Should I stay or should I go?
That's the challenge I face when I visit a new city. Do I stay and explore this cool new place, or do I venture out on a few day trips?
I’m afraid Los Angeles doesn’t make this choice easy. After thirty years of living in and near LA, I still haven’t seen it all. But then I must admit that there are so many fun things to do in Southern California as well.
Whether you decide to stay or go, I'll share our favorite day trips from Los Angeles with you. All of these destinations could be weekend getaways from Los Angeles--it really depends on your time and budget. But I’ll provide enough information to keep you busy for a few days should you choose to go.
And when planning your trip to Los Angeles and the Golden State, be sure to do a bit of research about the best time to visit California. You'll definitely have a better time if you choose a season with optimal weather and minimal crowds.
Be prepared for your trip to Los Angeles with the Lonely Planet Travel Guide.
For each of the Los Angeles day trips discussed, I’ll share the approximate travel time. Choosing where you go may depend on how much time you have. Pasadena and Malibu can be seen in a few hours, but heading to San Diego requires the entire day. I’ve organized this article in order of time, beginning with the closest trips and ending with the furthest. And in the event you don't have time for a day trip, consider visiting one of these hidden gems in Los Angeles.
The choice is also dependent on the transportation you have available while visiting LA. For visitors with a car, all of these cities can be reached on the freeway. Otherwise, registering for a tour can be a nice alternative (this can also be a great way not to drive in Southern California traffic). I’ll give tour options that provide a good itinerary for the day.
Finally, some of these options are seasonal, so I’ll give my recommendations on what time of year is best for each location
This city is famous for its annual Rose Parade, but it has so much more to offer.
One of the top things to do in Pasadena is the Huntington Library and Gardens. I’ve been visiting the Huntington for over twenty years and never tire of it. With 120 acres of gardens and an extensive art and rare book collection, the Huntington could be its own day trip. When hunger strikes there are five dining options to choose from with the most notable being the Rose Garden Tea Room (be sure to make reservations far in advance for the tea room).
But if you don’t want to spend the entire day at the Huntington, then consider a visit to the Norton Simon Museum, well known for its collection of 19th century American and European paintings.
Finally, head to Old Pasadena for some shopping and dining. I personally love the selection of really good coffee shops like Blue Bottle, Copa Vida, and Intelligentsia. For lunch or dinner consider Mi Piace, La Grande Orange Cafe, or Green Street Tavern.
Driving from Pasadena to LA should take about 30 minutes. The weather tends to be nice year round.
The drive west to Malibu will take you through some of the most congested areas of LA, but the result is miles of sandy beaches and endless views of the Pacific Ocean.
Start at the Getty Villa to see the recreation of an ancient Roman country house. Either take one of the free tours to learn more about the villa, or just stroll the grounds to enjoy the art and gardens. The Villa offers an impressive collection of ancient antiquities. Admission is free, but there is a charge for parking.
If a museum isn’t for you, then what about a hike in Malibu? There are several options including Escondido Falls, Malibu Creek State Park and Zuma Canyon Trail. Malibu trails are among the most popular in LA County, so you won’t have them to yourself, but they do offer some of the best views in Southern California. And this terrain is rugged, so be sure to bring your hiking poles.
Finally, head to Malibu Farm, located on Malibu Pier, for lunch or dinner. This farm-to-table restaurant is very popular with locals and has been known for celebrity sightings.
Due to traffic on the Westside of Los Angeles, the drive to Malibu can take up to an hour, but it’s a lovely day trip any time of year.
This upscale beach town just gets better and better. Anyone looking for a romantic day trip with fantastic food should head to the recently renovated Lido Marina Village. Stroll through the shops, take in the ocean views, and then enjoy lunch at Malibu Farm or Lido Bottle Works. If you’re like me and enjoy independent bookstores, spend some time browsing at Lido Village Books.
After lunch, take a quick sail or cruise through the harbor to get a view of Newport from the water. Expect to see the impressive homes of corporate tycoons and celebrities.
If you’re traveling with kids or grandkids, another fun option in Newport is the Balboa Pier and the nearby Balboa Fun Zone. Jason and I spent many date nights here during high school walking along the pier and then playing several rounds of skee ball.
The drive from LA to Newport Beach is a bit longer than an hour, and fortunately, this town experiences mild weather most of the year.
A bit further south is another classic Southern California beach town, Laguna Beach. My recommendation is to head to Heisler Park first. This one mile park stretches along the oceanfront and provides lovely views along with plenty of spots for a lunchtime picnic. If you want to hang-out on the beach, the park encompasses Main Beach, a place for relaxing on the sand or playing volleyball.
Near the beach and park is Laguna Art Museum, a small, but excellent museum often featuring local artists. Or explore the many art galleries in this town by driving further south along Pacific Coast Highway.
Deciding what time of year to visit Laguna depends on your interests. Art lovers will want to come late June through August and partake in the Pageant of the Masters, Sawdust Festival and Laguna Art-A-Fair. It will be crowded, but these are some of the most unique events and festivals in the country.
