Last Updated on December 21, 2023

Nestled between Carlsbad and Camp Pendleton in Southern California is a seaside town named Oceanside or, as the locals call it, O’side. Here, palm trees reach their lofty arms into outer space, lining streets anchored by bungalows. Having lived in Southern California for more than 40 years, I was always surprised by what to see in Oceanside, California.

With a population of about 176,000, this town has a strong sense of community. The quintessential beach town is reminiscent of the ‘Gidget’ surfing movies popular in the 1950s and ’60s.

Oceanside is the northernmost beach town in San Diego County with 3.5-miles of sandy beach and a wonderful year-round climate: warm and dry.

Oceanside is 87-miles south of Los Angeles International Airport, 52-miles south of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, and 38-miles north of San Diego International Airport. Oceanside is easily accessible from Interstate 5 Freeway in either direction.

Our journey of what to see in Oceanside, California begins on the north side of Oceanside in Harbor Village, traveling down the coast through downtown. We end at the Buena Vista Lagoon in South O. We’ll take a detour out to Mission San Luis Rey, which you can also reach on the San Luis Rey Bike Trail on a non-motorized vehicle.

California Visitor’s Center

When you arrive in Oceanside, your first stop is the California Visitor’s Center, conveniently located off Interstate 5. They have an astonishing amount of information not only about Oceanside but California and surrounding states.

The staff is terrific, friendly, and helpful. They are the Welcoming Committee and live up to their reputation.

This Center is your one-stop-shop for postcards and other memorabilia of Oceanside. The numerous historical photos hanging on the partitions are a history lesson on the area and worth studying. Don’t be in a rush here. While you may be eager to hit the sand and surf, this destination will provide the depth and background to know and appreciate Oceanside.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Mission San Luis Rey - Oceanside, CA
© Diebolt Price

The dazzling white façade and domed towers in stark contrast to the deep blue sky create a remarkable testament to King Louis IX of France.

Mission San Luis Rey, the King of the Missions, is the 18th of 21 Spanish missions established in Alta California. Founded in 1798, the Spanish Viceroy named this mission after King Louis IX of France. King Louis was known for his compassion for the poor and suffering. He hosted these unfortunates in his home daily, often serving the guests himself. Canonized a saint in 1297, the Secular Franciscans named King Louis their patron saint because of his devout religious practices and charity acts.

The Mission has a long history with the Luiseño Indians, Spain, Mexico, and the American military. In 1865, Mission San Luis Rey was returned to the Catholic Church by Abraham Lincoln yet remained abandoned until 1892.

A self-guided tour tells the history of Mission San Luis Rey with some notable stops at the remains of the soldier’s barracks, the historic cemetery, and the oldest pepper tree in California, to name a few.

Inside the church, recorded music plays while studying the artwork, maybe light a devotion candle, or observing the old plaster walls and paintings from the 1700s to the 1800s.  

Oceanside Harbor Village

Oceanside Harbor Village
© Diebolt Price

The charming New England-style village at Oceanside Harbor is complete with a lighthouse, shops, and restaurants with a view.

Watch paddleboarders, kayakers, and sailors ply the waters. Listen to hear the real locals – barking sea lions sunning themselves on docks and frolicking in the water near shore.

Oceanside Harbor Beach is a popular beach to take surfing lessons. It has the best waves because of the north and south jetties, and it’s also the widest beach in town – an excellent choice for families.

Clapping Circle

When exploring Harbor Beach, don’t miss the cleverly hidden gem called Clapping Circle. An intriguing public space in the harbor’s parking lot, a sizeable circle of bricks with a delineated circle in the middle indicates where to stand. When clapping, the peculiar sound generated is a blip, not the clapping’s actual sound as one would expect.

Spoiler alert – the sound is an echo bouncing off the surrounding buildings.

Boat rentals in Harbor Village

Boat Rentals of America rents kayaks, powerboats, Jet Skis, electric boats, stand-up paddleboards, and pedal boats. Be as adventurous as you like.

Whale and dolphin watching

Oceanside Adventures
© Diebolt Price

Oceanside Adventures offers whale-watching trips all year round because of the mild weather and so many opportunities to see whales breaching and pods of playful dolphins skimming the surface of the ocean. Passengers cruise on a brand new, state-of-the-art, 50-foot catamaran for two-hour excursions with a certified naturalist.

Oceanside Pier

One of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast, the 1,942-foot Oceanside Pier is a great place to fish, watch surfers challenging the waves, dine at the end of the boardwalk, or be wowed by a spectacular sunset.

You can fish on the pier without a California fishing license. The Pier Bate Shop offers everything you need to for the sport, such as rods and tackle.

Great waves on the south and north side of the Pier year-round make Oceanside Pier a surfing hotspot. The waves are bigger and break a little harder than just about every other spot in North County.

Wheel Fun Rentals

Rent wheels to ride along the coast with your group in a surrey, or solo on a traditional beach cruiser, or completely electric. Located under the Oceanside Pier, Wheel Fun Rentals offers hourly, ½ day, and full-day rates.

