Los Angeles

Desert Escapes and Beach Breaks: Weekend Trips from Los Angeles

Easy trips to take from Los Angeles for a short break, from the best beach towns and desert escapes to luxury oceanfront resorts and charming cities.

Alabaster beaches curl softly around the teal- and turquoise-dappled water of the bay, which is scattered with catamarans, yachts, and small fishing boats. Forested slopes rise behind, their thick green cloak interrupted only by zigzagging roads and houses that cling to the hillsides and gaze at the ocean. I could be on a Caribbean island, or holidaying in the French Riviera.

Instead, I’m on Santa Catalina, one of the Channel Islands just off the Southern California coast. It only takes around two hours to get there from Los Angeles, via a short drive and a ferry, yet it feels like a different world: one where hiking trails are more common than traffic jams and your trickiest decision is likely to be whether to picnic on the bluffs or indulge in a spa treatment back at your hotel.

Head in pretty much any direction from LA and you’ll hit the vacation jackpot. The City of Angels is surrounded by seemingly endless opportunities for a perfect weekend getaway. From relaxing breaks (and catching breaks) by the beach to glitzy desert destinations, here are some of my favorite places for a weekend trip from Los Angeles.

Sun, Surf and Spa at Newport Beach

It’s easy to find Newport Beach: just follow the scents of ocean spray and seaside nostalgia. This SoCal coastal city is a heavenly slice of retro beach life, the kind of place that makes you want to wear stripes and eat only cotton candy, hot dogs, and ice cream.

That’s not to say it’s stuck in the past. This city’s walkable blocks have their fair share of diverse and dynamic dining options, from sleek restaurants pairing farm-to-fork fare with California wines to sushi spots using locally caught seafood. You can even find hot dogs and ice cream with extra flair and flourish.

It’s just that Newport Beach doesn’t feel any need to be modern for the sake of it, or to show off – with the exception, perhaps, of its annual Christmas Boat Parade, where vessels from yachts to kayaks float in the harbor, decked out in elaborate, twinkly festive lights. The vibe is relentlessly unpretentious and fun, whether you’re padding barefoot along the beach, watching surfers brave enormous waves, riding on the Ferris wheel on Balboa Pier, or dining on seafood or steak in an upscale oceanfront restaurant with good old-fashioned charm.

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It’s lucky that Newport Beach has so much going for it. Otherwise, it would be pretty tricky to drag yourself from The Resort at Pelican Hill, one of the area’s best hotels for romance, relaxation, and pretty much everything in-between. The Italian-style property perches in serene style above the ocean, with beach-chic accommodation surrounded by vast grounds that encompass upscale restaurants, pools, and a golf course.

Hotel The Resort at Pelican Hill

Top rated
Newport Beach
9.2 Excellent (1929 reviews)

A Soothing Stay with Bohemian Spirit in Ojai

Arriving in Ojai, less than two hours’ drive north of Los Angeles, is a little like being pulled into a bubble. A beautiful, bohemian bubble where only lovely things exist. The tiny city is known for its arty, hippyish tendencies and its sunsets, known delightfully as “pink moments” due to the rosy light that washes over the Topatoga Mountains. Clouds billow like candy floss, adding to the sense that you’ve somehow entered a fantasy world.

But Ojai is, thankfully, a real place. Spend an hour or three wandering around the downtown, where shops sell healing crystals, fragrant candles, innovative artworks, and dreamy clothes. Then taste your way around the dynamic food scene, trying everything from peppery olive oil to the absolute best tamales. You’ll probably want to stay inside this bubble indefinitely.

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The best seats for watching the famous sunsets are exclusive to guests at the Ojai Valley Inn, a hotel that neatly epitomizes the city’s free and fanciful spirit. Actually, some of them aren’t seats at all, as you can watch the sky show from the pool, reclining on a sun bed, or lounging in a cabana. Many of the rooms – whose timeless decor dances a beautiful balance between rustic and romantic – have terraces with mountain views, too.

Ojai Valley Inn

Top rated
Ojai
9.3 Excellent (1431 reviews)

Modernist Heaven and Heavenly Dining in Palm Springs

To drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs is to follow in some pretty stellar footsteps – or tire tracks. This desert oasis has long been a playground for the Hollywood elite; a glitzy, glamorous getaway for stars ranging from Elvis Presley to Elizabeth Taylor. Their suitably lavish homes still stand in the Sonoran Desert city, tucked on streets trimmed by willowy palm trees and surrounded by mountains. Tours highlighting Palm Springs’ famed mid-century-modern architecture point out buildings like Frank Sinatra’s estate, which has a guitar-shaped pool, and the place where Presley honeymooned with Priscilla.

