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Southern California has a LOT going on. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss…

As a beach and city lover, I expected that I would enjoy Southern California.

But, I didn’t anticipate how much!

My love affair with “So Cal” means it’s somewhere I will return to again and again. 

Home to glorious weather, pristine beaches and beautiful national parks, you can see why there are so many songs devoted to the golden state. 

 

 

 

This treasure trove for curious travellers offers nature, adventures and achingly cool cities.

While the Hollywood Hills may be the first thing that spring to mind when you think of California, this area is incredibly diverse and has something for all interests. 

Try my selection of unique things to do in southern California for an unforgettable trip. 

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What classes as Southern California?

SoCal is made up of eight counties, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Orange County. 

If you travel north from Monterey County, this is where the split takes place.

San Francisco and the rest of Bay Area are part of Northern California – or NorCal, as it’s commonly known.

Although the different regions have quite a rivalry, both Northern and Southern California have many surprises to discover.  

 

 

 

California is famous for its stunning landscapes and relaxed attitudes. It also has one of the most thriving economies in the US. 

SoCal has more beaches and Mexican food due to its proximity to the Mexican border, while NorCal has better hiking spots. 

This varied list focuses purely on things to do in Southern California. 


Emma Wood State Beach California
Sunsets in Southern California are incredible

Free things to do in southern California

Whether you’re visiting Southern California as part of a longer USA road trip, visiting CA as a whole or just discovering this region, there are plenty of free activities. 

1 – Drive up the Pacific Coast Highway

Drive from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and take in the coastal scenery. Make sure to stop off at quaint beach towns. 

2 – Beach sunsets

Driving along the west coast every stop seemed to offer breathtaking beauty. Plan your stops to catch the sun setting on one of SoCal’s stunning beaches.  

3 – Watch surfers on Huntington Beach

Consistent year-round swell makes this the surf capital of the US. If you’re not ready to dive in yourself, why not watch the experts. 

 

 

 

4 – Catch a street performance on Venice Beach

Bohemian in spirit, this beach town is buzzing with activity and street performers, which you can enjoy for free. 

5 – Admire the sea lions at La Jolla Cove in San Diego

This small picturesque cove is home to tide pools, epic viewings and sea lions! Catch the playful creatures sunning themselves on the sand. 


Harbour seals on the beach in La Jolla in San Diego California USA


6 – Mission Beach Boardwalk in San Diego

Bike, jog or skate down this scenic oceanfront path. This narrow beach has a vintage vibe and is a great place to people watch!

7 – Star spotting at the Hollywood Walk of Fame

I always assumed this famous attraction would cost money but it is free and open 24 hours! The sidewalk stretches across 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and 3 blocks of Vine Street, so get ready for a long walk! 

8 – Hike Runyon Canyon

Runyon Canyon Park on the east end of Santa Monica Mountains offers hikes of various lengths. Not only are you guaranteed epic views over Tinsel Town, but you may also encounter celebrities (and their dogs) out for a walk. 

 

 

 


Weird things to do in southern California

Visiting Disneyland may be top of your list when visiting Southern California (and rightly so),  but here are few different ideas to add to your itinerary.

With so much to see, it is simply not possible to get bored in this part of the country. 

9 – Zip-line on Catalina Island

If you like your travel with a side of adrenaline, why not head to Catalina Island?  Zigzag across the canyon from 600 feet for sweeping views of the ocean. 

10 – Catch at a film at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery 

Not just the resting place of silver screen legends like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Hollywood Forever Cemetery is also home to many cultural events. 

The outdoor classic film screenings make for a truly unique experience.

11 – Eat Korean BBQ at Kogi food truck in LA

Korean BBQ in taco form – this a fusion I didn’t know I needed. The fleet of five trucks has reached iconic status in LA, all thanks to delicious cuisine and clever marketing.


RELATED READ: Heading beyond California? Here’s why Vegas should be on your itinerary.


12 – Salvation Mountain, Calipatria

In the California desert area of Imperial County, you will find a colourful art installation created by former local resident Leonard Knight.

