20 Top-Rated Weekend Getaways in Southern California
Author Freddy Sherman moved to Southern California 30 years ago to escape the cold Philadelphia winters and hasn't looked back since.
If you're looking for places to visit and getaway ideas, Southern California has plenty of options. Whether it's beaches like Santa Monica, Venice, or Malibu or the parades of Disneyland, there really is something here for everyone. Families may want to visit a specific city like Palm Springs, which offers a range of things to see and do. Couples may prefer a getaway to a specific location or romantic hotel, like The Inn at Death Valley, so they can just enjoy the time together.
Southern California is also one of the few places where your weekend getaway can include skiing and surfing, even done in the same day, if you want. It's possible to spend your morning skiing the slopes in Big Bear and then have an afternoon surf session in Huntington Beach (or vice-versa).
The region's mostly warm and sunny weather also means most of its getaway destinations are good to visit all year-round. Plan your travels with our list of the top weekend getaways in Southern California.
1. Palm Springs
Highlights: Warm weather in the winter months, hiking trails, 100s of golf courses, great food and culture
The desert oasis of Palm Springs is 100 miles east of Los Angeles, and the drive takes about two hours. The city and the surrounding desert cities are great places to visit and offer a wide range of activities. Golf and tennis are popular here, as is hiking on the local mountain trails.
No visit is complete without a trip on the Palm Springs Tramway, which whisks you from the desert floor to an elevation of 8,500 feet in minutes. Palm Springs is a hot destination; the best time to visit is between November and May. The city hosts the internationally recognized Palm Springs International Film Festival in January and celebrates its mid-century modern architecture with Modernism Week each February.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in the Palm Springs Area
2. Joshua Tree National Park
Highlights: Huge national park with multiple eco-systems, great for camping or day-trip drive-throughs
This getaway is east of Los Angeles and about a two-hour drive, not far from Palm Springs. The focus on a getaway here is the vast, 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park. It's where two desert ecosystems, the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, come together. It's a spectacular place to hike, take photos, or just drive through the park and admire the scenery. It also has some fantastic campgrounds.
There are many small motels near the park's north entrance in the town of Twentynine Palms and the town of Joshua Tree, and the area is also filled with home rentals. You can also camp overnight in the park. Some campsites can be reserved online in advance, and others are first-come, first-served. It's also legal to camp on BLM land outside the park boundaries.
The best time to visit is between October and May, as the desert temperatures soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the summertime.
3. Santa Barbara
Highlights: Year-round sun and almost-perfect weather combined with culture and a great food scene
About 90 miles north of Los Angeles, this quaint seaside city has miles of beautiful beaches, several excellent museums, and a vibrant foodie scene. Popular things to do in Santa Barbara include taking whale watching cruises, hanging out on the beach, and shopping in the compact downtown area.
Santa Barbara is also the perfect place to see (and maybe buy) art. Aside from all the art galleries in the downtown area, there are two excellent art museums. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara both have impressive collections with an emphasis on California artists. There's also a fascinating (and free) Art, Design, and Architecture Museum on the UC Santa Barbara campus.
Consistently ranked as one of the nation's best small zoos, the Santa Barbara Zoo is a fun place to visit for an afternoon. Their popular Walkabout immersive exhibit features the land, animals, and cultural traditions of Australia.
Be sure to visit the city's Funk Zone, an area of former warehouses now occupied by restaurants, entertainment venues, and art galleries.
Highlights: Mainly known for Disneyland, also home to Knott's Berry Farm, Angel Stadium, and the Honda Center for sports and concerts
Another great place to visit in Southern California for a weekend is Anaheim. It's perfect for a local weekend getaway, as it's less than an hour from most parts of LA. Anaheim is home to Disneyland Park, the original theme park, as well as the newer Disney California Adventure. There's also Downtown Disney, a shopping and dining district for which no park ticket is required.
Baseball fans may want to take in a Los Angeles Angels game at nearby Angel Stadium, and NHL fans can catch an Anaheim Ducks game at the Honda Center. And although technically it's in Buena Park, not Anaheim, the Knott's Berry Farm theme park (and water park) is only 10 minutes away.
