Looking for the best things to do in Southern California? We’ve got you covered! SoCal is a super unique destination in the United States that has an abundance to offer visitors to the region. You can find amazing beaches, hiking trails, grade A museums, and some of the best cuisines in the country, all in Southern California.
You’ll be able to explore historical locations, have educational experiences, wander through fantastic state and national parks, find weird and unique attractions, and more when you explore the region. Whether you are looking for a nature-focused experience, a foodie haven, or a city break, it’s all yours in Southern California.
Let’s get started!
What Makes Southern California Unique?
Southern California has a unique and laid-back atmosphere. You can find a huge collection of pastry shops, coffee houses, restaurants, ice cream shops, boutiques, museums, and a variety of landscapes. This is something that you can’t get to many places. But, when you are in Southern California, you get all of this and more.
Things To Do In Southern California Map
40 Exciting Things To Do In Southern California
Feel Like You Are In Paris At Le Parfait Paris
Love macarons? You’ll feel like you are in Paris at Le Parfait Paris in San Diego. They are a French bakery that serves up classic cafe fare and pastries. The cakes, croissants, crepes, creme brûlée, and other small sweet treats are out of this world at Le Parfait Paris. Although they have wonderful indoor seating, sitting outside on the patio really adds to the experience.
Joshua Tree National Park
This national park is one of the best things to do in Southern California. If you’re traveling with kids, you will want to take the Discovery Trail as it was built with kids in mind. You can find trails in the park of varying lengths and difficulties. For those looking for a leisurely hike, choose from the Arch Rock or Barker Dam Nature Trails as they are both less than 1.5 miles and ranked as easy in difficulty.
If you like to camp, you will love Joshua Tree! There are more than 300 campsites in the park and there’s simply nothing like camping in Joshua Tree. You can sleep under billions of stars, listen to coyotes howling in the distance, and wake up in the stunning California desert. The campsites in the park range from $15-$25/night.
If you plan on only making a brief stop on Joshua Tree, check out this budget-friendly Self-Guided Audio Tour of Joshua Tree!
Bishop peak offers some of the best Southern California hiking trails. This mountain peak is located in San Luis Obispo and is the tallest of the Nine Sisters. The Nine Sisters are picturesque volcanic Morros around the city. You can take the single-track trail to the summit where you will be 1,559 feet above sea level. You can also head to the top of Terrace Hill and get views from there as well.
Eat at Alta
Alta is a soul food joint in Los Angeles that is one of the very best restaurants in Southern California. You will find fine dining soul food at Alta; everything from deviled eggs, cornbread, fried fish, greens, mac and cheese, rice and beans, and more.
After you eat at Alta, you can grab a coffee from Jackson’s Cafe or visit one of the nearby museums. You’ll be in a great location to visit The Wende Museum, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, The Museum of Tolerance, and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Morro Rock Beach
If you are looking for free things to do in Southern California, consider visiting Morro Rock Beach. The rock at Morro Bay was formed from the plug of a volcano from long ago. For years the rock served as an important navigational aid.
Today, we refer to it as Gibraltar of The Pacific and it is the last of the Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo. Rock Beach is stunningly beautiful and as such draws in photographers, events, and your everyday beachgoers.
See McWay Falls
If you are looking for nature things to do in Southern California, McWay Falls should be on your radar. This waterfall in Big Sur is iconic. It drops 80 some feet onto an otherworldly beach in a cove below.
The McWay Falls Overlook Trail can be accessed via Highway One or from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Of course, the waterfalls in Yosemite are stunning, but McWay Falls has a special something that puts it in steady competition with the other waterfalls in California.
Visit Lime Kiln State Park
Lime Kiln State Park offers breathtaking views of Monterey Bay, the rugged coastline of Big Sur, and of course the California Red Woods.
One of the coolest things about this park is the diversity of the landscape. Going from the Red Woods to the sea is super unique and it makes Lime Kiln one of the best state parks in California.
See The Dinosaur Caves Park
If you are looking for unique things to do in Southern California, Dinosaur Caves Park may be for you. The park is located in Pismo Beach, California, and has a long history as a tourist destination due to the sea caves.
