There are many destinations to choose from when visiting California, but if it’s your first time in the Golden State, you may want to start in Southern California. The region is home to some of the best cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. And that’s before you even mention its areas of natural beauty. The sunny state has iconic road trips, beautiful nature, and famous landmarks.
The best way to explore southern California is by renting a car so you can pull off to view all its little nooks and crannies. Southern California has outdoor adventures where you can visit islands, explore sea caves, and spot seals. Or you can head to desert hot springs, check out theme parks, and do wine tasting. The region has some serious versatility.
In this guide, we’ll cover the best things to do in Southern California to help you plan your trip.
Having a Southern California bucket list is a must. There’s just so much to do and see in the region; you’ll want at least a week to even begin to appreciate it. People spend months traveling just the West Coast – and that’s without even heading inland to spots like Death Valley.
Before you get into the meaty stuff, check out our quick guide on the most incredible things to do in Southern California.
Best of Southern California: A Quick Guide
Must See: Joshua Tree National Park, Alabama Hills, Santa Cruz Island, LA, and Death Valley. Where to Stay: The Rumi ($), Tarantula Ranch Campground & Vineyard ($$), and Calamigos Guest Ranch and Beach Club ($$$). Also, check out these best all-inclusive resorts in California. Fun To Do: See the sea lions at La Jolla, visit an amusement park in LA, go wine tasting in Santa Barbara, and visit Newport Beach. Day Trips: Head to Runyon Canyon Park, take a tour of LA and its famous Hollywood sign, take a day trip to Las Vegas, and take a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Must try Foods: California sushi roll, cobb salad, fish tacos, and anything using avocados.
Best Things to Do in Southern California
You now have a brief idea of how to spend your time in Southern California. As you can see, the region offers the perfect opportunity to experience city life and natural adventures. It has the best of both worlds.
It is time for a definitive list, though. So, what are the best things to do in SoCal? Let’s take a look at which top 23 made the final cut.
1. San Diego
First up, we have San Diego. Visiting this city is easily one of the best things to do in Southern California. This major city has a reputation for amazing weather, with around 252 sunny days a year. It’s the place to be for coffee walks through beautiful green spaces like Balboa Park, and plenty of beach days. Here, you can check out our guide on the best San Diego beaches.
Downtown San Diego has the iconic Gaslamp Quarter, with all its nightlife and dive bars. While the broader San Diego county has plenty of preserves for hiking and beaches to make the most of good weather.
Insider Tip: Take advantage of the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park.
Practical Information: Many attractions, like Balboa Park and its beaches, are free. We recommend budgeting an average of $20 on entertainment per day.
2. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best national parks in the US. It coins its unique name from the bizarre-looking Joshua Trees – they have spindly wooden trunks and branches that look like overgrown cacti. The trees were named by Mormon immigrants in the mid-19th century, who named the strange-looking flora after Joshua in the bible.
Visiting this park is easily one of the best things to do in Southern California. The novelty of the trees, the number of hiking trails, and the beautiful dark sky make it the perfect addition to an itinerary.
You’ll love this national park if you love natural beauty and exploring remote areas. It is easy to add to a visit to LA or Laguna Beach, another reason we had to include it on this list.
Insider Tip: Plan an overnight trip to make the most of the incredible dark skies – you have almost zero light pollution.
Practical Information: The Visitor Center is open daily from 8:30 am to 5 pm. The park has a $15 per person entrance fee.
3. Death Valley National Park
We can’t discuss things to do in Southern California without mentioning Death Valley National Park. Albeit named pretty morbidly, this park is one of the most extreme and fascinating places of natural beauty to visit in the region.
It has previously reached the highest temperature recorded on Earth – imagine experiencing 134 degrees Fahrenheit – and is the US’ hottest, driest, and lowest-elevation national park.
You should definitely visit Zabriskie Point for sunrise. Natural Bridge is also a beautiful hike to plan. There are many things to do in Death Valley, but this park earned its spot mostly from its record-breaking extremities.
Insider Tip: Needless to say, you should avoid visiting in the peak of summer.
Practical Information: The park regularly closes based on weather conditions and safety concerns, so keep an eye on the website. Entrance is $15 per person.
4. Santa Monica Mountains
Mountain lovers, the Santa Monica Mountains are a stunning coastal range. You might even bag Pacific Ocean views from some of the summits. There’s no better location for a set of mountains, and it is within an easy drive of LA.
There are many scenic hiking trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, with over 500 miles of trails. The range is also vital for mountain lion conservation and a fascinating place to watch wildlife. Head to Santa Monica Mountains early to make the most of the trails and beat midday temperatures.
