15 Top-Rated Things to Do in Southern California

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Jun 14, 2024
We may earn a commission from affiliate links ()

Southern California is one of the best places to vacation in the country. It has a bit of everything, including, typically, T-shirt weather throughout the year. Popular places to visit range from the dense Los Angeles metropolitan area to the wild and free landscapes throughout the rest of the region. This lovely weather and range of destinations make planning a trip to Southern California a limitless endeavor.

This area is home to beaches, snowy mountains, and expansive desert environments. These dynamic landscapes lend to several state-favorite activities like surfing and camping. And there's even skiing in the winter months. These outdoor endeavors, among others, often define Southern California vacations and lifestyles.

Culture is also readily available throughout Southern California, with a tint of Hollywood. From luxurious shopping districts to historic missions and The Happiest Place on Earth, there's no shortage of family-fun things to do.

Enjoy your next sunny getaway with our list of the best things to do in Southern California.

1. Spend Time in Los Angeles

Los Angeles skyline
Los Angeles skyline

Los Angeles, the cultural soul of Southern California, lives up to its sunny reputation. It's a sprawling city filled with tourist attractions and popular activities, ranging from sunset dining to Hollywood strolling. It's also a city filled with museums, public parks, and plenty of celebrity sightings.

A few iconic LA destinations include Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and La Brae Tar Pits and Museum. These family-friendly places to visit could take up an entire weekend on their own and are only the tip of the city's attractions. And for those traveling on a budget, the city has plenty of free things to do, including beaches, museums, and star sightings on street corners.

Read More: Top-Rated Beaches in Los Angeles, CA

2. Visit Balboa Park, San Diego

Balboa Park
Balboa Park

Balboa Park is the central spot for tourist attractions in San Diego. This massive public space offers several outlets for day trips, including the San Diego Zoo. And intricate landscaping, decorative fountains, and countless photo opportunities occupy the entire park.

Outside of Balboa, San Diego offers everything and more for a memorable vacation. From the city's best beaches to its vibrant nightlife and walkable history, there are several reasons why the city receives over 30 million annual visitors. And thanks to its mild Mediterranean climate, the fun continues throughout the year.

3. Enjoy the Coast on the Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica Pier | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Santa Monica Pier is the centerpiece attraction of Santa Monica State Beach. It stands out among California piers, with an amusement park, arcade, and several on-site dining options. It also features a remarkable view of Santa Monica Bay in both directions, all connected by the Marvin Braude Bike Trail. This bike trail also connects several of the best beaches near Santa Monica, including the colorful Venice Beach directly south.

The Santa Monica Pier is also just the tip of the attractions in the rest of the city. Bluff Park and the downtown district are on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway from the pier, offering entertainment night and day. This lively heart of the city is home to several shopping and dining opportunities, including the lovely 3rd Street Promenade.

Read More: Best Beaches near Santa Monica

4. Explore the Desert at Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Joshua Tree, one of California's best national parks, sits at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, less than an hour's drive east of Palm Springs. The park encompasses nearly 800,000 acres of stark and beautiful terrain, varying from palm tree oases to massive boulders that glow during sunset.

It would take hundreds of sun-drenched days and sparkling starry nights to explore everything Joshua Tree offers. Just a few favorite activities include hiking, rock climbing, and camping. The preferred time of year to visit is between October and May, outside of the dangerously hot summer months.

Read More:

5. Take the Family to Disneyland Park

Nighttime firewords display
Nighttime firewords display

Anaheim, in Orange County, is home to The Happiest Place on Earth. Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure combine to create Disneyland Resort of Anaheim. Themed lands, storybook characters, and magical evening fireworks define just some of the fun at both parks. And you don't even need to enter the park to enjoy some of the magic, with the Downtown Disney District full of shopping and dining and not requiring a theme park ticket.

Be sure to spend some extra time exploring Anaheim after a Disney vacation. The city has a surplus of pedestrian shopping areas and restaurants that pair well with its consistently sunny weather. Anaheim's other top attractions include Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, home to the MLB Anaheim Angels and NHL Anaheim Ducks.

6. Ride the Roller Coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Santa Clarita

Roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain
Roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain

While the nearby Anaheim is home to the "Happiest Place on Earth," the Thrill Capital of the World is in Santa Clarita. Also known as Six Flags Magic Mountain, this adrenaline-pumping roller coaster park has gravity-defining rides that turn the world upside down. Six Flags also has family-friendly rides and attractions, including live musical shows.

Between roller coaster rides, the rest of Santa Clarita invites exploration. The sunny forecast shines on Santa Clarita throughout the year, including the historical and cultural capital of the city: Old Town Newhall. A few popular things to do in Santa Clarita include canyon hiking trails and touring old Hollywood mansions.

7. Visit Malibu

Malibu | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Many things make Malibu a beautiful city on the Southern California coast. Over 22 miles of rugged shoreline and the towering Santa Monica Mountains add much to the scenery. And the proximity to Los Angeles also offers a bit of Hollywood appeal. These attributes lend to popular activities like sea cave exploring, mountain biking, and dining at famous restaurants.

The Malibu Pier is an excellent place to start an adventure or catch a fresh bite to eat. To the west, the famous Surfrider Beach played an early role in Southern California surf history. And farther west, the waters of Malibu Creek and the Pacific Ocean converge at Malibu Lagoon State Park. A bit more inland, the wild Malibu Creek State Park is also a fun place to enjoy or spend the night at a campground.

