Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.
We’re all California dreamin’ once in a while. So when the Golden State calls you, bring along this handy list of hot spots for a family road trip that stretches from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
There is so much to do in Southern California that it can be overwhelming. Take it from a local: Don’t make yourself crazy trying to hit everything in one trip. Plan for at least five nights, so your family can properly enjoy the sights and avoid being stuck in the car the whole time.
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Start with flying into the super easy San Diego International Airport (SAN), and hop the shuttle to its rental car facility. Once settled into your vehicle, you and your family will be ready to cruise to some of the great attractions San Diego has to offer.
La Jolla Shores Beach
Visit La Jolla Shores Beach for warm sand, clean beaches and family-friendly waters. You can bring a picnic lunch and spread out on the grass, or walk into the nearby village for sandwiches or tacos. Up the road a bit is the stunning Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Advance reservations are required for all guests. (Entrance to the aquarium is $24.95 for adults, $19.95 for kids ages 3-17 and free for kids two and under.)
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
San Diego is famous for its zoo, but if you have a car, consider visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park instead for a less crowded and equally exciting experience. (A one-day pass is $65 for adults and $55 for kids ages 3-11.) The safari park is about 32 miles from downtown San Diego, and it's well worth the drive to see wild animals in environments more similar to their natural habitats. Giraffes, gazelle, rhinos and more all graze on open acres of hilly grasslands. For an extra fee, consider the Wildlife Safari package, that allows families even closer views of the animals. (Tickets cost $89 and up per person; participants must be three or older.)
If your kids are younger, Legoland California is an all-time favorite Southern California amusement park. Exhibits and characters made entirely of Lego bricks dot the park landscape. Rides and shows are geared to an audience of 12 and under, but parents and older siblings will have a pretty great time here, too. For an amusement park, the food is good, and there's plenty to keep you busy for the whole day. Legoland is in Carlsbad, about a 40-minute drive from downtown San Diego. (If purchased online in advance, admission is $75 for kids and $81 for adults.)
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Just over an hour up the coast from San Diego, Anaheim is home to the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks, among other attractions. It would be hard to drive past the Matterhorn and Space Mountain without stopping.
Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park
Anaheim would be a sleepy orange grove without the dreams of Walt Disney. His Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park are magical legacies. The parks, just down the road from Disney Studios, are a little more quaint than Florida’s Disney World. I recommend buying the two-day Park Hopper Pass, because you simply cannot do it all in one day (though three days might be too many unless this is your only destination). Admission to Disneyland parks varies, and you’ll need a reservation to enter the parks, even after you purchase tickets.
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Knott’s Berry Farm
Amusement park junkies should consider including a quick visit to Knott’s Berry Farm. Just 10 minutes from Disneyland in Buena Park, Knott’s is one of our kids’ favorite spots for straight-up thrill rides. Without all the Disney hoopla, this park does a great job with crowd management and plenty of entertainment. Plus, it offers some stomach-dropping rides that had us all in laughing fits. Plus, the berry pie a la mode here is legendary. (Daily admission for ages three and up starts at $69 per person.)
Anaheim Packing District
When you grow weary of amusement park food, drive 10 minutes to the Anaheim Packing District for decent grub. A converted orange-packing warehouse, this collective is a group of interesting food vendors spread across two large floors. We love this place because the food is fresh, healthy and diverse, so we can all get different things and still sit together in the center court.
Broadly known as “LA,” the Los Angeles area is vast. It’s comprised of many cities and neighborhoods that run together in a jumble. A car and much patience are necessary for getting around this area, and a good mapping app on your smartphone will help you gauge traffic flow. (Don’t make these mistakes that travelers make in Los Angeles.)
Santa Monica Pier
The Santa Monica Pier and surrounding beach, often used for TV and movie scenes, are a must-see. On the sand near the pier, locals and visitors can show off their skills bouncing on a springy tightrope, rolling across the sand in giant inflatable “hamster balls” and swinging on giant monkey bars. On the pier, enjoy the rides at Pacific Park throughout the day and into the night. Restaurants and shops help entertain those who might be less ride-inclined. Rides are priced individually and range from $5–$12. Admission to the park itself is free.
