Surf-bathed San Diego may be the living image of the California coast, but you don't have to drive far to find a very different California of country towns, mountains and vineyards. Even a short day trip along the coast will deliver you to low-key beach hubs where you can enjoy the gorgeous SoCal beachfront at your own speed.

With its unique location near the Mexican border and its proximity to a stunning range of coastal and mountain environments (within its own county limits to boot). San Diego is a perfect hub for day trips that are as varied as the city is easygoing.

In less than a few hours' drive in any direction, you can soak up eclectic beach vibes and small-town charms, hike over spectacular highland scenery, and trade tequila for wine. Try these top day trips to get started.

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Oceanside

Best for beach bumming

As California beach towns go, Oceanside is a bit disheveled, yet it’s highly underrated and undeniably cool. Soaking up its eclectic charms is a cinch when the coastal city is located only 40 miles north of San Diego. Locally-owned businesses fill downtown along Mission Avenue and South Coast Highways – think thrift and resale shops, third-wave coffee, and international eateries as well as surf, skate and outdoor gear retailers. 

Gaze at sea lions on Sea Lion Island at the end of North Harbor Drive, then update your Instagram feed with snaps of the city’s funky murals; they run the gamut from celestial to whimsical. Or, embark on a guided Downtown History Walk on the second Saturday of each month and identify architecture dating back to the late 1800s. Mission San Luis Rey will transport you back in time, to when Spanish friars established a series of missions from San Diego north to Sonoma, changing the indigenous population’s way of life forever.

Reflecting Onceanside's modern identity, the California Surf Museum dedicates itself to pursuing the perfect wave, including an exhibit on adaptive surfing – an activity that makes wave-riding possible for people with different abilities.

And for some of Oceanside’s best eats, target Coast Highway and Seabasstropub for Japanese omakase, where your sushi order involves putting your trust in the chef’s extensive experience. Other treats include Balinese-inspired cuisine meets natural wines at Dija Mara and craft beers in a former auto repair shop at Bagby.

Getting to Oceanside from San Diego: Coming by car is the easy option. Take I-5 N from San Diego, or hop aboard Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train from the Santa Fe Depot stop.

The historic downtown area of Julian in California
Julian offers a taste of gold rush California just over an hour from San Diego © Unwind / Shutterstock

Julian

Best for apple pie and Old West charm

The frontier township of Julian, tucked away in the Laguna Mountains northeast of San Diego, comes into its own in the fall, when changing leaves paint the surrounding hillsides in vivid colors, and in winter, when the frosty weather brings snow-spotters from the coast.

The town was the site of a brief gold rush in the 19th century, and you can mine Julian’s pioneer history on an underground tour with the Eagle Mining Company. Early settlers also discovered that the hills here were perfect for apple growing, and enjoying the local harvest remains a major draw today.

In the fall, seek out pick-your-own days at local apple farms. At other times, you can tuck into the town's famous apple pie at Julian Pie Company or Moms Pies, and sample its fermented counterpart at Julian Hard Cider.

Throughout the year, you can sample homestead life and other 'old time' activities at family-friendly Fort Cross, a former lilac farm where you can test your aim with a slingshot, an ax or with bows and arrows. Also on offer are Indigenous cultural experiences, which include pottery-making lessons using traditional techniques and a nature walk to learn about the area’s plants and wildlife. 

Julian’s minuscule main street invites a bit of leisurely wandering, with all sorts of independently-owned stores. We rate the town's used-book store, vintage clothing store The Old Well, the nostalgic sweets at Julian Candy Basket and the fun gifts at Julian Mercantile. See more of the hills on a walkabout at Santa Ysabel Preserves; expect wildlife encounters, grazing cows, soaring red-tail hawks, and maybe some wild turkeys along the trails.

Getting to Julian from San Diego: The best route to Julian is by car; from San Diego, take I-15 N to SR 78 E to Julian. Allow around an hour and a half for the journey.

A dirt road stretches towards low mountains lined on either side by rows of grape vines below a dusky blue sky
The Valle de Guadalupe is everyone's newest favorite get-away © Lisa Romerein / Getty Images

Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

Best for wine tastings

Don't limit yourself to the US side of the border. Mexico may be better known for its agave-based spirits (namely, tequila and mezcal), but along the peninsula of Baja California, the focus is firmly on the wines of Valle de Guadalupe. The region’s first grapes were planted by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s (like many of California’s early vines) and many vineyards are still thriving today.

Today, you’ll find more than 200 wineries scattered across the Baja Peninsula. Two seas, warm days, cool, dry nights, and a lauded 'anything goes' approach to wine-making have all served to shape the region’s red blends and lesser-known varietals, and you can experience this wealth of wine on a tour or under your own steam.

