On its own, San Diego is a city with a lot to offer. Known as America’s Finest City, San Diego has miles of beautiful beaches, a buzzing nightlife scene, many art galleries, and impressive history dating back to its Gold Rush days. Not to mention the dozens of family-friendly attractions, including the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.
San Diego is undoubtedly a beach bum’s dream destination: perfect weather, lots of fun things to do, and a laid-back vibe. From the beaches to the shopping and museums in the state’s oldest neighborhood of Old Town, you’ll be able to find something suitable for any traveler in this beautiful city.
Despite having so much to do in the city proper, day trips from San Diego are easily done since the region is also chock-full of things to do. If you’re looking for something fun but not too strenuous, consider taking a trip out of town and returning back in the evening to rest.
This way, you’ll get to explore some new sights and relax in a new setting. If you’re curious about some of the unique things Southern California has to offer, here are some of the best day trips from San Diego.
Show Table of Contents
- Best Day Trips from San Diego, California
- 1. Treat the Kids at LEGOLAND
- 2. Up Your Adrenaline at SeaWorld San Diego
- 3. Check out the Laguna Art Museum
- 4. Feel the Sun in La Jolla
- 5. Learn American History at the USS Midway Museum
- 6. Go Surfing at Mission Beach
- 7. Road Trip to Joshua Tree National Park
- 8. Roam Around the San Diego Zoo
- 9. Enjoy a Road Trip to Palm Springs
- 10. Go Green at San Diego Botanic Garden
- 11. Experience Whale Watching
- 12. Cross the Border to Rosarito Beach
- 13. Get Your Java in Tijuana
- 14. Trek the San Jacinto Mountains
- 15. Relax at Borrego Springs
- 16. Hear the Waves on San Onofre
- 17. Join a Wine Tasting Tour in Temecula Wine Country
- 18. Adventure in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- 19. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- 20. Paddle Around Lake Poway
- 21. Explore Space at the Palomar Observatory
- 22. See Mission San Juan Capistrano
- 23. Visit Crystal Cove State Park
- 24. Get Outdoorsy at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
- 25. Chill at San Clemente State Beach
- What are the best day trips from San Diego?
- Is it possible to do a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego?
- How far is Los Angeles from San Diego, and is it worth visiting as a day trip?
- Best day trip for families – LEGOLANDCalifornia
- Best day trip for kids – SeaWorld
- Best day trip for adults – Laguna Art Museum
- Best budget day trip – La Jolla
- Best day trip for history buffs – USS Midway
- Best day trip for water sports aficionados – Mission Beach
Best Day Trips from San Diego, California
1. Treat the Kids at LEGOLAND
Address: 1 Legoland Dr, Carlsbad, CA 92008
Perfect for a day trip destination or a weekend getaway, LEGOLAND California is among the best day trips from San Diego for families with young children. Especially little ones aged two to twelve, for they’re bound to have a fun-filled day ahead of them. Plus, with just a short drive of 45 minutes from San Diego’s downtown, kids shouldn’t get too restless in the car.
LEGOLAND has an assortment of large-scale Lego models, attractions, and shows to discover as you roam around the grounds. There are also rides for a range of ages, though older kids will probably get more out of the adventure.
Additional attractions include the SEA LIFE Aquarium with hands-on displays and close-up views of sea creatures, including sharks, stingrays, and octopi, and the LEGO Legends of CHIMA Water Park with aquatic-themed attractions like the Soak-N-Sail pirate vessel and a Splash Zoo.
On top of being a theme park, LEGOLAND also has aptly named hotel accommodations as well. Guests who can’t get enough of the iconic Lego brand can stay at the themed and interactive LEGOLAND California Hotel and Castle Hotel.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Carlsbad, California
2. Up Your Adrenaline at SeaWorld San Diego
Address: 500 Sea World Dr., San Diego, CA 92109
It’s not so much a trip from San Diego, but you may need more than a day to make the most of this theme park. SeaWorld features many rides for children and adults, including roller coasters like Manta and Kraken Unleashed, as well as water slides and a wave pool.
If you’re visiting with children, they can enjoy the smaller rides and shows while parents enjoy the larger, more thrilling attractions. Your best bet for slower park days with shorter lines is to head to the park on a Tuesday or Wednesday — though crowds will always be longer during school breaks in springtime or summer.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Fort Bragg, California
3. Check out the Laguna Art Museum
Address: 307 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
In between San Diego and Los Angeles, about 90 minutes from San Diego, Laguna Beach is a popular location for art lovers and enthusiasts alike. Even outside of the Laguna Art Museum is a celebration of the area’s numerous local artists across the town. Everywhere you look you’ll see street art, particularly murals in stores and lampposts, as well as several art galleries and expositions.
