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25 Best Day Trips from San Diego, California

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On its own, San Diego is a city with a lot to offer. As America’s Finest City, San Diego has miles of beautiful beaches, a buzzing nightlife scene, many art galleries, and an 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 in the evening to rest.

This way, you’ll explore 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.

TL;DR

  • For families – LEGOLAND California
  • For kids – SeaWorld
  • For adults – Laguna Art Museum
  • Budget day trip – La Jolla
  • For history buffsUSS Midway
  • For beach and ocean – Mission Beach

Day Trips from San Diego, California

1. Treat the Kids at LEGOLAND

An outdoor water park area in LEGOLAND California

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. 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: Things to Do in Carlsbad

2. Up Your Adrenaline at SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld in San Diego

Address: 500 Sea World Dr., San Diego, CA 92109

SeaWorld is a huge amusement park and zoo located in San Diego. The park first opened its doors in 1964 and has since become one of the most popular parks in Southern California.

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 visit 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: Things to Do in Fort Bragg

3. Check out the Laguna Art Museum

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.

You’ll see street art everywhere, particularly murals in stores and lampposts, as well as several art galleries and exhibitions. Opened in 1918, the art museum houses a collection of over 3,000 works by Californians and/or art depicting the state’s story.

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.

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 more off-beach activities. Solve puzzles and conquer tasks with your team while learning about the area’s history.

See Related: Things to Do in Laguna Beach

4. Feel the Sun in La Jolla

La Jolla along the shore
Kyle Sprague / Shutterstock

Address: La Jolla Shores, San Diego, CA, 92037

If you’re looking for a day trip that’s as exciting as 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). This area features some of the best resorts in San Diego.

See Related: Things to Do in La Jolla

5. Learn American History at the USS Midway Museum

View of 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 much 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 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 allowing visitors to try out different tasks like operating a radar system or piloting an aircraft carrier during an attack on Pearl Harbor.

See Related: Things to Do in Calabasas

6. Go Surfing at Mission Beach

Mission Beach

Address: 1710 W Mission Bay Dr, San Diego, CA 92109

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 to surf while here to make the trip even more worthwhile.

See Related: Things to Do in Antioch

7. Road Trip to Joshua Tree National Park

Sunset in San Diego ZooJoshua 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 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: Things to Do in Guerneville

8. Roam Around the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Address: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101

We would be remiss not to 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 and 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 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 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

9. Enjoy a Road Trip to Palm Springs

San Diego 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 known for its palm trees, which surround the city. While 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

10. Go Green at San Diego Botanic Garden

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 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: Things to Do in Long Beach

11. Experience Whale Watching

Raft for Newport Beach Whale Watching
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

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 many companies offer them. So you have a lot of opportunities to experience these magnificent trips for yourself.

This makes whale-watching tours unique: not only will you get to see these fantastic creatures, but the tour guides will also share their knowledge about whales, 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

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 also widely known as a nightlife destination.

Gorgeous Rosarito Beach is 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 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

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 and 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 searching for a great meal afterward, there are many 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

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, a favorite patron saint throughout Latin America. In these mountains, the tallest peak you can access is San Jacinto Peak, which is 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. Plenty of hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and rolling hills are ready for any visitor.

See Related: Things to Do in Palm Desert

15. Relax at Borrego Springs

Borrego Springs

Exploring Borrego Springs is one of the most exciting and adventurous ways to see the area surrounding San Diego. Borrego Springs is located in San Diego County, 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 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. 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 Things to Do in Point Loma, San Diego

16. Hear the Waves on San Onofre

San Onofre State Beach

Address: Beach Club Rd, San Clemente, CA 92672

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.

You must hop in your car and head north on Highway 101. Once there, you can stop at the visitor center to get your bearings and map your destination. 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

17. Join a Wine Tasting Tour in Temecula Wine Country

Wine Tasting Tour

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 to explore the beautiful countryside around Temecula (and maybe even pick up some drinkable souvenirs along the way!)

See Related: Things to Do in Temecula

18. Adventure in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park must 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 knowing where to start is hard. The options range from hiking through cactus-filled canyons to exploring historical ruins. You can drive an off-road vehicle, tour the place, and even camp overnight in one of the many campsites throughout the park.

Lots of critters call this park home, including bighorn sheep, badgers, mountain lions, and even cottontail rabbits. Be careful, though; rattlesnakes and scorpions are roaming around too.

See Related: 16 Fun & Things to Do in Julian

19. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

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. Although it’s near town, it’s the perfect day trip from San Diego.

The reserve encompasses 1,750 acres of unspoiled coastal wilderness. It features a rare Torrey Pine tree forest, only found on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California and here at Torrey Pines.

Torrey Pines has many plants and animals, including birds, lizards, geckos, and cacti. It’s considered one of the wildest stretches of land in SoCal. Reserve visitors can explore the park on foot or by bike. Some popular trails include the Guy Fleming Trail, Razor Point Trail, and Beach Trail.

See Related: 15 Things to Do in Del Mar

20. Paddle Around Lake Poway

Lake Poway

Address: 14644 Lake Poway Rd, Poway, CA 92064

Paddle boats are the best way to explore Lake Poway, just half an hour outside San Diego. The lake is located off I-15 and has several public 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 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, three hiking trails are 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: Day Trips from San Francisco

21. Explore Space at the Palomar Observatory

Mount 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 in the world. However 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: 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 show’s star is the observatory, the nature around it is also worth seeing, especially nearby Palomar Mountain State Park. You may want to pack a picnic and enjoy it on the grounds before or after your visit.

See Related: Things to Do in East Bay

22. See Mission San Juan Capistrano

Statue and building at Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

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. 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. It was first built as a community of Spanish Padres and Native Americans. It is a museum today, and its chapel still serves 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 also has a liturgical celebration on St. Joseph’s feast day each March for the swallows’ return.

See Related: Best Things to Do on the West Coast, USA

23. Visit Crystal Cove State Park

Boardwalk at Crystal Cove State Park
Vanessa Melody Palafox / Shutterstock

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 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.

The Crystal Cove Historic District has stunning beachfront homes near the beach. The area was popular for directors and other film execs trying to escape from the bustle of downtown Los Angeles. Some Hollywood films were 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

The Milky Way from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Kevin Key / Shutterstock

Address: 14592-14674 CA-79, Julian, CA 92036

Unlike the other parks we’ve mentioned, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in Julian is one of the more challenging locations for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s also only 45 minutes from San Diego, allowing ample time to explore the hundred-plus miles of trails.

There are many 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. Remember 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: Paso Pichacho and Green Valley. Both are open and available for reservation from spring through fall.

25. Chill at San Clemente State Beach

People on the sand at San Clemente State Beach
SunflowerMomma / Shutterstock

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 other beaches. 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 the most popular activities you’ll see here.

You’ll find San Clemente Pier at the beach’s north end. This historic part of the city is the perfect place to grab a bite or shop during your beach day.

See Related: Best Weekend Trips from Orange County

FAQ

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 from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico?

Absolutely! It isn’t even an hour’s drive away. Tijuana can introduce you to another culture, incredible food, and the opportunity to purchase 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 in San Diego. If you’re a movie fan, you’ll want to make the journey.

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