Psst! You didn’t hear it from us, but this town has all kinds of “hidden gems” (yes, we said it). And we’re not talking ghost stories at the Hotel Del. We found chic cafes, tucked-away trails, floating homes, secret staircases, and more spots you can actually see, sip, taste, and explore. Happy hunting!
An underwater graveyard in La Jolla
You need GPS and a boat to find it, and still you won’t see anything unless you get in the water. Picture a spot on the ocean about 100 yards straight out from the La Jolla Cove Bridge Club (1160 Coast Boulevard, in Ellen Browning Scripps Park). There, at a depth of about 35 feet, lies an unofficial graveyard known to insiders as Tombstones.
No bodies are buried there, but Tombstones got its name from a tradition that dates back to the 1940s and a group of divers that called themselves the Bottom Scratchers. At La Jolla Cove, members of the club were free-diving and spear fishing in the days prior to the invention of the wetsuit. And whenever a Bottom Scratcher died, the other members planted a grave marker at Tombstones.
A local free-diver named Volker Hoehne learned of this a few years ago from one of the last surviving founding members of the Bottom Scratchers. “’When I die,’ Wally Potts said to me, ‘put a marker down there. Spear one last fish for me.’” Hoehne dives Tombstones at least once a month with a wire brush in hand to clean off the constant marine growth that obscures details such as names and dates.
A second Torrey Pines
Hiking Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve can get crowded, but there’s a nearby annex that’s far less populated and still offers ocean views. Four different entrances get you into the Torrey Pines Extension, a five-trail island of green surrounded by suburbia. For the southernmost entrance, take the Carmel Valley Road exit off I-5 and head west. Turn right on Del Mar Scenic Parkway and continue to the end and park in the cul de sac. Oh, and parking? Free.
A pop-up dinner with 2,000 of your closest friends
On September 19, strangers will dress elegantly in white and dine together at an event called Le Diner en Blanc. The location remains a secret. Register at sandiego.dinerenblanc.info and choose a pickup location. Shuttles will take you to the dinner. BYOBFF (booze, food, furniture).
1,000 beers downtown
Inside Krisp Beverages and Natural Foods, a health food market carrying kombucha and chia seeds, is an under-the-radar beer heaven. The Best Damn Beer Shop is a dedicated area showcasing more than 1,000 craft brews, as well as homebrew supplies. 1036 Seventh Avenue, downtown
A mushroom house on the beach
If you let the nudes turn you off of Black’s Beach, you’ll miss seeing the “mushroom house,” as it’s known. It’s officially The Pavilion, a guest house on the sand. The main residence, built in 1968 for Sam Bell, is 300 foot above on the cliff, with a funicular connecting the two. The architect is Dale Naegle, who passed away in 2011 at age 83. In his time, he built an estimated 100,000 condos and homes around San Diego, but this, clearly, is our favorite.
A hummingbird cottage in the Zoo
Looking for a respite from the crowds at the San Diego Zoo? There’s a sweet little home for hummingbirds tucked just beyond the reptile house and across from the Skyfari launch. (It’s tough to find on the zoo map, only marked with a small picture of a hummingbird.) Inside, amongst the tropical plants, water features, and bird feeders, the birds zip around, eat, and bathe in the pools. The Kenton C. Lint Hummingbird Aviary opened in 1964 and houses two species of hummingbird, the western sparkling violet-ear and the northern broad-billed.
A teensy Euro cafe
It’s not technically a hole-in-the-wall, but the entrance to Finch’s La Jolla is narrow and missable from busy Girard Avenue. Once you spot the doorway, walk down a romantic little walkway—you almost feel as though you’re in Europe—and dine in the courtyard with twinkle lights and a live guitarist. The owners are South African but serve a global menu. A great date place. 7644 Girard Avenue, La Jolla
Tucked away in America’s Cup Harbor around pier seven is a small cluster of houseboats. Technically, these are boats and their existence is not tied to any kind of long-term ownership of the docks, but most of them enjoy a month-to-month lease. This one is two stories with a washer/dryer, roof deck, and full kitchen and was recently listed for sale at around $100K. Now you can find it for rent on AirBnB for around $200 per night. Ahoy!
A patio behind a patio
The delightful back patio in Little Italy’s Davanti Enoteca hides a super-private little gem. Table 80 sits behind a wall with a tiny opening that looks like a room where servers might go. You can reserve it for parties of eight to 10; they have seatings at 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. 1655 India Street
Painted trees at Sunset Cliffs
In a super-remote part of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a mini grotto of twisty, windy, horizontally-growing trees painted in a psychedelic pattern. We’re going to remain a little mysterious on this one and not give exact directions, as we’re not sure it’s legal to be there. But if you’re the type of person who could find something illegal to do in a hidden hillside, you just might be the type with connections to find it.
A Victorian village
On the outskirts of the touristy margarita madness of Old Town lies a cul de sac of historic homes dating back to the late 19th century, known as Heritage Park Victorian Village. All houses were moved to the site from their original locations and restored to preserve their classic Victorian architecture. One now houses a tea room and another boasts a Victorian porcelain doll emporium.
