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Looking for tips on the best places to visit in Southern California? Ready to pack your bags and start exploring? We’ve got you covered!
Southern California is all about outdoor adventures, delicious food, gorgeous scenery, and sunny weather. Whether you’re looking for the best spots for surfers or places to go mountain biking, you’ll find all this and more in SoCal.
It’s also home to Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and the iconic Death Valley National Park. For any first time visitor to California, you’ll find some of the most unmissable attractions in this region.
Southern California is typically the region from San Diego up to San Luis Obispo (just north of Santa Barbara). It spans along the Pacific Ocean and heads inland to where the Colorado River separated the state from Arizona.
There are so many amazing places to visit in California and arguably the best spots are in this Southern region. So if you’re ready to see the best sites to add to your itinerary, read on!
Table Of Contents
Getting Around Southern California
Not only does SoCal include the gorgeous coastline, but the area is a well-known wine region, with beautiful mountains and desert areas like Ryan Mountain Desert Springs and Joshua Tree National Park.
Because many of the top places to visit are national parks and rural locations, you really do need a car to get around.
Public transport is great for connecting you from city to city, but when it comes to exploring the wild and untamed landscapes, you’ll find having your own vehicle is much more efficient.
You can find car rentals on RentalCars.com, which is the world’s largest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
If you feel like taking on a California road trip and stepping your vacation up a notch, then consider renting an RV and camping. This will also save you some money and stress by not booking accommodation.
Los Angeles is a great place to base yourself. It’s just about in the middle of Southern California with only a 3 hour drive to the northern border and two to the southern. You can reach most of the sites on this list within a day trip.
Places to Visit in Southern California: San Diego
When you think of Southern California attractions, of course, Disneyland Park and Resort comes to mind. Though it may be the happiest place on Earth, it’s not the best representation of California.
Afterall, why visit theme parks when nature’s sand dunes and rugged mountains provide just as much fun?
In this guide, we are focusing on things to do beyond Anaheim and its Disneyland Resort, and focus on the destinations that have the real wow-factor. We’ll also be including iconic places to eat, places to stay, and activities you can do at each place.
We’ll begin our list with some inner city attractions that you simply cannot miss. Starting with San Diego, which has to be one of the best places to visit in Southern California for families.
1. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach
One of the best sites in San Diego has to be Mission beach. It’s a laid-back beach with clean, golden sands and great surf. The beach is THE place to be in San Diego, and no matter what day of the week or time of day, you’ll find sunbathers, and beach goers playing volleyball on the soft sands.
Next to Mission Beach is Pacific Beach, which has a similar vibe and is popular amongst the younger crowds.
One of our favorite things to do is rent a bike and cycle along the paved path around Mission Bay. You can rent bikes from Action Sport Rentals and slip into San Diego style with a bike ride around Mission Bay. You can stop by the amusement parks there, before continuing on to Pacific Beach Pier.
You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from Action Sport Rentals too, which was one of my most fun things to do in southern California (actually anywhere!)
We recommend stopping for a local craft brew for you, a Squirt Mexican soda for the kids, and a plate of shredded beef nachos at South Draft Mission for a snack.
It’s right on the beachfront near Belmont Park and at the turn-off to go back to the resort.
2. Corvette Diner
For any first time visitor to California, or even for those who have been before, you cannot miss a visit to a quintessential retro diner.
Our personal favorite is the Corvette Diner. It’s unlike any place I’ve been before.
The diner is part restaurant and part museum, with so many 50s-inspired memorabilia inside. Its most iconic piece is the corvette that’s sitting in the center of the diner.
The waitresses wear rockabilly uniforms and beehives and sometimes sing as they serve you your food. Sometimes they have live music and entertainment.
While kids are waiting for the meals, head over to the arcade inside the restaurant and play a few rounds of air hockey.
It’s not just a diner, but an experience.
3. Torrey Pines State National Reserve
Put your walking shoes on and head into Torrey State Pine National Reserve. It’s one of the most unique places to visit in Southern California for coastal hiking.
We recommend the Guy Fleming Trail for varying landscapes, but it’s quite a long trail so head there early morning if possible. The trail takes you past the incredible coastal vistas with some of the best views in Southern California!
If you have time for another trail, I would have loved the Razor Point Trail and climbing the Red Butte.
We were happy to tick that off our bucket list.
