Visiting SoCal? From South Central Beaches to San Diego, here are the best things to do in the Southern part of California
Wine Tasting Temecula
Northern California is renowned for its wine, but did you know that the Southern part of the state also has delectable wine?
Temecula is a charming little town just to the East of San Diego. The tourist town features an old Western atmosphere and motif with a modern, clean feel. The city, nestled among a slew of local wineries, is the epicenter of the Socal wine industry.
Hire a limo or small bus with a group of friends for the best Temecula wine-tasting experience. You can hop from vineyard to vineyard without worrying about who has to drive home.
Add Wilson Creek to your winery list and try some of their iconic almond champagne. The delectable vintage dances on your tastebuds with the sweet yet slightly nutty almond flavor. I dare you to leave without a bottle.
San Diego Zoo
In the iconic show “Friends,” Ross must give up his beloved pet monkey Marcel to a zoo. Much like a parent hoping for the best college for his child, Ross dreams of getting Marcel accepted into the zoo of all zoos: San Diego.
The show wasn’t exaggerating. San Diego Zoo is one of the best zoos in the county and a marvel of animal welfare and conservation.
The Balboa Park zoo is home to nearly four thousand animals representing over 600 species from across the globe. It also features a lush botanical garden showcasing over 7000 plant species.
A fun bonus of the zoo is the sky tram, a unique way to transverse the park. Observe the grounds from above as you travel from one end of the park to another via sky tram!
San Diego Safari Park
The sister to the magnificent zoo is the iconic San Diego Safari Park. Often referred to as the wild animal park, this 1800-acre park is the best way to see wild animals in their natural environments. Most of this park’s residents are in massive enclosures and can roam freely with other species, as they would in their native habitats.
The predators are kept in separate enclosures to prevent mishaps, but they have huge territories to explore and considerable engagement opportunities.
Although you can’t drive a personal vehicle through the park, you can upgrade from a walking tour (don’t worry – all enclosures are fenced in!) to a guided safari tour, which brings you as close as safely possible to the animals. If you’re lucky, you can even hand-feed a giraffe!
San Diego Brewery Hopping
Small microbrews are all the rage, and you wouldn’t think San Diego is at the leading edge of that trend, but it is. Breweries hailing from San Diego receive countless national and even international prestige.
There are nearly 100 breweries in the San Diego area, and it’s almost impossible to visit them all. To get the most out of your time, choose your top five and hire a party bus to transport you across the city to each location. Not all the breweries serve food, so be sure to plan meal times into your tour and visit some of the tempting restaurants San Diego offers.
See the Metal Sculptures at Anza Borrego
There are so many wonders in California that people often miss Anza Borrego, and that’s a mistake. It’s an experience unlike any other. This desert state park is one of Southern California’s best places to visit.
Although the desert landscape is breathtaking, it’s only a tiny portion of the appeal. Anza Borrego is home to giant metal sculptures of dragons, scorpions, bugs, and dinosaurs. Ricardo Breceda created the statues, and the monuments displayed in the park represent the most extensive collection of his famous metalworks in the world.
The best time to visit Anza Borrego is during the spring when the desert wildflowers are in bloom. During this time of year, the ordinarily barren desert landscape explodes with an abundance of color, and the hills are covered with flowers as far as the eye can see. The flower show is impressive every year, but rare super bloom events create a spectacular carpet of flowers across the desert.
If visiting Anza Borrego, you should also drive a few extra miles and check out the Salton Sea. The sea lies east of the park, on the other side of HWY 86.
Be warned – travelers don’t visit this saltwater lake for a good time. It’s notorious as one of California’s most significant environmental disasters. Farm runoff polluted the lake to the point of no return, and the resulting evaporation created colossal dust storms. It’s a real-life example of how human pollution leads to climate and environmental change.
Ride the Waves
The Salton Sea is not ideal for surfing, but if you travel back west to the Pacific coast, you will find an abundance of surfing beaches. Huntington Beach, in Orange County (located between San Diego and Los Angeles but closer to LA), is known as surf city USA. The vast beach offers tons of opportunities for water sports.
