Stunning beaches, family-friendly attractions, and year-round sunny weather make Southern California (or SoCal, for short, for its sun-kissed locals) one of the most famous vacation destinations in the world. While there are an array of sights to see here, you’ll want to hit the highlights when pressed for time. To help you plan the perfect SoCal itinerary, here’s a list of the best places to visit in Southern California!
Table of Contents
What to expect in Southern California
Southern California is where natural beauty merges with modern sensibilities.
Stretching west from deserts and mountains and into the crystal blue shores of the Pacific Ocean with plenty of urban action in between, SoCal is packed with sights to see and things to do, regardless of where your passions lie.
Are you a sun and sand adventurer?
There’s a beach town wherever you are, just a stone’s throw away.
A culture vulture, perhaps? Hop into any of LA’s art museums or take an epicurean escapade at Santa Barbara.
Or do you prefer more natural highs? Hike Joshua Tree’s scenic trails or get lost in Anza-Borrego’s twisting slot canyons.
If none of these exhilarate you, the happiest place on earth surely will – SoCal is home to Disneyland, the world’s most famous amusement park.
Want to Travel the World for Less?
- Scott's Cheap Flights: Get cheap flights emailed directly to your inbox for free. Try Now for Free
- GetYourGuide: See more of every city by taking local tours and experiences. Find a Cheap Tour
- Skyscanner: Home to the easiest and most efficient way to book anything, including flights, cars, hotels and more. Search Now
- World Nomads: Need to protect yourself and your trip? Use World Nomads for affordable travel insurance. Protect Your Trip
With so many attractions condensed in a single region, Southern California has become a road tripper’s paradise with plenty of family-friendly activities to keep you and your kids busy.
PRO TIP: At the cost of incredible sights and year-round sunshine, Southern California cities are not cheap.
Consider booking and grabbing deals from sites like Booking.com, Kayak Hotels, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and Amex Platinum to get the most out of your travel budget! You can also avoid the crowds when flying with Priority Pass!
Without further adieu, here are the best places to visit in Southern California.
1. San Diego
With more than 90 diverse museums, a slew of gorgeous beaches, nine art districts, and an explosion of world-class breweries, San Diego really does deserve the title of America’s Finest City. Scoff at that name all you want, but not before you’ve paid a visit.
Go park hopping. If your kids are tagging along, Balboa Park is one of the best places to visit in Southern California. This 1,200-acre park is home to the famous San Diego Zoo, the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theater, and the kid-friendly Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater. For a dose of art, there are plenty of options.
The San Diego Museum of Art is here, as well as the Museum of Photographic Arts and Mingei International Museum.
Take a dip. Slather on some sunscreen cause San Diego is home to 70 miles of glorious coastlines. Head far north for wild waves and rocky cliffs, or down to Coronado for more solemn waters, with the iconic Hotel Del Coronado as your backdrop. If you’re planning to ride the waves, head to Black’s Beach for great ocean swells year-round.
Hit the breweries. This city is recently becoming more and more famous for its craft beer industry. With more than 150 breweries, San Diego is one of the best cities in the USA for beer sommeliers or just anyone looking to take a delicious swig. Start your beer-tasting journey with local pioneers like Stone Brewing Co., Karl Strauss Brewing, Coronado Brewing, and Ballast Point.
See Related: San Diego vs Los Angeles: What’s the Difference?
2. Santa Catalina Island
Known for being a getaway for Hollywood elites, Santa Catalina Island (or Catalina Island for short) is now the go-to destination for Angelenos looking for a quick and relaxing vacation. This rocky island located southwest of Los Angeles is well-known for its wildlife, dive sites, and a host of outdoor adventures that make it one of the best places to visit in Southern California.
Go nature tripping. Billionaire gum czar William Wrigley Jr. was responsible for the development of Catalina, so the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens was developed to honor his name. Take a stroll around this 37-acre garden, which showcases plants endemic to California and the Channel Islands.
