30 Best Things to Do in Southern California

Published:

Modified: August 5, 2021

by Rina Bernardo

Aerial view of Santa Monica Pier in Southern California
Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

Southern California offers beautiful weather, a picturesque coastline, and plenty of tourist attractions. No wonder it attracts millions of tourists every year! The things to do in Southern California are endless: from driving to Big Sur, spending the day at amusement parks, soaking up the sun at California beaches, or admiring the art at one of the museums. That being said, coming up with an itinerary in SoCal can be challenging, especially if this will be your first time visiting the region.

 

But worry not! We’ve got a list of fun activities and must-visit places in Southern California. Whether you’re looking for family-friendly places, quintessential sights, or romantic things to do in Southern California for weekend getaways, we’ve got you covered!

Things to do in Southern California for Sightseeing

View of Big Bear Lake from one of the trails

Photo by Joshua Chun on Unsplash

Sightseeing is one of the most convenient things to do in Southern California. There are dozens of parks, streets, and trails that offer a picturesque view of SoCal’s famous coastline and deserts. Here’s a list of the best places to visit for sightseeing.

1. Spend the Afternoon at Balboa Park

With over a thousand acres of lush gardens, walking trails, museums, and other attractions, Balboa Park is your all-in-one destination in San Diego. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977, it is the largest urban park in the country, beating New York’s iconic Central Park. You can go for a picnic, go museum-hopping, or go for a walk and even a light jog. On certain days, the park hosts live orchestra and theater performances. For families, the San Diego Zoo is a must-visit in the park. Because of the sheer number of attractions and sightseeing opportunities, one can easily spend half a day here.

2. Take a Ferry to Catalina Island

There’s no need to head to the Caribbean for a beach getaway in South California! Visit Catalina Island and take a dip in its blue waters. From Long Beach and Newport Beach in Orange County, the island is only an hour away by ferry. Diving and snorkeling are also popular activities since the kelp forests on the island are among the best in the world. Visitors can also camp, play a game of golf, shop, and play at the casino. For the daring ones, go ziplining and catch sweeping views of the ocean 600 feet above the ground.

3. Visit National Parks in Southern California

Exploring the national parks in California is easily one of the best things to do in Southern California. You can get a chance to see the region’s diverse landscape and enjoy fun outdoor activities. At Joshua Tree National Park, go rock climbing or hiking and marvel at the night sky at Death Valley National Park. You may even pitch a tent and stay overnight since some of the national parks have amongst the best camping spots in California as well.

4. See the Poppy Fields in Antelope Valley

If you plan on visiting in spring, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is one of the best places to visit in Southern California. It is home to sprawling fields of California poppies and gorgeous wildflowers also along its 1,781 acres of land. Bring out your cameras and strike a pose among the fields for that picture-perfect shot! Take note that while the blooming season is from mid-February to mid-May, winter rain can also affect the peak blooming season.

5. Go For a Hike

Hiking is one of the best free things to do in Southern California. Its diverse environment offers just about a bit of everything: snow-frosted mountain peaks, oceanside views, and barren desert lands. Whether you’re a beginner hiker or an expert, there are trails with varying levels of difficulty that suit you. Some of the popular hiking destinations in SoCal include Joshua Tree National Park, Crystal Cove State Park, and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. At San Bernardino, Big Bear Lake has one of the best hiking trails that boast views that are almost similar to those in Lake Tahoe.

6. Walk Along the Hollywood Walk of Fame

For lovers of pop culture and movies, the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the classic tourist destinations in SoCal. This Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument bears more than 2,000 stars celebrating the achievements of select musicians, actors, directors, and influential figures in the showbiz industry. As you walk along this iconic boulevard, you’ll come across street performers and people in costumes. If you’re lucky, you may even get a chance to see a celebrity

7. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

This Palm Springs attraction is the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world. From the tram, you’ll get the best views of Southern California’s breathtaking landscape. Travel two miles through rugged cliffs with panoramic views of the state and marvel at the view upon reaching the summit. There are also several restaurants at the top of the tramway where guests can enjoy a meal overlooking panoramic views of the Coachella Valley. In winter, visitors take the tramway to enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and other fun winter activities.

8. Embark On a Scenic Road Trip

Because of its coastal location, going on road trips is one of the best ways to spend time in SoCal. Take the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica to Malibu and enjoy the jaw-dropping view of the beaches and elegant villas and mansions. On the other hand, drive from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park and be in awe at the changing views from the ocean to the desert. If you want to go further, drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur, arguably one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

Family-friendly Things to do in Southern California

Visiting Disneyland Anaheim is one of the best things to do in Southern California

Photo by Brandi Alexandra on Unsplash

SoCal is a favorite destination among families thanks to its many theme parks, zoos, and parks. The region also offers fun yet educational attractions that are sure to delight both children and adults.

