Malibu is one of the best cities in Southern California for surfing

Best Southern California Cities you need to visit in 2024 

Southern California cities offer a diverse range of experiences, from the iconic palm-lined streets of Beverly Hills to the rugged coastal cliffs of Laguna Beach. This guide is your go-to resource for navigating the best cities in Southern California. 

We’re not just sticking to the well-trodden paths of Hollywood or Disneyland, although they have their merits. Instead, we’re also exploring off-the-beaten-path locales that offer more authentic things to do in SoCal. Think artisan coffee shops in Temecula, vintage boutiques in San Clemente, and hidden hiking trails in San Diego. 

This region is also chock full of some of the coolest hotels in California. Imagine waking up to ocean views in a chic Santa Monica hotel or enjoying the desert skyline from a Palm Springs resort.  

Whether you’re cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in a rental car or hopping on San Diego’s efficient public transit, you’ll find that each city offers its own best way to get immersed in the local scene.

And if safety is a concern, don’t fret. The SoCal cities on this list are some of the safest in the state. 

Best Southern California Cities: Overview

If you are looking for best pizza places in Santa Monica, check out Santa Monica Pier that offers incredible food and wonderful sunset views

1. Santa Monica

Santa Monica is a coastal city in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area in West LA known for its iconic pier, bustling Third Street Promenade, and expansive beaches. 

The nearest airport is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). From Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), take an Uber (around $20-$30), or hop on the Big Blue Bus #3 to reach downtown Santa Monica. Once you are there, the main core of the city is very walkable or explorable by bicycle which can be rented on the spot.

For that quintessential ocean view within a 5-minute walk of the Santa Monica Pier, check out the centrally-located Shore Hotel on Ocean Avenue, one of the best-designed hotels in Santa Monica with a modern eco-conscious offering.

Start your day with a sunrise yoga session at Palisades Park, then head to the Santa Monica Farmers Market (on Wednesdays and Saturdays) for some fresh produce and artisanal goods. If you’re up for it, rent a bike and ride down to Venice Beach.

Grab some pizza in Santa Monica and watch a colorful Pacific sunset on the beach.

For a lesser-known Santa Monica attraction, check out the Museum of Flying for an intriguing look at aviation history, including vintage aircraft and interactive exhibits. Reserve a table at gourmet Melisse for dinner, offering French-American cuisine that won’t disappoint.

Santa Monica is also generally safe. According to the latest data from NeighborhoodScout, property crimes are more common than violent crimes. So, keep an eye on your belongings when you’re out and about, especially around tourist areas and the beach.

Expected Daily Budget for Santa Monica: $150-$200

Beverly Hills is one of the best places to visit in Southern California

2. Beverly Hills

Beverly Hills is the epitome of luxury and fame, known globally for its opulent estates, high-end shops on Rodeo Drive, and celebrity sightings. It’s a city that offers a taste of the high life, right in the heart of Los Angeles County.

To get to Beverly Hills, your best bet is to fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and then take a 30-minute Uber or taxi ride. If you’re already in LA, it’s a short drive from most central neighborhoods.

For boutique Beverly Hills accommodation that matches the city’s glamorous reputation, book a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, also known as the “Pink Palace.” This iconic hotel offers lush gardens, a spa, and even a red carpet experience upon arrival.

Start your day in this epic Southern California city with a stroll down Rodeo Drive for some window shopping or actual shopping if your budget allows. For a dose of culture, the Virginia Robinson Gardens offer a peaceful retreat with its Italianate mansion and beautifully landscaped gardens.

When it comes to dining, Spago Beverly Hills is a must-visit for gourmet Californian cuisine. For something a bit more casual but equally delicious, try Nate ’n Al Delicatessen, a local favorite for classic American fare.

As for safety, Beverly Hills is definitely amongst the safest cities in Southern California. Petty crime happens in and around the major shopping areas of Rodeo Drive and along Santa Monica Boulevard, so just keep a close eye on your belongings. Source: NeighborhoodScout.

Expected Daily Budget for Beverly Hills: $250-$400

Malibu is one of the most popular cities in Southern California

3. Malibu

Malibu is synonymous with stunning oceanfront properties and a laid-back beach lifestyle. It’s a haven for surfers, nature lovers, and anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown LA.

The best way to get to and around Malibu, located in the northwestern region of Los Angeles County, is by a rental car. Follow the Pacific Coast Highway, north of Santa Monica for about 45 minutes to an hour. 

For a luxurious stay with unbeatable ocean views, consider booking a room at the Malibu Beach Inn on Carbon Beach which offers its private beach area.

Begin your day with a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains; the Corral Canyon Loop is a local favorite. For a more relaxed experience, visit the Getty Villa, an art museum that replicates a Roman country house. 

For a casual yet delicious meal, head to Malibu Seafood, known for its fresh catches. If you’re in the mood for something more upscale, Nobu Malibu offers exquisite Japanese cuisine to match.

Malibu is considered one of the safest cities in Southern California, as it has a lower crime rate compared to the national average (according to NeighborhoodScout). 

Expected Daily Budget for Malibu: $200-$300

Best day trips from Los Angeles

4. Temecula

Temecula is Southern California’s wine country gem, known for its rolling vineyards, historic Old Town, and vibrant local arts scene. It’s a perfect getaway for those looking to experience a different flavor when it comes to Southern California cities away from the coastline.

The most convenient way to get to Temecula is by flying into San Diego International Airport and then driving about an hour north. A rental car is highly recommended, as public transportation options are limited.

For a unique stay amid the vineyards, consider booking a room at the Churon Inn Winery. This boutique hotel offers rustic elegance and is conveniently located near several wineries.

Start your day with a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards, a truly unique way to experience Temecula’s scenic beauty. Then, explore the historic Old Town, filled with antique shops, galleries, and rustic buildings dating back to the 1800s.

For dining, The Goat and Vine offers handcrafted pizzas and a selection of local wines that perfectly encapsulate the Temecula experience. If you’re looking for something more upscale, The Restaurant at Leoness Cellars provides a fine dining experience with vineyard views.

Temecula is also a safe destination, with crime rates (especially violent crimes) well below the national average, according to NeighborhoodScout data.

Expected Daily Budget for Temecula: $150-$250

Palm Springs is one of the most popular stops on a Southern California road trip itinerary

5. Palm Springs

Palm Springs is a desert oasis known for its mid-century modern architecture, vibrant arts scene, and natural hot springs. It’s a popular retreat for those looking to escape the hustle of city life, offering both relaxation and adventure in the Coachella Valley.

The closest airport is Palm Springs International, a 7-minute drive from the downtown core. A rental car is advisable for getting around, especially if you plan to explore beyond the city limits.

For a stay that captures the essence of Palm Springs, consider the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. This trendy spot offers a mix of vintage and modern design elements.

Kick off your day with a visit to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you can enjoy panoramic desert views. For those interested in architecture, a self-guided tour of the city’s mid-century modern homes is a must. 

Read: Best gifts from San Francisco

Cheeky’s Palm Springs is the go-to spot for brunch, offering a menu that changes weekly. For dinner, Copley’s on Palm Canyon offers upscale American cuisine in a former Cary Grant estate.

Palm Springs has a crime rate that is slightly higher than the California average but lower than the national average for violent crimes. As always, it’s advisable to exercise caution, particularly in tourist-heavy areas around the downtown strip and after dark. (Source: NeighborhoodScout

Expected Daily Budget for Palm Springs: $200-$300

Best things to do in Orange County

6. Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach, often referred to as “Surf City USA,” is a coastal city in Orange County known for its long stretch of sandy beach, excellent surf conditions, and laid-back atmosphere. It’s a haven for surfers, beachgoers, and anyone looking to embrace the quintessential Southern California lifestyle.

The closest airport is John Wayne Airport in Orange County, just about a 20-minute drive away. However, you can also fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and drive down, which takes about an hour. A rental car is the most convenient way to get around.

For oceanfront luxury lodging, the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa offers Spanish-inspired architecture and direct beach access.

Start your day by catching some waves or watching the surfers at the iconic Huntington Beach Pier. For a change of scenery, the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve offers walking trails and bird-watching opportunities.

Duke’s Huntington Beach offers a mix of American and Hawaiian cuisine right on the beach and for a more casual vibe, check out Slapfish, a modern seafood shack offering sustainably sourced dishes.

