If you’re doing a Disneyland trip, you’re probably actually taking a Southern California vacation, and want to see Los Angeles and beyond. Here are tips for doing just that, because, unlike Walt Disney World–the Vacation Kingdom of the World–Disneyland has less of an all-inclusive feeling, so visitors tend to make Disneyland and Disney California Adventure part of their trips, rather than all of the trip. (Last updated March 18, 2018.)
In fairness, this is arguably as much a result of the spectacular diversity and beauty that California offers as compared to the…*crickets*…you can enjoy in Florida. (Native Floridians, I kid. My great-grandparents were snowbirds and I spent a lot of time in Florida, outside of Walt Disney World, growing up. To this day, manatees remain my favorite animal. (Sorry goats.)) Joking aside, there is a lot to do in Southern California, and you could easily spend a week of your vacation doing things outside of Disneyland.
My preferreditinerary for this kind of trip is flying into SAN, LAX, or SNA and out of SFO (and doing a one-way rental car in between) and taking “The Great American Road Trip” up Pacific Coast Highway. However, this post of the top 10 things to do in Southern California is a more approachable list for a first-time foray into California outside of Disneyland. (Perhaps I’ll do “The Great American Road Trip” post later, if there’s interest.)
10. Knott’s Berry Farm
Despite having a Season Pass there last year, I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned Knott’s on the blog (update: since this post, we’ve written our Guide to Knott’s Berry Farm). I’ll admit that I don’t have the same attachment to Knott’s as many people who grew up with it in SoCal. I view it as a ‘tale of two parks.’ The park proudly proclaims itself as “America’s 1st Theme Park,” and from this perspective, I love it.
Ghost Town is well-themed, but with a kitschy charm. Attractions like Calico Mine Ride and Timber Mountain Log Ride rival Disneyland in terms of quality. For me, nothing surpasses Mystery Lodge, which was rumored to have been developed for Epcot, and definitely has an EPCOT Center quality-vibe to it. Oh, and if you remember longtime Disneyland performers Billy Hill and the Hillbillies, you can now find them at Knott’s Berry Farm as Krazy Kirk and the Hillbillies.
Then…there’s the other half of the park. The amusement park. It’s pretty clear just from wandering the park that it lacked leadership and cohesive direction at some point, as newer, exposed amusement park attractions are plopped down in various spots with little rhyme or reason. I have nothing against amusement parks, and these rides are fun enough, but they are a stark contrast here to the more intimate vibe of Ghost Town and the themed areas of Knott’s.
If you can score a deal on tickets or happen to be visiting during Knott’s Boysenberry Festival (that’s the legendary Fun Bun pictured above), it can be worth checking out, but there’s so much to do in SoCal that it’s otherwise difficult to recommend to all but the most adamant park enthusiasts. If you’re only going to do 3 theme parks, I’d stick to Universal Studios Hollywood, Disney California Adventure, and Disneyland.
Of course, there are spots you’ll go expecting to see the twin moons of Tatooine in the distance, like Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and the rolling Mesquite Dunes. Then there’s also the gorgeous hikes through the canyons and hills, haunted moving rocks, starry night skies, and even vibrant wildflowers. It’s a park you can spend a lot of time exploring, and one I’ve returned to again and again despite the drive time.
If it weren’t for the fact that Death Valley is almost a 5-6 hour drive from Anaheim, it would rank near the top of this list. If you’re willing to invest the time (or are traveling to Las Vegas), you will be rewarded by a National Park that exceeds most people’s expectations.
8. Walt Disney Connections
Walt Disney, the man, left a lasting legacy on Hollywood, so it should come as no surprise that there are tributes to him and locations of significance that Disney fans might find worth exploring. (If you’ve stumbled upon this list and aren’t a Disney fan, there are probably better places of interest for you.) These include the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, Walt’s Barn, and Tam O’Shantner Restaurant. (We aren’t fans of the restaurant, but everyone else seems to love it.)
However, nothing is more iconic and interesting than the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. This is still Disney’s working headquarters, and as such, is not open to the general public. This means you either need to know someone, or pay to take the Adventures by Disney Southern California tour. It’s honestly a shame that the Walt Disney Family Museum isn’t in Southern California. I love the Bay Area, but there’s far less reverence for Walt Disney there than exists in and around Los Angeles.
We’ve only been going to Universal Studios Hollywood since last year, and in that time, the transformation of the park has been somewhat remarkable. The opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the ‘big’ thing, but many placemaking projects have been ongoing to give the park the same level of polish as Disneyland. While it’s still somewhat of a different animal (and Potter aside, doesn’t have the same thematic depth as Disneyland), it is a very worthwhile park.
This is true for even those who have visited Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. While most of the attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood are redundant to those parks, one is not. That’s the Studio Tour. This is a 45-minute plus tram tour through the working backlot of Universal’s studio, and is a lot like the old Backlot Tour at the Disney-MGM Studios (back when the tour was good). If you are only interested in this Studio Tour, you might broaden your potential options beyond just USH, and also consider the Warner Brothers Studio Tour and Paramount Pictures Studio Tour as alternatives.
Ever asked someone from San Diego what they think of Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Trick question. You don’t have to ask, because they will almost always volunteer that they think, “Animal Kingdom is nice, but I’m not easily impressed because I’ve been spoiled by the San Diego Zoo.” I had heard sentiment similar to this for years before living here. I get the pride that native Californians have, but frankly, anyone who thinks the San Diego Zoo is better than Animal Kingdom must be hitting up the Green Cross before heading to the zoo.
