While it may be difficult to tear yourself away from our sparkling beaches and famous attractions, the best day trips from San Diego include theme parks, cultural activities, historical sites, and even jaunts south of the border in just one or two hours away from downtown.
San Diego County is large, and it can take an hour (or more) to reach one end from another. The excursions I’ve focused on here are outside of areas tourists normally visit, such as Carlsbad, La Jolla, and Escondido, where San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located.
And, I’m keeping it real with day trips I would actually take as a San Diego resident. Many similar lists suggest trekking much further than is reasonable, given drive times and traffic.
So, whether you’re on a long vacation here or a resident looking for new weekend things to do, these ideas are worth bulking up your road trip song playlist to enjoy more of Southern California and even Mexico.
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Day Trips from San Diego Approximately One Hour or Less from Downtown
Journey an hour or so from downtown and you’ll find yourself at sea or perhaps our more rural mountain towns.
1. Whale Watching
This is not a trip away from San Diego but rather a half-day trip out on the ocean that is almost mandatory for those visiting San Diego.
Although the main San Diego whale watching season is from early December until the end of April, blue whales and gray whales migrate at different times, so whale watching tours are offered year-round.
If neither gray nor blue whales are around on the day of your tour, you will likely see orcas, minke whales, and fin whales. Dolphins are often seen performing their own unscripted antics. Browse whale watching tours.
There is more to the gold mining town of Julian than apple pie (definitely grab some at Julian Pie Company), although that is one of the things for which the town is famous. Barely an hour’s drive away from San Diego, situated in the Cuyamaca Mountains, shops are housed in buildings that date back to the 1870s.
Whether you want to relax, eat pie, sip wine or explore the environs on one of the many hiking trails, you will find what you are looking for in Julian. You can take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. You can visit historical museums and art galleries. It’s also a popular place to go camping.
Julian offers something different depending on the month you visit. From Gold Rush Days to a Bluegrass Music Festival, from an old-world style Grape Stomp to a Country Christmas, whenever you visit San Diego, a day trip to Julian will be worth your while.
3. Mount Laguna
Mount Laguna is not a town, but a community about a one-hour drive east of downtown San Diego.
There are cabins you can rent and a restaurant that may or may not be open. There are hiking trails to match the needs of both the novice and experienced hiker. You can camp and mountain bike. In the winter, you can ski, snowshoe, or go sledding.
Visit the San Diego State University Mount Laguna Observatory while in the area. It is one of the best stargazing spots in the country due to its secluded, light-free environment.
A drive to Temecula takes about an hour and people visit for several reasons.
One of the most popular things to do in Temecula is to visit wineries. Its typically warm days, cool evenings and ocean breezes make the region fantastic for growing Italian, Spanish and French grapes. If you wanted to spend the night, take a look at some of the charming Temecula winery hotels.
Aside from wine country, you should also stop into Old Town for its antique stores, quaint restaurants with an old-time atmosphere, and Children’s Museum.
Pechanga Casino is also a destination in itself between its more than 5000 slot machines, 4.5-acre pool deck, fantastic spa, and an enormous buffet.
More adventurous souls might try hot-air ballooning. Temecula is known for its early morning sunrise breakfast tours as well as for sunset tours.
5. San Juan Capistrano
You can make the drive in one-hour or you can hop on the Pacific Surfliner to San Juan Capistrano and enjoy the coastal view while you relax on the train. The Spanish Mission of San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776 by missionaries from Spain and is a short walk from the train station.
The mission with its Spanish architecture sits amid fields and rolling hills reminiscent of a Mediterranean countryside and swallows return to the mission every spring.
The mission celebrates this event on March 19, Saint Joseph’s Day. It is likely that you will not see any more swallows on this day than on any other spring day at the Mission.
When you are ready to leave the mission, stroll through San Juan Capistrano Los Rios district. It is San Juan Capistrano’s old town with historic buildings, antiques, quaint shops, and enticing eateries.
