Last Updated on May 11, 2023
Living up to its name, Oceanside, California boasts over three and a half miles of stunning beaches, renowned for many years as a top surfing spot. Although I love walking on the sand and listening to the waves, I admit that beaches are not a huge draw for me.
However, much to my delight, on spring 2023 visit, I discovered there’s more to this charming beach town. Oceanside is filled with art, historical sites and a wealth of dining options. The historic downtown is walkable and an easy drive from Los Angeles or San Diego, making it the perfect SoCal weekend hang out.
California Surfing Museum
I have never surfed. I have no desire to surf. I don’t even swim well. Yet, I really enjoyed the California Surf Museum in Oceanside.
I learned the science of how waves form and how they are tracked. I saw how surfboards evolved over multiple decades and how different structural features affect the ride.
A knowledgeable docent kept providing interesting tidbits throughout my visit. He would often proudly point out a famous surfer’s board and I would pretend to know who he was talking about.
An array of surfboards on display ranged from the ten-foot-long heavy wooden boards from the early 1900s to the shorter, colorful lightweight fiberglass boards of today.
One of my favorite displays featured Bryce Wettstein, a champion surfer and Olympic skateboarder. The other showed Bethany Hamilton surfing with one arm after losing her other in a shark attack. Her actual board from that day with a large bite missing was a shocking. Miraculously, she gamely returned to surfing only three weeks after leaving the hospital.
Mission San Luis Rey
In the 18th century, Spain constructed a series of missions to colonize the West Coast. They sent a few friars, some soldiers, and supplies to each location and set out to convert the Indigenous people to Catholicism. They believed that if they taught the local Native Americans farming and ranching, they could become productive citizens of Spain and expand their settlements.
The 18th in the line of 21 mission sites, Mission San Luis Rey was established in 1798 and named after King Louis IX of France. Spread over 1,000 acres, the mission compound stretched from the ocean to the foothills. Under the supervision of Franciscan friars, the back-breaking work of the Luiseno Indians supported the mission for over 30 years until the Mexican War of Independence drove the Spanish out of the area.
Mission San Luis Rey returned to Catholic control in 1865 and restoration began in 1892. Over many decades, the church and living quarters were returned to their former beauty. The bright white Spanish-styled church sports simple lines and one bell tower. An arched colonnade extends to what is now the retreat quarters, built around a lovely garden.
I began my museum tour in the rooms along the colonnade. Numerous displays explained the history of the mission and portrayed how the friars and their neophytes lived.
I grew up in a parish served by Franciscan priests and many of the religious items brought back memories.
A small courtyard with burbling fountains and flowering vines provided a peaceful respite during my tour. The church itself held an air of reverence as I quietly walked through the two rows of pews up to the altar and painted wooden dome.
I finished my tour with a stroll through the cemetery, rewarded with the sounds of the bells ringing and birds singing.
Oceanside Sunset Market
One of my favorite experiences while visiting Oceanside was perusing the 200 vendor stalls and tents at the Thursday Sunset Market. At the center of the market, a band sang popular rock tunes while the crowd enjoyed their dinners.
For a block in each direction, booths on both sides offered every type of food imaginable. Restaurants from Oceanside and surrounding areas can vary weekly, with a few new ones at each market.
Over the past 16 years, Sunset Market has helped to revitalize downtown ‘O’side’ and encourage more pedestrian traffic. It seemed to be working as the streets were packed with people queuing up for its many delectable delights.
I enjoyed an authentic Pad Thai with tender pieces of grilled chicken. Next, my Belgian fries served with garlic aioli were perfectly crisped on the outside and fluffy on the inside. There were too many dessert choices, but I compromised on a fudge brownie with Nutella and some homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Two smaller music stages and other artisan booths rounded out the event. Unless it’s raining, the market occurs every Thursday year-round.
Downtown Historical Walk
Oceanside may be known for its surfing culture and California beach bums, but it is also historic. A few buildings dating back to the town’s establishment in the 1880s have been restored. These contrast interestingly against more modern structures of the contemporary town.
A walking tour map can be found at the Oceanside Historical Society, which also offers guided tours.
The oldest remaining brick structure in Oceanside is the Bunker House built in 1885. The two-story, square structure with a white wooden porch across its front harkens back to the Old West days. It lived up to the wild west label once hosting prostitutes and as the site of the mysterious murder of one of its owners.
Top Gun House Oceanside, CA
Dr. Henry Graves built a Queen Ann Cottage in 1887 as a vacation home along the coast and it survives as one of the last of its kind. It is now known as the “Top Gun house,” where Tom Cruise visited Kelly McGillis in the hit movie. The motorcycle that Cruise rode rests on the lawn for photo ops.
From the beginning days of Oceanside, the pier has been a focal point of the community. Rebuilt several times over throughout the years, it is currently the longest over-water wooden pier on the West Coast.
I joined many other strollers along the almost 2000-foot-long quay, watching the pelicans and surfers while keeping an eye out for sea life.
Oceanside Museum of Art
I enjoy visiting small art museums wherever I travel and am frequently surprised by the interesting exhibits they hold. On the edge of downtown, the Oceanside Museum of Art occupies the historic city hall and showcases Southern California artists.
A spacious pavilion added in 2008 joined the complimentary buildings of two modernist SoCal architects, Irving Gill and Frederick Fisher.
Four spacious galleries on two floors host over 15 temporary, rotating exhibitions each year. The artists featured when I visited were intriguing with fresh, complex works demonstrating their talent. Robert Xavier Burden’s whimsical paintings, Melissa Meier’s uncanny depictions of clothing and animals using natural items, and Quinton McCurine’s unique creations with oil paint kept me enraptured.
Oceanside Dining and Drinking
I wished I could have spent more time in Oceanside sampling its many eclectic restaurants. I concentrated on the downtown area, although there are four other Oceanside districts. These establishments offer a variety of cuisine as well as craft breweries and specialty cocktail bars.
For dinner at The Plot on Coast Highway, Oceanside’s main strip, I sat on the lovely patio next to metal planters, with wild parrots calling from the palm trees. This plant-based restaurant concentrates on sustainability utilizing local ingredients grown on-site and from local farmers. My tender yam came stuffed with lentil and mushroom sausage covered with cashew cream. Charred greens, green beans, carrots, and an edible flower rounded out a fabulous meal.
I enjoyed breakfast at Petit Madeline Bakery, also on Coast Highway. The French Toast was a little dry, but it was made with gluten-free bread and had a great flavor that wasn’t too eggy. The bacon was nicely crisped. A display of elaborate pastries and desserts made me think this would be a favorite place if I lived nearby.
The Lab turned out to be a perfect choice for lunch on a warm, sunny day. I sat on the outdoor patio watching people pass by. My flatbread was loaded with prosciutto, artichoke, fig jam, Parmesan, and arugula. The half-flatbread came with a half salad served with a Lilikoi vinaigrette that was both sweet and tart and very unique. I splurged on a Mexican mule that was light and fruity.
I decided to stay in my hotel for my final breakfast, the historic Finn Hotel. Their restaurant is named The Switchboard in honor of the people who worked there during World War II when it was a communication center. The Mainland Breakfast Bowl was simple but well prepared and included scrambled eggs, bacon and a potato medley.
Oceanside contains many treasures beyond the surf. The picture-perfect coastal setting combining seamlessly together with the town’s history, art, and culinary delights provided a truly enjoyable experience.beachdining