As you enter Southern California, the rivers and trees of the north give way to golden beaches, grassy bluffs, and denser populations. Enjoy the sleepy seaside charm of Santa Barbara—with its red-tile roofs, abundant stucco structures, and pleasant climate, the town has a decidedly Mediterranean vibe. Grab tacos and head down to Stearns Wharf to join the throngs of joggers, in-line skaters, and volleyball players on the beach.
Between here and Malibu you’ll hit a number of gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway beaches nestled below the Santa Monica Mountains, most of which are protected as parkland. Hiking and cycling abound. In Malibu, you may not spot any of celebrities who live there (most of the large estates are gated and very high-security), but you can still enjoy numerous beaches that have appeared on the big screen. The former artists’ colony of Topanga Canyon is one of the last great wild spaces in Los Angeles. On its outskirts you’ll find the pseudo-Pompeiian Getty Villa, which houses thousands of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities.
Sprawling, star-studded Los Angeles has something for everyone. This car-centric city is best experienced on a pair of quintessential drives: along Mulholland Drive through the Hollywood Hills, and from downtown LA to the coast on Sunset Boulevard. The rest of the Southern California coast is dotted with carefree beach towns—see the Queen Mary in Long Beach, learn about the origins of West Coast surf culture in Huntington Beach, or ferry to Catalina Island.
Just north of the border with Mexico you’ll reach San Diego and its high-end neighbor, La Jolla. Even with a population of more than 3 million people, San Diego still feels like an infinitely walkable small town. Museum-hop in lush Balboa Park, see animals in action at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, and catch a glimpse of the historic and cinematic Hotel del Coronado.