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At the famous Griffith Observatory, our solar system and galaxy are on display in various entertaining and scientific ways. Exhibits feature discoveries about the planets, space and our views of them throughout human history. The huge telescope was not in operation when we visited, but good timing might allow guests a peep into the stars. Along with an excellent planetarium and various shows throughout the day, this is a different kind of star-struck Hollywood experience. By the way, the Hollywood sign is directly adjacent and looks enormous up close.
One of our favorite cities in California, Santa Barbara, is about two hours up the coast from LA. The view as you hit Ventura and drive up along the oceanfront is one of the most beautiful highway vistas on the West Coast. (You could plan to fly out of Santa Barbara Airport (SBA) or choose to drive back to Los Angeles and depart from LAX.)
Santa Barbara Mission
Built in 1786, the Santa Barbara Mission is the 10th of 21 missions constructed as part of Father Junipero Serra’s sojourn from Mexico to Northern California. Every California fourth grader learns about the missions of California, which means our kids could recite interesting facts about how adobe bricks are made and the fine art of basket weaving. This stunning mission is so well preserved, it provides an authentic feel for mission life in early California. Time your spring visit to coincide with Santa Barbara’s I Madonnari Italian street painting festival, during which renowned artists paint masterpieces on the pavement outside the mission steps.
On the waterfront near Stearns Wharf, you can rent a variety of two- and four-wheeled cycles by the hour (prices vary). The ride along the paved boardwalk is one of the most beautiful in California, with wide beaches, waving palms and gorgeous ocean views. For families with younger kids, the four-wheel buggies might be the best bet. On our last visit, we left our kids asleep in the hotel room and rented bikes for an early morning view of the local fishing boats heading out for the day’s catch.
Near the wharf, a once-blighted warehouse district has been reclaimed as the Funk Zone. Wine-tasting rooms, trendy restaurants and fun art exhibits have given this area a lot of character. We explored the Funk Zone by taking a great food tour called “Eat This, Shoot That!,” a combination of a walking eat-a-thon and food photo class. Our tour guide instructed us on how to take great pictures of food with our smartphones while we tasted and sipped our way through the streets. (The tour costs $135 for adults and $125 for non-drinkers and kids ages 6–21.)
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Where to Stay
We’ve done this drive a few times now, discovering new things to do each time we visit. Along the way, we’ve stayed at some great hotels. If you’re planning your own Southern California road trip with kids, you may want to choose one hotel group for the entire vacation to consolidate using elite status or earning points via various promotions. We chose Hilton, largely because of its extensive Hilton Honors program, that allowed our family to cash in points for some stays while amassing new points at other properties.
- Hilton San Diego Bayfront: Downtown on the waterfront, this high-rise hotel is centrally located with all the conveniences. Award rates from 60,000-409,000 points per night.
- Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines: Overlooking the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course and ocean beyond, this hotel is near beaches and a fun hang glider port. Award rates range from 50,000-353,000 points per night.
- Hilton Anaheim: Across the street from Disneyland, the Hilton Anaheim is in the midst of it all, and slightly removed from the bustle of Disneymania. (Here’s some information if you’re debating staying on-site at Disneyland or at an off-site property.) Award rates range from 44,000–120,000 points per night.
- Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City: Literally walking distance to Universal Studios and Universal Citywalk, this large hotel is also very close to Hollywood. Award rates range from 55,000-158,000 points per night.
- The Beverly Hilton: Steeped in Hollywood history, the Beverly Hilton is an original grand dame and host to the Golden Globe Awards each year. Award rates range from 155,000-200,000 points per night.
- Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort: This hotel is right across from the city’s main beach and is a short walk to the wharf, Funk Zone and more. From 59,000–80,000 Hilton award points per night.
If you’d like to stay at Hilton properties on your Southern California road trip, there are some good welcome bonuses available for the hotel chain’s co-branded credit cards.
*Based on TPG valuation and not provided by the issuer.
The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Surpass Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Business Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Amex Card, click here.
Jon Bailey covers LGBTQ+ family travel for TPG and blogs at 2DadsWithBaggage.com. Follow Jon and his family’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram.