As a native to San Diego for more than 25 years, I have enjoyed many beautiful adventures exploring the best of Southern California. While I haven’t been everywhere (yet), I can highly recommend these destinations as the best of the best when it comes to weekend getaways from San Diego. (Some of them also make great day trips from San Diego!)
Here are my most inspired ideas…
- Road Trips from San Diego
- 1. Santa Barbara—Soak Up the Scene
- 2. Catalina Island—for Island Adventure
- 3. Las Vegas—for Nightlife
- 4. Laguna Beach—for Beaches and Art
- 5. Palm Springs—for Desert Adventure
- 6. Joshua Tree—for Stargazing
- 7. Santa Ynez Valley—for Wine Tasting
- 8. Death Valley—for Incredible Views
- 9. Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico—for Wine Tasting
- 10. Idyllwild—for Mountain Serenity
- 11. Ojai—to Chill Out
- 12. Pasadena—for Museums and Gardens
- 13. Santa Monica—for Iconic L.A.
- 14. Temecula—for Local Wine Tasting
- 15. Sequoia National Park—to Ogle Giant Redwoods
- 16. Julian—for Mountain Town Pleasures
- 17. Rosarito Beach—for Mexican Adventure
- 18. San Luis Obispo—for Small Town Delights
Road Trips from San Diego
1. Santa Barbara—Soak Up the Scene
Santa Barbara is a jewel of a little coastal town in Southern California and makes a perfect romantic weekend getaway from San Diego. You can drive or even do it as a short flight from San Diego as there’s an airport there.
I’ve been in love with magical Santa Barbara since I was an undergraduate at UCSB 30 years ago!
Why I love it: Santa Barbara is compact, walkable, and oozes unpretentious charm. (There’s a reason Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry have homes here.) For a small town, it’s also got a first-class foodie scene.
Where to stay: Brisas Del Mar Inn at the Beach is near Stearns Wharf and just two blocks from beaches with a gym, pool, and free bike rentals. Check prices and availability here.
Or stay in an airy, light boho apartment in a renovated historic Victorian building right downtown. You can walk to restaurants and shops! Check out prices and availability on Airbnb here.
Things to do in Santa Barbara: Love wine tasting? Head directly to the Funk Zone right downtown.
Or, drive 20 minutes up into scenic Santa Ynez Valley tucked in the hills between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles for world-class central coast wines.
Catch the Solstice Festival in June for a one-of-a-kind parade. Have a drink at El Presidio Hotel for views of the city from Santa Barbara’s Riviera.
Choose from beaches galore here. Or cycle on a beautiful beachfront bike path from downtown up to the UCSB campus in Isla Vista.
Top tip: Looking for a bucket list Mexican food experience? Eat at La Taqueria on La Superica on Milpas.
This hole-in-the-wall spot is a local favorite. It was Julia Childs’ go-to Mexican spot when she lived here. There will be a line out the door almost always but it’s worth the wait!
2. Catalina Island—for Island Adventure
My first visit to Catalina Island was more than 30 years ago during a backpacking trip with a girlfriend from college.
We had so much fun camping. This is also a great couples destination for a romantic weekend or a short trip in California.
Why I love it: Thanks to the fast ferry, you can be enjoying an exotic island adventure in the Pacific in a little over an hour after you leave Long Beach (which is a two-hour drive from downtown San Diego).
If you’re looking for easy overnight trips from San Diego, this one is perefect. And you’ll spy plenty of dolphins cavorting in the boat’s wake along the way.
Plus, it’s not every day that you see buffalo in the “wild”…at least not in Southern California. The Catalina bison herd has been wandering here for almost 100 years…ever since a silent movie production imported them for a film.
Where to stay: Pavilion Hotel in Avalon is beachside and comes with a cabana lounge and wine and cheese reception in the evening. What more could you ask for? Check prices and availability here.
Or stay in your own private condo right in Avalon and close to the beach. Check prices and availability on Airbnb here.
Things to do in Catalina: You’ll disembark the ferry in cute little Avalon, the only “town” on the island. The far side of the island is all beaches and camping.
Spend your days snorkeling, diving, exploring the beaches, and hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail or Garden to Sky Trail.
Or, head to Two Harbors for boating. You can find zip lining here, too. When the sun goes down, night owls can hit the casino while stargazers can take in the incredible night sky here.
Top tip: Skip the tour buses and rent a golf cart to explore instead! It’s how the locals get around. You can’t drive around the island as a guest so it’s that, a bicycle, or taxi.
