Southern California

6 Fun Things to do in Southern California in Your Next Getaway

Find inspiration on what to do in sunny, laid-back Southern California, from romantic weekends in SoCal hotspots to winery retreats and soul-soothing getaways by the coast

I set off in the morning on a simple mission: to locate a rope swing, one of several “hidden” in the hills above La Jolla, San Diego’s upscale, coastal cousin. Yet, several hours later, I’ve almost forgotten what I was seeking. I’ve been distracted by the glimpses of sapphire-blue Pacific Ocean, by the slices of creamy sand below, and by paths that wiggle intriguingly through thick pine forest.

It seems to epitomize Southern California, or SoCal: breezily beautiful, endlessly surprising, and delightfully distracting. And for those who are lucky to live in the region, like me, it is not necessary to go far away from home to have a fun and memorable weekend getaway. From one of California’s most diverse and delicious food scenes to a romantic hotel with a vineyard attached, here are some of the most fun things to do in Southern California.

1. Watch Magical Sunsets By the Mountains in Ojai

There’s something soul-soothing about Ojai, a tiny city with a huge, hippyish heart. Almost instantly so. People wander the charming center with beatific smiles, as if they’ve discovered the true meaning of life. Perhaps they’re just happy because of their sun-washed surroundings, tucked beneath the craggy crevices of the Topatopa Mountains. Perhaps it’s because, each evening, those same brown-gray mountains are tickled pink by the setting sun.

Ojai’s sunsets – known as “pink moments” – are here, and worthy of watching night after night – specially during a fun romantic getaway in Southern California. Rare clouds turn pink as candy floss and paint the skies with streaks of purple and apricot. Spend days wandering between locally owned galleries, and browsing shops filled with healing crystals and spa candles, and you’ll be smiling, too.

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2. Go For a Foodie Weekend in Santa Barbara

Theres a lot to love about Santa Barbara. The city combines beach culture and urban sophistication like few places can. Its walkable downtown has a striking uniformity, with rows of white, red-roofed buildings that stand testament to the city’s Spanish-colonial heritage. Their contents – from labyrinthine bookstores to chic wine bars and stripped-back taco joints – are anything but predictable. Neither is the food scene here and, for me, that’s this standout city’s standout quality.

You can find pretty much anything here, apart from a bad meal. Cal-Mex restaurants and farm-to-fork spots with twinkly-lit patios draw from the area’s abundant produce, from olive oil to just-caught seafood, and serve it with creative flair. There truly aren’t enough meals in a day to try it all, which is why I always allow a few hours to graze my way around Santa Barbara Public Market. The indoor food hall has everything from noodles to wood-fired pizzas, plus stalls to stock up on artisan breads, cheese and charcuterie for a beach picnic. Add in some wine, beer and spirits in the Funk Zone, a cluster of warehouses converted into tasting rooms and galleries, and you’ve pretty much got the perfect recipe for a foodie weekend.

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3. Sleep Right by the Vines in Temecula Valley

Sometimes there’s just too much to do. There are too many “must-visit” restaurants, too many stores to browse and, in a wine region like the sun-soaked Temecula Valley, too many wineries to check out. The pressure to tick things off a list can turn a vacation into a chore. So, once in a while, I suggest you do as little as possible. Go nowhere. Book the type of accommodation that you won’t want – or need – to leave. At all.

Carter Estate Winery and Resort, in the heart of this wine area between San Diego and Los Angeles, is just that kind of place. You don’t need to travel anywhere for a hike or bike ride; trails wiggle throughout the grounds. There’s no point booking a table at a fancy restaurant, because there’s one right here: The Vineyard Grill, which serves up zingy, seasonal dishes showcasing ingredients from the kitchen garden. Did I mention there’s a winery attached? Sip estate-produced bubbles in the stylish tasting room, in a poolside cabana, or on the private terrace of your suite, overlooking rows of Malbec, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

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4. Explore Beach Trails in La Jolla Area​

Chic beachside area La Jolla lounges just south of the start of California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway. I bet it’s delayed many a road trip, though, simply because it’s so intriguing. At first glance, it’s a stretch of ruggedly beautiful coastline, rising to pine-topped bluffs and dipping to sand the color of cookie dough.

Then you start walking, following trails that trace the edges of the Pacific before darting down wooded trails and hiking up hillsides, pausing to breathe in the air, scented with salt, heady floral blooms and fragrant shrubs. You find little surprises, like rope swings hidden in the hills, wooded paths at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and the rock pools at Shell Beach, where sea stars and hermit crabs lurk beneath the shimmering surface. And you probably decide – as many before you – to stay a little longer.

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5. Feel Like Star and Take a Sideways Look at Solvang

Cult 2004 movie Sideways – starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as buddies whose wine-tasting road trip goes a little awry – brought unlikely attention to the quaint town of Solvang, in the Wine Country. Danish-style cottages contain restaurants serving traditional Scandinavian dishes, neighboring shops that sell festive decorations all year round.

Behind the toy town exterior, Solvang is a charmer. Learn about its Danish heritage at Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, and try traditional Danish specialities like aebleskiver (puffy doughnuts) at Solvang Restaurant – one of the movie’s locations. Lead characters, Miles and Jack, eat breakfast here, and a plaque now marks their cherry-leather booth. Follow their journey by exploring the wineries that sprawl across the Santa Ynez Valley, known for diverse varieties from Cabernet Franc to Pinot Noir.

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6. Go on a Surfing Weekend in Huntington Beach

You don’t need to love surfing to love Huntington Beach, the OC beach town that sprawls languidly just south of Los Angeles. The stretch of sand, soft as icing sugar and pale as a biscuit, is beguiling enough, while the skinny stilts of the pier – one of the longest on the West Coast – creates a postcard-worthy backdrop. But it certainly helps if you like surf culture even just a little bit. Because, while there’s plenty to do here besides surfing, it’s impossible to avoid it completely.

Its nickname, Surf City USA, wasn’t given lightly. Huntington Beach has been a hub for surfing since the early 20th century. The U.S. Surfing Championship was first held here in the 1950s and, on any given day, the water is teeming with wave-seekers. Take a lesson, or just pick a spot on the sand and watch the pros at work. You can learn about the heritage of surfing in the area at the International Surfing Museum – where the world’s largest board is on display – and browse downtown shops for colorful shorts, baseball caps and loose, slogan T-shirts. Even if you have no intention of climbing on a board, you can still look the part.

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