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Day Trip: 11 things to do in Temecula

Rows of grapevines in the Bottaia Winery vineyard Bottaia Winery. Photo by David Ricks

Surrounded by scenic rolling hills and vineyards, Temecula is an ideal destination for visitors wanting to explore wine country. An hour from San Diego and an hour and a half from Los Angeles (sans traffic), it’s compact enough that you can see many of the town’s main attractions in a day without feeling as if you’ve missed something. The city has an energetic, small-town vibe and lots to see and do, both on the main drag and in the surrounding area. Wondering what to do in Temecula? Here are 11 places to visit.

1. Cielo Balloons Temecula

Three hot air balloons rising into the sky

Photo courtesy Sean Wisdom/Cielo Balloons

The distinctive blue hot air balloons fly over the Temecula Valley at dawn 7 days a week and spend about an hour in the air, although the entire experience—including firing up and coming down—lasts about 3 hours. For skydivers who are at least B-licensed and have their own parachute, the company also offers jumps from their balloons. Shared flights start at $170 per person.

2. Swing Inn Café

A pile of French toast topped with powdered sugar

Photo by David Ricks

This pleasantly stuck-in-time greasy spoon has been a local favorite for almost 100 years. Judging by the weekend crowds, it isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Take a spot at the counter and steel yourself for a hearty breakfast. If asked whether you want the 4- or the 6-piece French toast, go for the bigger portion—it’s that delicious. 

3. Big Horse Feed and Mercantile

Racks of clothing and other items for sale inside Big Horse Feed and Mercantile

Photo by David Ricks

This is a must-see whether you’re a show jumper, a cowboy or cowgirl, or simply someone who admires the equestrian aesthetic. Temecula was horse country before it was wine country, and this packed-to-the-gills equine emporium carries everything from woven saddle blankets to cowboy boots to all types of tack. 

4. Akash Winery

Grapevines stretching over the hill at Akash Winery

Photo courtesy Temecula Life/Akash Winery

Many area wineries offer dining, but family-owned Akash Winery may be the only one with a private open-air dining experience literally within the vineyard (book at least 2 weeks in advance). Among this award-winning winery’s options are a Three’s Company red, which combines blueberry and licorice notes, and a Parlez-Vous rosé with hints of cranberry and lemon. Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.

5. Bottega Italia

Four cones, each with a scoop of gelato

Photo by David Ricks

Lunch at airy, cheery Bottega Italia is a treat, whether you come for the restaurant’s hand-tossed pizzas, such as the capricciosa, made with cremini mushrooms, prosciutto, and baby artichokes; desserts (try the hazelnut gelato or the cannoli); or the colorful, imaginative drinks.

6. Ford & Elm

The Ford & Elm storefront

Photo by David Ricks

This is the kind of store that makes you want to revamp your entire home. Find everything from vintage furniture to computer keyboard brushes made with goat hair and horsehair. Owner Porsche Poltl makes regular pilgrimages to antiques fairs to bring back one-of-a-kind pieces (including European imports), and you can see her refined sensibilities in every item. 

7. Altisima Winery

People at the counter inside the Altisima Winery tasting room

Photo by David Ricks

New on the local winery scene, the elegantly appointed Altisima Winery has some of the best views in town. In addition to a tasting room, it’s home to Gaspar’s restaurant, which pays homage to the area’s Spanish roots and often features live music. For $98, you can book a 90-minute estate tour that culminates in a cheese-and-wine tasting in the VIP lounge.

8. Pennypickle’s Workshop

A young girl playing in Pennypickle's Workshop

Photo by David Ricks

Bring your budding scientist or junior steampunker here. Featuring a series of themed rooms, including a time-travel library and a chemistry-and-physics kitchen, this entertainment venue teaches children scientific principles through play. Don’t miss the extensive gift shop. Children, $10; adults, $8.

9. Bottaia Winery

Glasses and bottles of wine arranged on a counter

Photo by David Ricks

Indulge in a glass of vino, lounge by the pool (for a fee), and perhaps even rent a poolside cabine (private changing rooms) for the day. If you’re serious about wine, sign up for its wine lab to concoct your own wine under an expert's supervision.

10. Small Barn

Slices of meat topped with an egg and served over a bed of asparagus

Photo courtesy Small Barn Old Town

Following a “fewer, better things” ethos, this restaurant’s dinner menu is limited but hearty. It features satisfying starters like organic mushrooms with duck-fat dashi, black garlic, and yuzu, along with mains like hand-cut rib eye in a red wine reduction with bone marrow truffle butter. If you arrive too early for dinner, you can enjoy the restaurant’s lovely charcuterie selections from 2 to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. 

11. Temecula Stampede

A woman leading a group line-dancing lesson at the Temecula Stampede

Photo courtesy Temecula Stampede

Channel your inner urban cowboy or cowgirl at the Temecula Stampede. With a mechanical bull, Friday-night line-dancing lessons, and occasional dance competitions, this is where locals and visitors alike gather to dance and enjoy a drink at the outdoor bar Thursdays through Saturdays.

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