4. La Jolla Cove, San Diego
La Jolla is one of the best places to visit in Southern California to see seals.
If you want to see these elusive animals, head to the La Jolla Caves and walk around to La Jolla Cove to see the resident seals. You could continue walking around to see more seals at the Children’s Pool. There is also great tide pooling here.
If you have more time and want to have more of a relaxing beach day, La Jolla Shores is a great beach for families.
For coffee lovers, you can’t go past Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in the small town of Bird Rock.
5. Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
You can’t go past cheap and delicious fish or shrimp tacos at local institution Oscar’s Mexican Seafood.
This hole in the wall with bright murals on its outside walls is on the border of LA Jolla and Pacific Beach.
6. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is America’s largest urban cultural park and is ranked as one of the best parks in the world. It is one of the most unique things to do in Southern California.
With 17 museums, a wide variety of gardens, and the San Diego Zoo you could easily spend a day in Balboa Park. Plan for an afternoon here.
We recommend a visit to the Fleet Science Center, the Spanish Village Art Center, and the Japanese Tea Gardens.
7. Old Town State Historic Park, San Diego
If you have time, and want to experience a little history and culture then head to Old Town State Historic Park, which is San Diego’s first “downtown,” and represents San Diego’s Hispanic heritage from 1821 to 1872 through museums, live reenactments, and historical buildings.
It’s a pretty area with a cute fiesta market and plenty of Mexican restaurants.
If you’d rather spend time at the beach then head straight to Ocean Beach and perhaps visit Cabrillo Monument and the tidepools.
We ran out of time to fit this in but it came highly recommended by our community as a top ten thing to do in San Diego.
8. Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach is a gritty, more local feel than the other San Diego beach towns. It’s one of our favorite places to visit in San Diego. It has more of a cove beach than the wide sweeping Pacific.
They have good waves near the pier, beach volleyball is popular and so is hanging out on the grassy strip hoola hooping, slacklining, and bongo jamming. Join in!
San Diego is also known to be one of the best places in the US for craft beer and you’ll find a few breweries along the main street (Newport Ave).
If you are a craft brew lover then perhaps pop in for a sample as you wander the OB area.
We went to Belching Beaver Brewery. They have jenga, which kept our girls happy while we tried a local brew before going back out for market shopping.
With food stalls, live music, and local artisan goods it’s definitely a fun thing to do in Southern California. Grab some food here and then head to Sunset Cliffs for sunset.
9. Wonderland Ocean Pub
Tacos and guacamole with a view is what you have at Wonderland Ocean Pub, an upstairs bar and restaurant across from Ocean Beach and the grassy strip.
You won’t be bored watching the OB life go by.
10. Sunset Cliffs, San Diego
When you think about free things to do in Southern California, it’s hard to beat a famous California sunset.
And Sunset Cliffs is one of the best places to visit in Southern California to watch the sunset.
If you have kids like us, there is a wide open space for them to play on the rocks safely back from the cliff face, while you relax and watch the day close out.
11. Hammonds Gourmet Ice Cream
Grab an ice cream at Hammonds Gourmet Ice Cream in either Point Loma or back in Pacific Beach. It’s listed as one of the best places for ice cream in San Diego and we liked it a lot.
Can’t decide on a flavor? Sample a bunch with the waffle cone flight.
Need more inspiration about San Diego? Check out these top tips!
- 16 things to do with kids in San Diego
- For places to stay in San Diego check out Bahia Resort. Or here are other places to stay in San Diego.
- If you plan on visiting several San Diego attractions, get yourself a San Diego Go Attraction Pass. You can build your own pass based on what you want to see and do. It will save you money!
Places to Visit in Southern California: Orange County
I know you are sad to leave such a cool place like San Diego, but don’t be. You are in for a treat in Orange County. It’s sweet and refreshing, just like the fruit.
12. The Ocean Institute
If you, or your kids, are ocean lovers, you may wish to stop at Dana Point Ocean Institute on the way to Huntington Beach to learn more about ocean life on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Ocean Institute.
Dana Point Harbor sits at the bottom of the rugged cliff faces so is really pretty. You may want to arrive before 10am to walk around and explore a little.
There’s a lovely calm swimming beach here as well.
13. Mission San Juan Capistrano
Not to be missed is the birthplace of Orange County, Mission San Juan Capistrano.
