California is a state that can be overwhelming to visit its size, the number of incredible cities to visit, and the thousands of things to see and do. Narrowing your vacation to just Southern California doesn’t help this overwhelm one bit. There are still a ton of things to do and cities to see. For a limited vacation, how can you possibly decide where to go and what to do? By knowing where the hidden gems of Southern California are of course!
A general Google or Youtube search for things to do in Southern California will yield some great ideas. However, most of what they cover are the most popular cities and attractions, such as Hollywood, the Santa Monica Pier, and Disneyland. If you are looking for other ideas, whether you want to avoid the crazy L.A. crowds or just want a different experience of California, you won’t find them in those lists.
Now, I love the popular places as much as the next gal, but I typically prefer to see the hidden gems of an area. I’ve found that visiting these types of areas and attractions helps me to see the culture and people of a state or country far better than the popular places do. If you only ever go to Disneyland, you won’t see how Californians live or what California really has to offer.
That is why this post is focusing on the lesser well-known cities in Southern California. Though we’ll get in trouble for sharing these (because Californians love to keep them secret), we want to share some of our favorite places so you can see how we really live and what our state can offer.
So let’s dive in with our top 10, starting with number 10:
This is a six hundred thousand acre desert park located about two hours east of San Diego. The best time to visit is during spring when the temperatures range between about 65 °F to 80 °F. In the summer it can get over 100 °F and in winter it is very cold. If you love the outdoors, hiking, camping or four-wheel drive touring you will love it.
One of the biggest reasons that I love to go there is that it is considered a dark sky community. This means that they purposely limit their light so that you have the maximum view of the stars at night.
You can have a great view of the Milky Way and see lots of stars and planets. It is incredible to be able to have a clear view of the sky without the light pollution.
If you are a camping/ outdoors person, I recommend sleeping under the stars. If this is not your cup of tea, the main place I recommend for you to stay in La Casa del Zorro. This is an amazing desert oasis with 28 pools, spas, a fitness center, lawn games, giant chess, tennis, golf, and so many fun games. They also have excellent restaurants.
9. Ojai California
Located about 2 hours north of Los Angeles, this is an art-lover and spiritual paradise. Tucked up against the mountains, the best time to go is spring and summer, which are high seasons. Temperatures range over the year between about 65 °F up to 91 °F so it can get quite hot in the summer.
Ojai is a microclimate where you can visit wineries and olive gardens. It’s also an artist community with many spiritual influences. The small town is filled with local shops and restaurants.
It is excellent for events like spiritual retreats, yoga retreats, wine tastings, and olive oil tastings. My top recommendation when you go to Ojai is to stay in the famous Ojai Valley Inn. It is a luxury resort that will be a delight to make your home for a few days or more. Activities to try to include cooking classes, honey tastings, live music, and movies by the pool. If you do not want to go the luxury resort route, you could also check out a cool B&B called Ojai Retreat.
Coronado is a small island, a fifteen-minute ferry ride across the bay from San Diego. It’s also the training grounds of the Navy SEALs. It’s a small beach community that is very walkable as the downtown area is only a mile wide and a mile long. They have cool shops, restaurants, and bars. Things to do include kayaking, paddleboarding, and hitting the beach.
The central beach on Coronado was named by Dr. Beach as the number one beach in America in 2012 but is still in the top ten today. Because San Diego is pretty temperate it can get a little chilly in the winter but it is still a great place to get away. If you find yourself in San Diego, Coronado is great for either the day or for the weekend.
There are a lot of great places to stay such as the Coronado Bay Resort and the Coronado Island Marriott Resort and Spa. If you’re looking for a smaller place in the heart of downtown, I recommend the Historic Cherokee Lodge. It’s a small little 14-room B&B which gives great value for money. It’s a unique vintage property built in the 1900s.
When in Coronado, a fun activity is to rent bikes and go restaurant hopping or bar hopping around town.
7. Palm Springs
Palm Springs gained popularity as a weekend getaway for Hollywood’s elite throughout the ages. It is a desert community and here you can lay by the pool, go to the spa, visit the high-end shops or eat in top-notch restaurants. It is also the location of Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals that happen every year in April (so it can get busy around that time).
It gets hot in the summer, but that’s kind of what people love about it. It can get over 100 °F but if you’re just relaxing hanging out by the pool with a nice tropical drink in your hand it can be perfect. Or when going shopping or sampling the cuisine, the weather doesn’t matter because everything’s air-conditioned.
Among the top activities are a hike to Tahquitz Canyon waterfall, which is a little two-mile loop. It’s a pretty easy hike and has a 50-foot waterfall which is the highlight of the hike. It is on an Indian reserve so you do have to pay for entry but it’s a nice place to go for photo ops and to get your exercise for the day.
