It’s been called the most authentic surfer town in southern California. Oceanside, California, combines a laidback vibe with upscale hotels, vibrant dining and walkable downtown.
We drove from Los Angeles (90 minutes, 45 from San Diego) to spend a weekend kayaking, biking, dining on seafood and enjoying a beach environment worlds different than East Coast beaches.
Our Dreamscape Suite at the Mission Pacific Beach Resort lived up to its name with a huge seating area, spacious bathroom and large balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The weather is so perfect, its slogan in 1953 was “Where the mercury never goes crazy.”
Things to Do in Oceanside
The #1 thing to do in Oceanside is walk the length of the Oceanside Pier, all 1,954 feet of it, the longest wooden over-water pier on the West Coast. We strolled it the first time on a Saturday night and the place was hopping. Hundreds of walkers strolled past dozens of people fishing. But the pier is so wide, it didn’t feel crowded.
In addition to getting a bit of exercise, the pier is the perfect place to see seagulls, surfers, swimmers and the sunset. If you want to try your hand at fishing and don’t have gear, you can rent poles and buy bait at one of the lifeguard towers. And at the end of the pier is one of the best seafood kiosks – more on that below.
And how about a weekly street fair? Every Thursday from 5-9 p.m. you can enjoy food, shopping and live entertainment at MainStreet Oceanside’s Sunset Market. There’s also a KidZone for the younger set.
Although the weather is mild in the day, temperatures cool at night. Rent a small bonfire and six chairs for a lovely evening under the stars. We saw several people huddled around their bonfires after the sun set.
That’s just one of the sights we don’t see on the beaches we go to in the Southeast. While I did enjoy a bonfire one night at Cape San Blas, that’s the first one I ever sat around in my decades of going to the beach in the South. My guess is it’s because our nights don’t cool down enough to warrant an additional heat source.
With pretty much perfect weather year-round, Oceanside is the place for outdoor recreation, even if you’re not a surfer.
After parking our car when we arrived, we never used it again. One of the charms of Oceanside was the ability to walk or bike anywhere we wanted to go. (You can also get to Oceanside by train from San Diego and Los Angeles so you don’t have to rent a car.)
If you get tired of walking or brought stupid shoes because they look cute with your sundress, you can take the gO’Side Shuttle, electric shuttles that you can request through the Ride Circuit app for just $3 a person.
One morning we hopped on the bikes provided by our hotel and headed to Oceanside Harbor Village. Opened in 1963, Oceanside Harbor added a small fishing-village-style shopping center and lighthouse in 1964 and now houses shops, restaurants and outfitters for water sports rentals, sportfishing and whale and dolphin tours. It’s a lovely spot to grab some souvenirs then enjoy a meal with a harbor view.
We rented our kayaks from Boats for Rent, and headed out to paddle the calm waters around the boat slips, past the Oceanside sign and farther out into the harbor. You can also rent power boats, electric boats, paddle boards and jet skis.
Another day we got ebikes from Wheel Fun Rentals, located below the entrance to the pier. If you prefer a guided tour, you can book an Oceanside Bike Tour. You can also rent regular bikes, tandem bikes, paddleboards and Surrey bikes for two or four people.
One option is to bike the San Luis Rey River Trail, a 9-mile trail that takes you to the Mission San Luis Rey, one of California’s historic Missions that houses an interpretive museum.
We opted to ride down The Strand, a 1-mile-long road that was teeming with slow cruisers, walkers, bikers and runners. There is nothing comparable at our beaches and we loved taking in all the sights, with vendors, a playground, a group of girls celebrating a birthday at one of the picnic tables and people set up on the sand for a day at the beach.
I had to stop and take photos of the adorable Roberts Cottages, small rental units right on The Strand that were built in the 1920s. The front porches are so close to the beach, you could toss the lime out of your margarita and hit the sand.
At the end of the Strand, we veered off and toured around neighborhoods bordering downtown, then picking up the Coastal Rail Trail where it parallels the train tracks. Eventually this trail will stretch more than 40 miles to San Diego.
A fun stop is the California Surf Museum where you can learn about the history of the wave-riding and surfing, see memorabilia and view dozens of colorful surfboards.
If you’re a surfer or get inspired to test your prowess on the waves, there are several companies happy to teach you. There are also several surf events held in Oceanside during the year so you can watch the pros. If you’re lucky you’ll see some Olympic surfers training here. Surfing made its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020. Fun fact: It’s probably a little tough to surf on the Seine in Paris, so the 2024 surfing competition will be in Tahiti, which will break the record for the venue farthest from the host city.
I didn’t have much time for shopping, but you could enjoy a delightful afternoon popping in and out of the locally owned shops downtown. The Ozone, located in Mission Pacific, has clothing, accessories, home décor, gifts and books, many from local designers and artists.
Just to the north of Oceanside is Camp Pendleton, the largest military base in California, with 125,000 acres. You can visit some parts of the camp, but must make prior arrangements.
Where to Eat in Oceanside
I can’t think of a better introduction to the dining scene in a new place than with a tasting event. Lucky us – we arrived in Oceanside on a warm fall day just in time for Taste of Oceanside, an annual event with close to 50 retailers and vendors participating.
