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“America’s Finest City” really does have it all. Not only does this seaside metropolis boast some seriously enviable weather, but this once-sleepy destination has become a bona fide mecca for foodies and culture vultures thanks to its thriving theater scene, chef-driven eateries and the largest cultural complex west of the Mississippi. But San Diego‘s surrounding areas are equally blessed. Beyond the city limits lay breezy coastal communities, tucked away mountain towns and breathtaking desert vistas.

RELATED: 6 cheap hotels in San Diego you’ll actually want to stay in

Spring Wildflowers In Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego State Park (Approx. drive time: 2 hours)
California’s largest state park—and the country’s second largest—is, oddly enough, one of its least known. But if you’ve got a bit of desert wanderlust, Anza-Borrego’s unlimited treasures are a manageable drive from the city. The best time to visit is spring, when wildflowers turn the stark desert landscape into a giddy kaleidoscope of vivid colors. But the landscape is fascinating all year round, even during the scorching-hot summer. Borrego boasts numerous plants and bird species, more than 100 metal art sculptures and the possibility of spotting desert critters like bighorn sheep, coyotes, roadrunners and rattlesnakes. Nighttime stargazing is phenomenal.

Flickr CC: atramos

Julian (Approx. drive time: 75 mins)
The mountain town of Julian is as wholesome and American as apple pie. In fact, apple pies are their specialty. Because this charming village of 1,500 residents is located at 4,235 feet above sea level, it experiences four true seasons, and thus enjoys a climate conducive to apple growing. Visit in fall and revel in cider, pies and other treats during the Julian Apple Harvest. If you’re hankering for a winter wonderland, Julian gets roughly 9 inches of snow annually. Once you’re finished making snow angels, dash back to sunny San Diego for an al fresco dinner wearing little more than shorts and a T-shirt.

Rocky coastline with sea cave at La Jolla, California

La Jolla (Approx. drive time: 20 mins from downtown)
Many of its residents would likely call La Jolla the crown jewel of San Diego, and in a way, they’d be right—in Spanish, the name literally means “the jewel.” Its compact and approachable downtown district is filled with galleries, upscale shops and chic eateries. This San Diego community is also home to the University of California at San Diego, and its Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts and “Fallen Star” art installation. All of this is just steps from La Jolla Cove, which is equally as worth admiring as it is diving into. At nearby Torrey Pines Glider Port, you can paraglide while enjoying coastal views. And, if you hike the treacherous path down to Black’s Beach, you’ll find yourself smack in the middle of one of the busiest nude beaches in the U.S. Word to the wise: Mind those stingrays!

Salton Sea State Park Welcome Sign in Southern California

The Salton Sea (Approx. drive time: 2.5 hours)
An admittedly ambitious day trip, the Salton Sea is nevertheless a one-of-a-kind adventure. The largest lake in California, the Salton Sea was formed in 1905 by accident when engineers attempting to divert water from the Colorado River accidentally flooded the Salton Basin and thus created the Salton Sea. By mid-century, the area had become a weekend playground for Southern Californians, but sadly that didn’t last long. Today, you can step back in time at Bombay Beach and Salton City, two of several nearly abandoned towns left to decay during the downfall of the region’s popularity. Also nearby is the colorful Salvation Mountain folk-art installation, as well as the equally odd, off-the-grid squatter site Slab City.


Temecula (Approx. drive time: 60 mins)
You don’t actually have to make the trek to Northern California to swill vino and picnic in the countryside. Although it’s often overshadowed by Napa, Sonoma and the increasing prestige of the Central Coast, the town of Temecula boasts more than two dozen wineries whose best yields include Rhone varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Best of all, it’s located less than 60 miles northeast of San Diego, making for a perfect afternoon excursion. Temecula’s downtown plays up its frontier past, but the ersatz Wild West vibe nevertheless creates a welcome diversion from boozing.

Tijuana (Approx. drive time: 30 mins)
No longer the easy, breezy border crossing it once was, a day trip to this infamous Baja California destination is still quite doable, provided that you bring a passport, fill out an entry form and are prepared to wait in line when entering and exiting Mexico. One of the easiest ways to visit is via the underrated San Diego Trolley’s Blue Line, which picks up passengers in downtown San Diego and drops them off 30 minutes later at the border, in suburban San Ysidro. Once in Tijuana, head to Avenida Revolucion, a magnet for tourists prowling for souvenirs and nightlife. Want to get a more authentic taste of the city? Make a beeline for Calle Sexta, the city’s emerging hipster haven, where you can revel in local live music, mezcal cocktails and authentic, modern Mexican art.

Tagged: California, Destinations

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