Escape It All at These Stunning and Serene San Diego Spots

May 2, 2023

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Story by: Mary Beth Abate
Photo by: Tyler Curtis

San Diego is known as America’s Finest City for good reason, but just because we live in paradise doesn’t mean that life here is always amazing. Between a lingering global pandemic, the increasing threat of climate change, the continued erosion of human rights for women, LGBTQ+ people, and POC across the nation, and all the other stresses that go along with normal adulting, even the most optimistic of us can feel a little downcast now and then. Sometimes you just need to carve out a little peace and restoration, whether it’s lounging on a relaxing beach, exploring a stunning museum, enjoying a delicious picnic in the park, or skipping town for the weekend.

We’ve rounded up 15 of the best places you can go for the perfect antidote to life’s worries, from a serene butterfly garden and an immersive new art museum to high-flying yoga and a quartet of scenic, stress-busting hikes that range from easy to challenging. Best of all, nearly all of them are free! So turn off your phone for a couple of hours, grab some sunscreen, and check out our list of secret and not-so-secret spots to reclaim your zen.

WNDR Museum


The brand new WNDR Museum invites guests to fully engage with local and international artists, collectives, technologists, designers and makers in an immersive art and technology experience. Dance across the Lightfloor, which reacts to the visitors’ every move and touch, step into Inside Out by Leigh Sachwitz and flora&faunavisions, a mesmerizing, translucent garden house where you’ll weather a digitized storm, or encounter nearly 20 other hypnotic exhibits.

The Inn at Sunset Cliffs

Ocean Beach

Grab your sunglasses and head out for a mini vacay at The Inn at Sunset Cliffs, where a day pass admits you and up to three friends to their pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean. You can bring your own food and beverages, including alcohol, use the grill, and lounge by the fire pit from 10 am to 10 pm, all for just $10 per person. Call The Inn at least a day ahead of time to reserve a spot.

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle


Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle created this whimsical sculpture garden as an homage to the history and culture of California. Named for the fictional Califia, the enclosed garden is in the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Escondido’s Kit Carson Park. The garden’s circular wall features vivid, undulating mosaic serpents, opening into a maze shingled in black, white, and mirrored tiles. In the central courtyard, the mosaic sculpture of Queen Califia standing on the back of a five-legged eagle takes center stage, surrounded by eight totemic sculptures emblazoned with Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Mexican symbols and the artist’s own interpretations. Queen Califa’s Magical Circle is the last major international project created by Saint Phalle and is her only sculpture garden in the United States. It was opened posthumously in 2003. The garden is free to visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 am to noon and the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from 9 am to 2 pm. The exhibit is not open when it is raining or if it has rained within the last 24 to 48 hours, so plan accordingly.

Bayside Trail

Point Loma

The Bayside Trail leads to San Diego’s urban national park, the Cabrillo National Monument, providing stunning, 360-degree views of the skyline and water; wide, gently sloping trails; and an array of accessibility options that make it easier for everyone to enjoy. The 2.4-mile, out-and-back route does have a couple of steeper spots to negotiate, but numerous benches along the way ensure plenty of prime viewing and opportunities to commune with nature. Once you’ve returned to the top, head down to the Point Loma Tidepools and Bluffs Trail for an additional easy, one-mile hike downhill to the famous tidepools.

Hidden Gems in San Diego to Restore Your Zen© Flickr/cultivar413

Dave’s Rock Garden


Once a weed and garbage-filled vacant lot, Dave’s Rock Garden is an eight-year labor of love. Dave Dean began clearing the trash from the state-owned lot near his Encinitas home, eventually adding drought-resistant plants like cactus and bromeliad and carving walking paths through the property, which he lined with smooth stones. The idea to create a rock garden was inspired by an Arizona artist, Candace Jesse Jessup, who was visiting and, as a thank-you gift to Dave for his hard work, painted a mandala on one of the rocks she found there. Dave began painting rocks in brilliant colors and invited neighbors and visitors to paint them too. The garden is now home to more than 7000 beautiful rocks, painted by locals and travelers from all over the world, inviting the public to wander, read uplifting messages, meditate while sitting on the stump seats or near the small shrine, and even paint their own rock at the art station, where Dave provides the necessary supplies. The garden has no website but can be found at 200 B Street in Encinitas.

Zoro Garden

Balboa Park

Nestled between the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the Casa de Balboa in Balboa Park is Zoro Garden, named after Zoroaster, founder of one of the oldest organized faiths, Zoroastrianism. The sunken grotto was originally built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915-16, and renovated in 1935 to host the California Pacific International Exposition, where it was home to a nudist colony of sorts. Sideshow promoters Nate Eagle and Stanley R. Graham charged the public 25 cents each to enter the garden and see paid actors in loincloths and body stockings pose, play sports, and engage in quasi-religious ceremonies. Today, Zoro Garden has been turned into a serene butterfly garden, where monarchs, swallowtails, and sulfur butterflies sip water from tiny pools in the rocks. Lush plantings include food sources like milkweed, passion fruit vines, and California lilac for butterfly larvae, while verbena, butterfly bush, lantana, and the like provide nectar for adult butterflies.

Aerial yoga at Trilogy Sanctuary

La Jolla

Yoga is a great antidote to a nerve-wracking day—deep breathing, stretching, and the all-important savasana can bust you out of a bad mood in no time. Whether it’s your first class or you’re a lifelong yogi, you’ll soar to new heights with Trilogy Sanctuary’s rooftop aerial yoga class. Using long, hammock-like loops of fabric, you’ll hang, swing, dangle, and rock your way through a series of asanas guided by a certified aerial yoga instructor. From floating and gentle stretching to strength-building and dynamic dance-like classes, aerial yoga is accessible to nearly all ages, body types, and experience levels. If it’s your first try, sign up for Aerial Yoga L1 and Aerial Healing L1 to learn the ropes, while more advanced aerial practitioners will enjoy Aerial Fitness, Aerial Lyra, Aerial Strength, and Aerial Flips and Tricks. Bonus: the studio also has a cafe that serves amazing organic, vegan, gluten-free smoothies, bowls, salads, entrees, and desserts so you can refuel after your session.

