Experience everything that SoCal has to offer with these day trip from Los Angeles to stunning nearby beaches, wineries and small towns
Edited by Michael JulianoWritten by Time Out contributors Thursday March 9 2023FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailWhatsAppAdvertising
L.A. is great and all, but sometimes you need a change of scenery. If you only have one day to spare, consider one of these quick day trips from Los Angeles to some amazing nearby destinations. Luckily, living in L.A. means it’s an easy (well, depending on traffic) and often scenic drive to SoCal’s best beaches, small towns, wineries and gorgeous desert landscapes—all within three hours of the city. Oddly enough, taking advantage of the ease with which you can get out of L.A. is easily one of the best things to do in L.A.
From wine tasting in Santa Barbara and vintage hunting in Palm Springs to camping in Joshua Tree or feeling the sand between your toes in San Diego, you’re sure to find a short trip (as opposed to a longer road trip) worth taking on this list.
Top day trips from Los Angeles
Photograph: Courtesy Hotel Del Coronado
- 2 hrs by car
There’s a reason Coronado has topped lists of the country’s best beaches: Its wide shores never feel overcrowded, the soft, fine-grained sand is easily walkable and the weather is practically perfect. Just a quick ferry ride or bridge drive from San Diego, this wealthy peninsula has the feel of a resort town with the amenities that come from being near a major city.
The beachfront grounds of the regal, red-roofed Hotel del Coronado are a must-visit, even if you can’t foot its $600-plus room reservations. Back in town, stop into hole-in-the-wall diner Clayton’s Coffee Shop for a quick meal or MooTime Creamery for frozen treats. Coronado is also home to a sizable naval base, and while you can’t exactly visit, you can spot fighter jets coming in for landings and submarines surfacing off the coast. —Michael Juliano
- 1 hr 20 mins by car
Ojai is a not-so-hidden gem close enough to L.A. for a day trip, but with a unique, relaxed feel that’s worlds away from busy city life. Start early with a decadent, hearty breakfast at Bonnie Lu’s, then stroll the town’s quaint main street; the antique shopping is great here, but relatively newer shops like Summer Camp are also worth a stop.
Tour an olive farm or a citrus grove, then grab an organic lunch at Farmer & the Cook. Alternatively, grab a a bite to go and explore the nearby trails in Los Padres National Forest, just north of town. If the weather is right, swimming holes abound along the Sespe Creek.
Back in civilization, check out Bart’s Books, an outdoor bookstore housed in an actual house (sans roof), or head up to Meditation Mount (reservations required) for incredible views, especially the famed “pink moment” at sunset.
Swing back to the center of town to explore its many wine tasting rooms, or grab a beer and a bite at Ojai Beverage Company. Chief’s Peak, the bar at Ojai Rancho Inn (where you should stay if your trip runs long), is a hip spot for an after-dinner drink; you’ll find more old-timers—and regular live music—at Deer Lodge down the road. —Kate Wertheimer
Discover the best things to do in Ojai
Photograph: Michael Juliano
3. Santa Barbara
1 hr 50 mins by car
Santa Barbara is a scenic and worthy vacation destination regardless of your starting point, but we’re fortunate enough to have relatively easy access (granted that the L.A. traffic gods are working in our favor).
Stearns Wharf is a go-to spot to see the Pacific, and nearby is State Street, filled with tons of shops and people-watching opportunities. And the Wharf isn’t the only place to see the water: Butterfly Beach, a relatively private spot, is situated next to the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and faces west for ideal sunset-watching views.
Grab lunch at La Super-Rica Taqueria—famous for being one of Julia Child’s favorite eateries. The lines tend to be on the ridiculous side, but it’s worth the wait for novelty’s sake alone.
If you’re traveling with family, spend a few hours at the Santa Barbara Zoo (reservations required). Otherwise, grab a glass of Pinot Noir at one of the many tasting rooms along the Urban Wine Trail (hours and status vary by winery); the spots are located in downtown Santa Barbara, steps from the Amtrak station, and source grapes from local vineyards. —Seth Kelley
Discover the best things to do in Santa Barbara
Photograph: Michael Juliano
4. Laguna Beach
1 hr by car
Forget what you know from a certain unfortunate MTV reality show: Laguna Beach is an easygoing oceanfront city graced with lush vegetation, tidepools and a picturesque rocky coastline.
