You have probably heard someone refer to San Diego as ‘America’s finest city.’ The name didn’t just come to be; San Diego has picturesque locations, from cultural restaurants to sunny beaches.
These beautiful spots aren’t just located within San Diego, they are all around, and you’ll have to go out to explore them.
There are several website trip suggestions- the list is long enough to overwhelm. The truth, however, is that not all are worth your time. Without a guide, you may omit an enchanting location. This is why I’ve compiled the best day trips from San Diego for you to explore and enjoy.
First things first- you will need a car. If you’re not taking your car, you could use Lyft or Uber. This is because, although there is a public transport system, it can be very unpleasant. Walking is not an option either because the neighborhoods are not so close.
Best Day Trips from San Diego
Here are the ten best day trips from San Diego:
La Jolla, translated as ‘the pearl,’ is just 30 minutes away from downtown San Diego- so it can as well be a half-day trip. La Jolla has been categorized as one of the world’s best beach destinations, with many outdoor activities, boutique shops, and restaurants. Every part of La Jolla has a Southern California aura.
One of the largest working piers in the world, Scripps Pier, is in La Jolla. If you have a retro film camera, you should bring it along to take amazing shots. The large pier is used to monitor the oceanographic changes in the Pacific Ocean.
There are different sea cliffs and caves around the coastline; you could go hiking, cliff jumping, or diving. However, you could simply chill on the white sand beaches if you’re not adventurous. You could also head to La Jolla Cove to spend time with cute pelicans, sea lions, and seals.
Also, you shouldn’t miss the amazing delicacies offered at the restaurants.
Oceanside in California
Oceanside, called O’Side, is a vacation destination between San Diego and Los Angeles. It is a renovated beach town 40 minutes away from San Diego.
Surfing is the most famous recreational activity in Oceanside. However, if you’re not a surfer, there are other options. You could visit Oceanside Harbor to indulge in sunset cocktail cruises, deep sea fishing, and whale watching.
To satisfy your thirst, you should head over to O’Side Sips- a free, web-based passport program that includes 33 spots where they sell spirits, coffee, tea, juices, local beers, and cocktails. Alternatively, you could go to Local Tap House to enjoy their cocktail menu or have beer from any of their 20 taps of local beer.
If fusion cuisine sounds fun, don’t miss the Balinese-inspired restaurant, Dija Mara. There is also a vegan restaurant called The Plot. However, if you prefer light food, head to Beach Break Cafe for plate-sized pancakes.
Every Thursday evening, there is a wonderful food festival downtown at the Oceanside Sunset Market. It usually includes a world market, over 200 food vendors on a four-block stretch with an international food court, live music, and dessert stands that take up a whole block. You shouldn’t miss this festival if you happen to visit O’Side on a Thursday evening.
Julian in California
Julian is about 80 minutes away from San Diego. It is known to be a relatively affordable, family-friendly, small gold mining town in the far eastern part of the county.
Since Julian is a historic town dating back to the 1870s(days of the Gold Rush), you should start exploring by visiting one of the gold mines. Guides that will tell you beautiful stories of the Gold Rush and take you deep into the mine are at your service.
Although it’s not a destination where you’ll have to wait in queues for anything, the rush always increases during the apple harvesting season. If you miss the harvesting period, you can still have your fill of apple pies at Mom’s Pie House and some cider at Julian Hard Cider.
A portion of the Pacific Crest cuts through the Cleveland National Forest. Three Sisters Falls has a waterfall, a hiking trail that can be hiked year-round, and several natural sights. You could also fish on Lake Cuyamaca or go to the Integrity Stables for horseback riding.
The California Wolf Center has several wolves, and spending some time with them will be wonderful. If you’re up for shopping, proceed to any of the numerous local stores where you can get souvenirs.
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia
Mission San Luis is just 50 minutes away from San Diego. It is an old mission complex that dates back to 1798. So if you’re looking for a trip destination that won’t involve many physical activities, this is your perfect location. Also, if you’re a history enthusiast, you’re in for a fun day.
The mission gives you a colorful mix of Spanish style(you might have guessed from the name) and SoCal style. You will see California’s oldest living pepper tree, planted in the 1830s.
I recommend exploring the working mission complex, which includes several structures like the Spanish-style arched colonnades, the complex water system formerly used as a bathing area and laundry- called the lavenderia, the old friar’s quarters, and ruins of soldier’s barracks.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is about two and a half hours away from San Diego. The park got its name from the twisted and spiky trees in the desert environment.
For hikers, there are many hiking trails to choose from. You could go for Lost Horse Mine if you prefer a moderate 4-mile hike or choose Skull Rock Trail, a skull-shaped rock formation with a 1.7-mile trail. If you’re up for a moderate to strenuous hike, you should go to Ryan Mountain, which features a 1,050-foot elevation gain. Your well-deserved reward is the amazing 360° view of the several vistas of the park from above.
Aside from hiking, there are different attractions at the park, including the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, the Crotchet Museum, and the geometric dome designed to increase the sonic experience of sound baths- Integatron.
If you happen to be there at night, you should not miss the stargazing experience. There are wonderful military-grade night vision goggles to gaze at the stars while you learn about different cultural constellation stories.