As for safety, Huntington Beach is definitely above average when it comes to the safest Southern California cities on this list with a total crime index of 16

Expected Daily Budget for Huntington Beach: $150-$250

7. Laguna Niguel

Laguna Niguel is a picturesque city in Orange County known for its scenic parks, hiking trails, and upscale residential communities. It’s less touristy than its coastal neighbors, making it a great spot for those looking for a quieter, more relaxed Southern California city experience.

The closest airport is John Wayne Airport in Orange County, about a 25-minute drive away. A rental car is the most convenient way to explore Laguna Niguel and its surrounding areas.

Consider the Ritz-Carlton as one of the best places to stay in Laguna Niguel. Perched atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific, this hotel offers stunning ocean views and top-notch amenities.

Begin your visit with a hike in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, a local favorite for its diverse trails and beautiful vistas. For a more leisurely activity, Salt Creek Beach is a nearby option for sunbathing and picnics.

Hendrix Restaurant and Bar offers a mix of American and Mediterranean cuisine when it comes to dining in Laguna Niguel with a laid-back atmosphere. For a more casual meal, Bistro K serves up comfort food with a twist.

Laguna Niguel boasts a total crime index of 47 (100 is the safest) and is one of the top Southern California cities when it comes to safety.

Expected Daily Budget for Laguna Niguel: $200-$300

Laguna Niguel is one of the best cities in Southern California

8. Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach is an artsy coastal enclave in Orange County, celebrated for its stunning beaches, vibrant arts scene, and bohemian vibe. It’s the go-to spot for those who appreciate natural beauty infused with cultural richness.

Flying into John Wayne Airport in Orange County is your best bet, as it’s just a 20-minute drive to Laguna Beach. Renting a car will give you the flexibility to explore this charming area at your own pace.

For lodging, the Montage Laguna Beach offers an unparalleled luxury experience right on the oceanfront, complete with a spa and fine dining.

Why not start your day exploring the tide pools at Thousand Steps Beach? It’s a less crowded option that offers a glimpse into marine life. Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Laguna Art Museum, which focuses exclusively on California art. 

At sunset, grab yourself an oceanside table at The Cliff and savor the scenery with a cocktail and fresh seafood dinner.

Laguna Beach is generally a secure place to visit, with the occasional petty crime occurring around Main Beach. Don’t leave your belongings unattended and always be aware of your surroundings

Expected Daily Budget for Laguna Beach: $250-$350

San Clemente is one of the most popular Southern California sities

9. San Clemente

San Clemente is a charming beach town in Orange County, often overlooked in favor of its more famous neighbors. Known for its Spanish colonial-style architecture and excellent surf spots, it offers a more laid-back, local vibe.

If you’re flying in, the closest airport is John Wayne Airport in Orange County, about a 30-minute drive away. Grab your rental car at the airport before departing, as it’s the best way to explore the coast. 

Accommodation-wise, the Sea Horse Resort offers cozy rooms with ocean views. It’s also a 5-minute walk from the San Clemente Beach and Pier.

Why not kick off your morning with a surf lesson at T-Street Beach? If surfing’s not your thing, the San Clemente Coastal Trail offers a scenic walk along the coastline.

For a dose of local history, visit Casa Romantica, a cultural center set in a Spanish villa.

When hunger strikes, head to La Siesta for authentic Mexican cuisine in a casual setting. For a more upscale dining experience, Vine Restaurant & Bar offers a farm-to-table menu paired with an extensive wine list.

As for safety, San Clemente is considered a family-friendly destination, and crimes, especially of the violent type are well below the state average

Expected Daily Budget for San Clemente: $250-$350

San Diego is one of the best cities to visit in South California

10. San Diego

San Diego is located in the southwestern corner of California, near the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s situated along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, approximately 120 miles south of Los Angeles. 

The city is part of San Diego County and is the second-largest city in California. Its coastal location, proximity to Mexico, and status as a military hub make it a diverse and culturally rich city. 

San Diego International Airport is the most convenient gateway to the city. Once you’re in town, public transportation is efficient.

For lodging, the centrally located Pendry San Diego in the Gaslamp Quarter offers a blend of modern luxury and historic charm. 