3. Las Vegas—for Nightlife
While I’m not much of a gambler, Las Vegas is still one of my favorite places to soak up nightlife in a short vacation! It makes for one of the best road trips from San Diego.
And best of all, you can get here via a short hop on a puddle jumper or a five hour road trip from San Diego.
Why I love it: I love the luxury and pampering…and the warm temps when I’m looking for an escape during San Diego in winter. There are so many fabulous chefs and live shows to enjoy here.
Las Vegas is also one of the few places I prefer a hotel experience over a more low key Airbnb or rental. Staying on The Strip is so much fun!
Where to stay: For a five star experience that is on The Strip but above the fray, stay at Four Seasons Las Vegas. You can check prices and availability here.
Things to Do in Las Vegas: If this is your first visit to Vegas, spend your time on the strip! There are no end of things to do here.
Ride the elevator to the top of Paris Paris. Watch the water fountains dance in front of the Bellagio. See the volcano “erupt” at The Mirage. You’ll be walking during the day here though so don’t forget to bring a pair of sneakers.
With more time, visit nearby Hoover Dam. (The free tour is incredible and will take you through some memorable U.S. history.) Or hike nearby Red Rock for some gorgeous desert scenery.
Top Tip: Do you love Italian food? Immerse yourself in the old world experience (and amazing wine) at Il Mulino at Caesar’s Palace.
As you’re seated, your server brings free scrumptious appetizers like I’ve never had an experience like it anywhere else!
4. Laguna Beach—for Beaches and Art
Why I love it: Laguna Beach is small and coastal chic. It’s one of my favorite quick getaways from San Diego and a great place to visit in Orange County. If money were no object, I’d move here (or Santa Barbara). It’s the perfect mini vacation near San Diego.
The art scene and indy boutiques are alive and well here. Plus, Laguna Beach is just a 1 hour 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego.
Where to stay: For a stay at a historic and clasically Laguna hotel right by the beach, settle in at Casa Laguna. Check prices and availability here.
Or, how about a romantic beach cabana? This gorgeous place is an incredible value. You can book it—or check out the stone fireplace in the bedroom!—here.
Things to Do in Laguna Beach: Start your day with a walk along the scenic oceanside bluffs in Heisler Park. Think gardens, tide pools, and a unique marine sanctuary.
Wander through the adorable village, ducking into galleries, boutiques, and cafes. Then spend a day at Crystal Cove State Park…one of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California. Have a shake there at Shake Shack.
If you’re visiting in July or August, be sure to reserve tickets for Laguna’s well-loved Pageant of the Masters art festival.
It’s a singular experience, but book many months ahead or prepare to be disappointed!
Top Tip: Try the fish tacos at aptly named The Cliff restaurant. Sweeping views of the beautiful Laguna coastline make this a memorable lunch spot.
It’s not fancy but it’s the kind of place that makes you glad to be alive on a sparkling Southern California day.
5. Palm Springs—for Desert Adventure
Why I love it: There’s nothing like the unique subdued pinks, beiges, and pale blues that the desert landscape is painted with. You have to see it to believe it.
Plus, it’s a wonderfully warm winter escape if you’re looking for getaways near San Diego! (But save your visit for winter, spring, or fall when it’s not baking in the summer heat.)
It is a three-hour drive from downtown San Diego. (Plus, Palm Springs is also an easy drive from Los Angeles.)
Where to stay: For a luxury 21 and up boutique hotel and resort experience, stay at Sparrows Lodge. (The spa is incredible.) Check prices and availability here.
Or, for more privacy, how about a dreamy desert oasis with bright yellow doors and a private pool? You can check it out on Airbnb here.
Things to Do in Palm Springs: This is hot springs country! And loads of boutique hotels here offer pools and spas that make use of the 180-degree sulfur-free water that bubbles up here. So pamper yourself!
For a novel experience, take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway from the Valley Station along the cliffs of Chino Canyon up to the Mountain Station.
A snap of the fingers and you’ll be almost instantly transported from the warm desert to fragrant pine forests.
Nearby Anza Borrego is one of California’s best spring destinations, especially during years where there’s a wildflower super bloom.
For a one-of-a-kind music festival experience, get tickets to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in October. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world!
Top Tip: Book a spa day! There are world-class options here. My favorite skin care line, The Body Deli, is headquartered in Palm Springs. I order online but look forward to visiting the store in person one day soon.
