An Inside Look at the Beach and Surfing Culture of San Diego

One of the great things about the United States is the diversity the country offers. People from all backgrounds and walks of life call it home. Even though the U.S. is referred to as a cultural melting pot, it is not necessarily based on sex, religion, or skin color. The country’s diverse culture is formed state by state and city by city, through a conglomeration of sub-cultures that have more to do with geography than with physical individual differences or ideologies.

Native New Yorkers are widely thought to be fast-paced, forthright, fearless, and a little brusque. They may be Americans, but they’re New Yorkers first. Seattleites are known as politically-minded, tech savvy, casual, and practical, with a strong focus on protecting the environment.  They’re coffee connoisseurs who prefer bikes over cars. Does every New Yorker or Seattleite fit the mold? No, but individuals often don’t identify with the stereotypes imposed upon them. We’re not talking individuals, here; we’re talking about geographic sub-culture personalities.

san diego.jpg

The United States is 3.8 million square miles of sub-cultures. From regional dialects, to standard of living, to entertainment, to values, where you grew up says a lot about you. Whether you like it or not, you probably absorbed much of the social conditioning of your geographic area; think “Minnesota nice” or “Southern hospitality.”

When it comes to California, San Diego, in particular, who doesn’t go straight to “gnarly wave, Dude” in their head? You immediately think of San Diegans as beach-going, surf-riding, laid-back people, and the truth of the matter is you’re probably not far off in your perceptions. Beach life and surfing are the backbone of a San Diego lifestyle; whether or not each San Diegan actually surfs is irrelevant. The beach and surfing are inextricably woven into the way of life there.

No matter which part of the city San Diegans come from, they are shaped by beach and surf culture. It’s not just the way they talk, walk, or act; the beach is part of every facet of life in San Diego. Dr. Jeff Ponting of the San Diego State Center for Surf Research, explains it best, “The fact that tourism is one of our largest industries, along with biotech and the military, all of that is driven by our proximity to the coast. Economically, aesthetically, and culturally, surfing and beach culture permeates through the whole region.”

The fact that one of the best universities in San Diego has a center for surf research is proof within itself that beach and surf culture are a powerful force behind the natives of this city. With over 70 miles of sun-soaked coastline, 70-degree weather year-round, and the vast ocean, it’s no wonder this surf city finds its community heartbeat at the beach. This lifestyle draws in millions of visitors each year, making tourism one of the three largest economic additions to the city. Everyone wants a little taste of the relaxed San Diego vibe that originates at the beach and in the water.

A study in 2012 found that one of the most popular beaches in San Diego, the San Onofre State Beach where Trestles surf spot is located, brought in 300,000 tourists on its own accord, and $24 million in visitor spending. Surfers help make tourism the third largest industry in the city, and their promotion of outdoor living keeps San Diego ranked high on the list of fittest cities each year. Learn about the influence of beach and surf culture on this thriving city in the book Surfing in San Diego. It is the collaboration of John Elwell, Jane Schmauss, and the California Surf Museum.  

Experience San Diego Surf Culture Firsthand

Countless museums, surf shops, surf-themed restaurants and bars, surf instructors and schools, surf competitions and events, and a nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving the environment can be found all over San Diego, giving you the chance to immerse yourself in the culture formed from reliable waves and sandy beaches. Of the innumerable San Diego surf spots, from Imperial Beach at the southernmost end to San Onofre at the northern tip, you’ll find surf conditions to suit your skill level. Here are a few to get you started.

For the Beginner, or a Chill Surf Session

Ocean Beach

If you are a newbie, head to Ocean Beach Pier. It’s a crowded, but super friendly surf spot. This hippie neighborhood of San Diego is all about beach and surf life. The best waves can be found north of the pier. Stick around after your surf session and grab some grub at Hodad’s, the neighborhood’s iconic hamburger joint.


Tourmaline Surf Park

This is another great surfing area for beginners and longboard riders. The leisurely surf spot offers long, slow rides with almost no hazardous areas. With that said, this also means it’s a hot spot that can get crowded.


For a little breathing room, paddle south toward the Pump House, or north toward the point. At the end of your session, chill out in the parking lot like the locals, where tips and funny stories get exchanged.


All Skill Levels Welcome Here

Imperial Beach Pier

A beach so popular they have surf cams on both sides so you can check the surf before you head out. This beach can get a bit crowded, especially when the surf is up, but it’s worth it for mid and high tides that cut both left and right.


Mission Beach to Pacific Beach

Two of the most popular beaches in San Diego connect for more than two miles of beach breaks. You’ll find surfers of all levels ripping it up from the jetty at the south end of Mission Beach to the north side of Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. The waves are consistent, but rarely “wow” you, making it great for beginners and reliably fun for experienced surfers. This is a tourist hotspot, so some prefer surfing here during the off-season. Winter’s chilly water requires a wetsuit, so only the die-hards paddle out.

Shredders Only

Sunset Cliffs

This is not a surf spot for beginners or the faint of heart. In fact, only experienced surfers should attempt surfing here. The reason is simple – safety.  There are no dedicated paths to get to the water other than those worn down by the local surfers themselves who know their way around the dangerous cliffs. The rips and rocks can be harsh, and so can the surfers. Less experienced surfers can inadvertently put experienced surfers in dangerous situations, plus they’re serious about their waves, which makes this crowd of surfers less chill. On the plus side, if you are experienced enough to take this spot on, each of the multiple coves offers unique breaks. The added bonus is fewer surfers and no lines.


The Highlights

With so many miles of coast, it’s impossible to touch on all the incredible surf spots in San Diego, but here is the speed round. Windansea in La Jolla has big barrels and is home to many pro surfers. There are lots of strong crash zones and tons of rocks, so you might want to leave it for the locals.

La Jolla Shores, Scripps Pier, and Black’s Beach have gentle beginner waves that start at La Jolla Shores and consistently graduate as you move north towards Black’s Beach. In Del Mar, 15th Street to Del Mar’s Dog Beach provides surfing that is great for all levels, with breaks both to the left and right.

Swami’s and Moonlight in Encinitas, Trestles in San Onofre, and so many more noteworthy surf spots run along the coast, so dig into the surfer history of San Diego to find your perfect wave.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s