Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the beaches, the restaurants – no wonder Los Angeles is such a lure for visitors. But should you need a break from all the glitz, glam and gourmet, a different Southern California experience awaits within a couple hours' drive of Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA to locals): stunning coastal scenery, wine-making, hiking, history, culture and kitsch. Here are just some of the best day trips, so charge up your electric vehicle and hit the road!
Steep yourself in Spanish history in Santa Barbara
Perfect coastal weather, beautiful Spanish-colonial architecture, an easy-to-stroll downtown, excellent bars and restaurants, and activities for all tastes and budgets make Santa Barbara a great place to live (as the locals will proudly tell you) and a must-see place for visitors to Southern California. Check out the Santa Barbara Mission first, then see where the day takes you. The family-friendly MOXI science museum and the west coast's oldest pier, Stearns Wharf are great next stops.
If you're in the area around the Summer Solstice, Santa Barbara's celebration is wildly popular and quintessentially Santa Barbarian. It features parade floats, dance troupes and inventive miscellany sashaying down State St – established in 1974, it's like a living prequel of Burning Man. Live music, kids' activities, food stands, a wine-and-beer garden and an art-and-craft show fill the weekend in Alameda Park.
How to get there: It takes about 90 minutes from DTLA on the 101 Fwy which becomes a dreamy, sun-drenched sweep of coast about halfway to Santa Barbara
Align your mind, body and spirit in Ojai
Hollywood director Frank Capra chose the Ojai Valley to represent the mythical Shangri-La in his 1937 movie Lost Horizon. Today Ojai ("OH-hi", from the Chumash word for "moon") attracts artists, organic farmers, spiritual seekers and anyone ready to indulge in day-spa pampering. Bring shorts and flip-flops: Shangri-La sure gets hot in summer.
It's an incredibly bike-friendly town, and the people prefer that mode of transportation, so either bring your own or rent one from the Mob Shop. Nearly all lodging options also offer bikes to guests if you're planning a romantic overnight.
First-rate organic, sustainable and local ingredients are part of everyday culinary life here, and in keeping with the city's bohemian, hippie vibe, vegetarians and vegans will revel in the options available. The main drag, Ojai Ave, has plenty of places serving excellent food, but there are equally good choices a bit more out of the way.
How to get there: Ojai is around 33 miles east of Santa Barbara via scenic Hwy 150, or 15 miles inland (north) from Ventura via Hwy 33. Gold Coast Transit bus 16 runs from Ventura (including a stop near the Amtrak station) to downtown Ojai ($1.50, 45 minutes, hourly). It takes about 1.5 hours by car from LA.
It's always wine o'clock in Santa Ynez Wine Country
One of California's top viticulture regions, the Santa Ynez Valley is a compact area comprising a handful of small towns and dozens of vineyards. Los Olivos is the cutest town, Buellton the most down-to-earth. The most popular wineries are clustered between Los Olivos and Solvang along Alamo Pintado Rd and Refugio Rd, south of Roblar Ave and west of Hwy 154.
The valley's small towns have charm – and restaurants – to spare, especially Early Californian ranch-style Los Olivos, and Danish-influenced Solvang. Nearby Buellton has more of a contemporary, industrial-hip streak.
How to get there: The Santa Ynez Valley is about a half-hour from central Santa Barbara via Rte 154. The route through twisty mountain passes is a journey in itself, particularly around lovely Lake Cachuma. It takes about two hours from LA.
Read more: Top free things to do in LA
Go to the edge of the world in Ventura & The Channel Islands
As the jumping-off point for Channel Island boat trips, the beach town of San Buenaventura or Ventura for short has low-key seaside charm, especially on the historic pier and downtown along the Main St. But, don’t let the off-the-beaten-path national park that is Channel Islands loiter for too long on your lifetime to-do list. It’s easier to access than you might think, and the payoff is immense. Imagine hiking, kayaking, scuba diving, camping and whale-watching, and doing it all amid a raw, edge-of-the-world landscape. Rich in unique flora and fauna, tide pools and kelp forests, the islands are home to 145 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world, earning them the nickname "California’s Galapagos."
Geographically, the Channel Islands are an eight-island chain off the Southern California coast, stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Five of them – San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and tiny Santa Barbara – compose Channel Islands National Park.
How to get there: Ventura is about an hour northwest of LA on the 101. From there, hop one of the regularly scheduled boats from Ventura with Island Packers. Of the eight islands that make up the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz and Anacapa are the easiest to reach for a day trip.
