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What Your Favorite San Diego Surf Spot Says About You

A guide to the city’s best breaks and the locals that frequent them
Photo Credit: Cole Novak

By Cole NovakPublished Jul 17, 2023

Your choice of surf break is a very personal decision. Each spot comes with its stereotypes—are you a grom, noserider, or Wavestrom warrior? From localized reefs to kooky beach breaks, the last 14 years I’ve spent surfing in San Diego have taught me that each spot truly has its own vibe.

What does your favorite San Diego surf spot say about you?

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring an aerial shot of Tourmaline and Old Man's in Pacific Beach


The Malibu of San Diego

Dubbed as the ultimate old man spot and San Diego’s Malibu, Tourmaline is a longboarder’s heaven. If your board is smaller than 7 feet, go home. In the lineup you can find guys who have been surfing Tourmaline for the last 40+ years and show no signs of stopping. Hanging ten and gracefully maneuvering across a cruising 20+ second wave is irresistible enough for many to fight the crowds and congested streets of Garnett. Good luck snagging waves from the locals who were around to remember Jack Murphy Stadium.

The Uniform: 10ft nose rider log, Greg Noll striped swim trunks, and a nose covered in zinc

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring Sunset Cliffs, Point Loma with a surfer carrying his longboard surfboard at sunset
Photo Credit: John O’Nelio

Sunset Cliffs

The Point Break

Sunset Cliffs isn’t just sunshine and sunsets. Sharks, rips, reef, rocks, and a hell of paddle out on a bigger day can make surfing here a real gauntlet. Perils aside, Sunset Cliffs is arguably one of the more consistent reef breaks in the county. Just make sure you have your surfboard repair shop on speed-dial for the inevitable dings that will riddle your board.

In the lineup, you’ll be sure to hear stories from the locals about how the waves used to be better, the beaches were less crowded, and a California burrito used to cost $7. The good ‘ole days. With the reef generating consistent waves year-round, Sunset Cliffs can boast some of the longest waves in the county.

The Uniform: 9’6 Longboard, dented like a copper Moscow mule mug, and noodle arms

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring Ocean Beach Pier and Jetty with a surfers performing a snap maneuver
Photo Credit: Randy Dible

Ocean Beach

The Venice Beach of San Diego

Ocean Beach feels like the most San Diego beach there is. A boardwalk with shops from another era, consistent waves, great food, lively bars, and drum circles on the beach. What’s not to love? In the water, you can find groms getting air on small waves, older guys putting their stake on the jetty, and beatniks riding the same board they did since the ’80s. Ocean Beach isn’t always the most welcoming of surf spots, so make sure to lock your car and bring your trusty self-defense weapon—or friend who will back you up in the lineup.

The Uniform: 30-year-old, beaten-up 6’5 shortboard with flame decals, tie-dye shirt, and a Rasta-colored poncho

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring Imperial Beach Pier with a surfers walking on the beach at sunset
Photo Credit: Ronaldo Brosas

Imperial Beach

Barrels, Burritos and Sewage Pipes

Unfortunately, the consistent pollution coming from the U.S./ Tijuana wastewater plant has caused lifeguards to keep those yellow “Sewage Contaminated Water” signs up year round. With all these hazards, Imperial Beach surfers are the ultimate lab rats—putting their lives on the line for the sake of science and shredding.

Years ago, I recall surfing in purple waves which were attributed to a “completely safe” water test from the Navy’s military lab located just up the strand. If your skin starts glowing after a surf session, visit your local hospital immediately, otherwise, head down to Palm Avenue for some of the best takeout Mexican food in San Diego.

The Uniform: 5’8 Retro fish surfboard and a bottle of antibiotics

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring Cardiff beach with a surfer in the barrel


Vegan and GMO-Free Waves

Locals here start their day with an acai bowl from the Cedros district, a freshly pressed vegetable juice from their neighborhood market, and a CBD gummy. Cardiff and the Encinitas region are packed with great peaks and reefs that gather surfers like moths to a flame, including legends like Rob Machado.

Paddle out just past the iconic Cardiff Kook statue and you’ll hear surfers chatting about how mid lengths are the best surfboards, becoming vegan has changed their life, wearing shoes is bad for you and surfer’s pitching their band’s latest folk album. Just remember not to drop in. Otherwise they’ll call you “The New Cardiff Kook.”

The Uniform: 6’6 mid-length twin-fin, pair of Birkenstocks, and long-hair

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring Pacific Beach's Crystal Pier with a surfer walking on the beach at sunset
Photo Credit: John O’Nelio

Pacific Beach

The College Hangout

Need a spot to surf off the hangover? Then head to Pacific Beach. In the lineup, you can hear the chattering of college students and locals (still reliving their college days) planning their night of debauchery at the local bars. PB is the land of a thousand soft tops and is not a bad place to learn if you can avoid the crowds. People will ride anything that floats here. I mean anything. Hit pacific beach first thing in the morning while the locals are still recovering from the night before.

The Uniform: 7’6 Wavestorm, cargo shorts, and Reef beer-opener sandals

The best surf spots in San Diego featuring Black's Beach, La Jolla with a surfer in a barrel
Photo Credit: Josh Robusto

Blacks Beach

San Diego’s Pipeline

If you’re up for a 20-minute hike down the cliffs, encounters with nudists, occasional rockslides and daunting canyon sets, Black’s Beach is the spot for you. Known to some as California’s Pipeline, Blacks is the ultimate big wave spot for the adrenaline junkies in town. Though not every session at Black’s is a heart-pounding, arm-deflating, battle of man vs. nature, the spot is consistently one of the best in the county.

Among the lineup you can find characters like groms working on their sponsor videos, Kelly Slater lookalikes, your friend who insists that surfing naked brings them closer to nature, and of course your friend who owns a big wave gun and daydreams about catching that perfect 15-foot wave. Keep dreaming, my friend.

The Uniform: 7’2 big wave gun, DNR bracelet, no pants

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By Cole Novak

With a background crafting digital strategies and storytelling for brands, Cole loves reporting on local figures, businesses and nonprofits. A lifelong San Diegan, Cole is passionate about photography, surfing, music, cooking, the local art scene, and the great outdoors.

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