9. See the Animals at San Diego Zoo

Visiting San Diego Zoo is one of the best things to do in Southern California with kids. After all, it is the most visited zoo in the United States, boasting over 12,000 animals from more than 650 species and subspecies and thousands of plants. In addition, the zoo has earned praise for using open-air and cageless exhibits, allowing the animals to behave more naturally. See giraffes, elephants, polar bears, koalas, tigers, and more animals at its different trails and exhibits. Meanwhile, visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to see several wild and endangered animals from all parts of the globe.

10. Have a Fun-Filled Day at Theme Parks

Southern California is a haven for thrilling and family-friendly amusement parks. From the iconic Disneyland in Anaheim, the TV and movie-themed attractions in Universal Studios Hollywood, to the larger-than-life roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain, SoCal has no shortage of fun theme parks. On the other hand, head to Belmont Park for gorgeous beachside views. Plan your Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm trip during the weekday or during the off-peak season to avoid crowds and queueing for a long time.

11. Watch the Sunset From Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Pier is one of the busiest attractions in Southern California. It has an amusement park, aquarium arcade, restaurants, shops, and more. But despite being a popular day attraction, Santa Monica Pier is also famous for its postcard-worthy sunsets. For the complete experience, watch the sunset from the Pacific Wheel, the only solar-powered Ferris wheel in the world.

12. Soak Up the Sun at the Beaches in Orange County

When you’re at the sunny coast of the Golden State, hitting the beaches is one of the best things to do in Southern California! There are countless beaches perfect for relaxation or exciting water sports. And while most tourists tend to flock to popular beaches like La Jolla Cove, Mission Beach, Coronado Beach, and those in Malibu, there are other beach destinations worth visiting in Orange County like Laguna Beach. If surfing is in your itinerary, ride the waves at Huntington Beach. On the other hand, if you prefer beaches with fewer crowds, head to Table Rock Beach.

13. Go Whale Watching in Newport Beach

Beaches in SoCal aren’t just for surfing or sunbathing, they’re also perfect for whale watching! Throughout the year, Newport Beach is a top spot for watching these gentle giants in their natural habitat. They offer year-round whale watching excursions lead by experienced professionals. Get a chance to spot humpback whales and gray whales between January and April. From May to September, blue whales and finback whales are a common sight. Lastly, minke whales are more common from October to December.

14. Admire the Cosmos at Griffith Observatory

For lovers of the night sky, visiting the Griffith Observatory is one of the best things to do in Southern California. This free-admission facility is also a great place to visit if you want to see panoramic views of Los Angeles. Learn more about space and all things astronomy-related through the daily programs and exhibitions or pose with the Hollywood sign. At night, marvel at the illuminated cityscape and get the chance to see the sky using the observatory’s telescopes.

Food-related Things to do in Southern California

Burgers and fries from In N Out

Photo by Ashley Green on Unsplash

Get to know SoCal through its food! For foodies, South California is a great destination for food tours thanks to its diverse cuisine. Here are some of the best culinary-related things to do in the region.

15. Savor Authentic Asian Cuisine at Chinatown

Taste different Asian food at Chinatown in Los Angeles. Dating back several years ago, the area is now famous for its restaurants and street food. Although the place was initially filled with Chinese restaurants, Southeast Asian restaurants also started popping up, making it a one-stop location for trying out Asian cuisine. Don’t forget to try the original French Dip sandwich, banh mi, pho, and stir-fry noodles.

16. Go On a Food Tour of SoCal

Joining food tours is one of the best ways to learn about an area’s food culture. Led by local guides, they will let you in the best places to eat, whether it be a mainstream restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall establishment. Since Southern California’s cuisine is very diverse, one can get lost in acquainting themselves with SoCal’s food culture. Luckily, there are plenty of tour operators offering guided food tours around the area. From SoCal classics, Korean BBQ, and fusion cuisine, to themed tours, this is one of the best things to do in Southern California.

17. Tour the Wineries in Santa Barbara County

Although the Napa Valley and Malibu region is the first place that comes to mind when you think of California wines, Santa Barbara is also a must-visit for wine lovers. With over 200 wineries offering a wide variety of wines, you’ll need to take a day trip for this wine tasting experience. To get a more comprehensive view of its wineries, you should join a winery tour where you can explore several wineries at once Learn about the meticulous process of winemaking and get a chance to sip and sample a glass of pinot noir and chardonnay, two wines produced in the region. Before the tour ends, why not purchase a bottle of two to take home?

18. Visit the Original In-N-Out Replica in Baldwin Park

In-N-Out is one of the classic American food chains and was the first drive-thru hamburger stand in California. The replica of the original restaurant can be found in Baldwin Park, a small lot that retained its mid-century aesthetic. Although you can’t order their staple favorites here, visiting the replica of the first In-N-Out is a fun experience that lets you appreciate the humble beginnings of this food chain. Additionally, there’s a nearby In-N-Out where you can satisfy your cravings and have a bite of their famous burgers and fries.

19. Drop by Santa Monica’s Farmers Markets

The farmer’s markets in Santa Monica are like a small festival in itself. Find street musicians busking as you visit stall after stall selling local goods. From fresh produce and seasonal food to souvenirs, the farmer’s market is your one-stop shopping destination. Market days in downtown Santa Monica are every Wednesday and Saturday. In addition, the Saturday market is also called the “Organic market” as it offers the largest percentage of organic growers in the city.

Art, History & Culture-Related Things to do in Southern California

Visitors at LACMA's iconic street lamp exhibition

Photo by Joe Byrnes on Unsplash

When in Southern California, don’t miss the chance to visit its museums and historical sites. Not only are they pretty to look at, but they let you in on SoCal’s colorful history. In addition, its festivals are also a way for visitors to immerse themselves in Southern California’s fun and laid-back culture.

20. Visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Also known as LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is one of the most famous museums in America. The museum opened in 1965 and is home to more than 150,000 artworks including Asian, American, Latin American, and modern art. Take a self-guided or live-guided tour of LACMA and explore its different exhibitions and installations. On your visit to LACMA, don’t forget to snap a photo with the “Urban Light”, a large-scale art installation that has become a staple photo op for all visitors of the museum.

21. See the Colorful Murals at Venice Beach

Venice Beach is a favorite destination for its Bohemian vibe, with its boardwalk lined with eclectic shops and lively street performers. In addition, the murals spread around the beach, aptly named the Venice Art Walls, give it a splash of color. Walk around the beach and spot these murals, street art, and modern graffiti scattered around the area. What’s even better is that guests can channel their inner artist and paint the walls as long as they secure a permit and bring their paint supplies.

22. Stroll Around Solvang

Get a taste of Europe in Solvang, a charming Danish-style city in Santa Ynez Valley surrounded by rustic windmills, half-timbered houses, and horse-drawn carriages. Fully immerse yourself in the fairytale setting and don their traditional costume before taking a walk around the village. You’ll feel as if you’re in a charming village in Denmark. When in Solvang, Danish cuisine is a must-try, from Danish pastries in authentic bakeries to Danish food in local pubs. Also, don’t forget to go for wine tasting in the many wineries as Santa Ynez Valley is a renowned wine-producing region.

23. Attend Different Events and Festivals

Participating in events and festivals is one of the best things to do in Southern California. This allows you to take part in their culture and celebrate with live music, dancing, and food. From music festivals, film festivals, and harvest festivals, there are numerous events you shouldn’t miss. Some of the popular festivals in SoCal include the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, Los Angeles Lantern Festival, and Oktoberfest. Before your SoCal visit, check your calendar and see if your trip coincides with one of the many festivals celebrated in the area.

24. Admire the Salvation Mountain

Set in the middle of a desert, Salvation Mountain is a masterpiece brought by a man’s love for God. California resident Leonard Knight spent almost 30 years creating this attraction, filled with colorful illustrations and murals painted with Bible verses and Christian sayings. Although visitors can explore Salvation Mountain on their own, joining a guided tour is better if you want to gain a deeper insight into Knight’s life and the story behind this fascinating man-made faux mountain.

25. Walk Around the Streets of Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego hails as the first European settlement in California and the oldest neighborhood in San Diego. The neighborhood preserves several historic buildings which can be found in the Old Town State Historical Park. Explore Old Town San Diego and get a glimpse of how life was like back then. Old Town San Diego is also famous for its restaurants, some of which offer authentic Mexican cuisine. The neighborhood also hosts several events every month, with the Cinco de Mayo festivities as the biggest event.

26. Explore the Getty Museum’s Collections

The Getty Museum features some of the world’s most impressive collections of European artworks. It has two locations: the Getty Center in LA, and the Getty Villa in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood. The Getty Center showcases European paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, and photographs. On the other hand, the Getty Villa, a gorgeous place reminiscent of the villas and gardens in Europe, has Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. Find works of art by van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, and other well-known European artists at its exhibitions and collections. Visit the museum and marvel at its wide array of European artworks.

Weird/Unique Things to do in Southern California

Banana-themed exhibits at the International Banana Museum

Photo by sporst on Flickr

Looking for weird stuff or cool places to visit for your bucket list? SoCal has it for you! From quirky museums to spooky places, these are some of the more unorthodox activities for your itinerary.