In the 1940s an ambitious entrepreneur started building a large Brontosaurus statue near the sea caves in an attempt to draw in visitors from Highway 101. At the time, those who lived nearby wouldn’t allow this. However, today, there is a dinosaur park near the sea caves location.
You will find Bubblegum Alley in the lovely city of San Luis Obispo. For those looking for weird things to do in Southern California, it doesn’t get much better than Bubblegum Alley. It has quickly become one of the most popular, yet unofficial landmarks in the city.
Some travelers set their sights on locales that are going to make for the most unique, strange, or intriguing stories and photos. If this is you, add Bubblegum Alley to your Southern California itinerary.
Eat Amazing Tacos From Tacos La Guera
Are tacos from Tacos La Guera the best tacos in Los Angeles? Well, that is for you to decide, but they have made quite a name for themselves, that’s for sure.
These tacos are known for being cheap, mouthwatering/eye-rolling level good, and just overall legit. This is without a doubt one of LA’s best food stands. They specialize in fried tacos and they are perfect if you are traveling Southern California on a budget.
Visiting Stearn Wharf is one of the most fun things to do in Southern California. If you find yourself in Santa Barbara, walking on the old wooden wharf is a must. You can find great ice cream, tarot readings, restaurants, and shops on the wharf.
There are regularly dolphins, sea lions, pelicans, and other fascinating wildlife in the waters off of the wharf. If you are planning on a trip to Santa Barbara, the wharf is an easy addition to your itinerary as it’s the most popular attraction in Santa Barbara.
Aquarium Of The Pacific
If you are looking for things to do in Southern California with family, consider the Aquarium Of The Pacific. This aquarium is located in Long Beach, California, and comes complete with a shark lagoon and sea otter habitat.
The Aquarium Of The Pacific is big on promoting sustainable seafood, teaching children about the environment and wildlife through interactive STEM activities, and connecting people to the ocean to achieve a more environmentally stable future.
Devils Postpile National Monument
If you find yourself in the uppermost part of Southern California, head to Devils Postpile National Monument. This monument is a geological wonder that was established in 1911 via a presidential proclamation.
This is a great place for hiking and enjoying the great outdoors. One of the most popular trails is the Rainbow Falls. It’s a 4.9-mile trail that is ranked as easy and has the amazing payoff of a stunning waterfall.
If you need a shorter hiking trail at Devils Postpile, take the easy 1.3 mile Devils Postpile Loop Trail. This is best hiked from June to October and will have you climbing natural stairs, crossing bridges, getting creek views, and will take you to the monument’s namesake, the Devils Postpile.
Visit Sand Dollar Beach
You will find Sand Dollar Beach in Monterey County, California. This beach is right off of the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s one of the less-visited beaches as it is mostly undeveloped. However, it does have bathrooms and a parking lot as well as an epic landscape.
Craggy rock formations lift up out of the sea and create a unique and enticing environment on the beach. Visiting Sand Dollar Beach is one of the most fun things to do in Southern California!
Maybe the most well-known of the Southern California attractions is Universal Studios. This theme park in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles is home to the Jurassic World Ride, The Secret Life of Pets Ride, and a thrilling adventure called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey where you will come face to face with magical creatures.
Universal is known for being one of the most expensive things to do in Southern California. However, you can truly spend the entire day on site. If you are really interested in visiting this theme park, a whole day full of fun may be worth the high price of admission.
Find your action-packed day at Universal Studios Hollywood here!
Balboa Park in San Diego should be at the top of your list of things to do in Southern California. It’s a stunning 1,200-acre park that has tons of open space, gardens, walking paths, museums, theatres, and the San Diego Zoo.
This park encompasses fifteen museums and has many international culture associations. If you are a fan of insta-worthy photo spots, Balboa Park is the place to be.
Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center
Located in Riverside, California, Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center is one of the best free things to do in Southern California. This nature-focused attraction includes an earth science museum and opportunities for children to have hands-on experiences with fossils and rocks. The center is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays.
Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park has similar terrain as the Yosemite Valley. It is home to the largest grove of sequoia trees in the world and was referred to as a rival of Yosemite by John Muir. If you enjoy national parks, Kings Canyon won’t disappoint as it has light peaks, waterfalls, and everything you have come to expect from this area of California.
Museum of Natural History
The Natural History Museum in Morro Bay is one of the best things to do in Southern California. Your little ones are sure to love the interactive exhibits, games, and activities that the museum has set up for them. The views from the museum are beyond spectacular as well. You can see otters swimming below and the famous Morro Rock in the distance.
Yosemite National Park
If you are in the upper part of Southern California you may want to consider wandering north to central CA for a day trip to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is home to some of the most daring hiking trails in the country like the Half Dome hike. While you’re exploring the area, be sure to check out some of the best waterfalls in Yosemite as well.
Check out this exciting full day tour from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite here!
Stop By Laguna Coffee Company
You can find the Laguna Coffee Company in Laguna Beach, California. They serve paninis, espresso drinks, gourmet baked goods like muffins, cinnamon rolls, cookies, and more. You can see the ocean from this coffee shop and the vibes are where groovy meets relaxation.
Western Science Center
The Western Science Center is loads of fun! Located in Hemet, California, you will find archaeology and paleontology themes in the museum. Visitors can check out fossils, dinosaur bones, learn about history, and see live animals as well.
Mono Lake is near Yosemite National Park and is such a unique natural wonder. Closest to the Tioga Pass Entrance of Yosemite near Lee Vining. The lake is a part of the Inyo National Forest. and is basically the gateway to Yosemite.
You can find amazing trails in the South Tufa Area of Mono Lake, most of which are ranked as easy in difficulty. For an easy hike, take the 0.8 miles South Tufa Loop Trail. For something more difficult, take the moderate 2.7 miles Mono Lake Viewpoint Trail.
If you’re looking for day trips in Southern California, consider visiting the Channel Islands. There are eight islands in an archipelago and none of them allow transportation.
There are no bikes, care, or other forms of transportation on the islands. You can catch a ferry to the islands year round, booking through Island Packers. Prices vary by age and children under three are free of charge.
While Santa Cruz Island is the most popular, Santa Barbara Island is the best for camping and hiking. If you love to be in nature, look for wildlife, and go further than others are willing, add the Channel Islands to your California bucket list.
Los Angeles County Arboretum
When it comes to things to do in SoCal, the Los Angeles County Arboretum is one of the best. It’s a beautiful attraction in Los Angeles County where you can find peacocks roaming the grounds, have a picnic or grab lunch from their cafe, enjoy the walking paths, and learn about the history of the site and surrounding area.
Grab Something Sweet From Arely French Bakery Cafe
If you find yourself in San Diego, be sure to swing by Arely French Bakery Cafe. This cute little French bakery serves soups, salads, sandwiches, and of course delicate pastries like croissants, chocolate cake, tarts, carrot cake, pain au chocolat, tiramisu, and more.
Providence Mountain State Recreation Area
The Providence Mountain State Recreation Area is a unique part of California that is home to the super cool Mitchell Caverns. This recreation area is near the Mojave Desert and has a unique landscape that you will want to see for yourself. The caves can only be seen with a tour guide, so make sure to book your tour ahead of your visit to the recreational area.
La Brea Tar Pits And Museum
The La Brea Tar Pits are in the heart of Los Angeles. Thought you could never experience the Ice Age? Think again. You can learn about Mastodons and Mammoths, see a fossil lab, and learn about the excavation of the Tar Pits at this Southern California attraction.
Hike Soberanes Canyon
If you are looking for non touristy things to do in Southern California, check out Soberanes Canyon. Although this trail is right off of the famous Pacific Coast Highway, it has never been crowded when we were there. It is a 2.8-mile trail that is ranked as hard in difficulty. You will gain around 490 feet of elevation on the trail and you will be greeted with seriously immaculate views of the ocean.