Day Trips from San Diego Approximately Two Hours or Less from Downtown
LA IS A LONG DAYTruthfully, I try not to visit LA for the day. With traffic, the round-trip driving is rough. But, if you’re coming from across the country and have never been, I would say go for it, if you don’t mind a very long and full day. If you can spend the night, it’s better!
6. Disneyland Resort
It’s quite easy to take the train from San Diego to Disneyland Resort in Anaheim in just over two hours each way. You can also drive in roughly 90 minutes. Many, many families make this popular day trip from San Diego as it’s a bucket list experience for many kids (and some adults).
There are two parks, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure, which you can see on the same day with a Park Hopper ticket. The entrances to the parks are directly across from each other.
If you’re visiting in a single day, Disney MaxPass will be a worthwhile ticket upgrade. MaxPass allows users to save time by making FastPass selections via mobile phone instead of walking to FastPass stations around the park.
7. Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm combines its 1880s Old West Boom Town theme with up-to-date amusement park rides including roller coasters and tamer options for younger kids. You can also see one-of-a-kind shows for the whole family or try sarsaparilla and boysenberry beer at Calico Saloon.
Knott’s Berry Farm will celebrate its 100th anniversary between May 15 and August 30, 2020. The Farm opened in 1920 as a roadside berry stand and Chicken Dinner Restaurant and is now a favorite Southern California theme park.
Don’t forget that you can buy Knott’s Berry Farm discount tickets and that the water park is open in the summer.
8. Anza-Borrego Desert
Borrego Springs, a town in the heart of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is a designated International Dark Sky Community, so it is an ideal place for astrophotography, or just stargazing in general. It is only about a 75-minute drive from downtown San Diego.
Outdoor activities include miles of desert trails in the park to explore by hiking or biking. You can rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and traverse the hundreds of miles of desert roads. It’s a particularly popular day trip from San Diego during the spring wildflower season.
On your way to Borrego Springs, you will pass by Galetta Meadows Sculptures which are real-life creations of artist and welder Ricardo Breceda. There are more than 130 metal sculptures dotting the countryside of the Anza-Borrego Desert, most of them in Borrego Springs.
The sculptures depict elephants, sloths, camels, saber-toothed tigers and more. Even though they are life-size and intricately detailed, they may be hard to locate, but you can find maps online with information about each sculpture and the artist responsible for this magnificent art display.
9. Laguna Beach
For a taste of the Orange County lifestyle, many take day trips from San Diego to the artist colony of Laguna Beach. Its seven miles beach offers more coves, tide pools, and little caves to explore in addition to plenty of space for sunbathing.
The winter Sawdust Arts Festival is the closest thing SoCal has to a European Christmas market with over 180 vendors selling their wares in addition to plenty of food options. The summer show, a local tradition since 1966, runs for nearly two months and features even more artisans who showcase and sell their crafts, jewelry, clothing, and much more.
Laguna Beach is a seaside town also well-known for its hip boutiques, casual vibe, and off-beach activities like hiking and biking. Art lovers enjoy it but so do couples and families.
10. The Getty Center and Getty Villa
Lovers of art, architecture, and beautiful gardens will be in nirvana at J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It’s comprised of two facilities: The Getty Center and Getty Villa.
The Getty Center is located on top of a hill with a magnificent view of Los Angeles. You will relish in the original paintings of impressionists, sculptures, an extensive collection of photographs, and more. One of the most famous pieces on display here is the Vincent Van Gogh painting Irises.
Pay attention to what the special exhibit is on the day of your visit. When you need a break, stroll through the immaculately manicured gardens. Then browse in the Museum Store and perhaps buy an art print of your favorite painting. You can eat in the on-site cafe.
Set in Pacific Palisades, about 20 minutes away (without traffic) from Getty Center, visiting the Getty Villa is like stepping back in time to a first-century Roman Villa. The antiquities’ collection found in the museums here date from the end of the Stone Age to the fall of the Roman Empire, a span of approximately 7,000 years.
On the day of your visit, you may choose to experience audio tours of the various sections of the Villa ranging from architecture, garden, or collections. Or, explore all tours. Then, enjoy the Mediterranean inspired cuisine at the café.
