An historic town square surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, with mountains rising in the distance: The city of Temecula showcases some of California’s most spectacular features.
The location of this Inland Empire gem, about an hour from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles, makes for an easy visit. Indeed, people come here for hyper-local cuisine (made, for instance, with Temecula Olive Oil), as well as for hiking, biking, and hot-air ballooning. They also come for the Mediterranean-like climate—temperatures range from 25 - 33 in summer, and 15 - 20 in winter.
Perhaps most of all, however, they come to visit the 30-plus wineries that dot the Temecula Valley. Italian, Spanish, and French grapes sprout from the area’s soil and mature in this unique atmosphere, resulting in small-batch vintages. And with many distributed only locally, these award-winning wines are ripe for discovery.
That exploration will likely begin in the heart of the city, a charming area called Old Town. Here, modern California staples like farm-to-table restaurants and craft breweries are set among wooden boardwalks and rustic buildings that bring to mind Temecula’s 19th-century roots. You can even stay in the city’s first inn, the Hotel Temecula, which dates to the late 1800s.
Today, of course, accommodations of all kinds abound. Stay in a familiar chain close to Old Town, or choose a luxury hotel with a room looking out over rows of vines. Read on for tips on how to build your trip to this gem that’s hidden in plain sight.
From large resorts to intimate inns, Temecula offers a wide range of hotels—and price ranges—for everyone. History buffs can soak up the atmosphere at the Hotel Temecula in Old Town—the city’s first hotel, built in the late 1800s. The lobby and second-floor rooms (with bathrooms down the hallway) still maintain their Old West feel, complete with period furniture and portraits.
To immerse yourself in the local wine country, stay among the vines at the Ponte Vineyard Inn, a 90-room boutique hotel built in the style of a Spanish mission, but with a luxuriously modern interior. Oversized rooms—many with balconies—offer views over the inn’s own 125-hectare vineyard. Wine is also the focus at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, a 25-hectare property set among the peaceful vineyards east of town. Take in the view from one of the three-story tower’s 50 rooms, or get up close to the vines in one of the 76 villas. Nearby, at Carter Estate Winery and Resort, you can watch hot-air balloons float over the vines from outside your bungalow suite—perhaps after a wine and food pairing in the tasting room.
For a value option in a great location, the Hampton Inn & Suites Temecula offers solid accommodations with free hot breakfast and a pool, less than a mile from Old Town.
Feeling lucky? The AAA Four Diamond Pechanga Resort Casino features 1,090 accommodation choices: rooms and suites with custom-made Italian furniture, plus floor-to-ceiling windows serving up mountain, valley, or golf-course views. And there’s plenty to do beyond gaming—including 13 restaurants, a concert venue, and Journey at Pechanga, the par-72, links-style golf course.
All the tenets of California cuisine—local, fresh, farm-to-table—are on full display in Temecula, which has easy access to local olives (and the resulting olive oil), dairy, and, of course, wine grapes.
Any dining exploration should begin in the atmospheric Old Town. Sit under the pressed-tin ceiling or out on the patio of The Goat & Vine, where pizza is a specialty. Fresh ingredients come together in a delicious variety of pies, like the jalapeño-lime-carnitas or the steak-gorgonzola, baked in a stone-hearth oven.
At nearby E.A.T. Marketplace, you can start your day with a pour-over coffee and a pumpkin-pie smoothie, then return for each thoughtfully prepared meal, finishing the day with a vegan casserole and paleo brownie. The Old Town standout prides itself on using pesticide-free and antibiotic-free ingredients from local farms and suppliers, and on bringing in deli meats from California’s acclaimed Diestel Family Ranch and Niman Ranch.
Mexican food in Temecula comes with a dash of history at The Bank. The building, which began construction in 1913, indeed started out as a bank that was the site of the county’s first holdup, in 1930, and remained in operation until WWII. Today you can drop by for your favourite Mexican dishes, from burritos to quesadillas or a bowl of pozole.
For upscale pub food paired with artisanal cocktails and craft beer, head to 1909. Formerly a trading post, livery, auto shop, and 1970s rough-and-tumble bar, the gastropub offers options like crab-and-shrimp empanadas and bison burgers, plus signature cocktails like the Cedar-Smoked Old Fashioned.
To dine al fresco among the vines, head out a few kilometres from Old Town and deeper into wine region. At the Restaurant at Leoness Cellars, offerings such as sea bass buerre rouge feature French techniques and pair nicely with the onsite winery’s own bottles, like the oak-aged Mélange or a White Merlot.
Or maximise the vineyard scenery at the Pinnacle Restaurant at Falkner Winery. Set on a hilltop, the restaurant features panoramic views along with dishes like pesto salmon and Mediterranean chicken—and, of course, delicious accompaniments from the winery.
Exploring the Temecula Valley by foot offers the best of two worlds: mountain scenery and warm Southern California sunshine.
Some 32 kilometres outside Temecula is the 3640-hectare Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. Walk through the park’s varied ecosystems, keeping an eye out for the mule deer, badgers, and turtles that make their home here. Or set off for the Moreno and Machado Adobes—former cowboy bunkhouses that date to the mid-1800s. (Insider tip: Bring a picnic.) A little south of Santa Rosa’s visitor’s center is the Cleveland National Forest and the trailhead to Tenaja Falls. It’s a 2.1 kilometre out-and-back hike to the 45m tiered waterfall.