See Pfeiffer Falls
The trail to Pfeiffer Falls is ranked as easy and is only 1.3 miles long. The trail will have you walking over bridges and on wooden boardwalks before ascending a long set of stairs to access the waterfall. The scenery on this hike is really lovely and worth the walk for the surroundings alone.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is one of the best things to do in Southern California and it’s also one of the most interesting. The park is the lowest-lying part of North America at 282 feet below sea level. It’s also the driest and hottest; basically, it’s the land of extremes.
Even the rocks in the park are fascinating as they have been known to move hundreds of feet.. on their own! Some of the best trails in the park include the short and easy Zabriskie Point Trail, the moderate Mosaic Canyon Trail, and the easy Darwin Falls Trail.
Drive The Pacific Coast Highway
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic U.S. road trips and definitely one of the most iconic things to do in Southern California. The road spans 139 miles from Monterey Bay to Morro Bay and has insanely breathtaking views that will leave you awestruck.
You can find sea lions basking in the sun on the beaches, hiking trails, viewpoints, and more along this stretch of road. Major U.S. bucket list item!
El Matador Beach
Located in Malibu, El Matador Beach is one of the coolest beaches in California. The beach is characterized by rock cliffs and caves on the beautiful sandy beach. It’s a popular place, especially in the summer months amongst travelers and people looking for the perfect photo location. If you are visiting in the summer, be sure to arrive early to avoid any crowds that may be there later in the day.
Buena Vista Museum Of Natural History
The Buena Vista Museum Of Natural History is in Bakersfield, California, and is a great place to visit if you are traveling with kids. Your little ones can learn about North American and African animals, rocks and minerals, dig for fossils, and explore the paleontology collections.
Angeles National Forest
You can find amazing hiking opportunities in the Angeles National Forest. For outdoor enthusiasts, try the difficult 11 miles Mount San Antonio and Mount Baldy Notch Trail. For casual hikers, the easy 1.4 miles San Antonio Falls Trail may be more your speed.
The Salton Sea is one of the most unique parts of California. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California and the water in it is two times saltier than the ocean. If you want to truly experience this unique landscape, take the three-mile Bat Caves Buttes Trail. This trail is ranked as moderate in difficulty and shows off the beauty of the area.
Be Blown Away At Nite Creamery
This unique sweet shop in San Luis Obispo is the place to be for one-of-a-kind ice creams. You’ll find Nite Creamery just down the road from Bubblegum Alley.
You can order bubble waffle cones, s’mores ice cream with toasted marshmallows, interesting toppings, traditional flavors, or even cereal ice creams if you’d like. They have appealing outdoor seating as well if you want to hang out and join the city for a bit.
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is one of the best things to do in Southern California as it is home to the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight, the beautiful sequoias which are among the largest and oldest trees in the world, and it is one of the most visually stunning places in California.
For an easy hike in the park, try the General Sherman Tree Trail which is ranked as easy and is only 1.2 miles. For the hiking pro, try the Heather Lake via Watchtower Trail which is ranked as hard in difficulty and is just over eight miles in length.
Watch The Sunset From TV Tower Road In San Luis Obispo
Without a doubt, watching the sunset from TV Tower Road in San Luis Obispo is one of the most underrated things to do in Southern California. The road up to the viewpoint is dirt, rocky, and uneven. We made it up fine in a van, but you have to go slowly and be careful.
Once you reach the top, you will turn left and see a small open area where vehicles can park and view the sunset. This area is also a free dispersed camping location. If you have been looking for places to camp for free off of the Pacific Coast Highway, consider the TV Tower Road camping spot; the views are out of this world!
Los Padres National Forest
You will find the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara, California. After a morning spent in Sant Barabara, grab lunch and head to the Los Padres National Forest for some fun in the sun. You can camp, hike, and picnic in the park. If you are interested in a nature getaway, consider camping in the forest; it’s gorgeous!
Southern California is full of fun and adventure. From mountains and coastline to deserts and valleys, you can find a wide array of activities, towns, parks, and restaurants to check out on your travels. Which of these things to do in Southern California will you do first?
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