Year-round sunny weather, gorgeous beaches and an abundance of family-friendly attractions make Southern California one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. Encompassing the southern third of the Golden State, SoCal stretches west from the inland deserts and mountains to the temperate shores of the Pacific Ocean. Many of region’s cities and communities have enough sights and activities to serve as a travel destination in their own right, but it would be shame to visit the Southland without hitting the highlights.
Thanks to an extensive freeway system, getting around is relatively easy, despite the occasional traffic jam. It’s possible to spend the morning surfing the waves and the afternoon skiing or hiking in the mountains. From its beautiful beaches and national parks to its world-class cultural attractions and amusement parks, here are some of the best places to visit in Southern California.
The eight islands that lie off the coast of Southern California offer visitors a wealth of island adventures. Five of the islands are uninhabited, preserved for the public to enjoy as part of the Channel Islands National Park. Half-day and full-day excursions to Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara are available through several park-appointed boat concessionaires. Visitors can camp overnight on the island of their choice as well. The sea caves and kelp forests around the island offer great opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving. Boating excursions that combine whale watching with non-landing tours around the islands are a popular option.
9. Santa Monica Where to Stay
Best known as the setting for the television show “Baywatch,” Santa Monica offers everything travelers want from a Southern California beach town, including great surfing and swimming, wide stretches of sand and plenty of sunshine. Developed as a seaside resort in the early 1900s, the city has grown into an upscale community filled with designer shops, tasty restaurants and unique art galleries. The old-fashioned amusement park at the Santa Monica Pier is home to the city’s most recognizable landmark, a solar-powered Ferris Wheel illuminated with LED lights. Visitors can rub elbows with the rich and famous at the Third Street Promenade, one of the region’s premier shopping destinations.
Located in the Southern California desert area 140 miles (225 km) east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for hikers, rock climbers, photography buffs and nature lovers. Named after the treelike genus of yucca that grows in the park’s northwestern section, Joshua Tree is an expansive park that includes multiple overnight camping areas, natural springs, man-made reservoirs and more than 4,500 established rock climbing routes. Places of interest include an old cattle rustler’s hideout, Native American rock art and Keys View, a sky-high natural overlook that offers views of the landlocked Salton Sea.
7. Palm Springs Where to Stay
Situated 120 miles (190 km) east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a popular vacation destination since the 1920s when movie stars used the desert city as their winter playground. With its mid-century architecture, the city’s Movie Colony District illustrates the lifestyle Hollywood’s elite enjoyed. More than a dozen beautifully maintained golf courses lie within the bounds of the 100-square-mile city, which makes Palm Springs a golfer’s dream, but the region’s natural attractions are worth exploring too. A ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the 8,516-foot (2,596 meter) summit of Chino Canyon gives visitors a birds-eye view of the desert landscapes.
6. Universal Studios Hollywood Tours & Activities
Home to one of the oldest still-operating film studios, Universal Studios Hollywood is a sprawling complex in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles best known for its family-friendly theme park. Many of the park’s rides and attractions are centered on blockbuster movies, offering an immersive experience for fans of films ranging from “King Kong” to “Waterworld.” Behind-the-scenes studio tours are available as well. The complex also includes Universal CityWalk, an outdoor shopping center where visitors can catch live performances, see a movie or watch celebrities.
5. Santa Barbara Where to Stay
Santa Barbara is a coastal city less than 100 miles (160 km) from Los Angeles but differs vastly in pace from its huge neighbor to the south. Sometimes referred to as “Riviera of the West,” Santa Barbara is well known for its beautiful beaches, mild temperatures and for the California Mission-style architecture that is very common in this city. A long-standing local ordinance ensures that all commercial construction follows the Mission theme, which results in a plethora of red-tiled roofs and adobe supermarkets. Santa Barbara’s most popular attractions are its Stearns Wharf and the Mission Santa Barbara, a Spanish outpost founded by the Franciscan order in 1786.
4. Hollywood Where to Stay
One of the most visited places in Southern California, Hollywood has been an international center for film and entertainment since the silent-movie days of the 1920s. Many television studios are still based in Tinseltown, and visitors can book ahead to reserve tickets for TV show taping during their stay in Los Angeles. A stroll along the star-studded Walk of Fame leads past the historic Chinese Theater where footprints and handprints of famous movie stars are encased in cement on the sidewalk. The district’s iconic Hollywood sign is located in Griffith Park, home to the Art Deco-style Griffith Park Observatory, the outdoor Greek Theatre and the Los Angeles Zoo.
3. San Diego Where to Stay
With miles of sandy beaches, a picturesque harbor and stellar luxury resorts, San Diego is the perfect destination for a fun-in-the-sun weekend getaway. A host of cultural attractions, theme parks, historic sights and a world-famous zoo make the city near the border of Mexico ideal for extended family vacations too. Known as the Birthplace of California, San Diego offers opportunities to explore the Golden State’s long history as well. In the Old Town San Diego Historic District, visitors can tour the mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. The most popular attraction in San Diego is America’s premier zoo, which is located in Balboa Park with flowering gardens and Spanish architecture. The city is home to other family attractions as well like SeaWorld San Diego and the Birch Aquarium.
⇒ related: Top San Diego Attractions
Tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney gets the credit for transforming a marshy stretch of shoreline south of Santa Monica into the “Venice of America.” In 1904, Kinney turned a series of drainage channels into scenic canals and constructed a Venetian-inspired arcade on the beach. While the canals remain one of the community’s top attractions, most visitors head for the beach’s world-famous boardwalk where eccentric street performers compete with shops, stalls and food stands for attention. The beach’s volleyball courts, skating plaza and body-building Muscle Beach area are crowd-pleasers as well. The pier at the southern end of Venice Beach is perfect for fishing.
1. Disneyland Where to Stay
Located in Anaheim, Disneyland is a world-famous amusement park where Walt Disney movies and characters all come to life in a magical, make-believe kingdom. The Disneyland Resort is divided into two separate theme parks, three hotels, and a shopping and entertainment district. The first park is the original Disney theme park Disneyland, which opened in 1955. Its sister park Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001, is located across the entry plaza on the former site of Disneyland’s parking lot. Both parks are divided into themes like Main Street USA, where visitors can step back into the early 1900s and Mickey’s Toontown where kids can meet their favorite Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.