We strolled up and down the streets of downtown, stopping in to taste Indian food from Turmeric Hut, French fries from Angelo’s Burgers, smoked halibut from Valle, pumpkin ice cream from Handel’s Ice Cream and my husband’s favorite, oysters from Q&A Restaurant and Oyster Bar.
There were a few adult beverages along the way as well – tequila, beer and wine samples. It was a perfect way to get our feel for the town, its dining scene and friendly residents.
One night we headed to Hello Betty, a restaurant with a beachy vibe, rooftop lounge with an ocean view and delicious tuna poke. Check it out for the daily happy hour Monday to Friday from 3-6 p.m. for discounts on food and drink specials.
We opted for Italian one night and dined at Veneto’s Cucino Italiana, a small cozy place with yummy pastas best enjoyed with a glass of red wine.
Oh, how I love a good fish shack and we were lucky to enjoy Brine Box. Twice. Located in a small kiosk at the end of the pier, Brine Box serves sustainable seafood that you order at the window and enjoy at one of the small tables.
The fish and chips were served crispy, just the way I like them, and we also enjoyed the tuna served with macaroni salad. The menu also includes a Vietnamese style shrimp po’ boy, bacon tuna burger, grilled fish or shrimp tacos and a seafood rice bowl. If you love fresh seafood, be sure to make your way down the pier.
We enjoyed delicious coffees, egg bowls and breakfast sandwiches at Petite Madeline, where breakfast and lunch items are made from scratch. Avocado toast, benedicts, pancakes and omelets are also on the breakfast menu, with quiches and sandwiches available for lunch.
For an amazing weekend brunch, head to Piper restaurant at The Seabird Ocean Resort & Spa. Although you can order a la carte, I suggest the buffet that included smoked salmon, frittatas, French toast, crepes, eggs Benedict and a fried chicken and waffle bar. We were seated close to the smoked salmon, which proved the ideal spot to pounce when a new plank was brought out.
Piper is also open for dinner with items like lobster lo mein, charred octopus, mushroom risotto, steak frites and burgers.
If you’re seeking a Michelin star experience, head to Valle at Mission Pacific Hotel where Chef Roberto Alcocer serves cuisine from Guadalupe Valley in an ocean view setting.
Where to Stay in Oceanside, California
You know you’re in a surf town when you are checking into your hotel behind a guy with a surfboard. Oceanside has been called the most authentic surfer town in southern California.
We were checking into Mission Pacific Beach Resort, a Hyatt property, for more sedate activities, which included lounging on our spacious balcony to take in the magnificent views of Oceanside Beach and the Pacific Ocean.
Our 625-square-foot Dreamscape suite included a seating area, a lounge in the window by the bed and a huge bathroom with two sinks, shower and a tub. The hotel has 161 rooms with 38 suites, many with balconies and ocean views.
Shortly after checking in, we headed to the rooftop pool where there are cabanas and a hot tub, and a view of the ocean. There’s also a restaurant and the Rooftop Bar, which turns into an adults-only area with a D.J. Thursday through Sunday.
Dining options include Valle Restaurant, mentioned above, and High/Low that serves breakfast and lunch from 7:00 a.m. to sunset. We didn’t eat there but stopped by for a margarita one afternoon to enjoy the lovely shaded patio.
You can’t visit Oceanside without a stop at the Top Gun House for a HIGH pie. Now owned by Mission Pacific, this small Victorian home was built in 1888 as a vacation home when Oceanside was becoming a resort town after the completion of the railway line from Los Angeles.
It was purchased by several more owners before becoming a run-down rental home. It was purchased and restored in 1975. When Paramount Pictures was scouting for a beach home for “Top Gun,” it found the house and used it as Kelly McGillis’ home. Pacific Street was also the location of Tom Cruise’s motorcycle ride down the road lined with palm trees.
The home was purchased, moved one block north and restored by S.D. Malkin Properties, which made it the centerpiece of Mission Pacific Hotel. It opened in 2022 as the Top Gun House, where visitors line up to pose on the replica motorcycle outside, see the movie memorabilia inside and order the pies.
They come three to an order with flavors that include apple, cherry, pumpkin, blueberry and cranberry. Get them a la mode or with dips like sea salt caramel and lemon curd to up the sugar content.
The art in the hotel is curated by the Oceanside Museum of Art. While we didn’t have a chance to visit the museum, we did see OMA West At The Seabird, an annex gallery inside The Seabird Ocean Resort & Spa, the sister property to Mission Pacific.
The Seabird is right across the street and guests at either resort have use of the amenities of both. The Seabird is geared more to families and 226 rooms – 80 percent with an ocean view – and a much larger pool. Sunny’s Spa and Beauty Lounge is here, as well as three additional restaurants.
I mentioned the amazing brunch at The Piper, and the others are The Shore Room, an oceanfront cocktail bar and The Shelter Club that serves drinks and food by the pool.
For more on Oceanside, go to Visit Oceanside.
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Photos and text by Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief