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You wouldn’t believe that San Diego is America’s 8th largest city, considering how laid back it is. There are more than 60 beaches within the city limits, and this combined with year-round sun make it a dream destination. Not only that, but the area of Balboa Park offers the zoo, museums, and a gorgeous green space.
Even though it’s not your average city, you still might feel that after a few days in San Diego you want a change of scenery. And who could blame you?! Surrounding the city, there are historic missions, vineyard-covered valleys, and an opportunity to easily get another passport stamp very nearby!
But how do you choose what to do? That’s where we come in. Our team of expert travel writers have put together this list of the best day trips from San Diego. We’ve tried to include activities suited to a wide range of tastes, budgets, and interests.
So, without further ado, let’s check out the best day trips from San Diego!
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One of the ten biggest cities in the United States, it’s understandably tricky picking the best place to stay in San Diego. But don’t worry! We’re here to help you. We’ve scoured through the city to find three of the best places to stay in San Diego. Hopefully, one of our choices will suit your travel style and taste – but above all budget. Let’s check them out!
If you’re looking for the best budget hotel in San Diego, you can’t do much better than this place. With easy access to Mission Trails Regional Park and a number of downtown attractions, this three star hotel blends convenience, cost, and taste extremely well. The on-site restaurant bar are great places to spend the evening if you don’t want to stray too far from your bed!
This charming and historic hotel offers spacious suites right on the edge of one of San Diego’s top attractions – Balboa Park. This means you’ll have San Diego Zoo, a truckload of museums, and some pretty sweet restaurants on your doorstep. If you fancy a night in, enjoy the smooth sounds coming from the cool jazz bar at the hotel.
Let’s simplify this! We’ve put together our favorite places to stay in San Diego so you don’t have to stress!
If you have the cash to splash, then let us present to you the best luxury hotel in San Diego: the five star Pendry! You might end up having to miss out on a couple of day trips as there’s so much to do at the hotel. Yes, it really is that good! A gym, swimming pool, and wellness and spa centre offer opportunities to relax, keep fit and disconnect from everything at this decadent spot.
Best Day Trip from San Diego – Tijuana
Best Day Trip from San Diego by Train – Los Angeles
Best Romantic Day Trip from San Diego for Couples – Rosarito Beach
Best Day Trip from San Diego with Kids – La Jolla
From the 8th biggest city in the USA to the 4th biggest in Mexico, crossing the border into Mexico is an experience to remember. Just 32km away, Tijuana is the best day trip from San Diego for a number of reasons, and not just because it’s so close.
Travelling to Tijuana gives you the opportunity to get an insight into Mexican culture. The vibrant atmosphere can be felt nowhere better than in the Old Town, where you can visit a number of colonial buildings. The city cathedral and Jai Alai Palace are beautifully preserved examples of both colonial and neoclassical architecture.
The Centro Cultural Tijuana is the place to head if you want to see local and national art, while the Wax Museum injects a bit of wacky into your day trip!
Will you also visit Los Angeles? We know great places to stay in Los Angeles too!
Just two hours away, Los Angeles is the best day trip from San Diego by train. You may think that seeing everything the City of Angels has to offer in a day is unrealistic, and to be honest, you’d be right. However, you can still fit in plenty of the must-see sights in that time.
Follow in the footsteps of movie a-listers on the Hollywood walk of fame and admire the sign high up in the hills. Who knows, you might even spot an A-lister from music, movies, or sport! After all this, head to Rodeo Drive for a spot of shopping before comfortably travelling back to San Diego.
Insider tip – Use our expert guide to see when the best time to visit San Diego is!
Want to travel back in time to the days of the Gold Rush? There’s nowhere better than Julian, a town 62 miles from San Diego but really does feel worlds away! The original gold mines of the Eagle Mining Co will give you an insight into what those days were really like. If you come at the right time of year, you might even happen upon the Gold Rush festival!
