Southern California is a vacationer’s heaven. The perpetually amazing weather, the laidback and creative culture, and, oh, those unbelievable beaches make the region darn near impossible to resist.
Los Angeles is the beating epicenter of the region, of course, but there are plenty of destinations within a three-hour drive of the city that are more than worth the haul.
For a charming day trip from Los Angeles, hop a fast-moving boat from San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point for the 26-mile jaunt to beautiful Catalina Island. Getting there is half the fun, of course: The Catalina Express ferry makes the trip in about an hour and provides the best views over the water that you’ll get anywhere in L.A.
Once you disembark onto the island, you’ll enjoy the harbour’s clear, tranquil waters, a cheerful oceanfront promenade with adorable shops, fun restaurants, and lovely hotels should you decide to spend the night. The many opportunities for adventure include glass-bottom boat excursions, Jeep rides into the island’s interior to see the resident bison, a self-driven golf cart tour through the best of Avalon, snorkeling, hiking, zip-lining, camping, kayaking, and parasailing. Or just lay out on the beach.
One of the easiest day trips from L.A. is Ventura, just 60 miles north, right off the 101. It’s got a laidback surfer vibe with a cute downtown, the inviting Ventura Harbor Village, and uncrowded sunny beaches. There’s plenty of shopping, waterfront dining, aquatic sports—and Ventura is also the launch point for Channel Islands National Park, a marine sanctuary sometimes called the American Galapagos.
During your drive north, consider pulling over for Leo Carrillo State Park, a beautiful and secluded marine cove whose fascinating tide pools teem with easily viewable fish, anemones, and urchins.
One of the most popular Los Angeles day trips is to sunny Santa Barbara, a truly lovely city whose downtown makes it feel as though Europe’s Mediterranean region somehow landed in Southern California. Ubiquitous palm trees and beautiful Spanish architecture are the romantic backdrop for State Street’s attractive boutiques, impressive array of restaurants, and exciting nightlife. Visit the historic mission, take a chauffeured wine tour, rent a bike and roll along the harbour, or simply enjoy the beaches.
A short drive east of here is idyllic Ojai (say “oh hi”) and its famous Oaks at Ojai spa resort, which every dedicated traveler should experience at least once.
San Diego is a standalone destination, worthy of an entire week or more. But if you’re planning day trips from Los Angeles, you can still make an amazing time of it, especially if you leave before dawn and return late at night.
A perfect San Diego day would include exploring beautiful Balboa Park, a one-of-a-kind cultural destination with world-class gardens and immersive museums, then hitting the vibrant Gaslamp District for a fabulous meal, unique shopping, and exciting nightlife. Other fantastic daylong options here include Legoland, the San Diego Zoo, or exploring coastal La Jolla.
Orange County’s string of charming beach towns—Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach—are each worth day trips from L.A. for their inviting ambiance, sunny outlook, and variety of fun things to do.
Balboa Island, just off Newport Beach, is quaint and colourful and perfect for kids. Huntington Beach’s downtown and pier are also perfect destinations for young travellers. And in Laguna Beach, sophisticated art galleries, upscale restaurants, and a resplendent shoreline make for a perfect romantic getaway.
Perhaps the most quintessential Los Angeles day trip is to Anaheim, primarily for Disneyland, but also for incredible shopping and eating in Downtown Disney and the Anaheim GardenWalk. You can also catch a baseball game at Angel Stadium, watch the Ducks play hockey at the Honda Centre, do dinner and a show at Medieval Times, or, in nearby Buena Park, visit the wonderful Knotts Berry Farm amusement park (more doable in a single day than Disneyland).
Yes, Southern California has a wine country. One of the most delicious day trips from Los Angeles is inland to Temecula’s rolling hills, where chauffeured wine tours are the main attraction.
Between tastings, you can explore Old West-style Old Town, take a hot air balloon ride, try your luck at Pechanga Resort and Casino, or enjoy a meal at one of the town’s many wine-forward restaurants.
Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re looking for truly memorable day trips from L.A., there’s none more unique and unforgettable than Joshua Tree National Park. This 794,000-acre high-desert expanse presents eerily beautiful scenery, making for one of America’s most otherworldly nature displays.
Drive, hike, or rock-climb your way through to see thousands of the eponymous little trees, dramatic rock formations, an abundance of desert wildlife, and a spectacular sunset.
Did you know that from Los Angeles, you can take a day trip to Denmark? Well, almost. Solvang, a small town 130 miles north of L.A., is a faithful replica of a typical Danish village, windmill and all—you’ll think you’ve stepped either off a plane or onto a movie set.
Come hungry because as you’d expect, there are bakeries selling every type of Danish pastry imaginable, plus many excellent smorgasbord restaurants amid the souvenir boutiques.
The whole town lights up, twinkling, every night, for either a romantic stroll or a lively bar hop. Just adjacent is Santa Ynez, a small Old Western-style town with more charming shops and restaurants, plus excellent wineries.
A worthwhile day trip from Los Angeles is into a small, famous desert town called Palm Springs. Its streets are lined with hip art galleries and eateries, gay-friendly boutiques, and gorgeous hotels and spas with swimming pools.
Take a gondola up Mt. San Jacinto to see the view from on high, visit the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, check out the Palm Springs Art museum, or rent a bicycle for an informal tour of America’s largest concentration of midcentury modern homes.