A hidden gem for families is Adventure City, located a few minutes away in Stanton. The compact amusement park feels like a state fair and offers free parking and unlimited rides for its low $24.95 per person admission price.
5. Big Bear
Highlights: Compact mountain resort with the best Southern California skiing in winter and great hiking and boating in summer
Big Bear is a beautiful mountain resort that offers year-round fun and is an easy, mostly-freeway drive from LA. You really can be on the slopes skiing within about two hours of leaving most parts of LA.
This vacation spot is great all year-round. In the winter, it's one of California's most popular ski resorts outside of Lake Tahoe, and in the summer, these mountains offer miles of hiking and mountain biking, along with great fishing. The ski resorts are open and use some of their chairlifts to carry hikers and mountain bikers to higher elevations.
And since the summer is off-season, it can also be a cheap weekend getaway, as accommodations are much less expensive than in the winter.
In addition to the outdoor and winter sports, Big Bear has a small downtown area with shops, restaurants, and even a few live music venues.
6. Lake Arrowhead
Highlights: Summer mountain lake resort with swimming, boating, fishing, and hiking along with quaint shopping and dining
This quaint lake resort town in the San Bernardino mountains is a great getaway destination no matter what time of year. The little town, located alongside a picturesque lake, has a small-town feel and is less commercial than Big Bear, its mountain neighbor about 45 minutes away.
Lake Arrowhead is the ultimate Southern California summer getaway destination since the temperature is normally cooler than the Southland, located 5,000 feet lower in elevation. There are beaches, and the lake is popular for swimming, water skiing, kayaking, and other water sports.
Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do at Lake Arrowhead, CA
7. Catalina Island
Highlights: Island resort with beaches, boating, fishing, and diving, only 90 minutes from LA
Part of California, this formerly private island resort is 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. It's easily reachable via the Catalina Express jet catamaran, and the trip takes about 90 minutes (ports are Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point). Catalina Island's main city is Avalon, and most accommodations are here.
Aside from beach fun, there is SCUBA diving and snorkeling in the lush kelp forests, along with charter boat fishing. The plethora of quaint bed-and-breakfasts and small hotels makes it perfect for romantic getaways. The town is filled with art galleries, shops, and a lot of different restaurants.
8. San Diego
Highlights: Perfect weather, with many beaches and a thriving downtown area with multiple entertainment zones
This Southern California city is perfect for LA getaways. It's about three hours by car (you can also hop on the Amtrak train). It may be best to focus on a few areas, such as the revitalized downtown Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy areas, the tide pools of La Jolla, and a beach suburb like Mission Bay.
Two great attractions are the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, one of the world's largest, and the USS Midway Museum, a museum aboard the preserved aircraft carrier.
Accommodation: Best Resorts in San Diego
9. Pacific Beach
Highlights: Casual, dog-friendly city with an iconic beach and boardwalk, along with a vibrant nightlife scene
This hip beach neighborhood, a part of the city of San Diego, is a popular choice for mini vacations. It combines reasonably priced oceanfront accommodations; a fun boardwalk on the sand; and a wide range of food, from street food to fine dining. This is an active town, with people always out running, biking, skateboarding, and playing on the beach. It's a popular surfing spot and there are several surf schools, which offer lessons for beginners.
Pacific Beach is also a dog-friendly neighborhood, with dogs allowed on the beach and boardwalk during certain times of the day. For a more upscale experience, La Jolla is right next door and has luxury shopping and dining (along with an outpost of the legendary Comedy Store comedy club).
10. Long Beach
Highlights: A beach city with several shopping and entertainment zones, especially popular in April for the annual IndyCar race
This Southern California city offers miles of wide beaches; a thriving restaurant scene; and a wide range of cultural activities, attractions, and museums.
Visits should include a stop at the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Long Beach Museum of Art, which overlooks the ocean. For great shopping and dining, take a stroll down Pine Avenue or visit Shoreline Village, the seafront entertainment district.
Visitors have many hotel options to choose from in all price ranges.
