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20 Fun Things to Do in Southern California

Taking a trip to Southern California? If you’ve never been, you might be surprised to find that it offers a lot more than beautiful beaches and beautiful people. While you’ll find plenty of that, you’ll find a lot of other fun things to see and do while you’re in this diverse southern region of the Golden State.

Gaze at Stars at Griffith Park and Observatory Griffith Park and Observatory
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Gaze at Stars at Griffith Park and Observatory

What Is It? One of the largest urban parks in the entire U.S., Griffith Park is a great place to spend time in, offering something for just about everyone. 

Why Do It? Take a hike and you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the Hollywood sign and the surrounding hills, and afterward, head to the observatory which stands on a hilltop overlooking the city. The top attraction in Los Angeles offers the chance to take in views of the starry skies through telescopes free of charge. 

Good to Know: The park is also home to a Greek theater, an equestrian center and the Los Angeles Zoo.

Sample Wines in Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country  Ynez Valley Wine Country
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Sample Wines in Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country

What Is It? Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country, located about 120 miles north of Los Angeles, is an ideal destination for wine enthusiasts in the southern region of the state.

Why Do It? It’s home an incredibly diverse array of wines, made from grapes grown near the Pacific in Lompoc up to the inlands of Happy Canyon. Head to Los Olivos and enjoy samples at more than a dozen wine-tasting rooms as well as browsing multiple boutiques and art galleries.

Good to Know: If you’re a fan of the movie “Sideways,” stop in at Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant – you’ll recognize it from the dinner scene in which Miles (Paul Giamatti), exclaims, “I am not drinking any f*****g Merlot!”

Ride the Pacific Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica Pier
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Ride the Pacific Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier

What Is It? The Santa Monica Pier has been a staple in the Los Angeles area for over a century. 

Why Do It? This iconic landmark is not only home to a variety of shops, restaurants and an arcade, but it hosts the Pacific Park amusement park, including a 1922 carousel that was featured in 1973’s classic, “The Sting.” But the highlight is the Pacific Wheel, the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel. It’s especially stunning at night, all lit up with over 174,000 lights, but during the day you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the coastline from more than 130 feet above the pier. 

Good to Know: If you want to spend more time in Santa Monica, from here you can walk to picturesque beaches nearby, taking advantage of the almost-always sunny weather.

Get a Glimpse of Hollywood Life Hollywood
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Get a Glimpse of Hollywood Life

What Is It? Just about everyone who visits Southern California wants to see what Hollywood is like. 

Why Do It? This Los Angeles suburb that’s long been associated with the film and television industry is home to iconic landmarks like the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (also known as the TCL Chinese Theatre), a working theater with the footprints and handprints of movie stars offering the chance to put your own hands into those of the famous. 

Good to Know: It’s also a popular spot for big movie premieres, and during major screenings, the public can stand outside along the red carpet and watch the stars arrive. Many will stop and say a few words with people before going in to watch the film.

Cruise Sunset Strip  Sunset Strip
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Cruise Sunset Strip

What Is It? Located in the heart of West Hollywood, this 1.7-mile stretch of boulevard between North Crescent Heights Boulevard and Doheny Drive, bordered on the west by Beverly Hills and on the east by Hollywood, is a world-famous cultural landmark that’s a must to experience while you’re in the area. 

Why Do It? You’ve seen it in movies like “Almost Famous” and “Sunset Boulevard,” but there’s nothing like seeing it in person. 

Good to Know: Cruise down Sunset Strip to get an idea of what it’s all about – during the day you can enjoy browsing the high-end shops and al fresco dining, and after dark, pop into legendary venues like the Whisky a Go-Go, Roxy Theatre, and the Viper Room. You never know who you’ll see along the way!

Shop The Grove  The Grove, Southern California
Credit: The Grove, Southern California by daryl_mitchell via Flickr

Shop The Grove

What Is It? While those upscale shops in West Hollywood are far too pricey for the average wallet, The Grove is a great place to actually spend some money – and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a celebrity doing some shopping too.

Why Do It? This open-air mall features a variety of popular stores, including Nordstrom, Apple, and J.Crew, but one of the main reasons to visit is The Original Farmers Market, which opened up back in 1934, sitting adjacent to The Grove. 

Good to Know: It’s a great place for lunch, offering everything from fresh produce to international culinary delights. Don’t forget your camera, because if you head to the top of the parking structure, you’ll get one of the best views of the city around.

Be a Kid Again at Disneyland Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif.
Credit: Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif. by bigstock.com

Be a Kid Again at Disneyland

What Is It? Located in Anaheim, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles, the world-famous Disneyland Resort is home to the Disneyland theme park, Disney California Adventure Park and Downtown Disney, an outdoor entertainment complex with restaurants, shops and hotels. 

Why Do It? While it is expensive, it’s usually more than worth it, and an absolute must to experience if you’ve never been. You’ll find something for everyone from tiny tots to the big kid-at-heart – combined there are more than 90 attractions, including the Haunted Mansion, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Tours, Radiator Springs Racers and the heart-pounding Incredicoaster. 

