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. San Diego may be known as America’s finest city, but day trips from San Diego will prove that there are plenty of other sights to behold.
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Best 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 in our more rural mountain towns.
1. Whale Watching Cruises
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 from San Diego, situated in the Cuyamaca Mountains, shops are housed in buildings dating 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. Nature lovers will love exploring the environs on one of the many hiking trails at Cuyamaca Rancho state park or Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. You can ride in a horse-drawn carriage, visit historical museums, and art galleries. It’s also a popular place to go camping at either the William Heise County Park or Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
Julian offers something different depending on the month you visit. From a visit to the California Wolf Conservation center to an old-world style Grape Stomp to a Country Christmas, a day trip to Julian will be worthwhile whenever you visit San Diego.
3. Mount Laguna
Calling all nature lovers! Looking for a spot to get away and unplug? Then census-designated Mount Laguna should be on your list.
Twelve motel rooms and 17 charming cabins with one, two, or even three bedrooms are available for your lodging, while great San Diego hiking trails are nearby to match the needs of both the novice and experienced hiker (the Pacific Crest trail runs through here). With the Cleveland National forest nearby, you can camp, enjoy bird watching, 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 want 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 and sunset tours.
5. San Juan Capistrano
You can drive in one hour, or hop on the Pacific Surfliner to San Juan Capistrano and enjoy the coastal view while relaxing 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.
With its Spanish architecture, the San Juan Capistrano mission sits amid fields and rolling hills, is reminiscent of 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 the San Juan Capistrano Los Rios district. It is San Juan Capistrano’s old town with historic buildings, antiques, quaint shops, and enticing eateries.
6. Lake Poway Recreational Area
The small but mighty Lake Poway is also an easy day trip from San Diego. Enjoy an idyllic day on the lake while attempting to snag a trout or two for dinner, or enjoy a tranquil picnic by the sandy beach.
Check out their fully stocked concessions stand. They have everything from tackle and bait to ice cream and hiking poles to help you make the best of your day at Lake Poway.
Best 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!
7. Disneyland Resort
It’s 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 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, Genie+ Lightning or Individual Lightning Lane will be a worthwhile ticket upgrade. Lightning Lane allows users to save time by making selections at certain attractions (such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain) for an arrival window to the lightning lane entrance via mobile phone.
8. 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 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.
9. Anza-Borrego Desert
Borrego Springs, a town in the heart of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is a designated International Dark Sky Community. 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 — check out their interactive wildflower map.
On your way to Borrego Springs, you will pass by Galetta Meadows Sculptures, real-life creations of artist and welder Ricardo Breceda. Art lovers will dig over 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.
10. 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 and 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 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, which makes it one of our favorite day trips from San Diego.
11. 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 dates 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 or pack a picnic to enjoy at any of the beaches along Pacific Coast Highway.
12. The Queen Mary
The Queen Mary has a colorful past as a WWII troopship turned luxury cruise liner in the 1950s. It sailed its maiden voyage on May 27, 1936, and retired from the sea in 1967 when she arrived in Long Beach.
Myths and legends are attached to this ocean liner. Some say she is haunted.
In addition to being a museum, the liner is a floating hotel with 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, 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.
14. 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.
You can even take an Uber to Hollywood to see tourist attractions like the Hollywood Walk of Fame or 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 plan for ample time to return 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.
A two-hour drive to Idyllwild will find you in the San Jacinto mountains. Rural and rugged, Idyllwild is a great place to visit year-round. The mountain village has something for everyone, from quaint shops to art galleries and exhibitions.
Outdoor buffs can enjoy bike riding, fishing, camping, rock climbing, or the many hiking trails. Pack your hiking boots and your snowshoes because you just never know.
16. San Clemente
The drive to San Clemente takes you north along the Pacific Ocean and right past popular San Onofre State Beach. When you get to San Clemente State Beach, 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, taking the train from San Diego to San Clemente is easy.
17. 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 President Nixon’s papers and tapes, the museum is dedicated to education.
18. Palm Springs
Palm Springs makes for a long day trip from San Diego (it’s better to stay overnight then follow it with a trip to Joshua Tree National Park), 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 and 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 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.
Best Days Trips to Mexico from San Diego
Walking across the border (having Global Entry helps) to Tijuana is possible, but if it’s your first time, you may want to consider joining a tour.
If you choose to drive across, you’ll need to study the requirements and insurance considerations, especially regarding rental cars. And you should be prepared to sit in traffic.
Anytime you leave the country, you should know the amount of duty-free exemption allowed. To do this, we recommend checking with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
If you’re comfortable venturing into Mexico and are smart about how you do it, it’s a fun way to spend a day.
19. 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, 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 children and adults asking you for money. Don’t leave without visiting the Tijuana Cultural Center for the museum and cultural exhibitions.
20. Rosarito Beach, Mexico
Rosarito Beach is another day trip to Mexico from San Diego, not too far south of Tijuana.
It is a resort town known for its beautiful beaches and nightlife. 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.
21. Ensenada, Mexico
Ensenada offers many 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 the 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 also 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’s just a short drive of about 30-40 minutes to reach the sunny resort town of Carlsbad from downtown San Diego without traffic, depending on where you’re going.
Yes, it is a day trip from San Diego or Coronado because of the drive time. It’s an easy drive. The quieter beaches are pretty, and in spring, you should visit The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch.
What are your favorite San Diego day trips?