Check out our vast List of Unusual, Unforgettable Attractions & fun things to do in Southern Cali
Famous for Disneyland, Route 66, SeaWorld, Universal Studios and tons more, no-one can ever say there aren’t any things to do in Southern California. More than just the attractions, Southern California is a melting pot of different culture. So whether you are looking for some typical family attractions, stuff to see on a budget or unusual things to do in Los Angeles California, you are in for a treat.
When I first got to the States, I wanted to do one thing really bad. Having grown up with Hollywood movies (Hollywood is in California too), I was always intrigued with American diners. Seeing moviestars arguing and discussing while they ordered coffee or pie in a roadside building always seemed like the most American thing I could think of. So when I finally made it to California, this is what I ended up doing once I got off the plane and spotted a diner down the road. It’s the closest I ever got to the genuine road-trip experience in SoCal.
Adam, a photographer I worked with on several occasions travels the world on a budget and when he heard I was covering SoCal, he immediately came up with his list of free things to do in Southern California.
Swimming with Leopard Sharks – FREE and for everyone
This one’s tricky but this (August!) is the exact time of the year to be doing this. In August, Leopard sharks make their way to California to give birth in and around the cove of La Jolla. These creatures are docile and beautiful and swimming next to them while they are casually gliding through the water beneath you in an incredible experience.
The word shark usually sets off all kinds of red flags with people, but these are a smaller species, and even though they do eat other fish they are completely harmless to humans. So if there is any species to start of your shark swimming career with, Leopard sharks are a safe bet!
This activity is great for absolute beginners, as the bubbles created by the more advanced diving gear scares of the sharks. Swimming very slow is the best way to get close. So all you really need is a pair of goggles and some patience and you are good to go. There are plenty of locals going about spotting leopard sharks by themselves and if you are lucky you can join them. For travelers who are new to the area, joining a formal class is a good way to go as well. Birch aquarium hosts these classes this time of the year, so check them out if you are in the area.
USS Midway and Unconditional Surrender – BUDGET and for everyone
In San Diego, the decommissioned Aircraft carrier USS Midway has been a staple of local schools and their museum trips. But if you are in the area, and you have an afternoon to spare, make sure you make it out there. Not only can you walk around the USS Midway and marvel at its enormous size (it carried over 4,000 troops), but you get to experience a lot more. The museum is stuffed simulators, bunk beds and all kinds of aircraft you can climb aboard on.
And for the hopeless romantic who feels this is a machine of terror, designed to dominate other people, or something along those lines… well, there is something beautiful for you too out there in San Diego. Chances are you’ve seen the picture at least a hundred times, framed , on the internet or otherwise. “V-J Day in Times Square” is an iconic black and white picture from 1945. So iconic in fact, that in 2007, a 7.6-meter-tall statue of that same two people made it into Tuna Harbor Park, inside the port of San Diego. If you are here with your loved one, this statue is Instagram gold.
California Redwood – BUDGET and for everyone
From a young age, I was taught that in America “everything is bigger”. While this certainly applies to most of its residents, the same can be said for many other things as well. In Europe, you can take a car and drive for 20 minutes to find people already talk with a different accent. In America, it will take you over ten hours of solid driving just to cross the state of Texas. That really should put things into perspective, and it doesn’t stop there. The supermarkets are huge, their cars enormous and I do believe the average American TV is bigger than the European counterparts. But it doesn’t stop there; trees are massive too in the States and seeing a redwood forest is an experience on its own.
The reason why these trees get so ridiculously large is a combination of favorable factors. The rainfall is there, the moisture through foggy mornings, little competition and the required sunshine as well. Orange County’s redwood forest can be found at Carbon Canyon Regional Park and the whole area is a treat. You can’t miss the green wooden signs pointing you to the Redwood Forest, so getting there is a no-brainer.
Venice Beach – BUDGET and for everyone
As a district of Los Angeles, Venice is very much a part of Southern California and another great place to just hang out. Similar to “Burning Man”, Venice Beach seems to be a magnet for the eccentric, and as such there is always something to see. Think of “Solomon The Snake charmer”, or the “Kama Cosmic Krusader”? These are local performers you can see almost daily, busking on the boardwalk and creating a very special atmosphere in the process.
But Venice beach has so much more to offer. There’s Muscle Beach, with an entire infrastructure of gym’s, health food shops, supplements and specialized equipment workshops. You can sit down and watch a game of streetballers compete at the Venice Beach basketball courts, roughing each other up as there aren’t any referees to regulate these games. Again, this is something I’ve seen in countless movies (Hi Spike Lee!) and finally making it out there myself and watching it with my own eyes was a next-level experience.
