Planning a vacation in California? Here’s the perfect 10 day itinerary for a road trip in Southern California.
I love road tripping. It’s by far my favorite way to explore a country, either in the US or Europe. And southern California is tailor made for road tripping.
In California, you’ll find high mountains, giant trees, deserts, valleys, stunning beaches, and vibrant cities.
There’s plenty of museums and the like for culture addicts as well. And what could be better than driving along the California coast on a brilliant sunny day with the wind in your hair?
I’ve been to California many times because I have family there, my daughter went to college there, and my former law firm was based there. I just got back from a 2 week trip in July.
So, I’ve done plenty of exploring in this beloved and idyllic region of the US. This 10 day itinerary covers some of my favorite spots and the top must visit attractions in southern California. You’ll visit some of the most beautiful towns and cities in the US.
Overview Of 10 Days In Southern California Itinerary
- Day 1: Los Angeles
- Day 2: Los Angeles
- Day 3: Santa Barbara
- Day 4: San Diego
- Day 5: San Diego
- Day 6: La Jolla
- Day 7: Joshua Tree
- Day 8: Joshua Tree
- Day 9: Sequoia National Park & Canyon National Park
- Day 10: Head back to Los Angeles
- More Time in California? Another day in Santa Barbara and visit to Santa Monica
Best 10 Day Itinerary for Southern California
This 10 day California itinerary is perfectly adjustable. You can flip flop it, shorten it, our tailor it to your own particular interests.
If you want to move at a slower pace, you could easily turn it into a 2 week Southern California itinerary. I’ve tried to give you a nice mix of culture and nature.
Days 1–2: Los Angeles
You’ll spend the first 2 days of your 10 day California itinerary in Los Angeles. The city’s not really a city designed for tourists.
Everything is spread out. You’ll need a car. The traffic can be a pain and your GPS will constantly report “hazards.” Channel your Type B and build in extra time to get places.
It’s worth it. Los Angeles has a diverse food and drink scene, beautiful hikes, and impressive museums.
Here are some of my personal favorite things to do in Los Angeles. You may want to check out this 4 hour guided tour for the perfect orientation to the city.
1. Stroll down Hollywood Boulevard
Don’t miss the Walk of Fame (where celebrities have their names engraved in the sidewalk) and Grauman’s Chinese Theater (featuring celebrity handprints and footprints).
2. Visit LACMA
With over 150,000 works, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the western USA. They have an excellent collection spanning most of art history, with a special emphasis on Asian and Latin American art. Here’s where you’ll find art works by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Joe Clemente Orozco.
3. Hike to the Hollywood Sign
You can snap pictures of the sign from any place in the city. But it’s also possible to hike up to the sign itself to take in the panoramic views.
There are three trails. From easiest to hardest: the Mt. Hollywood Trail, the Brush Canyon Trail, and the Cahuenga Peak Trail. Click here if you’d like to book a guided hike to the sign. You can also book a guided e-bike tour.
4. Browse The Last Bookstore
If you’re a bibliophile, check out The Last Bookstore. This chic bookstore is housed in the grand atrium of an abandoned bank.
It sells books (in fabulous disarray), records, displays art, and has a stash of reasonably priced books upstairs. Browse the shelves, grab a coffee, and buy a book.
5. Relax on the Beach
There are many beautiful beaches in and around Los Angeles. Some of the best are: Venice Beach, Carbon Beach, Santa Monica State Beach, Huntington City Beach, and El Matador.
I’m partial to Santa Monica, which is only 20 minutes from Beverly Hills. Aside from the soft white sand, you’ll find tony restaurants, luxury shopping boutiques, and a fabulous farmers market.
6. Visit the Fabulous Getty Center
The Getty Center is a fabulous museum in northwest LA. You could combine it with a side trip to Santa Monica.
Opened in 1997, it has a wide ranging collection of paintings, drawings (including some by Michelangelo), and other art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The must see masterpieces include Van Gogh’s Irises, Rembrandt Laughing, and Renoir’s La Promenade.
If you don’t have scads of time, head to the West Pavilion to find the Impressionists and Rembrandts. The Getty also has inviting outdoor spaces, water features, and sculpture garden.
Best of all, admission is completely free. You’ll need to make a timed entry reservation, park ($20), and take a tram up to the museum.
You can also visit the Getty Villa, right down the road from the Getty Center.
It’s a recreation of an ancient Roman villa from Herculaneum that houses the Getty’s antiquities collection. The prize of the collection is the Getty Bronze, an Ancient Greek sculpture.
7. Warner Bros. Studio
If you’re a movie buff, you probably have a movie studio on your LA to do list. I vote for the Warner Bros. Studio as the best one.
