If there’s one city that’s more vacation-y than Los Angeles, it’s San Diego. Therefore, it stands to reason that visiting both in one totally epic trip makes for an absolutely perfect getaway. Between the sun, the breezes, and the waves, your stress will just melt away. Throw in some amazing natural views, good eats, and a bit of roadside kitsch to keep things entertaining, and you’ve got the ultimate coastal cruise. Honestly, doctors should be able to write prescriptions for this road trip; it’s that good!
Randy’s Donuts is a beloved L.A. icon, and has been since the 1950s. The 32-foot diameter donut adorning the building was originally created as an advertisement for a location of the now-defunct Big Donut Drive-In chain. Though the chain is closed, several of the enormous donut signs remain, although Randy’s Donuts is probably the most famous. It’s appeared in countless TV shows, movies, and music videos, including Arrested Development, Entourage, The Golden Child, Get Shorty, Iron Man 2, and The Bernie Mac Show, among others. Beyond the famous sign, they do make great donuts. Plus, they’re open 24 hours (convenient for anyone taking a redeye out of or into the LAX airport right nearby). You’ll find all of the classic styles of donut (glazed, sprinkles, cake, jelly-filled) along with eclairs, turnovers, and some indulgent toppings, like candy and sugary breakfast cereal.
As you cruise south, you’ll want to take as many chances to pull over and admire the scenery as you can. The Point Vicente Interpretive Center is one such opportunity. The center features great exhibits about the cultural and natural history of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. There’s a stellar overlook for views of the Point Vicente Lighthouse, and for spotting dolphins or even grey whales that may be passing by (best seen in February and March). The center will loan you binoculars if you’re dedicated to seeing a whale or two on your stop-off! There’s also a walking path nearby for those looking to stretch and enjoy the ocean breezes.
For some epic Navy history, stop off at the Pacific Battleship Center, housed on the decommissioned USS Iowa. The USS Iowa was launched in 1942, just in time for WWII. During the war, she ferried FDR across the pond, and served in the Pacific Fleet. She served in Korea and was decommissioned for a short time before being reactivated in the 1980s to counter the recently expanded Soviet Navy. In 1990, she was again decommissioned, this time for good, and in 2012 she opened as a ship museum at the Port of Los Angeles.
The Pacific Battleship Center offers various guided tours, as well as the chance to explore public areas on the ship at your own pace. There are tons of opportunities for hands-on learning on this storied ship!
The colorful Huntington Beach Pier is one of the longest on the West Coast, so make sure to stop here for an afternoon or evening of exploring. From the pier, admire views of Catalina Island and Newport Beach to the south, and Long Beach and San Pedro to the north. You can even fish off the pier. There’s a restaurant called Ruby’s Diner at the end, where you can grab a burger and a milkshake. Or, get out there and hit the waves; Huntington Beach isn’t known as Surf City for nothin’! You can also play beach volleyball on the sand. While the pier and beach are free to visit, parking may cost you. Make it worthwhile by sticking around until dusk; the sunsets over the water are amazing.
The cult classic TV show Arrested Development takes place in Newport Beach, and the Bluth family’s frozen banana business actually has a tinge of truth to it; there really is a frozen banana rivalry in Newport Beach. The two frozen banana purveyors are actually called Sugar ‘n Spice and Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop. Stop by one (or both) while on your way through Newport Beach and enjoy a tasty treat or two. Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop serves up all kinds of delights from an old-school window. If you’re not a banana fan, the Balboa Bars are chocolate-dipped ice cream treats served on a stick, and Dad’s is also known for hippo cookies.
In Laguna Beach, make a point to stop off at Crystal Cove State Park. It’s got beach access (including at Moro Beach, Reef Point, and Pelican Point), where the water is awesome for paddle boarding, surfing, bodyboarding, and kayaking. If you’re here during low tide, you can explore the tidepools, which are home to all kinds of interesting organisms.
But there’s more to the park than just beach; 18 miles of hiking trails wind through 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness. There’s also a developed campsite (Moro Campground) and opportunities for primitive camping. The park is in the process of renovating a group of beachside cottages from the 1930s to make them available for overnight rentals. This so-called Historic District is also home to the Beachcomber Café, located in one of the restored cottages.
Surfing is inescapable on the California coast. For a taste of the history of this lifestyle, stop into the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente. This museum is more than just its massive collection of vintage boards (which is, admittedly, impressive.) You’ll learn about the longboards of the 60s (including 100-pound boards ridden by Duke Kahanamoku) and the move to short boards in the 70s, the ties between surfing and skating, and all about individuals who made important contributions to the culture. The staff are incredibly passionate and are more than happy to share their wealth of knowledge with visitors, adding to the experience.
Most towns on the California coast have a pier, and each is different and distinctive. San Clemente’s is a popular spot for locals and visitors alike to gather. You’ll find plenty of activity on the beach, whether it’s a sand sculpture contest or a farmers’ market, and there are a few local restaurants and shops scattered on and around the pier as well. Grab some Hawaiian grub like mushibi (spam sushi) at The Pier Shack to add to the vacation-y vibe. There’s reasonably-priced parking nearby, and you also get access to the San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail.
Carlsbad is a small state beach surrounded by coastal bluffs just south of the town of Carlsbad. It’s a great destination for anyone active, as it offers swimming, surfing, scuba diving, skimboarding, and fishing. If you’re looking for a beach that’s less developed and touristy, where you can just spend some time enjoying the water and sand, this is the beach for you. There’s also a campground here for those looking to fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing onto the shore. Keep your eyes peeled for shells in the sand; there are lots here, and they make special keepsakes to remember the trip by.
At this point in the trip, you’ve seen all kinds of beaches; some quiet and natural, others developed with piers and attractions. Torrey Pines outside San Diego is unlike all the other beaches in Southern California. The 1,750-acre reserve is dedicated mostly to preserving the habitat of the Torrey Pine tree, which, though it once grew all over the state, now can only be found here and on Santa Rosa Island. There are only about 3,000 Torreys in the reserve, making it one of the rarest pine trees in the country.
Here, you’ll see a coast where sandstone canyons and cliffs meet the water. Hit up the visitor center to learn all about the habitat and the trees; it’ll give you a good basis to appreciate what you’ll see when you get onto a trail. The Guy Fleming Trail is only .7 miles long and offers views of both the Torrey Pines and the ocean!
Once in San Diego, there’s no shortage of places to explore; the Gaslamp Quarter, Sunset Cliffs, Pacific Beach… but the one place you’ve gotta check out is Balboa Park. It’s most famous for Museum Row, with The San Diego Zoo, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Natural History Museum.
But there’s more to the park than these famous institutions. Check out the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (it has an awesome scale model of Balboa Park during the Panama-California Exposition with streetcars that you can control), the Mingei International Museum (which houses some of the coolest folk art in the world) and the San Diego Automotive Museum (with a killer display of Harleys). If that isn’t enough to keep you busy, there are gardens and fountains and playgrounds as well.
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States, at what is now Cabrillo National Monument. Here, you can learn all about the explorer, and admire the landscape he did so long ago. There are trails winding through the monument, or you can make your way down to the shore to admire caves and tide pools. You can tour the historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and check out the exhibits, films, and information at the visitor center as well. Between all the things to see and do, it’s not hard to fill an afternoon at the monument!
Whether you’re surfing a wave, watching the sun set from the end of the pier, hiking some of the country’s most unique forests, noshing on donuts and frozen bananas, or just enjoying a good, old-fashioned cruise down the coast with the windows down and the radio blasting, Southern California will put you right into vacation mode. Who knows, the beach lifestyle might even be so tempting that you’ll find it hard to leave!