I often get asked where’s a good place to photograph in San Diego. Usually the question is from someone visiting but even locals will occasionally ask me for ideas. San Diego is a large city and it’s hard to know all of the areas even if you’ve lived here your entire life. I’ve been photographing multiple times a week for years and I’m still discovering new spots.
Instead of just giving a random list of top landmarks, I’m going to organize my suggestions by neighborhood and provide some commentary on what types of photography that might be fruitful in that area.
Best for seascapes, portraits, landscapes, wildlife, architecture
La Jolla is a gem and I don’t think there’s any place quite like it in the world. For the nature photographer there’s incredible coastlines and wildlife; portrait photographers flock to the beaches for engagement photos, sports photographers are tracking the surfers, and architectural photographers can find historic landmarks and unique multi-million dollar homes.
La Jolla Cove to Potholes – This is about a 1 mile stretch along the coast that’s right beside the tourist shops and stores. At the north end is La Jolla Cove and the south is a local landmark affectionately known as Potholes (just south of Cuvier Park). This is a great place to walk and explore. The coastline itself is a mix of sandstone rock formations and beaches and is great for seascape photography. There is an abundance of wildlife including seals and sea lions which breed and birth pups (especially in the protected Children’s Pool). For bird photographers, there are many cormorants which nest here and pelicans.
Left: La Jolla coastline just south of the Children’s Pool. Right: Broken Hill in Torrey Pines State Reserve.
Scripps Pier – This pier is an icon of San Diego and you may have already seen it in pictures. The pier is actively used by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography for research so you can’t access the top, however, the beach is public and you can go to the side or underneath to photograph it. There’s something about shooting the waves between the support pylons that people find mesmerizing. Twice a year, In May and August, the sunset aligns with opening at the end of pier (this event is sometimes called Scripps Henge).
Torrey Pines State Reserve and Beach – Torrey Pines is a state nature reserve which sits on a high plateau overlooking the beach. There are many miles of hiking trails that run through maritme chaparral with the occaisonal torrey pine tree (unfortunately many of these are dead or dying). I consider Torrey Pines to be a local treasure and the area is gorgeous at sunrise and sunset when the light skims across the terrain. Broken Hill is an especially wonderful spot and is just a short hike from the entrance. The beach is equally nice, but if you walk along it stay away from the cliffs due to rockfalls. If you are a birder, there are a few peregrine falcons that nest here.
Windansea Beach – This beach is a favorite of locals and it’s often used by wedding and portrait photographers who bring their clients here. I like it for the large rock formations which make for great seascapes. There is a thatched hut in the middle of beach which is considered sacred. Big Rock, a surfing spot with large waves is located at the south end of the beach.
Left: Looking down the center of Scripps Pier. Right: La Jolla Potholes.
Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial – This memorial is one of the most prominant landmarks in the city and it’s the highest point (823’) until you go inland for many miles. There are great views in all directions.
Salk Institute – The Salk Institute was designed by architect Louis Kahn. The main courtyard contains the River of Life, a manmade stream that runs due west toward the ocean. During the spring and fall equinoxes it aligns perfectly with the sunset and glows like gold.
UC San Diego – Lots of opportunities here to photograph modern architecture, including the Brutalist Geisel Library, Vices and Virtues building, and the Fallen Star home.
San Diego California Temple This Mormon temple is a beautiful building that looks like a white castle with twin spires. Entrance is restricted to church members but visitor are able to tour the grounds.
Left: Windansea beach after winter storms have washed away some of the sand. Right: Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial.
Best for seascapes, portraits
This is one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Diego. The coast along Sunset Cliffs Blvd from Adair St to a bit further south past Ladera St is incredible. There are gorgeous cliffs, beaches, tidepools, caves and other rock formations like sea stacks and arches. In the spring, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park (located just south of Ladera st) fills with blooming wildflowers.
There are lots of photographic opportunites from the cliff tops, but some of the best scenes are only accessible if you make your way down to the waterline. However, except for the stairs at Ladera St, there are no official or safe paths down. You are left to scramble down a rocky pathway of dubious stability. Sometimes locals even put up ropes to make the trip easier although these are often removed so you can never be sure if the rope will be there the next time you visit. For this reason I don’t recommend going down to the water if you have any doubts about your physical capabilities.
Left: sea cave at Sunset Cliffs. Right: Low tide reveals eel grass and interesting rock formations.
