OK, let me first say that I'm probably going to tick off a lot of people with this Top Pick list, and I'm only doing this for the sake of reference. San Diego County is the land of suburbs and bedroom communities, and though I've visited them all, I haven't lived in them. So this is going to be a subjective list from my own observations. Here are the Top Suburbs outside of the city of San Diego.
They call Poway the "city in the country" and it very well is. This formerly rustic community off of I-15 just past Mira Mesa has grown up to be a desirable incorporated city with lots of outdoor recreation, family friendly neighborhoods, plenty of amenities, and one of the best school districts around.
It's the second largest city in the county, with over 165,000 residents, and it's probably the fastest growing due to some of the last available open space for new housing in the eastern portion of the city. Those developments in the Otay Mesa area have also changed the complexion of commuters, making the South Bay commutes one of the toughest. But old Chula Vista still has small time charm, and the Eastlake area has good schools and family friendly neighborhoods.
La Mesa is one of my favorite cities in the county. Close to everything, but has that small town charm that makes it so appealing. Oh sure, there are areas that smack of faceless suburbia, but the charming downtown village area is the anchor in La Mesa's charm and appeal. Lots of parks and amenities, good schools, and old neighborhood character. La Mesa is a pretty neat place to live.
Let me preface this by saying, if you work in San Diego, then you have to deal with a nightmare daily I-5 commute if you live in Carlsbad. That said, the (mostly) coastal city of Carlsbad is a nice place if you prefer the north county coast. Housing is quite pricey, but worth it if you can swing it. The golf industry is based in Carlsbad (Callaway, Taylor Made, Titleist), and it's home to LegoLand as well. The downtown village area is the place to go for nightlife and dining.
Santee is another of those cities with that "rural" feel, yet not quite as, dare I say, "hick-ey" as maybe neighboring Lakeside. From what I hear, the people who live in Santee love living there, and it is growing in amenities, housing and establishments so its residents don't really have to venture beyond the city limits for activities. The SR 52 and 125 freeways now make commuter access easier, as well. But it does get warm out there in the summer.
Escondido is the granddaddy of North County suburbs, and its sprawl as the county's biggest city makes it somewhat problematic. But it is a self-sufficient city of its own, with arts (California Center for the Arts), shopping
, industry, recreation, and even still some agriculture. And it's also where your daily southbound I-15 bottleneck always occurs. From Escondido, everything else in inland North County springs from.
If Escondido is the big hulk of North County, then San Marcos (and by default neighboring Vista) is young upstart. San Marcos is one of the fastest growing cities in California, and with new housing, retail and industry cropping up along the SR78 corridor, San Marcos is poised for growth. Plus, it has a budding academic reputation because it's the home to CSU San Marcos, as well as Palomar College.
If there were ever a "megaburb," then it would be Encinitas. Why? Because back in 1986, the city of Encinitas swallowed up the quaint seaside communities of Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Leucadia, as well as Olivenheim, and it became a bigger Encinitas. Like neighbor Carlsbad, Encinitas has both coastal and inland appeal, and the old Coast Highway business district lends some small town charm. But you gotta deal with the I-5 commute.
One of the last bastions of true rural living within commuting distance of San Diego, Ramona is kind of a cowboy/farmer town, with a quaint downtown district, homes on acre lots, and residents with livestock as pets. But development is creeping in, and as you enter town, you'll notice the plethora of fast-food and retail chains lining the main highway. But for those seeking a respite from urban life, Ramona can still provide it.
10. Coronado/Rancho Santa Fe/Del MarIf you can afford to live in any of these cities, you're one of the lucky few. But we can dream, can't we?