You’ll see backlots, sound stages, and movie props. You’ll see sets from movies like the Harry Potter series, Batman, The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes, etc. TV shows like Friends, Gilmore Girls, and Gossip Girls.
To visit, check out this 2-3 hour guided tour.
8. Take a Hike
LA also has numerous hiking trails, so it’s easy to get some exercise and connect with nature.
Some worth checking out are the Charlie Turner Trail (90 minutes), Baldwin Hills (30 minutes), Runyon Canyon (45 minutes), Portuguese Bend Reserve (3 hours), and Echo Mountain (3–3.5 hours).
9. Visit the La Brea Tar Pits
These natural asphalt pits are located in Hancock Park. They’re nearly 50,000 years old. Preserved for centuries, more than 3.5 million fossils have been excavated from the pits.
The onsite LA County Museum of Art provides history and information about the tar pits and how they were formed.
10. Other Los Angeles Tours
There’s a lot to do in Los Angeles. You might be interested in some of these cool tours:
- taco tasting and filming locations tour
- central downtown walking tour
- LA backstreets food tour
- street art bike tour
- helicopter tour
Day 3: Day Trip To Santa Barbara From LA
On day 3 of your California itinerary, head to Santa Barbara. The town is about 1.5 hours north of LA. It’s a charming and upscale beach town.
The city is a visual feast, nicknamed the “American Riviera” — with lush gardens, California poppies (in spring), signature red tile roofs, and white washed houses and landmarks.
The main boulevard is State Street, which leads you from Sterns Wharf up to the mansions of Mission Canyon. It’s lined with tony boutiques and eateries.
Santa Barbara’s architecture is infused with a Spanish flair. With their red roofed tiles, some buildings could’ve been power beamed from Madrid.
To see it up close and personal, you may want to book a guided history and architecture walking tour.
If not, be sure to check out the Old Mission and El Prisidio fort. Founded in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans, the Old Mission is still an active parish church known as the “Queen of the Missions.”
Don’t miss the fetching Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Its new restored mural room is a feast for the eyes.
From its clock tower, you have a beautiful panoramic view of the city Plus, it’s likely the prettiest courthouse you’ll ever see.
Santa Barbara has a sun-drenched and pristine sandy coastline. The most popular beaches are East Beach, West Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach, and the more remote Butterfly Beach in Montecito.
In terms of the food and drink scene, you’ll be dazzled. Santa Barbara is full of wineries, where you can indulge in inexpensive tastings, especially in the Funk Zone.
You can also go on a guided winery tour. This 7 hour guided tour takes you to four vineyards. If you’d rather go by e-bike (very fun!), check out this 7 hour tour with vineyards and an Italy-inspired picnic lunch. You can also book a private 5 hour tour.
Days 4-5: San Diego
The next stop on your 10 days southern California itinerary is San Diego. It’s 2 hours down the coast from Santa Barbara.
It’s a popular city for sure, but not as crowded as other major cities. Personally, I love it.
It’s my second favorite city in the state after San Francisco. It’s easy to navigate, has glorious weather, awesome beaches, hiking trails, and a great foodie scene. You may want to kick off your visit with a 3 hour guided walking tour of the city top attractions.
Spend two days in San Diego. It’s completely worth it. Here are some fabulous things to do during your visit:
1. Visit the USS Midway Museum Or Maritime Museum
This USS midway is a doughty aircraft carrier that was the largest ship in the world until 1955. It saw action many times before being decommissioned. In 1992, it was turned into the Midway Museum.
You can explore the flight deck and rooms below, including the engine room, the ship’s jail, and the flight control room. There are more than 30 restored aircraft and helicopters on display.
At the Maritime Museum, you can step onboard and admire a fascinating exhibition of fully restored antique ships and submarines. Most of the historic vessels date from the mid-1800’s to present day.
The museum has a fully functioning replica of a Spanish Galleon from 1542. You’ll likely also recognize the tall ship HMS Surprise, which was featured in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean films.
2. Go Surfing
Whether you’re a veteran or a newbie, grab a board and hit the waves. There’s some awesome surfing in San Diego. You can usually rent a board for around $30 a day or even take a lesson.
If you’re an experienced surfer, head south to Windandsea Beach in La Jolla. If you don’t have much surfing experience, try the calmer Oceanside Beach. You can even take a surfing lesson.
3. Visit the San Diego Zoo
Located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo has over 3,500 animals and 700,000 plant species. It’s truly massive, an 1,800 acre park where you could easily spend the entire day.
