Great things to do off the beaten track in San Diego await curious travellers wanting to discover different and often quirkier sides of the city on California’s Pacific coast. The University of California San Diego alone boasts some of the city’s most striking architecture and art installations, and that's just the start of it.

    You can admire massive and colourful works of art in the open-air surroundings of urban communities with their strong Mexican American roots. There are treasure hunts and ghost hunts to be had from the Old Town to the Mission Hills, while a hidden cave waits to be discovered in La Jolla Cove. Read on for more of these interesting places in San Diego only locals know.


    Fallen Star

    A tiny house…on the edge of a roof

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    Fallen Star is the name of an eye-catching and peculiar art installation on the 7th floor of the Jacobs Hall at the University of California San Diego. It’s in the form of a small pastel-blue cottage house that was deliberately set slanting on the top corner of the building – as if a tornado swept it up and miraculously landed it there.

    The amusingly quirky installation opened to the public in mid-2012. It isn’t just a steel-frame-and-concrete sculpture, though – the house has completely furnished interiors. At night, you can even see the windows flicker from its lights and TV. At times, its small chimney emits smoke. Its 7th-floor rooftop lawn and garden has tomatoes growing and even a plum tree.

    Location: University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA

    Phone: +1 858-534-2117


    photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo (CC BY 2.0) modified


    Geisel Library

    Striking, out-of-this-world architecture

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    Geisel Library is among the University of California San Diego’s most striking architectural features. It’s the main library building on campus and features arches that curve up under 3 piled rectangular upper floors – designed to look like hands holding up stacked books. The library is named in honour of author Ted Giesel, better known as Dr Seuss.

    The structure is most impressive when viewed from below the canyon that it overlooks. Check out the library's other cool feature: a 560-ft-long tiled trail known as the Snake Path, which connects the library to the Warren Mall at Jacobs School of Engineering.

    Location: University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA

    Open: Monday–Thursday from 7.30 am to midnight, Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm, Sunday from 10 am to midnight

    Phone: +1 858-534-3336


    photo by Belis@rio (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified


    Chicano Park

    Colourful murals under a bridge

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    Chicano Park is one of the most colourful places in San Diego. You can find it in a most unusual location – this 8-acre park lies beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan. The area itself has strong Mexican roots, hence the park’s name. Chicano means Mexican American in the local lingo.

    The park was granted a National Historic Landmark designation in 2017. Under the bridge, you’re treated to a wonderful splash of colours with over a dozen murals. Each work of art tells of the cultural district’s livelihood and its community’s past social, environmental, and cultural activism that harks back to the 1970s.

    Location: San Diego, CA 92113, USA

    Open: Daily from 6 am to 10 pm


    Harper’s Topiary Garden

    Extraordinarily ornamental tree sculptures

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    Harper’s Topiary Garden is an eye-popping, green sidewalk feature that you can find on a stroll along Union Street in San Diego. It’s basically the front yard of a Mission Hills resident who had a profound love for clipping trees and got a little carried away. They eventually turned it into a magical mini fantasyland filled with everything, from rabbits and whales to puppies and snowman-like figures.

    The topiaries are the work of Edna Harper, and you can see a sign posted on a tree that gives the yard and homeowner’s nicknames: Edna Scissorhands. It’s like a landscape from a fantasy book – or rather, a Dr Seuss book, considering that he also lived in La Jolla just 20 minutes up north.

    Location: 3549 Union St, San Diego, CA 92103, USA

    Phone: +1 619-867-5309


    Potato Chip Rock

    An Insta-worthy rock formation

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    Potato Chip Rock is the name of a unique rock formation at the Mount Woodson Summit in Ramona, California. The 7.3-mile Woodson Trail is a hike that even non-hikers would want to do just to nab a photo while striking a pose on this thin, 7-ft-long slab.

    A steady hike up from the trail base takes about 3.5 hours before you find this rewarding sight. The rock looks just like what it was named after, slanting out against the blue sky. Surprisingly, it’s sturdy enough that you can walk over and sit on its sides or edge, though you do so at your own risk. Mount Woodson is within an hour’s drive north of downtown San Diego.