Places to stay
The chic trendy Parker Palm Springs is an eclectic luxury hotel with some great things to do. They have a very cool spa that’s called V Yacht Club. The hotel is unique in the way they approach everything and they have three pools, incredible restaurants, and cool bars, each unique in its look and feel.
The Karakia Pensione is a mix of Mediterranean and Moroccan influences. All of the rooms reflect those themes. They have a home-cooked breakfast every morning. One of the unique central features is their infinity pool which was ranked as one of the sexiest pools in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine.
My third recommendation is a rustic lodge with a digital detox vibe called Sparrows Lodge. You have a room with an open bathroom floor plan. Each has stone shower with rainwater shower heads and private patios. There is a continental breakfast available each day and they have a pool with outdoor fire pits. There is even a massage tent.
Idyllwild is located in the San Jacinto Mountains, just over the mountains from Palm Springs. There is a small-town cozy kind of a feel – think cabins, relaxing by the fire, hiking, camping, rock climbing, and mountain biking in the pine trees. The average temperatures range from about 55 °F in the winter up to about 86 °F in the summer.
I would recommend Strawberry Creek bed-and-breakfast, which is about a quarter-mile from town. It offers a peaceful, eco-friendly cabin in the pines.
They have a gorgeous deck with a hammock where you can relax and incredible local organic food delivered via a home-cooked breakfast each morning.
Julian is a town that is still in the gold rush era (including still having working gold mines). It is a small town so you can easily walk up and down the street to explore the local shops and restaurants.
They are known for their Julian apple pies which are incredible. Activities include touring through tunnels in the gold mines, panning for gold, and wolf watching at the California Wolf Center. You get to see the wolves in their natural habitat.
It can get snowy in the winter, and it’s beautiful in the summer. The high seasons are in the fall, around apple picking season. Because there are more crowds nowadays, I am unsure if the apple picking offerings are as common anymore.
Julian is nestled in the Cuyamaca mountains, there are activities like hiking, biking, camping, stargazing, and four-wheel driving. On Cuyamaca lake, you can take a boat or go fishing. In this town, you can also go wine tasting or horseback riding. It’s a great little town for a weekend getaway.
Where to stay
If you are not camping, I recommend staying at the Julian Gold Rush Hotel. It is a fantastic Victorian-style B&B that is right in the heart of Julian. If you’re sitting on the front porch, you can see all the people going up and down Main Street. It has incredible food and nice rooms and is a unique bed-and-breakfast in the heart of town.
4. Solana Beach
Solan Beach is a seaside community about half an hour north of downtown San Diego. It’s just north of La Jolla and Del Mar and is just as gorgeous, but it’s still a hidden secret in San Diego.
All of the tourists haven’t caught on to it, so it’s not as crowded and busy as many other San Diego beaches. Solana Beach has eclectic shops and restaurants and it’s the place you would go if you want one-of-a-kind finds.
This city is a great place to go year-round because of the temperate climate in the San Diego and Southern California areas. It can get a little chilly in the winter, but our Southern California default is sunny skies.
Solana Beach is beautiful in the summer, but one of the best times is in the spring because you can also catch the del Del Mar fair down the road, which has the typical county fairs style rides and food but in a beautiful setting.
If you go between July and September you can catch the Del Mar races. It is so much fun as you get to wear those big Sunday church-style hats, eat and drink, and you have all the live action of betting on the horses.
The other thing you can do is go to Fletcher Cove beach to do snorkeling, surfing, and swimming. It’s a secluded little inlet where a lot of families go. You can also go to Tide Beach Park, which has cool tide pools that you can see. If you’re more of a nightlife and music fan, go to the world-famous Belly Up where they have had big names and music since 1974.
A little further south past Del Mar is the La Jolla caves which are these fantastic sea caves and tunnels that the bootleggers would use. If you go to the Cave Store, you can get a private tour down into the cave. Also available is paddle boarding, snorkeling, diving, and kayaking.
There are only three hotels in Solana Beach, and none are worth writing about, so if you are going to be staying in Solana Beach, I recommend Airbnb. Some great Airbnb vacation rentals are available, whether you’re staying right in Solana Beach or up the road in Del Mar or in Cardiff. You can go all the way down to La Jolla, which may be busier with a Beverly Hills feel – it’s a different vibe from Solana Beach.
3. Catalina Island
This is a favorite amongst Southern Californians for either a day trip or a weekend. If you have time, I recommend staying a little bit longer. It is about a 1-1 1/2 hour ferry ride from Orange County with two harbors options to go into.
