It’s hard to count all the reasons I travel back to Southern California every chance I get, but they go far beyond hitting the beach. While surf and palm trees are (more than) nice, the counties from Ventura down to the Mexican border also offer top-notch contemporary art, incredible hikes, a surprising breadth of ethnic eats and a hefty dose of old-school Hollywood glamour.
And here’s the best part: all of these elements are within close proximity of each other (no more than a two-hour drive away), making it easy to build the perfect Southern California itinerary—no matter what type of travel experience you’re looking for.
For active adventure
The Beach Boys and that glistening Pacific may have done a lot to bolster Southern California’s status as one of the world’s most iconic surfing destinations, but there’s a lot more to do here than catch a wave. With over a dozen mountain ranges in Los Angeles County, alone—and many more to the north, south and east—outdoor activities of all kinds are a major part of SoCal culture.
Covering more than 62,000 hectares, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area—the largest urban national park in the world—puts options for hiking, mountain biking and even horseback riding within minutes of the glitz and grit of Hollywood. Choose one of two trails up to Parker Mesa overlook, where you’ll enjoy one of the most expansive vistas of L.A. around, with miles of coastline and views of downtown to the east.
Minutes from Hollywood Boulevard, Runyon Canyon is a more moderate option right in the city that pairs fab panoramas with equally great showbiz eavesdropping, thanks to its popularity with actors, producers and writers who live in the nearby hills.
Of course, if you are looking to “hang 10,” SoCal is the right place. With beaches for miles, there’s a wave to match every skill set. Bolsa Chica and San Onofre, both in Orange County, are two popular spots for beginners thanks to their low, slow-breaking waves. Newport Beach’s The Wedge, meanwhile, boasts some of Southern California’s biggest swells—epic 20-foot waves that show even advanced surfers who’s boss.
For a gentler, family-friendly option on the water, head to Newport’s Upper Newport Bay. Known locally as the Back Bay, this calm, shallow pool plays home to several species of endangered birds, best spotted from a kayak or stand-up paddleboard (you can rent either or catch a guided tour at the Newport Aquatic Centre).
For a culinary escape
From ethnic eats to local wines, SoCal’s food and drink offerings are diverse and delicious.
Thanks to San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border, and to options that range from no-frills taco stands to reinvented fillings by world-renowned chefs, it’s hard not to go taco-loco in this city. Don’t resist. Start your taco crawl at TJ Oyster Bar, a strip-mall restaurant that got its start as a seafood stand on a street corner in Tijuana. For a twist on the fish taco, try the hot smoked tuna option, loaded with warm, smoky tuna meat and topped with crema, onions and cilantro. Next, try new kid on the block Galaxy Taco, which hosts a weekly “Taco Tuesday Takeover” that sees local and international chefs stop by to make their own creations. If you have any room left, snag a seat on the ocean terrace at George’s at the Cove, where the only thing that beats the grilled fish taco is the perfect sea view.
And, while it might not be the first place you think of for California wine, San Diego is also the birthplace of winemaking in the state; vineyards here date back to the 1780s, though winemaking fell out of favour during Prohibition. Now, nearly a century later, San Diego County’s wine scene is reborn, with dozens of new vineyards and urban wineries. San Diego Beer and Wine Tours offers guided tours and tastings that hit a rotating list of wineries throughout the county by car, train or foot, but the wineries are also accessible enough to DIY. Must-visits include Orfila Vineyards and Winery (try the Ambassador’s Chardonnay) and Carruth Cellars in Solana Beach.
To get a sense of just how eclectic Southern California cuisine can be, head back up the 405 to L.A., which is among the most culturally diverse cities in the U.S. Taste L.A.’s ethnic mix firsthand on Urban Adventures’ Ethnic Neighbourhoods Food & Culture tour, where you’ll discover the kind of
authentic dishes and hole-in-the-wall spots that are normally impossible for tourists to find, like Middle Eastern-style bagels in Little Armenia and region-specific chicken curry noodle soup from northern Thailand. Afterward, if you have to loosen your belt a notch to get in some Downtown L.A. eating, so be it. The city’s thriving downtown area is also its foodiest, from the casual, artisanal food stalls at Grand Central Market to destination dining at Redbird, a buzzy new spot from homegrown celebrity chef Neal Fraser.
For retro romance
Perhaps it’s all those legendary Old Hollywood love stories, but few places conjure a sense of retro romance the way Southern California does.
From the opulent movie houses on Hollywood Boulevard to old chateaus tucked away in the hills, Hollywood and its surroundings feel steeped in classic romance.
One of the best ways to travel back to those golden days of Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn is on an architecture tour. With more than 60 sites including the old Hollywoodland estates and the ornate Pantages and Egyptian theatres, Architectural Tours LA’s Hollywood excursion visits some of the city’s most iconic spots, along with gems such as Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.’s Sowden house.
Next, head east to Palm Springs, which first became a go-to Hollywood getaway in the 1920s. Download the VisitPalmSprings mobile app and explore some of the area’s most noteworthy mid-century landmarks, including homes that belonged to Frank Sinatra and Elvis, or catch a guided tour at the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center. When you’re done, slide into a booth at Bootlegger Tiki, a tiki bar that sits on the same site as the legendary 1950s celebrity hangout Don the Beachcomber. In Palm Springs, nostalgia feels hotter than ever.
For quirky fun
From new amusement park attractions to the cool things happening in up-and-coming ’hoods, SoCal offers quirky fun in spades—the only question is what to do first.
Downtown L.A.’s Arts District is a great place to start. With 40 blocks full of galleries, street art, bars and restaurants, it has evolved in the last couple of years from an industrial area of warehouses into one of the city’s hottest neighbourhoods. Get your taco fix at Petty Cash Taqueria, then save your change for a night of old-school 25-cent arcade games at EightyTwo or a game of table tennis at Tony’s Saloon, a popular dive bar.
While you’re downtown, make sure to visit The Broad, an architecturally stunning contemporary art museum that opened this past December. Full of irreverent pop art, including an oversized table and chairs installation that will leave you feeling like a shrunken Alice in Wonderland, The Broad takes the stuffiness out of gallery-going.
For some large-scale amusement park fun, head to Universal Studios Hollywood, which just last month opened the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, complete with a wand shop, a 3D-HD ride through Hogwarts castle and Flight of the Hippogriff, the park’s first outdoor roller coaster.
And what’s the best way to follow Harry Potter? With some Dr. Seuss, of course. Head to San Diego, where Theodor “Ted” Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) once made his home. Stroll the campus of UCSD in La Jolla, a picturesque neighbourhood in northern San Diego where you’ll find a 7.5-foot-tall Cat in the Hat statue. Next, stop into nearby Legends Gallery to see a collection of Seuss’s most whimsical creations, from the animal sculptures of his Unorthodox Taxidermy collection to rare drawings. As you stroll around La Jolla, take note of the unusually shaped trees in the area, then head to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps to check out the local marine life. It’s easy to see where Geisel got his inspirations.