Once you’ve enjoyed your hikes, you can venture down into the city after. In the city, there’s Santa Monica Beach and Santa Monica Pier to enjoy – you can treat yourself to an afternoon on the coast.
Insider Tip: Bring binoculars so you can do some wildlife spotting on the trails.
Practical Information: Open 24/7 and no entrance fee.
5. Huntington Beach
Just south of LA sits Huntington Beach, aka Surf City, in California’s Orange County. Visiting Huntington Beach is an absolute must for any surfing enthusiast. There’s everything from longboard rentals to the International Surfing Museum. You could spend a morning ripping waves in the best surf and an afternoon learning about the city’s surfing history and culture.
Southern California has such a strong surfing culture, so we had to add this goldie to the list. It is an ideal single-day activity, or for the surfing-obsessed, you could stay for a week or more, making the most of the excellent surfing conditions.
Insider Tip: Take advantage of the Surfing Walk of Fame.
Practical Information: Budget around $20 for sightseeing and upwards of $10 an hour for board rentals.
6. Venice Beach
Visiting Venice Beach is one of the most bucket list things to do in Southern California – especially if you love bodybuilding. The Venice Beach Gym is the core of this coastal community and has seen the greats, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, hit its weights.
Venice Beach is also famed for its boho vibe. Here, you can embrace the salty-hair Californian aesthetic, stopping to pick up takeout smoothies and watching the talented street performers.
Venice Beach is also a top contender for budget-friendly things to do in SoCal. This city offers tons of free activities.
Insider Tip: Book a day pass at Venice Beach Gym.
Practical Information: Budget around $15 for a day of entertainment in Venice Beach.
7. Pacific Coast Highway
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is terrific in SoCal if you have 4-5 days to spare. This ultimate road trip covers 575 miles, heading from near San Francisco all the way down to San Diego. It covers almost the entire West Coast.
Along the way, you can check out Big Sur and iconic Californian cities like LA, Santa Barbara, and Laguna Beach. You have stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and some of the most dramatic roads you’ll ever drive.
Look for viewpoints, especially around beautiful spots like Bixby Creek Bridge. The Pacific Coast is something to take your time with. Take your time and stop for plenty of photo opportunities, beaches, and hikes.
Insider Tip: Plan to stop at plenty of scenic bridges, especially near Carmel Highlands.
Practical Information: Only fuel and accommodation costs.
8. Los Angeles
Of course, LA was always guaranteed a place on this list. It is the home of Hollywood – and with the famous Hollywood sign, don’t you dare forget it – and one of the most famed cities in the world.
LA has the Walk of Fame, Beverly Hills, and Universal Studios with all its rides and theme park attractions. You also have Griffith Park and Griffith Observatory. It uniquely blends celeb living and nitty gritty US city culture. This means you get bucket list attractions as well as cultural experiences.
LA is a must when visiting Southern California. It is also the easiest place to fly into, so we’d suggest starting your experience in LA and branching out across the region.
Insider Tip: Don’t try to see everything in LA in just a few days. Pick a couple of areas and prioritize nearby attractions.
Practical Information: Budget around $100 a day on entertainment when visiting LA – there’s just so much to do and see.
9. Channel Islands National Park
Fancy pushing the boat out, quite literally? Check out some of Southern California’s most beautiful islands. The Channel Islands National Park is a stunning archipelago of five islands with dramatic ridges and pristine beaches.
In the park, you can camp overnight seasonally, visit on a tour, or just take a day trip. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot dolphins, sea lions, and even whales. On land, there are plenty of bird-watching opportunities and a beautiful fox population.
You can’t beat this park for an island experience. It is adventurous to get to and absolutely overflowing with nature and animal encounters.
Insider Tip: Arrange water activities like kayaking or scuba diving for the best experience.
Practical Information: Ferries have variable schedules, so check individual operator websites. There’s no entrance fee, but budget up to $100 for ferry fees.
10. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is stunning. It is the best choice if you want an alternative to Redwood National Park in Northern California. Sequoias are giant redwoods, and this national park has over 400,000 acres.
You must visit the General Sherman Tree, one of the largest trees in the world. Driving through Sequoia National Park’s Tunnel Log is also great fun. There are plenty of trails, like the Redwood Canyon Trail, that you can also hike.
Allow at least a full day to visit Sequoia National Park. In an ideal world, you’ll give yourself at least a few days. Hiking amongst these gigantic trees is easily one of the best things to do in Southern California.
Insider Tip: Plan to drive through some of the tree tunnels for some extra fun.
