For decades Camp Pendleton, the huge Marine base established in 1942, defined this northernmost community in San Diego County. Now a city of 170,000, Oceanside is forging an identity beyond the military, even to the point of nurturing a nascent artists' scene, anchored by the Oceanside Museum of Art. Yes, this place still has an inordinate number of barbershops with Marines spilling out onto the sidewalk waiting to get their buzz cuts, but appealingly low-rise Oceanside has a welcoming, small-town feel. And it's caught the attention of restaurateurs and artists trying to find a place in the sun.

Oceanside claims almost 4 miles of beaches and has the West Coast's longest wooden pier, measuring 1,942 feet. The beach, pier (and its adjacent outdoor amphitheater), and downtown attractions are all within easy walking distance of the train station.

Visitor Information -- Just north of downtown is the California Welcome Center, 928 N. Coast Hwy. (tel. 800/350-7873 or 760/721-1101; www.visitoceanside.org). It provides information on local attractions, dining, and accommodations; it also has a gift shop.

Exploring Oceanside -- One of the nicest things to do in Oceanside is to stroll around the city's upscale harbor. Surrounded by apartment complexes of unfortunate architecture, the harbor has a Cape Cod-themed shopping village with a rustic, if faux, charm; the marina bustles with pleasure craft, fishing boat charters, and sightseeing excursions. The Harbor Days Festival, held the third weekend in September, typically attracts 100,000 visitors for a crafts fair, entertainment, and food booths; call tel. 760/722-1534 or check www.oceansideharbordays.com for more details.

Probably the area's most important attraction is Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, 4050 Mission Ave. (tel. 760/757-3651; www.sanluisrey.org), located a few miles inland. Founded in 1798, it's known as the "King of the Missions," and is the largest of California's 21 missions. You can take a self-guided tour of the impressive church, exhibits, and grounds; in the cemetery you'll find the names of some of California's most important early families (Pico, Alvarado, Bandini). The cost is $4 for adults, $3 ages 6 to 18, free for kids 5 and under and for active-duty military and their dependents. Hours are Monday through Friday 9am to 5pm, and weekends 10am to 5pm; a gift shop and small bookstore are also on-site.

For a wide selection of rental watercraft, head to Boat Rentals of America, 256 Harbor Drive S. (tel. 760/722-0028; www.boats4rent.com). It rents everything from kayaks, WaveRunners, and electric boats for relaxed harbor touring to 14- and 23-foot sailboats and powerboats. Sample rates: single kayak, $15 per hour; powerboat, from $65 per hour; and WaveRunner, $105 per hour. This operation keeps seasonal hours, so call for specific information.

The California Surf Museum (tel. 760/721-6876; www.surfmuseum.org) has a slick, ocean-facing facility located at 312 Pier View Way. Founded in 1985, the museum has an extensive collection that includes surfboards (everything from a 155-lb. redwood board to the motorized "Jet Board"), photos documenting surfing's early days, and other relics that chronicle the development of the sport. There's also a gift shop selling surf-themed music, T-shirts, and other items. The museum is open daily from 10am to 4pm (Thurs till 8pm); admission is $3 adults, $1 seniors, students and military, and ages 11 and under are free. The museum is free to all on Tuesdays.

Artists have begun converging in town over the last few years, drawn by cheaper rents and a slower pace than in San Diego. Galleries and studios are found at the collective known as Artists' Alley, located behind the 200 block of North Coast Highway (btw. Mission Ave. and Pier View Way). Meanwhile, the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way (tel. 760/435-3720; www.oma-online.org), presents contemporary artwork by both regional and international artists; past exhibits have included everything from pop surrealism to quilts. OMA's Central Pavilion, opened in 2008, is a cutting-edge glass-and-steel box space that links the museum complex's two other structures -- Oceanside's old city hall, designed by Irving Gill in 1934, and a Gill-designed firehouse built in 1929. The museum also presents concerts, lectures, and films. OMA is open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 4pm, Sunday 1 to 4pm; admission is $8 adults, $5 seniors, free for students and military.

Oceanside's string of beaches starts just outside Oceanside Harbor, and runs south to the border of Carlsbad. Along the way you can enjoy the Strand, a grassy park that begins just south of the jetty where the San Luis Rey River meets the ocean, and ends at Wisconsin Street Beach. The sandbar formed by the confluence of river and ocean makes Breakwater Way beach a popular spot for surfers. The beaches north of the pier are wide, sandy, and generally less crowded; Pier View South beach and Tyson Street Park are where you should go if you want to be in the thick of things. Between them, these two adjacent beaches offer restrooms, showers, picnic areas, fire rings, vendors, playgrounds, and surf lessons. Oceanside's world-famous surfing spots also attract competitions, including the World Bodysurfing Championships and Longboard Surf Contest, both held in August. Parking is at metered street spaces or in pay lots, which can fill up on nice summer days. The most southern beaches have some free parking in lots or on the street.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Book early for a summertime stay at the Wyndham Oceanside Pier Resort, 333 N. Myers St. (www.wyndham.com; tel. 800/989-1848 or 760/901-1200). The privately owned one- and two-bedroom suites at this property look out over the pier and feature kitchens and sleeper sofas -- and they book up fast. Beware of studio rooms with no view and train tracks for a neighbor. Rates vary by season and day of the week, ranging from moderate to expensive. The Oceanside Marina Suites, 2008 Harbor Dr. N. (www.omihotel.com; tel. 800/252-2033 or 760/722-1561), also has a scenic location, surrounded by water on three sides at the mouth of the harbor. The moderate-to-expensive rates will get you an exceptional view, but accommodations that are a bit on the dingy side. The moderately priced Holiday Inn Oceanside Marina, 1401 Carmelo Dr. (www.holidayinn.com; tel. 888/465-4329 or 760/231-7000), opened in 2009 and is clean and contemporary. For a seaside home away from home, check in with Beachfront Only Vacation Rentals (www.beachfrontonly.com; tel. 888/338-0061 or 858/759-0381).

Livening up the dining scene is 333 Pacific, 333 N. Pacific St. (tel. 760/433-3333; www.cohnrestaurants.com), a spendy steakhouse with a deep vodka selection and ocean views. Hipster sushi is available at Harney Sushi, 301 Mission Ave. (tel. 760/967-1820; www.harneysushi.com), the sister restaurant of the Old Town favorite; it features cool design, mood lighting, and DJs adding some grooves to go along with the rolls. At the end of the long pier you'll find the 1950s-style diner Ruby's (tel. 760/433-7829; www.rubys.com). This place can get crazy busy, but it's a great spot for burgers and fountain drinks, especially in the Tiki-inspired upstairs dining room and patio.

You can wait in line with the locals for breakfast or lunch at Beach Break Cafe, 1802 S. Coast Hwy. (tel. 760/439-6355; http://beachbreakcafe.menutoeat.com), or pull a pint of house-brewed beer at Breakwater Brewing Co., 101 N. Coast Hwy (tel. 760/433-6064; www.breakwaterbrewingcompany.com). Along the harbor you'll also find a cluster of view-endowed surf-and-turf stalwarts.

Elsewhere in Oceanside, you can get a side helping of history with your burger and fries at the original 101 Cafe, 631 S. Coast Hwy. (tel. 760/722-5220; www.101cafe.net). This humble diner dates from the earliest days of the old coast highway, the only route between Los Angeles and San Diego until 1953 brought the interstate.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.