Sunny skies, laidback vibes, and pretty coastlines—these descriptions only capture a bit of Southern California’s charm. While most of the world may visit this half of California solely for Los Angeles, SoCal is home to plenty of natural and manmade spots worth visiting.

From day trips to weekend getaways, check out the best things to do in Southern California, organized by region:

Santa Barbara

The Best Things to do in Southern California
A view of the mountains and beach from Stearn’s Wharf

Santa Barbara is typically considered the northernmost part of Southern California. And although the city doesn’t carry the same reputation as L.A., it has its own special charm. In fact, people call Santa Barbara “The American Riviera” because of its gorgeous Mediterranean architecture, climate, and coastal lifestyle.

  • State Street: This main road runs through downtown Santa Barbara to the beach and is a must for anyone exploring the area. Check out the Spanish-style architecture of buildings like the Santa Barbara Courthouse, or climb to the top of the courthouse’s clock tower for a panoramic view of the city. While you stroll down to the ocean, take advantage of the shops, bars, and restaurants along the way. One such stop is McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, which has two locations on State Street.
  • Funk Zone: The Funk Zone used to be an industrial district of old warehouses. Now, the place is a sanctuary for art galleries, eateries, wine tasting venues, and other creative businesses. Some of the most notable spots are Cajé on Haley Street, Pearl Social, and Helena Avenue Bakery . You can find a map and guide of the neighborhood here.
  • Beaches: Santa Barbara arguably has the best stretch of coastline in Southern California. It’s sparkling clean, never too crowded, and has plenty of parking at the downtown beaches. Leadbetter, Butterfly, Arroyo Burro, Summerland, and Refugio State Beaches, are few of the places to sunbathe here.
  • Channel Islands National Park: While there are technically eight Channel Islands off SoCal’s coastline, five of them are off the coast of Santa Barbara; these five—San Nicholas, San Miguel, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa—make up Channel Islands National Park. Here, you can kayak to the sea caves of Santa Cruz or dive among the kelp forest of Anacapa. Explore the wildlife (including wildflowers!) of the islands during a day trip or an overnight camping trip.
  • Santa Ynez Mountains: For every great activity at the beach, Santa Barbara offers an equally amazing hike up in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Some of the area’s most popular hikes include Seven Falls and Inspiration Point, though there are others in nearby Montecito. For a sunset to remember, drive up to popular mountaintop viewpoints like Knapp’s Castle and Lizard’s Mouth.

Los Angeles

The Best Things to do in Southern California
A colorful sunset over the Hollywood sign

Los Angeles—the name alone brings old Hollywood glamour, Rodeo Drive, and the promise of cinematic fame. But there’s more to L.A. than its star-studded streets!

  • Santa Monica Pier: The Santa Monica Pier is one of Southern California’s most iconic landmarks. Overlooking Santa Monica State Beach, the pier has been a SoCal must-see for more than a century.
  • Hollywood sign: High up in the Santa Monica Mountains, this American cultural icon is synonymous with L.A. You can reach this sign by hiking the Mt. Hollywod trail, the Brush Canyon Trail, or the Cahuenga Peak Trail. But no matter which route you choose, you’ll be rewarded with the views of greater Los Angeles. Try to hike on a clear day—you might even be able to see all the way to the ocean!
  • Museums: L.A.’s world-renowned museums are a testament to its fantastic art scene. The most notable of the museums is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (also known as LACMA), the largest art museum in the western U.S. You may recognize some of the LACMA’s works on Instagram, where its installation of antique street lamps has become a popular photo-op! Another museum is the free J. Paul Getty Museum. Be sure to peruse both the Getty Center, where the modern collections are displayed, and the Getty Villa over in Malibu. Other great museums in the city include The Broad and the Hollywood Museum.
  • Malibu: The celebrated beach town of Malibu is home to countless celebrities, and for good reason. More than 20 miles of beautiful coastline create a haven for both surfers and sunbathers, while amazing restaurants like Malibu Farms on the pier make for a great food scene. The adjacent mountains are home to scenic hiking trails, and nearby vineyards offer world-renowned wine tasting. Whales can be spotted seasonally at Point Dume (which is also a spot for viewing spring wildflowers and the occasional superbloom). Some must-sees here are Surfrider Beach, Zuma Beach, and the Pepperdine Library’s Surf Museum.
  • Griffith Observatory: In L.A.’s Griffith Park, the Griffith Observatory sits on on the south-facing side of Mt. Hollywood, overlooking all of Los Angeles (including the Hollywood sign off to the west). The observatory is a unique location to enjoy sunset and the panoramic views that come as the city lights up. Quite simply, this is quintessential L.A.
  • Live Music: L.A. is perhaps the greatest place in the world for music. If there’s an artist you want to see, they’ll probably stop in L.A. at some point. Catch a concert at L.A.’s different venues (like the Hollywood Bowl or The Greek Theatre) scattered throughout the city.