I recommend taking surf lessons if you’ve never tried it before. I made the mistake of thinking it was easy, and during my three hours of “surfing,” I didn’t manage to stand up on the surfboard a single time.
If surfing is too tricky, you can always try body boarding or good old-fashioned swimming. The water is colder than you’d expect, though – as the currents come down to California from Alaska. The water is an excellent reprieve from the hot California summer sun, but it’s too cold to swim without a wetsuit in the winter.
Dive Bar Hopping in Long Beach
Long Beach is one of my favorite cities in California. It’s not overall touristy but has a ton of charm. One of my favorite things about Long Beach is all the dive bars scattered along Broadway and second street in the Belmont Heights and Bluff Heights area.
If you enjoy a livelier crowd, simply travel a little to the East for the famed second street bars of Belmont Shores or a little to the West to head into Downtown Long Beach for fantastic nightlife.
Long Beach’s most prestigious attraction is the Queen Mary. Sister ship of the Titanic, the Queen Mary began her illustrious career in 1937 with a maiden voyage from Southampton, England, across the Atlantic. She sailed for thirty glorious years before retiring to a life of luxury on the docks of Long Beach.
The Queen Mary still captures the imagination of millions of tourists, acting as a hotel and events center. People come from far and wide to tour her cabins and engine rooms, marveling at the engineering masterpiece.
According to legend, a ghostly guest haunts the ship. During the Halloween season, guests can see for themselves when her grounds transform into spooky haunts and mazes.
Whether you’re into history or ghosts, the Queen Mary is a perfect place to explore.
Venice Beach is one of the state’s most iconic beaches, so I’d be remiss if it didn’t get its own small paragraph. Venice is the famed muscle beach. It’s where all the bodybuilders of the eighties would hang out and show off their strength. The beach still has some workout equipment for people to test out and compete with, but the bodybuilding scene isn’t as intense as it once was.
A flourishing art community and an enormous skate park replaced the bodybuilders. Local aspiring artists can show up and claim a space on the beach walk for free, as long as they sell art and not a crafted good. It’s a great place to sample the flavors of the new and upcoming artists of the area.
The skate park is excellent for kids to hang out and show off their skateboarding skills. Spectators can watch rising stars practice their tricks!
Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica is directly to the North of Venice Beach, and you can walk or bike between them on the beach trail. The beach itself is typical of California beaches, but the fantastic pier community makes it the hot place to be.
The Santa Monica Pier features rides, games, and restaurants. It’s like a mini-fair atop a pier sitting next to the ocean.
My favorite ride is the Ferris Wheel, known as the Pacific Wheel. You can see a good portion of the city from atop the wheel and enjoy spectacular coastline views.
The Last Bookstore
You must visit The Last Bookstore in downtown LA if you love books. The store fills two stories with old books and has a separate room for rare and unique volumes.
The iconic tunnel of books sits at the top of the stairs. It’s a literal tunnel made of books you must walk through to browse the selections upstairs. Take a book tunnel selfie in the cut-out circle for the perfect memento of your visit.
The clever ambiance is a large part of the appeal, but regardless, there’s also something magical about getting lost in an old bookshop.
Eat at the Grand Central Market
While in downtown LA, you need to stop at the Grand Central Market. The only challenge is deciding which mouthwatering foods to sample.
Grand Central Market is a mall food court combined with good restaurants. Imagine going to a mall, and instead of seeing the same old Subways and Burger Kings, you have French bakeries, eggaries, ramen shops, currywurst stands, specialty PB&J stands, and over 15 other small, local, delicious eateries.
The Oldest Street in Los Angeles
Olvera Street in downtown LA is considered the oldest street in the city. Dating back to when LA was part of Mexico, the street honors its Mexican heritage. Restaurants and vendors celebrating Mexican culture fill the pedestrian-only walkway.
The street is also home to several historic buildings built in the Spanish style. These include treasures such as the Sepulveda House, the Pico House, and a handful of old Spanish churches.
