I’ve been working to expand my travel category these days because 1. I love to travel and 2. I’ve traveled to quite a few places, especially here in my home state of California. Since summer is coming very quickly, I thought I would share my top things to do in Southern California.
Things to Do in Southern California
Disneyland is one thing you MUST do if you visit California. It’s basically a rite of passage. I don’t want to write about it too much, but you can check out my Guide to Disneyland if you plan on visiting SoCal and want to know what to see when you go to the park!
Other cool theme parks in California include: Six Flags Magic Mountain (thrill seekers), Universal Studios Hollywood (movie lovers and Harry Potter fans), Raging Waters (fun water park), and Knott’s Berry Farm (diet thrill seekers).
The Griffith Observatory
Another cool spot to visit, especially if you’ll be in or near Los Angeles is Griffith Observatory. It’s a planetarium you can visit that’s on the top of a large hill in Los Angeles. There are great views of the Hollywood sign and the LA skyline from up on that hill, but the real spectacular part is seeing the stars from their massive telescopes and learning about astronomy. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely something to see if you have kids or enjoy learning more about the stars. It’s also 100% FREE so it’s a great thing to do if you happen to be on a budget!
Although Northern California is more well known for it’s wineries and vineyards, we do have a few really nice vineyards here in Southern California. The prettiest ones, in my opinion, are in Temecula which has an awesome food scene and a great downtown area to browse local shops. There are also local organic farms so if you visit during summer, you can go berry picking and on Saturday mornings, there is a massive farmer’s market in downtown. If you’re more in central California, you can still enjoy some wineries. The nicest ones are in Ojai, in my opinion!
The Mission Inn
The Mission Inn is a lesser known historical landmark in Riverside, California (where I live!) and it’s a not only a historical place, but also a beautiful hotel and spa. It’s historical because it’s been around since 1876 and 10 presidents visited the Mission Inn (Nixon got married here and Reagan honeymooned here!), and it’s also home to an awesome spa and the local award-winning Casey’s Cupcakes (from Cupcake Wars). They also have an incredible Sunday brunch which, though expensive, is SO WORTH IT. I try to go there a few times a year because it’s such a nice experience and the food is delicious. It’s also a great spot to get married (if you happen to be planning) and it’s WAY more affordable than many places in LA and the OC. So, there’s that.
San Diego Zoo and Wildlife Park
I’m not a huge fan of supporting places where they keep animals confined (and are usually rife with mistreatment), but I know some of you may have kids and want them to see these incredible animals in the flesh. So, I’ve included this for that reason. San Diego Zoo and Wildlife Park is definitely an experience. There are tons of animals to see and the Wildlife Park is pretty incredible because it’s kind of like being on a safari on rails and you can see tons of animals without them getting too close to you, but you can get quite close to them in a somewhat natural habitat. They also do some conservancy for endangered animals and you have to respect that.
The GETTY Museum
The GETTY Museum is one of the coolest places to go if you enjoy learning about art, history, and architecture. The structure itself is architectural art and they are always showcasing different exhibits so you may see something different every time you go. They show historical objects, art, photographs, and tons more. They also usually have local musicians playing in the courtyard so you can hear some nice music while you eat lunch in between exploring the different buildings. Admission is always free, but parking is $10-$15 depending on what time you go. This museum is in LA so if you’re not staying in LA, it’s a bit of a drive. If you are staying in Orange County, the Bower’s Museum is really cool and a lot closer, though smaller and more focused on history than art. If you’re in LA, but prefer a smaller museum that focuses more on paintings, sculptures, etc., try the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It’s equally lovely and a lot less crowded.
This is probably just me representing my city, but Riverside has some great orange groves. We’re famous for it, actually, and you can get some amazing citrus in the inland empire and orange county. If you happen to be here during summer, citrus groves are amazing to visit (or just drive by) because the scent of citrus is on the air, you can buy super cheap bags of oranges and other citrus, and it’s a great way to discover the natural side of California.
