 1902, the Sunny Jim Cave was initially mined for minerals before being turned into a bootleggers’ smuggling passage during the Prohibition era. Today, the cavern sits beneath The Cave Store, a popular La Jolla gift and souvenir shop. The store offers self-guided tours of the cave by reservation, so be sure to call ahead and set up a time to go spelunking during your visit.
1325 Coast Blvd. La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
Coronado Sand Dunes (13.2 miles away)
Located on Coronado Island, the eponymous Coronado Sand Dunes are only “hidden” from a certain vantage point. But these human-engineered hills still count as a secret gem because said vantage point happens to be ground level. From overhead (a perspective many of the nearby North Island Naval Station pilots enjoy), the dunes spell out “CORONADO BEACH.” Still, even if the message isn’t visible from ground level, the dunes themselves are a fantastic place for a picnic or beach day.
The Dunes, Ocean Blvd, Coronado, CA 92118
The “Sin Ship” Wreckage (13.7 miles away)
Just down the beach from the dunes on Coronado Island, you’ll discover one of the only shipwrecks in the country that you can visit without SCUBA training: the SS Monte Carlo. The Monte Carlo was an infamous gambling and party vessel that operated offshore during the prohibition era. It was sunk by a storm just off the coast of Coronado in 1937. It stayed buried for decades before being revealed by shifting tides years later. Today it remains moored where it was destroyed.
North Pacific Ocean, Coronado, CA 92118
Wat Sovannkiri (14.2 miles away)
Neatly secreted in a quiet residential neighborhood is one of the most beautiful pieces of sacred architecture in the city. Wat Sovannkiri is a Cambodian/Laotian Buddhist temple that is absolutely overflowing with jaw-dropping beauty. Intricate and finely detailed avatars of animals, spiritual guardians and warriors adorn the hand-painted walls, and traditional art pieces and altars offer a feast for the senses. The monks here are warm and welcoming, and are happy to answer any questions visitors may have. If you’re lucky, you may even find local food vendors here selling tea, fruit, and homemade delicacies. When you go, be sure to accord the proper respect, and appreciate the spendor.
3864 52nd St, San Diego, CA 92105
Queen Califa’s Magical Circle (28.6 miles away)
Nestled in Nearby Escondido, this magical spot has been delighting kids of all ages for more than 20 years. Featuring colorful, larger-than-life artworks from noted French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, this enchanting enclave proved to be her last major work — and her only American sculpture garden. Each piece was inspired by her late-career move to the area and reflects local legends, stories, and folklore. Don’t forget your camera!
3333 Bear Valley Pkwy, Escondido, CA 92025
Discover the Hidden Side of San Diego
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