When compared to Coronado Island, Catalina has so many more options of things to see and do. It gives you a very walkable small-town feel with lots of unique shops and restaurants. You can rent bikes or drive in golf carts (only the locals have cars). You can go also go snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, zip-lining, paddleboarding or sailing in a glass-bottom boat. There’s an aerial course that has suspended bridges that you have to weave in and out of.
I love the four-wheel tour to see the bison, which people rave about. There is also a falconry experience where you can have a falcon land on your arm.
There are a ton of vacation rentals on the island, so that is always an option for places to stay. If you come into Two Harbors instead of Avalon, there are places to camp and cabins you can rent if you are seeking a cheaper option.
For hotels, I highly recommend the Pavilion Hotel located in the middle of the downtown area overlooking the marina and the bay area of Avalon. It has complimentary in-room breakfast every morning and nightly hors d’oeuvres with wine and cheese pairings. They have bike rentals that you can get if you like to cycle. As you are in the middle of town, you can walk to anything you want.
They also pick up your luggage when you get off the ferry and take it to the resort for you. Even though it’s not a big deal, it’s a pain to carry your luggage down the wooden boardwalk all the way down to the hotel.
This is the Napa of Southern California so the main attraction is the wineries. It’s not a small town but rather a full city. But, if you travel away from the main city area, you are met with rolling vineyards, gourmet restaurants, and wide-open skies.
It is beautiful even though it’s in the desert, and it can get over a hundred degrees in the summer. The reason there is a winery in the desert is because of the wind that comes through that cools the grapes which makes it an excellent winemaking region.
Many Southern Californians love to visit Temecula for a weekend away, bridal showers or bachelorette parties, a friend’s getaway, a more. My husband and I go there often for our anniversary weekends.
Though wine tasting is the main draw, there is plenty to do in this area. In the main city is Old Town with unique shops and restaurants. Out towards the vineyards can go hot-air ballooning, horseback riding, and four-wheel-driving. They even have a casino resort just outside of town if you’d like a little more excitement on your trip.
When I go I love staying in a resort so I can take advantage of the spa and excellent restaurants. My favorite place to stay in the Ponte Vineyard Inn. This is a gorgeous Spanish-style resort with great rooms and a beautiful pool for laying out with a cocktail in your hand. Their winery is not necessarily my favorite but I love the resort. They also have two excellent restaurants.
In Temecula, you either need to go to the wineries because they are pretty spread out or stay in a place like the Ponte Vineyard, where you can walk to some wineries. You can also take a wine tour. If you want something a little bit less crowded and more special and unique, I recommend going away from that main road to some of the other little wineries that are a road or two away from Ponte Vineyard.
If you plan to go wine tasting, be sure to swing by Lumiere. It is one of the oldest vineyards in Temecula and has incredible wine. They also pair wine-tasting sessions with cheese, bread, and many small bite offerings.
1. Laguna Beach
This small beach town in Orange County is only about 30 min from Disney and about an hour from Los Angeles. It is an artist community with a ton of top restaurants, shops, wine, and beer tastings, and some of the most incredible beaches on the west coast.
Many people opt to go to more popular spots like Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, so Laguna Beach is still very much a hidden gem with that hometown feel.
Visitors can go snorkeling, surfing, or scuba diving in Shaw’s Cove. The view on Victoria Beach is the kind that you see on postcards. When staying in the main part of town, everything is walkable. If you stay a little bit outside of town, they have a trolley that goes up and down Pacific Coast Highway so you can get back and forth from the city relatively easily.
If you have the time I recommend staying for at least a week, though a weekend would be lovely as well. The busy time is during the summer, as you can imagine, but can be gorgeous any time of year. In the winter and early spring, it can get chilly with some dense clouds in the mornings which often burn off in the afternoons.
If you have the budget for a more luxurious stay and are interested in wellness, the Pearl Laguna is a complete wellness retreat. This resort has daily, local farm-fresh, hand-cooked meals, a variety of exercise classes, meditation, health assistance, and more.
Another luxury retreat in Laguna Beach is The Montage. It is more of your typical luxury resort with a spa and a private beach and pool. They have villas and suites available for larger families or groups.
From the Montage, you can go paddleboarding, whale watching, rent bikes, or take the trolley into town. It has incredible restaurants and bars and is a world-famous resort on par with the Four Seasons and St. Regis.
There are more affordable places to stay closer to town as well. You also have Airbnb options, where you can have your own little space on the beachfront.
My favorite places to eat are Nicks and Alessa. Nicks is not a Michelin restaurant but it is a local favorite with good food and a casual atmosphere. Alessa is a favorite that makes delicious handmade pasta and authentic Italian dishes.
Visiting Southern California is more than where to go and where to stay, it is also about what you do. I’ve written an article on how to decide what to do on vacation (and where to find it) here.