From sun-soaked beaches to snow-covered peaks, from a crowded amusement park to solitary hikes in a national park, from painted deserts to museums the celebrate street art, from dangling grapevines to towering palms, and from movies sets to stunning sunsets, these are the 15 must-visit spots that make up a quintessential Southern California itinerary when you’re ready to go from California dreaming to planning a dream vacation.
Come for the sun, stay for the stars, movie stars, that is. The entertainment industry is usually what first pops into mind when anyone mentions California and Hollywood is at the epicenter of the biz. Film buffs can hunt down locations IRL, find their favorite celebrity on the Walk Of Fame, and ogle the TCL Chinese Theatre’s foot-printed forecourt. With any luck, you’ll be there on movie premiere day. Hike to the original Bat Cave, Hollywood Sign, and the observatory in Griffith Park. Tour studios like Warner Bros., Paramount, and Universal. Pop in to admire the recently restored David Hockey pool at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt. Make like Leo and Brad by sipping martinis at the 100-year-old Musso & Frank. Famous graves and summer movies make Hollywood Forever cemetery a worthwhile stop as well.
With its surreal rock formations and spiky trees, it’ll feel like you’ve wandered into a Star Trek shooting location or a Dr. Seuss book when visiting this national park where two desert ecosystems meet, tarantulas and tortoises cross the street, night skies twinkle brilliantly, and influencers take their wide-brimmed hats out bouldering. From Keys View crest, you can see the infamous San Andreas Fault from above. Plan far ahead to get the pick of the campsites litter during high seasons (i.e. when it isn’t a million degrees). Be sure to explore quirky surrounding towns where hipsters, cowboys, new age practitioners, and retired folks peacefully co-exist and run art galleries, diners, crystal shops, renovated motels, and a kickass all-ages concert venue/saloon called Pappy & Harriet’s.
Long the playground of the posh and famous—Oprah, who lives in the community next door, is the area’s patron saint, a gig she seemed to inherit from Julia Child—the picturesque enclave occupies a narrow crescent wedged between soaring ridges and the rollicking sea. It has all the trappings necessary for a successful long weekend: natural beauty, fresh air, pampering accommodations and spas, star-worthy cuisine that takes advantage of local delicacies like uni, finger limes, and spot prawns, arresting Spanish architecture, daily farmers markets, water sports, historical (the mission, Chumash, cave paintings) and cultural (Santa Barbara Bowl) attractions, and shopping (State Street). And did we mention its wine country (see Sideways) and urban wine trail, which grow in size and prestige every year.
How could we not include the original Disneyland on this list? It’s the happiest place on Earth after all. Especially after the pioneering 65–year-old theme park added a whole new land, Galaxy’s Edge, inspired by the Star Wars franchise in 2019. Now kids and kids at heart can mingle with Mickey Mouse, Caribbean pirates, the Little Mermaid, Woody, and Kylo Ren all in the same day while stuffing their faces with churros, Tiki Room Dole Whips, and blue milk. Extend your Anaheim stay to experience the companion park, Disney California Adventure (where they serve alcohol!), and the retail/dining district between them.
The eighth largest city in the United States is no slouch in the tourism department. Its résumé flaunts 70 miles of scenic coast, 266 days of sunshine annually, the state’s best fish tacos, endless outdoor pursuits and urban delights, the second-ever certified carbon neutral airport in North America, and its hop-notch title as the Craft Beer Capital of America. That was earned with 160 breweries, 55 tasting rooms, a brewers guild, a beer week, various fermentation festivals, tasting tours, and a forthcoming museum. Its very southern positioning allows visitors to border hop to Mexico, by foot no less, for day trips while still hunker down at luxurious resorts like the Hotel del Coronado by night.
Learn something along this mid-city stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea Avenues encompassing LA’s Museum Row. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is about to get a facelift, but much of its collection remains on display. It’s where Insta icon Urban Lights, Chris Burden’s installation made of 202 street lamps, resides. The La Brea Tar Pits, still-bubbling pits of black goo where paleontologists have unearthed 3.5 million fossils, and their corresponding museum share LACMA’s complex as will the movie-centric Academy Museum (opening December 2020). Across the street, you’ll find Petersen Automotive Museum, a car collection worth heavy traffic, and the Craft Contemporary for folk art/crafts.
It’s cliché, but true: Palm Springs and the cities that surround it are a FOMO-generating oasis of midcentury masterpieces (Modernism Week is a design nerd must!), raucous pool parties, funky hotels, that pink door, decadent brunches (Cheeky’s is a must!), vintage stores, bangin’ music fests, dusk tennis matches, and date shakes in a gorgeous but harsh desert. It’s where cool kid vibes meet old Hollywood glamour and where stressed-out Angelenos, the LGBTQ community, and frostbitten snowbirds seek escape. Downtown and the design district are pedestrian friendly and filled with numerous places to dine, drink, and dance. Craving a more spirited sojourn? Try riding the aerial tramway up to Mt. San Jacinto State Park or a bumpy dusty off-road Jeep tour.
Seeking alpine adventure? Look no further than Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest, a hundred miles northeast of LA. It promises four seasons of fun. Winter brings skiing, tubing, and snowboarding at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. Spring and summer are perfect for fishing, swimming, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Enjoy leaf peeping and Oktoberfest in autumn. Thankfully, s’mores and cabin chills defy seasonal categorization and can be done in rentals that dot 22 miles of shoreline or at the sleepaway camp chic Noon Lodge. Families can partake in a ropes course, the zoo, escape rooms, bowling, go-karting, and pastries at Sister My Sister Bakery in the village.