Tip: Entrance to the Getty Center and Getty Villa is free but you need to request a ticket to the Getty Villa.
11. The Queen Mary
The Queen Mary has a colorful past as a WW II troopship turned luxury cruise liner in the 1950s. The Queen Mary sailed its maiden voyage on May 27, 1936 and retired from the sea in 1967 when she arrived in Long Beach where she has been ever since.
Myths and legends are attached to this ocean liner. Some say she is haunted.
In addition to being a museum, the liner is also a floating hotel and houses three world-class restaurants. It is a popular venue for many special events such as weddings and concerts. The drive from downtown San Diego to Long Beach takes about two hours along the coast.
12. Palomar Mountain State Park
The Mt. Palomar Observatory sits atop Mt. Palomar in the northern part of San Diego County a bit less than two hours from downtown.
It is the home of the world’s largest working telescope, the Hale Telescope. You can pack a picnic and enjoy the grounds. There is also a visitor’s center, museum, and gift shop.
Palomar Mountain State Park is also a popular hiking destination.
13. Downtown Los Angeles
The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles should take around 2.5 hours without traffic. Because of traffic, many opt for the roughly 3-hour train journey. You can get off at various inland Los Angeles County stops, including downtown. Note that the train doesn’t stop along the coast where LAX and Santa Monica are located.
Historic Union Station is quite close to some of the ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Olvera Street. You can even take an Uber to Hollywood to see tourist attractions like the Walk of Fame or some of the well-known museums like LACMA or La Brea Tar Pits — both family-friendly options.
My daughter has always loved the La Brea Tar Pits because you can see tar pits onsite and visit the museum to observe scientists at work still deciphering the bones’ meanings. Beverly Hills is also nearby.
Just be sure to plan for ample time to get back to the train station. Union Station is a beautiful example of the 1930s Mission Moderne style with a large lobby, Starbucks, and other conveniences.
It is a long journey, and we’ve done it for the day many times, but taking the train can be easier than driving during rush hour.
It will take you almost exactly two hours to drive to Idyllwild. It is a great place to visit winter, spring, summer, or fall. The mountain village has something for everyone from quaint shops, art galleries, and exhibitions.
Outdoor buffs can enjoy bike riding, rock climbing, or simple nature hikes. Pack your hiking boots and your snowshoes because you just never know.
15. San Clemente
The drive to San Clemente takes you north along the Pacific Ocean. When you get there, you can surf, swim, or shop. The famous Del Mar Street shops will have everything you need and then some.
You can catch a boat for whale watching, or find the trail along the beach for jogging, biking, or walking. Stroll out on the pier and eat at Fisherman’s. There are also restaurants near the pier that will suit any taste.
Alternatively, it’s very easy to take the train from San Diego to San Clemente.
16. Richard Nixon Library
This library is worth a visit no matter what you think of the 37th president of the United States. Regardless of the unpleasant ending of his six-year presidency, the library offers insight into major world events that occurred during those years.
It provides insight into the workings of a corrupt president and those around him. In addition to all President Nixon’s papers and tapes, the museum is dedicated to education. Concerts are held every Sunday at 2 p.m.
If you’re willing to drive a bit further than the 90 minutes it typically takes to reach Yorba Linda from San Diego, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley (we have been multiple times) is larger though nearly three hours away. You can walk through his Air Force One plane and kids tend to like the various hands-on exhibits.
17. Palm Springs
Palm Springs makes for a long day trip from San Diego (it’s better to stay overnight), but many people do it. The desert resort destination was once a popular hang-out for movie stars and is famous for Mid-Century architecture in addition to leisure activities like golf and tennis.
One of the best things to do in Palm Springs on a day trip is to ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the largest aerial tramway in the world. The tram travels two-and-a-half miles up the mountain to the Mt. San Jacinto State Park.
In addition to the observation deck, you will find two restaurants, a natural history museum and more. If you are adventurous, you can skip the return tram trip and hike back down to the bottom of the mountain.
