11 Top-Rated Day Trips from San Diego
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Epitomizing the sunny and laid-back California lifestyle, the area around San Diego boasts spectacular coastal scenery. Miles and miles of pristine sandy shoreline and the Pacific Ocean's mesmerizing deep-blue waters provide a stunning backdrop for outdoor activities.
Besides natural beauty, the area is dotted with charming towns. La Jolla, just 22 miles away from San Diego, is a gorgeous oceanfront town with superb beaches. Less than an hours' drive from San Diego, the farming community of Julian delights visitors with its apple orchards and famous apple pies, and the historic town of Temecula features an entertaining children's museum.
For those seeking a taste of another culture, several destinations in Mexico are easily accessible from San Diego, including the picturesque seaport of Ensenada, about a two-hour drive along the coastline, and Tijuana just across the border.
Find the best places to visit near San Diego with our list of the top day trips.
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1. Spectacular Beaches in La Jolla
Breathtaking ocean scenery, gorgeous sandy 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.
Only 22 miles away from San Diego, the La Jolla coastline has several excellent beaches in unspoiled natural environments. Windansea Beach is a picturesque surfing spot, with powerful waves that are best attempted by expert surfers. This beach is often used for wedding photos and is known for its beautiful sunsets.
Sheltered by sandstone ocean bluffs, La Jolla Cove is a deep-water bay with protected waters that are ideal for snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming. It's possible to spot orange Garibaldi fish and sea lions. This family-friendly beach has excellent amenities: a walking path, restaurants with ocean views, picnic tables, gazebos, lifeguards, public restrooms, and showers.
La Jolla Shores is an expansive sandy beach with gentle waves that are ideal for beginning surfers. It's also a good place for sunbathing, swimming, scuba diving, and kayaking. La Jolla Shores is also home to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography's Birch Aquarium, which exhibits a wide array of marine life, from rare weedy seadragons to colorful tropical fish.
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 secluded beach is ideal for relaxation and nature walks. The northern area of Black's Beach is clothing optional.
Downtown La Jolla has many wonderful places to discover. In particular, Prospect Street, Pearl Street, and La Jolla Boulevard have a great selection of restaurants, cafés, and shops, while Girard Avenue has many clothing stores, as well as several interesting antique shops and home decor boutiques.
Art lovers will appreciate the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (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
During the whale migration season, tourists can take a whale-watching cruise and get thrillingly close to these amazing marine mammals. 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 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. The blue whale migration season is usually from May or June through September or October. The grey whale migration season is roughly from December until April and peaks in mid-January.
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 farther out in the ocean.
It's truly awe-inspiring to observe these blue whales, 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.
Various companies offer whale-watching boat tours throughout the year. Departing from San Diego, the San Diego Whale Watching Cruise takes participants on a four-hour sailing expedition to spot gray whales, as well as other marine mammals. Another option is the three-hour San Diego Whale Watching Cruise on a two-story yacht.
3. Mission San Juan Capistrano
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. Various wings of the mission display religious artifacts, historical paintings, and exhibits about the mission system. A Native American Museum pays homage to the Acjachemen people who lived in this area before the Spanish missionaries arrived, and have a rich cultural heritage.
A short walk from the mission, San Juan Capistrano has a quaint historic downtown, Los Rios District, with many restaurants and cafés as well as a few antique shops. Tourists will enjoy wandering around this area at leisure. The San Juan Capistrano Historical Society provides walking tours of Los Rios District.
Location: 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, California
An adventure in a foreign country is as close as 32 kilometers away from San Diego, 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 impressive El Foro Palacio Jai Alai concert hall.
To discover modern-day Tijuana, travelers should visit the Centro Cultural Tijuana, which 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
This quaint Gold Rush town in the Cuyamaca Mountains, 62 miles from San Diego, dates back to the 1870s. Julian has retained its historic character, and the town's lovingly restored old buildings have been converted into shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts.
In keeping with the town's old-world ambience, horse-drawn carriages convey tourists down the Main Street. Another way to step back in time is by spending the night at one of Julian's old-time hotels.
Gold Rush history comes to life in Julian. The Eagle Mining Co., one of the original gold mines, is a top tourist attraction, while the annual Gold Rush Days festival gives tourists a chance to watch re-enactments of a mining camp and attend other events such as an arts and crafts market.
Julian is also famous for its apple orchards and fresh-baked apple pie (the best pie is said to be found at the Julian Pie Company). Many visitors also come for the apple harvest season in the fall to enjoy an afternoon at one of the orchards that allow you to pick your own apples.
At the end of September, the Julian Apple Days Festival is a two-day celebration that features farmstead apple stands, apple pies for sale, games for kids, music, and dancing.
Another lively event in September is the Julian Music Festival, an "end of summer" celebration with outdoor concerts, mostly bluegrass but also folk music and jazz.
6. Ensenada: A Picturesque Seaport in Mexico
This sunny seaside town (about 100 miles south of San Diego) in Baja California is Mexico's second largest stop for cruise ships. Ensenada's attractive harbor and waterfront setting make it a favorite resort destination among tourists.