Highlights: A quaint mountain community, with fun shopping and dining; perfect for weekend getaways
For an authentic mountain getaway, Idyllwild delivers blue skies, fresh air, and giant pine trees. Located high in the San Jacinto Mountains, midway between San Diego and Palm Springs, the town is reached via a curving, 50-mile-long road that rises over 6,000 feet in elevation. The road is called the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, as it connects the palm trees of Palm Desert to the pine trees of Idyllwild.
Accommodations include many home rentals, as well as several small inns. Camping is also popular, with options from primitive campsites in national and state parks to private campgrounds with amenities.
In the little town of Idyllwild, you'll find all kinds of little locally owned shops, galleries, artist studios, restaurants, bakeries, and the beginning of endless miles of hiking trails. The area's hiking trails connect to many popular regional trails including the Pacific Crest Trail.
12. Santa Monica
Highlights: Massive beaches and outdoor recreation areas with world-class shopping and dining
This beach destination is surrounded by Los Angeles but is an ideal vacation spot and LA getaway. The city has some seriously wide beaches and some of the region's best restaurants. There is a wide selection of hotels, from beachfront bungalows to five-star resorts.
Santa Monica is relatively compact, with most of the shopping and dining focused on an area within a few blocks of the beach. The city also boasts the Santa Monica Pier, an old-school ocean pier home to a carnival-like atmosphere and an amusement park.
For some cool, but expensive shopping, go where the movie stars shop: the city's Montana Avenue retail area or the high-end Santa Monica Place outdoor mall.
Venture a bit south of Santa Monica to explore Venice Beach and its always-interesting beach boardwalk. Venture a bit north to visit some more remote (less crowded) beaches like those near Topanga Canyon.
Highlights: Beautiful, unspoiled beaches; celebrity beach homes; the Getty Villa art museum and upscale dining
There's a reason this SoCal community is home to so many movie stars. This oceanside city, just north of Santa Monica, includes 21 miles of coastline, but also acres of mountains and inland canyons (great for hiking and mountain biking). There are a few hotels in the city, some on the sand.
Two Malibu must-sees are Adamson House and The Getty Villa, part of the Getty LA. The Getty Villa is an exact recreation of an ancient Pompeiian villa, which houses one of the world's greatest collections of Ancient Greek and Roman art and artifacts. The Adamson House is the home of the founding family of Malibu, which was once mainly ranch land. The family also founded the famous Malibu Potteries and the house's interior has the world's largest Malibu tile installations
Read More: Best Beaches in Malibu
14. DTLA: Downtown Los Angeles
Highlights: Packed with museums, also boasts eclectic shopping and foodie dining options like the Grand Central Market
DTLA, short for downtown Los Angeles, has been so transformed and revitalized, it now counts as its own getaway destination. What was once a ghost town after offices closed at 5pm is now the hippest and coolest area of the city to live and go out in.
What were once early 20th-century bank and office buildings have been transformed into luxury lofts, hip hotels, and trendy restaurants. The influx of new residents has brought all kinds of other businesses and retail shops. Many of these former bank and office buildings have also been transformed into luxury and boutique hotels, and the city is also seeing a building boom of new hotels and luxury apartment buildings.
The area is also home to the Crypto.com Arena (formerly the Staples Center), where the NBA's Lakers and NHL's Kings play (along with a packed schedule of musical concerts), and the LA Live entertainment zone. LA Live is a fun place to visit; it has multiple restaurants, music performance venues, and things to do like movies and bowling.
- Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Los Angeles
Highlights: Retains a small beach city vibe with uncrowded beaches and reasonable prices, popular for sportfishing and whale watching
This getaway destination is just over an hour from Los Angeles and has clean, uncrowded beaches. There are a few reasonably priced oceanfront mini resorts, and Ventura's beachfront area has a long wooden pier extending into the sea.
Visitors should take a boat cruise to the nearby Channel Islands National Park, which will certainly include seeing a sea lion and maybe even whale sightings.
Ventura has a refreshingly old-school 1920s-era downtown area, with many locally-owned shops and small restaurants. The city was on the Camino Real, the trail of California missions established by the Spanish in the 18th century, extending throughout the state. Ventura's Mission Santa Buenaventura and its church from 1809 are on Main Street and can be visited.
- Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do in Ventura
Highlights: A small piece of Copenhagen in California filled with Danish things to do, see, eat, and buy
Located just north of Santa Barbara in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang really is a little bit of Denmark in Southern California. It's filled with Danish people, Danish shops, and Danish food. Even the buildings look Danish, with a lot of windmills and European designs. The city was founded by Danish immigrants in the early 20th century looking to escape the Midwestern cold.
Don't miss the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum or the Hans Christian Anderson Museum, both interesting and fun places to visit for both kids and adults. The Elverhof Museum of History and Art is the only museum outside Denmark dedicated to both Danish and Danish-American culture. The Old Mission Santa Inez, built in 1804, is another must-see spot.
For an overview of the town, take a ride on the Solvang Trolley, an antique horse-drawn street car that travels in the downtown area.
Surrounded by agricultural areas, Solvang is also a good destination for foodies, as there are a lot of restaurants that feature farm-to-table cuisine.
17. Death Valley
Highlights: One of the lowest, driest, and hottest places on Earth; Zabriskie Point has great views; Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is an amazing photo background
Why not get away to one of the lowest and driest places on Earth? Death Valley National Park is all about extremes. It's the lowest, driest, and hottest of all our national parks. The park is 3.4 million acres, so it's hard to explore the whole area on a single visit. Aside from the low parts, some of the park's mountains rise 11,000 feet above sea level.
The Inn at Death Valley is a unique luxury desert resort, which first opened in 1927. It recently underwent a total renovation and is a very luxurious place to stay in what is such a barren environment. The area is about a four-hour drive from LA.
18. Laguna Beach
Highlights: Idyllic beach city focused on the arts and artists filled with art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants
Laguna Beach getaways are all about art. The town is filled with art studios and art galleries and hosts several big art festivals. The beauty of the curving beach, blue ocean, and consistently sunny sky also make it a popular subject for artists.
Like many SoCal beach towns, life is lived outside, so there is a range of fun things to do. The beachfront public park area has a big beach (called Main Beach), basketball and volleyball courts, and miles of bike paths.
Laguna Beach also has a good range of hotels, including several five-star beachfront luxury resorts. The food scene is also excellent with many restaurants serving all different types of food at all price levels.
July is festival month here, with the Festival of the Arts city-wide art show and the Pageant of the Masters. The Pageant of the Masters is a long-running festival, where works of art are recreated as life-size scenes using real people in make-up and costumes.
Highlights: Exotic, easily accessible international destination with cheap and delicious food and lodging
Although it's not actually in Southern California, this Mexican border town is less than an hour from downtown San Diego. It's a great destination for a day or a weekend trip from San Diego. There are large parking lots on the American side of the border, and most people park their car, walk across the border bridge, and then take a taxi (or Uber) into downtown Tijuana. It's a fun tourist town filled with interesting shops, artisans, and, of course, delicious Mexican food.
Highlights: Low-cost beach resort an hour from San Diego known for great street food and seafood
A Mexican beach resort within easy reach of the California border, Rosarito is about an hour south of downtown San Diego and is great for cheap weekend getaways. There are many places to stay, and it's a chance to experience real Mexican beach culture.
The food scene is great, from nice sit-down places to excellent street food like fish tacos. There are all kinds of things to do in Rosarito, both on the beach and in the water, (surfing, wakeboarding, and body boarding are very popular) along with a lot of fishing options.
Map of Weekend Getaways in Southern California
Best Time to Visit Southern California
The best time to visit Southern California is during April, May, and June, which offer the best weather. That said, coastal areas can be foggy in June. Average temperatures are in the high 70s during the day and low 60s Fahrenheit at night. The weather can get hot during June, July, and August, but usually, cooler temperatures return in September, making October and November also great times to visit.
Southern California usually doesn't see much rain, with storms typically coming in December and January and sometimes in March and April.
Temperature can also vary greatly between Southern California's coastal and desert areas, sometimes as much as 30 to 40 degrees. Coastal Santa Monica might be 60 degrees Fahrenheit in May, while the desert city of Palm Springs might hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit the same day.