6. Joshua Tree—for Stargazing
Why I love it: I can’t believe that I haven’t made it to Joshua Tree National Park yet! I plan to fix that pronto. This is desert camping, hiking, and—most of all—stargazing—at its finest.
Friends tell me it’s one of their favorite places to visit close to San Diego. It’s a true jewel of a national park on the west coast. Plus, it’s a fabulous California winter destination. It’s where the album cover of U2’s Joshua Tree Album was photographed.
Where to stay: Are you up for a bucket list stargazing experience? Stay in this architect-designed off-the-grid oasis. It’s basically a tiny house made from a simple steel structure that is open to the starry night and mountain desert views.
This place is magical. Check prices and availability here.
Or, if the tiny house isn’t in your budget, take in the sunset views from your own private ranch house with a cozy wood stove bordering the park. Check it out on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: Hidden Valley is everyone’s favorite first introductory hike in Joshua Tree. This easy loop gains 75 feet in elevation and shows off the park’s unique rocky landscapes.
(You can also camp at the nearby Hidden Valley Campground, too.)
Top Tip: Nearby Skull Rock is a must-see. It’s about an hour’s drive from the park. Go early or late in the day to avoid crowds.
7. Santa Ynez Valley—for Wine Tasting
Why I love it: Because wine country! My first visit tasting here was 35 years ago and the wines have only improved since those days.
Santa Ynez Valley is just 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara, making it ideal for combining the two destinations on a weekend…one of my favorite romantic getaways from San Diego.
Where to stay: For a beautiful inn centrally located in Los Olivos, stay at the Ballard Inn. Enjoy the delicious on-site restaurant. You can check prices and availability here.
Or stay at your own private cottage. It comes with a pool and yoga studio! Check it out here.
Things to Do: Eat and drink, of course! As I mentioned, central coast locals have been loving the wines here for decades.
The area really shot to fame as a mainstream wine tasting destination after Sideways—the cult classic about a middle-aged depressed alcoholic who takes his bestie on a wine tasting adventure—was filmed here in 2004.
(Fun side note: Merlot sales cratered after Paul Giamatti’s famous line: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving!”)
Popular wineries in the area are Sunstone, Roblar, Bridlewood, Zaca Mesa, and Kalyra but there are more than 120 boutique wineries here that produce 1 million cases of wine annually.
There are plenty of great restaurants and hotels in Santa Ynez Valley too so if wine tasting is your primary interest, don’t think twice about basing yourself here and spending a few days rather than commuting from Santa Barbara.
Top Tip: The Danish village of Solvang is just a 15 minute drive from Santa Ynez Valley if you’re looking for a break from wine tasting. It’s fun, but beware, it’s a tourist hotspot!
8. Death Valley—for Incredible Views
Why I love it: Death Valley is another spot that’s still on my wish list to visit. This is an incredible place to admire desert blooms and beautiful desert hues.
Plus, it’s the lowest point in North America! This is almost a six-hour drive so you may want to plan an extra day or two if you’re looking for a weekend road trip near San Diego.
Things to Do: See Badwater, a salt pond more than 280 feet below sea level, officially making it the lowest point in North America.
Visit Zabriskie Point for spectacular valley views at sunset. Watch the rock formations illuminate with color!
Artist’s Drive takes you through a rollercoaster ride of five miles of curvy paved roads to admire the sunbaked desert landscape and beautiful desert colors. Stop in to visit the museum at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
Where to stay: Located in Pahrump, the Holiday Inn Express is convenient and comes with a pool. You can check prices and availability here.
Or, marvel at the night sky from just outside the park in your private two bedroom home. Check it out on Airbnb here.
Top Tip: Photographers should head directly to the sand dunes just east of Stovepipe Wells. Mountains provide the perfect backdrop to long curving shadows.
9. Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico—for Wine Tasting
Why I love it: In under two hours, you can be in a wine tasting paradise without the crowds of Napa! A Valle de Guadalupe wine tasting weekend is amazing! It’s an ideal San Diego weekend trip.
Where to stay: Check out my detailed guide to accommodations in Valle de Guadalupe here. But my top pick is at the Casa Frida winery. Check it out here.
Things to Do: If you take the coastal route south of the border, you can stop for lobster in Puerto Nuevo (highly recommended) or drinks near Rosarito en route before you cut inland to the valley.
Valle de Guadalupe is a food mecca! So definitely make reservations at a few beautiful restaurants before you go and then hit the gourmet food trucks when visiting.