Best for cityscapes, beach photography
Coronado is actually a separate city but it’s located on a penisula in the San Diego Bay and is just west of downtown. On the bay side there are some great views of the skyline and of the Coronado Bridge. I can reccomend the following spots:
- Coronado Ferry Landing & Centennial Park
- Tidelands Park (best view of the Coronado Bridge)
- Glorietta Bay (amazing for sunrises). This is one of the most protected spots in the bay so you can get incredible reflections of the sunrise off the water
On the ocean or west side of Coronado the main attractions are the historic Hotel Del and Coronado Beach. During the holiday season, the Del is decorated in lights and they put up a skating rink. Most years they have fireworks on the beach in early Decemeber.
Left: the skyline from Centennial Park. Right: The Hotel Del Coronado.
Sunrise at Glorietta Bay.
Best for architecture, portraits
Balboa park is the heart of the city and is home to incredible architecture and gardens. If you love the Spanish-Colonial style this is the place to be. I normally recommend just parking and walking through the park, most of the sites are along El Prado, which is the main throughfare. Here’s a short list of landmarks and places to photograph:
- California tower
- Cabrillo bridge
- Botanical building and lily pond
- Alcazar Garden
- Japanese Friendship Garden (entry fee required)
- Spreckles Organ Pavilion
- Spanish Village
I regularly see portrait photographers bringing their clients here and sometimes even with off camera flash and lightstands. The architecture makes a great backdrop for portraits. For professionals, I believe you do not need a permit except inside the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Left: Alcazar Garden which is modeled after the garden in Alcazar Castle, Seville Spain. Right: The Botanical Building and Lily Pond.
Best for urban & street photography
You might not envision skyscrappers when you think of San Diego, but we do have a nice urban core with many highrise buildings. Downtown is actually composed of several neighborhoods each with their own flavor, if you are visiting here are some spots to photograph:
- Seaport Village
- Gaslamp Quarter
- Horton Plaza
- Convention center (especially great during Comic-Con and even if you don’t have tickets there is much going on outside in the nearby streets)
- Santa Fe train depot
- USS Midway (CV-41) Aircraft Carrier (it’s now a museum which you can tour)
- rooftop bars and observation decks (most hotels)
- Embarcadero from Hilton San Diego Bayfront to the US coast guard buildings
- Embarcadero Marina Park North & South
From within downtown, the best opportunities are for urban scenes and street photography. You can get a nice skyline view from the north end of the Embarcadero (by the coast guard station). The marinas and the tuna harbor dock in Seaport Village let you get a somewhat wide view of the city but not quite a full skyline.
Finally, San Diego, like many large cities, has many people who are homeless and living on the streets. I suggest that you do not photograph them and I direct you to this article for reasons why you shouldn’t do so.
Left: Equinox sunrise at the Civic Center Plaza. Right: Night falls on Horton Plaza in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Best for cityscapes
Harbor Island is a great spot to get skyline view of the city and is popular for walking. But otherwise there is not much here other than a few hotels and restaurants. On Wednesdays in the summer, this is the best spot to view the beer can races (casual boat races) where the bay is filled with sailboats.
Best for seascapes, street & candid photography
Pacific beach has a bit of a reputation as a party town for college students. For photographers, the main draw here is Crystal Pier, the boardwalk, and the beach. The pier is actually private property but it is open to the public during daytime hours and of course you can photograph it from the beach. It is unique in that there are cottages on it that can be rented. The owners also put up a Christmas tree for the holiday season.
Best for seascapes, street & candid photography
Ocean Beach is a quirky little community and fun a place just to hang out. I’m not sure exactly what to compare it to but maybe Venice beach in LA or the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Photographically, the pier and beach area is the main draw (it is one of the longest piers in the United States at a length of 1971’). Starting at the base of the pier and running south are some tidepools and a coastal trail that are nice to explore.
If you are into street photography and people watching, come to OB on Wednesday night to see the fire spinners and drummers.
Left: Ocean Beach pier at sunset. Right: Tidepools located south of the pier just after sunset.
Old Town & Heritage Park
Best for cultural, architectural, and candid photography
Old town is a small neighborhood located at the south-east corner of where the I-8 and I-5 intersect. The main draw here is the Old Town Historic Park, which contains many buildings from the 1800s including a schoolhouse, blacksmith, courthouse, the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and many others.
In the fall, there is a very large celebration for Dia De Los Muertos. This includes a candlelit procession and many people dress to appear as Catrina with faces painted to represent calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls).
Adjcent to the old town historic park, is the Heritage County Park. Here you can find a number of famous and beautiful Victorian homes.
Left: the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Right: A demonstration at the blacksmith shop.
Best for urban photography
The centerpiece of Barrio Logan is Chicano Park which is located right underneath the ramps leading from the I-5 to the Coronado Bridge. While this doesn’t sound like a great location for a park, local artists have painted some incredible murals on the supporting pillars and it is a very unique urban park.