Same goes for the nearby Safari Park, albeit to a lesser extent. While I think the San Diego Zoo is the best zoo in the United States, aside from the panda display, the premise is the same as any other ole zoo. It’s just nicer. At least the Safari Park is doing something totally different. It still lacks the lavish theming found at Animal Kingdom, but it’s unique and offers an experience that rivals what Disney did with Animal Kingdom. Oh, and when you’re done, stop by Kennedy’s Karne for some life-changing carne asada fries. You’re welcome in advance.
5. Explore Los Angeles
Like so many major cities, Los Angeles is a love it or hate it place. And, I think–almost without exception–the people who hate it only do so because they haven’t gotten to know it. Yeah, there’s traffic, smog, crime, and poor mass transit. There’s also one of the most diverse populations of any city on the planet, beautiful weather, thriving art communities, tons of events & entertainment, and it’s a culinary mecca. That’s just scratching the surface of the “pros” of Los Angeles.
To get to know L.A., I’d recommend picking one cultural focal point for each day you have in the city, parking and doing that thing early in the day, and then taking some time to wander around after that. If you try to cram too much into the day and have to drive all over the place, you’re just going to get frustrated. For example, if you want to visit the California Science Center to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour (highly recommended), do that, and then maybe wander over to Exposition Park, the Natural History Museum, and the USC campus. Find a hole-in-the-wall spot in nearby K-Town for some Korean BBQ or drinks to end the day. After seeing the City of Angels’ heart, I think you’ll understand why it’s a world-class city.
4. Joshua Tree National Park
Aside from Channel Islands (which is only closer due to its visitor center–the actual parks are not), the closest National Park to Disneyland is Joshua Tree at around a 2 hour drive. I’ll be honest: I don’t think Joshua Tree holds a candle to Death Valley in terms of things to do. However, if you are only doing a day-trip, you’re only scratching the surface of each, and on a superficial level, Joshua Tree is fairly compelling.
First of all, you have Joshua trees as far as the eye can see, so there’s that. I was mesmerized the first time I saw one of these and could not stop talking about them…my Californian friend was slightly bemused by this, so I guess they don’t have quite the same impact on everyone. (For what it’s worth, I’ve seen many Joshua trees since, and I still am in awe of them.) In addition to the trees, there’s also the Cholla Cactus Garden, Arch Rock, great camping, fun hikes, and more. You can check out my Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park for other ideas. Suffice to say, it’s a good day trip, and you could combine it with Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or a trip to Palm Springs, too.
3. Beautiful Beaches
Unless you count Trader Joe’s (which I seem to have to visit everyday), we go the beach(es) more than anywhere else in Southern California. Outside of maybe Hawaii, nowhere in the United States matches Southern California’s beaches. With that said, not all beaches in SoCal are of equal quality, and the most popular beaches are some of the worst ones (I’m looking at you, Santa Monica). For one thing, the beaches closest to Disneyland are in Long Beach, Seal Beach, and Huntington Beach, and all of these leave something to be desired.
If you are willing to travel a little farther, I would highly recommend going south to Laguna Beach or north to Malibu. These two cities are home to some of the nicest, most pristine stretches of coastline in California. Once there, avoid the popular main beaches and look for more secluded spots. In Laguna, my favorite is Victoria Beach (followed by the coves in Heisler Park). In Malibu, nothing beats El Matador State Beach (pictured above). The latter can get fairly crowded on weekends, so try to visit on a weekday.
2. Griffith Observatory
There are 3 places we have taken every guest who has come to visit us. The first is Victoria Beach in Laguna Beach (above), and the other two spots are the top 2 locations on this list. Griffith Observatory (and Griffith Park, generally) deserves its own mention outside of the “explore L.A.” entry on this list because it’s just that good (and free!).
Let’s start with the obvious reason to visit Griffith: to see a famous Terminator filming location. That should be enough to sell any sane person on this spot. If not, it’s an observatory, planetarium, and astronomy museum with great views of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and the Hollywood sign. On our most visit to Griffith, we actually hiked out to the Hollywood sign, which was a fun experience, and unlike any urban hike you’ll ever experience. That can be fairly time-consuming, so it’s not for everyone. One thing that everyone should see, though, is the Tesla Coil display.
1. In-N-Out Burger
I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with this one, since I mention it so frequently you’d think I have an endorsement deal. (Talk about #LifeGoals. I’m not one to sell out cheaply, but if they offered me free burgers to plug their food, I would SPAM YOU ALL SO HARD!) Seriously, though, In-N-Out makes the list because it’s a California institution on par with Disneyland (I’m not even exaggerating), and since it’s really easy to knock this one out.
Even if you don’t want to go too beyond Disneyland, it’s still not too difficult to find an In-N-Out Burger. You can practically walk to one from some of the hotels around Disneyland Resort, or grab it on your way to/from the airport. In-N-Out Burger is glorious, and represents all that is great about California’s laid back burger culture. (Whatever you do, don’t go to Ruby’s. While it looks like an iconic slice of California burger and car culture, it’s garbage meant to lure in unsuspecting tourists.)
This doesn’t even begin to cover everything there is to do in Southern California. Hitting all of the points of interest in Los Angeles, San Diego, the Beach Cities, and soaking up their unique cultures would take years, so it’s not something you can expect to accomplish in a week or two-week vacation. Hopefully this list is a useful starting point if you’re visiting, though!
SoCalers: do you agree or disagree with this list? Any other spots you’d add to the list? Places on this list that you don’t like? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share any questions, tips, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!