Southern California is known for its stunning coastline, diverse culture, and world-class attractions. You’ll find a variety of Southern California vacation ideas to explore its coastal beauty, multicultural vibe, and top-notch points of interests.
With so many must-see destinations in one state, it can be hard to decide which California vacation idea to do first! All of Southern California has something beautiful and unique to offer visitors.
There’s something for everyone in Southern California: desert landscapes of Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, iconic beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica, and theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios, just to name a few!
We’ve asked our travel friends to share their favorite vacation ideas for visiting Southern California. They provide tips and information for various places to visit and things to do in So Cal.
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Map of Vacation Spots in Southern California
Southern California is known for its year-round mild climate with a variety of vacation spots that cater to diverse preferences.
With this handy Google Map of vacation spots in Southern California, you can easily navigate to the various locations we’ve detailed below!
Southern California Vacation Ideas
With its beautiful beaches, lively cities, and mild climate, it’s no wonder so many people love to plan a Southern California vacation. You can enjoy beach outings, iconic attractions like Disneyland or Universal Studios, or towns with unique charm and activities.
Here’s a list ideas for places to visit and things to do when planning your vacation to Southern California! We’re presenting this list in alphabetical order so it’s helpful to reference the map above for the location of each vacation spot.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
For those who want something more under the radar, Anza Borrego Desert State Park is an incredible place for a southern California vacation. Tucked away behind the mountains just 1.5 hours east of San Diego, Anza Borrego encompasses 935 square miles of desert filled with slot canyons, badlands, oases, and dry lake beds for the adventurous at heart to explore.
We recommend checking out The Slot, Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, and Clark Dry Lake Bed for your first visit. These three locations can be accessed without 4WD in dry conditions and are a perfect introduction to the park.
For those with 4WD, make your way to Font’s Point for sunrise or sunset and watch the light turn the badlands various shades of pink as you witness a surreal desert view. If you don’t have a 4WD but want to make it to see of the harder to access areas, schedule a tour with California Overland Desert Excursions.
Finally, be sure to get outside at night and look up at the sky for incredible stargazing. Anza Borrego was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2018, and for good reason. You’ll be able to witness thousands of stars, and maybe even the Milky Way, with your naked eye.
For those interested in learning more about what they are seeing, schedule a Borrego Night Sky Tour with an astronomer. Visit anytime October through May for cooler temperatures, but we highly recommend the spring if you want to see the desert dressed up in wildflowers.
Open year round, most of the park is free to visit, though a few of the more popular locations do have a fee. Camp for free in primitive campgrounds, disperse camp in your car, or stay at one of the resorts or short term vacation rentals in centrally located Borrego Springs. (Recommended by Jamie, A Family Atlas)
Borrego Springs Lodging & Tours
For those wanting to retreat to the coast, a nice place to call home base is Carlsbad, California. This coastal city is located just north of San Diego and is known for its consistently pleasant temperatures and numerous outdoor activities, such as spending time at the many pristine beaches or hiking along the Batiquitos Lagoon Nature Trail.
And if you happen to plan your trip during the springtime, a crowd-favorite activity that always attracts thousands of visitors is to explore the blossoming flower fields in Carlsbad! So, if you’re looking for a relaxing beach getaway that isn’t quite in the center of all the action, consider visiting Carlsbad. (Recommended by Kristin, Global Travel Escapades)
Carlsbad Lodging & Tours
Located just 26 miles off the coast of Southern California, Catalina Island – with its Mediterranean charm and wide array of exciting activities – is a quick and easy getaway, making it the perfect So Cal vacation destination! Travel time to Avalon, the island’s only city, is just one hour by boat from Long Beach.
Though Catalina Island is easy to get to, its beauty and laid-back atmosphere will make you feel like you’re a world away. It is the perfect place for an island beach escape, without the expense of traveling to some far-off destination. Popular activities on Catalina include driving golf carts around its quaint, colorful streets, kayaking, hiking, beach time, snorkeling and visiting the island’s interior (and famous buffalo) on one of the many Catalina Island tours.
Whether you are traveling with family, friends or as a couple, from the moment you step ashore you’ll understand why Catalina is called the Island of Romance. You’ll find it in the beauty of the hillsides that surround the harbor, the charm that envelopes the town of Avalon, and the feeling that you are in a European coastal village instead of just off the coast of one of the busiest cities in the world, Los Angeles.
The unique charm of the island’s many inns, shops, restaurants, and galleries (no big chain hotels here!) make Catalina Island an especially unique vacation destination in Southern California. (Recommended by Gwen, California Family Travel)
Catalina Island Lodging & Tours
Death Valley National Park
For one of the most unique destinations in Southern California, Death Valley National Park has an incredible diversity of landscapes and activities to enjoy.