Some of my favorite wineries are Sol Y Barro (conveniently located net to the Troika food truck), Cieli (for a flight of beers and a sunset view), and Casa Frida (for the gorgeous rooftop bar and incredible mural of Frida Kahlo above the bar in the tasting room). The best wine we tasted was at Sol y Barro.
Top Tip: Eat at Laja! The food and wine pairing is a phenomenal value. Make reservations before you go though or prepare to be disappointed.
10. Idyllwild—for Mountain Serenity
Why I love it: The adorable mountain town of Idyllwild is just two hours north of San Diego. It’s one of the best ways to enjoy an easy mountain adventure in Southern California. Our family has been visiting for years!
Where to stay: Stay in everyone’s favorite cabin: The Next. It’s stylish, clean and comes with your very own private hot tub. You can check prices and availability here.
Or, embrace rustic modern charm in your very own private cabin! Check this cabin out on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: Explore the San Jacinto Mountain range. The state park here is not far from the tramway to Palm Springs!
Check out the Idyllwild Nautre Center. Get a massage. Bask in the wide open vistas at Idyllwild Park.
Lake Fulmar is a great place to spot butterflies, tree frogs and dragonflies. Perhaps the best thing to enjoy at Idyllwild is the mountain quiet.
So rent a quaint cabin, stake a hammock and just soak up the tranquility.
Top Tip: If you’re not a hiker, take time to walk around the artsy boutiques here!
11. Ojai—to Chill Out
Why I love it: Just north of LA, Ojai has a village-like, rural feel. It’s very new agey and relaxed.
Where to stay: Stay in your own private suite centrally in Ojai Village at the swank Su Nido Inn. It’s steps from the Ojai Culinary Institute! Check prices and availability here.
Or, retreat to a sunlit, pet-friendly redwood cabin hideaway in a flower-filled meadow. You can check out this cabin on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: Spend a half-hour before sunset at Meditation Mount embracing the silence. It’s a popular spot for meditators. Consider a tour of Ojai Olive Oil to sample oils and balsamic vinegars from the friendly staff .
Then stock up on fresh organic produce at the Ojai Certified Farmer’s Market. Hike the Rose Valley Falls Trail. Taste at Top Mountain winery or The Ojai Vineyard. Come for the Ojai Music Festival in June!
Top Tip: The best thing to do in Ojai is to just relax. It’s beautiful here! Grab a book with your favorite beverage and just drink up the peace and quiet.
12. Pasadena—for Museums and Gardens
Why I love it: A visit to Huntington Gardens in lovely Pasadena is one of my favorite day trips from San Diego. It’s a two-hour drive so it’s even better as an overnight!
Where to stay: Settle into a Victorian wisteria-draped mansion close to the Norton Simon Museum at The Bissell House Bed & Breakfast. Check prices and availability here.
Or, cozy up into a peaceful, gorgeous studio perched in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills. Check out the studio on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is such a treasure! There are 120 acres of specialized gardens here organized into themes like the rose garden, Japanese garden, and desert garden.
Meander through the library museums to see historic manuscripts and 17th and 18th-century European art without the crowds.
The Norton Simon Museum, formerly the Pasadena Art Institute, offers a world-renowned collection of private European art. Wander beautiful Old Pasadena. The famous Rose Bowl Parade happens here on New Year’s Day!
Top Tip: Make a reservation at the Rose Garden tea room when visiting Huntington Botanical Gardens. It’s delightful!
13. Santa Monica—for Iconic L.A.
Why I love it: If you’ve never spent much time in L.A., Santa Monica is probably what you’ve been dreaming of! It’s a wonderful vacation destination near San Diego.
Where to stay: Love a modern vibe? Stay at Huntley Santa Monica Beach, a luxury beachside hotel just 5 minutes from the 3rd street Promenade. Check prices and availability here.
Or, stay 4 blocks from the beach in a light and airy condo. You can check out this beachy apartment on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: Start your day at beautiful Santa Monica Beach. Then head to Santa Monica Pier, the iconic wooden pier and amusement park.
Bike the 26-mile bike path here or window shop the Third Street Promenade. People watch on Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park. Check out Muscle Beach!
Top Tip: Try the OMG sandwich at Heroic Deli & Wine bar!
14. Temecula—for Local Wine Tasting
Why I love it: It’s wine tasting close to home! If you’re a wine lover and looking for romantic getaways near San Diego, go here. Temecula is under an hour from the airport!