Main Beach is the spot of choice for downtown sunbathing, but you’ll find pristine, less crowded beaches at tide pool-filled Treasure Island, camper-friendly Crystal Cove or hidden Victoria Beach with its weathered, castle-like turret.
Walk the city’s downtown area to find a mix of shops, galleries and restaurants; many eateries cater to the well heeled, so we suggest bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy on a bench at the hilltop Heisler Park. Do, however, follow the smell of fresh waffle cones onto the enchanting Peppertree Lane for a scoop from Gelato Paradiso.
It’s not just about the beach here; you can explore the reservation-only Hortense Miller Garden or thousands of acres of hillsides and canyons to find hiking trails, nature centers and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a sea lion rescue. Summertime typically sees the arrival of two festival favorites: Pageant of the Masters, a live stage interpretation of classical paintings, and Sawdust Art Festival, an open-air artisan market that transforms into a Christmas village in late fall. There’s only one road in and out from the 5, so bring some patience during rush hour—alternatively, take the scenic route and follow Coast Highway through Newport Beach. —Michael Juliano
Photograph: Courtesy Shutterstock
2 hrs by car
After Danish immigrants grew tired of Midwestern winters, they began to make their way west and eventually settled in the pastoral Santa Ynez Valley. Though you won’t find many Danes in Solvang anymore, you will find wooden windmills, rural houses and a replica of Copenhagen’s Round Tower. The post-WWII structures are as touristy as they are charming; walk around town to find an assortment of Christmas shops, Hans Christian Andersen and Little Mermaid keepsakes, and sort-of-Danish bakeries.
Solvang’s downtown area is dotted with breweries and pancake cottages, including local standbys Solvang Brewing Company and Paula’s Pancake House—and an increasingly impressive new culinary scene. For a bit of history on the area, make sure to stop by the humble Elverhøj Museum.
For a more offbeat adventure, head to the outskirts of town to Quicksilver Ranch (temporarily closed, but you can still see in from the fence along the road), the most adorable mini horse farm on the planet, and OstrichLand, which feels like the Jurassic Park of the ostrich and emu world. If you’re visiting in early January, make sure to schedule your trip around the annual Christmas tree bonfire.—Michael Juliano
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Cobber99
6. Balboa Island
1 hr by car, 5 min ferry
Visitors to Balboa Island in Newport Beach can enter the man-made island by driving onto it via Marine Avenue, but it’s far easier—and more fun—to park your car on the Balboa Peninsula and take the Balboa Island Ferry for a quick and scenic five-minute trip across the water.
The first order of business: getting your hands on one of the island’s famed frozen bananas (make the Bluth family proud). Choose from rivals Sugar N Spice or Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop; both claim to be the originators of the chocolate-covered frozen treat.
Take a jaunt around the 1.6-mile boardwalk surrounding the island, passing by multi-million dollar homes and streets named after gems, before strolling down Marine Avenue, the island’s main artery. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants (Wilma’s Patio is a staple), boutique shops, art galleries and the Balboa Island Museum and Historical Society.
Of course, there’s plenty to do out on the water, too: kayaking, parasailing, paddle boarding and the like. If you’ve got kiddos tagging along, the Balboa Fun Zone on the peninsula hosts a Ferris wheel and plenty of arcade games. —Erin Kuschner
Discover the best things to do in Newport Beach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Chuck Abbe
7. Los Alamos
2 hrs 20 mins by car
Once a major stagecoach stop, this small, easy-to-miss town looks stuck in the past with its Old West style—but behind the facade are trendy treasures waiting to be discovered. Inside Bob’s Well Bread Bakery is a hip, stylish setup serving artisan breads—including gluten free options—croissants, sandwiches and more. Exploring antique shops and art galleries can easily fill a day here, just be sure to call ahead, as some places are only open on weekends.
A big draw of the Los Alamos area is its wine tasting—this is Santa Barbara County, after all—which can be done at Bedford Winery and other local tasting rooms. Before you leave town, make a pit stop at 1880 Union, an event space with an authentic stagecoach saloon, or spend the night at the Victorian Mansion Bed and Breakfast. For being a single stoplight town (we haven’t actually counted, but you get it), there’s a bevy of delicious places to eat, such as Full of Life Flatbread (known for its occasional A-list diners) and the destination-worthy Bell’s. —Stephanie Morino
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Larry Costales
8. San Juan Capistrano
1 hr 30 min by car, 1 hr 25 min by train
A piece of California history and a quaint old town make San Juan Capistrano an off-the-beaten-path day trip with a lot of charm and a little learning. If you take Amtrak there, the train will drop you off right where you want to be—just a couple of blocks from a good cup of coffee at Hidden House Coffee.
