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Carlsbad, California: A Brief Recreation & Travel Guide

Go see, explore, take photos, and write it up! I love exploring places that I see on the Rand McNally Road Atlas or by serendipity.

The city sign along Carlsbad Blvd.

The city sign along Carlsbad Blvd.

Short History and Overview

Carlsbad, California, was established as a seaside resort long before it was incorporated in 1952. Located 30 miles north of San Diego, the city of over 100,000 residents was named after Karlsbad in Bohemia because the spring water was found to be pure, clear, and reputedly a natural composition closely matching that of its European namesake. The original settlement, known as Frazier’s Stop, was a train stop on the line between L.A. and San Diego.

Here, along the bluffs overlooking the Pacific a few seaside hotels opened in the late 1880s and John Frazier peddled his pure spring water to train passengers. The name was changed to Carlsbad by the 1890s and it was this original location, now known as Carlsbad Village, which eventually formed the nucleus for today’s ever-expanding city, well known for its resorts and sprawling master-planned communities.

The incorporation of the city was done to avoid annexation by its neighbor to the north, the city of Oceanside. Carlsbad has a number of attractions which include Legoland California, the Flower Fields, as well as Omni La Costa, and Park Hyatt Resorts. The mild climate year-round allows for great golfing, and it’s to no one’s surprise that the city hosts the headquarters of Callaway Golf Company.

Points of Interest and Attractions

Here are some points around the city that are worth taking the time to explore.

Leo Carrillo Ranch

Now administered as a city park the Leo Carrillo Ranch & Historic Park was formerly the home of actor Leo Carrillo most famous for his role in the Cisco Kid. The ranch contains half a dozen historic adobe buildings with a self-guided trail system across 27 acres.

Carlsbad Village

This is the original and quirky downtown if the city ever had one. Lined with shops that sell surfer’s gear, hotels, wineries, microbreweries, restaurants, and antiques, the Village overlooks the ocean and has public beach access too. Parking can be tight on weekends, especially in the summer. The Art and Antique Mall is a local favorite.

Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa

Located in Carlsbad Village along Carlsbad Boulevard and housed in the all-too-obvious Hanseatic, half-timbered look-alike from the old country, the spa serves as both an outlet for filling up water bottles from the city's famous alkaline spring water and a spa facility with themed rooms for the self-indulgent. Quite simply, "this is the place" and why the city came into existence.

Entrance to Legoland.

Entrance to Legoland.

Entrance to Batiquitos Lagoon. A favorite walking spot for locals.

Entrance to Batiquitos Lagoon. A favorite walking spot for locals.

Legoland California

Opened in 1999, California’s Legoland location is perfectly located halfway between Disneyland and Sea World San Diego (it’s actually closer to Sea World). Featuring more than 40 rides and attractions which include miniature city displays of New York, San Francisco Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., a waterpark, and an aquarium, Legoland has been continuously expanding and its latest attraction is the theme-based hotel which opened in 2014 which sits at the park’s entrance.

Entrance to Museum of Making Music along Armada Drive, Carlsbad, CA

Entrance to Museum of Making Music along Armada Drive, Carlsbad, CA

Museum of Making Music

Within walking distance of Legoland, this nice museum is dedicated to its eponym and is hands-on and might be a great way to take a break from the crowds at Legoland and introduce kids to something besides the LEGO bricks and kiddie rides. Opened in 2000 the museum holds a permanent collection of instruments and exhibits as well as roving exhibits. Five galleries take you through the age of music in the United States. The museum was founded by NAMM (The National Association of Music Merchants).

Looking down at the Carlsbad Flower Fields.

Looking down at the Carlsbad Flower Fields.

The Flower Fields

Also known as the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, the hillside between Canon Road and Palomar Airport Road exits along I-5 fires up its beautiful hews between March and April. The Fields are opened to the public (fee) between March 1 and mid-May and have been an attraction for 60 years now. The windmill, a well-known landmark, off the Palomar Airport Road exit, was originally a spin-off from Andersen's in Solvang, California, but now it is part of the Holiday Inn.

