Southern California is the heart and the home of the California Dream: the broad, warm beaches and Pacific surf, the cachet of the Hollywood studios, the glitz of Rodeo Drive, the theme park thrill rides, and the crack of bat and ball at three distinctive American ballparks.
There’s no other place like SoCal, offering ocean, desert, mountain, forest, big city, small town, big empty. Within two hours’ drive, just about any landscape, adventure or culture you can imagine is, quite literally, in reach. You can go uptown urban in a revitalized downtown Los Angeles. You can surf — or just soak up — some of the best beaches anywhere. Or you can set out on a foodie journey among chef-driven hotspots and ethnic communities serving up steaming bowls of pho in Little Saigon, barbecue cooked tableside in Koreatown, or curried delights from the spice markets and Tandori kitchens of Little India.
You’ll need to navigate Southern California with care, though. This is the land of the freeway. Cars reign. Public transportation lags. Gridlock drags on major routes well beyond rush hours. There’s good reason why the traffic-beating app, Waze, has more than a million users in Southern California alone.
This sprawling, famously sunny region is home to more than 20 million people and worth taking your time to explore. If you’re traveling by plane, you might set down at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles County. Disney-and-beach-centric Orange County is just south, sandwiched on the coast between L.A. and San Diego County, which stretches south to the U.S.-Mexico Border. Drive inland from these coastal counties and you’ll reach what locals call the “Inland Empire,” the twin working counties of San Bernardino and Riverside, where you’ll find Southern California’s desert and spa getaways. A 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, the Palm Springs area, where crooners Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore live on in the street names, encompasses the Coachella Valley and eight resort communities at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.
In LA County, Los Angeles is the nation’s second largest city and home of Dodger Stadium, UCLA and Universal Studios, to mention just a few big name brands. Nearby destinations include such trendy communities as Malibu, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena and Venice, as well as the port city of Long Beach, with its Aquarium of the Pacific and cruise ship departure point. Twenty miles from the Southern California mainland sits Catalina Island, officially part of LA County and the largest of the Channel Islands.
In the land of desperate housewives, Orange County draws in visitors from across the globe to the original Disneyland, which put Anaheim on the map in 1955, and the California Adventure Park and Downtown Disney next door. Other visitors to the O.C. head straight to the beach cities and who can blame them? Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA, beckon along Pacific Coast Highway.
San Diego, meanwhile, immodestly bills itself as America’s Finest City. The venerable Navy town, about 120 miles from L.A., has much to offer. Its famous zoo, surfing beaches and an energetic Gaslamp Quarter are favorites. In recent years, redevelopment has brought a cosmopolitan flavor to downtown San Diego as investors restored historic Victorian buildings and replaced porn theaters and dive bars with boutiques, galleries, movie theaters and many restaurants. Modern Petco Park, home of the Padres, sits smack in the middle of downtown and is great fun, whether or not you’re rooting for the home team.
And spread beyond the sprawl of city and freeway are some premiere wilderness park and wildlife areas, from the Mojave Desert’s Joshua Tree National Park, to the bighorn sheep and conifer groves of Angeles National Forest to the largest national park south of Alaska at Death Valley. A well-planned trip to SoCal can focus on just one gem in this diverse region—or sample them all.
Being There: Surfing the Big One … Book excerpt from Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave
Carlsbad Family Weekend Escape … Legoland and beyond in Carlsbad
Huntington Beach Family Fun, Surf and Sun … A perfect family day in Surf City USA
Perfect Surf Day in Huntington Beach … How to savor the best of Surf City, from “Kook” to seasoned surfer
Southern California: Where to “Stop and Smell the Roses” … Guide to the best publicly accessible gardens from San Diego to San Luis Obispo
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest. Price ranges are quoted in $US. See & Do N/A => Not applicable Free $ => Tickets less than $10 per person $$ => Tickets $11-25 per person $$$ => Tickets $26 per person Sleep $ => Rooms less than $100 for a double $$ => Rooms $200 for a double $$$ => Rooms $300 for a double Eat $ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip) $ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip) $$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip) Shop N/A => Not applicable Tours $ => Tickets less than $10 per person $$ => Tickets $11-25 per person $$ => Tickets $26 per person