A jail cell at The Headquarters at Seaport
With tenants like Puesto and Pizzeria Mozza, it’s easy to forget that this shopping plaza used to be a jail, courtrooms, law library, and indoor shooting range. Inside the belly of this Spanish-Colonial-Mediterranean-Pueblo-Deco-Revival complex, a few cells (circa 1939) have been preserved. You can put yourself behind bars if you follow the hallway at the opening between Kitson Boutique and Madison Leather. Don’t miss the vintage mug shots, like that of the woman who was arrested for being a “tramp” and a “weedhead.”
A solar clock on the Silver Strand
On the Silver Strand pedestrian pathway in Coronado, between the Naval Amphibious Base and Fiddler’s Cove Marina, you may have unwittingly passed the Solar Clock, a circle of benches that can tell time. Glen Schmidt and his team at Schmidt Design Group created this bench. Openings and bands line up to where the sun sets on the winter and summer solstices. Schmidt recommends viewing on the winter Solstice (December 21), when “the sun sets on the horizon in clear view, usually with a cloudless sky. A number of locals meet there every year to share wine and cheese and toast this special day.” Park in the Fiddler’s Cove Marina lot and walk about 700 feet north on the pathway. It’s the first rest point. Bonus: Schmidt Design Group also created a Solar Clock in Mira Mesa’s Camino Ruiz Park.
Private dining in a bank vault
Hosts who want to surprise their dinner guests would be wise to know: The building of the Courtyard by Marriott San Diego Downtown was once a bank and has a safe deposit vault you can rent out for private dinners. 530 Broadway, downtown
Coffee kiosk in a home shop
Like a permanent pop-up café, a tiny counter serving locally roasted James Coffee Co. sits inside Little Italy’s VI Star boutique. Former Angels & Airwaves guitarist David Kennedy started the business from his garage in Poway, and it’s becoming one of the city’s most popular artisanal offerings. 2355 India Street
A private pied-a-terre
The first thing that’s special about the iconic Westgate Hotel is that it is owned by a family, not a corporation. The second is that the Holding family keeps a two-story private residence at the top of this downtown hotel. It’s two bedrooms and three baths, with a Roman marble tub in the master suite. A winding staircase leads to an upper level featuring a private library and walk-in safe. The penthouse suite is also appointed with antique Persian rugs and an impressive art collection.
Space Invaders on public buildings
Remember the 2010 art project by French street artist Invader? As part of a MCASD art show, he created a network of 21 ceramic tile mosaics on various buildings. Space Invaders was due to come down in 2011, but the works still remain (sans the one recently stolen off Little Italy’s Blick Art Supply Store). Next time you’re downtown, remember to look overhead (one is on C Street and Sixth Avenue). Click here for a map of the tiles.
A never-ending staircase
Gaslamp’s new Florent restaurant and mega-lounge, formerly Jimmy Love’s, was also formerly a city hall, jail, bank, and more, dating back to 1874. When tearing down the walls to redo the women’s bathroom, design guru Michael Soriano’s team discovered a thick metal door that had been covered up by former tenants.
A welder opened it to find a secret three-by-four-foot room with a staircase leading to the top floor. They filled it with chandeliers, chalices, and other goodies, but also refractive mirrors so that the staircase appears to go on forever. Says Soriano: “Men won’t be able to go in there, since it’s in the women’s restroom.” 672 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter
The skull-tastic speakeasy
Okay, so it was publicized in Esquire, but Noble Experiment is the one downtown speakeasy we think is still hard to find and worth the effort. Once you make reservations (text 619-888-4713), go inside the restaurant Neighborhood at the appointed time. In the vestibule for the bathrooms, push on the wall with the kegs. You’ll be exposed to a tiny breathtaking space as intriguing as the craft cocktails. Plus: There are skulls on the walls. Chic! 777 G Street, East Village
A cave with a guest book
You didn’t hear it from us, but there’s a small cave tucked away in the hills of Torrey Pines, with just enough room for one person. It must be said that it’s somewhat dangerous to get there and probably illegal. Visitors must enter from the Torrey Pines Gliderport parking lot, walk a bit, drop over a west-facing edge, and then hike north. It’s tough-going, but if you make it, you can sign the guest book.
High-brow architecture in the boonies
It’s been touted as one of San Diego’s most architecturally significant homes, and every Father’s Day, the famed Hubbell house reopens for a public tour. Originally conceived and built by local artist James Hubbell in 1958, the compound known as Ilan-Lael (or “the Place”) features sloped roofs, stained glass, patterned brickwork, and concrete poured into handmade artistic forms—all designed to blend with nature and the surrounding landscape. It spans 40 acres near Santa Ysabel, and still serves as the home and art studio of James Hubbell, now 82, and his wife, Anne.
ANOTHER Hubbell miracle is the Crestridge Kiosk and Field Station. To get to Crestridge Ecological Reserve, take I-8 East to El Cajon and exit on Greenfield Drive, then turn left on La Cresta Road. Follow it as it turns into Mountain View Road, then turn left onto Horsemill Road, which ends at the reserve’s visitor center. ilanlaelfoundation.org