There's no shortage of ways that San Diego has earned -- and lived up to -- its nickname as America's Finest City. Superb beaches, family-friendly activities, a thriving culinary scene, and year-round sunny skies mean this city is beloved by locals and tourists alike.
But San Diego offers even more than meets the eye -- or makes most concierge recommendations. When your family heads to this beachfront town, don't miss this list of off-the-beaten-path activities.
1. Secret Swings, La Jolla
One of the most Instagrammable spots in San Diego, the "secret swings" are a series of tree rope swings on a hillside above Scripps Pier by UCSD. Visitors can hike up to the swings from Expedition Way, and take in ocean views -- and snap some pictures -- from there. There are two separate sets of swings (one with a swinging bench chair) as well as a tree house that's pretty much guaranteed to make all of your little ones' (...or inner child's) dreams come true.
2. Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden, Escondido
A magical oasis brought to life by mosaic artist Niki de Saint Phalle, Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden is tucked away within the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park. Virtually the entire garden is covered in mosaics -- including seating areas -- and features nine large-scale sculptures. The area is enclosed by a "snake wall" and is a hands-on space for artistic play and exploration.
3. Hotel del Ice Skating, Coronado
You'll have to wait until winter, but if you're visiting for the winter holiday, the Hotel del Coronado's seaside ice skating is a can't-miss. The famous hotel erects a small rink on their beachfront lawn, and offers skate rentals and session passes. The seasonal activity opens in late November and continues through the beginning of January.
4. Mount Soledad, La Jolla
Though many residents and tourists have seen the large cross positioned at the top of Mount Soledad, most have not visited the landmark itself. Visitors can either hike -- a relatively leisurely and low-impact walk through the Mount Soledad neighborhood streets -- or drive to the top, where they can check out the cross up close and take in spectacular views of the ocean, beach and city. Bonus: On the way down the hill, stop at the nearby Kate O Sessions Park for a hike, picnic or kite-flying.
5. Carlsbad Strawberry Company, Carlsbad
Beckoning you from the 5 freeway, the Cannon location of the Carlsbad Strawberry Company offers a "u-pick" option where visitors can pick their own fresh strawberries, right off the vine! The fields are open daily 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., but they recommend you arrive by 5 p.m. to have enough time for picking and pictures -- perhaps even with a bit of the sunset in the background. Bonus: To make it a double-header, stop before or after at The Flower Field at Carlsbad Ranch, a rolling hill covered in colorful blooms reminiscent of Holland.
6. San Diego Central Library, Downtown
Newly opened, the San Diego Central Library represents a renaissance in the print book experience, and will convince even the most tech-savvy visitors to talk a walk through the sprawling space. The nine-story building includes an outdoor garden, cafe, auditorium, study room, teen center, children's library, and over a million books. For a quiet break from exploring the city, head downtown and post up at the library for a peaceful retreat into a storybook land.
7. Mushroom Beach, La Jolla
Named for its oddly shaped rock formations, this off-the-beaten-path stretch of sand is just south of Windansea, and surprisingly secluded for being located in popular La Jolla. While the Children's Pools and La Jolla Shores tend to draw crowds, Mushroom Beach is a peaceful escape ideal for families looking to mingle with locals and enjoy an afternoon to themselves. The many tide pools, abundance of sea life, and hidden treasures make this spot ideal for the whole family. Since certain parts are only accessible during low tide, be wary of water levels when heading to this spot!
8. Belmont Park, Mission Beach
This old-school, beachfront amusement park is a low-key alternative to some of the larger and more expensive parks. Admission is free, and the park features the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, a historical wooden coaster that was built in 1925. A submarine, carousel, tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars, and carnival games sit alongside traditional fair treats, including ice cream and cotton candy. For a truly San Diego experience, test your surf skills at the Flow wave machine.
9. Liberty Public Market, Point Loma
Recently opened in Liberty Station, this public market features a series of food and drink vendors, as well as a wine tasting room and full-service restaurant. Artisanal producers serve up coffees, sweets, lobster rolls, cheeses, ice cream and more. The market offers outdoor seating options, and is ideal for families or groups since each individual can choose their own adventure/ meal.
10. Waterfront Park, Little Italy
This 12-acre bayfront park opened downtown in 2014, and has somehow since remained relatively -- and impressively -- under the radar. A state of the art playground, picnic lawns, various water features, and water views complete the stunning public space.
11. Coronado Beach Fire Pits, Coronado
There's no shortage of reasons to visit Coronado, but the beach fire pits are definitely one of them. Located on the North Beach (also a dog beach, so get ready to make some new furry friends), the fire rings are occupied on a first come, first-served basis, and come alive at sunset or nighttime during the summers. You'll have to provide your own wood, accelerant and snacks, but the work is worth being able to enjoy gooey s'mores, next to a warm fire, with your toes in the sand.
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Nile Cappello is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.