    Location: Ramona, CA 92065, USA

    Open: 24/7


    Whaley House Museum

    An Old Town San Diego site for history and hauntings

    The Whaley House Museum in San Diego is a must-visit if you’re into local history and are just a bit intrigued about all things paranormal. The well-preserved 19th-century house stands out among the others along the avenue in San Diego’s Old Town with its Greek Revival architecture, but that's not the only reason to check it out.

    Throughout the years, the odd house has gained its ‘most haunted’ reputation thanks to the considerable amount of inexplicable sightings and noises reported – most notably heavy footsteps thought to be those of a felon who was hanged here. Curious to find some spectral encounters for yourself? Join a ghost hunt at the Whaley House Museum, which takes place every last weekend of the month.

    Location: 2476 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110, USA

    Phone: +1 619-297-7511


    photo by Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified


    Zoro Garden

    A sunken garden and former nudist colony

    Zoro Garden is a 6-acre grotto garden at the heart of San Diego’s Balboa Park. Although it’s now known as a butterfly garden where various species breed and thrive, it was created as a nudist colony for the 1935-36 Pacific International Exposition, where performers would frolic inside and expo attendees could enter and watch for a fee.

    The garden itself dates back to the exposition of 1915–16. Long gone are the voyeuristic days of the second expo, and now perennials and nectar plants bloom around the stone garden’s rocky outcrops and maze-like pathways. It’s an oasis for a quiet stroll within the already beautiful Balboa Park.

    Location: Balboa Park, El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

    Phone: +1 619-525-8213


    photo by Visitor7 (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified


    Sunny Jim's Sea Cave

    Peculiar tunnels with a bootlegging past

    Sunny Jim's Sea Cave is a hidden gateway inside a gift shop to one of the quirkiest attractions on La Jolla’s coast in San Diego. Sure, you can simply go down to the gorgeous coast of La Jolla Cove from the Coast Boulevard or along the Coast Walk Trail to find the cave, but you don't get the full experience of its alleged history like that.

    Above the cave is a gift shop called The Cave Store, where you find a good selection of beach-themed items and souvenirs, as well as snorkelling gear for hire. You can enter the cave for a fee (per person) from here, then proceed down 100 or so steps into the grotto. The nice view opening to the waves greets you at the bottom – a view that may once have met bootleggers bringing illegal goods into the city through this secret tunnel.

    Location: La Jolla, CA 92037, USA

    Open: Monday–Thursday from 10 am to 5.30 pm (closed from Fridays to Sundays)

    Phone: +1 858-459-0746


    Queen Califia's Magical Circle

    A colourful sculpture garden in the middle of nowhere

    Queen Califia's Magical Circle is a sculpture garden within Kit Carson Park in Escondido. The garden features the vivid and large-scale sculptures of the late French American monumental artist Niki de Saint Phalle. It was among her last works. Visiting hours are very limited, so plan your visit accordingly.

    Within the garden, you’ll find a collection of nearly a dozen large, freestanding sculptures and totems that seem to heavily feature a combination of rock and tiles as well as Native American and pre-Columbian features. This includes a circular snake wall and the mosaic-tiled maze entryway. The garden is surrounded by the native shrubs and trees of the Iris Sankey Arboretum, which enhance the striking view. Queen Califia's Magical Circle is within a 30-minute drive north of downtown San Diego.

    Location: Kit Carson Park, 3333 Bear Valley Pkwy, Escondido, CA 92025, USA

    Open: Tuesday and Thursday from 9 am to midday, 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month from 9 am to 2 pm

    Phone: +1 760-839-4691


    photo by Ed Schipul (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified


    The Munchkin Homes

    An urban legend of La Jolla

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    The Munchkin Homes refer to houses in the hilly seaside neighbourhood of La Jolla in San Diego that supposedly resembled those from The Wizard of Oz. One side of the urban legend states that the little actors who portrayed the Munchkins in the 1939 film built and lived in small houses during filming.

    But tall tales aside, the area has become host to a sort of a fun treasure hunt. Along Hillside Drive and among the rows of mansions, there’s one remaining house that does seem small. It’s due to an optical illusion – the house was built following the hillside and its walls seem shorter than usual. The private house’s deliberately stylised windows, cobbled path, and chimney simply fit the ‘Munchkin’ profile.

    Location: 7475 Hillside Dr, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA

    Ari Gunadi | Compulsive Traveler

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