27. Explore Some of SoCal’s Haunted Places

Southern California isn’t only famous for its swoon-worthy sights—it also has some spine-chilling places and landmarks. If you’re up for some ghost-hunting or just a different way of spending time in SoCal, go on a tour of some of its haunted places. Visit the Whaley House Museum in Old Town San Diego, widely considered as one of the most haunted places in the country. At Long Beach, explore the RMS Queen Mary, a former ocean liner that has several alleged ghost sightings.

28. Go Bananas at the International Banana Museum

While most museums highlight a place’s history or a certain artist’s masterpieces, the International Banana Museum is centered on one thing: bananas. Find anything and everything related to this well-loved fruit at the one-room museum. From banana-shaped telephones, banana pillows, banana couch, and even a banana boogie board, the museum has it for you! This is one of the best things to do in Southern California if you want to visit a different kind of museum in the state.

29. Visit Hollywood Forever Cemetery

While a cemetery isn’t the first thing on every list of must-visit places in Southern California, Hollywood Forever Cemetery tells a different story. It is not only the burial ground of well-known celebrities like Judy Garland and Charlie Chaplin, it also hosts cultural events. Catch a film on one of its outdoor film screenings, attend story-telling events and podcast tapings, and join its Dia de Los Muertos festivities.

30. Find Giant Metal Sculptures at Galleta Meadows

Galleta Meadows is a privately-owned estate in Borrego Springs, San Diego. The highlights of the area are the unique (and sometimes unusual) giant metal sculptures scattered around the area. From elephants and dragons to a fighting scorpion and a bug, hundreds of these giant figures can be easily seen from the road or on a short hike. Visit the Galleta Meadows and pose for photos with these large sculptures.

Where to Stay in Southern California

Pool view at one of the hotels in Los Angeles in Southern California

Photo by Falkenpost on Pixabay

(Take note that prices per night depend on the season and are subject to change without prior notice.)

  • The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara (Price starts at 705 USD): The five-star luxury hotel boasts oceanfront views, outdoor rooms, and world-class facilities. All rooms and suites have a private patio with a view of the garden or the ocean. The hotel also has nearby hiking trails and has one of the largest spas on the west coast.

  • Disneyland Hotel (Price starts at 481 USD): Its location near Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park makes it a favorite among families. Its rooms combine classic Disney-themed furniture with modern touches and have suites designed according to a movie.
  • L’Auberge Del Mar (Price starts at 421 USD): A dog-friendly accommodation that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It offers spacious rooms with private balconies and fireplaces. In addition, the hotel also offers ADA-accessible rooms for guests with limited mobility. Tourist destinations like the San Diego Botanic Garden and Legoland California are only less than 30 minutes away from the hotel.
  • JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE (Price starts at 224 USD): Perfect for tourists looking for a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The hotel offers modern rooms with comfortable beds, panoramic views of the city, and wheelchair-friendly facilities. Don’t forget to use Marriott Bonvoy points to earn special deals and enjoy additional perks.

Tips in Visiting Southern California

Driving in Los Angeles

Photo by StockSnap on Pixabay

  • Make sure to get a US National Park Pass or National Parks Senior Pass if you plan on visiting different national parks. The pass also covers the entrance fee for more than 20,000 recreational areas.

  • Hotels in Malibu and Beverly Hills are generally expensive. If you plan on staying in the area, make sure to book months in advance, especially during the high travel season.
  • Get a rental car if you plan on visiting different cities. Unlike the East Coast where cities are relatively close together, cities in California are far apart. Taking public transportation may be a cheaper option, but moving between cities can take up most of the travel time.
  • Cycling may be one of the most adventurous things to do in Southern California, but cyclists need to be aware of current traffic conditions. The Pacific Coast Highway is a top spot for cycling, but it’s best to avoid the rush hour along Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
  • Renting a bike and exploring beach communities in Coronado Beach and Mission Beach is a great way of getting around San Diego. There are plenty of beach bike shops that have hourly bike rentals or find a bike-sharing station.
  • Most museums in Southern California have free admission days and hours. Make sure to check online or inquire through your hotel concierge before reserving a ticket or visiting the museum.

Enjoy Different Things to Do in Southern California

From gorgeous coastal views, lively streets, thrilling amusement parks, and rich museums, Southern California is one of America’s gems. The warm weather is very inviting and pleasant and there are plenty of opportunities for activities and sightseeing. Whether you want to ride the waves in Malibu, walk along the streets of Hollywood, or discover cool art at LACMA, you’ll never run out of things to do in Southern California.

 

So put your sunglasses on, fly to Southern California, and write your kind of adventure!