The National Historic Landmark founded in 1868 is San Diego’s Central Park equivalent. (Actually, it’s almost double the size.) Within its 1,400 verdant acres, it boasts 19 gardens, 17 museums and cultural institutions covering science, nature, photography, art, local history, and aviation, 10 dedicated performance venues, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, and one gold standard zoo. From Arctic foxes to endangered zebras, it’s easy to spend an entire day admiring the 650-plus species. If the kids still have energy to spare, there’s a miniature train, vintage carousel, and very tall observation tower. A museum dedicated to the city’s annual Comic-Con will soon join the roster. It’s also a great place for a picnic, a round of golf or lawn bowling, or taking a dance class.
There was a time, not so long ago, when no one went downtown for fun with any regularity. Not residents, and certainly not tourists. A trip to DTLA usually meant you scored Lakers tickets or a jury duty summons. Now, it’s the most happening part of town, a city center the city has long lacked, with critically acclaimed dines (Bestia, Majordomo, Guerrilla Tacos), buzzy watering holes (Birds & Bees, Everson Royce Bar), green spaces, street art, immersive experiences, food halls, galleries and retail (The Last Bookstore), theaters and music clubs, art museums like The Broad (Yayoi Kusama!), a new soccer club and stadium where matches are pure spectacle, and an explosion of new hotels at a variety of price points (Wayfarer, The Ace Hotel, InterContinental, Proper). It also reflects the population’s diverse makeup as its borders engulf Chinatown, Little Tokyo, the Latino-heavy Westlake, and districts dedicated to fashion, art, flowers, finance, jewelry, and produce.
The name is a bit of a misnomer considering Surf City USA is comprised of five distinct beaches stretching uninterrupted for 10 miles and providing beginners and pros alike with consistent year-round swell. If you’ve ever wanted to learn, it’s a great place to take lessons. Or simply watch the seasoned ride waves under the pier or at summer’s Vans US Open, the world’s largest surf competition. Over at Dog Beach, even pups shred. Further immerse yourself in board culture at the museum, the walk of fame, surf shops, and in diners where surfers tell tall tales over fat breakfast burritos. If hanging 10 isn’t your jam, the wide swaths of sand are perfect for sunset viewing, sandcastle building, barbecues, bonfires, and, of course, long walks on the beach. Camping at Bolsa Chica is fun but so is staying at a resort like Paséa with its beach butlers, hoodie robes, and tranquil spa.
There’s something magical about this rural town in the foothills above Ventura. Maybe it’s the bucolic splendor of massive oaks, fragrant citrus groves, the craggy creekbeds, lavender farms, steep surrounding mountains, and clarity of light, which results in a regular sunset spectacle colloquially nicknamed “the pink moment.” Perhaps it’s the unexpected vibrancy of its main street, dining scene, arts programming, and maker community. (You can find local takes on honey, beard oil, craft beer, jewelry, kombucha, candles, toiletries, pottery, olive oil, and dreamcatchers.) Possibly it’s the diversity of lodging that appeals as guests can choose from a historic Five Diamond, upcycled motels, quaint B&Bs, or a collection of Airstreams. Or it could be the simple fact that people still smile at strangers as they pass on sidewalks and the world’s largest open-air bookstore can operate on the honor system. Probably all of the above.
Twenty-six miles across the sea, the island of romance with tropical trees and salty air is waiting. So goes the 1957 pop song about of the only developed member of the Channel Islands archipelago. Happy to report not much has changed since chewing gum heir William Wrigley owned the place. There’s still one main town (Avalon) punctuated by a striking 1929 red-roofed Casino, walking is the most used mode of transportation, taffy is sold at the shop where Marilyn Monroe worked, and buffalo, descendants of a herd brought over for a 1920s movie shoot, still roam the backcountry alongside an adorable fox only found here. It’s just now you can see them while on a bio-fueled Hummer safari after zip-lining, scuba diving in crystalline waters, or sipping signature Buffalo Milk cocktails at the beach club.
Every spring (approximately March to May), this Oceanside burb in San Diego’s North County explodes in a rainbow of ranunculus rows. The Flower Fields, family run for generations, is 50 acres of social media goals thanks to sunset wine tastings, teas, yoga wagon rides, an orchid greenhouse, a maze, more poinsettia species than you ever knew existed, a vintage playground, and staged vignettes tucked among the blooms. Many of Carlsbad’s best bars, restaurants and hotel spas create cocktails, dishes, and treatments inspired by the attraction for the annual Petal To Plate promotion. And with the 2020 opening of the destination’s first hotel that overlooks the crops, The Cassara, it has never been easier for petal pushers to maximize their visit.
Neighboring Santa Monica, Venice became one of California’s original tourist destinations more than 100 years ago when Abbot Kinney used his deep pockets and imagination to construct Italian-inspired canals, islands, a saltwater lagoon with gondolas, shopping colonnades, and a roller coaster. Today, some of the pull is the same—canals with ornate bridges (although not Kinney’s), a pier, grade-A dining, great shopping on the founder’s namesake boulevard, cafes, street performers, and festivals. Other draws came with time as new bohemians, skate punks, bodybuilders, rich folks, artists, and tech bros all claimed the eclectic neighborhood as their own. The intermixing makes for phenomenal people watching, especially along the boardwalk, in front of dispensaries, and at the Muscle Beach gym and skate park.