It’s one of the best zoos in the country. It’s a perfect choice if you’re traveling with kids. You should be sure to pre-book your one day pass.
4. Explore Balboa Park
Balboa Park is one of the oldest recreational parks in the US, with loads to see and do. In addition to the zoo, there are dozens of museums, gardens, walking paths, theaters, and more.
It’s a massive cultural center, complete with enticing green spaces. Balboa Park houses the fine San Diego Museum of Art. I was lucky to catch an exhibition of Monet to Matisse.
The Museum of Us is another must visit anthropology museum. It’s situated within the breathtaking original buildings dating back to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
One highlight is ascending the California Tower, treating you to magnificent panoramic views. Remember, tower access is available exclusively through a 45-minute guided tour, so do visit the website for precise timings.
5. Enjoy Pacific Beach
If you want to soak up the sun or swim, head to buzzy Pacific Beach. Wide and flat, the locals just call it “PB.” The popular area is known for its nightlife (hordes of young adults) and offers lots of bars, clubs, and restaurants.
For a quieter spot, I’m also partial to the Del Mar Beaches. Del Mar is an upscale town about 30 minutes north of La Jolla. The beaches are spread out on a 2 mile strip of coastline.
6. Go Whale Watching
Between December and April, California gray whales migrate from Alaska to Mexico. They can grow up to 49 feet long and are incredible to see up close. Check out this 4 hour whale watching tour.
7. Gaslamp District
The Gaslamp quarter is prime real estate in central downtown San Diego. It boasts handsomely restored homes from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The quarter is named for its 19th century wrought iron street lights. You can book a guided walking tour.
In this 16 block area you’ll find loads of galleries and restaurants. This is also the place to come for great restaurants and night life. I can recommend Osteria Panevino (Italian) and Cafe Sevilla (Spanish).
About a mile from the Gaslamp district is Little Italy. This neighborhood is overflowing with galleries, restaurants, and shops. This is why you’ll find a fantastic Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
8. Hike Point Loma
Point Loma peninsula is where Europeans first arrived in California. You can walk out to the tip and enjoy the sweeping views of the ocean.
Visit the 19th century lighthouse and watch locals climb the Osprey Point Cliffs. For more rigorous hiking, try Annie’s Canyon Trail or Cedar Creek Falls.
Day 6: Day Trip To La Jolla
Just 13 miles north of San Diego lies stunning La Jolla. The town is known as the “Jewel of the Sea” and you can immediately see why.
It’s a postcard perfect village perched on the edge of the ocean and renowned for its relentlessly pleasant weather. It’s one of the best, and most glamorous, beach towns in the United States — a beautiful fusion of nature, beaches, and great food.
In downtown La Jolla, the main drags are Prospect Street and Girard Street . They’re full of tony shops, galleries, and restaurants to explore. If it seems too pricey, there’s no harm window shopping.
When hunger calls, stop in at Duke’s for some Hawaiian-themed food (delicious fish and Poke tacos) and great ocean views. Or grab an açaí bowl at Be Fresh or Nektar juice. For tacos, no place beats the Taco Stand.
After lunch, watch the sea lions and seals relax and frolic in La Jolla Cove. Then hike along the dreamy La Jolla Coast Walk Trail.
I spent hours in this endeavor. I especially loved the Windandsea Beach. Scripps beach is also fun with a great pier and wide sandy area.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go paragliding at Torrey Pines Gliderport. Or hike to the top of Mt. Soledad, marked by a cross. You can also go kayaking, snorkeling, or diving in La Jolla.
And there’s no shortage of amazing eateries. My casual favorite was Puesto, a scrumptious Mexican place featuring filet mignon and lobster tacos. You can also dine at two La Jolla staples, NINE-TEN or the Marine Room.
For more information, here’s my compete one day in La Jolla itinerary.
Days 7-8: Joshua Tree National Park
After your city breaks, we now move on to the nature portion of your 10 days in southern California itinerary. Three hours from San Diego and sandwiched between the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is for nature lovers.
It offers some of the most unique landscapes in the country. It’s an otherworldly place, a Martian landscape perfect for hiking and camping.
In Joshua Tree, swaths of cacti and towering boulders dot an arid panorama. The scene is peppered with the distinct twisty branches of the famous Joshua trees.
There are countless trails to enjoy, ranging from short-easy to multi-day challenges.
Here are some hiking options:
- Ryan Mountain – a steep 3 mile hike offering some incredible views
- Wall Street Mill – an easy 2.8 mile hike that leads to an old mill
- Split Rock Loop – a quiet 2 mile hike with lots of neat rock formations
- Barker Dam Trail – a 1.1 mile loop offering a chance to see rabbits, bighorn sheep, and birds
The visitor center has more information and trail maps. You can also buy a 7 day vehicle pass, which includes multiple entries if you stay outside the park itself.