Knight was attempting to build a hot air balloon with messages of God’s love.

When this failed to launch, he started work on what is now Salvation Mountain

It took him 28 years to create and the result is a sprawling hill covered in millions of gallons of latex paint. 

13 – Visit the Danish village Solvang

The last thing you would expect to find in SoCal is a town complete with windmills and a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue!

Yet nestled in California’s Santa Ynez Valley lies the Danish village of Solvang.

 

 

 

“Solvang” translates as “sunny field” and this village was established by Danish educators. 

Famous for its Danish architecture, pastries, peaceful views and wine,  this something different to add to your Southern California itinerary. 


RELATED READ: How To Spend One Day in San Diego


14 – Queen Califia Magical Circle in San Diego

This gorgeous sculpture garden is located in Escondido, California and is the last international project by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. 

The artwork is comprised of large scale structures, a snake wall and mosaic ornaments – all decorated with native shrubs. 

15 – Carbon Canyon Regional Park Orange County

Get a taste of the redwoods without leaving Southern California, with groves of giant trees spanning across 10 acres. 

16 – Great Wall of LA

The Great Wall of Los Angeles is a vibrant tribute to ethnic minorities in California from prehistoric times to the 1950s. 

It was created by 400 youths from diverse backgrounds, working with historians, artists and community members. 

It is half a mile in length in the Tujunga Flood Control Channel of the San Fernando Valley and has a stunning bike trail. 


RELATED READ: Why Everyone Should Visit Las Vegas


17 – Hike to Knapp’s Castle in Santa Barbara 

Hike to the remains of a mansion that burned down years ago. Surrounded by Los Padres National Forest, the ruins of Knapp’s Castle still have stone steps, archways and fireplaces to explore. 

18 – Galco’s soda pop shop LA 

This is a utopia for those with a sweet tooth. The shelves are lined with over 750 flavours of soda from all over the world.

Stepping in this store is like going back in time. Visit for the soda and stay for the retro aesthetic. 

 

 

 

19 – The Magic Castle LA

A “nightclub for magicians and magic enthusiasts”. 

As LA’s most unusual private club, not everyone can gain entry but once you’re in you’ll be treated to exciting shows and can rub shoulders with world-famous magicians.

Find out how to get into the Magic Castle here. 

20 – Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, Lancaster

Visit in spring for blooms of orange poppies (California’s state flower) stretching out for miles. Take a picnic and your camera


Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve during blooming season

21 – Tio’s Tacos

In the city of Riverside, you can find flavours from Mexico, as well as art and sculptures. 

It is a photographer’s paradise, you can walk around the site for 30 minutes and still not see everything.

One unusual attraction is a cathedral made completely of bottles!


Santa Monica Pier at sunset

Things to do in Southern California at night

In California, the fun does not stop when the sun goes down. From 24 hour cities to epic views, your sightseeing can continue into the early hours.

22 – Santa Monica Pier

Stroll down this 100-year-old pier complete with arcade games, restaurants and a view of the ocean. It is also the end of the famous route 66.

23 – Universal CityWalk in LA

Catch a film at one of 19 theatres, live music from street performers at the 5 towers or dine on everything from Japanese to Mexican cuisine. 

24 – Cocktails at Canter’s in LA

Canter’s is a delicatessen and restaurant that is open 24 hours every day. It has hosted many famous faces including Barrack Obama, Ryan Gosling and Lana Del Ray. Their cocktail list is unparalleled and if it’s good enough for a president, it’s good enough for me! 

 

 

 

25 – Comedy and improv at The Clubhouse LA

This indie spot is run completely by volunteers and is one of the best places to see LA’s diverse comedy offerings. Try an improv night for a quirky evening you won’t forget. 

26 – California Donuts

After finding out about California Donuts, I am convinced all doughnut shops should be open 24 hours! Head to Korea Town or order delivery for fluffy decadent goodness. 

