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Secret San Diego

There’s a lot to show off about our city—water sports! craft beer! taquerias on every block!—but San Diego holds a few cards up her sleeves. We unearthed some of the city’s most hush-hush spots, from hidden ocean caves and urban beekeeping farms to tucked-away archery ranges and off-menu, must-try bites.


Outdoors | Take it Inside | Art | Food & Drink | Secret Menu


Washington Street Skatepark

Skate Under a Freeway

A few blocks from Acoustic Ales Brewing in Middletown, under Pacific Highway, is a subterranean skate park filled with fast bowls, slick rails, and an old-school vibe. Hand-built in the late ’90s by a group of local skaters, the Washington Street Skatepark (purportedly one of the best in Southern California) is home to street art, tiled mosaics, and a BBQ, too. Run and maintained by skaters, the nonprofit park is free and open from sunrise to sunset; look for it where Pacific Highway crosses over Washington Street.

Hit a Bull’s-eye at Balboa

Under Cabrillo Bridge sits the little-known, 28-acre Rube Powell Archery Range inside Balboa Park, offering a spot to fire unlimited arrows for just $2. Only the second of its kind in Southern California, the range features a practice area, plus 40 targets scattered throughout a canyon. Outlaws and Robin Hood wannabes will find the entrance at the southwest side of the Alcazar Garden parking lot.

Sunset Cliffs Cave

Swim Into a Cave

Get ready to take your water sporting up a few thrilling notches. Tucked beneath sandstone cliffs is a clandestine sea cave—but you’ll have to swim for it. Head to the southern end of Luscomb’s Point, located parallel to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard between Hill and Monaco streets, and swim south until you see a narrow passage on your left (closer to Monaco Street). Then you’re between a rock and a beautiful place.

Spot Dolphins Trained by the Navy

Unless you have access to Naval Base Point Loma, chances are you haven’t seen the temporary enclosure of dolphins and sea lions being trained as part of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. The dolphins’ sonar abilities and the sea lions’ vision and hearing make them extremely effective at detecting sea mines and other potentially harmful underwater objects. Jump in a boat or SUP through the channel between Liberty Station and Tom Ham’s Lighthouse to get a peek. Or walk along the south side of the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge between Spanish Landing Park and Liberty Station. And look down!

SS Encinitas and SS Moonlight

Marvel at Onshore Boathouses

Despite a location near the ocean, the 1920s boathouses moored along Third Street in Encinitas have never been to sea. Built by nautical engineer (and early recycling champion) Miles Kellogg, SS Encinitas and SS Moonlight were crafted using timber salvaged from the once-famous Moonlight Beach Dance Hall and Bathhouse. Pegged as North County landmarks, the boats come complete with mariner’s wheels, porthole windows, and deck-top cabins.

Witness a Triple Crown Winner Working Out

It’s a little-known fact that you can go to the Del Mar Racetrack any morning (6 a.m.–10 a.m.) and catch hundreds of top thoroughbred horses in the middle of their morning workouts. On one such recent workout, Triple Crown champion American Pharoah clocked 1:11 for six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile). Who needs coffee when you can get a morning rush like that? The workouts are free, but parking is $10. If you spend $25 on breakfast at the Clubhouse Terrace Restaurant, they’ll take the parking fee off your bill.

Get to Know the Secret Life of Bees

Urban beekeeping is alive and well in gardens and rooftops around San Diego, thanks to honey farmer on a mission Hilary Kearney. While her hives might be installed at undisclosed locations, she’s bringing bees back to the ‘burbs in a big way. Make a beeline for her homegrown apiary in north Clairemont, where you can take an introductory beekeeping class, pick up delicious Girl Next Door Honey, or learn about the Host a Hive program and give some bees a private home of their own.

Pay Your Respects to a Community Mascot

In a quiet section of Presidio Park lies a memorial to Lucy, a white fallow deer that escaped the San Diego Zoo in the mid-’60s and lived happily in the area for a decade. When the deer was reportedly hit by a car along I-8, the grief-stricken community erected a memorial at her burial site composed of three large stones, a concrete watering hole, a bench, and a plaque reading: “Bliss in solitude beneath this tree, formless, silent, spirit free.” To find it, park in the canyon area lot accessible from Taylor Street and walk down the trail heading southeast.


Take it Inside

Old Town Model Railroad Depot | Photo by Jim Schwartman

Pay to Spend a Night Without TV

Built as the home of one of San Diego’s earliest pioneers in the 1800s, the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant in Old Town features Victorian-style bedrooms and dining rooms, 19th-century furnishings, and 10 guest rooms, void of TVs and telephones. Here’s to a little peace and quiet. 2660 Calhoun Street, Old Town

Explore an Offbeat Museum

The Old Town Model Railroad Depot is an ode to the history and charm of train travel. Beyond interactive exhibits, model engines, and memorabilia, the Depot has a 1950s-era city display, with buildings, a zoo, and more. Entry is free but donations are welcome. 2415 San Diego Avenue, Old Town



Enchanted Forest at UCSD

Discover an Enchanted Forest

No longer confined to the realms of Middle-earth, talking trees can be found in San Diego, too. Well, at UC San Diego anyway, where they come alive with the sound of quacking ducks, Navajo chants, and a poem about scabs. Inconspicuously clad in lead plates, Terry Allen’s 1986 art installation Trees comprises three salvaged eucalyptus trees, two of which speak and sing while one remains respectfully silent. Look for the silent one by the Geisel Library (because shhhhhh!) and listen for the musical and literary trees within the adjacent eucalyptus grove, nicknamed the Enchanted Forest.