While you’re here, enjoy a meal at one of many ocean view restaurants including Las Brisas, Driftwood Kitchen, and The Cliff at Laguna Village. If you can't decide where to eat, then consider a food tour instead.
If art isn’t your thing, then come September through May and expect the weather to be mild. The drive from Los Angeles to Laguna Beach takes an hour and a half.
Don't forget your camera! We recommend and use the Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Camera.
If you’re craving a small town surrounded by nature with a few wineries thrown in for fun, then Ojai is the day trip for you.
Start in the downtown village with some shopping time amongst the small boutiques. My favorite store here is Bart’s Books which claims to be the largest independent outdoor bookstore in the U.S. Before visiting Bart’s, I didn’t even know there were outdoor bookstores!
Next, take your pick between a bike ride or hike. For biking, pick-up your rental from one of the shops downtown and follow the Ojai Valley Trail which was a former railway line. For hiking in Ojai head to Los Padres National Forest and choose from several different trails including my personal favorite, Shelf Trail.
Finally, for some wine tasting and games head to Topa Mountain Winery. Start in the tasting room to sample their current selection. But don’t stay indoors when there is cornhole and Connect Four waiting for you outside. There is ample outdoor seating at Topa, so feel free to bring a picnic lunch.
Getting from Los Angeles to Ojai by car will take about two hours and the weather is nice year round.
I love the retro charm of Palm Springs where you can appreciate the mid-century modern buildings as you drive along Palm Canyon Drive--the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center, the Architecture and Design Center and even a Bank of America. If you really love this style of design, and want to make a weekend of it, then consider a stay at a retro hotel like V Palm Springs or Ace Hotel & Swim Club.
First-time visitors will undoubtedly notice the thousands of windmills along the 10 Freeway in the Coachella Valley. If you’re interested in wind power and sustainable energy, be sure to schedule a Palm Springs Windmill Tour. This two hour adventure allows visitors to get up close to these giant wind turbines and learn all about the industry and its history in the valley. (Read all about my adventure on the Palm Springs Windmill Tour!)
Other recommended activities include the Palm Springs Art Museum and Palm Springs Air Museum. For real architecture buffs, schedule a tour of the mid-century modern homes. When it’s time to eat I recommend Sherman’s Deli & Bakery, Draughtsman or King’s Highway.
The drive from LA to Palm Springs takes a little over two hours. It’s really important for visitors to understand the desert climate before choosing this day trip. Summer temperatures are regularly over 100 degrees. This can be a great time of year for those who love the heat and are looking for great hotel deals. However, if the heat isn’t for you, then I recommend a visit between November and April.
Skip the driving and take this all day tour to Palm Springs to see all the best sights.
San Diego has a special place in my heart since it’s where I attended college. I know this city well and could give visitors a month long itinerary. But our time is limited to a day trip so I’ll focus on the highlights.
One of my favorite destinations in San Diego is Balboa Park. This 1200 acre park offers museums, gardens, a world famous zoo and endless green spaces. Among the 17 museums of Balboa Park I recommend the San Diego Museum of Art, the Air & Space Museum, and the Timken Museum of Art. If you enjoy gardens, you’ll have plenty of options including my favorite, The Japanese Friendship Garden. There is no admission charge for the park and parking is free.
An entire day can definitely be spent in Balboa Park, but if you’d like to see more of the city, I recommend heading to Liberty Station to see a piece of U.S. Navy history while eating some delicious food.
Liberty Station was formerly the Naval Training Center (NTC). Opened to the first recruits in 1923, the NTC trained 50,000 recruits a year for 60 years. Now the old Mess Hall is a food hall, and the former dormitories house art studios, museums, restaurants and boutiques.
In the food hall--Liberty Public Market--I recommend Parana Empanadas. For a sit down restaurant be sure to check-out Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens.
LA to San Diego is approximately a 2 and a half hour drive, so you’ll want to set aside a full day for this trip. Fortunately, it’s a year-round destination with temperate weather.
Skip the driving by taking this full day tour to San Diego and see all the top sights.
Bonus Day Trip From LA–Joshua Tree National Park
About six months after I wrote this article I had the chance to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Outdoors lovers looking for day trips from Los Angeles should definitely consider this park which is a two and a half hour drive from the city. Spend some time driving through the park enjoying the scenery, or get out on a trail. Jason and I chose to hike the 49 Palms Oasis Trail which is both challenging and beautiful. Be sure to stop at the visitors center after entering the park to learn more about the area and see what activities are being offered. And if you haven't already, purchase your America The Beautiful Pass for $80 which gives you admission to all national parks for one year.
Best Day Trips from Los Angeles
There’s no lack of choices for day trips! And if your schedule permits, these are all great options for weekend trips from Los Angeles as well. Ultimately it depends on your time, budget and interests.
A few final thoughts. Los Angeles--and even Southern California-- traffic can be pretty bad. Allow yourself plenty of time in transit. These trips aren’t intended for strict itineraries. Also, when possible, schedule your trip on a weekday. All of these locations are as popular for locals as they are from visitors out of state.