From there, you can tour Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 and arguably one of the mission chain’s prettiest links. The mission used to be known as a migratory destination for swallows in February, but the famous birds have been spotty in recent years. If you have your heart set on getting up close with some animals, check out Zoomars (reservations recommended), a petting zoo for kids of all ages (read: adults love it, too). It’s a historic ranch where you can also pan for gold like the California miners did. You’re also near Los Rios Historic District, which has some historic homes and museums that are perfect for a walking tour.
When you get hungry, you have several options: Heritage Barbecue serves remarkable Texas-style smoked meats, Ramos House is a romantic spot known for great food and huge Bloody Marys on the weekends and Five Vines is a nearby wine bar with snacks and sandwiches. If you want to catch a later train, head over to Swallow’s Inn, the local dive bar, where bras hang from the ceiling and bands play late into the night. You’re still within stumbling distance of the train station. —Sara Fay
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Jon Doerr Jr
9. Oak Glen
1 hr 30 mins by car
Though you can visit Oak Glen year-round, the best time to head to this picturesque town to the east is September through November. The five-mile loop of orchards, ranches, shops and restaurants is a necessity for any New England transplant looking for fall foliage, and the town’s most popular activity—apple picking—is a nice alternative to canvassing L.A.’s farmers’ markets.
Many of the orchards, like Willowbrook Apple Farm (opens Labor Day weekend), offer a cider press to make your own cider, which you can pair with a cinnamon roll or apple dumpling from Apple Annie’s Restaurant & Bakery. Stop by the Turquoise Pueblo on your way back to L.A. for some beautiful handmade Native American jewelry. —Erin Kuschner
Photograph: Shutterstock/Sherry V Smith
10. Solana Beach
2 hrs by car, or 2 hrs by train
If you want to spend a day in San Diego, you can either try to go big (the San Diego Zoo! Balboa Park! Padres game! All in one day!) or go small-town and spend a chill day in a cool oceanfront neighborhood. The beach towns north of San Diego—no, we’re not talking about Pacific Beach—are the stuff of the Beach Boys lyrics.
In Solana Beach, you’ll find laid-back vibes and beaches that aren’t completely overrun. It’s easy to get there from L.A. via Amtrak, and it’s a perfect way to day-trip because all the spots you’ll want to hit are within walking distance of the station.
Start at the Naked Cafe for a beach-y brunch, then, either head down to the beach at Fletcher Cove or cruise along the Cedros Design District for window shopping, brewery hopping and people watching. There’s also a mix of cute boutiques, surf shops, restaurants, taco spots and bars along South Coast Highway. If it’s racing season, the Del Mar Racetrack isn’t far—it would be either a long walk or a short car ride.
Before you catch the train back up to L.A., you have several good options for dinner near the tracks: Station Sushi is a solid locals’ spot for classic and creative rolls, Bangkok Bay has some of the best Thai food we’ve ever eaten and Pizza Port is known for being a last-slice-and-beer-before-Amtrak place. It’s directly across a pedestrian crosswalk from the train station, and has been slinging pies and pouring pints for three decades. —Sara Fay
If the San Diego Zoo caught your eye, book a ticket and spend a day with the animals.
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Matt Artz
1 hr 30 mins by car
When hoofing it to Napa and Sonoma isn’t an option, Temecula is your next best destination for a day of wine tasting. Before sampling the grapes, stop by quaint Old Town Temecula, where you can pay a visit to the Temecula Valley Museum for a historical walking tour.
Then it’s down to business; the heart of Temecula’s Wine Country includes more than 30 wineries, which you can bounce between at your own leisure (don’t drink and drive, folks!) or take a guided tour from one of the many wine tour companies in the area. Taste your way through the 70-acre Wilson Creek Winery and the red-focused Monte De Oro Winery before heading to Maurice Car’rie Winery for an educated tasting and a loaf of the vineyard’s famous sourdough bread, oozing with brie.
Just down the road, Magical Adventure Balloon Rides encapsulates another popular Temecula activity: riding in a hot air balloon. We can’t think of a better way to end your day in Temecula than by sailing over the town’s vineyards at sunset with a glass of Champagne in hand.—Erin Kuschner
Photograph: Shutterstock/Andrew F. Kazmierski
12. Palm Springs
2 hrs by car
Known for its ultra-fancy resorts and legacy of celebrity residents, Palm Springs is worth at least a weekend, if you can afford the time. Still, if you’re limited to 24 hours, make the desert city a choose-your-own-adventure day trip.
Start with brunch at Cheeky’s, and trust us that it’s worth the wait. If you’re in the mood to exercise, check out Indian Canyons, made up of three separate canyons (Palm, Murray and Andreas) that each offer hiking trails and fantastic views of the diverse landscape. Another of the best ways to see Palm Springs is on the Aerial Tramway, which helps visitors escape the heat of the desert with a scenic ride to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains.
If relaxation is your goal, shop at the outlets in Cabazon, or just get a massage and sit by the pool. The Palm Springs Art Museum is small but displays works from incredible artists including Picasso and Warhol. For dinner, try reservations at Sandfish for superb sushi and Japanese whiskey. —Seth Kelley
Discover the best things to do in Palm Springs
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Jeremy Bishop
13. Big Bear
2 hrs by car; access may be limited during the winter
This mountain town is home to some of L.A.’s closest ski slopes in winter, but don’t discount a summertime trip, when a dip in a mountain lake is the best way to keep cool. Rent a kayak or paddleboard to tour the water, and keep an eye out for the white-domed Big Bear Solar Observatory perched at the water’s edge on the north shore. The hiking here is also plentiful and offers some amazing views.
If you’re a bit more adventurous, stop by Bear Valley Bikes and rent a mountain bike; there are fire roads for beginners and lots of technical, downhill single track for more seasoned riders.
Back in town, check out the Bowling Barn and the Alpine Slide, both of which are a blast with or without kids in tow. For a drink with the locals, head to karaoke night (which is pretty much every night) at Murray’s Saloon, the town’s self-proclaimed “five star hole in the wall.” —Kate Wertheimer
Discover the best things to do in Big Bear
Photograph: Michael Juliano
14. Joshua Tree
2 hrs 15 mins by car
You’ll find Joshua Tree National Park on our shortlist for perfect day trips, road trips and weekend getaways from L.A. That’s for good reason: the magical desert spot—with its gnarled, ancient namesake trees, picturesque cacti and giant boulders—should be on every traveler’s bucket list, no matter how much time they have to spare.
Watch rock climbers scale mini-mountains at Hidden Valley campground (first-come, first-served) or try some scrambling yourself at Jumbo Rocks. If you visit in spring, head south to Pinto Basin for a chance to see colorful wildflowers in bloom.
On the drive out, plan for a pit stop at the Cabazon exit, where you can explore the famed dinosaur park from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (and even, for a fee, climb inside the three-story T. Rex for a photo op in his mouth). Shop for cacti at multiple roadside marts on Twentynine Palms Highway, or hang a left at Pioneertown Road for a stop at Pappy & Harriet’s, which boasts a ghost town, small inn and great live music.
Another worthwhile detour is Landers, home of countless alien sightings and new-age sound baths at the Integratron (reservations required). In the town of Joshua Tree, take your pick from a few tasty restaurants, including Crossroads Cafe to rub elbows with locals. There are some good thrift shops around here, as well as the kind of quirky public art; be sure to check out the World Famous Crochet Museum, as well as prolific artist Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West tour. —Kate Wertheimer
Discover the best things to do in Joshua Tree.
Photograph: Joshua Thaisen
15. Salton Sea and Slab City
3 hrs by car
This day trip isn’t for everyone; but if you’re a fan of things decrepit, forgotten and way off the beaten path, head south to Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea. A popular vacation spot in the ’50s and ’60s, these days all that’s left of the once-booming seaside town are photo-worthy ruins and a lot of dead fish.
The Ski Inn remains; stop by for a drink or a greasy bite and decorate a dollar bill to hang on the wall or ceiling. Continue on to Niland, made famous by artist Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, a giant folk art monument made from adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of paint (you may remember it from Into the Wild). Beyond is Slab City, a former marine training base that now exists as a squat for campers, transients and desert dwellers who’ve created a community complete with a library, skate park and live music stage, “the Range.” If you’re respectful and friendly, folks may share their hot spring and swimming hole secrets, so bring a bathing suit—or do as the locals do and go in your birthday suit. —Kate Wertheimer