Ride Horses and Float in a Hot Air Balloon in SoCal's Most Underrated Wine Town

There’s more than wine tasting to do in Temecula, but there’s also lots of wine tasting.

Temecula may not be the most famous wine region in California, and it’s not the most prestigious or the most luxurious, either—but that’s just how they like it out there. The small town is full of rustic charm, a hidden gem just a short drive from San Diego and LA with nearly 50 wineries, a ton of craft breweries, a handful of distilleries, and lots of fun things to do for a weekend getaway in Southern California.

It’s a great escape from the bigger cities on the coast all year round, but it’s particularly nice from late fall through spring, still warm enough to explore the outdoors without the summer heat. It’s so close that it works as a day trip, but there’s enough to do to make a whole long weekend out of it, whether you’re looking for a wild, boozy trip or a quiet outdoorsy adventure, or somewhere in between. These are the best things to do in Temecula.

Drive time:

1 hour from San Diego, CA 
1 hour 30 minutes from Los Angeles, CA 
4 hours 30 minutes from Las Vegas, NV 

two horses in temecula wine country
Flickr/Daniel Orth

If you don’t do anything else: Explore wine country on horseback

Nothing says California country like horseback riding and wineries, and there are several great options to combine the two in Temecula. Saddle Up Wine Tours is an all-volunteer, non-profit ranch that uses its funds to rescue abandoned, neglected, or abused horses. Their wine tasting tours range from one to three hours, and though for safety reasons they no longer ride directly to the wineries your tour includes a ride through classic Old West terrain and then stops at up to three wineries. You can also ditch wine tasting altogether for trail tours, sunset and bonfire tours, riding lessons, and goat yoga. Other companies like Vin Hestin and the clearly named Wine Country Trails by Horseback offer similar saddle and sip adventures.

hot air balloons in temecula

Fill your days 

Outdoor activities in Temecula

For one reason or another, Temecula has become the hot air balloon ride capital of Southern California. It’s a big ask to wake up before dawn after a day of wine tasting, but it’s worth setting your alarm clock for a 60–75 minute sunrise ride over Temecula’s beautiful farmland and wine country. And once you’re back on land, many of the same companies offer mimosas, wine tasting, or other celebratory ways to settle your nerves, and your stomach.

Historic Old Town Temecula gives that vintage cowboy feel with buildings dating back to 1862, most of which have been given new life as restaurants and shops. Vail Headquarters is a good example: the former cattle ranch dates back to 1867, but has been restored to house everything from the cozy Daisy bar to a small-batch apothecary, a pottery studio, an escape room, and plenty of dining, coffee, and alcohol options including Temecula Brewing Company.

For an adventure with buried treasure at the end of it, head a few minutes out of town to hunt for gems at the Ocean View or Pala Chief Mines operated by DigForGems. They provide everything you need to dig for and hopefully uncover gems including tourmalines, kunzites, and more. They’ll also take you on a buggy tour of the area that includes multiple mine tunnels and stunning views. It’s not too far from Temecula proper, but the road is a little rough and dusty—you don’t need a 4WD truck, but you may want to leave the Corvette in town for this one.

Flickr/Mary Beth Abate

Wine tasting in Temecula

For the smoothest tour ever, hop aboard a fully-restored 1914 San Francisco cable car and enjoy gorgeous open-air views of wine country without the hassle of driving. Temecula Cable Car Wine Tours offers a five-hour adventure to three wineries, with an optional pizza pairing.

Family-owned Doffo Winery was Temecula’s Winery of the Year in 2018, and it remains a go-to for their red wines, and Malbec in particular. You can also take a look through founder Marcelo Doffo’s vintage motorcycle collection, which features over 200 restored motorcycles and scooters from around the world, and which they have expanded into the MotoDoffo line of apparel and its own wine collection.

It’s not technically champagne, but the sparkling wines at Carter Estate Winery (from Temecula winemaking pioneer Jim Carter, who also owns neighboring South Coast Winery), are produced with strict adherence to méthode champenoise. Grab a table on their patio and get a tasting flight of the different sparkling wines they produce, which are perfect for Temecula’s warm days. You can also get a tasting of the olive oils produced using the olive trees on property.

Apparition Room | Flickr/Mary Beth Abate

Eat, drink, and sleep 

Restaurants and bars in Temecula

Old Town Temecula has the most dining options in town, and Small Barn is a highlight among them. The historic building that now houses the restaurant is a beautiful space in which to enjoy their creative California cuisine, with a seasonal menu that might include things like Cioppino, Hamachi Crudo, or Gochujang Short Ribs. Owners Dan and Cathy Gibson make their own wines under the Small Barn label, and they also have some of the best cocktails in town.

If you’re totally over wine, move on to the many other fermented beverages bubbling up in Temecula. Family-owned Batch Mead brews meads and hard ciders using mostly local ingredients, and the Wild Barrel tasting room is a great place to check in on the latest in beer nerd innovation. Pop over to Kalifornia Distilleries for bourbon, corn whiskey, and flavored moonshines made in a family tradition that stretches back generations. Or for something a little more chic, duck in to Apparition Room, a speakeasy hidden in the back of Devilicious Eatery with a polished wood bar, tufted banquettes, and a liquor cabinet full of rare and vintage bottles that they call Narnia.

Where to stay in Temecula

There are plenty of places to stay in town, from hotels to app-based home rentals, and you should have no trouble finding one to fit your needs. The Temecula Creek Inn is a pleasant option, far enough away from town to be quiet and serene but close enough for easy access. And it doesn’t hurt that their on-site restaurant Cork | Fire Kitchen hits just the right luxurious but still casual farm-to-table note.

Or, if you’re feeling particularly inspired at Doffo, the winery offers wine club members guest homes available for rent on the property, so you can wake up to the sun rising over the vineyard and your next tastings are just a few steps away.

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Fiona Chandra is an Indonesian-born freelance food and travel writer but she now calls Los Angeles home. When not eating and traveling, she’s probably watching crime shows.

Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.

Ben Mesirow is Thrillist's LA Staff Writer, and an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA Times, Litro, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.