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9 Top-Rated Day Trips from San Diego

Dec 16, 2015

Epitomizing the sunny California lifestyle, the area around San Diego is characterized by its gorgeous coastal scenery, endless beaches, and peaceful rural landscapes. The Pacific Ocean around San Diego is a top attraction. During the whale migration season, tourists can take a whale-watching cruise and get thrillingly close to these amazing marine mammals. La Jolla, just 22 miles away from San Diego, offers a stunning shoreline and refreshing ocean breezes. For beautiful beaches in a foreign country, explore the Baja California coast in Mexico. Ensenada is a picturesque seaport that's a great place for relaxation and recreation, while Tijuana is an even closer destination across the border. Less than an hours' drive from San Diego is the delightful farming community of Julian and the historic town of Temecula, with an entertaining children's museum. Further away in the San Jacinto Mountains is the quaint village of Idyllwild surrounded by serene pine forests.

1 Spectacular Beaches in La Jolla

Spectacular Beaches in La Jolla
Spectacular Beaches in La Jolla
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Breathtaking ocean scenery, pristine beaches, and an upscale seaside town make La Jolla an inviting place to spend a leisurely day. Pleasant sunny weather adds to the joy of visiting. La Jolla is only 22 miles away from San Diego and is the perfect place to spend a few hours sunbathing or strolling along the shoreline. The La Jolla coastline has several excellent beaches in unspoiled natural environments. Windansea Beach offers gorgeous scenery and powerful waves that are popular with surfers; this beach is often used for wedding photos and is known for its beautiful sunsets. The La Jolla Children's Pool is a protected sea-walled cove that is a safe area for children to swim, while the La Jolla Cove is a great spot for snorkeling and diving as well as swimming. A great spot to sunbathe is La Jolla Shores, a wide, sandy beach with gentle waves that are ideal for beginning surfers. For a more secluded and quiet atmosphere, head to Black's Beach, close to the UC San Diego campus and accessible from La Jolla Shores Beach or a rough hillside path. Protected from the wind by steep cliffs, this pristine beach is ideal for relaxation and nature walks. The northern area of Black's Beach is clothing optional.

Visitors will also enjoy exploring the quaint town of La Jolla. In particular, Prospect Street, Pearl Street, and La Jolla Boulevard have a great selection of restaurants, cafés, and shops, while Girard Avenue has several interesting antique shops. Art lovers will appreciate the Museum of Contemporary Art (700 Prospect Street) with its internationally renowned collection. Tourists can also take a self-guided tour of the Murals of La Jolla, an impressive creative project that features outdoor murals painted on buildings throughout the city.

2 Whale-Watching Tours

Whale-Watching Tours
Whale-Watching Tours
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For a truly breathtaking experience, take a whale-watching cruise during the whale migration season. The whales come to lagoons off the Baja California coast in Mexico, just south of San Diego, where mild, gentle waters and a protected environment offer the ideal breeding grounds. Whale-watching cruises take place during the gray whale and blue whale migration seasons. The blue whale migration season is in summer and fall. The grey whale migration season is from mid-December to late March and peaks in mid-January. Various companies offer tours throughout the year. Keep in mind that some of the tour companies depart from other locations, such as Newport Harbor, 90 miles north of San Diego.

Most boating expeditions from San Diego focus on blue whale and grey whale sightings, although it is sometimes possible to see orcas, finback whales, humpback whales, and sperm whales. The boat cruise provides an up-close view of the whales in their natural environment. Grey whales, known for their long migration patterns, can be spotted from various vantage points in San Diego, but only a sightseeing boat cruise allows tourists to see the blue whales, which swim further out in the ocean. When viewed underwater, blue whales have a deep indigo hue. It's hard to match the thrill of observing these marvelous marine mammals, the largest animals in the world, in their natural habitat. The excitement begins when the blue whales' distinctive 30-foot spout of water appears in the air and continues when an enormous fin flips up or part of the whale's 100-foot long body glides above the water. Blue Whales weigh an average of 200 tons and have a lifespan of 80 to 90 years on average, however they are listed as an endangered species.

3 Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano
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One of the most interesting missions in California, San Juan Capistrano lies in a lovely setting 66 miles north of San Diego. The historic landmark is surrounded by a sun-drenched Mediterranean landscape of rolling hills and palm trees. Founded in 1776 by missionaries from Spain, this evocative site features typical Spanish Mission architecture, with its adobe church, red-tiled roofs, arcaded courtyard, and covered patio area trimmed in bougainvillea. Although partially in ruins, visitors can still appreciate the beauty of the original buildings. Inside the cloistered gardens are delightful landscaped gardens with shaded grassy areas. While visiting the gardens, listen for the pleasant sound of chirping songbirds. Every spring, the cliff swallows return from Argentina, and the mission celebrates this event on March 19th, Saint Joseph's Day, with a fiesta in traditional Mexican style.

The church of Mission San Juan Capistrano dates to 1777 and is the oldest building in California that is still in use. It's also the only surviving mission church where Father Junípero Serra attended a mass. More decorative than most mission chapels, the church has a splendid gilded reredos behind the altar. The site also has a museum and offers audio tours as well as educational exhibits and historical reenactments. After visiting the mission, take time to wander the historic Los Rios district of San Juan Capistrano's old town, which is worth exploring.