Opened in 1918, the art museum houses a collection of over 3,000 works by Californians and/or art that depicts the story of the state. Visitors who are 12 years old or younger, as well as museum members, are not charged admission either, which makes this a budget-friendly option for families as well.
You can also embark on a treasure hunt across Laguna Beach with this guided virtual phone tour if you feel like getting to know the area better with some more off-beach activities. Solve puzzles and conquer tasks with your team while also learning about the history of the area.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Laguna Beach, California
4. Feel the Sun in La Jolla
Address: La Jolla Shores, San Diego, CA, 92037
If you’re looking for a day trip that’s as exciting as it is relaxing without straying too far from downtown, La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove are it. You’ll find no shortage of outdoor activities in La Jolla from the comfort of the beautiful sandy beaches.
The area is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in San Diego County, with dramatic cliffs, sandy paths, and views of the Pacific Ocean from several vantage points. Nature lovers and those who need some relaxation will have no problem filling their days or weekend getaways with this budget-friendly destination.
You can choose from a range of activities—from meandering the hiking trails to kayaking or swimming or just lounging on your towel and taking in the sights (especially the many resident seals and sea lions).
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in La Jolla, California
5. Learn American History at the USS Midway Museum
Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
The USS Midway Museum is another spot to visit within San Diego, though no less worthy of this list. It is also only five minutes away from downtown San Diego. You won’t need to dedicate a lot of time commuting to the museum, but you may need the whole day to make the most of this incredible museum ship.
Located adjacent to Coronado Island, it was originally commissioned as a warship in 1945 and then decommissioned in 1992, only to become a museum in 2012.
Exhibits here tell stories about the history of naval warfare through the ages, including World War II and the Cold War. There are also interactive displays that allow visitors to try out different tasks like operating a radar system or piloting an aircraft carrier during an attack run on Pearl Harbor.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Calabasas, California
6. Go Surfing at Mission Beach
Address: 1710 W Mission Bay Dr, San Diego, CA 92109
Going surfing at Mission Beach is a fun way to spend a day away from the heart of downtown San Diego without straying too far. Mission Beach is located about five miles south of downtown, which makes it a great place for an afternoon or morning spent on the sand as you enjoy the sun, surf, and sandy beaches.
The best time go surfing at Mission Beach when the waves are big and the wind isn’t too strong — the reason being that waves will be more powerful if there’s a strong wind blowing in from the east or west.
If you’re just getting started with surfing, don’t worry—it’s not as difficult as it looks. If you’re feeling brave, you can learn how to surf while you’re here to make the trip even more worthwhile.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Antioch, California
7. Road Trip to Joshua Tree National Park
Address: 6554 Park Blvd, Joshua Tree, CA 92252
A few hours away from San Diego, you’ll find Joshua Tree National Park — three hours, to be precise. Driving to Joshua Tree is easily done via two main routes. In the first case, you’ll take Temecula all the way to Joshua Tree’s western entrance or travel through Borrego Springs to the park’s south gate.
Within that drive, you’ll pass several areas that make for incredible rest stops. From Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the Salton Sea, and the San Bernardino National Forest, as well as Escondido, Temecula, and Palm Springs, you can see so much of SoCal in one go at it.
As for the park itself, spring and fall are the best times to visit. When you do, you should enjoy the numerous beautiful hiking trails, rappelling, or rock climbing. What’s great about Joshua Tree National Park is that even if there are a lot of visitors, it never feels very full.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Guerneville, California
8. Roam Around the San Diego Zoo
Address: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
We would be remiss to not talk about the San Diego Zoo. Located in Balboa Park, the zoo is home to over 4,000 animals from around the world. It is widely considered one of the world’s best zoos for its awe-inspiring assortment of animals, along with its sheer size, at more than 100 acres.
This place is a great way to see nature up close and personal, and you can even get up close with some of the animals yourself! You’ll be able to see monkeys, tigers, giant apes, giraffes, rhinos, and a wide range of exotic birds in their natural habitat.
Several different ticket options are available, ranging from individual tickets to membership cards you can use for a year if you’re not traveling from too far away. Unless you plan on spending an entire day here or returning again during your journey to the city, consider which exhibits you most want to visit to get the most out of your day – and we recommend splurging for a skip-the-line ticket to the Zoo.
See Related: Best Restaurants in San Diego, California
9. Enjoy a Road Trip to Palm Springs
You can’t beat the California coast for day trips, and San Diego is one of the best places to get started. At 129 miles, or just over two hours, a jaunt to Palm Springs is an excellent distance for families with older kids or adults.
