Los Angeles is a great city, and it’s not like there isn’t enough to do here on the weekends. But sometimes you just need to escape for a few hours, and luckily we happen to be surrounded by spectacular landscapes, beautiful beaches and small towns perfect for day trips. If you’re itching for an out-of-town getaway but are a bit short on time, this list will introduce you to new destinations or show you old favorites in a new light, all within three hours of the city. From wine tasting in Santa Barbara to vintage hunting in the desert or feeling the sand between your toes down south, you’re sure to find a short trip worth taking.
Embark on one of these day trips from L.A.
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 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
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
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 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 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
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, 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. On weekends, the restaurant offers train and pony rides for the young’uns, but you can also check out the Oak Tree Animal Park petting zoo—laughing kukaburras, goats, pigs and deer all roam the property. Stop by the Turquoise Pueblo on your way back to L.A. for some beautiful handmade Native American jewelry.—Erin Kuschner
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
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 (order the pork, veal and lingonberry Danish Burger) and Paula’s Pancake House. 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, 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
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 or breakfast at Hummingbird House Cafe. From there, you can tour Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra 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 MIA for a few years. If you have your heart set on getting up close with some animals, check out Zoomars, 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: 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
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 with unforgettably fluffy pancakes at Beach Grass Cafe, or if the line is too long there, walk over to Naked Cafe for a beach-y brunch. After breakfast, 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 good 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 more than two decades.—Sara Fay
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. Otherwise, grab a glass of Pinot Noir at one of the many tasting rooms along the Urban Wine Trail; the spots are located in downtown Santa Barbara, and source grapes from local vineyards. More of a beer person? Telegraph Brewing Co. is open seven days a week for tastes and tours.—Seth Kelley
2 hrs 15 mins by car
An absolute must-see for tourists and locals alike, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most magical places in California (and the country, we think). The park’s varied and alien landscapes—due mostly to gnarled, ancient Joshua Trees, looming cacti and giant boulders strewn willy nilly—make for impressive scenery during hikes, bike tours or leisurely drives. Watch rock climbers scale mini-mountains at Hidden Valley campground or try some scrambling yourself at Jumbo Rocks. If you visit in spring, head south to Pinto Basin 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 (even climbing inside the three-story T. Rex for a photo op in his mouth). Shop for cacti at multiple roadside marts on 29 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. In the town of Joshua Tree, take your pick from a few tasty restaurants, including Crossroads Cafe to rub elbows with locals and Pie for the People for ’za to rival any in the city. There are some good thrift shops around here, as well as the kind of quirky public art that only exists in tiny desert communities; be sure to check out the World Famous Crochet Museum, as well as prolific artist Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West tour or High Desert Test Sites installations.—Kate Wertheimer
2 hrs by car
This mountain town is home to 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
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 $300-plus room reservations. Back in town, you can pick up pub fare at Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge. 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
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, Municipal Winemakers and other local tasting rooms. If you indulge too much to drive home, there’s the 1880 Union Hotel, an authentic stagecoach hotel and historical landmark, or 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).—Stephanie Morino
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.” Ask for directions to East Jesus, a permanent camp at the Slabs, to see trippy art cars and larger-than-life installations (and don’t be surprised if they put you to work; their brick pizza oven, wine bottle wall and other camp features have all been group efforts).
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
Looking for more travel inspiration?
Whether you’re itching for a spontaneous weekend getaway or have months to plan an extended vacation, we’ve compiled the best road trips from Los Angeles for all kinds of adventuring, because on these routes, it’s just as much about the journey as it is the destination.