The San Luis Rey Bike Trail, accessed from the west end of town near the Oceanside Transit Center, follows the San Luis Rey River’s path and takes you inland about 10 miles. It’s relatively flat, has no stop signs nor traffic lights, and is separate from motorized traffic. The trail is multi-use and open to runners, skaters, and hikers – all non-motorized recreation.

If you’d rather be on the water, Wheel Fun Rentals also rents Stand Up Paddleboards.

Oceanside Transit Center

The Oceanside Transportation Center, in the heart of the city, makes travel between O’side and other Southern California cities easy. Centrally located, you can enjoy downtown Oceanside without ever renting a motorized vehicle. Think about renting wheels from Wheel Fun Rentals.

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is a delightful way to arrive in Oceanside. Breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from Orange County in the north to San Diego make welcome traveling companions in the south.

Farmer’s Market

Farmers Market
© Visit Oceanside

Every Thursday, MainStreet Oceanside’s Farmers Market is the destination for fresh local produce, flowers, and nursery items. Even more is the vast selection of handcrafted and artisanal goods, gourmet goodies like artisan baked products, organic honey, chips and salsa, sauces and dips, olives, and olive oil.

Oceanside Beaches

Oceanside Pier and Beach
© Visit Oceanside

The exquisite sand beaches between Camp Pendleton and Carlsbad offer many activities like surfing, bicycles, and surreys for rent, walking along the Strand, pier views, or simply relaxing under a beach umbrella. Whatever you choose, don’t miss this beach experience. Be as active or not, as you wish.

The weather is agreeable all year long, but the best time is between mid-June to mid-October.

Oceanside Art museum

The California Arts Council declared Oceanside as one of fourteen state-recognized cultural districts because of its developing art scene. The mission is to strengthen arts, culture, and creative expression by supporting local art programs.

The Oceanside Art Museum and California Surf Museum are two indoor venues downtown where you can appreciate the art, history, and culture contributing to the city’s identity.

Murals

If you like public art, Oceanside murals will provide hours of enjoyment on a fun, self-guided mural hunt.

Spanning approximately three miles from the north side of Oceanside to South O, Visit Oceanside created a mural map that includes every prominent Oceanside mural with its specific location along with a picture.

If you are like me, collecting things like eye-popping, vibrant mural photographs is a great way to appreciate art. Because the artists sign the amazing murals, you can also learn about the local talent.

In South O or downtown, park your vehicle and walk on your mural hunt as many of the amazing murals are close together. Oceanside murals demonstrate a dedication to creativity throughout the entire community.

Dining and Sipping

Choose from numerous coastal wine-tasting rooms, breweries, distilleries, and craft coffee shops from Harbor Village to South O. With so many options in Oceanside, you won’t go hungry or thirsty.

  • Stratford at the Harbor is a popular restaurant for Sunday breakfast or lunch. We had to wait a while to be seated, but it allowed us to explore Oceanside Harbor Village. Kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, and boaters plied the waters. Oceanside Adventures launched a cruise in their catamaran and made me yearn to be aboard. The delivery of our meals was extra quick and efficient.
  • The Privateer Coal Fire Pizza served a new (to me) Grenache Blanc wine with a tasty salad. From my waiter, Colin, I learned about the great sense of community in South O. He proudly shared that all the businesses along Coast Highway were small business owners and many “mom and pops.”
  • Enjoy a slice of authentic Pizza Napoletana at Blade 1936, which opened recently in the historic Irving Gill-designed building once home to the city’s original Blade Tribune newspaper.
  • Kick it up a notch with distinctive Balinese fare (I found it pleasantly spicy) at Dija Mara.
  • Or, have a starter of Marinated Gin Olives and Rosemary Toast to go with your flights of distilled spirits at Pacific Coast Spirits, the grain-to-glass craft distillery. The starter and tastings were delicious.
  • Historic 101 Café is a favorite among locals and always a hit with tourists. It’s the oldest continuously operating restaurant on Historic Highway 101 with a diner-style vibe.

Buena Vista Lagoon

Are you looking for the perfect way for families to learn about plants around the lagoon? Are you looking to investigate lagoon habitats?

Buena Vista Lagoon is California’s first Ecological Reserve. The lagoon’s 223 acres is home to at least 103 bird species, 18 mammal species, and 14 amphibian and reptile species. The lagoon is a valuable wetland habitat for migrating birds from fall through spring.

Torrey Pines, cultivated to grow at the Buena Vista Lagoon, is the rarest pine species in the U.S. The Torrey Pines only grow along the San Diego County coast and on one of the Channel Islands further north.

This quarter-mile Nature Trail is a loop suitable for the entire family.

I’ve been there three times in this last month and am eager to go again. There are so many noteworthy things to do for the entire family. Be sure to stay for one of the stunning sunsets.

Author

  • Julie Diebolt Price

    Julie Diebolt Price is an award-winning professional photographer, educator, author, and travel writer. She writes about two things: photography and travel. Julie educates and mentors aspiring photographers. As a journalist who loves traveling, she creates memorable experiences, and shares of them with words and pictures.