Why Oceanside Is a Great Coastal Retreat a Quick Train Ride From L.A.

South of L.A., north of San Diego, right by Legoland, and on the Amtrak line—Oceanside is perfectly positioned for a weekend getaway on the coast.

Why Oceanside Is a Great Coastal Retreat a Quick Train Ride From L.A.

The Seabird’s pool terrace commands the best views of Oceanside’s beachfront.

Courtesy of the Seabird

Southern California has 846 coastal towns and cities, or thereabouts. So why make Oceanside your oceanside retreat among such choices? To start: It’s got soul. Character with a capital C. You will get into a conversation with someone on the pier. You’ll also find unusual independent businesses amid the usual third-wave coffee shops and upscale dining.

One downtown street alone is home to Steel Mill coffee, a bustling joint owned by Tony Hawk’s son Riley, with a huge motorbike above the door and punk rock blaring; tasting room Coomber Craft Wine; a surfing academy; and a self-defense school. Around the center is also a surf museum, a tattoo museum, and an axe-throwing place.

Oceanside’s undergone a huge transformation in recent years, with newer hotels, craft breweries, and artists’ spaces popping up—often in preserved historic buildings. So even if you’ve stopped by here in the past, it might not look quite the same. Perhaps the best part: You don’t have to face L.A. traffic to get here; it’s less than two hours by train.

open-uri20210729-49-kepvbz

Fans of ’80s films featuring Tom Cruise might recognize the small house in front of Mission Pacific.

Courtesy of Mission Pacific

Where to stay in Oceanside

Exhibits A and B in the Oceanside metamorphosis: the Seabird and Mission Pacific, two brand-new hotels that sit right by the pier, beach, and walkable downtown.

Mission Pacific is 161 rooms of laid-back yet luxurious seaside comfort—think L’Auberge del Mar or Shutters with some more modern touches—that encompasses a rooftop pool and bar, delicious breakfast spot (High/Low), and access to the beach. Outside sits the famous Top Gun house, which has been moved from its original location and will be opening as Charlie’s at the Top Gun House dessert lounge in November—although the room service desserts at Mission Pacific are excellent, too. Try the lime pie or peach pannacotta.

Book now: from $293/night, expedia.com

Seabird next door is home to 226 rooms, many with balconies overlooking the ocean, a similar beachy decor, a big family-friendly pool, and more local art. Check out the striking half-bleached coral sculpture behind the reception desk, and look for little bird feet on the floor and other avian touches throughout.

Book now: from $293/night, expedia.com

What we like most about both hotels, which opened spring 2021, is their dedication to working with the local community. Each showcases art from the Oceanside Museum of Art, focusing on works from 123 Southern Californian artists stretching south from L.A. to the border, and dresses staff in their choice of apparel and accessories from O’side-based Brixton. Locally brewed IPAs and nearby distillers fill the drink menu for “après-surf” sessions at the rooftop bar.

Starting this fall, the Brick Hotel, a boutique spot set to open in September, will be a smaller but no less charming option with 10 guest rooms, a restaurant, and that all-important rooftop bar.

open-uri20210730-49-1f4x44k

Hit Carte Blanche for Mexican food but save room for Parlor Doughnuts next door.

Courtesy of Visit Oceanside

Where to eat in Oceanside

In the center of town, Carte Blanche is a chilled-out spot with indoor/outdoor dining offering French-inspired Mexican food. Think octopus with chorizo potato hash, duck mole tacos, or lamb birria pappardelle. Save room for a trip to Parlor Doughnuts next door.

In the mood for pizza? Blade 1936, which opened in an art deco building that used to house the offices of the city’s newspaper, The Blade-Tribune, serves them wood fired and loaded with toppings. It’s one of only two restaurants in San Diego County to have an AVPN certification for authentic pizza Napoletana. For Michelin star seekers, it’ll be Balinese-inspired Dija Mara for you.

open-uri20210813-48-1x336nk

Oceanside’s public spaces are splashed with colorful art.

Courtesy of Visit Oceanside

Things to do in Oceanside

Oceanside is a great place to learn to surf. Long, often gentle breaks peel off from the pier, and the harbor north of town is home to some really forgiving waves—as well as professional surfer Duran Barr’s North County Surf Academy. His lessons will get newbies standing up, and his stories of surfing worldwide are worth the price of admission alone. He’s an Oceanside native and offers tuition via the Seabird and Mission Pacific. The surf museum downtown, meanwhile, delves into the history of the sport, and of Boogie Boards, amid a range of artefacts including a shark-bitten board owned by Bethany Hamilton, a pro surfer who lost an arm to a shark attack.

Areas around the Oceanside pier are being transformed, with updated landscaping, restrooms, and a beachside amphitheater. This is the place for your standard beach-basking, bicycle hire, fishing, and other summer fun. But you might find it more interesting to explore the colorful murals and independent businesses inland (just walk away from the pier and under the train tracks to get started). Head to South Oceanside, meanwhile, and you’ll find vintage shopping, a bowling alley, and birding opportunities at Buena Vista Lagoon.

Families can combine a weekend at O’side with a day or two at Legoland, 10 minutes south in Carlsbad. It just opened a big Lego Movie World area. Disneyland is about an hour north, too.

The best way to reach Oceanside from Los Angeles

Oceanside is about a 90-minutes drive from L.A. The first half is all city freeways before the road finds the coast at Dana Point and San Clemente for a more picturesque drive south. From San Diego, it’s only about 40 minutes north.

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner stops right in the middle of town, making a weekend getaway on the tracks appealing—it could be a lot quicker and more fun than sitting in traffic on the I-5.

>> Next: The Best Weekend Getaways From L.A. for a Mini Road Trip

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
More From AFAR