Shoppers will enjoy stopping at the Cabazon outlet mall on the way home. Don’t leave the Palm Springs area either without having a famous date shake at Shields or elsewhere.
Days Trips to Mexico from San Diego
It’s possible to walk across the border (having Global Entry helps) to Tijuana, but if it’s your first time, you may want to consider joining a tour. We recommend the variety of cross-border experiences departing San Diego that you can book through Five Star Tours.
TIP: 5% OFFFive Star Tours operates a variety of Baja day trips and tours with round-trip transportation from San Diego. Use code lajollamom for 5% off your booking
If you choose to drive across, you’ll need to study the requirements and insurance considerations especially when it comes to rental cars. And you should be prepared to sit in traffic.
You will have a duty free daily limit of USD 50 per person in personal consumption items that is cumulative depending on how many people in your family are traveling with you. If you’re going to stay more than 72 hours, a fee of USD 20–25 is required.
All of this aside, if you’re comfortable venturing into Mexico and are smart about how you do it, it’s a fun way to spend a day.
18. Tijuana, Mexico
A Tijuana day trip from San Diego is the easiest Mexico excursion as it’s located right across the border, about a 30-minute drive from downtown.
It’s an opportunity to experience the unforgettable culture of the land of Mexico. Tijuana is the largest city in Baja California, which is one of Mexico’s 32 states.
You will find quaint shops selling souvenirs with street vendors lining the boulevards of which Avenida Revolucion is the most popular.
Be prepared to “negotiate” for the best price and for children and adults asking you for money. Don’t leave without visiting the Tijuana Cultural Center for the museum and cultural exhibitions.
19. Rosarito Beach, Mexico
Not too far south of Tijuana is Rosarito Beach, another day trip to Mexico from San Diego.
It is a resort town known for its beautiful beaches and night-life. In May and June, you will find art and music festivals. The climate year-round is dry and warm. Surfing is great and you may enjoy snorkeling.
If you scuba dive, you can visit the offshore underwater park where you will find a ship cemetery as a tribute to the Titanic. There is also an underwater botanical garden.
20. Ensenada, Mexico
Ensenada offers a plethora of activities from sunbathing on the beach to surfing about two hours from San Diego by car. The calm waters are considered ideal for beginning surfers. Scuba divers will be pleased with their underwater adventure.
You can visit vineyards and take a wine tasting tour. Interesting and varied cuisine makes dining an adventure.
In between Rosarito and Ensenada is another town called Puerto Nuevo which is worth a stop for famous Puerto Nuevo style lobster. This dish is a split-in-half grilled spiny lobster with a side of tortillas, beans, rice, and salsas.
Other Day Trips From San Diego — How Much Time to Plan?
Let me address some other suggestions that I see listed on similar lists.
Is La Jolla a day trip destination from San Diego?
Technically, no. La Jolla is not just a part of San Diego County, but we are actually part of the City of San Diego! Hence, despite what many online lists say, we are not a day trip from San Diego, well, because we’re in city limits.
The reason why I want to point this out is that you should visit La Jolla. But you don’t need to get into a day trip mentality and gear up for a long road trip.
It only takes about 20 minutes to reach La Jolla Cove from downtown. Come for a half-day or a few hours to see our seals and sea lions, have lunch or dinner, go shopping — perhaps even take a kayak tour. It’s an effortless excursion that I can tell you all about, obviously. See my tips for planning a day in La Jolla.
What About Carlsbad?
Carlsbad is its own city within San Diego County. It takes about 30-40 minutes to reach Carlsbad from downtown San Diego without traffic, depending on where you’re going.
Many of San Diego’s best resorts are in Carlsbad, so you might be considering staying here. Most visiting families wind up in Carlsbad beacuse it’s where LEGOLAND California is located.
Yes, it is a day trip from San Diego or Coronado just because of the drive time. It’s an easy drive. The quieter beaches are pretty, and in spring you should visit the Flower Fields.
What are your favorite San Diego day trips?