Cardiff-by-the-Sea is a small beach area in North San Diego County. It is not only one of our favorite spots to visit the ocean, but it is also home to some of the best casual dining spots in all of San Diego. This is our overview of Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea was founded in 1911 by J. Frank Cullen. His wife was from Wales, so instead of giving the area a Spanish name, he named it after his wife’s native town in Wales. The by-the-Sea part was later added by a German musician. The full history can be found at the Cardiff 101 Main Street website.
Since 1986, Cardiff-by-the-Sea has been a part of the city of Encinitas which was created by combining Cardiff and other communities. About 12,000 people live in the community, most in the hilly area above the beach, including some neighborhoods running about a half mile east of the 5 freeway. Street have English names like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Stafford, Cambridge and Oxford.
The main commercial district is a block off the S. Coast Highway 101 between Chesterfield and Birmingham Dr. Because of logistics, the intersection with Chesterfield, the 101 and San Elijo Dr is one of the most congested in all of San Diego. This can be avoided by taking the Manchester exit of the 5 (if coming from the south) or the Birmingham exit (if coming from the north).
The heart of Cardiff-by-the-Sea is Seaside Market. This market opened in 1985 and is arguably the best grocery store in San Diego. It is most noted for its “Cardiff Crack,” a tri-tip sandwich. However, there is much more to Seaside, see our overview which focuses on its famed Cardiff Crack meat.
There are also many of our favorite places to eat located right by Seaside. This includes 3 top San Diego pizza places, East Coast Pizza, Best Pizza and Brew and Besta-Wan Pizza. They are all located within a block of each other, near Seaside.
Other places we have eaten at near the town center include Rimel’s Rotisserie (the original is in La Jolla) and Cicciotti’s Italian. These are just the places in the twon center near Seaside Market. Cardiff-by-the-Sea is also known for its seaside dining at the beachfronts restaurants along Highway 101. This area is informally known as “Restaurant Row.”
I have to admit that we are not frequent visitors to the establishments on Restaurant Row. These places seem more designed for tourists who want to enjoy oceanfront views. Because of the views, prices tend to be higher. Of course, there are also the many places we like in the center of town.
That being said we go to Las Olas Mexican restaurant, one of our favorite sit-down restaurants. Las Olas is on the east side of Highway 101, so it does not have the great ocean front views and is more modest. We have also had drinks at the Kraken and Tower 13, bars next to Las Olas.
The big oceanfront restaurants include The Chart House, opened in 1975, and the more recent Pacific Coast Grill. We used to eat at the Pacific Coast Grill when it was located down the road in Solana Beach. However, we have not eaten at the new location.
The owner of the Pacific Coast Grill is also a part owner of the acclaimed Belly Up music venue. The Beach House restaurant next-door closed down and the Pacific Coast Grill is expanding into a massive new restaurant/entertainment complex.
Of course, Cardiff-by-the-Sea is noted for its beachfront. The community runs about two miles along the Pacific Ocean and only goes about a mile inland to just past the 5 interstate. These are home to some of our favorite beaches in all of San Diego.
The beaches at Cardiff-by-the-Sea are pretty much all part of two State Parks, Cardiff State Beach and San Elijo State Beach. This is nice because they have convenient parking lots. The downside is you need to pay $10 to $20 to park (it varies based on time of year and day of the week). We own an annual California State Park pass which pays for our parking so we go to the beaches here quite a bit.
The beaches can be divided into several distinct areas. Cardiff State Beach has two parking areas. One is to the south at Seaside Beach and the other is at the north end of Restaurant Row, at what we formally call Cardiff State Beach. Both Seaside and Cardiff State Beach are home to popular tidepools. Cardiff State Beach is on the entrance to the San Elijo Lagoon, which has some attractions in its own right. This area is known as Cardiff Reef.
There is some limited free parking along Highway 101, south of Restaurant Row, between Seaside and Cardiff State Beach. If you get lucky to find a spot, you should pretty much have the beach to yourself. This area is known as George’s beach, after one of the early restaurants on Restaurant Row.
On the northside of the lagoon, across from Seaside Market, is San Elijo State Beach. This is a camping area. The campgrounds are on a small bluff overlooking the ocean. San Elijo State Beach is also home to Pipes, a popular surfing spot.
Cardiff Kook and New Trails
At the busy corner of Chesterfield and the 101 you can find the iconic 6-foot statute of a surfer. Formally known as the Magic Carpet Ride, this statute is better known as the Cardiff Kook. The statute is often dressed up in various costumes.
One little known area of Cardiff-by-the-Sea is the pathway running along the train tracks, in front of Seaside Market. This area has been known as Carpentier Parkway. In 2017 the area was renamed Harbaugh Parkway after a grant from the Harbaugh family. There are also plans to build a park at the border of Cardiff and Solana Beach.
This area should eventually consist of trails running from Cardiff to Solana Beach, along the San Elijo Lagoon. This is part of a larger plan to have a complete trail running from San Diego all the way up to Oceanside. The Cardiff section is expected to be completed in mid-2019. Note that right now construction has many of the trails closed.