Palm Springs is obviously known for its palm trees which surround the city. While you’re there, you can enjoy the natural beauty of the desert landscape via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, take in some history at the Palm Springs Air Museum, or enjoy the myriad shopping and art galleries.
Don’t even get us started on Palm Springs as a foodie destination. You absolutely cannot miss out on the best restaurants in Palm Springs.
See Related: Visiting Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs, California
10. Go Green at San Diego Botanic Garden
Address: Quail Gardens Drive and Ecke Ranch Rd, Encinitas, CA 92024
A trip to the San Diego Botanic Garden, known as one of the best botanical gardens in California, is an excellent way to spend your day. An hour north of San Diego in Encinitas, the garden displays unique bamboo groves, desert gardens, a rainforest, and California native flora.
There are no other children’s gardens quite like this one on the West Coast. Discover the most extensive collection of bamboo in the country, as well as walkable garden paths lined with blooming trees.
Here, the temperate climate is ideal for a wide variety of plants from all over the world. It’s especially great for rainy days (rare, but they happen). You don’t necessarily need a full day for this excursion either; an hour or two will get the job done.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Long Beach, California
11. Experience Whale Watching
Whale watching is an incredible experience that allows you to get up close to whales as they swim by. You’ll even see them breach—that’s when a whale bursts out of the water.
What is great about whale-watching cruise options from San Diego is that a lot of companies offer them. So you have a lot of opportunities to experience these magnificent trips for yourself.
This makes whale-watching tours so unique: not only will you get to see these fantastic creatures, but the tour guides will also share their knowledge about whales and how they interact with each other and their environment. You’ll learn all about the history of whales, their diets, and what makes them tick.
See Related: Best Whale Watching Places in the World
12. Cross the Border to Rosarito Beach
Address: Blvd. Benito Juárez 31, Playas Rosarito, 22710 Rosarito, B.C., Mexico
Some of the best day trips from San Diego are about getting out of the city and seeing a little bit of Mexico. One of the most popular vacation spots is Rosarito Beach. Away from the beach, the town of Rosarito is widely known as a nightlife destination as well.
Gorgeous Rosarito Beach is located on the Baja California peninsula just off Mexico’s Pacific Ocean coast. Situated between Ensenada and San Diego, this area is only about twenty minutes across the U.S. and Mexico borders.
This beach is located an hour away from downtown San Diego and offers views of the Baja California coast with clear blue water. Visitors to the beach can enjoy swimming, surfing, fishing, and other sandy activities.
See Related: Most Exotic Places in California to Visit
13. Get Your Java in Tijuana
If you’re in San Diego and looking for something to do, why not make the short drive out of town and check out Tijuana over the border in Mexico? Tijuana is one of the most visited places in Baja California for its nightlife, coupled with its sprawling art scene.
Outside of the spectacular natural beauty of the Baja California region, Tijuana is full of incredible food, art, and history. You can explore all kinds of things here—from museums like the Tijuana Cultural Center to parks to monuments—and it’s a great way to spend a day.
You might want to start your day off with coffee at one of the local coffee shops in Tijuana, like Container Coffee Roaster. It’s a quintessential hipster coffee shop with lots of different flavors and types of coffee drinks available. And if you’re in search of a great meal afterward, there are tons of options from street food vendors or even sit-down restaurants that serve up some delicious authentic Mexican cuisine.
See Related: Best Archaeological Sites in Mexico
14. Trek the San Jacinto Mountains
Address: 25905 CA-243, Idyllwild-Pine Cove, CA 92549
Want a day trip that’s both fun and educational? There’s no better place than the mountains. The San Jacinto Mountains are roughly two and a half hours north of San Diego.
This mountain range is named for one of the first black friars, Saint Hyacinth, who is also a favorite patron saint throughout Latin America. In these mountains, the tallest peak you can access is San Jacinto Peak, at a height of over 10,000 feet.
To enjoy the natural refuge around the mountains, your best bet would be to pay a visit to San Jacinto State Park. There are plenty of hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and rolling hills ready for any visitor. Whether you want to hike and explore the forest or relax in the hot springs, there are outdoor activities aplenty here.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Palm Desert, California
15. Relax at Borrego Springs
Exploring Borrego Springs is one of the most exciting and adventurous ways to see the area surrounding San Diego. Located in San Diego County, the town of Borrego Springs is about an hour and a half from San Diego. It’s a popular destination for people who want to explore the desert and art lovers as well since this small town is known for its artistic vibes.