There are tons of things to do in Death Valley National Park that you can’t experience anywhere else on the planet. For example, Badwater Basin, known for its geometric polygons of salt, holds the title of the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level!).
Alternatively, you can simply enjoy the vistas or take a short but challenging hiking trail to Dante’s View. Not only is it the best sunset spot in the park, but you can see both the lowest point in North America at the same time as Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States!
One of Death Valley’s other claims to fame is that it holds the world record for the highest recorded air temperature. Unsurprisingly, this National Park in California can be pretty steamy in the summertime, so try to time your visit for late fall, winter, or early spring. (Recommended by Jessica, Uprooted Traveler)
Walt Disney’s first theme park is one of the best day trips to take from LA. You can plan a couple of days to explore both the parks: Disneyland Park and California Adventure Park.
This iconic theme park in Southern California features a variety of things to do: fun rides for kids and adults (book skip-the-line entrance tickets to Disneyland in advance), character meet-and-greets, parades, fireworks shows and live performances!
One must-see show is ‘Fantasmic!’ – a nighttime extravaganza featuring Mickey Mouse who uses his vivid imagination to create magical imagery, complete with water effects, fireworks, and music.
This theme park is the topmost attraction on the US west coast, so Disneyland hacks come in handy to plan your trip: when to go, different passes to make the experience better, planning your rides and more.
A Disney packing list is a must when you visit the park with kids. Planning a Disney vacation with kids can be overwhelming. There is so much to see, do, eat…and pack!
The theme park is surrounded by big hotels so there are many lodging options. Or you can stay at the on-site Disneyland resort. (Recommended by Shweta, Zest In A Tote)
Anaheim Lodging & Tours
If you are looking for a relaxing Southern California vacation idea, consider visiting the coastal city of Encinitas, California. With miles of stunning coastline, delicious restaurants, and fascinating attractions, Encinitas is the perfect California getaway.
One of the best things to do in Southern California is bask in the sunshine at the beach. Encinitas has several idyllic beaches for relaxation, water sports and sunbathing.
Moonlight Beach is family friendly with lifeguards, gentle waves, and golden sand. For outdoor lovers, camp at San Elijo State Beach and soak up stunning sunset views. Wave seekers will love surf lessons at Stone Steps or Beacon’s Beach. You can also explore SUP yoga classes, electric bike rentals and more.
Next, visit buzzing downtown Encinitas. Nestled along historic highway 101, you will find trendy shopping and popular local restaurants near Encinitas. At the southern end of the town watch a movie at the historic La Paloma Theater. This charming theater opened its doors in 1928 and is still operational today.
Finally, enjoy the natural beauty of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Stroll through 37 acres of gardens and foliage along the scenic 4 mile trail. Visitors will enjoy the native gardens, towering bamboo and whimsical children’s gardens.
As you can see, Encinitas is the perfect Southern California getaway. With beautiful beaches, exhilarating water sports and interesting attractions, Encinitas offers a multitude of reasons to visit. Consider Encinitas for your next Southern California vacation spot. (Recommended by Jennifer, Seeking Stamps)
Encinitas Lodging & Tours
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a surreal escape in Southern California that feels like stepping onto another planet. With its iconic, twisted Joshua trees and colossal boulders, the park offers an otherworldly landscape that captivates the soul.
Joshua Tree is one of the best California National Parks to visit in the winter. November to April is the ideal time to visit, as the desert climate becomes too harsh in the summer.
For the Adventurous, This park is a world-renowned haven for bouldering and hiking. Whether you’re scaling the famous Hidden Valley or trekking through the Wonderland of Rocks, the experiences are unparalleled.
If you prefer a more laid-back vacation? Drive through the park’s scenic routes and explore short trails ranging from 1/4 mile like the Cholla Cactus Garden to Barker Dam at just over a mile. It’s Perfect for soaking in the desert’s ethereal beauty without breaking much of a sweat.
On a clear night, the starry sky is reason alone to make Joshua Tree your next vacation. The nearby town is fun with its vibrant art scene, quirky shops, and old-timey restaurants. And yes, you can bring your canine traveler along to some pet-friendly spots in Joshua Tree! (Recommended by Emily, Pets Around the World)
Joshua Tree National Park Lodging & Tours
- Hotels Near Joshua Tree National Park
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- Joshua Tree NP Tours
Planning your next vacation to Southern California? Consider La Jolla with its stunning beaches and coastline cliffs. Situated along the Southern California coastline, La Jolla offers a blend of natural beauty, outdoor adventures, and culinary delights.
One of the standout features of La Jolla is its pristine beaches. With beautiful weather year-round, it’s the perfect place to unwind and soak up the sun. Whether you’re a fan of water sports, such as kayaking through coastal caves or snorkeling at the renowned La Jolla Cove, or simply enjoy unwinding on the beach, there are activities to suit all preferences.