Good to Know: And that’s not all – there are spectacular parades, fireworks, live shows and even concerts, not to mention the opportunity to meet iconic characters like Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and the Little Mermaid.

People Watch at Venice Beach Venice Beach
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People Watch at Venice Beach

What Is It? This world-famous beach is not only a place to see and be seen, it’s a mecca for the eccentric, which means it’s one of the best destinations for experiencing Southern California beach life, and the best people-watching has to offer. 

Why Do It? The wide stretch of golden sand is backed by a walkway that’s always loaded with cyclists, skaters, walkers and joggers, and on its west side there are all sorts of performers, from jugglers and mimes to musicians, break dancers and glass walkers, along with hundreds of street vendors. 

Good to Know: Don’t miss getting a glimpse of all of the muscle builders pumping iron under the blazing rays of the sun at the area known as Muscle Beach, and of course, dipping your toes in the glistening waters of the Pacific.

Tour a Movie Studio Paramount
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Tour a Movie Studio

What Is It? As the entertainment capital of the world, this is also your chance to tour a major movie studio from Paramount on Melrose, where stars like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made their legendary “Road” pictures to the MGM backlot, now Sony Pictures, in Culver City – the place where “Gone with the Wind,” “Ben Hur” and “The Wizard of Oz” were shot. 

Why Do It? The Sony tour is a two-hour walking tour that offers what many feel is the most authentic “behind-the-scenes” look, as it’s one of the busiest studios in Hollywood. 

Good to Know: The Paramount tour is rather bare-bones – it’s arguably better just to take a drive up Melrose to Bronson Avenue and snap a picture of the famous gate.

Check Out the Goods at Rose Bowl Flea Market  Rose Bowl Flea Market
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Check Out the Goods at Rose Bowl Flea Market

What Is It? If you’re here on the second Sunday of any given month, be sure to put the Rose Bowl Stadium on your itinerary. 

Why Do It? This is when the stadium hosts one of the best known, and biggest, flea markets anywhere in the world. Located on the east side of Los Angeles in Pasadena, it’s the perfect place to find a souvenir that you’ll appreciate much longer than any t-shirt, without having to spend a ton of cash. 

Good to Know: Search for treasures, including an extensive selection of antiques, arts and crafts, collectibles, furniture and more among the more than 2,500 vendors – you might even see a celebrity or two at the same time, as even the rich and famous know this is the place to go for more unique finds.

Drive Up the Coast to Malibu  Malibu
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Drive Up the Coast to Malibu

What Is It? This famous beach town is well-known as the setting for a host of movies, television shows, and music videos, including “Bay Watch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Two and a Half Men”, and countless others. 

Why Do It? Just above the beaches, you’ll see a number of magnificent homes, many of which are owned by Hollywood celebrities. Malibu Lagoon State Beach, also known as Surfrider Beach, is a great spot for swimming in the summer. 

Good to Know: If you want to experience something really unique, you can do that too with Malibu Wine Safari. It sounds a bit crazy, but you can sip wine while getting shuttled around to see all types of animals from zebras, alpacas and giraffes to water buffalo and bison.

Enjoy Burgers at the Original In-N-Out  In-N-Out
Credit: In-N-Out by In-N-Out Burger

Enjoy Burgers at the Original In-N-Out

What Is It? The very first In-N-Out is located in Baldwin Park, about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Why Do It? It’s credited with being the first-ever drive-through restaurant, and of course, it’s famous for serving up something the best burgers in the country. The couple who founded it in 1948, Harry and Esther Snyder, couldn’t afford the real estate necessary to have a parking lot for the carhops, which were a standard feature at the time, so instead, they went with a speaker-equipped drive-thru. 

Good to Know: It’s not only a great spot for a break and a burger, but as Californians are so passionate about their In-N-Out Burger’s, it makes for a perfect selfie as a representation of your time here. Plus, unlike most fast food conglomerates, this one only uses fresh ingredients that are no further than 500 miles away from the restaurant – and, you’ll be able to tell from the first bite.

Snorkel the Waters Off Catalina Island Catalina Island, California
Credit: Catalina Island, California by Bigstock.com

Snorkel the Waters Off Catalina Island

What Is It? Catalina Island, just an hour-long ferry ride from the coast of Southern California, is a beautiful island retreat, with its surrounding waters offering some of the best snorkeling in the continental U.S. 

Why Do It? The waters are clean and clear, and home to an abundance of marine life and giant kelp forests. Lover’s Cove has one of the heaviest concentrations of fish found anywhere off the West Coast, and it’s been ranked one of the top places for snorkeling on the entire planet. Whether you’re on land, or on the water, dolphins and sea lions are commonly spotted too. 

Good to Know: Other activities here include sailing, kayaking, golfing, biking and hiking. You can also take a tour of the iconic Catalina Casino, an Art Deco masterpiece comprised of a theater and ballroom. Fun fact, Casino means “gathering place” in Italian. You won’t find any slot machines here!

See Wildflowers at Death Valley National Park Death Valley National Park
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See Wildflowers at Death Valley National Park

What Is It? You might be surprised to discover that Death Valley National Park is filled with life, at least during certain times of the year. 

