San Diego is one of the crown jewels of the California coast, but some of its best destinations are outside of the city.
Here are some of the best trip options in the area, available through a quick drive or a flight to a local airport.
Table Of Contents
Located just south of the Mexican border, Ensenada is a foodie’s paradise thanks to literally hundreds of cantina-style restaurants.
Even better, most of them are incredibly affordable, so you can afford to travel to several of them in a row.
We recommend planning an all-day eating experience by going to a series of different restaurants and having a single smaller dish at each one.
Ensenada is also a great introduction to Mexican culture. If you haven’t been to Mexico before, this beautiful town will help you get familiar with it before you start planning a longer vacation.
This day trip is best experienced in a group, so bring your family or friends along.
Legos are some of the most recognizable toys in the world, and Legoland in Carlsbad is a theme park that’s not quite like any others.
Although especially good when you’re traveling with children, Legoland is also fun for adults if you want a chance to exercise your creativity with a functionally unlimited supply of legos.
Legoland is about 30 minutes north of San Diego on a normal day, putting it well within easy driving distance.
If you’d like to make a bigger trip out of it, Legoland is about two miles from the beach, where you can enjoy a nice walk during a warm California evening.
Picturesque Palm Springs is one of California’s hottest metropolises, and that’s saying something in a state where the middle of winter may be warmer than some other states see all year.
With activities ranging from movie marathons to hiking in the great outdoors, Palm Springs has a little something for everyone.
For a refreshing lunch or dinner, visit a locally-owned restaurant like Stacy’s @ Palm Springs, where you can enjoy a variety of unique mixed drinks.
If you plan on staying late, the Sky-Watcher Stargazing Tours offer sights that are harder to see from the big city.
Palm Springs is great for groups of any size, including solo trips, but be sure to check the city’s website to see if any events are happening. They occur regularly and could affect your plans.
Not to be confused with places that have water, Borrego Springs is a two-for-one deal without a lot of crowds to worry about.
As one of the best day trips from San Diego, this desert area has countless sculptures scattered around the sands. This makes it perfect for sightseeing and taking creative photographs.
However, Borrego Springs is also an International Dark Sky Community. While Palm Springs may have more of a city feel, that makes it harder to shut off all the lights at night.
Borrego Springs offers a clearer view of the sky throughout the year, making it a great place to hang around until nightfall.
This area is good for a date during the day, but bring the whole family if you want a night of stargazing.
Located up in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild is one of the best day trips from San Diego if you’re looking for hiking trails and ways to connect with nature.
With its focus on locally-owned shops and a small-town atmosphere, Idyllwild is completely different from the city and offers plenty of peace and quiet.
If you’d like to have a little more excitement, the area offers mountain biking and rock climbing opportunities.
Idyllwild is best with an active group, so leave your devices off except in emergencies and focus on the great outdoors to get the most from this scenic locale.
Located a little south of the border, Valle de Guadalupe is one of Mexico’s top wine-producing regions. And by “top,” we mean 90% of the country’s wine comes from here.
Even better, the prices for tastings are far lower than they are in some parts of California.
This makes the area a wine enthusiast’s paradise, and the lower costs can easily mitigate the expense of traveling down.
There are so many wine-tasting opportunities that it’s hard to narrow them down. If you’re looking for something to pair with them, though, head to Rancho Cortes and get some of the artisanal cheese.
If you get there early enough, grab breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela. It offers homestyle Mexican food that’s hearty enough to give you energy for the rest of your morning.
The focus on wine means this destination is best for adults, so come as a date or with a few friends. Remember to select a designated driver if anyone has wine.
Just half an hour away from downtown San Diego, La Jolla is one of the best beach areas in California.
That’s saying something in a state that has so much coastline, but the surf isn’t the only thing that makes this area stand out.
The La Jolla Underwater Park is particularly good if you want to go snorkeling or scuba diving. The area has a permanent ban on fishing and surfing, so the surface of the water is much safer.
The park’s beach is open 24/7, which makes it a reliable destination no matter when you want to visit.
La Jolla is perfect for family fun, but it also makes an exciting date if you want to go underwater as a couple.
Set about an hour east of San Diego, Julian is a historic town with a long memory of California’s famed gold rush.
This is an especially good trip for anyone who loves historical excursions, thanks in part to a narrated carriage ride and the availability of guided historical tours.
Be sure to sign up for a tour to one of the gold mines, where you can head deep inside to see the miners’ work.