Hidden Gems in San Diego to Restore Your Zen© Carl DeAbreu Photography/Shutterstock

El Campo Santo Cemetery

Old Town

Cemeteries are surprisingly popular destinations for people who seek solace and comfort. After all, they’re quiet, and no one’s going to bother you. El Campo Santo Cemetery, founded in 1849, is San Diego’s oldest. Now part of the Old Town San Diego Historic Park, it was in active use until 1880. Although only 477 of the original graves are still visible, the site provides visitors a glimpse into San Diego’s historic past. Unfortunately, as San Diego boomed, parts of the cemetery were unceremoniously paved over, beginning in 1889 with a streetcar track. More than 20 men, women, and children are interred under San Diego Avenue today. If you look down on the sidewalk and road just outside the cemetery gates, you’ll be able to see small brass circles marking the grave sites that were rediscovered in 1993 via ground-penetrating radar.

Hidden Gems in San Diego to Restore Your Zen© SunflowerMomma/Shutterstock

La Jolla Sea Caves

La Jolla

Thousands of years of pounding surf and storms along La Jolla’s coastline have created La Jolla Caves, a series of seven sea caverns nestled between La Jolla Shores Beach and La Jolla Cove. Only one, Sunny Jim Sea Cave, is accessible by land via The Cave Store, a tunnel, and a 145-step descent down a wooden staircase. If you want to see all seven, your best bet is to rent or bring your own kayak and explore them from the sea. Two caves, Clam Cave and Arches Cave, are large enough to enter by kayak, but you must be with an approved kayak tour. You can swim into them all though, or just relax and enjoy the wildlife—you might see leopard sharks or garibaldi swimming by or sea lions lazing on the rocks.

Murals of La Jolla

La Jolla

A collaboration between Athenaeum Music and Arts Library and The La Jolla Community Foundation that began in 2010, the Murals of La Jolla is a public art exhibit that currently features fourteen murals scattered throughout the city within easy walking distance of each other, so you can view all the artworks without trudging for miles. Free guided tours are available monthly, but it’s also fun to strike out on your own with a self-guided tour. Forty-two murals have been commissioned over the years, and past exhibits can be viewed online.

Sharp Coronado Labyrinth


Labyrinths are winding paths, most often designed in a circular pattern, that begin at an outside entry point and end in the center of the design. They have been used as a meditative tool across cultures and religions for centuries. Using a labyrinth is easy. Just walk slowly, focus on the pathway, and let your mind wander. In time, you’ll feel more relaxed and calm as your right brain releases feelings of serenity and creativity. The labyrinth at Sharp Medical Center in Coronado is a brick replica of the world-famous 11-circuit Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth and is open to the public at any time. Find its exact location with the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator, as well as several other San Diego-area labyrinths to explore.

Hidden Gems in San Diego to Restore Your Zen© Kevin Key/Shutterstock

Stonewall Peak Trail


Stonewall Peak Trail in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park feels like a backcountry hike, sans the two-hour drive. Spectacular vistas and ever-changing vegetation along its 3.4-mile out-and-back course provide plenty of opportunities to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, rose mallow and wild sage. Hikers of almost any skill level can hit the summit for spectacular, 360-degree views of Lake Cuyamaca and the Cuyamaca Mountains, thanks to plenty of shade and a series of gentle switchbacks up a mere 830-foot elevation gain. Afterwards, you’re just a quick ten-mile drive into Julian for a guilt-free slice of their famous apple pie to keep you in your happy place.

Palm Canyon

Balboa Park

Palm Canyon is a well-hidden, two-acre garden with a winding path that descends into a cool, refreshing ravine with thickets of towering palms, including a grove of Mexican fan palms dating back to 1912. It was established by botanist, horticulturist, and landscape architect Kate Sessions, who has her own beautiful park in Pacific Beach. More than 450 palm trees and dozens of massive deciduous trees with beautiful spreading roots and thick, sturdy branches form a lush, shady canopy that’s soothing and serene. There’s also a charming wooden footbridge that runs from the Alcazar Gardens parking lot to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion across the street. The trail can be accessed just behind the Mingei International Museum.

Hidden Gems in San Diego to Restore Your Zen© Jimmy W/Shutterstock

Three Sisters Falls Trails


Three Sisters Falls isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s a beautiful spot to relax and unwind. The challenging out-and-back hike begins with a two-mile, 980-feet descent that includes some bouldering, climbing, and traversing before you reach the sparkling falls and pools. The polished rock walls and boulders can be slippery, so climb up to the top falls or scramble on the boulders and rock faces either before you go for a swim or after you dry off. Bring more water than you think you’ll need and plenty of snacks, as there’s no shade for most of the way. Fuel up after you take a dip, and save some of your supplies for the return trip, which is two miles uphill, remember?

Crab Carillon Bridge

Sherman Heights/Golden Hill

Crab Carillon Bridge is a metallophone (a series of metal bars or tubes that plays a tune when struck in sequence), that spans the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway between Golden Hill and Sherman Heights. It was created by artist Roman de Salvo and musician Joseph Waters in 2003. Consisting of 488 tuned chimes attached to the bridge railing, the melody is a palindrome—it sounds the same from either direction. Take a metal object with you though, using your hand or a stick doesn’t really work. This is what it sounds like when played by the composer.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer.


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