Where to stay: You’re here for wine tasting so why not stay at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, a boutique resort and state-of-the-art winery? Check prices and availability here.
Or stay in a tiny house cabin! This unique space has a king-sized loft bed and shares a jacuzzi and pool with one other set of guests. Check it out on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: There are more than 40 wineries here that range from destination wineries to family-run shops.
Temecula also has a great Saturday morning farmer’s market, the largest resort-casino on the west coast (Pechanga Resort & Casino), and is home to the Temecula Valley Symphony.
Top Tip: If you’re a serious hiker, try the Dripping Springs Trail. Be aware that your hike will take most of a full day though.
15. Sequoia National Park—to Ogle Giant Redwoods
Why I love it: Can you say giant redwoods? Sequoia is almost a six hour drive from San Diego so you may want to add a day if you’re headed here. But it is so worth the drive! One of my favorite San Diego road trips and there are so many things to do here…even if you just have one day in Sequoia.
Where to stay: Hiking with a group? Stay in a four bedroom California dream home, just a 20 minute drive from the park. You can check prices and availability here.
Or, stay in the Mineral King guesthouse…a cozy guesthouse with gorgeous views of Moro Rock, Alta Peak, and the Great Western Divide. Check it out on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: Head immediately to the Giant Forest area and feel humbled as you look up at five of the 10 largest trees on the planet! There are 40 miles of trails here for your exploring pleasure.
See the General Sherman tree, believed to be more than 2300 years old! Take the short but spectacular hike up to Moro Rock.
Top Tip: Ditch your car outside the park. Free shuttles run between the park’s most popular areas. The $20 shuttle into the park includes the park entrance fee.
16. Julian—for Mountain Town Pleasures
Why I love it: Julian is just a little over one a hour drive from downtown San Diego and even less from my home in North County. I visit every fall in apple-picking season! This is where to go for a San Diego mountain getaway.
Where to stay: Looking for a cozy cottage for two? Stay in the Cliffside Lookout, a light and airy guest suite with views of Anza Borrego and even the Salton Sea on a clear day.
Things to Do: If you’re visiting in late September, go hear some bluegrass music at the Julian Music Festival. Or enjoy the special events of “Apple Days” in the fall.
Tour Julian’s past as a mining town or pan for gold at Eagle and Hike Peak Mine. Stop into the Julian Cider Mill for local jams, jellies, and other foodie souvenirs.
Top Tip: Order a piece of pie at the Julian Pie Company. These pies are legendary!
17. Rosarito Beach—for Mexican Adventure
Why I love it: Just one hour over the border, Rosarito Beach makes a great little weekend getaway from San Diego. I first visited back in 1986 with girlfriends in college. It still makes a great girls’ trip all these years later!
Where to stay: Beachfront of course! Stay at Vista Hormosa Resort and Spa for friendly bartenders and an outdoor pool. It’s just 10 minutes to Rosarito Beach. You can check prices and availability here.
Or, stay in your own beachfront condo in a gated community. Check it out on Airbnb here.
Things to Do: Soak up the sun and surf at Rosarito Beach! Drink margaritas. Eat Baja-style fish tacos.
For a five hour moderate hike with a view, head to Cerro el Coronel. You’ll enjoy 360-degree views of the coastline from Ensenada to San Diego. Bring lots of water and snacks!
Top Tip: Eat at Surf Taco, located just south of Rosarito (but before Puerto Nuevo) at mile marker 38, almost exactly opposite a “you-can’t-miss-it” statue of Jesus Christ silhouetting the sky along the toll road.
18. San Luis Obispo—for Small Town Delights
Why I love it: Home to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, this is the best kind of mid-size university town on California’s central coast and makes a great San Diego getaway.
There’s a lively foodie scene, relaxed locals, and plenty of outdoor adventure. A 5 1/2 hour drive from downtown San Diego, It’s one of my favorite destinations for a weekend away.
Where to stay: Stay right “downtown” in your personal mid-century modern two-bedroom apartment courtesy of an Airbnb Superhost.
Things to Do: Hike Bishop Peak, the highest peak of the Morros range. It’s an easy (but uphill) hike, one to two hours round-trip depending on your speed, and delivers fantastic views of the area.
Rent a kayak or hire a guide for a gentle paddle in the bay. (Look for the sunning sea lions!) Visit Mission San Luis Obispo.
Top Tip: Take a photo in Bubblegum Alley on Higuera Stret!
Like this post? Pin it for later!