San Diego Day Trips: 6 Great Places to Explore in Southern California

As a San Diego native, I’ve spent countless hours walking the boardwalk in La Jolla, eating delicious grub in the Gaslamp District and even feeding the fish at the San Diego Zoo. But my favorite memories are of weekend day trips.

From the mountain town of Julian to the flower fields of Carlsbad — an hour or two in a car or on the Amtrak train is all it takes to enjoy these six diverse destinations.

Julian

If you’re itching to explore western gold rush history, the little mountain town of Julian is the perfect day trip. Experience historical reenactments or simply wander the town’s streets, where lovingly restored buildings have been converted into shops, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. But my favorite Julian attraction is the pie! The town is known for its apple orchards, and great apples make for great pies. Try one at the Julian Apple Pie Company.

Quick Tip:

Pack layers — the weather changes in San Diego from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Carlsbad

Home to beaches, outlet shopping and flower fields, Carlsbad appeals to just about every traveler. Carlsbad is an easy 30- to 45-minute drive from San Diego, and it’s best explored with a car so you can venture off the beaten path.

Start by the water — Carlsbad State Beach is a great option for adventure seekers and families looking for fun in the sun. It’s an excellent spot for surfing, kayaking and kitesurfing. If you’re visiting San Diego in the spring, check out the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch, which are open from March to May (check the website for specific dates). Boasting the largest flower displays in the world, the fields are one of my favorite places — and perfectly Instagram-worthy. Plus, Carlsbad Ranch offers free parking and is situated next door to a popular outlet shopping center.

San Juan Capistrano

Less than an hour on a train will bring you to the historic town of San Juan Capistrano, which has one of the most beautiful missions in Southern California. The scenery will transport you straight to the Spanish Mediterranean, with red-tiled roofs, sprawling hills and arcaded courtyards. Built in 1777, the church in San Juan Capistrano is the oldest building in California still in use. My favorite thing to do here is to catch the free concerts in the Historic Town Center Park (held on the third Wednesday of each month all summer through September).

San Clemente

Halfway between San Diego and L.A. sits my favorite beach town: surf-friendly San Clemente. You can reach it easily by car or Amtrak in about two hours; the train station is literally steps from the major pier in town. I prefer San Clemente because it lacks the overdeveloped high-rise hotels that have cropped up in many California beach towns. The best surf spot here is T street, which is just a short walk south of the pier.

Not into surfing? The town also has a large pier with ample rides, attractions, shopping and food stalls. If you’re more of a hiker or biker, the scenic San Clemente Beach Trail is the perfect spot to escape the hustle and bustle of San Diego. For a bite, stop at the well-known Fisherman’s Restaurant, where the food is as good as its reputation.

Temecula

If you love vino, you’re in luck. The Temecula wine region is about an hour from San Diego and produces exceptionally delicious California varietals. If you’re up for an adventure to go with your wine tasting, a horseback ride through the vineyards is a delightful experience.

But Temecula’s quirky charms go beyond wine. The Pennypickle’s Workshop children’s museum is well worth a look, whether you have kids or not. It’s definitely one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited, with quirky and engaging activities that range from hidden passageways to interactive scientific puzzles.

Joshua Tree National Park

No trip to California is complete without exploring one of the state’s many national parks. Joshua Tree is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from San Diego; you’ll want to get an early start, because you can never spend enough time here. From gentle nature walks to strenuous hikes, you’ll find plenty of adventure.

I love starting with the Arch Rock, an easy half-mile hike that leads you to a gorgeous red sandstone arch that’s a great spot to rest and take photos. Skull Rock is a bit longer of a walk (a mile and a half) and takes you to an ultra-cool rock formation that looks just like a skull! Make sure to stay for sunset and nightfall, when the park is a stunning site for stargazing. I always take a drive out to Joshua Tree with friends the night before I leave for a long trip or before a big change. The quiet landscape and bright night sky are a perfect parting memory of the San Diego area.

Where to Stay:

Marriott Vacation Club PulseSM, San Diego

Megan S. is a travel blogger living in London.