Around 165 miles of scenic trails offer even more ways to appreciate nature, where you’ll most likely come across a wide array of wildlife, including tiny foxes and bison.
Enjoy outdoor activities. There are plenty of excursions here for high-octane adventurers looking for their next adrenaline fix. Blast through the water at blazing speeds on a rib craft boat, tower over forest canopies 600 feet above on a zipline, or take an exhilarating tour of the island’s rugged and mountainous interior atop a Hummer.
Learn about the island’s history. Get the scoop about island history at the Catalina Island Museum. Over a century ago, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. bought the island to turn it into the ultimate vacation destination.
There’s more to this story than meets the eye, so prepare to dive deep into the island’s fascinating history with over 10,000 photographs, a unique collection of Catalina pottery and tile, and several archaeological digs.
See Related: How to Spend a Weekend in Los Angeles
3. Long Beach
Long Beach’s gorgeous weather will woo you into paying a visit, but the great local culture will convince you to stay. This ocean-side playground offers plenty of activities for art enthusiasts, making it one of the best places to visit in Southern California for culture vultures.
Go on water-themed adventures. As an ocean-side destination, Long Beach has plenty of water activities in store for travelers. The Aquarium of the Pacific features 11,000 animals and over 500 species. Drop by the Shark Lagoon to see over 150 sharks or the June Keyes Penguin Habitat to spy on adorable penguins flopping about.
Take an educational cruise of the Long Beach harbor with knowledgeable guides for a chance to witness harbor seals, sea lions, whales, and marine birds, or hop aboard The Queen Mary for a ‘haunted’ night tour of the ship’s hallways.
Explore local art. At Long Beach, there’s always a performance or art exhibit happening at every corner. For world-class shows, visit the Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Opera, and Music Angelica. Enjoy regular theater performances at venues like P3 Theatre Company, Long Beach Playhouse, and International City Theatre.
This region is known for two museums, The Long Beach Museum of Art and The Museum of Latin American Art. The latter features a breathtaking 15,000 square-foot sculpture garden, while the latter sits on a bluff with scenic views of the Pacific Ocean.
See Related: 13 Best Travel Sandals for Beach Destinations
4. Palm Springs
Imagine a desert getaway, now make it posh.
That’s Palm Springs in a nutshell. This iconic playground of movie stars is well known for its mid-century modern architecture, pool parties, upscale restaurants, breathtaking hikes, and being the Golf Capital of the World.
Whether you’re visiting on a day trip or spending a few nights, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
Watch more videos like these on the ViaTravelers YouTube channel.
Hang 5,800 feet above the ground. Looking for one of the most unique places to visit in Southern California? How does hanging 5,800 feet above mountains sound to you?
The Aerial Tramway takes you 5,800 feet above the ground on a rotating vehicle suspended by cables, giving you unmatched views of the mountainous terrain below. Once at the summit, you can cross-country ski, snowshoe, or hike before heading back down via a tram.
Visit Joshua Tree. Looking for one of the best cheap places to visit in Southern California?
Try Joshua Tree National Park. Rolling mountains, giant granite boulders, spectacular night skies, and a wide array of desert wildlife make this national park one of the best places to visit in Southern California.
Check out our Joshua Tree experience from the ViaTravelers YouTube channel.
Take a stroll by the Cholla Cactus Garden for unique desert flora, or go on a relaxed hike through the self-guided Hidden Valley Nature Trail.
Being an International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree boasts of low light pollution, which gives you splendid views of stars.
Campgrounds here come at very affordable rates (especially if you’re bringing your own RV), making Joshua Tree one of the best cheap places to visit in Southern California.
Go hotel hopping. There are tons of traditional accommodations here, but Palm Springs is more known for its unique boutique hotels.
