Thanks to the beautiful beaches along the Pacific Ocean, the glitz and glam of Hollywood, and the warm, sunny skies, Southern California has always been a top US vacation destination.  If you are planning a trip to the area but aren’t sure where to go, this is the guide for you.  We are offering top spots to add to your Southern California short list.

Let’s face it – Los Angeles isn’t for everyone.  Sure, there is a lot to do in the City of Angels.  But, it has also changed a lot in recent years. It is not the same city is once was. Still, you might want to travel strictly to LA. But, if you decide you want to branch out a little bit around Southern California, this post has you covered.  Many of the things on this list are not in Los Angeles proper.  Instead, we are offering spots in the greater metro area and beyond.

If you are planning a trip to Southern California, but aren’t sure where to go, this is the guide for you! Click To Tweet

Want to know more about the 5 lessons learned from our trip to LA itself? Read this post!

Getting There 

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is huge.  A major travel hub.  Sure, you can use this airport as a starting point for any of the spots on this list.  But it is also a hot mess.  If you fly in or out of this airport, plan for a hectic experience including 2-3 hour waits for an Uber, taxi or airport shuttle.  Also, plan for long travel times to get to your destination in the city upon arrival as LA traffic in the area is fierce.  You will also need to factor in the amount of time it will take to get back to the airport and navigate security when it is time to go home.

For these reasons, we highly recommend other airports when coming to LA.  Hollywood/Burbank is a much smaller airport in the northern area of metro LA.  Further south is our favorite, John Wayne Airport in Orange County.  

Other places featured in this post have great airports that we enjoy flying in and out of.  So, there is no need to worry about issues with San Diego or Palm Springs.  Should we mention now that Palm Spring’s outdoor airport is completely charming, so you won’t want to miss it?!?

Where To Stay in Southern California

Based on the places featured in this post, here are our recommendations of where to stay.  We didn’t have good experiences with hotels in LA itself, so you are on your own if you choose to stay in Los Angeles proper. Here is what we can recommend in the greater metro area and beyond:

Anaheim – Anaheim Marriott

Palm Springs – Palm Springs Hyatt

Newport Beach – Newport Beach Hyatt Regency or Bay View Marriott

San Diego – Manchester Grand Hyatt or Paradise Point Resort

We also recommend using ride sharing to get from the airport to your hotel and back, as well as places that aren’t within walking distance.  Some hotels offer shuttle service, but it is rare in this area.  Because many of these areas featured in this post are sprawling (especially around Los Angeles) you will need to do ride sharing to them as well.  As you will see, a few spots on this list that also require ferry services to visit.

Let’s get started. Here’s our list of top spots to add to your Southern California Vacation Short List.

Santa Monica Beach

Technically, the city of Santa Monica is part of Los Angeles itself.  This beachy spot is a fun place to hang out at the end of famous Route 66. You can spend time at the famous pier (one of the most photographed locations in the world) or watch sea lions playing in the water.  This is also a more laid-back place to go on a beach stroll and listen to the waves crash while observing the lifeguard shacks that dot the beach.  

You will also find a nice concrete walking path south of the Pier. We recommend not going too far south though.  Doing so will put you in Venice Beach.  This used to be a great spot, but it has really turned into a filthy area.

Port of Long Beach

The Port of Long Beach is one of the busiest ports on the coast. This is a spot for many cruise ship departures, as well as a place to catch the ferry to Catalina Island (see below). The popularity means you will also find other things to do near this area. While the waterfront is great, one of the highlights of the port is visiting the historic Queen Mary. This former historic cruise ship has been turned into a permanent attraction filled with unique exhibits, dining, and accommodations.

Catalina Island

Catalina is about 30 miles off the coast but is worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.  The beautiful artist’s community of Avalon feels more like a European village than a California town.  It is full of charm and offers many water activities like fishing, sailing and more.  You need to take the Catalina Express ferry to get here.

Anaheim CTRCity and Packing District

There is more to Anaheim than just Disneyland.  The CTRCity area is filled with great restaurants, charming shops and fun plazas.  Around the corner, you will find the super fun and eclectic Anaheim Packing House.  Come here hungry!  There are plenty of fun dining options located in this festive building. Anaheim is a great city to explore.

Balboa Island

Just across the bay from Newport Beach is Balboa Island.  Pedestrians and cars alike can load onto the auto ferry for a few bucks.  After a brief ride, you find yourself on charming and fancy Balboa.  This is a small barrier island populated with high-end housing, cute rides in the Balboa Fun Zone, and great spots to eat. This is also a great spot enjoy along the coastline.

Sporting Events

Los Angeles is full of professional sports teams. We have enjoyed both baseball and basketball games while in the area.  San Diego also has sports teams. Here, we enjoyed a football game. There aren’t any professional teams back home, so we really enjoy this for something to do. The people watching is always fun and sometimes stadium food just can’t be beat! If you are in the area and are looking for something to do, we recommend adding a game or two to you list.  

Palm Springs

The City of Palm Springs is a good distance from Los Angeles.  But, if you are planning a trip to Southern California, be sure not to leave this spot off your list.  Here, you can enjoy mid-century modern architecture, golf, good food, and an overall great atmosphere. Not only that, but the area is also surrounded by gorgeous mountains! Palm Springs is a great spot to chill out and enjoy a different taste ance pace of Southern California life!

Mt. San Jacinto

Beat the heat on Mt. San Jacinto!  Located not far from Palm Springs, visiting this spot will get you out of the heat and into some beautiful surroundings. You can hike in nature and cooler temperatures.  You can even grab a bite to eat at their mountain top restaurant. The best part is the tram to the top. This is a great ride! This 6-mile ride to the top is smooth and offers 360-degree views as you make your way up and down the mountain.

Downtown San Diego

San Diego is a great city further down the Pacific coast, south of Los Angeles.  Personally, it is my favorite large city in Southern California.  There is so much to do here!  For a good variety of things to do, we recommend heading straight to the downtown core.  Here, you are within walking distance to Little Italy, the Gas Lamp District, Seaport Village, and the harbor and Port of San Diego.  

Coronado Island

From the Port of San Diego, hop on the ferry to Coronado Island – another small barrier island just off the mainland.  The Coronado Hotel is a large resort that offers food as well.  Nearby you can also rent beach chairs and umbrellas.  Enjoy a day at the beach on Coronado Island!

As you can see, there are plenty of spots to add to your Southern California short list.  A trip to the area is filled with possibilities of things to do and enjoy.  We hope this post highlights some great of the great offerings in the area and gives plenty of ideas for planning your trip!

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  1. What a great list! I went to Catalina Island when I was young and remember it being so fun. I’d love to visit Palm Springs and get more of that vibe, as well!

  2. We have visited California many times but always are looking for new spots for return visits. It has been ages since our last visit to Anaheim area so need to add that to a planning list. And Coronado Island has been on my list for a long time to stay and enjoy the spot a bit longer. Thanks for the reminders of why we need to get back to California.

  3. Downtown San Diego and Santa Monica are lots of fun. My dad loved Catalina Island. I have never been but would love to visit someday. Such great options. And Southern CA is a nice road trip to beat the heat of an AZ summer!

  4. Los Angeles is definitely not for everyone, but it’s still one of my favorite places. Some great not-strictly-LA options here. Palm Springs and Coronado Island are two of our favorites! We also like heading over the hills to Santa Barbara, too. This post is making us want to go back for more!

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