I spent the first 18 years of my life living in Orange County. Then I moved to Santa Barbara for college. Now I live on the east coast, returning home a couple of times a year. The travel advice I am asked for most often is how to plan a visit to my home state. So, I decided to write about all the places I love to visit when I come home. My family, who still lives in Orange County, also contributed their favorite place to see in California. I am sure that this will help you plan the best trip to southern California! I will highlight my favorite things in purple text. Enjoy the best places to visit in Southern California.
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How to Plan a Trip to Southern California
As you can see below, you can spend a long time exploring the region as there is so much to do. It is usually cheapest to fly in and out of Los Angeles and San Diego airports, but we have many smaller airports. I especially love how convenient Long Beach Airport is in northern Orange County.
I suggest starting in Los Angeles and driving to San Diego or the reverse. A road trip is the best way to explore southern California. You can get around by train, but you would also need to take many taxis or Ubers. Sadly, we do not yet have decent public transport.
Give yourself a lot of extra time for driving and try to drive off-peak. The traffic in southern California is epic, especially around Los Angeles.
Not to Miss Places in San Diego County
San Diego is one of my favorite California counties, full of gorgeous beaches with cliffs and coves. There are interesting tide pools to explore. You can feel echoes of its Spanish past and present as a neighbor of Mexico in the towns. The area has so many family-friendly activities.
- Visit Coronado Island– Visit this small peninsula to enjoy its bike trails, old town, California bungalows, and beaches.
- If you are up for a splurge, stay at the Victorian Hotel del Coronado.
- Take a boat cruise around Coronado Island.
- Peak over the border into Mexico. Explore the estuaries at Border Field State Park. Then you can say you have seen our wall. I don’t know if that is positive or negative, but it is very close to San Diego! It is not safe to cross the border in this area. If you want to visit this beautiful country, visit some safer places.
- Because it is so interactive, Legoland is always one of my boys’ favorite California amusement parks. You can even stay at their hotel!
- Visiting Sea World as a kid made me want to be a marine biologist. This is all of my adult family’s favorite.
- Take a tram ride through animals in large fenced areas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
- Visit the pandas at the San Diego Zoo. It is one of the best zoos in the country.
- Do a bar crawl in the Gaslamp Quarter.
- Explore tidal pools and see the sea lions in La Jolla.
- My mom’s favorite place is downtown La Jolla, a picturesque street with lots of great restaurants. Especially marvelous is the Marine Room, which sits over the waves at high tide.
- Go sea cave exploring at Sunny Jim’s Cave in La Jolla.
- Explore Julian one hour east of San Diego to go apple picking or antiquing.
- Visit the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum. After your visit, you can have dinner or shop in the area.
- Eat authentic Italian food in San Diego’s Little Italy. My dad and brother love this.
- The San Diego Botanical Gardens are stunningly beautiful, with fields full of flowers. At Christmastime, it has the largest poinsettia field in the world.
- You can still visit the original Spanish pueblo in Old Town San Diego.
- View desert pupfish and wildflower fields in season in Anza Borrego.
- Visit the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park.
- Spend time exploring the fountains and architecture of Balboa Park.
Not to Miss Places in Orange County
I may love Orange County so much because of my history with it! Orange County is where California’s surf culture began. Its southern beaches lie afoot stunning cliffs, and the long white sands of the northern beaches seem to go on forever.
You can read my whole Local’s Guide to Orange County, but here are some highlights:
- Act like a kid again at Disneyland.
- Bodysurf at the Wedge in Newport Beach.
- There is also world-class surfing at Trestles by San Onofre and Huntington Beach.
- While surfing at San Onofre, set up a tent, and enjoy a night on the beach. My grandfather and mother love this.
- Enjoy the art culture and cliff-lined beaches of Laguna Beach.
- Mission San Juan Capistrano– Explore California’s Spanish history with a visit to this mission founded in 1776. If you visit around March’s St. Joseph’s Day, you can see the migrating cliff swallows as they return to San Juan Capistrano.
- Be sure to stop by and see the oldest neighborhood in California. Los Rios’ adobe houses date back to 1794 when they were first occupied by Acjachemen Indians and soldiers working at the nearby San Juan Capistrano Mission.
- Visit Catalina Island, which is just a short ferry ride away from the OC. Take a hike to see the buffalo and prickly pears or hang out in the small town of Avalon.
- Get a shake and burger at the ’50s style Ruby’s Diner at the foot of the Balboa Pier, followed by a visit to the dated Fun Zone.
- Explore the unique biodiversity by hiking through Back Bay’s estuaries in Newport.
- Try a Balboa Bar ice cream along Balboa Island Main Street after taking a ferry ride from Balboa Peninsula.
- Knott’s Berry Farm is now a large amusement park, but you can still get the berry pies that first made it famous.