La Brea Tar Pits
The La Brea Tar Pits are an incredible place to visit if enjoy a bit of history. They have TONS of fossils from the Ice Age era and beyond so it’s quite amazing to explore this museum, especially because they have current excavations going all the time so you can see it all unfold at the museum. Visiting this museum is fairly cheap at under $20 a ticket, sometimes under $10 if your kids are young!
Southern California Beaches
There are way too many beaches to choose from here in SoCal, but if you’re visiting, you really should visit at least one because no Southern California trip is complete without a trip to the beach IMO.
Here’s a breakdown of some of my favorites & other popular SoCal Beaches you can visit:
- San Clemente (T-Street is my favorite beach in SC, but Doheney is good for surfing. It’s very much a hidden beach town – relaxed and low key. You can see my guide to San Clemente here.
- Huntington Beach – Nice beach and more of a casual beach bum area. There are some good places to eat off Main Street with affordable price points to the very expensive. There are several bars, surf and clothing shops, an ice cream shop and a few other places to get dessert as well. Walking the pier is a MUST. It’s gorgeous any time – day or night. Maybe bring a sweater if you go at night, though. It’s COLD!
- Newport Beach – Newport is great if you’re super into boating. They have a great marina area with good restaurants and really pretty boats. Newport is very ritzy and walking down the pier is really nice because it’s smaller than other beaches. There is also a massive sidewalk where you can walk along shops and see cute, luxurious homes that are right on the sand. They also have amazing Italian gelato so definitely get that!
- Laguna Beach – Laguna is gorgeous and there are lots of lush places to shop and eat. It’s definitely a more wealthy area with lots of nice homes, beautiful beaches, resorts, etc. There are some lovely restaurants to enjoy right next to the shore as well. Also, for my green beauty lovers, check out ROOTS Beauty!
- Malibu Beach – A lot of people love Malibu because it’s more synonymous with celebrities since so many own homes in the hills there. I’ve never personally been to Malibue, but it looks very beautiful as well. It’s more north and I tend to go southwest to Pacific Coast Highway for my beaches as that’s closer to me. It just depends on where you want to stay.
- Santa Monica State Beach – Santa Monica State Beach is a great place to go if you want to enjoy the beach and then walk on the pier and boardwalk. It’s a lot busier, especially during the summer, and they have a full on carnival off the pier for those who have kids! You can also bike along the beach which is really fun and relaxing.
- Venice Beach – Venice is less for the beach and more for the street scene. It’s a very eclectic place with lots of good places to eat, lots of bohemian lifestyle going on, and tons of weird stands around selling things. In my opinion, it’s more of a tourist trap than anything, but it’s worth seeing if you’ve never been. Also, you can walk passed Muscle Beach where Arnold Schwarzenneger worked out so there’s that.
- Other beaches include Hermosa Beach, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, and San Diego beaches like Del Mar, Encinitas, Coronado (lovely!), or La Jolla Shores Beach. If you want something really immersive, Catalina Island is great and it’s not too expensive to visit there!
The Museum of Tolerance
The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is one of the most moving experiences I’ve had at any museum. They have several exhibits, including one you walk through that chronicles what happened during the Holocaust. They give you a card with a photo of a person during that time and at the end of the walk-through, you find out if the person survived or how they died. If you’re lucky, a Holocaust survivor may be there and speak with guests, tell the story of their experience in the concentration camps, and answer questions. It’s under $20 to visit, a little over $10 if you bring a student ID.
California’s food is awesome and you should definitely hit up a few places wherever you are!
- CaliMex – There are several of what we call CaliMex type restaurants all over California. Type “Calimex” into google and several restaurants will probably come up. My favorite is Senor Bajas which serves Mexican food and delicious seafood.
- Authentic Mexican Food – Authentic Mexican food is my favorite thing about living in California. I’ve had it in a lot of other states and it’s usually horrible. I’m not saying we’re the only state with good Mexican food, but we’re definitely in the top 5! There are tons of Mexican food places to choose from, but I recommend you just yelp “Mexican food” in your area and read the reviews. Usually hole in the wall taco places have the best food, in my experience.