Location: 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, California

Official site: www.missionsjc.com

4 Tijuana

Tijuana
Tijuana
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An adventure in a foreign country is as close as 32 kilometers away from San Diego. For a taste of Mexico, spend the day in Tijuana just south of the U.S. border. In this city known as the "corner of Mexico," tourists will experience the vibrant energy and multifaceted culture of Mexico. Tijuana has a historic center with noteworthy buildings like the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a cathedral that exemplifies Spanish colonial and Neoclassical architecture; the Plaza Santa Cecilia, the oldest square in the city; and the Palacio de Frontón Jai Alai, an elegant Neoclassical palace. To discover modern-day Tijuana, visit the Centro Cultural Tijuana that displays an avant-garde collection, keep an eye out for street art throughout the city, and sample the delicious local cuisine.

5 Gold Rush Days and Apple Pie in Julian

Gold Rush Days and Apple Pie in Julian
Gold Rush Days and Apple Pie in Julian Chris Radcliff / photo modified
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Beautifully located in the Cuyamaca Mountains, this charming Gold Rush town is a delightful destination, 62 miles from San Diego. Dating back to the 1870s, Julian has retained its historic character and hosts historical reenactments for the Gold Rush Days festival annually in June. The town's old buildings have been lovingly restored and converted into shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts. Adding to the old-fashioned ambience are the horse-drawn carriages that still ride through town. Julian is also famous for its apple orchards and fresh-baked apple pie (the best pie is said to be found at the Julian Apple Pie Company). Throughout the fall, visitors can go to U-Pick Orchards to gather a basketful of sweet, crisp apples to bring home. Many visitors also come at the end of September for the Apple Days Festival. Another noteworthy event in September is the Music Festival that features outdoor concerts.

For an interesting detour just eight miles from Julian, take a drive to the Santa Ysabel chapel. This chapel was part of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The chapel was built in 1924 near the original 19th-century Spanish Mission's adobe chapel. A museum of history is on-site.

6 Ensenada: A Picturesque Seaport in Mexico

Ensenada: A Picturesque Seaport in Mexico
Ensenada: A Picturesque Seaport in Mexico
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This sunny seaside town is a worthwhile day trip (143 kilometers from San Diego) for those who are comfortable driving in Mexico. Alternatively, several companies offer guided tours that make the trip stress-free and easy. Surrounded by the beautiful Baja California coastline, Ensenada has a lovely sheltered harbor with picturesque yacht marinas. It's the only commercial port in Baja California and Mexico's second largest stop for cruise ships. Besides stunning natural scenery and beaches, Ensenada is known for its luxury spas, golf courses, and great restaurants. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts appreciate this area for rock climbing, kayaking, and scuba diving.

7 Beautiful Mountain Scenery in Idyllwild

Lake Fulmore, Idyllwild
Lake Fulmore, Idyllwild
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Idyllwild is a quaint mountain village in the San Jacinto Mountains, about a two-hour drive (113 miles) from San Diego. In the heart of a pristine pine forest, Idyllwild is a wonderful place to begin hikes and nature walks. The area has many trails that meander through scenic routes in the mountains. The town itself is a charming destination with many restaurants and shops, as well as art and cultural events. In August, Idyllwild becomes the venue for the Jazz in the Pines music festival.

8 Legoland Amusement Park

Legoland Amusement Park
Legoland Amusement Park Ted Chi / photo modified
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Families with kids are sure to have a fun-filled day at Legoland, a children's amusement park featuring amazing Lego creations. Legoland boasts more than 60 exciting rides, special attractions, and inspiring shows. Highlights of the park include the nine-foot tall and 34-foot long Brontosaurus dinosaur made entirely from Lego bricks and the Royal Joust installation found in the Knight's Kingdom. Legoland also features a Water Park, with aquatics-focused Lego models that spray water, and the Sea Life Aquarium. Located in Carlsbad, the park is an easy day trip, just 35 miles from San Diego.

9 Temecula's Historic Old Town and Pennypickle's Children's Museum

Temecula's Historic Old Town and Pennypickle's Children's Museum
Temecula's Historic Old Town and Pennypickle's Children's Museum
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About an hours' drive, 58 miles north, of San Diego, the historic town of Temecula dates back to 1882 and is definitely worth exploring. Temecula's Old Town has interesting little alleyways and old streets dotted with locally owned boutiques, art galleries, and antique shops. Within the Old Town, the Pennypickle's Workshop is a wonderful attraction for families with children. PennyPickle's children's museum has won awards from the Themed Entertainment Association, Nickelodeon Networks, and the California Park and Recreation Society. The 7,000-square-foot workshop is filled with games, gizmos, and gadgets that are designed to inspire a child's imagination. Kids will be delighted by Professor Pennypickle's laboratory of inventions like the "Illusionator" and the "Electrolight-o-later" as well as the library, with its hidden passageway to the Maze Room.

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