Nestled between Southern California’s sprawling Orange and San Diego Counties sits a sweet little stretch of beach that offers the intimacy and charm of a small surf town and the edginess of its nearby urban centers thanks to a recent flock of new bars and restaurants. The creative energy emanating from establishments like the très chic French bistro Jeune et Jolie and the fun and playful Park 101 have transformed this former sleepy coastal village into an undeniably hip outpost. Known to many for being the home of Legoland California, Carlsbad has long been an obvious go-to for many families traveling to and through California. But this suddenly cool coastal escape is definitely a worthwhile stop for beachgoers and foodies alike whether you have got the tots along or not.
What to do
There’s no denying that for families with small kids, the main draw will likely remain Legoland. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and no shame in it either. You cannot go wrong with a day (or more) spent at this wonderous, oversized playground that is perfect for toddlers and smaller kids. (Older kids are more likely to appreciate Legoland’s more raucous water park than the main theme park, which is high in kiddie content but not in thrilling coasters.)
Whether you ventured to Carlsbad for Legoland or not, you would be remiss if you didn’t carve out some time to spend outside the popular theme park. For surfers or those hoping to learn, there are several notable surfing spots along Carlsbad’s seven miles of coastline. One of the most popular is South Carlsbad State Beach, also known as Ponto or the Ponto jetties.
For those who want to get out on the water, minus the intimidating waves, the more mellow Agua Hedionda Lagoon is a series of three connected lagoons that flow out into the Pacific Ocean. Here, visitors can go boating, water-skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, wake boarding, windsurfing, and fishing. California Watersports (also known as Carlsbad Lagoon, which is the name of its website) offers ample rentals for going out on the water, and Floating Yogis offers SUP yoga out on the lagoon as well. Another fun water sports outpost is Lake San Marcos in the neighboring town of San Marcos. Book a boutique stay lakeside at the recently remodeled Lakehouse Hotel & Resort, or simply head to the hotel’s marina to rent SUPs, kayaks, or a pontoon boat.
Like any good small town, Carlsbad has a quirky spread of arts and culture attractions. From the colorful Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, which are open to the public in March through May, to the Museum of Making Music, if you’re looking for more to do beyond the beach, the local events scene will oblige. A lovely, often-overlooked landmark is the Leo Carrillo Ranch, a sprawling retreat built by the late actor in the 1970s, featuring lush landscapes and an utterly charming historic hacienda and ranch complex that is worth a couple hours of rambling.
Where to stay
Whether you want a beachfront property, something close to Legoland, or a more secluded spa retreat, there are several options in Carlsbad.
Beach Terrace Inn is Carlsbad’s only oceanfront hotel with direct access right onto the sand and rooms with Pacific Ocean views. The boutique lodge dates back to the 1960s when it was an apartment complex, but now boasts stylish updates and sleek, modern rooms. Not only is the beachfront location clutch, but it’s a short walk to the heart of Carlsbad village.
If a swanky spa and resort to get away from it all is more your speed, the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa a bit further inland might be your best bet. The classic Spanish mission–style property is nestled into the Carlsbad hills with 600 guest rooms, suites, and villas, and eight (yes, eight) pools, including an adults-only pool and pools with waterslides and splash features for kiddos.
For those looking to do the Legoland thing, or even for those who aren’t, the newly opened Westin Carlsbad Resort & Spa is conveniently located within walking distance to the theme park and shares a private entrance to the park with a small group of surrounding hotels. The Westin offers a chic respite from the high energy of the park, a place to properly reset. An added bonus is that guests also have access to the neighboring Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa, which has a more family-friendly pool with a waterslide and a kids’ playroom loaded with games like oversized Connect Four and cornhole. Hit up Sheraton’s newly opened 7 Mile Kitchen for a stylish poolside brunch or grab some wood-fired pizzas to take back to your room.
Where to eat
Carlsbad’s culinary offerings are where the city has really come into its own of late, most notably with the recently opened hipper-than-thou French bistro Jeune et Jolie. The restaurant is worth a reservation as much for its spot-on styling as for its French-influenced brunch and dinner fare. Brunch staples include classics such as croque madame and beignets, and dinners feature grenouille (aka frog legs), rabbit sausage, scallops with abalone mushrooms, and wagyu beef with sweetbreads and mirepoix.
For something equally elevated but with a more communal food hall–feel, head to Jeune et Jolie’s sister restaurant Campfire, which arguably kicked off Carlsbad’s burgeoning food scene when it opened a few years ago. Let the kitchen decide for you by ordering the “camp feast,” a $65-per-person commitment that requires the entire table to participate (available until 9 p.m. each night, for a maximum of six guests per party).
Want an actual food hall experience? Windmill Food Hall is a new collective of eateries inside of a windmill-decked building, complete with funky lounge-style communal seating. Vendors include a poke stand, a french fry outfit, a lobster purveyor, ample Asian cuisine, and coffee and sweets stands. There are games here, too.
If something more playful is what you seek, Park 101 is an indoor-outdoor, kid- and dog-friendly pub that serves up finger-lickin’-good barbecue fare, refreshing cocktails, and a wide range of craft beers, many of which are from San Diego County. The casual, two-story complex also serves sweets, kombucha, tea, and coffee from its Deli & Dough counter, has parlor games, and hosts a fun roster of weekly events, such as trivia nights, Spritz Bar Sundays, and Moms Who Mimosa on Tuesdays.
And for a quick yet supremely satisfying breakfast sandwich in a stylish setting, you can’t go wrong with Crackheads.
Not to be outdone by its well-known neighbors to the north and south, iconic destinations like San Diego and Laguna Beach, Carlsbad is no longer just one to watch. This former drive-through town has officially become a worthy, longer stop.
Hotels we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you reserve through our links, which helps support our independent publication.
>> Next: The Complete Guide to San Diego