Read More: Best Beaches in Malibu

8. Step into Southern California History at Mission Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara

Also known as the "Queen of the Missions," this iconic mission sets the tone for architecture in the rest of Santa Barbara. This historic mission dates back to the late 1700s, and today has several eye-catching features worth an hour or two of touring. Of particular note is the church, over 200 years old and still hosting an open Sunday service.

After visiting Old Mission Santa Barbara, spend plenty of time exploring the rest of the city. Some say the beaches in Santa Barbara are the best on the coast, and places like Leadbetter Beach make a pretty good case. Other places to visit in Santa Barbara include Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

9. Stroll through Heisler Park in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park, Laguna Beach
Heisler Park, Laguna Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Laguna Beach is one of the prettiest coastal towns in Orange County, and Heisler Park is one of the first places to visit. It's right off the Pacific Coast Highway, near the bustling downtown district. Alongside decorative pathways and landscaping, the park lends previews of the ocean that are nothing short of works of art.

Several sets of stairs descend to the coastline throughout the park, and on the south end, one set of stairs leads down to the sprawling Main Beach. A wooden boardwalk parallels this long stretch of sand, famous for locals and visiting celebrities alike. The coast continues up and down from Heisler Park with other postcard spots, like Victoria Beach and its iconic Pirate Tower, within a short walk.

Read More:

10. Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride in Temecula

Hot Air Balloon Temecula
Hot Air Balloon Temecula

Temecula is a historic gem of the Inland Empire, approximately an hour from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles. It's well visited for several reasons, including its dependably sunny weather. But most weekend trips tend to center around Rancho California Road. Here, vine-draped farms offer daily tastings and supply restaurants with farm-fresh produce.

The hot air balloons that take off from the roadside give Rancho California Road its postcard appeal. These open-to-the-public flights only take off near the break of dawn before afternoon winds settle into the valley. Flights are typically available year-round and range from personal tours to more affordable group rides. A group ride will typically cost an individual between $200 and $300.

Read More: Top Things to Do in Temecula

11. Surf in San Clemente

Surf's up in San Clemente
Surf's up in San Clemente | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

San Clemente stands out among the many iconic surfing destinations in Southern California. This southern Orange County city radiates from its four miles of shoreline, showcasing some of the best breaks in the state. Trestles at San Onofre State Beach is perhaps the epitome of legendary surfing in San Clemente and surf history in Southern California, with so much more to explore.

Head to the Surfing Museum in San Clemente to dive deep into surfing origins in San Clemente and beyond. And for more history on San Clemente itself, also known as a little "Spanish Village by the Sea," head to Casa de Romantica. This cultural center perches atop a bluff overlooking San Clemente State Beach. While there, take some time to stroll the San Clemente Beach Trail spanning in either direction.

Read More: Top Things to Do in San Clemente

12. Walk Down Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills

Rodeo Drive
Rodeo Drive | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Luxury retail and restaurants line Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills – the poshest city in Southern California. This luxe thoroughfare defines one side of the city's renowned Golden Triangle, alongside Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard. Among these few blocks are hundreds of shops and restaurants, all catering to the finer tastes of life.

Rodeo Drive and the Golden Triangle are a must-see when visiting Beverly Hills. But there's much more to explore, all within easy walking distance. When visiting, find some time to explore the nearby Beverly Gardens Park. A few notable photo ops from the park include the iconic Beverly Hills Sign, a prolific Cactus Garden, and the colorful Electric Fountain.

13. Ski at Big Bear Mountain Resort

Big Bear Mountain Resort
Big Bear Mountain Resort

Downhill skiing and snowboarding aren't typical occurrences in Southern California. But high in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, the slopes of Big Bear Mountain Resort deliver on the cold-weather treat. Skiing and snowboarding are also available at the nearby Snow Valley Mountain Resort.

The San Bernardino Mountains are a year-round vacation destination outside of the ski and snowboard season. Visitors often escape into their high elevations to avoid the summer heat on the valley floor. The Rim of the World Scenic Byway tours much of the area, connecting destinations like Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake.

Read More:

14. Tour the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena

Huntington Rose Garden
Huntington Rose Garden | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This sprawling estate is a crown jewel natural space of Pasadena, 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It once belonged to the railroad tycoon Henry Huntington. Today, it encompasses over 200 acres open to the public with paid admission. Several visitor attractions take up an entire day, including a three-acre rose garden best visited during the spring.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens are excellent examples of the type of attractions in Pasadena. Pasadena is perhaps best known for its January 1st Tournament of Roses, also known as the collegiate Rose Bowl, including the Rose Parade. Also take some time to visit Old Pasadena, the historic center of the city with days upon days of shopping and restaurants.

15. Stay at the Mission Inn, Riverside

Mission Inn, Riverside
Mission Inn, Riverside | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Riverside is one of the largest cities in the Inland Empire of Southern California, east of Los Angeles. It enjoys sunny weather throughout the year and many fun places to visit. These activity venues include botanic gardens, drive-in theaters, and the California State Citrus Historic Park.

Many visits to Riverside's center around the architecturally impressive downtown district, include the historic Mission Inn. This Spanish Mission-style hotel and spa dates back to the 1870s and has a humble history for such a luxurious place to stay today. Guests at The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa experience this history and luxury first-hand in various overnight accommodations.

Map of Things to Do in Southern California