27 – Visit the Griffith Observatory LA

As well as breathtaking views of the Hollywood sign, the Griffith Observatory has telescopes, exhibits and a Planetarium to explore. If you don’t have a shuttle, you can book a round-trip shuttle by clicking here.

28 – Nightclubs on the Sunset Strip

Check out the lively nightlife scene in the coolest part of LA. As the playground of celebrities, the Sunset Strip has witnessed much debauchery over the years. 


Mulholland Highway sign, Los Angeles, California, USA.


29 – Watch a basketball game 

I watched my first basketball game during my time in the USA. Admittedly it was in Arizona, not California, but it was so much fun!

So if you get a chance to catch one during your trip, make sure you don’t miss out. Even if you’re not a fan of the sport, the half time entertainment is amazing!

Music, cheerleaders and much more- think watching sport is boring? Think again!

30 – The Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego

This bustling district attracts crowds of all ages. Young people flock to the dive bars, live music and cocktail lounges, while families are entertained by diverse programmes of music and theatre. 


Things to do in southern California when it rains

Although it may be the sunshine state, sometimes bad luck strikes. Luckily Southern California has many things to do whatever the weather. 

31 – Go thrift shopping

LA is without doubt a stylish city and, as expected, the shopping options are excellent. However, if you want your clothing a little more sustainable or with a story to tell, make sure to check out the thrift scene. You can find everything from second-hand movie props to vintage band tees! 

Try UCLA Thrift Shop for the perfect place to hide from the rain. 

 

 

 

32 – California Science museum LA

Rain does not have to dampen your spirits! Museums are always a great option that are not weather dependent. 

Innovative exhibits and live demonstrations will keep visitors inspired by science, whatever their age. 

33 – The Getty Center LA

This cultural landmark attracts over 1.6 million every year. With the grand art collection, sweeping views and tastefully designed garden – it’s hard not see why. 


Planning a trip to the USA? Check out these destination guides


34 – Walt Disney Concert Hall LA

An architectural landmark that is beautiful inside and out.  Travellers can experience the sounds of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and visiting artists from around the globe. 

35 – CirqueSanity Petit Voila LA

A circus show with a boutique twist that allows viewers to see aerial acrobats, fire and magic close up. Sip a cocktail at the vintage Parisian bar and get ready for a night of wonders and live jazz. 

36 – Visit a weed shop

Medical and recreational dispensaries are legal in California, selling a range of herbal remedies! Whether you want to partake or not, visiting can be an interesting insight into how the marijuana industry works in this state. 

Don’t forget your ID or you won’t be allowed entry. 


Laguna Beach
View of the Pacific Ocean at Heisler Park, in Laguna Beach

Things to know before you visit Southern California

Travel insurance is a must

California is generally a safe place to visit, but you should never forget to purchase adequate travel insurance before any trip. 

Healthcare in the USA is extremely expensive, so you need to make sure you’re covered in the event of any unexpected medical issues. 

I use World Nomads because they cover things that other insurance providers won’t. You can read this honest review about claiming with them or click here to get a free, 30-second quote for your trip

Renting a car

If you’re renting a car to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, get ready to enjoy the open roads and epic views! 

To find the best car rental deal, check out this website to compare the best rates or use the search box below:  



Esta

You’ll need an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) in order entry to the USA or even board the plane!

This is a system that allows citizens from any country recognised as a Visa Waiver Country to travel to the US and apply for entry without a needing visa.

This programme covers most European countries, plus a few extras. 

Although most applications are processed in less than 72 hours, I would recommend getting this sorted as soon as you start planning your trip.

A more in-depth explanation of the ESTA process can be found here

 

 

 


Where to next?

America has no shortage of exciting places to explore. Every single one of the fifty states has a completely different character! 

After continuing your discovery of California, why not head further north to Oregon?

Or stay in the sun and see why Las Vegas is  a Disneyland for adults. 

Check out all of our USA travel guides to help you plan the road trip of your dreams. 


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26 UNIQUE THINGS TO DO IN CALIFORNIA