Leave Your Mark at Neptune’s Portal

The colorful antenna-sprouting object dubbed Neptune’s Portal is part art installation, part social experiment, and encourages inquisitive passersby to peer into a cleverly concealed camera that sits inside a glass mosaic flower. Hit the red record button and leave a video message for posterity. Anecdotes, greetings, songs—all are welcome by guardian and portal creator Jack Lampl, who uploads each to neptunesportal.tv. 678 Neptune Avenue, Leucadia


Food & Drink

Waypoint Public's Bear Den

Eat a Three-Course Feast for $20

Palette, the student-run restaurant at the Art Institute of San Diego in Mission Valley, offers multicourse meals where everything is made from scratch, for a fraction of the usual price. Worried about quality? Don’t fret; the culinary students are graded on the finished product. 7650 Mission Valley Road, Mission Valley

Use a Password at S&M Sausage & Meat

What do the words “geek,” “duck,” “splurge,” and “millionaire” have in common? They’ve all been Sausage & Meat’s “Safe Word of the Week.” By keeping an eye on Twitter, bacon lovers in the know can score two free rashers of prime pork at this exotic meat emporium. Just mention the current safe word upon arrival at either S&M location. 4130 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest; 1102 Market Street, East Village

Book a Private Room at Waypoint Public

Besides the popular designated kids’ area, the North Park brewpub also comes with the cozy “Bear Den” event space used for beer-themed dinners and “Brewvie Nights,” but can also be booked for private parties. The Den may be tucked away, but the décor is anything but muted. Think bright red Hans Wegner–style chairs, grass walls, and funky tchotchkes. Head toward the kids’ area, continue on the right, and follow the hall to den delights. 3794 30th Street, North Park

Aero Club

Taste 950-plus Whiskeys

It was featured in Maxim, but the Aero Club is still a dive bar unknown to many outside its Mission Hills locale. Parallel to the I-5 freeway, Aero Club serves more than 950 (and counting!) brands of whiskey—more than any other bar in San Diego. Since 1947, the bar has been a regular drinking hole for pilots, police officers, and Greyhound bus drivers. Look for the neon, airplane-shaped sign, and ask general manager Chad Berkey about his new book, The North American Whiskey Guide From Behind The Bar, in which he reviews more than 250 whiskeys. BYOF (there’s no kitchen). 3365 India Street, Mission Hills

Find a Root Beer and Jerky Paradise

Tucked away in Old Town State Historic Park is Old Town House of Jerky and Root Beer, a shop selling more than 40 kinds of jerky, root beer, and other old-timey snacks. If you want to venture from the norm, try the alligator, buffalo, elk, kangaroo, venison, or wild boar jerky. Bring your sweet tooth and a partner in crime for the daily BOGO root beer float special. 2754 Calhoun Street, Old Town

Drink Beer Near a Primate

All those miles walked through the San Diego Zoo with energetic kids in tow surely deserves an adult beverage. Zoo-goers may know about the craft beer selection at Albert’s, the treehouse-style eatery located in Lost Forest, but tucked away near the orangutans is Zoo Brew, a modest stand devoted to two grown-up vices—coffee and locally brewed craft beer on tap. 2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park

Picnic at a Secluded Winery

Perched high on a hill above San Pasqual Valley in Escondido—which just so happens to mean “hidden” en Español—Hungry Hawk Vineyards & Winery is a 5.5-acre family-run winery with a peaceful and pretty setting to enjoy 15 varietals, including Albariño (a white from Spain) and Tempranillo (Rioja’s main red). Relaxation is the mantra, so bring a picnic and spend an afternoon sipping wine as you take in its lovely view of the vineyard and San Pasqual’s rolling hills. 3255 Summit Drive, Escondido

Join a Bohemian Dining Club

Tired of aimless chitchat about selfies and the state of Kardashiastan? Join an underground meeting of epicureans, artists, poets, philosophers, and conversationalists (and drinkers) for the next “Euro Bohemian Club.” Modeled after ye olden drink-and-thinks known as Salon du Paris, the rules are simple. Everyone must have at least one drink to talk. You must present three discussion topics. Winner of debate pays nothing. If you lose your temper, you pay the whole tab. Put that wine-loosened mind to use. 873 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach

Secret Service

Menu items available by request only

Cheese Store of San Diego

The Cheese Store of San Diego’s standard grilled cheese sandwich is mighty fine, but the off-menu cacio e pepe, made with four different cheeses and pepper-infused butter, is even more enticing. 1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

At Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant you can score a duo of flaky tempura-battered Baja red snapper tacos for dinner anytime. 2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill

Regent Pizzeria’s buffalo chicken fries are gluttony at its finest—house-cut fries, battered and fried chicken, and buffalo sauce topped with blue cheese. 4150 Regents Park Row, La Jolla

Top-secret taco! Puesto’s Baja Supreme Taco trio comes piled high with beer-battered shrimp, melted cheese, mango habañero pico, and chipotle crema. 789 West Harbor Drive, downtown; 1026 Wall Street, La Jolla

UnderBelly’s spicy chicken buns with kimchi, pickles, and spicy mayo, are worth the ask. Limited quantities are prepared daily. 750 West Fir Street, Little Italy; 3000 Upas Street, North Park

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