OCEANSIDE, CALIFORNIA – Visitors to this southern California seaside town will still find remnants of the days when it was best known as a place for soldiers stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton to blow off steam. There are old-style movie theatres and diners, and a number of small barber shops proudly flying the Stars and Stripes and offering haircuts for as little as $11.
The Changing Face of Oceanside, CA
But things have begun to change in Oceanside. A new Wyndham hotel appeared a few years ago by the water. SpringHill Suites by Marriott followed. And then came the Mission Pacific and the Seabird, two sparkling, boutique hotels with rooftop bars that sprung up in former parking lots overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Goodbye, greasy bacon and eggs, hello avocado toast.
“Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to come downtown,” says Kim Heim of the Oceanside Business Association. “There would be military guys in the bars and fights spilling out in the streets.” (I did a little research on the history of the town and read that there used to be billboards along the highway advising folks to “Tan Your Hide in Oceanside.”)
Oceanside Street Market
Heim decided a street market might bring in folks who’d been hesitant to venture downtown. There were some early clashes, “but eventually the interests of the many outweighed the interests of the few,” he said.
“All of a sudden, it was ‘boom!’ The public adopted the market. And now we get 400,000 people a year.”
During the day, you’ll find vendors selling t-shirts, candles, and California-themed gear. At night, the vendors are supplemented by roughly 100 food trucks, offering everything from Greek food to genuine Thai and thick, rich cream puffs.
Kim shuffles off and comes back with a large plate of southern Thailand-style Pad Thai, which has a hint of coconut and is utterly fabulous.
A Food Lover’s Dream
“I wanted food to be the real focus,” Heim says. “And I wanted it to be authentic. The empanada truck is run by a fellow from Venezuela. The Pad Thai truck is run by a family from Thailand.”
The market was flooded with people from all walks of life on the night we visited. People noshed on ribs, North African-style chicken, and Hong Kong noodles as they walked along the market’s four city blocks, which are closed off to cars. On the edge of the market, a woman of a certain age was sitting alone singing show tunes your grandmother would know. In the middle of the action, a large band was playing the ska tune “Monkey Man.”
“I don’t think this market would work in Del Mar or La Jolla,” both posh suburbs of San Diego. But it works in Oceanside, attracting diverse people from both San Diego County and nearby Orange County.
“People like to rub elbows with other people in an authentic setting,” Heim tells me. “Here you’ll find people who can’t rub two nickels together mingling with millionaires. And you can’t tell them apart.”
The Sunset Market is a terrific spot to mingle with locals, and save on a nice meal. See what’s on at the Sunset Market here.
Flashy Hotels and Rooftop Pools
The most grabby new arrivals are Mission Pacific and Seabird Resort, both flashy hotels with rooftop pools and bars, plenty of colourful local art, and a distinctly youthful feel.
The Mission Pacific has a very nice top floor bar with craft cocktails and fine views of the city and the beach, including Oceanside’s 1,942-foot-long (592 meter) pier, said to be the longest wooden pier on the west coast of the U.S. There’s also a lovely pool.
Seabird Resort is a bit more family-oriented and shows “dive-in” movies at the rooftop pool. You’ll also find a fun games room with pool tables and vivid, primary colours.
“The hotels were game changers for Oceanside,” said Mission Pacific Marketing Manager Alison Norwood. “This was the largest beachfront development in San Diego County in the last 50 years.”
Things to do in Oceanside, California
Top Gun House
Resting on the front side of the Mission Pacific is a fine Victorian home that was moved here from another part of town. It was the beach house featured in the original Top Gun movie. The house now offers a place selling ice cream pies and displays memorabilia from the movie.
Oceanside Coastal Trail
If you need to work off one of the ice-cream pies, try renting a bike and taking a ride along the city’s paved coastal trail. This coastal trail is an easy cycling path that runs 4.7 miles along the waterfront. The plan is to expand it to 44 miles to run between Oceanside and San Diego.
