Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
From San Diego’s beautiful beaches to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and the Joshua tree-filled desert, Southern California is home to a diverse array of spectacular places to visit, including these.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
Look out for our newsletters in your inbox soon.
To visitors who live outside the state, Southern California’s famous beach town is well-known as a setting for numerous TV shows and films like “Two and a Half Men,” “Baywatch,” “Gidget,” as well as countless surfing spots. It’s a place to enjoy the great outdoors, with outstanding waves, gorgeous stretches of sand and even miles of hiking trails. More than a few celebrities live here, just gaze up at the hills above the shoreline and you’ll see lots of extravagant homes, including some of theirs. The Malibu Country Mart is an outdoor mall that’s fun to visit and possibly catch a glimpse of one of the stars. By renting a kayak at Malibu Surf Shack, you can take in the view from the water while watching for dolphins.
Further south down the coast from Malibu is the Santa Monica Pier. This 100-year-old landmark hosts restaurants, shops, an arcade, aquarium and amusement park. Taking a ride on the iconic solar-powered Ferris wheel, the Pacific Wheel offers a panoramic view of the coastline from more than 130 feet above the pier. After dark, when it’s lit up with over 160,000 lights, it’s truly a sight to see. If you like to shop, the Third Street Promenade is considered one of the premier shopping destinations in the region, and also offers the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous.
If this is your first visit to Southern California, exploring Hollywood is a must. This L.A. suburb has long been associated with the film and television industry and hosts iconic landmarks like Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a working theater with the footprints and handprints of movie stars located near the entrance. You can put your own hands into those of the famous, or even stand outside the red carpet during a major screening of a movie premiere and watch the stars arrive. Of course, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Sunset Strip are must-experiences as well. Cruising down Sunset Strip, you can pop into the high-end shops or enjoy some al fresco dining during the day, and after dark check out who’s on tap at legendary venues like the Roxy Theatre, the House of Blues, Whisky a Go Go and the Viper Room.
Death Valley is an alluring destination throughout the year, while springtime is special because it puts on a stunning display of brilliant wildflowers. During a very good year with idyllic conditions, the desert fills with a sea of gold, purple, white or pink flowers. If you only have time to do one thing here, take the scenic 18-mile drive south from Furnace Creek to Badwater. Along the way, you’ll see amazing salt formations and lots of jaw-dropping views. Artist’s Drive leads to the colorful rock formation called Artist’s Palette, a landscape naturally painted with pastel hues. Check out the phenomenon known as the “sailing stones,” and you can try to solve the mystery as to why these 700-pound stones move across the sandy surface of the playa on their own, sometimes moving as far as 650 feet or more.
Millions head to Anaheim from across the globe every year to visit Disneyland, the world-famous amusement park where Walt Disney movies and characters come to life. The Happiest Place on Earth is a great place to take the kids, or just enjoy letting out your inner kid-at-heart. Disneyland Resort is divided into two separate theme parks with three hotels, a shopping and entertainment district. Both offer an array of rides, shows and a variety of other attractions to suit all ages. Little ones often enjoy meeting their favorite characters in person too – watch for them walking around the park, in Mickey’s Toontown and in Fantasyland, where popular heroines like Ariel and Cinderella hang out.
Step into Joshua Tree National Park and you might just think you’ve left Southern California, and even the planet, altogether. Filled with bizarrely-shaped plants indigenous to the region, like its namesake 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 flick. The park is a photographer’s, hiker’s, and a climber’s dream. The village of Joshua Tree offers its own unique charms as an artists’ enclave, home to an eclectic mix of nature lovers, artists and hipsters in addition to a number of highly rated eateries.
This desert resort town is famous for its 350 days or so of sunshine each year, as well as its wealth of outstanding golf courses. There are lots of luxury resorts and hotels with beautiful pools perfect for lounging around and soaking up some rays, though there are lots of activity options as well. Check out the Living Desert, a 1,200-acre wildlife and botanical park, or take the aerial tramway which whisks visitors up to the 8,515-foot summit of Mount San Jacinto. At the top, you’ll have access to over 50 miles of hiking trails, as well as the chance to dine at the Peaks Restaurant while taking in awe-inspiring, panoramic views.
This small town in Ventura County is often referred to as a mecca for artists and thinkers. Nestled between romantic Santa Barbara and glitzy L.A., it’s often overlooked for its more famous neighbors, but its scenic hills, ranches and groves are so pretty that it once stood in for the iconic Tibetan utopia of Shangri-La in the 1937 film, “Lost Horizon.” The town enjoys an idyllic Mediterranean climate and has a rich culture of music, art, wellness, organic culture and spirituality. Many come here to witness the “Pink Moment,” the moment when the sun sinks below the horizon and paints the sky a spectacular pink/purple color.
Catalina Island can be reached via a short ferry ride from the Southern California Coast. Its largest city, Avalon, is home to just 4,000, but it offers a wealth of activities, from hiking, golfing, biking and gambling at the famous Catalina Casino to diving, snorkeling, fishing and sailing in the magnificent clear blue waters. Whether you’re on land or out in the Pacific, you’re likely to spot sea lions and dolphins too. As the weather here is mild year-round, the city’s quaint streets and waterside amenities can be enjoyed in every season.
Big Bear Lake offers the quintessential lake vacation in Southern California. In addition to vivid blue waters and surrounding green pines, visitors can take part in practically an endless array of activities. Along with the usual water sports like boating, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and jet-skiing, mountain biking is available at Snow Summit, as well as zip-line rides, horseback riding, hiking, an alpine water slide, scenic helicopter tours, off-roading, parasailing and more. If you just want to relax, enjoy the fresh mountain air and scenic wonders while sipping a cold brew or some fine wine, there are plenty of options for that too.
This artists’ colony is home to countless art galleries and an art museum as well as hosting lots of art festivals throughout the year, including the weird Pageant of the Masters, where costume-wearing volunteers strike poses to mimic old master paintings and summer-long Festival of Arts. Often ranked as the region’s prettiest beach town, this is a place where surfers and sun worshippers share picturesque coves and postcard-perfect stretches of sands, while shoppers hit the boutiques and galleries. In addition to surfing and swimming, Main Beach, located at Pacific Coast and Broadway, offers tide pools for exploring at its north end.
With its miles and miles of magnificent stretches of sand, year-round mild climate and loads of attractions, San Diego is one of the state’s top vacation destinations. While it may be hard to decide what to see and do among it all, if the beach is what you’re after, head to Coronado Beach, which is often voted the finest in the entire country. Its powdery soft sands glisten due to the mineral content, while brilliant azure waters beckon swimmers in. When you’re ready for a break from the beach, Balboa Park is home to the renowned San Diego Zoo, museums and a gorgeous rose garden.