- Sushi and Seafood – Sushi is SUPER popular in California. My favorite places to go are Ooka, Oishi, and Sushi on Fire. There are TONS of sushi restaurants in LA, too many to name, so pick one. Most of them are delicious. The best seafood places, in my opinion, are Fisherman’s in San Clemente (delicious seafood on the pier and you can dress nice or casual – it’s fancier seafood fare) or Rockin’ Baja Lobster in Oceanside (so good!). Again, there are a TON of seafood restaurants around, especially near the beaches so Yelp it!
- Inn & Out – Inn N’ Out is something that’s become weirdly synonymous with tourism in California since Inn N’ Out restaurants don’t exist outside of the state (there may be one in Texas now?). Some people claim it’s the best burger they’ve ever had. I personally like other places better, but I love that Inn N’ Out is really affordable and delicious for the price. If you’re on a budget, definitely give it a go, but be prepared for MASSIVE lines. I would go before noon to avoid the massive rush that happens at lunch time. I’ve seen massive lines at Inn N’ Out as late as 10 PM. Most stay open late on weekends, usually until 1 AM so keep that in mind!
Runyon Canyon is a great place to hike, see the Hollywood sign, and possibly scope out some celebrities (if you’re into that sort of thing!). Tons of people go there and you can also see a beautiful panoramic view of the massive pollution smog layer that’s slowly suffocating LA 😛 . I recommend going early to mid morning before it gets too hot.
Okay, so Solvang is technically central California, but it’s totally worth a little drive because it’s an authentic Danish village near Santa Barbara. With Danish influenced architecture, Danish cuisine, and other unique shops, visiting this little town is a totally unique experience. The town was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants and still maintains some of the original architecture from it’s inception.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a great place to see seals, go SUPing, snorkeling or scuba diving, or kayak through the La Jolla Caves and see unique caves filled with fascinating marine life and environments. It’s something worth doing and they almost always have groupon deals for kayaking through these caves so, yeah, go explore!
Hollywood Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is pretty widely known, but if you’re not familiar, it’s basically a few blocks in Hollywood where they have stars on the ground embossed with celebrities’ names like Michael Jackson, Walt Disney, and tons of other famous people. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is on the same street as the majority of the walk of fame squares so that’s why I mentioned them together. Also, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is kind of a historical landmark for Hollywood because it’s been there so long and also because there are many hand prints and signatures in concrete square right out in front of the theatre from people like Marilyn Monroe and other old Hollywood stars. It’s a very cool thing to see!
Venice Beach and Venice Canals
I know I mentioned Venice Beach already, but I’m mentioning it again here because it’s really a strange kind of experience. There is so much hippy lifestyle going on and you just basically walk down the boardwalk passed so many shops and things. It’s definitely worth a look. If the idea of homeless musicians and psychic readings does not appeal to you, then maybe consider checking out the Venice Canals instead. Yep, that’s right, Venice in California has it’s own canals too! It’s a little weird, but nonetheless awesome. They are a set of man-made canals built by Abbot Kinney in 1905 and now run through a pretty exclusive neighborhood in Venice so it’s worth a look 🙂
Little Tokyo LA is a really cool community which celebrates mainly Japanese culture. There are tons of cool little knick knack type shops, mochi and Japanese bakeries, sushi and traditional Japanese restaurants, and some other things to explore right in the heart of LA. It’s very cool if you know anyone who enjoys discovering other cultures and walking around. They’re also home to several Buddhist temples, murals, and gardens you can visit as well.
San Pedro Fish Market
If you love seafood, then you should definitely check out the San Pedro Fish Market! It’s a bit of a drive outside of main Los Angeles, but totally worth it to get seriously fresh seafood. The best thing to order, in my opinion, is the shrimp with veggies. It’s decently priced and you get a lot of shrimp and veggies. My sister and I used to go there and share one which was awesome. They also have freshly caught varieties of fish and lobster as well. Also, once you’re finished eating, you can enjoy the salty air while you walk around and browse the local shops.
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