Another popular park area is the Cholla Cactus Garden, where you can admire the teddy bear cacti. You could also run up and down the boulders at Jumbo Rocks and watch the sunset from Keys View, the highest viewing point at Joshua Tree National Park.
Now, let’s get to the food part. If you’re veggie-loving, go to Natural Sisters Café or Sam’s Indian Food and Pizza. If classic restaurants fascinate you, you won’t be disappointed at Crossroads Café and Country Kitchen.
Whether you go at night or during the day, you’ll have different activities to spend your time on.
To get to Catalina Island, you will spend about 90 minutes in a car, then an hour on the ferry. Well, I assure you that it’s worth it.
Have you seen movies where they mentioned places like Avalon? This is your opportunity to experience all that euphoria yourself. Catalina Island is about 23 miles off the Los Angeles coast and one of the most charming places you can visit from San Diego.
I recommend the glass bottom boat tour to have a view underwater- it’s an experience you’ll remember for a very long time. Alternatively, you could just walk around the beachfront and bask in the beach breeze while watching the boats rock in the waves.
The island is very popular for extreme-sport activities; you could go jet-skiing or parasailing- the adrenaline rush is not from this world! You could also visit the Catalina Island Museum and the Catalina Art Gallery to look at historical art pieces.
If you enjoy playing golf, then you should do it there too.
Numerous restaurants are also ready to bless your taste buds with exotic food and drinks.
If you have the whole weekend, there are also beachside hotels to give you the royal treatment you deserve.
Tijuana in Mexico
Of course, since you’re in San Diego, you can travel abroad in just a few hours. You can get to Tijuana from San Diego in less than an hour(40 minutes, to be precise) because it sits over the border from California.
A trip to Tijuana isn’t complete without a visit to Avenida Revolución in Zona Centro. There are different craft breweries, from Cervecaria Lirica, surrounded by many food stalls in an open space, to Telefonica Gastro Park, a central craft brewery. If pressed suckling pig and risotto arborio sounds mouthwatering, you should dine at Javier Placencia’s Mision 19. They also have a reasonable 4-course prix fixe vegan tasting menu.
To dive into their rich history and culture, you should visit Centro Cultural Tijuana, a museum that gives you an exhibit on the history of Baja California. You might also want to stop past the Cathedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, one of the city’s most attractive local cathedrals. It’s one of the best things to do in Tijuana.
There is a buzzing shopping scene in Tijuana, too. Other than the traditional tourist centers, make sure you take a stroll around the Mercado Hidalgo and Mercado El Popo, which are two fresh produce markets. You’ll find some souvenirs and crafts in these markets.
Idyllwild is about 2 hours away from San Diego. For outdoor activity lovers, you should head to the beating heart of San Jacinto Mountains- Idyllwild.
You can learn about local flora and fauna, picnic, or go on a guided nature hike at the Idyllwild Nature Center, which has bicycle and bridle trails to explore. Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Peak offer challenging rock climbing and several great mountain biking trails. Art lovers aren’t excluded from all the enjoyable experiences; you will enjoy the animated art scene coordinated by the Art Alliance Idyllwild, which operates many galleries, studios, and exhibitions.
If you want something more thrilling, there are several excellent mountain biking trails and challenging rock climbing routes like Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Peak.
For a more culture-based experience, the Art Alliance Idyllwild provides a vibrant arts scene with numerous galleries, studios, and shows. You’ll be glad you did!
Carlsbad is just 45 minutes away from San Diego. It is where one of the largest flower fields in southern California is located – The Carlsbad Flower Fields!
I recommend basking in the Carlsbad Flower Fields if you’re visiting between March and May. So if you love pretty blooms, get ready. This place will blow your mind. You could walk on Carlsbad State Beach (either on the sand or the paved pedestrian path), and be sure to look out for dolphins, as they are frequently spotted here.
For the perfect snacking experience, you should grab donuts from The Goods; with flavors like stuffed Nutella and s’mores, you’ll want to keep having more. Also, you could eat panda dumplings, indulge in bao buns, and slurp on ramen at Harumama Noodles.
Carlsbad is also home to three amazing lagoons that offer brilliant wildlife watching, hiking trails, and kayaking opportunities. You can explore over 50 miles of trails that vary from comfortable strolls to strenuous hikes and are mostly suitable for biking.
Disneyland is just one and a half hours from San Diego, so why not?
Enjoy the popular sugary cotton candy and wait in line to meet your favorite characters. I enjoy getting flipped upside down on one of the many exhilarating roller coasters. Don’t forget to bring your camera along as there are several uniquely beautiful spots, like The Walt Disney Bench, to take amazing shots.
A trip to Disneyland is magical; you shouldn’t miss it for anything(as long as you have the time). However, a trip to Disneyland is only possible if you’ve booked your ticket(s) in advance.
Several attractions and vacation destinations surround San Diego. With this list, you can make your pick, depending on your preference.
However, you should bring your open-toed footwear along as you’ll be doing a lot of walking. You could wear your Vans if they are more comfortable for you.
So what’s left to do? Pack your bags and start your thrilling trip!