There’s more to see in this charming town, that you can explore by horse and carriage. Keep your eyes peeled for the apple orchards that are prevalent throughout Julian. Many of the apples find themselves in delicious pies, and the Julian Pie Company offers some of the tastiest in town.
Head here if you’re getting a little peckish, it’s one of the best places to eat in Julian!
Haven’t found what you’re looking for? Try our hotel guide for San Diego!
Palm Springs is out in the Sonoran Desert, and it really does have a bit of everything. Great shopping, wide-open golf courses, and spas attract the rich and famous, but you can really make this oasis type town suit any budget.
It’s one of the best day trips from San Diego with kids, who will be mesmerised by the animals in the zoo. If you don’t want to take them to another zoo because you’ve already been to the one in San Diego, we suggest Knott’s Soak City as an alternative!
If you want to appreciate the outdoors while you’re here, take a hike in the Coachella Valley. If that sounds a bit too hot and tiring for you, then you can always just admire the views from above on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Haven’t found what you’re looking for? Try our hotel guide for Downtown San Diego!
We haven’t included an exact location here as there are some amazing whale watching spots all along the San Diego coastline. Also, your expert captains and tour guides will know the best spots to go to, so no two trips are the same.
You can spot whales off the coast of San Diego year-round, including Minke, Humpback, and Fin. However, the undisputed highlight is getting close to the biggest animal on earth, the majestic blue whale!
You’ll also have the opportunity to see dolphins, fish, and seabirds. Anything you want to know, your expert captain is bound to know and explain!
The pine and oak forests that cover Mount Laguna are one of the easiest and best day trips from San Diego for outdoor enthusiasts. In fact, they’re located just 1 hour away from downtown!
Depending on the time of year, there’s some great hiking available. In winter, there’s snowshoeing too! And you don’t need to worry about your level – there’s something to suit everyone. If you’re new to walking and want to see the best of the mountain’s landscapes, check out the Wooded Hills Nature Trails. The 1.5 mile trail is hugely picturesque!
If you have a bit more time to spend, it’s worth pitching a tent and camping here for the night. The stargazing here is incredible!
San Diego’s crime rate is 15% lower than the national average, so that’s a great start. Especially considering how big it is! That doesn’t mean that it’s completely risk-free though. As with almost all cities of its size, pickpocketing and petty theft are common. To minimise that risk, use big city awareness and common sense at all times. And try not to worry too much!
Back in the 1920s, Rosarito Beach was Mexico’s answer to Hollywood. Nowadays, it’s one of the more relaxing beaches on the Baja California peninsula, but it’s well worth taking the trip south for!
The range of outdoor activities both on and near the beach can put any mountain destination to shame too. On the beach itself, you can ride ATVs, go scuba diving, and stand up paddleboarding to name just a few things.
It’s when you get off the sands that things get really interesting though! Zipline, micro-lighting, and camel (yes, camel) riding adventures can all be had! This is easily one of the most fun day trips from San Diego!
Although some of this beautiful mission from the colonial days is in ruins, San Juan Capistrano happens to be the oldest building in California that’s being used today. If that’s not worth making the 66 mile journey north from San Diego, then what is?!
The cloistered gardens are adorned with flowers, and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of a hummingbird. You’ll certainly hear the tunes of songbirds!
To learn more about the mission, take an audio-guided tour by yourself. Alternatively, visit when the mission is hosting a historic re-enactment or an educational talk. The Old Town of San Juan Capistrano is a lovely place to spend the rest of your day before heading back to San Diego.
With all the Spanish names around San Diego, Carlsbad seems like a bit of an outlier. Like San Diego, it’s known for having great beaches but there’s more to this cool village than that! Of course, you won’t want to miss Tamarack Beach (also known as Carlsbad State Beach), especially if you’re travelling with kids. There are loads of activities on offer that are fun for the whole family!
Speaking of family activities, it’s also the location for Legoland California. This toy-centric theme park has a Star Wars section and some ninja rides too. If you do decide to make more than a day of Carlsbad, Legoland has a couple of hotels where you can bed down for the night. That’s sure to put a smile on the face of the kids!
