A historic town square surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, with mountains rising in the distance: The Temecula Valley 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 the 80s–90s in summer to the 60s–70s 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.
North of San Diego County lies the grape-rich region of Temecula, a fertile valley boasting 40-plus vineyards, dozens of tasting rooms, and an easy-living vibe. Plan to stay for at least a weekend—you’ll want to take your time and fully experience wine-tasting, golfing, balloon rides, and more.
Visit Old Town
Start by exploring Old Town Temecula’s 12 blocks of antique shops, galleries, brewpubs, and restaurants. Water towers, wooden sidewalks, and frontier-style storefronts create a charming 1860s Western façade—an homage to the town’s cattle ranching and railroading past. Learn about Temecula’s history at the two-story Temecula Valley Museum. Head over to Temecula Olive Oil Company to taste artisan olive oils in bold flavor profiles like roasted garlic or citrusy blood orange, and shop for lavender lotions and bath soaps at Temecula Lavender Company.
Check out who’s playing at the Temecula Stampede, the West Coast’s largest country and western music venue, offering free dance lessons on weekends.
Enjoy E.A.T Marketplace
Lunch on farm-fresh sandwiches and homemade coconut milk at E.A.T Marketplace (EAT stands for “Extraordinary Artisan Table”), and be sure to save room for turtle cheesecake. Chef Leah Delyte makes inventive dishes with grass-fed beef and local Temecula edibles, plus plenty of gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and paleo choices.
Stay at Temecula Creek Inn
Spend the night at the Temecula Creek Inn, where you’ll sleep soundly on a plush bed overlooking the Santa Ana Mountains and Temecula Creek’s 27-hole championship course. Plan to tackle those greens tomorrow, but for tonight, enjoy a glass of wine by the outdoor fire pits and farm-fresh flavors at Cork Fire Kitchen.
Explore in a Hot Air Balloon
At dawn, head out for a fabulous airborne escapade as you join the party of hot-air balloons rising 1,500 feet above Temecula’s vineyards. Book a spot with California Dreamin’ Balloon Adventures, Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, or A Grape Escape, then go up, up, and away. Your balloon is propelled by blasts of hot air and the whim of the wind (and your experienced pilot’s skill). Enjoy amazing views of citrus groves, vineyards, and the distant mountains. After touching back down to earth, celebrate with a sparkling-wine toast.
Taste at Wilson Creek Winery
Spend your weekend’s second day wine-tasting. The Temecula Valley was once known for Chardonnay grapes, but today’s winemakers have branched out into Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and dessert wines. (Check out the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association website for tasting coupons and discounts.) For a fun-loving tasting experience, head straight to Wilson Creek Winery. Even if your palate leans toward Cabernet, expand your horizons with a sip of Wilson Creek’s signature almond sparkling wine. Live bands play on the lawn most summer weekends, and an outdoor bar serves wine slushies—a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
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 310-acre vineyard. Wine is also the focus at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, a 63-acre 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 EAT 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. It also showcases 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 favorite 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 miles 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 maximize 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 20 miles outside Temecula is the 9,000-acre 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 1.5-mile out-and-back hike to the 150-foot tiered waterfall.
Bird-watching is the focus at Lake Skinner Recreation Area, located 10 miles east of Temecula. Walk the park’s 1.5-mile path and look for heron, owls, and hawks as you take in the water views.
About 13 miles southwest of Old Town lies 221-acre Santa Margarita County Preserve. Here, hike the scenic River Trail, an out-and-back stroll of just over 5 miles 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 miles in. The entire trail, which takes you from desert terrain into lush forest, is about 13 miles, but it’s an out-and-back, so you can walk as much of it as you like before turning around.
Colorful hot-air balloons are a common sight over the vineyards of Temecula Valley, 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 appetizers 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 colorful 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 travelers 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 Theater; 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 a surprise. After all, a lot of people don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert. But the Temecula area has been producing top wines since the late 1960s. 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 varieties as Syrah and Grenache. How does wine grow so close to the desert? It begins with a rich, granite-based soil that plays host to the vines. Then it continues with a unique microclimate in which the grapes thrive: crisp mornings coated in mist, a warm daytime sun, and cool ocean breezes that welcome the clear night sky.
More than 30 wineries take advantage of these conditions, and the result has been lots of award-winners—which, of course, you can sample. One of the oldest wineries in the region, Callaway Vineyard & Winery (first launched by the golf-gear family) dates back to 1969, and it offers both a big tasting room and cellar tours where you can taste from the barrels. Go to Europa Village and sit on the patio to savor the Cinsaut, made from a grape usually found in the South of France; the winery is also home to a 10-room B&B with themed rooms like Syrah and Pinot Grigio. Head to the Leoness Cellars—located along a rural stretch known as the De Portola Wine Trail—and take one of the vineyard tours, then enjoy some Mélange de Blanc or Grenache by the patio’s outdoor fireplace.
Plenty of the wineries are sights in themselves. At Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards, taste the signature almond sparkling wine and stroll the grounds to see the thousands of roses and other flowers—or book the onsite manor, which sleeps 24, for a wedding or reunion. Brimming with Old West charm and fun for the whole family, Longshadow Ranch Vineyard & Winery hosts lively Saturday night bonfires during the summer, and year-round events like dinner and live music shows.
Briar Rose Winery, meanwhile, houses its tasting room in a replica of the seven dwarfs’ cottage from Snow White. The wines here are unique too—like the Talking Frog bubbly, a blend of Viognier and Hefeweizen beer.
Launched in 2001,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 Old Town San Diego, Seal Beach, and Solana Beach, along with its original location in Old Town Temecula; the newest location will be opening in spring 2018 in Laguna Beach. Stroll in for free samples of the company’s extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars; there’s also a terrific selection of olives, flavored oils, spreads, and salts.
The second and fourth Saturday of each month, you can get a behind-the-scenes tour 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 Temecula Olive Oil Company’s sustainable growing practices and olive oil production, then taste your way through the company’s offerings. In addition to its extra virgin oils, it makes a variety of flavored olive oils. You can even buy your own olive tree to take home.
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. The package also includes a guided olive oil tasting and a specially prepared lunch that showcases Temecula Olive Oil Company products.