It’s easy to see how it become the weekend getaway of choice for the jet-set and the Rat Pack, in whose languid footsteps you can also follow while in town. Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. et al could often be found sipping potent martinis at Melvyn’s Restaurant, or slurping clams linguine at Johnny Costa’s. The best way to kill time between meals is to simply wander, gazing at the hazy desert backdrop, visiting galleries in the Uptown Design District, and browsing boutiques and design stores on Palm Canyon Drive.

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Compact Palm Springs overflows with suitably stylish accommodation options. For me, though, Le Parker M stands out even in such glamorous company. Everything is just-so, from the impeccably mixed cocktails to the pops of color and quirky decor that run throughout the hotel.

Le Parker M

Palm Springs
8.4 Very good (823 reviews)

A Luxury Island Escape to Santa Catalina

There’s nothing typical about Santa Catalina Island, especially the fact that this island idyll is just an hour’s ferry ride from Long Beach (it takes around half an hour to get to the port from Los Angeles). Its singular natural beauty is matched by a fascinating history.

The island, once owned by chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley Jr, has always been sprinkled with stardust: Marilyn Monroe, then Norma Jean, once lived here, while the still-standing Art Deco theater and ballroom, Catalina Casino, has hosted stars including Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. Even the herd of shaggy bison grazing the hillsides is descended from Hollywood royalty, introduced when 1924 movie The Vanishing American was filmed here.

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Sleek Hotel Metropole overlooks Avalon Bay in the busiest part of the island, where the streets and waterside are lined with seafood restaurants, locally focused craft shops, and tiki bars. It’s so close to the water, in fact, you can almost touch it: especially from chic, soothingly decorated suites with windows and balconies framing palm trees, boats, and endless blue.

Metropole

Avalon
8.3 Very good (468 reviews)

Coastal Hikes and Golden Sunsets in La Jolla

Buzzy San Diego, around two hours south of Los Angeles, is popular for weekend breaks and even day (or night) trips. Nearby La Jolla is a little more low-key, which is what makes it such a perfect escape for Angelenos seeking a change of pace. It’s stylish without being showy, upscale without being exclusive, and gorgeous without even a hint of ego. The compact downtown area is reason enough for a trip. Every block is charming and, often, unexpected. There’s labyrinthine D.G. Wills Books, Legends Gallery – filled with rare art by whimsical children’s author Dr. Seuss – and The Map & Atlas Museum, whose collection is big enough to get lost in.

Even the hiking trails, which wind and wiggle into the hills and pine-topped bluffs above creamy beaches, yield delightful surprises, such as a collection of “hidden” rope swings, handcrafted by locals. Ask around for their locations, but don’t worry if you never find them. Just gazing at the sparkling Pacific Ocean, and inhaling the scents of salt, blooms, and pine, makes any journey here worthwhile.

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The Grande Colonial is a short stroll from downtown and the beach at La Jolla Cove, a popular curl of sand flanked by rocks with sunbathing sea lions. The hotel lives up to its name, from the elegant exterior to the rooms, with classic decor and decadent details.

The Grande Colonial

Top rated
La Jolla
8.9 Excellent (1635 reviews)

A Beach Break with a Dose of Culture in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara shares many characteristics with Los Angeles. Each boasts gorgeous beaches and an ever-changing (but always tempting) dining scene. Each is home to world-class art and architecture, and each manages to seamlessly blend a sophisticated shopping scene with laid-back surf culture. Taking a trip to Santa Barbara can feel like discovering your new favorite LA neighbourhood.

Yet, it does have its own distinct character – the bright white, red-roofed buildings for example, which nod to the Spanish-colonial heritage, and the slower, more languid pace of life. Santa Barbara is busy and buzzing, but never hectic or hurried, whether you’re browsing bookstores, catching a gig in an opulent theater, or sipping wine in a bar that feels like someone’s living room (in the best possible way).

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Hotel Californian is in the heart of the Funk Zone, an enclave of converted warehouses with galleries, shops, and tasting rooms. It holds its own in such hip surroundings, too, with its Spanish-colonial building contrasting with an interior emboldened by colourful mosaics, graphic prints, and plant-filled courtyards.

Hotel Californian

Top rated
Santa Barbara
9.2 Excellent (514 reviews)