San Diego is located in the ideal location. There’s Los Angeles to the north that provides the benefits of a large city, the solitude of the desert and mountains to the east when you want to get away from it all, the picturesque beach towns of North County, and plenty of cultural experiences across the border in Mexico.
With all these diverse options, day trips are seemingly endless, where driving for 2 hours one-way or under can get you out of the city and straight to experiences like wine tasting, beach-hopping, or even hanging out with Mickey Mouse. The choice is yours. The hardest part is deciding where to go.
Here are twenty options for memorable San Diego day trips.
Del Mar (25 minutes)
One of the wealthier communities of North County, this glitzy beach town is known for events like the Del Mar Horse Races and San Diego County Fair located on the Del Mar Fairgrounds during the summertime. Spend the afternoon at picturesque beaches like Del Mar City Beach, and pup-friendly Dog Beach. Every year in September, the city hosts the Taste of Del Mar, which features local artists in a free art walk, along with culinary highlights from nearby restaurants and live music.
For lunch: grab lomo saltado or ceviche at Café Secret that serves up comfort Peruvian food.
Solana Beach (25 minutes)
A coastal beach town that boasts a strong community feel. A whole afternoon can easily be spent at the Cedros Design District, where you can shop for home interior goods, stop into a café for a quick pick-me up or browse the numerous art galleries. For outdoor adventures, Fletcher Cove Beach is a sheltered inlet where you can take a swim or surf. Every summer, the Fiesta De Sol marks the beginning of the season, with live music, local art, and specialty foods.
For lunch: try Claire’s On Cedros, where you can indulge in dishes like a spicy chicken sandwich or their short rib hash.
Encinitas (30 minutes)
This eclectic seaside surf town has stunning beaches like Moonlight State Beach and Swami’s to spend a lazy afternoon lounging on and watch surfers do their thing. Further inland, the San Diego Botanic Garden has over 4,000 different plants from around the world, including rare bamboo groves and an intriguing undersea succulent garden. Head back to town and walk along historic downtown Encinitas to browse the boutique stores and cafes.
For lunch: head over to the Himalayan Kitchen, for flavorful garlic cilantro naan and lamb momos.
Carlsbad (40 minutes)
LEGOLAND California may be this coastal city’s claim to fame, but there is a lot more than this popular theme park to do in the area. Every spring, the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch boasts 50 acres of vibrant blooms. There is also the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, where you can indulge in an afternoon of self-care or perfect your swing on the golf courses. For music enthusiasts, the Museum of Making Music, is a great spot to learn about how instruments are made, as well as try your hand at making your own music.
For lunch: Fish District is an excellent choice for fish and chips with an ice cold brew or an ahi tuna poke bowl.
Oceanside (40 minutes)
One of the northernmost coastal towns in North County, this town is known for its historical sights like Mission San Luis Rey, California’s largest mission. There is also the California Surf Museum, where you can learn all about the state’s surf culture and history. To see surfers in action, head to Oceanside Pier, where if the weather is clear you can see all the way to La Jolla and the Coronado Islands. In August, the Annual World Bodysurfing Championships take place at the Oceanside Pier and Beach, where bodysurfers compete against one another with only a pair of swimming fins at their disposal.
For lunch: Try One Love Island Cuisine for jerk chicken and curry chicken that will make you nostalgic for the Caribbean.
Escondido (30 minutes)
This city in North County has a diverse range of activities to fill a day, from art to outdoor recreation. For a dose of wildlife, head to the massive San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where you can scope out animals in their natural habitats. Check out Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, a huge sculpture garden in the city’s KitCarson Park. If earth science is more your jam, the Roynon Museum of Earth Science and Paleontology is the place to go to learn about dinos and the world they inhabited.
For lunch: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens Escondido for cold brews and duck tacos in their scenic garden.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (1 hour 45 minutes)
Located in the Colorado Desert, this park provides more than 600,000 acres of desert preserve and is California’s largest state park. Start your trip at the park’s visitor center, just a bit northwest of the small town of Borrego Springs. Keep a lookout for the bighorn sheep, which are often seen on the trail to Palm Canyon. During the springtime, fields of vibrant wildflowers are on display, where the second week of March is often the peak bloom depending on weather conditions. Take a self-guided hike or join a guided hike with a naturalist to learn about the land.
For lunch: stop at El Borrego Restaurant for savory carnitas and asada tacos.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (45 minutes)
With over 100 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding in the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains, this park is an ideal day trip to get away from it all. Although the park is popular for its camping, day visitors can use the picnic area (BBQs, tables and restrooms) at the campgrounds for $10 per vehicle. For an easy self-guided hike, the Paso Picacho Nature Trail is a great way to take in the landscape. For a slightly more challenging hike, try the popular Stonewall Peak Trail for arguably the best views.
For lunch: Go to Granny’s Kitchen in nearby Julian for tuna melts and Mom’s Pie House for a slice of homemade cherry pie.
Palm Springs (2 hours)
Head to this glam dessert town to spend a day cooling off at the Arrive Hotel, where anyone can use the pool free of charge. Hop on the rotating Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to take in panoramic views of Coachella Valley below and hike around the trails once you reach the top. Walk along Palm Canyon Drive to browse the art galleries, antique shops, and retro-themed furniture stores. Make sure to stop by the Cabazon Dinosaurs on your way to Palm Springs to snap a pic with the lifesized dinos.
For lunch: Stop at Sherman’s Deli & Bakery for a hearty Reuben or a lighter lox plate.
Temecula (1 hour)
Head inland to indulge in a day of wine tasting in Temecula Valley Wine Country, with over forty wineries to taste some of the region’s best vino. Walk along the historic Old Town where you can browse shops and cafes that are housed along the wooden boardwalk and get a glimpse of the town’s Old West roots. Go up in a hot air balloon at sunrise to see the expanse of vineyards from above or stay on ground and play a round of golf. If you want to be a bit more active, rent a bike and spending the day biking through the vineyards.