Further reading: A quick guide to Channel Island's National Park
Get California-cool in LA's revamped Southern Coast
LA's southern coast is bedecked with rolling hills, soaring cliffs and ocean vistas so broad you may forget you're in America's second-largest megalopolis. Its also home to Long Beach and San Pedro (say San Pee-dro) twin cities that straddle the LA River and form the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. But these little cities are about more than shipping.
Long Beach has come a long way since its working-class, port, oil-rig and navy days. It has star attractions like the Aquarium of the Pacific and the retired ocean liner Queen Mary, while the Museum of Latin American Art consistently stages high-quality shows. Elsewhere, Retro Row and the East Village Arts District provide a more local, chill city vibe. Long Beach is also home to America's largest Cambodian Community.
A few miles west of San Pedro, the cliffs of Point Fermin Park offer inspirational views to Orange County to the left and Catalina Island to the right. Uphill from the historic, 1874 lighthouse are the 18.75-ton, bronze Korean Friendship Bell and Fort MacArthur Military Museum, a decommissioned WWII defensive post offering historical galleries, secret tunnels and bunkers for rambling and scrambling.
Drop by the vintage 1940s bar Walker's Cafe, which attracts bikers and other assorted characters for sandwiches and cheap beer. Or cruise west along Pacific Coast Hwy past the multi-million-dollar homes and bajillion-dollar ocean panoramas of Palos Verdes. Your destination: the lavish Terranea Resort, where the south coast meets the west coast, for a sunset cocktail or dinner overlooking the Pacific.
How to get there: Take the 110 Fwy from DTLA to the port of San Pedro. Point Fermin Park is a few miles west.
Read more: Highlights of Los Angeles
Orange County brings the beach-city vibes
Connecting Los Angeles and San Diego along the coast, the beach cities of the OC are quintessentially SoCal. You’ll find gorgeous sunsets, prime surfing and just-off-the-boat seafood when traveling the OC’s blissful 42 miles of surf and sand. But it’s also the unexpected, serendipitous discoveries you’ll remember: learning to surf the waves in Seal Beach, playing Frisbee with your pooch at Huntington Dog Beach, piloting your own boat around Newport Harbor, wandering around eclectic art displays in Laguna Beach, or spotting whales on a cruise from Dana Point. Your mission is to find out which beach town suits you best.
Plus, there is always Anaheim and you know what that means: Mickey Mouse and friends throw down the red carpet at Disneyland for anyone and everyone who can afford the tickets. A day trip to the Happiest Place on Earth, where the streets are always clean and the staff is always upbeat and there are parades every day, is sure to bring the grins.
How to get to Orange County: Seal Beach is the OC’s northernmost beach town. From there, crawl along Route 1, aka Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH), south along the ocean for more than 40 miles, passing through Sunset Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente. The drive takes at least an hour (much more with bumper-to-bumper beachfront traffic on summer weekends). Don’t worry: it’s almost always worth it. Alternatively, to travel by train, you can take the Pacific Surf Liner which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. You can jump on in Los Angeles and off in San Clemente and sit back and enjoy the view.
Read more: Best Beaches in LA
Hang with the fashion-forward in Palm Springs
The Rat Pack is back, baby, or at least its hangout is. In the 1950s and '60s, Palm Springs, some 100 miles east of LA, was the swinging getaway of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and other Hollywood stars. Once the Rat Pack packed it in, Palm Springs surrendered to golfing retirees. However, since the mid-1990s, new generations have rediscovered the city’s retro-chic vibe and elegant mid-century modern structures built by famous architects. Today, retirees and snowbirds mix comfortably with hipsters, hikers and celebs on getaways from LA and from across the globe. Perhaps surprisingly, Palm Springs is also one of the nation's gayest towns with roughly half of the population being part of the LGBTIQ+ community. In 2019, it elected the first all-LGBTIQ+ city council in the US. It can be done as a day trip from LA, albeit a pretty full one.
Survey the scene from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; at nearly 6000 vertical feet up, summer temperatures at the top of the tram can be a welcome 40°F cooler than the desert floor; explore via a network of hiking trails. Back at ground level, tour the city's signature mid-century modern architecture, or browse retro-cool togs and design on Palm Canyon Dr.
How to get there: Palm Springs is an easy drive 1 hour and 45 minute drive east of DTLA, off the 10 Fwy.
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Article first published in May 2018, and last updated in February 2021.