Bird-watching is the focus at Lake Skinner Recreation Area, located 16 kilometres east of Temecula. Walk the park’s 2 kilometre path and look for heron, owls, and hawks as you take in the water views.
About 20 kilometres southwest of Old Town lies 90-hectare Santa Margarita County Preserve. Here, hike the scenic River Trail, an out-and-back stroll of just over 8 kilometres that follows a peaceful river past boulders and through woodlands. You might see hawks or other raptors overhead, plus deer ambling by.
Dripping Springs Trail, also in the Cleveland National Forest, is a more challenging trail, but it’s worth the work: Spectacular mountain vistas appear a couple kiloemtres in. The entire trail, which takes you from desert terrain into lush forest, is about 20 kilometres, but it’s an out-and-back, so you can walk as much of it as you like before turning around.
Colourful hot-air balloons are a common sight over the valley’s vineyards, and nothing compares to the bird’s-eye view you get while flying high in a basket. Year-round, balloons lift off at sunrise, usually for an hour of flying time. Go with Magical Adventure Balloon Rides and you can enjoy a champagne toast and light appetisers after you land; a trip with A Grape Escape ends with champagne and a light breakfast in the gardens of one of the wineries.
Of course, you don’t need to fly to reach the vineyards; a variety of vehicles can whisk you to them. Board a deluxe mini-coach for four hours of wine tasting at three vineyards with Grapeline Wine Tours, or take the company’s Vineyard Picnic Tour for visits to four wineries plus a catered picnic lunch. For a fully guided tour, complete with an introduction to the staff at each of the wineries, go with Destination Temecula Wine Tours; you’ll also enjoy lunch at one of the wineries. Feeling ambitious? Winery Hopper offers a hop-on-hop-off service between 12 area wineries.
If you’re craving adventure, get in a Jeep with Sunrider and rumble your way to three wineries. Or make it a romantic afternoon for two; Temecula Carriage Company offers tours in a horse-drawn carriage, complete with a wicker-basket picnic. Or try another unique option, Antique Pink Cadillac, which takes you vineyard exploring in the backseat of a colourful classic car.
The History: A horseshoe-shaped town square anchors Old Town Temecula, where you’ll find plenty of historic action. Not surprisingly, many of the buildings went up around 1883, the year the Southern California Railroad brought travellers and commerce to the Temecula Valley. One of those structures, the Hotel Temecula, had to be rebuilt in 1891—but that structure still stands (and you can stay there). You can also still see the town’s first church building, St. Catherine’s—though the 1917-era structure was moved to Sam Hicks Monument Park, at the northern end of Old Town. Other original buildings have been refurbished and given new missions: The 1890 Mercantile building is now the entryway to the Temecula Community Theatre; and the 1st National Bank, built in 1914, is now a Mexican restaurant.
Where to Play: The Hotel Temecula hasn’t always been open to guests, but it is now. Start your day with sustainable coffee at E.A.T. Marketplace, or duck in anytime for locally sourced dishes. Pop in for a pizza with innovative combinations of fresh toppings at The Goat and Vine. Head to Old Town’s original bank, which is now a Mexican restaurant called, fittingly, The Bank. Or try the namesake burger at 1909, in an original building that has also been home to a trading post, a livery, and an auto shop. Browse for antiques at Serendipity Antiques and relax in the outdoor garden. If the kids need a break from all this history, bring ’em to Pennypickle’s Workshop, Temecula’s children’s museum. And if you want a break from the kids, experience the country-music scene—complete with line dancing and mechanical bull–riding—at the Temecula Stampede. Or check out what’s on at the Old Town Temecula Community Theater.
For many visitors, the Temecula Valley Wine Country is still a surprise. After all, a lot of people just don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed scribed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert. But the Temecula Valley has been producing top wines since the 1970s. And like the best vintages, this wine country just gets better with age.
It’s a diverse growing region, home to everything from cooler climate grapes like Chardonnay to such warm-weather loving varieties as Syrah and Grenache. The tasting experience is varied, too. Visit posh wineries with lavish restaurants overlooking the vines, and summer concerts featuring top performers. Stroll the streets of Old Town Temecula, with quality boutiques, eateries, and a relaxed Old West feel. Take a hot-air balloon ride or tasting tour in a chauffeured limousine, or play a round of golf. Or just hang out in a tasting room with the winery owner or winemaker (they’re often on site), who can share their expertise and give you insights into this unique and surprising region.
Temecula Olive Oil Company was founded by two friends, Catherine Pepe and Nancy Curry, who went into business together after Nancy’s husband, Thom, had the idea to start making olive oil. Thom now manages production for the company, which grows a mind-boggling 48 varieties of olives at its estate near Temecula, and other Southern California sites.
Temecula Olive Oil Company has tasting rooms in San Diego, Seal Beach, and Solana Beach, along with the original location in Old Town Temecula. Stroll in for free samples of the company’s extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars; there’s also a terrific selection of olives, flavoured oils, spreads, and sea salts.
Two Saturdays a month, you can get a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s ranch, located 25 minutes from Old Town. You’ll start with a guided walk through scenic olive groves to learn about the company’s sustainable growing practices and olive oil production, then taste your way through Temecula Olive Oil Company’s offerings. In addition to its extra virgin oils, it makes two smoked olive oils, plus versions infused with fresh basil and jalapeños.
For a VIP experience, parties of 10 or more can book a day at the ranch, complete with a tour led by one of the company founders. It also includes a guided olive oil tasting and a specially prepared lunch that showcases Temecula Olive Oil Company products.