Chicano Park in Barrio Logan.
Best for skylines (and lighthouses)
Point Loma is a hilly penisula that closes off the west side of the San Diego Bay. Because of it’s position and elevation, there are great views of the city and downtown core. Some of the best spots for views are
- Shelter Island
- Lucinda St and nearby residential areas
- Fort Rosecrans Cemetery
The very tip of Point Loma houses Cabrillo National Monument and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. If you drive down Cabrillo Rd you can access tidepools (best at low or negative tide) and see the New Point Loma Lighthouse.
Finally, Liberty Station is a beautiful outdoor mall with a promenade. Although there are lot of standard retail shops, Liberty Station is also an arts district. Some photographers come here for engagement and family photos. There is a giant norfolk pine which is wonderfully decorated for Christmas.
Left: The skyline view from Lucinda St. which is often used on postcards. Right: The Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument.
The full moon rising over downtown San Diego. This view is from Fort Rosecrans cemetery and was taken just before sunset.
Best for scenic photography, bird photography
Mission Bay is a great place for a picnic or afternoon gathering with friends. But I don’t recommend swimming here as the water doesn’t have as much circulation with the ocean. Photographically you can get great shots of palms trees by the water. Some of the inner bays are very protected and yield wonderful reflections off the water. There are many spots, but some of the more popular ones include De Anza Cove and Leisure Lagoon. Fiesta Island is also good for bird photographers.
Sunset at De Anza cove in Mission Bay.
Best for scenic, aerial photography
Mount Helix is located in La Mesa. Like Mount Soledad, it’s a small park located on an elevated hill top (1370’) with great views of the surrounding area. At Mt Helix, you can see all the way to downtown and Point Loma. Looking northward you can see Cowles Mt.
The view at sunset from Mt Helix. In the distance is downtown San Diego and Point Loma.
San Diego County Fair – The San Diego county fair is held annually from the end May through the July 4th weekend. This is an incredible spot for candid and lifestyle photography. Also great if you want to photograph or eat fair food including anything you can think of deep frying. Outside and just west of the fairgrounds, on Camino del Mar you can get unobstructed views of the fun zone (where all the rides are located).
The fun-zone of the San Diego County Fair.
Carlsbad Flower Fields – The Carlsbad Flower Fields are located on the Carlsbad Ranch, a privately owned facility with 50 acres devoted to ranunculus blooms. There is also a giant american flag 300’x170’ made from red, white and blue petunias. They are open to the public from March 1st to Mother’s day.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park – This state park is located about two hours east of San Diego and it’s well worth a side-trip. There is so much to see here including dramatic badlands, endless fields of cacti, slot canyons, caves, palm oases, petroglyphs and pictographs. If you are lucky enough to visit during a spring superbloom, it is the most incredible sight with the entire land carpeted with flowers.
View of the Borrego Badlands from Fonts Point.
Borrego Springs – In the middle of Anza Borrego is the town of Borrego Springs where there are over a hundred giant metal sculptures placed in the desert by artist Ricardo Breceda. Some of my favorites include the serpent, dinosaurs, wild horses, wolly mammoth, saber-tooth tiger, and the giant scorpian fighting an equally large grasshopper.
Statues of wild horses in Borrego Springs.
University of San Diego – The University of San Diego is a private catholic university located in Linda Vista. In 2018, the Princeton review named it the most beautiful campus in the nation – I’m not sure that I would give it top billing but it is incredibly photogenic with buildings constructed in a Spanish-Renaissance style (Plateresque). Highlights include the Immaculata Church, and the Garden of the Sea.
Mission San Diego de Alcala – This is the oldest mission in California and was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769 (and rebuilt in the 1940s). There is a 46’ high Campanaro (bell wall) on the front and the mission is open to the public.
Mission Beach – I don’t think locals come to this neighborhood very often and the housing stock has been taken over by Airbnb rentals. That said, there are still a number of landmarks worth photographing including Belmont Park (with an old time wooden roller coast), the beach & boardwalk, and a very long jetty.
Mission Trails – Mission Trails is an 8000 acre regional park and is known for the 5-peak challenge: Cowles Mt (1592’), Pyles Peak (1379’), Kwaay Paay (1194’), South Fortuna (1094’), and North Fortuna (1291’). In addition there is Kumeyaay Lake, the Old Mission Dam and my favorite is the oak canyon trail which includes some small waterfalls.
Imperial Beach Pier – If you are in the south bay, drop by the Imperial Beach pier in Chula Vista. This is a wooden pier which is 1491’ in length and there’s a small plaza around the base.