Just south of the hustle and bustle of LA and the north of the border sits a little slice of paradise that is adored by locals and visitors alike. San Diego County encompasses 17 cities, some coastal and some inland, each offering unique charm and idyllic weather that turn visitors into residents (like me!).
If we find ourselves living in one of the magnificent coastal cities like Carlsbad, La Jolla, or Del Mar, it may feel like an unnecessary burden to have to travel anywhere. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to leave San Diego and explore the outer regions for excitement and adventure.
Here are 5 towns that are only a stone’s throw from San Diego. Hop in your car, fill up the gas tank, and hit the road. The drives from San Diego to these nearby destinations offer quintessential California landscape along the way.
Santa Monica: 2-3 hours
One of the reasons I ended up in San Diego was because of Santa Monica. A few years ago my girlfriend took a trip to Santa Monica to see Mumford & Sons in concert and I decided I never wanted to leave. That is when I knew I needed to be by the ocean. I had an article published on the Santa Monica website talking about this very subject where I said, “I just don’t want to leave this place. I had no idea Santa Monica was so amazing. It makes me wonder why I don’t live in a place by the ocean so alive with people and energy.”
What is unique about Santa Monica is its unending eclectic vibe. It is neighbors with Venice Beach, which you can get to on an easy stroll down the bike path. The beach is Santa Monica seems almost as wide as it is long. You may find yourself walking for 10 minutes just to get to the shoreline. That kind of ethereal white sand cannot be taken for granted.
Where to Stay: Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica is an icon. It is literally right. on. the. beach. Rooms have the most incredible view of the ocean and the people watching is divine along the boardwalk.
Where to Dine: The Rose Venice is technically in Venice Beach but it’s just a short bike ride from Santa Monica along the boardwalk. The Rose is another iconic establishment, with an eclectic interior vibe that feels so native to its location. The Brentwood Sweet Corn Agnolotti is to die for.
Joshua Tree: 2-3 hours
I can’t help but love Joshua Tree simply because it shares a name with U2’s 1987 album. Yet, there is so much more to love. Joshua Tree, aptly named for Joshua Trees found throughout the park, lies at the ecological crossroads between the high Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert.
Besides the stunning beauty of the desert landscape, there is so much to explore in Joshua Tree, which makes it a great place to bring the whole family for the weekend. Explore Indian Cove Hiking Trail, rock climb at Echo Cover, walk among the cacti, and enjoy some first-class sunsets.
Where To Stay: The Pioneertown Motel if you like staying in what looks exactly like an old Western Hollywood movie set. It is said that Pioneertown Motel is an otherworldly land in the Morongo Basin that calls to outsiders, dreamers, and spiritual wanderers. Sounds like a good time to me.
Where To Dine: Pappy and Harriet’s is the place to go for the best BBQ, burgers, and dogs in the desert.
Valle de Guadalupe: 2-3 hours
When I first moved to San Diego everyone was talking about this magical wine country tucked in the mountains of Baja just 90 minutes south of the border. Valle de Guadalupe sits at 1,000 feet elevation in a Mediterranean microclimate that is perfect for producing red wine grapes. Some say Valle de Guadalupe is like Napa Valley without the crowds, the pretentiousness, and high prices.
Some of the top wineries in Valle de Guadalupe include: Xecue Vinicola, Casa Magoni, Monte Xanic, El Cielo Valle De Guadalupe, and Decantos Vinicola. There are so many vineyards to choose from in Valle de Guadalupe, and the region is also known for its fine dining establishments.
Where to Stay: Encuentro Guadalupe for eco-friendly glamping
Encuentro Guadalupe has 22 eco-friendly lofts that are an architectural marvel. The style is modern minimalist and they all have stunning views of the surrounding valley and vineyards. There is an infinity pool on site, as well as two restaurants, Origen and Convivia Cantina. After dinner relax in the tasting room to enjoy local wines.
Where to Dine: Often referred to as the French Laundry of the Mexican wine country, the new Fauna Restaurant with David Castro Hussong, who isn’t even 30 yet, as its fearless chef. Hussong doesn’t always know what he’s going to serve from day-to-day, and this is the charm.
Catalina Island: 2-3 Hours by Car and Ferry
When Marilyn Monroe was just Norma Jean, she escaped her foster home life by marrying a young man who was sent to Catalina Island during WWII. One year after her arrival at Avalon, Baker was discovered by a photographer, she divorced her husband, and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
Catalina Island is just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, and from San Diego you can catch a high-speed ferry from Dana Point and it takes only one hour to be on the island. A pretty quick and easy way to get to a beach island!
And this is an island with some interesting and rich history. You have to go there to find out, but I will let you in on a few things. Its waterfront city, Avalon, the only incorporated city within the Channel Islands. In Avalon is a very famous mansion that used to belong to gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., but is now a hotel. You must see The Inn at Mount Ada, if you like mansions. The Inn at Mount Ava overlooks the spectacular Avalon Bay; stay there if you feel like being gum Queen for a day.
Other highlights of Catalina Island are the Catalina Casino and Theater, the Descanso Beach Club (splurge on a cabana overlooking the crystal Pacific Ocean), and the Catalina Zipline Eco Tour.
Where to Stay: The Inn at Mount Ada only has six guest rooms that are quite pricey. For an equally nice stay at a reasonable price, try the Portofino Hotel only steps from the beach. Many rooms have ocean views and they all have cozy rooms.
Where to Eat: Steve’s Steakhouse is quite pricey, but worth it. The food is excellent and the views of Avalon Bay are panoramic.
Palm Springs: 2 Hours
Back in the day Frank Sinatra was sipping champagne at his Twin Palms home and Elvis and Precilla were lounging next to the pool at The House of Tomorrow in Palm Springs. Palm Springs was a favorite for actors in the 50s and 60s because it was within 2 hours from the studio, a rule at the time.
Today you can rent Frank Sinatra’s former Twin Palms Estate and swim in the piano-shaped swimming pool. There is no shortage of fun to be had in Palm Spring. From shopping downtown, to golfing on one of the hundred golf courses, and soaking in one of the 50,000 pools in the area, visitors to Palm Springs love the ambience if you can time it so you aren’t there in 113-degree weather like we were.
Where To Stay: If you are rolling in the dough, you can fork out $2500 (minimum) to stay at Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate. Or if you want a fantastic family resort, stay at the JW Marriot Desert Springs Resort & Spa. They have three lovely pools and comfortable rooms with kitchens, and you will bring home wonderful family vacations memories, guaranteed.
Where To Eat: Workshop Kitchen & Bar is located in the historic El Paseo building in the Palm Springs Design District. If you don’t like food like potatoes fried in duck fat, at least go for the incredible interior design work. It is a feast for the eyes and the mouth.