Kayaking and Sea Lions
Another great way to work up a sweat is a kayak ride in the tidy Oceanside harbor, where you’ll find everything from humble houseboats to gleaming yachts. The harbor also is home to massive sea lions, who sometimes rest on a raft that was built for them but seem to prefer lounging on the back section of whatever boat tickles their fancy. Take a minute to admire some of the clever boat names as you glide along, including Deep Devocean, Liquid Liability, and Kelpless, which perhaps belongs to a Neil Young fan.
Kayaking: Boats for Rent offers up kayaks for $30 for an hour or $40 for two hours. They also have stand-up paddleboards, electric boats and other rentals. There’s a nice village at the harbor, with a waterfront restaurant, small shops and a coffee place.
Mission San Luis Rey
Tucked up in the hills you’ll find Mission San Luis Rey, the largest of the 21 missions built by Spanish explorers who were trying to convert local Indians to Christianity (and take their land). It’s a beautiful, white structure with soaring arches and a pretty chapel. There’s also a nice museum that tells the story of the Spanish missions, as well as the indigenous people who have lived here for thousands of years.
Mission San Luis Rey is a great spot for anyone interested in California history. Visit Mission San Luis Rey to help plan your visit.
The Oceanside Pier is a fine place to take in the sunset or watch surfers in action. This popular landmark is one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast extending 1,942 feet into the Pacific. Take a stroll along this historic landmark that dates back to 1888. It is always buzzing with activity and there are several restaurants and cafes nearby with other amenities including restrooms and fishing gear rentals.
Oceanside Pier has been featured in many Hollywood films and TV shows including Top Gun. See what’s happening at Oceanside Pier.
Oceanside Museum of Art
Back downtown is the fine Oceanside Museum of Art. When we visited we found a wide array of paintings including wild pop art, sunny landscapes, wavy, metallic sculptures, and work by local Black artists. The Oceanside Museum of Art is a bright, compact spot for art lovers. Visit their website for current events and exhibitions
Oceanside Surf Museum
A short walk away is the Oceanside Surf Museum, which displays a monstrous, heavy wood board used by Duke Kahanamoku and the board that legendary surfer Bethany Hamilton was riding in Hawaii when she was attacked by a shark and lost her arm. The store also sells surf books, coffee mugs, and vintage Hawaiian shirts.
The California Surf Museum is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys surfing, or watching surfers in action. Visit their website for more details.
How to Get to Oceanside, CA
One of the big advantages to Oceanside is that it’s located on a train line that connects San Diego with Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The train station is a couple blocks from the beach and a five-minute walk from the main downtown hotels. A ride from San Diego costs only about $20 USD and takes just an hour. The train also stops in the booming beach town of Carlsbad, which has a fine downtown and a lovely beach.
Where to Stay in Oceanside
The Mission Pacific is a gorgeous boutique property across the street from the beach that’s part of the JDV by Hyatt collection. Most rooms have at least a partial ocean view. The rooftop bar serves up luscious cocktails in a sexy setting. Their Hi-Low restaurant serves up fresh California fare and has a nice outdoor terrace, while Valle features cuisine by award-winning Chef Robert Alcocer. For the rooftop bar, try the Moonlight cocktail with gin, strawberry and hibiscus tea.
Next door, The Seabird Resort, a Destination by Hyatt property, is a little more youthful and flashy, but just as well done. There’s also a lovely spa, and a small kiosk selling Top Gun paraphernalia. Both hotels have tons of local art that’s curated by the Oceanside Museum of Art.
Where to Eat in Oceanside
Craft Coast Tacos and Beer serves up nice, local beers and good tacos. The guacamole could use a boost of spice.
Beach Break Cafe is a great, surf and skateboard-themed breakfast spot in south Oceanside. The avocado omelette appeared to have half an avocado stuffed inside, and the eggs came with a small mountain of potatoes.
The Lab Collaborative serves up everything from burgers and pasta to jerk pork and steak salad. The wine prices were quite reasonable when we visited.
For more information on visiting Oceanside, California check out VisitOceanside.org