Practical Information: There’s an entrance fee of $20 per person.
11. Palm Springs
Palm Springs is best known for its setting in Coachella Valley. If you are heading here in April, you should definitely bag Coachella Festival tickets – it’s one of the most famous music festivals in the world.
However, visiting Palm Springs is also ideal for getting a taste of desert city life. Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, Palm Springs has plenty of hot springs, hiking, and horseback riding trails.
When you aren’t enjoying the desert locale, you can visit its art galleries and boutique stores. Palm Springs has a luxurious, creative atmosphere.
Insider Tip: Take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for the best views.
Practical Information: Budget $15 a day for entertainment.
12. Crystal Cove State Park
Visiting this gorgeous state park is one of the most fun things to do in Southern California. Crystal Cove State Park has over 3 miles of beach to relax on, plus 2,400 acres of coastal terrain for hiking and biking. We love its coastal setting.
Crystal Cove State Park offers the best mix of outdoor adventure and beach day relaxation. In the early morning, you can hike to Moro Ridge Lookout. Then, you can spot dolphins and sunbathe in the afternoon. Just remember water and sun cream because both are quite exposed.
Insider Tip: Check out the view from the Crystal Cove State Park Tunnel.
Practical Information: $15 per vehicle charge per day.
13. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a sneaky addition to this guide. It is right on the cusp of being classed as Northern California. Still, it is so amazing that we’ll include it as one of the best things to do in Southern California.
Yosemite National Park is the perfect storm of striking granite landmarks and scenic hiking trails to waterfalls and towering redwoods. Regarding natural landmarks and beauty, Yosemite has it in bucket loads. You can see why it’s so popular.
Allow at least a full day to visit Yosemite, if not staying overnight to hike a few different trails. Half Dome and Yosemite Falls are the best hikes in the park. You can check out our guide on the park’s best things to do here.
Insider Tip: Start early to avoid the crowds.
Practical Information: $15 per person entrance fee.
14. Catalina Island
Catalina Island is a beautiful spot just 22 miles off the Southern California coastline. You can easily reach it on a day trip via ferry, or you can camp there overnight and make it an even more adventurous thing to do.
Catalina Island has two tiny resort towns, Two Harbors and Avalon. You can book scuba diving tours, hire water equipment like kayaks, and go wildlife spotting on nearby hiking trails.
Visiting Catalina Island is a beautiful way to embrace SoCal’s islands and get off the mainland. If you visit out-of-season, you’ll even get many trails to yourself.
Insider Tip: Don’t miss the Cat Harbor Overlook Trail.
Practical Information: Budget around $100 for return transport by ferry.
15. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a gorgeous small city on the Southern Californian coastline. The city is sandwiched between the ocean and Los Padres National Forest, and the wider Santa Barbara County is known for its wine production. Visiting this city is one of the top things to do in Southern California, and here’s why.
Walking around Santa Barbara is a treat, with Spanish colonial architecture throughout its downtown area. You’ll want to allow plenty of time to snap photos of the Mediterranean-style white stucco architecture. There’s also the Old Mission Santa Barbara, introduced in 1786 by Spanish colonizers.
You can hit the beach when you aren’t wandering scenic streets and visiting religious and historical attractions. Santa Barbara has some beautiful beaches, including the centrally located West Beach and Leadbetter Beach.
Insider Tip: Check out the architecture at the MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation
Practical Information: Budget around $30 for entertainment per day.
16. Long Beach
Long Beach is a coastal city just outside the metropolis of LA and on the outskirts of Orange County. It is where to head for sophistication and marinas lined with fancy seafood restaurants. It has a brilliant shopping scene and also a glitzy coastal atmosphere – offering more yachts and marinas than beaches.
Visiting Long Beach is a brilliant way to experience a more fancy, urban side of California’s coastal living. To experience coastal SoCal modernized, it’s the perfect place for a day out. Hop between the museums, shop, and dine out overlooking the marina and Pacific Ocean views.
Long Beach is also super accessible from LA. You can drive from central LA to Long Beach in just 30 minutes or hop on public transport, which takes an hour.
Insider Tip: Book a table on the oceanfront patio at Parkers’ Lighthouse restaurant.
Practical Information: Budget around $150 on entertainment, including a meal out and shopping.
17. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is technically close enough to San Diego to fall under this city’s category. However, it’s such a popular Southern California attraction that we are giving it its own section. La Jolla Cove is a tiny bay area most famous for its hundreds of resident sea lions.
If you’ve never seen a sea lion in the wild, head to Jolla Cove. There is plenty to photograph from a distance and many information boards detailing the animals and how to safely see them.
