Cardiff is a quaint and charming seaside village with a long surfing history, located about 25 miles north of San Diego. The town is sandwiched between Solana Beach to the south, and Encinitas to the north. And you’ll find terrific views of the Pacific and the San Elijo Lagoon from many areas in Cardiff.
Cardiff, also known as Cardiff-by-the-Sea, is approximately 4550 housing units, both owner occupied (including second homes) and rentals,. The town is about 1.9 square miles, so on the smaller side. Cardiff is less than an hour north of downtown San Diego (except, perhaps, for rush hour), and a population of roughly 11,900 (latest stats I’ve seen). While Cardiff has its own zip code (92007), it’s officially part of the Encinitas Town Government (92024).
The town of Cardiff was founded by J. Frank Cullen, a Boston painter who became a developer. Cullen supposedly purchased land that was originally developed as farmland and sold building lots. The town was allegedly named Cardiff after the city in his wife’s native Wales.
You will notice that many of the streets have English names (Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Glasgow, and so on). Victor Kremer developed the area north of Birmingham now called the Composer District. The names here are a give-away – Mozart, Verdi, Chopin, Rubinstein. It is believed he may have added the By-The-Sea to the name, although most people simply refer to it as Cardiff. The area east and south of the downtown area is called the Walking District with close proximity to downtown.
Here’s a bit more history I found online. The Mercantile Building in downtown Cardiff (corner of Chesterfield and San Elijo) was originally a hotel built by Cullen. It has served many functions over the years, including as a grocery store and library. Patagonia, an upscale retail store, currently occupies the ground floor. The pier built by Cullen, just north of today’s Restaurant Row on the Coast Highway, was destroyed in a storm in 1916. Sadly, the pier was never rebuilt.
Cardiff has a long history as a popular surfing destination, and there are a number of vendors and plenty of surfing-related entertainment and events. One recent event attracted 20,000 visitors. You’ll see many surfboards heading down the hill under arms, on bikes, in the backs of trucks, and running across the coast highway.
Cardiff real estate, like our other coastal communities, offers a range of housing styles. But expect a hefty price tag, at least near the coast, especially for those homes on the hills with wonderful ocean and/or lagoon views. And prices have risen quite a bit since the Great Recession especially in 2021 and 2022.
Limited inventory, beautiful views, and overall desirability combine to keep home prices in Cardiff high. You will find a variety of housing styles, including bungalows and cottages, twin-homes, contemporary and Spanish. There are also apartments and condominiums, and several gated communities of attached and detached homes. Upside-down homes (reverse floor plan) are common on the hills (living space is upstairs, bedrooms down). The reason is obvious, to take advantages of the glorious views. Many are 3 stories on narrow lots.
Cardiff has enacted building height restrictions to prevent owners from adding on too much space above existing levels. Owners of course want to take advantage of the views, but then block views of neighbors behind them.
While Cardiff may not known as a fine dining community, there are some very respectable and pleasant places to dine. And this is true if you want to eat while looking at the ocean. Restaurant Row, on the Coast Highway heading south toward Solana Beach, offers a number of different restaurants (Chart House, Pacific Coast Grill, Las Olas). Several are directly on the ocean where you can enjoy watching the surfers, the surf, and spectacular sunsets. Mexican, California, and seafood are the primary offerings.
Pipes Cafe is one of the best known breakfast places around. Trattoria Positano on San Elijo just before the main intersection in town is quite good and popular with locals. Ki’s Restaurant is another local favorite serving “environmentally and community conscious” food with great views.
The Cardiff beaches, of course, are spectacular, and offer surfing, sunbathing, kite flying or simply enjoying the views. Interestingly you’ll often find stone sculptures along the coast road. They are repeatedly created by seasoned sculptors and beginners, and disappear over time. Then they re-emerge at the whim of someone’s creativity.
Parking along the 101 is free and fairly easy to find in the off-season, but in the summers you can expect to find parking more difficult for beach-goers.
Children attend 1 of 2 elementary schools depending on their grade – they both have great reputations from what residents have told me, and from reviews on the Internet. Older students attend San Dieguito Union High School District.
There are several private schools in Cardiff as well, including Montessori and the Sanderling Waldorf School.
There is some nice outdoor space in Cardiff as well. In addition to the beaches, you can enjoy the community park in downtown, running along the train tracks, and George Berkich Park in the Composer District. San Elijo Park and campground (San Elijo State Beach, between Cardiff and Encinitas) also offers nice space, a great beach, and a popular camping destination.
Glen Park, on Orinda Drive, offers a nice play area for young kids, and horseshoes, basketball, tennis and beach volleyball.
Neighboring Encinitas offers many other things to do, including lots of shopping, with well more than 20 restaurants in the downtown area, the San Diego Botanic Garden, and The Self-Realization Temple. There are also a number of fun festivals, fairs and events in the downtown area, especially in the summer.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea offers the classic seaside town lifestyle with a strong surfing history that continues even today. Perfect weather, a laid-back atmosphere and small-town feel, and a diversity of residents, old and new, provide eclectic Southern California outdoor living along the ocean, but at a price.