Southern California boasts hundreds of miles of beaches, several mountain ranges, and an expanse of scenic desert. When trying to plan a romantic getaway, the problem will be how to choose among so many excellent options. And whether a couple wants pure relaxation or a few days of adventure, there are destinations that can deliver.
1. Santa Barbara
Located an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, the seaside town of Santa Barbara is an upscale destination offering boutique shopping, gourmet dining, and plenty of outdoor activities. Known for its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture -- frequently topped with red clay tile roofs -- this town is small enough to be easily navigated but large enough to keep a couple busy for a long weekend.
Start with a leisurely stroll along State Street -- the heart of downtown -- lined with large palm trees and full of boutique shops, restaurants, and bars. Grab lunch at the nearby Santa Barbara Public Market which was inspired by the great markets of Europe. The international fare includes Asian noodles, Mexican tacos, and Italian pizza. State Street ends at the historic Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf in California. Enjoy the views of the coast, sample some local wines, or sit down for a delicious seafood dinner.
Rent a kayak and explore the coast on the water, or grab a bike and ride along one of many paths in town. Be sure to set aside a bit of time to visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara, established in 1786. And when it’s time for sunset, head to the beach to gaze at the changing colors as the sun sinks below the horizon.
2. Santa Monica
Couples looking for a weekend of indulgent food should definitely opt for Santa Monica. This seaside town bordering Los Angeles has long been home to some of the region’s best restaurants. Start with breakfast and indulgent baked goods at Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe. For excellent Italian food, be sure to make reservations at Forma, known for its cheese tasting menu. But if dinner with a sunset view is what you’re looking for, try Elephante Beach House. Santa Monica restaurants book up fast, so be sure to make reservations a few days in advance.
After all that food, you may want to burn some calories, so go for a run in Palisades Park or rent a bike and enjoy a ride along The Strand. For something more relaxing, take a stroll along Santa Monica Pier, a frequently seen sight in many movies and television shows.
Santa Monica is a shopper’s paradise and home to dozens of high-end stores. Third Street Promenade has long been the shopping epicenter where you’ll find a mix of large chain stores and independent boutiques. Bibliophiles should pop-in to Bookmonster, a large used bookstore with an inventory of over 200,000 items.
3. La Jolla
Just north of San Diego is a seaside getaway waiting to be explored. Perched on the edge of rocky cliffs, La Jolla offers outdoor fun, fine-dining, and unparalleled sunset views. And despite its small size, there is plenty to keep couples busy for a weekend.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is the ideal place to start your weekend. Located on the coast, this 1,500-acre reserve was created to protect sensitive plant life and wildlife, including the rare Torrey pine. The trails here are short -- most under a mile -- so combine three or four to enjoy a morning of exercise complete with ocean views. After your hike, head to the adjacent beach for a swim or just relax on the sand.
When it comes to romantic dining options, La Jolla has much to offer. George’s At The Cove is a long-time local favorite offering delicious seafood and great sunset views. Duke’s La Jolla is a bit more casual, but still with lovely ocean views.
4. Palm Springs
While Southern California is loaded with great beach destinations, it also offers dozens of fun options for exploring the desert. And one of the quintessential desert experiences is the old school celebrity haven of Palm Springs. The Rat Pack came here to relax and get away from the bright lights of Hollywood. Today visitors can enjoy the Mid-Century Modern architecture and design along with art galleries, funky boutiques, and top-notch restaurants.
Start your weekend with a stroll along Palm Canyon Drive. Here you’ll find a selection of galleries, cafes, vintage stores, home decor boutiques, and quirky gift shops. For a delicious brunch, head to Cheeky’s and try their famous bacon flight. Or for a Provencal-inspired meal on a lovely outdoor patio, head to Farm.
Palm Springs is also home to Indian Canyons, a collection of historic canyons located on Agua Caliente tribal lands. Here you’ll find hiking trails leading to a lush palm tree oasis. Take a short stroll and enjoy a scenic picnic lunch or try one of the more challenging trails that leads to a spectacular view of the surrounding desert.
5. Laguna Beach
What was once an artist’s colony is today an upscale seaside town dotted with secluded coves and rocky outcroppings. It’s easy to see why painters and sculptures from around the world were attracted to Laguna Beach.
A great starting point in Laguna is Heisler Park, a mile-long green space perched high above the ocean. Here you’ll see locals walking their dogs, practicing yoga, and gathering for a morning dive. Several staircases lead down to small coves which in turn connect with tidepools. Grab a meal to go from neary Urth Caffe and enjoy a picnic lunch in this beautiful space.
If you appreciate art, spend an hour or two browsing the Laguna Art Museum. Specializing in California art, this small but impressive museum offers a variety of exhibits including painting, photography, and sculpture.
For a romantic, ocean-view dinner, head to Las Brisas and grab a seat on their outdoor patio. Whatever you order for dinner, be sure to start with their excellent guacamole. The completely outdoor restaurant, The Cliff, is a more casual destination, but with equally good views.
6. Catalina Island
If you’d prefer an island getaway, head to Avalon, the largest city on Catalina Island. This colorful town is located just one hour by boat from either Los Angeles or Orange County. Start with a stroll along Crescent Avenue, exploring the beach-themed boutiques. Continue your walk to the Catalina Casino and take a short tour of this historic building that has nothing to do with gambling -- casino is the Italian word for gathering-place.
If the weather is warm enough, head to the Descano Beach Club and relax on the sand while enjoying delicious food and drinks. Or rent a kayak to explore the ocean. Be sure to keep your eyes open for a playful harbor seal or a soaring bald eagle.
No visit to Catalina is complete without exploring the wilder parts of the island. In fact, 88 percent of the land here is protected by the Catalina Conservancy. Plan a hike along one of the many trails ranging in length and difficulty. If you prefer to ride through the backcountry, book a Jeep tour and go in search of the bison and island fox.
Located an hour Northeast of San Diego in the Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian is the perfect romantic destination complete with cozy bed and breakfast inns, small diners, and charming boutiques. It’s also well known for apples and all the resulting desserts like pies, tarts, and turnovers.
If you’re able to visit in the fall, plan to go apple picking at one of the nearby orchards. Calico Ranch Orchard has been growing apples since the 1930s! In addition to a selection of apples and pears to pick, they also sell cider. Or try Apple Starr Orchard for a selection of organic apples and pears.
But Julian is fun any time of year. With the growing popularity of hard cider in the U.S., Julian has begun to offer a nice variety of this adult beverage. Head to Julian Station or the Miner’s Saloon to sample products from Julian Hard Cider. Check out their quirky named ciders, including Pearnormal, Razzmatazz, Apple Pie, or Cherry Bomb.
For something more active, try a hike in the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. The moderately difficult 5-mile roundtrip trail to the summit offers views from the desert to the coast. Reward yourself with a meal at The Julian Grille, serving classic American fare in a cozy cottage built in the 1920s.