If you are even luckier, you can also spot whales during migration seasons. Visiting Jolla Cove is the best thing for any animal lover or conservation enthusiast.
Insider Tip: Bring binoculars and a camera with a long-ranging lens to see wildlife from a distance.
Practical Information: Free and open 24/7.
18. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz might not be one of the famous trio in California – aka San Fran, LA, and San Diego – but it is a brilliant coastal city to visit for a traditional, fun atmosphere. Visiting Santa Cruz is one of the most fun things to do in Southern California.
Santa Cruz has a vintage-style esplanade with an iconic amusement park. You can brave its Haunted Castle, ride the Giant Dipper, or indulge in classic beachfront treats like ice cream and hot dogs. Who doesn’t want a traditional beach day when visiting Southern California? Santa Cruz is ideal if you want more amusement park than surfer vibes.
You can visit Santa Cruz for a day and enjoy its traditional beach entertainment. Or you can stay for a weekend or even a whole week. Either way, a trip to Santa Cruz is one of the most fun things to do in SoCal.
Insider Tip: Sample the seafood on the Santa Cruz Wharf pier.
Practical Information: Budget $30 a day for entertainment.
19. San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano is a historic landmark and museum just south of LA. It is easily one of the best things to do in Southern California, especially if you’re interested in religious history or architecture.
The mission building was founded over two hundred years ago and once tried to convert and sell the Christian faith. Nowadays, this isn’t the case. It now documents the multi-cultural history of California and the development of religions over time.
San Juan Capistrano isn’t just a religious building but a time capsule of the religious dynamics that created California’s modern communities. It only takes a few hours to visit, but you’ll gain a ton of knowledge from the experience.
Insider Tip: Stop by the nearby Laguna Niguel Regional Park after visiting.
Practical Information: It opens from 9 am until 5 pm on Tuesdays to Sundays and costs $18 per adult.
20. Santa Ynez Valley
If wine tasting is on your Southern California bucket list, visit the Santa Ynez Valley. This gorgeous valley is most famed for its grape vines, and there are hundreds of opportunities for wine tasting and vineyard tours.
The valley is primarily known for its Pinot Noir, chardonnay, and Syrah wines. And when you aren’t sampling those, you can book horseback riding tours or hot air balloon rides. Visiting Santa Ynez Valley is one of the most romantic things to do in Southern California. It is a leading romantic getaway in the US.
Make sure to visit Sunstone Winery. This beautiful winery has a French-style villa with wine caves and a stunning courtyard full of lavender.
Insider Tip: Santa Ynez Valley is also famed for Danish bakeries – so make sure to sample some baked goods.
Practical Information: Budget around $25-30 for a flight of five wines.
21. Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is only a small city, but it packs a punch. The city is a serene mix of art galleries and beaches. Visitors can spend their mornings at Laguna Art A Fair or the Laguna Art Museum and then head to the beach in the afternoon. You are in luck, too, as Laguna Beach has some of the best California beaches.
Laguna Beach has a super walkable city center and a wonderfully laid-back atmosphere. If you want to experience Southern Californian coastal culture, this is the place to do so.
The city is ideal for those on a budget, with only food expenses and gallery entrance fees to pay. You can relax on its beaches and walk its boulevards the rest of the time.
Insider Tip: Allow time to walk the Laguna Boardwalk.
Practical Information: Budget around $20 on entertainment when visiting for a day.
22. Alabama Hills
Believe it or not, visiting the Alabama Hills is one of the best things to do in Southern California. Despite its name, this beautiful mountain range is set in inland California, next to Sequoia National Park. The landscape is distinct, with sharp granite ridges and alpine meadows filled with yellow flowers come spring.
If you want to get off the beaten track, hiking in the Alabama Hills is ridiculously scenic. There’s the Shark Fin Trailhead and Mobius Arch Loop Trailhead. You are just a short drive from Lone Pine and its Museum of Western Film History.
Insider Tip: Visit Lone Pine’s museum for fascinating memorabilia.
Practical Information: Budget around $10 per day for entertainment.
23. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
If you drive the Pacific Coast – which we mentioned earlier – you’ll pass the stunning Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. But honestly, it is worth visiting in its own right. Visiting Pfeiffer is one of the top things to do in Southern California.
The 1,000-acre state park hugs the Pacific Ocean coastline, with stunning beaches, dramatic coastal roads, and beautiful hikes through surrounding redwood forests. Make sure to check out McWay Falls and Partington Cove.
If you have time, we’d suggest camping for the ultimate experience. This way, you can catch some sunrise viewpoints as well.