Outdoor activities include horseback riding, fishing, and hiking at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
For some unusual fun, you can visit during burn seasons, when firefighters conduct controlled burns to help keep the park clean. Don’t get close, but binoculars and telescopes can let you see a fire from a safe distance.
California’s missions are some of its most iconic structures, but the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is the largest of them all.
The extensive complex includes old religious living quarters, the great chapel, some barracks, and an expansive museum detailing the history of the mission’s project.
For some added fun, the site also has the oldest living pepper tree in the state, planted back in 1830 and well-tended even today.
This is a peaceful and serene trip, making it ideal if you want to relax away from the city without the physical exertion of hiking into the wilderness. The crowds are rarely a problem, so you can spend hours relaxing and enjoying the historic scenery before heading home.
San Clemente is about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, making it a favorite day trip destination for residents of both cities.
Aside from the legendary surfing opportunities created by its ideal location, the San Clemente Pier offers an idyllic walk and a chance to enjoy numerous restaurants.
Seafood is unsurprisingly the ingredient of choice for many local restaurants thanks to the energetic fishing industry, but there are plenty of other flavors and styles if you’re not feeling like seafood when you visit.
For a casual excursion, consider taking the train. The North Beach area has a train station at the end, so you can catch a ride home without having to worry about traffic along the way.
San Clemente is perfect for dates and casual family fun. Consider staying around until sunset to enjoy the views, though, or you’ll miss one of the best sights in the city.
California has a lot of beaches, so it’s no surprise that several places featuring those ended up on our list. For a change of pace, try a visit to Temecula Valley, which offers some of the best vineyards in the state.
Temecula Valley has over 30 different wineries producing many types of drinks, so whatever you like, chances are you’ll find something to enjoy. Some tours include vineyard picnics for an unusual but fun dining experience.
Wine isn’t the only attraction of the valley, though. Temecula also offers hot-air balloon ride, wildlife watching, and horseback tours of the area.
This is less of a day trip and more of a night trip, but the Mount Palomar Observatory is a fantastic place to see the night sky and count the stars.
The most notable part of the facility is the famed Hale Telescope, which was the largest effective telescope in the world for almost 45 years.
The telescope uses a solid, curved mirror weighing about 14.5 tons, with a thin layer of aluminum that provides outstanding image quality. Be sure to take a look if you have the chance.
Don’t plan a day trip here too far in advance. The observatory sometimes closes unexpectedly due to the weather, so this works best as a spontaneous trip for the astronomically-inclined.
The observatory offers some access for mobility-challenged guests but calls ahead if you have any special needs.
Widely regarded as one of the top coastal destinations in all of California, and that’s some steep competition, Laguna Beach offers miles upon miles of top-quality sand and surf.
Of course, your vacation isn’t limited to sunning yourself among some crowds. Instead, head off the beaten path with a motorized bike rental and go explore the beaches and coves of the area at a faster pace.
If you’re more interested in the water, you can take a guided kayak tour over to Seal Rock, located about 120 feet off of Crescent Bay Beach. At certain times of the year, you can see countless seals and sea lions enjoying themselves there.
Kayak trips are very different from lounging around on the beach, and they’re an experience that will help make your trip to Laguna Beach truly memorable.
For a more active excursion, consider renting a paddleboard or going scuba diving. If you don’t want to get wet, visit the art galleries just up the road.
Laguna Beach has something for everyone, so bring your friends or family along.
For a change of pace, you can visit Rosarito Beach across the border. Unlike some of California’s idyllic beaches, Rosarito Beach is a party beach with countless lively attractions to keep the excitement high.
For adrenaline junkies, zip-lining, micro-lighting, and rappelling offer chances to get your blood pumping.
Even without that, you can ride on camels or horseback, rent motocross vehicles, or go cycling.
Authentic Mexican cuisine supports all of these activities, including flavors you won’t easily find on the US side of the border.
Rosarito Beach is a great choice for active groups and families. The more you put into this area, the better the trip will become.
Lake Poway is a calmer alternative to the excitement of the beaches. With plenty of open space and areas for picnics, it’s a relaxed region you can enjoy entirely at your own pace.
For a bit of fun, though, try visiting the archery range. You don’t see many of these in the city, and they’re a great chance to give kids some experience with one of humanity’s oldest sports.
When you need a change of pace, day trips from San Diego offer countless opportunities for rest and relaxation.
Whether you’re looking for a vibrant downtown area to go shopping in, lovely beaches to relax on, or experiences that you can’t find in the city, all of the areas listed above are top-rated destinations that are worth your time.