With its crumbling sandstone walls, it’s bell wall, bougainvillea draped pathways, and flowering gardens, it’s one of the most interesting places to visit in Southern California and a pretty place to wander for an hour.
While here walk around the Los Rios Historic district to get an inkling of life centuries ago.
14. Ellie’s Table
You’ll love Ellie’s Table for a light lunch situated in the old 1883 Judge Egan House.
My soup and quiche were filling and delicious. Save room for a special bakery treat after it.
On top of it all, the decor of this place is absolutely stunning!
15. Huntington Beach
You’re now heading to our favorite place in Southern California, Huntington Beach.
HB has the perfect beach lifestyle vibe for us Aussies – not too pretentious, or busy. It’s laid back with a touch of sophistication and has the surf and the beach as the focus of life!
Huntington State Beach is one of the cleanest in California one of the best Southern California beaches for surfing.
In the evening, this beach really comes into its own. You can buy some firewood and s’more ingredients to roast s’mores on the communal beach fire pits after.
Can you finish a Southern California day in any other better way than watching the sun set from the beach? I challenge you to think of a better way.
16. Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel
The Kimpton is one of the best beach hotels in Southern California. You’ll want a bit of time to enjoy this hotel when you check in. A room with an ocean view is a magic way to start the day.
The hotel is just steps away from the Pacific Ocean, and offers lively entertainment and nightlife options for those wanting to stay near Huntington Beach.
It has a fantastic onsite restaurant that serves Latin American and Asian cuisine, and there’s also a fitness center, climbing wall for the kids, and yoga studio.
Outside, you can relax around one of the fire pits and sip cocktails from the on-site bar. They even arrange bike rentals so you can explore the area. What more could you want from a place to stay?
17. Pacific Hideaway
Not to be missed is dinner at the hotel restaurant, Pacific Hideaway. It’s one of the best things to do in Southern California from a foodie perspective.
The Southeast Asian or Latin American inspired food and wine was just as extraordinary as was the service and the funky décor.
The breakfast at Pacific Hideaway is just as delicious as the dinner. So stock up for your day exploring.
P.S. Aussies, they have pavlova!
18. Pacific City Local Artist’s Market
Along the Pacific Coast Highway is where you’ll find Pacific City, a new modern shopping, dining and entertainment space overlooking the beach.
On Fridays, at the bottom of the pier is a local artist’s market. And there is the small, but cool International Surfing Museum.
You may even want to play on the beach, go for a swim, or rent bikes to cruise along the beach path.
Top lunch options include Wahoo Fish Tacos, Sugar Shack Café and Duke’s.
19. Tanaka Farm
If you’re up for it, drive to Irvine (30 mins) for a tour of Tanaka Farms and some strawberry picking. California is not just about beautiful beaches and lively culture.
Some of the world’s best food trends are born from this state, which has a lot to do with the wonderful produce that is grown in its various regions, including many berry farms.
Explore a bit of that at Tanaka Farms.
Not only will you get to eat strawberries straight from the vine but also other produce growing like onions, and sweet corn, which was the most delicious corn I’ve ever tasted.
All of it is grown organically and the kids will love touring around on the back of a farm truck. Our girls thought it was one of the most fun things to do in Southern California.
20. O.C Night Market
If you’re visiting the Orange County on a Friday night, an interesting cultural experience to consider is the huge O.C Night Market.
It’s held at the state fairgrounds, which are lined with food trucks, merchandise, arts, and entertainment. Be sure to grab your giant baby bottle filled with boba milk tea.
Alternatively, just head back to Huntington to eat at one of the restaurants and catch another Southern California sunset.
Don’t forget those s’mores again!
21. Newport Harbor
Possibly the most famous places to visit in Orange County are Newport and Laguna Beach, both part of the Crystal Cove State Parks.
Newport is said to be California’s Riviera and Laguna Beach is an artistic community filled with beautiful cove beaches. They make for an easy day trip from Huntington Beach.
A Duffy boat tour is a wonderful way to get to know the relaxed life of Newport.
You’ll cruise past many mansions on the different islands, including Shirley Temple’s childhood home, the beach where some of Gilligan’s Island was filmed, and John Wayne’s old lot.
If you have time and have young kids, you may want to stop for a carousel ride at Fun Zone after your Duffy boat, or at least an ice cream from Cowafornia.
You may want to add extra time in Newport and visit Corona Del Mar Beach or Newport Beach “Back Bay,” which is a 135 acre park with hiking and biking trails.