- Explore Orange County’s Black Star Canyon or any of our other outstanding but less strenuous canyons, such as Peter’s Canyon.
- Go back in time to visit the Queen Mary ship in Long Beach.
- My dad and mom love walking around the Newport Pier.
- Catch a sunrise at Newport Pier and have a chili omelet at the hole-in-the-wall Charlie’s Chili.
- After visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific, grab a fish dinner at Shoreline Village in Long Beach.
- Visit the Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda to learn about the US’ 37th president. Read more about the Nixon Library and Museum.
Not to Miss Places in the Inland Empire
The word California does not conjure up images of the desert or mountains, but we have both! The state is quite different away from the coastline.
- When people think of California, they do not usually think of cacti. The beauty of Death Valley National Park is unbelievable, but you may not want to visit it in the middle of summer. The highest temperature in the world (134 degrees F) was recorded there!
- Act like you are a member of the Rat Pack and play golf or visit the spa in Palm Springs.
- Mojave Valley- I’m going with the beauty of the desert again. ‘Nuff said.
- Visit the wineries in Temecula.
- See California’s state flower at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve from March through May. Click here to see what is in bloom now.
- View the Joshua Trees at 29 Palms in Riverside. (Mom’s favorite)
- At Christmastime, view the incredible decorations at the Mission Inn in Riverside. It is pretty to eat or walk here at any time of the year.
- Go skiing in the winter or water skiing at Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead in the summer.
- Go to a retreat at Murrietta Hot Spring. This is another of my mother’s favorites.
- You can’t miss Joshua Tree.
Not to Miss Places in Los Angeles County
I am always honest with my readers. Living in Orange County, you try to stay as far from LA as possible. There is just too much smog, traffic, and crowds. There are tons of things to do here, but I only rarely go and do my favorite things. The rest of the state is just too lovely. You can read about how I recently spent a day with my teens in Los Angeles.
- A free science museum with stunning views of Los Angeles, Griffith Park Observatory is one of my and my brother’s favorite California locales.
- Hike through the Fern Dell Nature Preserve to the Griffith Observatory.
- Hike to the Hollywood sign or above Los Angeles on the trails from Griffith Park.
- Stalk famous people with a celebrity homes tour.
- Hollyweird Boulevard- Ok, it may really be called Hollywood Boulevard, but you will see what I mean.
- While you are there, check out Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
- My kids also love the Ripley’s Believe it or Not and Wax Museums.
- Window Shop on Rodeo Drive.
- Eat dinner or hike in Malibu.
- People watch at Venice Beach.
- Take pictures at the Venice Canals Historic District.
- Take in the sulfurous smell of the La Brea Tar Pits.
- Immerse yourself in the Mexican culture at historic Olvera Street. Be sure to go hungry. Read all about exploring Los Angeles’ Ethnic side.
- Visit the J Paul Getty Museum or Getty Villa.
- Get an overview of the city with a 72-hour hop-on hop-off bus tour.
- Explore the California Science Museum.
- The Santa Monica Pier has an over 100-year-old Ferris wheel on the water. I must warn you that parking is costly; it is so crowded and a little rough.
- Shop and eat at Third Street Promenade.
- Drive or hike Mulholland Drive.
- Have dinner in the bustling Koreatown. We love Choe Gang Jip– inexpensive Korean fusion with not too long of a wait, a willingness to recommend the food, and convenient valet parking.
- Try authentic Ramen at Ken’s Ramen.
Not to Miss Places North of Los Angeles
Most southern California trips take place between San Diego and Los Angeles. The area north of LA is so beautiful. I highly recommend continuing the exploration.
- Santa Barbara is a fancy resort beach town with excellent food, beautiful beaches, and cute Craftsman-style houses. Here is my guide to a weekend in Santa Barbara.
- Try to run into Oprah in the nearby town of Montecito.
- Eat fresh crab at the end of Stearn’s Wharf Pier.
- Shop on State Street in Santa Barbara.
- Hike to Gaviota Hot Springs and take a dip in nature.
- See migrating Monarch butterflies in Goleta.
- I saw massive bioluminescence at the beach after joining a drum circle when I was in school here, and it was one of my best adventures yet. Sadly, I have no idea how to advise you to show up at the right time. Check out my post about kayaking in the glow in Puerto Rico for some tips on when it is brightest.
- Visit the Reagan Library in Simi Valley to see a retired Air Force One plane.
- Visit the historic Dutch village of Solvang.
- Get your chakras aligned in the arty oasis of Ojai.
- Explore the opulent newspaper magnet’s mansion, Hearst Castle, in San Simeon.
So, now I have convinced you that your trip to southern California deserves three months, right? When you leave, you will want to move here anyway. Well, except for the horrific traffic and high cost of living. Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions or suggestions. Be sure to check out all my California posts and subscribe to see new ones as I publish them.
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