All the Art Museums
California is the place to visit if you’re into fine art. Los Angeles has the LACMA complex, the Getty Center, and the Broad.
LACMA is my favorite of the bunch, only because it’s so vast. You can start your day at the iconic light display in front of the building and stroll around various museums, including a Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), an Asian Art Museum, a botanical garden, and of course, the main LACMA building, which houses European arts throughout the ages. There are thousands of paintings by some of the most influential artists hanging on those walls.
The Getty Center is North of Los Angeles, near Beverly Hills. It also has an impressive collection, but even if you aren’t into art, it’s worth checking out due to the fantastic view of the city from the top of the villa.
Visit the Tar Pits
You’ll find the iconic La Brea Tar Pits right next to LACMA. The thousand-year-old tar pits showcase preserved remnants of the last glacier period. During the great ice age, tar-filled chasms swallowed mammoths, dire wolves, and other species roaming the Earth in the Ice Age. Transport yourself to a wilder time with a stroll through the grounds once inhabited by these magnificent paleolithic creatures.
Of course, the pits themselves are no longer a threat (and parts that might be are fenced off!), but it’s interesting to see the fossils paleontologists have uncovered and get a taste of an earlier epoch right in the center of Los Angeles.
A unique thing to do in California is to visit Catalina Island, a small island located a few miles off the Southern Coast. You can take a ferry to the island and spend the day at a beach bar, zip-lining through the forest, or on an undersea adventure.
Catalina is a different vibe from the rest of the state. Though a bustling tourist community in the day, the town closes down in the evening and seems to be a retirement community. Only the grocery store is open past 8 PM, and it seems the locals all go to sleep as soon as the last ferry leaves.
It’s a fun place to visit and a tourist’s paradise during the day. It’s worth checking out if you have a free day in your California itinerary.
Death Valley, California, is a desert landscape typically considered the hottest place in the country. It’s also the driest location and lowest point in the United States.
You wouldn’t think visiting a place known as the hottest and driest would be fun. However, it’s one of the best places to view iconic desert landscapes.
Although it is home to the lowest point in the US, the landscape abounds with hills, rocks, and mountains. Numerous viewing points scattered throughout the park allow you to view the breathtaking landscapes.
The park also features numerous hiking trails and paths. I wouldn’t recommend hiking in the summer, and also, please be sure to bring plenty of water. It gets hot out there!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert is another desert park iconic for the unique desert flora you can see there (specifically the Joshua tree).
It also features spectacular desert landscapes.
California has some of the best theme parks in the country, and I’d argue that it rivals even Florida as the best place to go for a theme park adventure. The original Disneyland sits in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. It’s smaller than Orlando’s Disney World but just as iconic.
It’s not all about Disney, though. The original Universal Studios is in Hollywood, and I’d argue this park is better than its Orlando counterpart. During Halloween Horror Nights, you can even access some of the back lots to see the Norman Bates house from Psycho and the clock tower from Back to the Future.
The Los Angeles area also hosts Knotts Berry Farm, a theme park geared toward a younger crowd, and Six Flags, featuring some of the most exhilarating roller coasters I’ve ever experienced.
One of the best things to do in California is head out into the middle of the sea and be one with nature – catching yourself dinner for the next few days. Of course, I’m talking about the deep sea fishing tours you can take all along the coast.
These chartered trips take you to the best fishing locations off the California coast. Here you can catch various fish and take them home to eat.
One great thing about these tours is that the deckhands will help you with any part of the fishing you aren’t comfortable with. You can even pay them to gut and filet your fresh catches so that you bring home only the edible parts!
Sea Life Tours
If you want to be one with the sea without partaking in its bounty, you can go out on any number of sea life tours. These include whale-watching tours and glass-bottom boat tours. It can be tough to spot the whales, even on a self-proclaimed whale-watching trip, but you will almost always see dolphins and California sea lions, which are just as much fun, especially to those who don’t have sea life around them regularly.
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Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.