22. Laguna Beach
The Laguna Beach area has seven miles of coves and canyons, offering you plenty of outdoor activities and Laguna Beach beaches to enjoy.
Laguna has the main beach at the edge of downtown, or a plethora of beaches to choose from.
For tide pools head to Shaws Cove, Picnic Beach, and Treasure Island Beach. Other beaches to check out include Victoria Beach with the natural pirate tower, Treasure Island Beach and 1,000 Steps Beach.
For art lovers, don’t miss the Laguna Art Museum, which only collects California art.
Laguna Beach is also a great place to enjoy a sunset. We had a cloudy sunset when we visited Laguna so we can’t offer any personal advice. But, our community tells us these beaches in Laguna are great for sunset:
- Table Rock Beach
- Treasure Island Park,
- Crescent Bay Beach
- Heisler Park, next to Montage Laguna Beach
23. Las Brisas
Las Brisas came highly recommended to us for extraordinary views over Laguna Beach and fantastic Mexican food.
They were correct on both accounts!
It’s best to reserve a table if you want to sit inside. Otherwise, it’s first come first serve for the outside seats, which I think is better.
Need more tips for Orange County? Check out these other resources.
- Things to do in Orange County with kids.
- Where to stay in Orange County: Check into the Kimpton Shorebreak Resort. It’s one of our favorite hotels in America. Here are other places to stay in Orange County.
- Orange County is also home to Disneyland. So if you have arranged for more time on your Southern California road trip to incorporate a visit to Disneyland, this may be when you want to do it. Or, even at the end of this trip. Our readers love this roundup post we did finding the best hotels to stay at in Disneyland.
Places to Visit in Southern California: Ventura County
Ventura County, California is about an hour north of LA and 30 minutes south of Santa Barbara.
Be sure to leave your pretense and busyness on the highway out of LA, because it doesn’t belong in Ventura County.
You can stop in at Oxnard Harbor for lunch on the water on your way into Ventura. It’s about 15 minutes from downtown Ventura.
24. Crowne Plaza Hotel on Ventura Beach
The Crowne Plaza Hotel Ventura is walking distance to downtown Ventura and is the only hotel on the beach in Ventura. It’s located right beside the Ventura Pier and a popular surfing break, so you really can’t be the location.
In fact, the hotel is all about the beach. You can take a surfing lesson or enjoy a scenic boat ride to the Channel Islands National Park, it’s all possible here.
There’s an outdoor heated pool with a poolside bar and restaurant. The outdoor terrace even has a fire pit and plush seating, so you can kick back and admire the views of the ocean.
Most rooms have ocean views and a balcony to view them from.
25. Downtown Ventura
We loved downtown Ventura. It has a fresh modern vintage vibe filled with local boutique stores, thrift stores, used book shops, and cool restaurants, breweries, and wine bars.
If you have time for some family bonding, make sure to have a game of foot golf at River Ridge Golf Club
We’d never played it before either, but soon discovered a fun family adventure. Foot golf is played on the golf course, you’re just kicking a soccer ball into a much larger hole.
26. Ventura Harbor Village
Ventura Harbor Village is a beautiful working fishing harbor, retail and dining space.
We recommend spending a few hours exploring Ventura Harbor and can recommend the following things to do here:
- Hire some pedal boats, kayaks or SUPs from Ventura Boat Rentals to explore the harbor by water. You have a great chance of seeing the resident seals resting on boats and the wharves. This is a wonderful thing to do in Ventura on a warm, sunny afternoon.
- Go vintage at the Arcade, play a few games and win some prizes
- Have a seafood lunch with a view at Brophy Bros. Friday afternoon happy hour is a local’s favorite.
- Browse the different shops like the quirky hat shop, socks shop and my favorite boutique
- Grab a taiyaki fish ice cream cone from Coastal Cone
- Pop over the road to check out Surfer’s Knoll if you feel like a little beach time.
If you want to slow down your body and mind, take a relaxing and peaceful ride around Oxnard Harbor on a Venetian Gondola with Gondola Paradiso, minus the Venetian crowds.
27. The Annex Food Hall
Go local in this enclave of restaurants and specialty shops which can be found at the Collective, a modern and new retail, dining, and entertainment space.
The Annex is a culinary focused, community minded marketplace, which has global cuisine ranging from burgers, Mexican, Italian, crepes, Vietnamese, Hawaiian Poke and Latin American Ceviche bowls, and even healthy smoothies.