To go it alone, grab a map of the Ruta del Vino, stopping at notable vineyards such as the architecturally striking Monte Xanic and Lechuza Wines (with its appointment-only tasting room). En route, pause to enjoy some fine local dining, from upscale establishments to roadside food trucks. 

Alternatively, let the pros do all the planning and book an excursion with Club Tengo Hambre. These tours will guide you across the border and greet you with breakfast tacos in Tijuana before driving on to the vineyards, where tastings and a multi-course al fresco meal await. 

Don’t let the Valle’s rustic surrounds fool you – the local dress code is decidedly chic. Buttoned shirts, dresses and heels won’t look out of place in Mexican wine country.

Getting to the Valle de Guadalupe from San Diego: You'll need a vehicle to properly explore. Cross the border in San Ysidro from I-5 and continue south on Mexican Federal Highway 1 (Carretera Federal 1), then exit onto Carretera Transpeninsular/Rosarito – Ensenada/México 1 toward La Ruta del Vino. Bring cash for tolls (both USD and Peso are accepted), and don’t forget your passport.

Spring wildflowers in the desert at Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California
Springtime is the season to head to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to view the vivid wildflowers © Bill Wight CA / Getty Images

Anza-Borrego Desert State park

Best for wildflowers

The largest of California's state parks, Anza-Borrego is a majestic quilt of creased mountains rising from parched badlands, with cool palm-shaded oases cocooned within narrow canyons. There's an abundance of wildlife here, as well as traces of thousands of years of Kumeyaay life and culture, but it's the spring wildflowers that draw the biggest crowds.

The park is crossed by 500 miles of dirt roads and hiking trails, providing a serene playground for backcountry explorers. At nighttime, stargazing is a favorite pastime in this designated International Dark Sky Park, with spectacular starscape views when the skies are clear.

Anza-Borrego's main hub, the village of Borrego Springs, is centered on a roundabout known as Christmas Circle, and it has restaurants, lodgings, stores, ATMs, gas stations and a new public library with free wi-fi. Nearby are the park visitor center and several easy-to-reach attractions, such as Borrego Palm Canyon and Fonts Point, with landscapes that are a good representation of the park as a whole.

The Split Mountain area, east of Ocotillo Wells, is popular with off-road drivers, but it also features some interesting geology and atmospheric wind caves. The southernmost part of Anza-Borrego is the least visited section of the park, and, aside from Blair Valley, has few developed trails and facilities.

The park is prettiest (and busiest) during the wildflower season, which usually runs from mid-February through March. Call the Wildflower Hotline (760-767-4684) for the latest updates. For walkers, recommended easy hikes in the area include the walk to the Kenyon Overlook, the Yaqui Well Trail, the Narrows Earth Trail and the Cactus Loop Trail.

Getting to Anza-Borrego from San Diego: The state park is about 90 miles from San Diego; following I-8 to County Rte S2 is the easiest route, but for a more scenic ride, take twisty Hwy 79 from I-8 north through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and into Julian, then head east on Hwy 78.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano dates back to the Spanish settlement of southern California © Mariusz S Jurgielewicz / Shutterstock

San Juan Capistrano

Best for Spanish-era history

Famous for the athletic swallows that fly back to town every year on March 19 (though sometimes they’re a bit early), the small town of San Juan Capistrano is home to the ‘jewel of the California missions' – Mission San Juan Capistrano, a Roman Catholic outpost established in the late 18th century. With the town's photogenic streetscape of tiled adobe buildings and historic wood-built cottages, there’s enough history and charm to make a day of it.

Plan on spending at least an hour poking around the sprawling Mission San Juan Capistrano and admiring its tiled roofs, covered arches, lush gardens, fountains and courtyards – including the padre’s quarters, soldiers’ barracks and cemetery. Admission includes an audio tour with interesting stories narrated by locals.

Check out the towering remains of the Great Stone Church, almost completely destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1812. Nearby, the Serra Chapel, constructed in 1782, is believed to be the oldest surviving building in California.

For a different kind of Spanish-American flavor, seek out El Campeon, located in a strip mall south of the Mission. Part restaurant, part panadería (bakery) and part mercado (grocery store), it's a great stop for real-deal Mexican food. Try their tacos, tostadas and burritos, pozole (hominy stew), pork carnitas, and aguas frescas (fruit drinks) in fresh flavors such as watermelon, strawberry and grapefruit.

In the bakery, grab a tray and tongs and serve yourself from the display case; breads and pastries range from croissants to Mexican cheesecake and concha (sweet rolls topped with seashell-pattern cookie topping) and prices begin at just $0.59.

Getting to San Juan Capistrano: Get to the mission by car; from San Diego take the I-5 north some 66 miles take exit 82 for Ortega Highway toward San Juan Capistrano.

This article was first published July 2019 and updated May 2022

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