There really are some great places in the surroundings of San Diego for families. So, here’s another contender for the best day trip from San Diego with kids before we unveil our #1.
Pennypickle’s workshop in Temecula is a unique children’s museum which has won multiple awards. It’s full of games and gadgets which will have your little ones’ imaginations running wild!
If you’re on more of a grown-up trip, then Temecula has plenty for you too. Namely, the vineyards in the surrounding hills, where you’ll find some of the best California wines. And yes, it’s not hard to find somewhere that offers tastings! You can even do tours on horseback or bicycle! Although, that might mean you want to take it easy on the wine…
When you’re thinking about the best day trip from San Diego with kids, there are a few things you need to factor in. Is it close by? Is there lots to do? Are there places to eat and drink nearby? Well, La Jolla ticks all of these boxes and more, making it by far the best day trip from San Diego with kids.
Just half an hour from San Diego by car or public transport, La Jolla is packed with great beaches. There are a number of activities on offer like surfing, swimming, and snorkelling. The La Jolla Children’s pool is a great place for kids to take to the water in total safety too!
For a comprehensive overview of the main attractions in La Jolla, why not check out this cool Segway tour below?
One of the nearest day trips from San Diego, Lake Poway is a great day out for those who enjoy the outdoors.
The lake has several activities on offer, including paddle boarding. There are a number of boats to choose from too. If you want to work those arms, take out a rowboat. However, no one would blame you for taking the lazy (and more fun) option of a powerboat. You’re on vacation after all!
If you don’t want to get wet but still want to get the adrenaline flowing, check out the liking trails around the lake. There are three, and they’re perfectly set up for horse riding, cycling, and walking. Another great place to bring the kids, there are plenty of quiet spots for a picnic and even a playground!
The town of Borrego Springs is an unusual place. In the surrounding desert, you’ll wonder if you’re seeing mirages. After all, you don’t expect to see dragons, elephants, and horse drawn carriages in the desert. These unusual sculptures are a great photo opportunity though, and trust us, you’re not dreaming if you see them!
The town is the gateway to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. In the desert landscape, it’s possible to spot a multitude of animals, including road runners and bighorn sheep. It’s not all flatlands though, there are canyons, rocks, and outcrops dotted through the park.
These make for great hiking, and one of the best places, if you’ve brought your boots, is Slot Canyon!
So, we’ve been through desert, beach, and even to other cities. Well, we’re ending our list in the San Jacinto Mountains, where you’ll find the quaint town of Idyllwild.
Unlike the arid landscapes of the Anza Borrego State Park, this is where to go to be surrounded by lush and green pine forests. Take one of the hiking trails through the mountains before heading back to the town for a late lunch.
There are several great restaurants and cafes to pick up a bite to eat. Travelling here in August? Don’t miss the cool Jazz in the Pines festival!
So, that concludes our list of the best day trips from San Diego. Should you want to escape the laid-back surf culture of San Diego, its sun, and its beaches… we’re not sure why! However, there’s plenty for you to fall in love outside of the city too.
Pine forests, mountains, and lakes make for excellent escapes from the city and will please outdoor enthusiasts no end. Opportunities to head across the border into Mexico will charm culture vultures. While anyone with an interest in wine can find plenty of spots to head to and get drunk. Sorry, we mean sample the wine!
San Diego is well connected by road, rail, and bus. Not only that, there’s a catalogue of tours that will introduce you to the nearby area, so you won’t have to worry about not getting back to town for dinner.
We think we’ve included a broad range of day trips from San Diego, but if there’s anything we’ve missed – let us know in the comments!
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Born in Los Angeles, Aaron Hovanesian is one of the original staff writers for Hotel Jules. Having backpacked the world as a young man, Aaron now prefers to travel the world in luxury, proudly staying in the world's most amazing hotels and properties. When Aaron is not traveling he lives in Western Colorado he can be found brewing his own beer (probably an IPA) or spending time with his two amazing golden retrievers.