You can’t beat a Vietnamese Pho and pineapple cider for dinner.
You can do a bit of shopping after, or even catch a movie at the cinema.
28. Channel Islands National Park
If you’re looking for a place to visit in Southern California that’s a big more quiet and less frequented by tourists, then consider a day trip to the Channel Islands.
One of the best things to do in Southern California is to go on a sea cave kayaking adventure on Santa Cruz Island.
Channel Islands National Park is one of the most beautiful and unique places to visit in Southern California for adventure travel.
Places to Visit in Southern California: Los Angeles
If you want to continue the SoCal beach vibe, we highly recommend getting out of the glamorous side of LA, far away from the Hollywood Sign and closer to the beach.
We highly recommend you spend some time at Manhattan and Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles. These two towns are our favorite places to visit in LA and is where we always go when we visit the city.
29. Manhattan Beach
Manhattan Beach is the beach volleyball capital of the U.S. so play a game, rent a bike to ride between the two beaches, or even walk it.
The main beach street at Hermosa Beach has a lot of cool bars and restaurants with happy hour deals for dinner.
30. Santa Monica
A great area in the Los Angeles county is Santa Monica. The area is known for its Santa Monica pier which houses an amusement park, the historic Looff Hippodrome Carousel, an aquarium, and lots of restaurants and bars.
The area is lively but without feeling pretentious.
It’s also where you’ll find the world-renown Muscle Beach, an outdoor gym that has been a popular workout area for superhuman-sized people since the 1930s.
If you want to get out and explore nature, consider hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains or Griffith Park, home to the famous Griffith Observatory.
Just North of Santa Monica is the glitzy area of Malibu, which is where you’ll find celebrity homes and high-end luxury. It’s worth a day trip here to see how the other half live, and to surf at the iconic Zuma Beach.
Places to Visit in Southern California Beyond the Cities
If you’re looking to get out and explore Southern California beyond the cities, then there are a few places you should absolutely consider checking out.
31. Big Bear Lake
Many Californians often take their vacations to places like Palm Springs or Big Bear Lake, which are located just a couple of hour’s drive outside of LA.
Big Bear Lake is a top favorite, because it’s one of the best ski resorts in Southern California. Named after the fish-filled Big Bear Lake that sits in the center of the town, this is certainly one of the best places to visit in Southern California in the winter.
The surrounding mountains offer slopes for all levels, from adventurous terrain parks to learner slopes. It’s a family-friendly ski resort, with a relaxed vibe.
In the summer, the snow melts to reveal many hiking trails in the surrounding San Bernardino National Forest.
31. Death Valley National Park
Most people have heard of Death Valley, an expansive desert landscape on the border between California and Nevada and is part of the Mojave Desert. Though it’s touching on the fringes of being in Southern California, the area is so iconic we had to include it on our list.
The park is famous for having the highest temperatures ever recorded on Earth in the summer, which is why it’s so infamously named.
It’s full of sand dunes, unique rock formations, and iconic landmarks such as the Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, and Ubehebe Crater.
If you have time, head South to the Mojave National Preserve, where it is said that the steep sand mounds of the Kelso Dunes often make “singing” sounds.
Need more information about Los Angeles? Here are some other guides to check out:
- 20 fun things to do in Los Angeles with kids
- Cool Things to do in Downtown Los Angeles
- 8 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Los Angeles
- Where to stay in Los Angeles (28 best hotels)
- Things to do in Disneyland
- Guide to Disneyland Adventure Park
- 15 hotels near Disneyland
Before You Go
So there you have it, those are the best places to visit in Southern California. As you can see, there are some incredible destinations and jaw-dropping nature to explore.
Before you go, remember that California is a hugely popular state, especially in the South. Don’t get caught out with last-minute overpriced fees and book your accommodation in advance. Booking.com has over 15,000 properties in California and you get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
I hope this guide helped you plan your visit to South California. If you need any more inspiration, consider checking out our further resources…
USA Road Trip Ideas
- Lost Coast Road trip, Northern California
- 10 road trips from Los Angeles
- 19 of the Best road trips in the USA
- 22 of the best scenic drives in the USA
Many thanks to Visit California, Visit San Diego, Visit Orange County and Ventura County Coast for helping us experience amazing destinations to share with you.