12 stops to make on your Southern California family road trip

Jun 19, 2021

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We’re all California dreamin’ once in a while. Now that California is fully reopened for U.S. residents, many out-of-state visitors may be planning a getaway. So when the Golden State calls you for a visit, bring along this handy list of hot spots for a family road trip with kids stretching from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

One caveat: 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.

sunrise Santa Barbara East Beach
The view at sunrise from Santa Barbara’s East Beach. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

San Diego

Start with flying into the super easy San Diego International Airport (SAN), and hop the shuttle to its rental car facility (if you were able to book one during the current shortage). Once settled into your vehicle, you and your family will be ready to roll on over to some of the great experiences 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 Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the UCSD Birch Aquarium. Advanced reservations are required for all guests. (Entrance to the aquarium is $19.50 for adults, $15 for kids 3–17 and free for kids two and under.)

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego is famous for the zoo, and it is really an amazing place. However, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a less crowded and exciting alternative when you have a car. (A one-day pass is $62 for adults and $52 for kids 3–11.) The safari park is about 32 miles from downtown San Diego and 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 an even closer view of the animals. (From $419 for up to six people plus park admission; participants must be three or older.)

feeding giraffe San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Get up close and personal with the animals at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

Legoland California

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 12 and under, but parents and older siblings will have a pretty great time here too. For an amusement park, the food is pretty darn good and there is 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.)

Related: The best credit cards for entertainment spending

Anaheim

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 for a visit, so by all means, stop and stay a spell.

Alice in Wonderland Teacups ride Disneyland Anahei,
Always a favorite — everyone loves the Mad Tea Party ride at Disneyland (except Dad — ugh). (Photo by Jon Bailey)

Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park

Anaheim would be a sleepy orange grove without the dreams of Walt Disney, and his Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park are a magical legacy. 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.

Related: Here’s where to stay at Disneyland

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’ favorites for straight-up thrill rides. Without all the Disney hoopla, this park does a great job with crowd management and plenty of entertainment — and some stomach-dropping rides that had us all in laughing fits. Plus, they have darn good berry pie a la mode — it is the same family that started the jam empire. (Daily admission for ages three and up starts at $55 per person.)

Knott's Berry Farm train ride
Rides for both daredevils and littles are easy to access at Knott’s Berry Farm. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

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.

Anaheim Packing District food hall
Lots of great food choices at Anaheim Packing District. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

Los Angeles

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 is 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.)

ferris wheel Santa Monica Pier
The rides on Santa Monica Pier. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

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–$10. Admission to the park itself is free.

OUE Skyspace

Not for the faint of heart, OUE Skyspace is part Hollywood museum/part observatory/part thrill ride as it perches 70 stories above Downtown LA. The views from here are exceptional, with outdoor balconies sporting nearly 360-degree views of the Hollywood sign, Santa Catalina Island, the sometimes-snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains and more. But that slide! Curving around the outside of the building, the slide is completely made of high-strength glass. Sliding down that tunnel means stomach-dropping views through the floor to the streets more than 1,000 feet below (Note: OUE Skyspace was still closed due to COVID-19 safety guidelines at press time.)

OUE Sky space Los Angeles glass slide
It’s unnerving to slide on glass 1,000 feet in the sky. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

Griffith Observatory

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. (BTW, the Hollywood sign is directly adjacent and looks enormous up close.) Note that the observatory was still closed due to COVID-19 safety guidelines at press time.

telescope and display Griffith Observatory LA
The first telescope Griffith J. Griffith used to view the stars, on display at Griffith Observatory. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

Santa Barbara

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 beaches and oceanfront is one of the most beautiful highway vistas on the West Coast and well worth the drive. (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 that guests can really get 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, when renowned artists paint masterpieces on the pavement outside the mission steps. (For 2021, the festival is being held virtually, so you can check it from anywhere in the world).

chalk painting festival Mission Santa Barbara
Visiting the Santa Barbara Mission on the right day, we enjoyed the chalk painting festival. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

Stearns Wharf

On the waterfront near Stearns Wharf, a variety of two- and four-wheeled cycles are available for rent 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.

bicycle rental Santa Barbara beach boardwalk
A ride along the Santa Barbara beach boardwalk is a great way to enjoy this city.

Funk Zone

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 $125 for adults and $115 for non-drinkers and kids 6–21.)

Eat This, Shoot That! food tour Funk Zone Santa Barbara
On the Eat This, Shoot That! walking food tour, we sample great dishes. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

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 palm trees
Every view is fantastic from the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. (Photo by Jon Bailey)

San Diego

  • Hilton San Diego Bayfront: Downtown on the waterfront, this high-rise hotel is centrally located with all the conveniences. Award rates from 31k–60k 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 from 43k–50k points per night.

Anaheim

  • 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 begin from 33k–50k points per night.

Los Angeles

  • Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City: Literally walking distance to Universal Studios and Universal Citywalk, this large hotel also is very close to Hollywood. Award rates range from 50k–60k 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 from 60k points per night.
Beverly Hilton Hotel front entrance
The Beverly Hilton Hotel has been host to many celebrities over the years.

Santa Barbara

  • 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 59k–80k Hilton award points per night.

The view from our room at Santa Barbara Hilton. If you’d like to stay at Hilton properties on your Southern California road trip too, there are some good welcome bonuses available for the hotel chain’s cobranded credit cards.

Credit Card Welcome Bonus TPG Bonus Valuation* Annual Fee    Elite Status
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card 150,000-point bonus after you spend $4,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms Apply. TPG values the bonus at $900 $450 annual fee (See Rates & Fees)(up to $500 in annual travel credits) Hilton Diamond status
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card Earn 130,000 Hilton bonus points after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 8/25/2021. TPG values the bonus at $780 $0 intro annual fee (see rates & fees) for the first year, then $95 (see rates & fees). Offer ends 8/25/2021. Hilton Gold status
The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card Earn 130,000 points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the Card in the first 3 months of Card Membership. Plus, earn up to $100 in Statement Credits on eligible purchases made on the Card at any of the Hilton family of hotels in the first 12 months of Card Membership. Offer ends 8/25/2021. Terms Apply. TPG values the total bonus at $880 $95 annual fee (See Rates & Fees) Hilton Gold status
Hilton Honors American Express Card Earn 100,000 points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the Card in the first 3 months of Card Membership. Plus, earn up to $100 in statement credits on eligible purchases made on the Card at any of the Hilton family of hotels in the first 12 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 8/25/2021.  Terms apply. TPG values the total bonus at up to $700 $0 annual fee (See Rates & Fees) Hilton Silver status

*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 LGBT family travel for TPG and blogs at 2DadsWithBaggage.com. Follow Jon and his family’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram.

Featured image by Art Wager/Getty Images. 

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