The desert resort destination itself is petite enough that everything in it is within walking distance. In fact, you can walk around it in less than an hour. Visiting museums, taking a tour of the historic San Juan Capistrano Mission, playing a round at one of several golf courses, and riding horses through the desert brush are just a few of the activities on offer.
If you’re traveling with children, be sure to take them out on some off-road trails in Borrego Springs to nurture your little nature lovers.
See Related: 11 Fun & Best Things to Do in Point Loma, San Diego
16. Hear the Waves on San Onofre
Address: Beach Club Rd, San Clemente, CA 92672
Just about 75 minutes outside of the city, San Onofre State Beach can be found in San Clemente. This gorgeous stretch of coastline sits in one of California’s most visited state parks. The whole state park is a staggering 3,000 acres of natural beauty.
All you have to do is hop in your car and head north on Highway 101. Once you’re there, you can stop at the visitor center to get your bearings and map out where you want to go. Then it’s just a quick drive down the road until you get to the beach itself.
There are tons of ways to spend your time here. You can wander around its stunning landscape while taking in some fresh air or water views, or if you prefer getting back into nature, you can hike up one of its many nearby trails.
See Related: Best Family Hotels in San Francisco, California
17. Join a Wine Tasting Tour in Temecula Wine Country
Address: 28475 Old Town Front St, Temecula, CA 92590
Temecula Wine Country is about 45 minutes from San Diego and is home to some of the best wine-tasting tours in Southern California. Temecula Valley is known for being one of the foremost areas of California wine country.
A wine-tasting tour in the Temecula Valley is a fun way to get acquainted with a region that’s receiving more and more attention from wine lovers all over the world. While you’re there, you’ll be able to sample vino from throughout California wine country and beyond–an experience fit for every kind of vino palate.
Here, it’s not just about tasting and learning about wine. You also get a chance to explore the beautiful countryside around Temecula (and maybe even pick up some drinkable souvenirs along the way!)
See Related: 26 Fun & Best Things to Do in Temecula
18. Adventure in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Address: 200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004
If you’re looking for a day trip from San Diego, especially with dino-loving kiddos in tow, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park needs to be on your list. This is California’s largest state park. It’s a desert park full of beauty, history, and adventure, as well as dozens of metal dinosaur sculptures your little ones are sure to love.
There’s so much to do in this park that it’s hard to know where to start. The options range from hiking through cactus-filled canyons to exploring historical ruins. You can drive an off-road vehicle and tour the place and even camp overnight in one of the many campsites located throughout the park.
Lots of critters call this park home, including bighorn sheep, badgers, mountain lions, and even cottontail rabbits. Be careful, though; there are rattlesnakes and scorpions roaming around too.
See Related: 16 Fun & Best Things to Do in Julian, California
19. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Address: 12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a must-see for anyone visiting San Diego. It’s the perfect day trip from San Diego, although it’s not far out of town.
The reserve encompasses 1,750 acres of unspoiled coastal wilderness and features a rare Torrey Pine tree forest, which is only found in two places in the world: Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California and here at Torrey Pines.
Torrey Pines is home to a diverse array of plants and animals, including birds, lizards, geckos, cacti, and more. In fact, it’s considered one of the wildest stretches of land in SoCal. Reserve visitors can explore the park on foot or by bike. Some of the popular trails include the Guy Fleming Trail, Razor Point Trail, and Beach Trail.
See Related: 15 Fun & Best Things to Do in Del Mar, California
20. Paddle Around Lake Poway
Address: 14644 Lake Poway Rd, Poway, CA 92064
Paddle boats are the best way to explore the beautiful Lake Poway, just half an hour outside of San Diego. The lake is located off I-15 and has several public boat launch areas or private boat launch areas available for rent.
The best part about paddle boats is that they are great for people of all ages. You can bring your kids or grandkids with you as well as anyone who wants to join in. They’re also an excellent way to spend an afternoon after getting off work or before heading home from work — just don’t forget the sunscreen. The only downside is that it can get pretty windy around Lake Poway, especially during springtime when the weather starts warming up.
Besides the ample water activities, there are three hiking trails to select from near the lake. There’s also an archery range, as well as grassy areas for the kids to run around, and a playground for the younger ones.
See Related: Best Day Trips from San Francisco, California
21. Explore Space at the Palomar Observatory
Address: 35899 Canfield Rd, Palomar Mountain, CA 92060
Since its founding in 1928, the Palomar Observatory, in the Palomar Mountain Range, has been a center for astronomical study for the California Institute of Technology. The observatory is roughly 90 minutes from San Diego.