Batiquitos Lagoon

The lagoon is part of the California Department of Fish and wildlife although the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation, a non-profit, looks after the area. Access to this nature reserve is from the Carlsbad side and it preserves one of the few tidal wetlands of southern California. Hiking trails are accessed by at least three trailheads with parking along Batiquitos Drive.

Buena Vista Lagoon

Buena Vista Lagoon is one of three lagoons in Carlsbad and one of two which is protected and preserved by a non-profit although the body of water is owned by the California Department of Fish and Game. It sits in north Carlsbad and straddles the city line between Carlsbad and Oceanside. Unlike its southern counterpart, the Batiquitos lagoon, the Buena Vista Lagoon has much more reed and marsh habitat. I-5 crosses over it but if you want a better look there is an access road that drives around it and parking is available on the Carlsbad side of Las Flores Drive.

Resorts and Recreation

Here are some spots around Carlsbad that are worth checking out if you are staying in town for a bit.

Omni La Costa Resort and Spa

Opened in 1965 the Omni La Costa Resort, formerly the La Costa resort, is a sprawling hotel resort with a golf course in the La Costa section of Carlsbad and the first mega-resort opened in the city since the Victorian era beach hotels in Carlsbad village. The resort annually hosts the WTA’s southern California Open and formerly hosted the PGA events as well as the Kia Classic LPGA.

Park Hyatt Resort Aviara

Formerly a Four Seasons Resort and billed as the only five star hotel in Carlsbad, the hotel has been owned and managed by Park Hyatt since 2010. Built in 1997, the resort overlooks Batiquitos Lagoon off Aviara Drive and features an 18-hole golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, and hosts the LPGA Kia Classic annually. The resort is billed as the only five star in North County San Diego.

Grand Pacific Palisades Hotel & Resort

Just across the street from Legoland California (Armada Drive) and with pedestrian access to the theme park is Grand Pacific Palisades Hotel & Resort. It has excellent views of the ocean and Flower Fields as it overlooks both. It is also very close to the Carlsbad Premium Outlets, within walking distance.

Legoland California Resort

Currently building its second on-campus hotel, which will be modeled after a Lego Castle, Legoland has grown into a resort of its own and forms the focal point of a number of hotel venues within walking distance of this theme park. There always seems to be something under construction and the park's latest attraction is the Ninjago ride. Summer of 2018 promises to bring another, and undersea adventure of sorts.

Beaches

Most of Carlsbad is fronted by about seven miles of State Beach. The southern half is operated by South Carlsbad State Beach or South Ponto. The north half is known as Carlsbad State Beach. The former has camping facilities with 223 campsites and hookups for RVs.

Carlsbad Lagoon (Agua Hedionda)

If you enjoy watersports such as jet skiing, paddle boarding, and paddle boating, this is the place to go. Visible from I-5, the Carlsbad Lagoon is accessible from Tamarack Road exit on I-5. It’s one of three lagoons in Carlsbad but unlike the other two, this one is open to water sport and recreation.

Golf

Carlsbad offers four great golf courses which include a variety of playing levels. The Omni La Costa Course is located on the Omni Resort, Aviara Golf at the Park Hyatt is beautifully landscaped and annually hosts the Kia Classic, the Crossings has great views, and finally the Rancho Carlsbad Golf Course Club off El Camino Real offers 54-par 18 holes.

House of Air

Located close to Palomar Airport Road in the Bressi Ranch community House of Air is a new 34,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2017 and is dedicated to trampoline enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies. It includes a climbing wall and free fall venue as well as dodgeball pits.

Favorite Local Eats: Carlsbad and Encinitas

You can't forget about food1 Here are a couple of local places you should check out.

Tip Top Meats

This German-style deli and self-order restaurant is a long time fixture in Carlsbad and a favorite among locals. You won't leave hungry if you order an entree, many of which are German, such as Sauerbraten and Roladen. There is also a nice European grocery store within the restaurant which has a number mostly Central (German & Austrian) foods. Tip Top Meats is located on Paseo del Norte about a block south of Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad.

Yoshino Japanese Deli

Located in Carlsbad Village and a well-known Yelp hit, this small hole-in-the-wall Mom and Pop joint consistently rates in the top 50 Yelp reviews nationwide! Expect limited hours and seating and cash only for some of your favorite Japanese rice bowl mixes.