For nature enthusiasts, La Jolla is a wildlife paradise. Keep your eyes peeled for local marine life, including sea lions, seals, gray whales, and playful dolphins. And don’t forget to explore the breathtaking Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, offering stunning hiking trails with panoramic ocean views.
La Jolla also caters to your shopping and dining desires. Browse through charming boutiques and art galleries, and then treat your taste buds to fresh seafood or an elegant dinner with unbeatable ocean vistas. Plus, with its local craft breweries, La Jolla has your craft beer cravings covered. Enhance your La Jolla adventure by making it a stop on a road trip from LA to San Diego. (Recommended by Melodie, Travel Must Dos)
La Jolla Lodging & Tours
Be sure to add Los Angeles as a bucket list place to visit in Southern California because there is so much to do. Regardless of whether you are traveling as a family, a couple, or by yourself, Los Angeles has plenty to offer any visitor.
For a first-time visitor, head up to Griffith Park for a short hike to catch a glimpse of the famous Hollywood sign. During the hike, you can see unobstructed views of Los Angeles. If you prefer a little adventure and luxurious activities while in Los Angeles, you might opt for a helicopter tour instead.
After exploring the Hollywood sign, you might be hungry for brunch. A popular spot for brunch is The Original Farmers Market next to The Grove, where you can explore the different food stalls and go shopping. My favorite stalls are Singapore’s Banana Leaf and The French Crepes. If you are looking for a traditional breakfast instead, head to Dupars, which has been known for their pancakes since 1938.
Once your belly is full, it might be time for some culture. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is only a few blocks from The Grove. Immerse yourself in the latest art exhibits, or if art is not your passion, you might enjoy the Peterson Automotive Museum, which is also close by.
Once the afternoon starts to close, it might be time for a well-deserved afternoon cocktail. The Rooftop by JG at the Waldorf Astoria is a great option. The views alone are worth the visit. Another popular spot is Wally’s in Beverly Hills.
Round out your day in Los Angeles with dinner at Yamashiro, where you can continue enjoying fabulous city views. If you are looking for a Hollywood scene where you might be able to see a celebrity, check out Catch LA (steak and seafood) or try Mastro’s Steakhouse. (Recommended by Michelle, The Trav Nav)
Los Angeles Lodging & Tours
If you’re looking for a relaxing and quaint SoCal escape, perfect for couples, the charming town of Ojai will not disappoint. Ojai is near Santa Barbara and only 90 minutes from Los Angeles.
The emphasis on local in Ojai is evident at every turn, from the food to shopping and everything in between. A quaint downtown area is filled with local shops and an impressive farmer’s market. You can even taste samples of local honey from Heavenly Honey Company, which offers unique flavors like sage, buckwheat, avocado and blackberry honey.
Your Southern California vacation should be filled with great meals. The Dutchess is a highly-rated Burmese-California style restaurant that joined the Michelin Guide in 2022. The food and cocktails are impressively flavorful and showcase local ingredients from nearby farms. Grab a local beer from TopaTopa Brewing and a cup of coffee from Ojai Coffee Roasters.
Don’t forget to stop by Bart’s Bookstore, the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, and look for the “pink moment” when the sunset turns the mountains a shade of pink. Soak in the Southern California vibes and flavors of Ojai and plan yourself a relaxing weekend in Ojai. (Recommended by Hannah, Plate & Compass)
Ojai Lodging & Tours
For the ultimate Southern California vacation, check out Palm Springs! This desert oasis attracts Californians and visitors alike because of its unique blend of outdoor activities and lavish amenities. If you are looking for a destination where one minute you will be hiking scenic trails in Joshua Tree National Park and the next, relaxing by the pool with a cocktail in hand, then this is the place for you.
Palm Springs is famously known as a luxury destination. From the high-end shopping and upscale restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive to the world-class resorts and spas. It is the perfect vacation to unwind and indulge in the finer things in life.
With over 350 days of sunshine a year in Palm Springs, it is an ideal destination for enjoying outdoor activities. However, be mindful of visiting in the summer months when daily temperatures average in the triple digits. Explore the stunning desert landscape of towering palm trees and rugged mountains on one of the many nearby hiking trails. Or take a day trip to the iconic Joshua Tree National Park.
A must-do is to stroll along downtown Palm Springs, where you will find a mix of boutique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and cafes. Visit Cheeky’s, a favorite brunch spot, for a spicy bloody mary and a bacon flight! (Recommended by Alisha, Travel Today Work Tomorrow)
Palm Springs Lodging & Tours
One of the best Southern California vacation ideas is San Diego, a fun city that offers consistently warm and comfortable weather all year long. Visitors can find so much to do in San Diego, whether you visit for a week or just a quick weekend getaway.