The Palomar Observatory is home to the 200-inch Hale Telescope, which was completed in 1949, and at the time, was the largest telescope in the world. Though it should be noted that the general public can’t use the telescope. The observatory is best known for discovering some dwarf planets near the edge of our solar system known as Quaoar, Sedna, and Eris.
Visitors come from all over the world to see the observatory, which has become a major tourist attraction in Southern California. Although the star of the show is the observatory, the nature around it is worth seeing as well, especially nearby Palomar Mountain State Park. That said, you may want to pack a picnic and enjoy it on the grounds before or after your visit.
See Related: Best Things to Do in East Bay, California
22. See Mission San Juan Capistrano
Address: 26801 Old Mission Rd, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Far from the only mission-style building in the West, Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded on November 1, 1776, making it nearly as old as the United States itself. An hour down the I-5, it’s easy to make a visit to the Mission on one of your day trips from San Diego.
Largely considered the birthplace of Orange County, the Mission is in the oldest neighborhood in California. When it was first built, it was a community of Spanish Padres and Native Americans. Today it is a museum, and its chapel still holds services for the parish.
What made this mission especially famous were the resident cliff swallows. These little birds have been nesting in the area for centuries, so their return each March is a highly celebrated event. The church even has a liturgical celebration on St. Joseph’s feast day each March for the swallows’ return as well.
See Related: Best Things to Do on the West Coast, USA
23. Visit Crystal Cove State Park
Address: 8471 N Pacific Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
A day trip from San Diego to Crystal Cove State Park is an excellent way to experience wilderness outside of the national parks. About 75 minutes from San Diego, Crystal Cove is a beloved outdoor destination. You’ll find it between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar.
With over three miles of beachfront, swimmers and watersports lovers have tons of space to spread out. Plus, scuba diving is a popular activity since there are lots of things to see along this pristine shoreline. And if you haven’t gone whale watching in San Diego, you can do so on a tour outside of Newport Beach.
Near the beach, the Crystal Cove Historic District is lined with stunning beachfront homes. The area was popular for directors and other film execs trying to escape from the bustle of downtown Los Angeles. Some Hollywood films were even shot on this beach, including the iconic Treasure Island in 1918.
See Related: Best Unknown Places to Visit in the US
24. Get Outdoorsy at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Address: 14592-14674 CA-79, Julian, CA 92036
Unlike other the parks we’ve mentioned so far, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in Julian is one of the more challenging locations to visit for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s only 45 minutes from San Diego, too, giving you ample time to explore the hundred-plus miles of trails.
There are a lot of trail options here, though the most popular hikes range in difficulty. At just two miles, the hike up to Stonewall Peak is one of the more popular, as is the three-and-a-half-mile trek to Cuyamaca Peak. Keep in mind that the latter is considered a more difficult journey due to elevation and length. Also, those mileage delineations are one-way, not round-trip.
If you decide to make yourself at home at this park, there are two camping areas to consider, too: Paso Pichacho and Green Valley. Both are open and available for reservation from spring through fall.
See Related: 16 Fun & Best Things to Do in Julian, California
25. Chill at San Clemente State Beach
Address: 225 W. Calafia Ave, San Clemente, CA, 92672
The halfway point between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Clemente State Beach has been California’s most popular beach since 1937. When the mood for a new beachfront strikes during your visit to the city, a trip from San Diego will only take you about an hour each way.
Despite being the most popular beachfront, San Clemente State Beach won’t be as overcrowded as some other beaches in the state. With two and a half miles of beach, you’re sure to find space for whatever beachy activities suit your fancy. Surfing and swimming are by far the most popular activities you’ll see here.
At the north end of the beach, you’ll find San Clemente Pier. This historic part of the city is the perfect place to grab a bite or do some shopping during your beach day.
See Related: Best Weekend Trips from Orange County, CA
What are the best day trips from San Diego?
The first thing you should do on your day trips from San Diego is go to the beach. You can drive for less than an hour and get to some of the most beautiful beaches on the West Coast, like in nearby La Jolla. The most popular day trips from San Diego also include venturing towards mountain peaks and day trips taking you to some of the most stunning viewpoints over downtown San Diego.
Is it possible to do a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico, from San Diego?
Absolutely! It isn’t even an hour’s drive away. Tijuana can introduce you to another culture, incredible food, and the opportunity to purchase some handmade souvenirs you won’t find anywhere else. Just don’t forget your passport.
How far is Los Angeles from San Diego, and is it worth visiting as a day trip?
It’s only two hours away, so unless you think that’s too far for a day trip, it’s certainly doable. The vibes in Los Angeles are significantly different than San Diego. Obviously, if you’re a movie fan, you’ll want to make the journey.