Primo Pizza & Pasta

This modest pizza place is a favorite of the author for pizza in particular. The pizza is short on chain pizza frills but has excellent taste and friendly small-town service.

Casa de Bandini

It's glitzy and dressy with a lot of fanfare. Expect to be entertained by the mariachi band and dance alongside seniors, agog in the moment, who seem to make a habit of spontaneously hitting the floor (tequila maybe?). The food is good too, especially the Nachos Grande, a meal-sized appetizer. Casa de Bandini is located in the upscale shopping niche, The Forum. Avoid Friday and Saturday nights unless you don't mind waiting.

Thai Pan Cuisine

Located in Encinitas just off El Camino Real this modest Thai restaurant belies its humble appearance and serves up great Thai dishes of every sort. Lunch can get busy.

The Original Pancake House

Not to be confused with the mega-chain, IHOP, this is another locals' fav. This breakfast-serving pancake house can have long lines on weekend mornings and holidays but they tend to move fast. The omelets and German-style pancakes are great.

The grocery section of Tip Top Meats sells imported European foods mostly from Germany.

The grocery section of Tip Top Meats sells imported European foods mostly from Germany.

Tree-shaded streets in Carlsbad Village.

Tree-shaded streets in Carlsbad Village.

Shops at the Forum, Carlsbad.

Shops at the Forum, Carlsbad.

Shopping

The Forum

This is Carlsbad’s answer to high-end shopping and occupies a little niche on the west side of El Camino Real just before the Encinitas city line. An outdoor mall, the Forum offers more than 50 shops and places to dine. There are also a number of popular restaurants including the Casa de Bandini, a local favorite. Friday and Saturday nights may have wait times of up to an hour before seating so plan ahead. The mariachi band adds to the highlights of this restaurant as does the outdoor seating to say nothing of the good food.

Looking down the middle of the outlet mall.

Looking down the middle of the outlet mall.

The Carlsbad Premium Outlets

This offers outlet shopping just off I-5 between the canon Road and Palomar Airport Road exits. Located just below the Flower Fields, Outlet parking can be tight on weekends and offers about 90 outlet stores and a seemingly endless variety of places to eat. There’s even more of both across the Paseo del Norte.

Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California.

Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California.

Other Nearby Points of Interest

Find these spots outside, but still close by, to Carlsbad. They are worth taking the time to see!

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, Oceanside, California

Mission San Luis Rey in nearby Oceanside was founded in 1798 although the current structure dates to 1811. Nicknamed the "King of the Missions", the Mission San Luis Rey was the 18th of the 21 Alta California missions and is a mixture of Spanish Colonial, Renaissance, and Moorish architecture. The grounds are great for exploring highlighted by the sandstone steps at the lavanderia, the expansive courtyard, gardens that feature California’s first pepper tree, and of course the museum and beautiful church nave.

Native southern California plants at the San Diego Botanic Gardens.

Native southern California plants at the San Diego Botanic Gardens.

San Diego Botanic Gardens, Encinitas, California

Formerly called the Quail Botanical Gardens, the San Diego Botanic Gardens are easily reached a half-mile off I-5 exit Encinitas Boulevard only a couple of miles south of Carlsbad. There are different gardens themed according to continent or region such as the Australian, African, and Central America Gardens to name a few. Trails wind through the Gardens and provide good views from the Overlook Natural Area. If you have kids, there is a great place for them to climb, and explore in the Hamilton Children’s Garden—a botanical playground of sorts.

Control Tower at Palomar Airprt, Carlsbad

Control Tower at Palomar Airprt, Carlsbad

Transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Interstate 5 has seven exits in Carlsbad and the city is only about 20 miles south of the Orange County line and less than thirty miles from the San Diego city limits. Typically rush hour slows things down. The Coaster train operated by Amtrak is another great option for commuters to and from San Diego and Orange County and it offers two stops in Carlsbad. If you don’t want to fly out of San Diego International Airport, Carlsbad’s Palomar-McClellan Airport may be an option serviced by daily commuter air travel mostly to and from LAX.