Insider Tip: Visit out of season to minimize crowds and get the best experience.
Practical Information: No entrance fee.
Where to Stay in Southern California
Once you know what you’d like to do and see in Southern California, you can decide where to stay. There are so many accommodation options. You can find hostels, luxury resorts, or mid-range boutique properties across the region.
We’d suggest initially basing yourself in Los Angeles, as it’s the easiest place to reach by plane and is centrally located for onward travel around Southern California. You can find hotel accommodations in cities like San Diego and Palm Springs. Or you can find remote luxury bases near the national parks.
Here are some of the best hotels in Southern California for all budgets:
Luxury: Calamigos Guest Ranch and Beach Club: For luxury accommodation in the sleepy celeb spot of Malibu, the 5-star Calamigos Guest Ranch and Beach Club is a high-quality choice. Mid-Range: Tarantula Ranch Campground & Vineyard: Tarantula Ranch Campground & Vineyard is an amazing glamping property with tiny trailer houses outside the Death Valley boundaries. Budget: The Rumi: It doesn’t get much more budget-friendly than The Rumi. This hostel is located in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and offers low-rate dorm rooms.
Tips and Information For Visiting Southern California
Before you start ticking off all these top things to do in Southern California, you need to get practical. It is fabulous knowing which of the region’s famous attractions you want to visit. But this section will make those dreams realities.
We’ll cover all the essential bits of information, like seasonal considerations and how to get around. Get ready to make some notes.
Best Time To Visit
We’ll start by saying that Southern California is beautiful all year round. You’ll find fun things to do and good weather for 12 months of the year.
Many people would say that summer is the best time to visit, with the most days of sunshine and the highest temperatures. However, we suggest choosing the shoulder season, either June or October.
You still get the high temperatures in June or October, but you skip the summer crowds. Similarly, you can visit the desert regions without the risk of extreme temperatures. Did you know that areas like Death Valley National Park can get so hot in summer that there’s a risk to human life? You might handle walking Santa Monica Pier in soaring temperatures, but the desert, probably not. Sticking to-the-shoulder months will make your Southern California experience much more enjoyable from a crowd-avoiding and safety perspective.
The easiest way to reach Southern California is by flying into Los Angeles or San Diego’s airports, especially if traveling internationally. From here, you can easily access trains, buses, and rental cars. You can also fly in and then use the major cities as launchpads to explore the rest of the region.
If you’re traveling domestically, you can equally reach Southern California by train. Amtrak connects major cities like Los Angeles with Northern California and nearby states. You can book comfortable seats and sleeper compartments, taking the scenic, most sustainable route.
You can also take buses like Greyhound if you’re on a budget when traveling domestically. You can also take a road trip to Southern California – just check out these amazing US road trips if you need any more convincing.
Getting around Southern California is equally straightforward. You can fly internally between many major cities, but we recommend organizing a car rental for the most part.
Southern California is just made to be driven. For city breaks, you can generally just walk about and use inner-city transportation. But if you are traveling more regionally across Southern California, you’ll need to think again. If you want to visit its national parks and remote areas of natural beauty, you will need to have your own wheels. Renting a car is the most liberating way to get around the region. And this way, you won’t miss out on any of its best attractions.
If you aren’t heading as remotely as the national parks – or are willing to fork out on some group tours with transfers included – you could also get around using trains and coaches. For instance, there’s a rail connection between San Diego and Los Angeles.
How Much Time Do You Need
You could easily spend months in Southern California, depending on how extensive your bucket list is. As a general rule, give yourself at least two weeks to get the best experience possible in the region.
You ideally need at least three to four days per city, which is a week in San Diego and Los Angeles. Then, allow yourself another week to explore some of the coastal towns and one of two inland national parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park.
Of course, if you have longer, stay longer. With more time, you could also visit the beautiful national forests and venture out to more out-of-the-way spots like the Channel Islands National Park. The more time you can spend in the south of California, the better your experience will be.
It is easy to see how special it is to visit Southern California. Not only do you have some of the most famous cities in the world to sightsee, but you also have stunning areas of natural beauty. Southern California has everything, from cacti and red rock desert scenery to iconic boulevards in Los Angeles. It has some of the most beautiful and famous attractions in the world.
Why We Love Southern California
Once you’ve embraced all there is to see in Southern California, head north to San Fran, Redwood National Park, and Yosemite National Park. Or you can cross the border to visit Las Vegas or Utah and its mighty five national parks. Southern California has a fantastic collection of things to do. Still, it’s also ideally located to venture into other areas of the US. Definitely make the most of your experience.