Disneyland Park – EXPENSIVE and for families mostly
Back when Euro Disney came to France, half of Europe protested and some people called it a “cultural attack” on Europe. Of course I still ended up going when a girlfriend managed to get a weekend deal at one of the hotels in the European Disney park.
I remember walking around dumbfounded by the amount of money people were spending everywhere, and how well the park was designed to have people consumer and spend money continuously. Disneyland Anaheim is certainly no better and unless you have a serious Mickey Mouse addiction that needs a hit, I suggest staying away. Yes, you get to see all the characters from the movies with your kids, and yes, it is fun “for the whole family”, but I can think of many ways spending that kind of money elsewhere.
I get that this is a big thing for families, but I dislike the way in which the attractions and the stores are set up to make sure as much money as possible is spent. Besides, there is probably a Mexican in that Mickey Mouse suit. I would argue there are things in Southern California that are just as memorable for you and your kids, but at a fraction of the price. The San Diego Zoo for instance…
The San Diego Zoo – Affordable, and for families
The San Diego Zoo is one of the biggest Zoos I have ever been to, and even though I read a a lot about it being “tough” the hills didn’t bother me one bit and it was fascinating to be able to look up the species I really wanted to study up close.
I would consider this Zoo just as much an amusement park as Disneyland, but compared to Disney, this place is much less superficial and kids can actually learn something from going to the zoo. The San Diego Zoo is one of the few places in the world that manages a successful breeding program for giant pandas, which is surprising if you consider that the panda is a Chinese species.
But the amount of animals in this place really is stunning and it baffles the mind how they make it all work together. Many animals have access to wide open ranges, where they get to stretch their legs, instead of being confined to a tiny space. Even the Elephants have a 10,000 square meter habitat at their disposal. Kids also tend to love monkeys, so do check those out as well if you brought along some kids too.
International food – Budget, and for everyone
If you stay anywhere longer than a few hours, it is a given that you will have to eat. But do give this the attention it deserves, as American food is famous, notorious and legendary. The first time I walked into a themed restaurant in the states, I was astonished at the amount of food I saw everywhere. The one word that came to mind was “abundance”. And say what you want, but opposed to the complicated recipes and ingredients I’ve seen around the Mediterranean or in South-east Asia, American food has a certain degree of honesty to it. Basic recipes, and basic ingredients make the taste easy to understand and easy to savior.
I think the quantities are where the problems come in, but you are on holiday. And just because you just bought a bucket of chicken wings, doesn’t mean you have to finish it all in one go. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Doggy-bag is an American invention too. In the meantime, have a look around for these (more international) treats:
Authentic Tacos from Tacos El Gordo (Chula Vista)
Getting good tacos outside of the Americas is difficult, and it often comes down to some dried out salsa chips with sauce from a can. Very few restaurants “get” Tacos, but once you are in the states, this immediately changes. Out of some of the restaurants that make a great taco, Tacos El Gordo really stands out with warm corn tortillas, special sauces and mental guacamole.
Soup Dumplings at Din Tai Fung (Santa Clara)
Strictly speaking Din Tai Fung is from Taiwan, but I don’t care. If you are lucky enough to come across one of their restaurants worldwide, you have to jump at the opportunity. I have ahd Dim Sum on many occasions and while I appreciate steamed noodles, and the shrimp and all that good stuff, none of it even comes close to the explosion of taste that Din Tai Fung brings to the table.
The setting of the restaurant is like a well-organized Meth lab from Breaking Bad, with the cooks looking like surgeons in lab coats. Once the dumplings are served though, it all starts to make a lot of sense. Regardless of how many you order, they all look the same, with the same amount of folds on the top, and a skin so delicate that you can actually see what is floating inside.
But the best part by far is when the dumplings burst open in your mouth, releasing an explosion of flavors you handpicked from the menu.
Conclusion – Do your own thing
I’ve tried to list some of the things I don’t think are very obvious for California first-timers, in the hope that when you read this, you will steer away from the more obvious attractions. Ultimately, there are so many beautiful things to do, see, try and taste and what your friend or partner wants to do is equally important.
My advice is to do your research (there’s tons of articles like “top 10 things to do in California”), and don’t be afraid to ask open questions to random locals. Ask them what they think is the most impressive thing in the area and why, and given the open nature of the Americans, I am sure you are going to get some interesting answers!
Melissa is a passionate foodie, travel writer, and editor working in media internationally and in the USA. She has lived in Bangkok since 2004 and has a background in the travel industry. Melissa’s writing has been published globally in many prestigious online and print magazines for over a decade. Her motto for life is “You cannot live or love well if you have not wined and dined well!”