Looking for awesome day trips from San Diego? San Diego has more than enough sites to keep any visitor busy and content for quite some time. Balboa Park alone, with its 17 museums and cultural institutions, Eden-like botanical garden and Spanish Village Art Center, can be a daylong adventure itself. Then there’s the world-famous San Diego Zoo right next door, which, again, can take an entire day to see, as there are over 3,500 animals onsite.
Don’t forget SeaWorld, Point Loma and its historic lighthouse and tide pools, Old Town San Diego and the city’s golden beaches, of which San Diego has some of the most beautiful in California. Who couldn’t spend an entire day basking in the radiance of these Southern California gems? With its collection of vibrant and eclectic neighbourhoods, such as North Park, South Park and La Jolla, arts, culture and world-class cuisine, seeing and experiencing all that San Diego has to offer can be quite time-consuming. In fact, the world that lies outside of the San Diego city limits might not even exist for you, or you might think there’s so much going on in the city that you won’t have any time to see it.
But wait, there’s so much more. What about the string of classic California beach towns just north of the city? Don’t forget the Temecula Valley wine country just an hour away, as is the historic gold rush town of Julian, renowned for its appetizing apple pie. LEGOLAND California is a mere 30 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of San Diego. There is also another country just a few miles south, Mexico, including the Baja Peninsula and Tijuana, its rolling hills visible from many vantage points in San Diego.
Furthermore, no trip to San Diego is complete without a day trip to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in nearby Escondido. Finally, if you’re in a gambling mood, there are numerous casinos in San Diego County, any of which would make a great, and possibly lucrative, San Diego day trip.
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Encinitas, one of the most picturesque beach towns in Southern California, is a less than 30 minutes day trip from San Diego. It is a well-known surfer’s paradise with golden beaches, trendy clothing boutiques, hip coffee shops and a cornucopia of casual California cuisine. But the heartbeat of Encinitas is at the beach, such as family-friendly Moonlight Beach. In fact, Encinitas has been named one of the world’s best surf towns. If you prefer flowers over waves, you’ll be happy to know that Encinitas has also been recognized as a “flower capital of the world.”
Encinitas takes its reputation as a laid back beach town seriously. It is home to the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple, which features expansive, lush meditation gardens overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Here you can turn off your mind and immerse yourself in deep relaxation at one of the garden’s numerous tranquil nooks surrounded by koi ponds and waterfalls. The Self-Realization Fellowship also hosts inspirational services and has a book and gift store.
Any day trip to Encinitas also requires a day of surfing. Whether a beginner or pro surfer, or one who has never surfed before, you must hit the waves, and one of the town’s best breaks, Swami’s, lies just below the bluff of the Self-Realization Fellowship. This surfing Mecca is internationally known and one of San Diego County’s most beautiful beaches. If you don’t have a surfboard fret not, as there are many outlets in town where you can rent a surfboard or bodyboard.
After a long day of surfing, meditation or just soaking up the sun at the beach, catch a movie at Encinitas’ historic La Paloma Theatre. Built-in 1927, the Spanish Colonial Revival theatre also hosts concerts and other performances. It was one of the first theatres in California to show “talkies.”
If you’re visiting San Diego with children then LEGOLAND, located in Carlsbad a mere half-hour away, is the ideal day trip from San Diego for a family fun time. LEGOLAND has more than 50 rides for kids of all ages. Since its opening in 1999, LEGOLAND California has been one of the most visited places in all of San Diego County.
LEGOLAND California also houses the SEA LIFE Aquarium and LEGOLAND Water Park, which features slides to ride and rafts to build. The Aquarium combines hands-on learning with close encounters with sea creatures, such as sharks and octopi. If you’re visiting in spring 2020 you’ll be in time for the grand opening of LEGO Movie World, a new land-based on THE LEGO MOVIE.
If you have any energy left after LEGOLAND, stop by the nearby Carlsbad Premium Outlets. Here you will find top brands at more than 85 stores, and at a discount year-round, including Adidas, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein, Coach, Guess, Levi’s, Skechers, The Cosmetics Company and much more.
Temecula Valley Wine Country
Some of California’s most respected vineyards can be found an hour northeast of San Diego in Temecula. The Temecula Valley produces hundreds of award-winning wines from various vineyards. In 2019, the Temecula Valley was named one of the 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations by Wine Enthusiast.
In addition to more than 40 wineries, the Temecula Valley is home to a host of great gourmet restaurants, any of which will make for a fantastic pairing with your wine-tasting tour. Some of the top-rated wineries in the Temecula Valley include Baily Vineyard & Winery, Doffo Wines, Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery, Carter Estate Winery and Leoness Cellars.