Big Bear

The Best Things to do in Southern California
Fresh snowfall in Big Bear

The mountain resort town of Big Bear has its similarities to Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Located in the San Bernardino Mountains, this area is great any time of year.

  • Ski and snowboard: Heading up to Big Bear is an ideal excursion when hitting the beach gets out of season. In the winter, take advantage of Big Bear’s Snow Summit and Bear Mountain.With a shuttle running between the two, it’s easy to spend time hitting the slopes at both!
  • Sledding: Have some old fashioned winter fun and try sledding in Big Bear! This is an affordable way to spend a winter day only requires a cheap plastic sled and a snowy hillside. Sledding not only perfectly supplements a day of skiing, but it also serves as an alternative for people who aren’t sure if “hitting the slopes” is for them.
  • Big Bear Lake: When the snow melts and temperatures rise, take advantage of Big Bear Lake. The seven-mile-long lake has more than enough space for swimming, fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and even parasailing!
  • Camping: Make a trip of your visit to Big Bear and camp alongside the lake in the warmer months. Campers will find a variety of options here, with choices such as tent camping, RV camping, and free forest camping deep in the San Bernardino National Forest.
  • Hiking: There are plenty of great hiking trails in Big Bear, too. Visitors can choose from easy trails like the Woodland Trail or moderate hikes like the Castle Rock Trail. Meanwhile, the Cougar Crest trail is notable for its difficulty. Trails range from less than a mile to 15 miles, but plan ahead—some trails require certain passes.

Orange County

The Best Things to do in Southern California
There’s nowhere quite like the Golden Coast!

Perfect for kicking back and soaking up the sun, Orange County is the picturesque region of Southern California directly south of L.A. County. With more than 40 miles of beaches, the “O.C.” epitomizes the Golden Coast’s surf, sand, and sun.

  • Catalina Island: A two-hour boat ride from Long Beach, Catalina Island is a 22 mile-long getaway that packs a punch. On the south end of the island, Avalon is a popular destination for tourists thanks to its wide variety of attractions. On the other side, the northern Two Harbors is more rustic and small-scale. Regardless of where you end up, take advantage of coastline activities like diving and snorkeling among world-class kelp forests. Other adventures here include zip lining and a treetop adventure course.
  • Laguna Beach: Laguna’s 20,000 acres of protected wilderness make the whole region a nature lover’s dream. This former “artist colony” is now a marine-protected area, making its seven miles of shoreline and more than 30 coves. Take a stroll through downtown and picnic at Heisler Park for a beautiful coastal view.
  • Newport Beach: With the largest recreational harbor on the West Coast, Newport is great for strolling down the Newport Pier, exploring the Back Bay Loop Trail, or shopping until your heart is content at Fashion Island. Visitors can also check out the skilled surfers at The Wedge or spend the afternoon on a Duffy boat. For an unforgettable Orange County experience, take a sunset helicopter tour like I did!
  • Huntington Beach: Nicknamed, “surf city,” Huntington Beach has been the home of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing since 1959. But to truly experience one of the best surf spots in California, rent a board and try it out for yourself! Other fun things to do here include grabbing a bite at Ruby’s diner, hanging out on the beach, or window shopping at the nearby South Coast Plaza.
  • Disneyland in Anaheim: Having grown up close to Disneyland, I’ve easily been over 100 times and clearly, I’m a fan. While you’re there, grab one of the famously delicious churros and stroll down charming Main Street, or check out the revamped Star Wars-themed region of the park! The nearby Disney California Adventure Park is also full of attractions like my personal favorite, the 3D “Soarin’ Over the World” and the Incredicoaster.

San Diego

The Best Things to do in Southern California
San Diego mixes history with beauty and charm.

The skyscrapers and sand of San Diego perfectly illustrate the way the city integrates SoCal’s beach vibes. The area not only offers that quintessential Southern California beach feeling but is home to countless unique neighborhoods throughout the city too!

