Most visitors to Southern California plan to see Hollywood, Disneyland, local beaches and maybe hop over to Las Vegas on their first visit to the area. What to do with the rest of their days is usually somewhat of a mystery. To start with, SoCal is a huge area with major attractions up to 300-miles away from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Several regions are within easy reach including the Central Coast, Los Angeles and Orange County while others are a bit more distant like San Diego, the Inland Empire and Deserts. What you are able to see during your trip is entirely dependent on the amount of time and the direction you head. The following is a shotgun selection of places worthy of visiting during your trip to SoCal.
Hollywood is about 30-minutes inland from LAX by car. There you’ll find the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood & Highland Center, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, tours of star’s homes and much more. Cruise the famous Sunset Strip, tour Warner Brothers Studios, enjoy movie-themed thrill rides at Universal Studios and capture a shot of the world-renowned Hollywood sign. For the ultimate shopping and celebrity spotting experience, head for Rodeo Drive and Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Just minutes north of LAX is Santa Monica with its huge sandy beaches, the Pacific Park boardwalk amusement park & aquarium and the nearby 3rd Street Prominade & Santa Monica Place shopping venues. Just a few minutes farther north is Malibu that offers famous movie beaches, wine tasting, hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and several great seaside restaurants. Downtown L.A. is about 30-minutes northwest of the airport and includes several interesting places like El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. Live, Little Tokyo and more. Superb museums are spread all over the city. Our top choices include the Griffith Observatory, Getty Museum, La Brea Tarpits and Exposition Park.
Long Beach is located approximately 30-minutes south of LAX and includes several interesting attractions. Aquarium of the Pacific is L.A.’s largest aquarium with shark tanks, touch pools, pinnipeds and local & tropical fish species. The aquarium is located in Rainbow Harbor at The Pike along with an array of touristy restaurants, shops, hotels and tour boat operators offering excursions for everything from dinner cruises to whale watching. A nearby ferry service whisks visitors to Catalina Island that’s approximately 30-miles off shore. Catalina is a developed island with hotels, restaurants and plenty of activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating and more. Directly across the water from Rainbow Harbor is the Queen Mary, a Titanic-like luxury liner from the 1930’s that today serves as a hotel with restaurants, bars, museums and entertainment. The nearby Belmont Shore features dining, shopping and nightlife along 2nd Street and romantic gondola cruises through the ritzy canals of Naples Island. Head 15-minutes north of Long Beach to San Pedro for a tour of the U.S.S. Battleship Iowa. Just a few minutes north of there, and midway between LAX and Long Beach, is the pristine coastline of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. There you’ll find oceanfront golf courses, the Terranea Resort, Point Vicente Lighthouse & Interpretive Center and plenty of trails heading to secluded, Mediterraneanesque coves. Long Beach also has its own airport that is much more convenient than LAX if you want to make it your hub.
Although many think that Disneyland is in Los Angeles, it’s actually located 40-minutes south of LAX in Orange County. The Disneyland Resort is comprised of Disneyland, California Adventure, Downtown Disney and several themed hotels. Another Orange County theme park that’s just as worthy of a visit is Knott’s Berry Farm. Just as the name suggests, Knott’s was an old berry farm that today is a popular amusement park with rollercoasters and several nearby tourist attractions like Knott’s Soak City Waterpark, Medieval Times and Pirate’s Dinner Adventure. Orange County is all about the beaches with some of the best options for surf and sand in Southern California. For an old-school, laid-back beach experience head for Main Street, Seal Beach – one of the very few pier communities to fight expansion and cling to originality. If huge sandy beaches and a party scene is your thing, go to Huntington or Newport Beaches – just head for the piers to find the action. Newport Harbor is the spot for boat rentals, dinner cruises, whale watching and other on-the-water activities. The stretch of coastline from the Newport Coast to Dana Point is known as the ‘California Riviera’ for the plethora of multi-million dollar homes and beautiful, secluded coves that are located there. Check out Heisler Park in Laguna Beach for a taste what the ‘California Riviera’ has to offer. Fashion Island is located in Newport Beach and offers the ultimate shopping venue in a luxurious outdoor setting. Orange County also has its own airport that is much more convenient than LAX if you want to make it your hub.
San Diego is a ways south of Los Angeles and takes about 2 hours to get there from LAX. San Diego has its own international airport if you want to make it your hub. Many major attractions are within close proximity of downtown including SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, U.S.S. Midway Aircraft Carrier, Petco Park and Gaslamp Quarter. The Gaslamp Quarter is a historic section of downtown that features restaurants, bars, hotels and a bustling nightlife. Another historic section of town just a bit north by MTS train is Old Town San Diego with great Mexican restaurants, an Old West town and touristy shops. Accessible by trolley is Balboa Park where the San Diego Zoo, several museums, botanical gardens, theatres, parks and more are located. About 15-minutes north of downtown is Mission Bay where boaters and beach goers enjoy a huge protected bay with hotels, restaurants and rentals. Mission Bay is home to SeaWorld and Belmont Park, a beachside boardwalk amusement park with a rollercoaster and classic carnival rides. Approximately 30-minutes north of downtown is the quaint seaside town of La Jolla. Popular activities in La Jolla include kayaking, swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, shopping and sightseeing. Go inside the La Jolla Cave Store for a secret staircase heading into a sea cave. Popular attractions in northern San Diego County include Legoland California Resort, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Luis Rey Mission.
If time permits there are many other interesting places that are 100 miles or more from LAX. Santa Barbara is a coastal town to the north with several beaches, a touristy pier, Spanish mission, city zoo, shopping & dining on State Street and more. Another 100 miles farther up Highway 101 is San Luis Obispo, which is centrally located to Cambria, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Avila Beach and Pismo Beach – All are unique stops along the Central Coast. A hundred miles southeast of L.A. is the wine growing region of Temecula where wine tasting and gambling at the local Indian casino are popular activities. At approximately 120 miles, and 8,000 feet up, are the mountain communities of Big Bear Lake and Idyllwild. Big Bear offers a variety of mountain & lake activities while Idyllwild is all about the relaxation. Just beyond the mountains and 125 miles out is the upscale desert community of Palm Springs. Golf Courses are the main attraction to the area but luxury resorts, Indian casinos, restaurants and nightlife attract visitors from all walks of life. Less than an hour north of Palm Springs is Joshua Tree National Park. Being one of the newest National Parks, Joshua Tree offers few amenities but features unique rock formations and landscapes. The only stay in the park is by camping. Not to be missed, Death Valley is 300-miles east of L.A. and features sand dunes, salt flats, an ancient meteor crater, off-road trails, Scotty’s Castle and more. Although not in California, many visitors to Southern California throw a visit to Las Vegas into their trip. At 390 miles, it takes 4½ hours t
o get there from L.A. If you can afford a flight from LAX, Orange County, Long Beach or any other local airport it would be much more convenient than driving the monotonous and dangerous I-15.
We recommend renting a car to get the most out of your trip. Other than San Diego, public transportation is not one of the best options for getting around SoCal. Traffic is also a major concern. Try to plan your travel times in the city to avoid ‘Rush Hour’ (Monday-Friday 8am & 5pm). Failing to do so will double and triple your drive time and possibly ruin your day. Crime should be considered in any big city in California. Avoid public transportation – especially at night. Be very alert in heavily touristed areas like Downtown L.A., Hollywood and Santa Monica. All other areas we’ve listed are pretty safe. Any season is a good time to visit Southern California. Rain has become fairly scarce in SoCal in recent years so even a winter trip can be nice weather. We hope that this information helps you get the most out of your trip to SoCal or entices you to plan a trip. It’s a beautiful region of the U.S. that has a lot to offer.