There are plenty of budget-friendly or even free activities to enjoy. You can stroll along the Mission Beach boardwalk, explore the Bayfront area, go hiking in Torrey Pines State Park, visit Balboa Park, savor some mouthwatering Italian cuisine in Little Italy, and make your way up to La Jolla to see the famous sea lions. The San Diego Zoo is also a main highlight for visitors.
San Diego is accessible — via a flight to San Diego International Airport or take a road trip from LA or Las Vegas. Once you’re in the city, getting around is easy with Uber or Lyft. If you prefer the convenience of your own transportation, renting a car is an option, though it might cost you a bit more. Most attractions are just a 10-15 minute drive away from the heart of the city. (Recommended by Eleanor, Elevate Your Escapes)
San Diego Lodging & Tours
Also known as the “American Riviera,” you’ll find a variety of memorable things to do in Santa Barbara. This small, upscale beach-side city is only a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, so it’s a perfect choice for a fun getaway.
You can be as active or as laid back as you want. Fill your days with bicycle rides along the water. Hike up into the foothills. Or laze on the wide beaches.
Be sure to fit in a stroll along Fisherman’s Walk and the harbor. With all styles of boats bobbing in the water, this is the heart of the city. Santa Barbara grew around the fishing industry so keep an eye out for the quaint “museum” of early fishing boats.
Stearns Wharf is a symbol of Santa Barbara. Walk out on this wood-slatted pier for the views back to the coastline, several fresh seafood restaurants, gift shops, and the Museum of Natural History Sea Center.
Go wine tasting in the Funk Zone, shop in boutique stores downtown, and savor everything from a breakfast at Chad’s on the water to a luscious ice cream cone at McConnell’s.
You certainly will find plenty of experiences to fill your time. And you’ll want to return to Santa Barbara for more of its charm. (Recommended by Sharon, Exploring Our World)
Santa Barbara Lodging & Tours
Nestled in the heart of Southern California, about three hours north of Los Angeles, Solvang is one of California’s hidden gems. It offers a unique vacation experience that feels like a European getaway.
Known as the “Danish Capital of America,” this charming village is filled with traditional Danish architecture, windmills, and cobblestone streets. You’ll also taste delicious Danish pastries made from authentic bakeries. You can’t visit Solvang without trying the famous aebleskivers, a doughnut hole served with jam and powdered sugar.
Solvang is not just a visual treat; it’s a place of cultural exploration and outdoor adventures. For example, the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley is perfect for hiking, horseback riding, and wine tasting. The region is renowned for its vineyards and Pinot Noir wine. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum is also a popular place to visit when in Solvang.
A trip to Solvang is a delightful blend of cultural immersion and natural beauty, making it a standout destination for those seeking a unique Southern California vacation. (Recommended by Emilie, Love Life Abroad)
Solvang Lodging & Tours
One of the best places for a Southern California vacation is Temecular. With more than 40 wineries, the main attraction is wine tasting in Temecula! Two of the best wineries to stop at are Robert Renzoni and Leoness. Both of these offer delicious wines and Leoness even has an awesome restaurant to eat at. If you want a good brunch at a winery, Bolero is the place to go.
If visiting on the weekend, grab brunch at Public House and then spend some time wandering around Old Town. In Old Town, there are a ton of shops and delicious places to eat, drink, and grab coffee.
If you want a delicious dinner place in Old Town, try out Small Barn. This modern bistro has some of the best things to eat and an intimate atmosphere. Afterwards, go get drinks at the Blackbird Tavern.
There are many hotels in the area to stay at as well as several wineries have places to stay. The Hampton Inn & Suites Temecula and the Springhill Suites are two excellent options. (Recommended by Francesca, Homeroom Travel)
Temecula Lodging & Tours
Warner Bros Studio
Hollywood might have the Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but visiting an actual studio, like Warner Bros, is where fans of television and film need to go to see how the on screen magic is actually made.
The standard studio tour at Warner Bros will bring you through a history of film showcase, immerse you in the movie production process, and take you through backlots on studio grounds.
You can sit in front of the actual Friends fountain, sit on the actual Friends couch in the actual Friends Central Perk set, see actual Big Bang Theory sets, sit in Sheldon’s spot, see real DC Comics props and costumes, explore the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts world, and much more.
The Warner Bros Studio is located in Burbank, California, just north of Los Angeles and Hollywood. You can tour the studio everyday between 8:30 and 3:30, and there are four tour options to choose from, but you do have to buy and reserve your tickets ahead of time. (Recommended by Haley, Fernweh Foreigner)
Burbank Lodging & Tours
Disney Day Bag Packing List
A Disney Packing List is a must when you visit the park with kids. Grab the free packing checklist by clicking the graphic below!