  • Balboa Park: Explore the lush grounds and museums of Balboa Park, where the world-famous San Diego Zoo is located. The park is home to more than 16 museums of all different disciplines. In all, Balboa covers 1,200 acres!
  • Mission Beach: In the oceanfront Mission Beach, you can find the Mission Beach Boardwalk. Skate along the paved waterfront pathway, enjoy any of the eateries throughout the neighborhood or ride the (recently restored) 1925 Giant Dipper Roller Coaster.
  • La Jolla: Nicknamed, “The Jewel of America’s Finest City,” La Jolla sits on a seven-mile stretch of coastline. Enjoy the quaint charm of its boutiques, art galleries, and museums of downtown La Jolla (also known as “The Village”) or take advantage of the pristine beaches. Be sure to head to La Jolla Cove for a picnic and a picturesque afternoon at the beach.
  • Gaslamp Quarter: The Gaslamp Quarter is a 16.5-block area at the historic heart of downtown. Fittingly, trolleys run back and forth to Gaslamp. The neighborhood’s huge variety of dining and nightlife has earned it the title of San Diego’s “urban playground.” From steakhouses to rooftop bars, every cuisine and social scene imaginable can be found in the Gaslamp Quarter.
  • Little Italy: This Little Italy neighborhood measures 48 square blocks, making it the biggest in the country. Here, take advantage of the Little Italy Mercato, which is the largest farmer’s market in San Diego. Eat at one of the countless outdoor patio cafés while you’re here, or spend an afternoon in Amici Park.
  • Coronado Island: Just across the mainland, Coronado Island boasts five unique island regions: Bayside & Ferry Landing, Historic Downtown, the beaches, Glorietta Bay, and Silver Strand & the Cays. Some of the most notable activities include window shopping on Orange Avenue in Historic Downtown and taking in the views of downtown from Bayview Park.

Deserts

death valley
A stunning sunrise over Death Valley

Southern California is home to some of the most incredible deserts in the world. With badlands, sand dunes, springtime wildflowers and superblooms to explore, these California deserts are worth a (non-summertime) trip.

  • Death Valley: Aptly named, Death Valley is the hottest place on earth (it would be wise to visit in the winter.) After watching the badlands change color at sunset at Zabriskie Point, check out the pink and green layered rock at Artist’s Palette, or go dune climbing at the Mesquite Dunes. Once the sun goes down, go stargazing at the Badwater Basin salt flats, which is the lowest point in North America. For an amazing viewpoint over all of Death Valley, head to Dante’s View.
  • Mojave: The Mojave National Preserve and Monument is the third-largest national park in the United States, with more than 1.6 million acres of protected land. One of Mojave’s most famous attractions is its lava tubes, which create amazing photography opportunities when light beams shine through them at certain times of the day. Another great thing to do here is hike up to the rim of Amboy Crater for panoramic views of the whole desert. Travelers can also check out the Kelso Dunes, which are most stunning at sunrise and sunset.
  • Joshua Tree: Joshua Tree National Park is home to the legendary Joshua tree, which is, unfortunately, dying out. Thanks to preservation efforts of the park, there are still plenty left to see in this protected habitat. A visit to Joshua Tree is the perfect way to spend a day or a weekend thanks to its desert topography. Here you can also do some stargazing and experience the Cholla Cactus Garden.
  • Anza-Borrego: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park covers more than 600,000 acres of Colorado Desert terrain, wind caves, and rock formations. The park is a great home base to enjoy stargazing and its springtime wildflowers. At Anza-Borrego’s Font’s Point, you’ll witness one of the best sunrises in California. Here, the view goes all the way to the Salton Sea, as the sun rises over the badlands.
  • Alabama Hills: Alabama Hills‘ claims to fame is its history as an old Western filming spot. But there’s more to the Alabama Hills than the cowboy stereotype. Rock formations like Mobius Arch, short hiking trails, BLM free camping, and wide-open skies are just a few more reasons that the Alabama Hills’ desert landscapes are worth a visit.
  • Palm Springs: This is certainly a different style of desert, but a desert nonetheless! Palm Springs is perfect for those who love the dry heat of the desert climate but don’t necessarily want to take part in strenuous outdoor activity. Instead, Palm Springs visitors can golf, shop, and lounge by the pool all year long. To properly appreciate the unique plant life and biodiversity of the desert, check out Moorten Botanical Garden’s bacterium.

No matter your lifestyle, there is something to love about Southern California. From surfing to sunrises and everything in between, my home state is special for its golden sunshine and variety of adventures.

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By Sarah