The area around Ensenada is prized for its fine sandy beaches, as well as mountains. Sports lovers and nature enthusiasts appreciate the two national parks near Ensenada for mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing.
Other things to do in the Ensenada area include surfing, fishing, kayaking, and scuba diving. From December through mid-April, whale-watching cruises are popular. It's an amazing experience to sail along the breathtaking stretch of Pacific coastline surrounding Ensenada, and spot magnificent gray whales.
Besides stunning natural scenery, Ensenada is also known for its luxury spas, golf courses, authentic restaurants, and food stalls. The local gastronomy has a UNESCO designation.
7. Beautiful Mountain Scenery in Idyllwild
Idyllwild is a quaint mountain village in the peaceful 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. During the summer, Idyllwild becomes the venue for the Jazz in the Pines music festival.
8. Legoland California
Families with kids are sure to have a fun-filled day at LEGOLAND California, a children's amusement park with amazing Lego creations. LEGOLAND boasts larger-than-life Lego models, special attractions, and entertaining shows.
The Legoland California Resort also includes the SEA LIFE Aquarium, with hands-on exhibits and close-up views of sea creatures (such as sharks, stingrays, and octopi) and the LEGO CHIMA Water Park, with aquatics-focused rides and activities like the Soak-N-Sail pirate vessel and a Splash Zoo for little ones.
Located in Carlsbad, the LEGOLAND California Resort is an easy 30-minute drive from San Diego. Visitors staying overnight can choose from the LEGOLAND Hotel, with themed rooms, and the LEGOLAND Castle Hotel, which has an entertainment courtyard and a special pool area designed to engage kids in interactive water play.
Address: 1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad, California
9. Temecula's Historic Old Town and Pennypickle's Children's Museum
About an hours' drive from San Diego, the town of Temecula dates back to 1882 and has an atmospheric Old Town, with interesting little alleyways and historic buildings. Temecula's Old Town is a fun place for tourists to wander around and check out the locally owned boutiques, art galleries, and antique shops.
A favorite attraction in the Old Town is Pennypickle's Workshop, an award-winning children's museum filled with games, gizmos, and gadgets designed to spark the imagination. Kids love Professor Pennypickle's laboratory of inventions such as the Electrolight-o-later Chandelier and a Peanut-Butter-and-Jelly-Sandwich-Making Machine.
During summertime, Temecula comes to life with many free cultural happenings. Moonlight Movies in the Park (on Friday evenings in June and July) delight those who enjoy watching films under the stars. The Summer Sunset Concert Series runs on Thursdays from June through July with music concerts held at the Temecula Amphitheater.
In August, Sundays in the Square brings live music and other events to the outdoor plaza in front of Temecula's Civic Center. Western Days in mid-September gives tourists a chance to enjoy nostalgic carnival games and learn about the town's history through in-depth museum exhibits.
10. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Adventurous travelers will enjoy a visit to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a place of rugged desert scenery about 80 miles northeast of San Diego. This wild and dramatic landscape of canyons, cliffs, and rocky outcrops is home to native bighorn sheep, roadrunners, loggerhead shrike birds, and other wildlife.
The word "borrego" means "sheep" in Spanish; the other part of the park's name refers to Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who in 1774 traversed this remote desert. Although the landscape is mostly barren, hearty species of brittlebush, cactus, wildflowers, and palm oases manage to thrive.
In years of heavy winter rainfall, the display of springtime and summer wildflowers is spectacular. The park even has a "Wildflower Hotline" that provides updates about wildflowers on a recorded phone message.
As the largest state park in California, this 600,000-acre preserve offers a wide variety of hiking trails. The park has six trails designed for self-guided hikes.
The preserve also joins up with the Pacific Crest Trail, the epic hiking trail that extends for 2,600 miles from the border of Mexico, near the small town of Campo, through three Western states (California, Oregon, and Washington) to British Columbia, Canada near Castle Peak.
11. Santa Ysabel Chapel
Just eight miles from Julian, the Santa Ysabel Chapel is set in a lush garden, which seems to defy the stark desert environment. This site was part of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first Spanish missions to be founded in California. There are a total of 21 missions on the California Historic Mission Trail.
The chapel present today was built in 1924 near the site of the original 19th-century Spanish Mission's adobe church, which no longer exists (the roof collapsed). The site still has the old cemetery and a piece of the original chapel's floor found next to the chapel.
When visiting the Santa Ysabel Chapel, tourists may enjoy meditating under shady trees in the garden and spending time at the chapel's museum to learn about the heritage of local Indians. The site also has a gift shop, which sells religious items and Indian crafts.
Address: 23013 Highway 79, Santa Ysabel, California
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Explore San Diego: If you need inspiration for adventures in the city of San Diego, see our article on the Top Things to Do in San Diego, as well as our piece on Outdoor Adventures in San Diego. Families with kids can also find ideas for children's activities and destinations in our Top Things to Do with Kids in San Diego and Top Family Resorts in San Diego guides.