Why Do It? While it’s rather ominous in the summer, springtime brings a spectacular display of brilliant wildflowers. During a good year, which means perfect conditions, the desert will be filled with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. 

Good to Know: If you arrive during an “off” year, or during another season, you might want to check out the phenomenon known as the “sailing stones.” These stones that weigh around 700 pounds mysteriously move across the sandy surface of the playa on their own – sometimes at a distance of more than 650 feet.

Climb Rocks at Joshua Tree National Park Joshua Tree National Park, California
Credit: Joshua Tree National Park, California by bigstock.com

Climb Rocks at Joshua Tree National Park

What Is It? Just a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, step into Joshua Tree National Park and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped onto another planet. 

Why Do It? Filled with bizarrely-shaped plants indigenous to the region, like the Joshua tree, as well as ginormous boulders that rise hundreds of feet into the sky, the landscape has the appearance of a scene from a sci-fi movie. It’s a popular destination for photographers, hikers, nature lovers and rock climbers, who come from all corners of the world to climb the soaring, unique rock formations, with over 4,500 established rock climbing routes. 

Good to Know: After dark, it becomes a stargazer’s paradise, with the brilliantly dark night skies a perfect backdrop. There are a number of natural springs, man-made reservoirs and multiple overnight camping areas. If you aren’t into camping, you’ll find a number of accommodation options and a few fantastic eateries in the village of Joshua Tree, an artists’ enclave home to an eclectic mix of artists, hipsters and retirees.

Explore a Ghost Town ghost town
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Explore a Ghost Town

What Is It? There are several ghost towns scattered throughout the region, but if you want to experience the most colorful natural surroundings of any of them head to Calico, a former silver mining town in San Bernardino County. 

Why Do It? It peaked in the 1880s but started declining soon after, with the price of silver dropping the following decade. By 1907, it was virtually dead. Restoration began in the 1950s, and today it’s a county regional park known as Calico Ghost Town. About a third of its original buildings still stand, along with a few chintzy additions, like a gold-panning attraction and “mystery shack.” 

Good to Know: It’s well worth a visit just to explore some of the structures that date back to its operational years like the town office, Lil’s Saloon, Joe’s Saloon, a general store and the former home of Lucy Lane, now the main museum, but originally the town’s post office and courthouse.

Get Active at Big Bear Lake Big Bear Lake
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Get Active at Big Bear Lake

What Is It? Southern California is not without its share of mountain towns either. 

Why Do It? Located approximately 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear Lake serves as a year-round destination. In the summer, it’s the quintessential lake destination, with the chance to participate in all of the usual water sports like fishing, kayaking, boating, jet-skiing and canoeing as well as activities on land like horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking. 

Good to Know: There is even an alpine water slide, zip-line rides, parasailing, 4X4 tours and more. No matter what your taste or budget, you’re sure to find the perfect place to rest at the end of a long day, whether it’s camping underneath the towering pines and starry skies, staying in a charming bed and breakfast or a lavish vacation rental.

Check Out Ruins at Salton Sea Bombay Beach, California
Credit: Bombay Beach, California by © Jon Bilous | Dreamstime.com

Check Out Ruins at Salton Sea

What Is It? Bombay Beach, set on the shores of the Salton Sea, is a virtual ghost town. 

Why Do It? In the 1940s and ‘50s, it was a popular playground for vacationers and was headed to becoming California’s version of the French Riviera. But because of a series of floods and the increasing salinity in the Salton Sea, there were major fish and bird die-offs, resulting in the area becoming abandoned. While Bombay Beach is still home to a few residents, just about everything sits in ruin. 

Good to Know: While the beach looks like sand, it’s actually the pulverized bones of millions of fish. It does make a very interesting and productive stop for urban grunge photographers, as well as for those that are fascinated with off-the-beaten-path locales.

Ride the Tram Up Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs Palm Springs
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Ride the Tram Up Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs

What Is It? The desert resort town of Palm Springs is located 110 miles east of Los Angeles and offers roughly 350 days of sunshine a year. 

Why Do It? It’s renowned as a golfer’s dream, with a wealth of outstanding golf courses, and is also home to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, a 1,200-acre wildlife and botanical park, as well as the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway that takes visitors to the 8,515-foot summit of Mount San Jacinto. 

Good to Know: At the top, you’ll find the Peaks restaurant which offers panoramic views along with dishes like seafood and pasta. You’ll also have access to the 54 miles of hiking trails at Mount San Jacinto Park.

San Diego San Diego from Coronado
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San Diego

What Is It? San Diego, one of California’s most popular vacation destinations, not only offers a year-round mild climate and miles and miles of gorgeous stretches of sand to take advantage of the abundance of sunshine, but there is so much to do, you could spend weeks here and not see and do it all. 

Why Do It? For the best of the best, be sure to visit Coronado Beach, frequently ranked the finest in the entire country, with its powdery, soft sands that glisten in the sun due to its high mineral content. 

Good to Know: In addition to the beach, Balboa Park is home to the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo, a beautiful rose garden and a number of museums.

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