Days 8-9: Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park
Start your day early and head to Sequoia National Park. It’s a long drive from Joshua Tree (4-6 hours). The park features towering redwood and Sequoia trees, some of the world’s largest. Some are so tall you can’t see their crown.
Head first to the Giant Forest Museum to learn about the geography, history, and importance of the park. Then walk the Big Trees Trail, a short loop where you immerse yourself in the trees. This trail also boasts the world’s largest single stem tree, “General Sherman.”
For a sweeping view of the forest, hike up Moro Rock. It’s a massive granite dome that juts out of the surrounding hills. You can safely climb up the stairs to a viewing point for a magnificent vista.
While you’re in the area, you should also visit Kings Canyon National Park. It’s a mountainous park with beautiful lakes and valleys and ample hiking.
You’ll spy “General Grant,” the world’s third largest tree. For a scenic drive, cruise the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, a narrow road offering dramatic views of the rugged landscape.
Day 10: Head Back To Los Angeles
On the final day of your 10 days in southern California itinerary, head back to LA. It’s only a 3.5-hour drive, so if you’re not in a hurry, enjoy the desert views. There’s nothing particularly special to see along this route.
But if you need to take a break, pull over in Bakersfield. It has one of California’s best kept secrets, Kern River Canyon.
More Than 10 Days In Southern California?
If you have more than 10 days in southern California, that’s awesome! There are plenty of ways to extend your southern California road trip.
My first recommendation is to spend another day in Santa Barbara. For reference here is my 2 days in Santa Barbara itinerary.
Having another day in Santa Barbara will allow you to spend time in Montecito or Ojai or tour more vineyards in this storied wine region.
Another thing to add to your 10 days in southern California itinerary is Santa Monica, just minutes from Los Angeles.
Santa Monica is LA’s hipster chic beach town. You can hit the beach, walk the iconic pier, and feast at some incredible restaurants.
If Santa Monica is too buzzy and happening for your taste, head to Laguna Beach instead.
Located an hour south of Los Angeles on the coast, this scenic seaside town is an easy pace to fall for. It’s chock full of small secluded beaches, excellent restaurants, and galleries.
If you’re a more bohemian sort, spend an extra day in the San Diego area and hit Ocean Beach. This less expensive area is full of hippies and tattoos shops. Or head to Little Italy to indulge in some fabulous food and gelato.
You can repel down a rope at the Sunset Cliffs and catch the sunset. Or hole up in Wonderland Ocean Pub, a classic beach bar with great cocktails and ocean views.
Tips For Visiting California
1. How to Get To Southern California
If you’re arriving at San Diego, you’ll land at San Diego International Airport. There are affordable bus services and shuttles available for your transfer into the city.
You can also book a private transfer from the airport to your hotel. The airport is straightforward to navigate, and baggage retrieval is usually quick.
For drivers, consider picking up a rental car, preferably a convertible for added flair. The downtown is a short 17-minute drive away, or you can choose a taxi as an alternative.
Keep in mind that the rental car center requires a somewhat lengthy shuttle ride from the arrival and departure areas of the airport. Occasionally, the shuttle buses might have queues.
On weekends, allocate extra time, especially during car drop-offs. In a hurry? Near the rental car section, you’ll find taxis that can take you to departures, although they come at a cost.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is a major international airport serving the city. It offers a wide range of domestic and international flights.
Amtrak also operates train services to Los Angeles, including the Pacific Surfliner which connects San Diego and Los Angeles along the coast.
To get from LAX to downtown, you can take The FlyAway Bus, the metro, or taxi. You can also book a private transfer to your accommodation.
2. Where To Stay With 10 Days In Southern California
There are no shortage of great hotels and luxury nests in southern California. I’ll give you some suggestions by city.
- Santa Barbara: Hotel Californian, Belmondo El Encanto, Ritz Carlton Bacara Resort, Kimpton Canary Hotel
I hope you’ve enjoyed my 10 days in southern California itinerary. You may enjoy these other United States travel guides and resources:
- 45 amazing destinations in the United States
- Fall foliage around Washington D.C.
- 10 day itinerary for New Hampshire
- Berkshires Road Trip
- 10 day itinerary for coastal Maine
- 7-10 day itinerary for Vermont
- Fall foliage road trip in New England
- 2 week itinerary for the American Southwest
- 25 most beautiful towns in New England
If you’d like to road trip for 10 days in southern California, pin it for later.