Get an outdoor massage and sip on Moroccan tea at Korakia, attend a raging pool party at the vibrantly designed The Saguaro, or sip on masterfully crafted cocktails at the trendy Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Check out these other best things to do in Palm Springs.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Palm Springs
5. Santa Monica
Those looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles should travel to its more ‘chill’ but equally trendy neighbor – Santa Monica.
Flanked on both sides by mountains and beaches, Santa Monica’s beachside charm has mesmerized many, but there’s more to this seaside destination than its piers and beaches.
Whether you’re lounging in SanMo’s beautiful parks or biking at Marvin Braude Beach, you’ll find plenty of things to do while away the hours.
Go beaching. Santa Monica State Beach stretches three and a half miles and is massively popular for its soft sands, great weather, and attractions. Take a trip to the Santa Monica Pier, play arcade games at the Pacific Park, or sweat it out at the iconic Original Muscle Beach – a retro outdoor 1930s-era bodybuilding gym.
Indulge in retail therapy. Third Street Promenade is one of Santa Monica’s most popular shopping destinations. You’ll find a bevy of major chain stores in this open-air shopping mall, including H&M and Urban Outfitters, as well as unique boutiques like Kenneth Karmiole.
Once you’re done getting your retail fix, grab some grub made from local ingredients at any of the location’s outdoor dining options.
Go cycling. Scenic trails and great weather make Santa Monica a good place to visit in Southern California for cyclists. The Marvin Braude Beach Trail, along with picturesque thoroughfares like San Vicente and Main Street, are perfect locations to go biking.
Since the city is located south of the Santa Monica Mountains, you’ll find plenty more trails for mountain biking! For a more convenient adventure, check out biking tours from Viator!
PRO TIP: Staying over? In terms of lodging costs, Santa Monica is one of the most expensive in California. Consider renting a room or guesthouse for more savings.
You’ll find a variety of top-rated vacation rentals in Santa Monica via Airbnb, from private garden cottages to dreamy guesthouses situated in great locations.
See Related: Los Angeles vs San Diego
6. Death Valley National Park
The name may send shivers down your spine, but Death Valley is very much alive. Several superlatives are often used to describe this national park, but ‘hottest, lowest, and driest’ are among the most common.
If you’re looking for unparalleled views of the wild desert wilderness, then Death Valley is one of the best places to visit in Southern California.
Explore geological wonders. Artists Drive is a scenic 14.5-kilometer drive that winds through multicolored hills created by several types of volcanic deposits. At the end of your journey, you’ll be able to check out the area around Artists Palette where parts of Star Wars Episode IV were filmed. This is a great way to explore Death Valley if you’re not looking to take an exhausting hike.
Take a hike. The Golden Canyons in Death Valley are a true sight to see, especially if you’re a hiker looking for scenic trails.
While hiking through these picturesque badlands of maze-like hills and canyons, you’ll notice that your surroundings change color dramatically based on different lighting conditions. Towering walls, ripples formed by ancient water, and colorful side canyons create an otherworldly sight.
Explore a low point. Looking for unique places to visit in Southern California? At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is considered the lowest point in North America. This extraordinary hiker-friendly location, which extends 200 square miles, features salt flats made of sodium chloride, gypsum, borax, and calcite.
While almost everything here is slathered in salt, the pool’s high salinity is the perfect place for some organisms to thrive, including an endemic snail and plants like pickleweed.
Disneyland is Anaheim’s main draw, and while the happiest place on earth is this city’s most iconic attraction, there’s plenty to see that goes beyond the Mouse House. Home to major league hockey and baseball teams, the Angel Stadium is the happiest place on earth for sports enthusiasts. If you’re more of a foodie, you’ll find a cornucopia of delicious culinary creations at the Anaheim Packing District.
Bring out the kid in you. Disneyland is Anaheim’s main attraction, so if you happen to find yourself this side of SoCal, then this world-renowned theme park is one of the best kid-friendly places to visit in Southern California.
The Disneyland Resort of Anaheim consists of two attractions: Disneyland Park and the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park. No matter where you go, you’ll find an almost endless selection of rides and themed attractions that will keep you entertained.
Go on a culinary adventure. Head south of downtown, and you’ll find the Anaheim Packing District, a processing plant-turned-food hall that features trendy eateries, fresh produce, and world-class culinary talents. The Kroft offers quirky and creative mash-ups like cheeseburger egg rolls and chicken tikka poutine or enjoy delectable farm-to-table food at Poppy and Seed.
Celebrate sports. As the home of the Los Angeles Angels and Anaheim Ducks, Anaheim is a haven for sports enthusiasts.
The Angel Stadium hosts public tours of its grounds from March to September. The Honda Center, when not jampacked throughout the hockey season, hosts other sports events such as USA basketball and professional wrestling as well.
See Related: A Weekend in Los Angeles in Itinerary
A delightful combination of an urban environment, historical charm, and cultural experiences make Pasadena one of the best places to visit in Southern California.
Situated along the foothills of San Gabriel Mountains, this sprawling city 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles is famous for the Tournament of Roses, where college football teams compete at the city’s Rose Bowl Stadium.
To mark the start of the tournament, the equally famous Rose Parade takes to the streets. Here flower-covered floats and marching bands beckon hundreds of thousands of spectators. Beyond the annual football tournament, a myriad of cultural experiences abound.
Enjoy books and botany. The Huntington Library is located just across the border in San Marino, but it’s still one of the best places to visit in Pasadena. While a visit to the library should only take a few hours, there’s a treasure trove of things to do here. There’s art to appreciate, books to read, and outdoor spaces to hang out in (don’t miss the gorgeously landscaped Japanese garden).
Explore the Rose Bowl. Built in 1922, the Rose Bowl Stadium is famous for hosting the Tournament of Roses, but there’s plenty more to learn about this historic structure. If you’re curious about this National Historic Landmark, you can take a guided public tour last Friday of every month. Here, you can get up close and personal with the field and visit the original 1922 Locker Room, among other activities.
Walk around Old Pasadena. With more than 200 retailers and a hundred restaurants, it’s hard to take a stroll around Old Pasadena without spending anything. This historic downtown district is home to Colorado Boulevard, where bars, restaurants, and shops set up shop in turn-of-the-century brick buildings.
9. Los Angeles
Looking for cool places to visit in Southern California? The entertainment capital of the world will never disappoint. For most travelers, Los Angeles is a city where dreams are made. Every year, thousands of young hopefuls pour into the city, aiming to make it big on the screen or stage.
Jive to the pulse of the city’s creative energy with a visit to Hollywood or the Getty Center. The city has its fair share of nature too, with Angeles National Forest being one of the most popular day trips for locals and visitors.
Explore art. Fact: Los Angeles has more theaters and museums than any other city in the U.S. If you’re a creative soul, prepare for a jam-packed itinerary. The Getty Center in Brentwood, Broad in Downtown LA, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offer a spectacular collection of exhibits.
Get your film fix at the Underground Museum or watch a world-class performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Join a studio tour. Los Angeles is home to Universal Studios Hollywood, a movie studio-come-theme park that offers plenty of activities for film buffs.
More than anything else, the main draw here is the studio tour. Narrated by Jimmy Fallon, this tram-ride tour takes you on an informative journey through real Hollywood movie studios, past sets from films like Psycho, War of the Worlds, and Jaws.
While you’re there, enjoy the theme park as well. Get a chance to relive your favorite movie scenes from iconic movies and shows like The Walking Dead, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park in realistic sets!
PRO TIP: Marriot hotels in Los Angeles are exceptional. If you’re staying over, consider booking a night using your Marriot Bonvoy credit card to grab deals and earn points!
- Travel Hacking 101
- 15 Best Things To Do In Northern California
- Best Sites for Booking Tours
- 22 Best Travel Shorts for Warm Weather Destinations