Year-round sunny weather, gorgeous beaches and an abundance of family-friendly attractions make Southern California one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. Encompassing the southern third of the Golden State, SoCal stretches west from the inland deserts and mountains to the temperate shores of the Pacific Ocean. Many of region’s cities and communities have enough sights and activities to serve as a travel destination in their own right, but it would be shame to visit the Southland without hitting the highlights.
Thanks to an extensive freeway system, getting around is relatively easy, despite the occasional traffic jam. It’s possible to spend the morning surfing the waves and the afternoon skiing or hiking in the mountains. From its beautiful beaches and national parks to its world-class cultural attractions and amusement parks, here are some of the best places to visit in Southern California.
The eight islands that lie off the coast of Southern California offer visitors a wealth of island adventures. Five of the islands are uninhabited, preserved for the public to enjoy as part of the Channel Islands National Park. Half-day and full-day excursions to Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara are available through several park-appointed boat concessionaires. Visitors can camp overnight on the island of their choice as well. The sea caves and kelp forests around the island offer great opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving. Boating excursions that combine whale watching with non-landing tours around the islands are a popular option.
Best known as the setting for the television show “Baywatch,” Santa Monica offers everything travelers want from a Southern California beach town, including great surfing and swimming, wide stretches of sand and plenty of sunshine. Developed as a seaside resort in the early 1900s, the city has grown into an upscale community filled with designer shops, tasty restaurants and unique art galleries. The old-fashioned amusement park at the Santa Monica Pier is home to the city’s most recognizable landmark, a solar-powered Ferris Wheel illuminated with LED lights. Visitors can rub elbows with the rich and famous at the Third Street Promenade, one of the region’s premier shopping destinations.
See Also: Where to Stay in Santa Monica
Located in the Southern California desert area 140 miles (225 km) east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for hikers, rock climbers, photography buffs and nature lovers. Named after the treelike genus of yucca that grows in the park’s northwestern section, Joshua Tree is an expansive park that includes multiple overnight camping areas, natural springs, man-made reservoirs and more than 4,500 established rock climbing routes. Places of interest include an old cattle rustler’s hideout, Native American rock art and Keys View, a sky-high natural overlook that offers views of the landlocked Salton Sea.
Situated 120 miles (190 km) east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a popular vacation destination since the 1920s when movie stars used the desert city as their winter playground. With its mid-century architecture, the city’s Movie Colony District illustrates the lifestyle Hollywood’s elite enjoyed. More than a dozen beautifully maintained golf courses lie within the bounds of the 100-square-mile city, which makes Palm Springs a golfer’s dream, but the region’s natural attractions are worth exploring too. A ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the 8,516-foot (2,596 meter) summit of Chino Canyon gives visitors a birds-eye view of the desert landscapes.
Home to one of the oldest still-operating film studios, Universal Studios Hollywood is a sprawling complex in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles best known for its family-friendly theme park. Many of the park’s rides and attractions are centered on blockbuster movies, offering an immersive experience for fans of films ranging from “King Kong” to “Waterworld.” Behind-the-scenes studio tours are available as well. The complex also includes Universal CityWalk, an outdoor shopping center where visitors can catch live performances, see a movie or watch celebrities.
Santa Barbara is a coastal city less than 100 miles (160 km) from Los Angeles but differs vastly in pace from its huge neighbor to the south. Sometimes referred to as “Riviera of the West,” Santa Barbara is well known for its beautiful beaches, mild temperatures and for the California Mission-style architecture that is very common in this city. A long-standing local ordinance ensures that all commercial construction follows the Mission theme, which results in a plethora of red-tiled roofs and adobe supermarkets. Santa Barbara’s most popular attractions are its Stearns Wharf and the Mission Santa Barbara, a Spanish outpost founded by the Franciscan order in 1786.