With its diverse microclimates and landscapes, Southern California offers visitors a huge variety of small towns to visit outside of San Diego. In coastal beach towns, mountain resorts and desert towns you will be treated to amazing beaches, winter sports, and unique cultural experiences. Our picks of the best small towns near San Diego show a different side to California from what you may have come to expect, replacing the glitz and palm tree promenades for historic charm and beautiful natural surroundings. If you want to explore outdoors, be sure to check out our road trip guide in San Diego.
Coronado was an island that is now attached to the mainland via a bridge and the Silver Strand State Beach meaning visitors can simply drive 6.7 miles from San Diego and enjoy one of the best beaches in the United States. Though the north of Coronado is a military area and not accessible, to the south a surfing academy, campsites and barbeque areas are available to visitors along with 1.5 miles of sandy white beach. Cuisine in Coronado is diverse and the main street, Orange Avenue, has many restaurants, shops, and theaters. The resort town is also home to Hotel del Coronado, a huge wooden Victorian structure that is a National Historic Landmark.
2. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is a beautiful fishing town on the scenic California State Route 1 that is known for its unspoiled beaches and incredible state park. Although it’s far up the coast from San Diego, this route is an excellent road trip taking in a lot of scenic landscape. The iconic Morro Rock stands in the sea opposite the harbor. Home to peregrine falcons, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug and is a protected area for wildlife like much of the surrounding area. The parks and the beaches in the area are magnificent and there are many sites to camp with incredible views over the bay.
Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains just over 100 miles north of San Diego, Idyllwild is a small mountain town with excellent outdoor activities including biking and rock climbing. Peaceful and quiet, it is the perfect antidote to the city and a great base from where to explore the San Jacinto State Park.
Carlsbad is an affluent town by the sea just 35 miles north of San Diego. Fly fishing, flower fields, and the state beach are all excellent options of things to do here. Other great places to visit include South Carlsbad State Beach, Calavera Lake, and the towering Mount Calavera.
Drive about 60 miles east of San Diego into the mountains and you will find this perfect little getaway. In the late 1800s it had a small gold rush but these days it is more famous for its apple pie, which you should definitely sample. There a few small galleries in the town showing work by local artists and the Julian Pioneer Museum that explains the history of its Gold Rush era.