For lunch: Stop at Havana Kitchen for chicken and cilantro with mojo dipping sauce and coconut flan for dessert.
Orange County/Los Angeles
Laguna Beach (1 hour 15 minutes)
As a major art community, this town is home to many notable galleries like the Laguna Art Lounge, and popular summertime festivals like the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival, which displays local art in an outdoor setting. The Laguna Art Museum is worth visiting to view an impressive collection of art from around the state. Soak in the coastal beauty of the town by heading to Main Beach, just steps away from the city center. For a more remote experience, go to Crystal Cove State Park, and explore hidden coves and vibrant tide pools. Visit the Pacific Marine Mammal Center to encounter sea lions on the mend.
For lunch: Drop by Nick’s Laguna Beach for a blackened fish sandwich or the grilled steakhouse salad.
Newport Beach (1 hour 30 minutes)
Known for its picture perfect piers: Newport Beach Pier and Balboa Pier, there is no shortage of activities to fill your day. For an adrenaline rush, head to the Wedge, where you can watch surfers ride up to 20 foot waves. For a dose of good-old fashion family fun, head to the Balboa Fun Zone, where the Ferris wheel can provide one of the best views of the coastline. For some high-end shopping and prime people watching, there’s Fashion Island. Escape to Balboa Island on the ferry and walk around the town with a frozen banana in hand from Sugar ‘N Spice.
For lunch: Head to Mama D’s Italian Kitchen for homemade spinach ravioli and their famous pink sauce.
Huntington Beach (1 hour 30 minutes)
Your first stop in this surf-obsessed beach town should be to catch all the action and watch the surfers riding waves from the iconic Huntington Beach Pier. Afterward, learn all about why this town has been nicknamed Surf City, USA, at the International Surfing Museum and view the world’s largest surfboard. A brief walk inland from the pier, take you to Main Street’s surf shops and sidewalk cafes.
For lunch: For casual beach fare, Bunz for solid burgers and chili cheese tater tots never disappoints.
Disneyland (1 hour 30 minutes)
A trip to the Happiest Place On Earth is always a good idea, but make sure to get an early start. Choose either the original Disneyland Resort or Disney California Adventure, depending on if you want to go classic Disney or a more modern California-themed experience. Try to avoid summer and holidays if you want to keep your sanity (the crowds are not for the faint of heart). Make sure to utilize the fast pass system and download the official Disneyland app for ride wait times.
For lunch: depending on what park you’re in, Disneyland Resort’s Bengal Barbeque for an array of spiced skewers or Disney California Adventure’s Cove Bar for lobster nachos and a well-deserved glass of wine or an ice cold beer.
Long Beach (1 hour 45 minutes)
Tour the historic, ocean liner Queen Mary, that is permanently docked and even has cabins where you can spend the night. To learn more about the surrounding aquatic life, the Aquarium of the Pacific is a great place to spend an hour or two. Walk along (or bike) Belmont Shore Beach walking paths, and take in the classic SoCal beach views.
For lunch: Go to Phnom Penh Noodle Shack for Cambodian noodle soup.
Los Angeles (2 hours)
From the sunny beaches of Santa Monica and Venice, to the cultural downtown area, there is never a dull moment in this city. Take in a museum like the impressive Los Angeles County Museum of Art or hike up to the top of Griffith Park to take in a view of the expansive city below. Head to Koreatown and spend the day unwinding at the co-ed Wi Spa, where saunas and hot tubs will revitalize you in the best way possible.
For lunch: Grab a bowl of Tsukemen ramen in Sawtelle at Tsujita LA, where the noodles are cold and there is a separate delicious dipping sauce.
Tijuana (30 minutes)
One of the best things about San Diego is that you can cross over to Mexico easily for a day. This border town is more than its famous party scene and the main drag of Avenida Revolucion with its tourist shops. Visit a traditional market like the Mercado Hidalgo that is centrally located, and sells everything from local cheeses to Mexican candies.
For lunch: Head to Telefonica Gastro Park, a trendy food truck spot to sample everything from vegan tacos to craft brews.
Rosarito (1 hour)
Head a bit further south to reach one of Baja’s popular coastal beach towns. Relax at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, where Old Hollywood personalities like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe uses to frequent and drink poolside margaritas. If you want to head to where all the action is, Rosarito Beach (steps from the hotel) is there for soaking in the sun and local culture.
For lunch: Try El Guero Restaurante Bar for some of the best lobster tacos in the area.
Ensenada (2 hours)
This major port city is a popular docking spot for both commercial and cruise ships. Walk on the malecon (waterfront promenade) and admire the dancing musical fountains. Visit the seafood Mercado Negro (Black Market), and view the day’s catch from blue fin tuna to jumbo shrimp. Tour the Rivera del Pacifico, a beautiful historic hotel, where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (of I Love Lucy) used to stay.
For lunch: Head to La Guerrerense for incredibly fresh seafood tostadas.
Valle De Guadalupe (1 hour 45 minutes)
This impressive wine region boasts over 100 wineries, making this scenic valley a great place to take a day trip and sample the local wine. Learn about the history of the area at the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Guadalupe, how the wine industry began, and why a majority of Mexico’s wine is produced in this area. With so many good wineries to choose from, start at a well-love spot like the Vinicola Torres Alegre y Familia or take in the stunning views from Monte Xanic’s tasting room.
For lunch: Finca Altozano is a great spot for farm-to-table fare, including grilled Pacific octopus and lechon roast pork.
What are your favorite San Diego day trips?