The Temecula Valley is not all about wine, though, as you can also find the Pechanga Resort Casino here. If you want to turn your day trip from San Diego into an overnight trip you can hit the tables, both gambling and buffet, at Pechanga, the largest resort/casino on the West Coast. In 2015, Pechanga was named Best U.S. Casino by USA Today. The casino has over 5,000 slot machines, 158 table games, a non-smoking poker room with 38 tables and a 700-seat state-of-the-art bingo facility.
Pala Casino Spa & Resort
In addition to Pechanga, San Diego County has a plethora of casinos, but one of the most visited is the Pala Casino Spa & Resort, located between Escondido and Temecula on the Pala Indian Reservation. The casino is owned and operated by the Pala Band of Mission Indians. Pala consists of more than 2,250 slot machines and 87 gaming tables, as well as 10 award-winning restaurants, live entertainment and a Four Diamond hotel, located within the majestic Palomar Mountains.
Other notable casinos in the area, any of which would make a great San Diego day trip, include the Barona Resort & Casino, which also has a world-famous golf course; Viejas Casino & Resort, which consistently ranks amongst the best casinos in San Diego County; and the Valley View Casino & Hotel, which has over 2,000 slot machines.
The small, historic town of Julian is nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains about an hour from San Diego. Julian is an official California Historical Landmark, and renowned for its apple pie.
A visit to Julian is like stepping back in time. Julian was founded during the 1870’s gold rush, and you can see where gold was first discovered here. Stroll along its tranquil streets lined with original buildings dating back to the 1870s, some of which are hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. You can even take a horse-drawn carriage ride down Main Street.
And don’t forget the apple pie, but fear not as there is no shortage of establishments in Julian that sell this hometown treat. Some of the most delectable are the Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pie House, Apple Alley Bakery and Heroes, all located on minuscule Main Street.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park -- Escondido
If you couldn’t get enough of the animals at the San Diego Zoo, head north to Escondido for an unparalleled animal adventure at the zoo’s Safari Park. Here herds of animals and visitors roam more free in the park’s expansive, 1,800-acre wildlife sanctuary. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park consists of more than 3,000 animals of over 300 species, a wide variety of which are wild and endangered.
The animals, including rhinoceros, elephants, lions, tigers and giraffes, are housed in free-range enclosures. The park offers visitors a variety of safaris, such as a 2-hour Caravan Safari, where you travel in the back of a covered, open-air safari truck and get close to the animals and get to feed the giraffes. The aptly named Cheetah Safari allows you to sit trackside at the park’s Shiley’s Cheetah Run, where you can watch its star cheetah run. The Jungle Ropes Safari enables the kids to climb, swing and walk through the park’s trees. It consists of rope bridges, aerial tightropes, swinging log steps and moving platforms.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park also has a Roar & Snore Safari, where you can spend the night in the park. This special safari includes camp activities, an after-hours visit to see the animals, guided walks, a campfire program, dinner and breakfast in the morning. You also have the option of choosing the Ultimate Safari, where your visit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is customized.
Baja California, Mexico
Twenty miles due south from San Diego another country and world awaits you in Mexico. Tijuana and parts of the Baja California Peninsula make for an exciting day trip from San Diego for the more intrepid traveller. Be aware, however, that the U.S. Department of State, at the time of this writing, has issued a Level 2 travel advisory to this part of Mexico, which means you should exercise increased caution due to crime, and in 2019 Tijuana was ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Before you travel anywhere in Mexico always check the State Department’s website and click Travel Advisories. The site provides warnings on places you should not travel to at all, reconsider travelling to and tips you should adhere to if travelling to Mexico, or any other country.
If you are determined to visit Tijuana and/or the northern part of Baja despite an advisory against it, always exercise caution and stay in the more touristed areas. In Tijuana, this means Avenida Revolucion, the main thoroughfare of historic downtown Tijuana which is lined with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, and Playas de Tijuana, where you will find renowned Rosarito Beach and the Bullring by the Sea, where you can take in a real bullfight.
If Tijuana still seems too dangerous for you, there are other places on this part of the Baja California Peninsula worth seeing that are safer. For example, Tecate, home of the world-famous Tecate Beer. As for the town of Tecate, part of the San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan area, it is much smaller and more relaxed than nearby Tijuana, and has been named one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos, a town that offers “magical experiences by reason of their natural beauty, cultural richness, traditions, folklore, historical relevance, cuisine, art crafts and great hospitality.”
Some of the more popular things to do in Tecate are: a tour of the Tecate Brewery, stroll through the peaceful Miguel Hidalgo Park and visit the historic Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, believed to be Tecate’s oldest church. For some visitors, however, this day trip from San Diego only requires a cold Tecate and some of the best Mexican food in all of Baja California.