Begin your day exploring Balboa Park, a massive urban cultural park home to numerous museums, gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. If you’re more of a beach person, the La Jolla Cove offers excellent snorkeling opportunities. 

For foodies, Juniper and Ivy in the Little Italy district is a must-visit for its innovative American cuisine. If you’re looking for something more casual, Oscar’s Mexican Seafood offers some of the best fish tacos in town.

In San Diego, neighborhoods like City Heights, Logan Heights, and parts of Southeast San Diego have higher crime rates compared to other areas of the city, according to NeighborhoodScout, especially related to property crimes and gang activity. 

Expected Daily Budget for San Diego: $200-$350

11. Newport Beach

Nestled in Orange County, Newport Beach is the epitome of coastal opulence, known for its yacht-filled marinas and upscale neighborhoods. 

If you’re flying in, John Wayne Airport is conveniently just 15 minutes away. For lodging, consider the Lido House, a chic hotel that captures the area’s nautical elegance.

Start your day sailing on a chartered yacht or paddleboarding in the serene Newport Bay. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss The Cannery, where you can indulge in gourmet seafood while enjoying panoramic harbor views. 

Consider ending the day with a leisurely bike ride along the Newport Balboa Bike Trail. This paved path runs along the coastline, offering stunning views of the ocean and beach, especially at sunset. 

Newport Beach is often cited for its low crime rate, especially when compared to national averages. While the city’s affluence contributes to this, it’s always smart to stay vigilant, especially during high-tourist seasons when petty crimes like pickpocketing can be more prevalent.

Expected Daily Budget for Newport Beach: $200-$350

Ojai is one of the best day trips from Los Angeles

12. Ojai

Ojai, a tranquil retreat tucked away in Ventura County, is a haven for wellness enthusiasts and nature lovers. The nearest airport is Santa Barbara, about an hour’s drive away. For accommodations, the Ojai Valley Inn stands out for its luxurious spa and scenic golf course.

Begin your day with a hike in the Los Padres National Forest or opt for a yoga session at one of the local studios. For a unique dining experience, The Farmer and The Cook offers organic, farm-to-table fare. 

Safety in Ojai is generally not a concern; it’s a small, tight-knit community with a low crime rate. However, if you’re hiking or exploring the outdoors, always let someone know your plans and take the necessary precautions, as the area is prone to wildfires during certain seasons.

Expected Daily Budget for Ojai: $150-$250

13. Pasadena

Pasadena, located just northeast of downtown Los Angeles, is a city rich in cultural landmarks and scientific institutions. The closest airport is Burbank Airport, about a 20-minute drive, but LAX is also an option. For lodging, The Langham Huntington offers a blend of historic grandeur and modern luxury.

Your day in Pasadena could start with a visit to the Norton Simon Museum, home to an impressive collection of European art. Alternatively, explore the Huntington Library and its stunning botanical gardens. For dining, The Raymond 1886 serves up gourmet American cuisine in a charming, historic setting. 

When it comes to safety, Pasadena is generally considered safe, especially in areas like Old Town and near the Rose Bowl. The city has invested in community policing, which has contributed to lower crime rates in recent years.

Expected Daily Budget for Pasadena: $150-$250

14. Carlsbad

Carlsbad, often referred to as the “Village by the Sea,” is a coastal city in San Diego County known for its family-friendly attractions and beautiful beaches. The nearest airport is San Diego International, about a 40-minute drive away. 

For a beachfront stay, Cape Rey Carlsbad Beach offers ocean views and a laid-back atmosphere.

The main draw in Carlsbad is a visit to Legoland California, especially if you’re traveling with kids. If you prefer a more relaxed vibe, the Carlsbad State Beach is perfect for sunbathing and picnics. For dining, Vigilucci’s Seafood & Steakhouse offers Italian fare with ocean views. 

Carlsbad is considered a family-friendly destination, however, it’s always good to exercise caution, particularly in areas like theme parks.

Expected Daily Budget for Carlsbad: $150-$250

15. Encinitas

Encinitas, a laid-back beach city in San Diego County, is a haven for surfers and outdoor enthusiasts. The closest airport is San Diego International, roughly a 30-minute drive away. For eco-conscious lodging, consider the Inn at Moonlight Beach, which offers sustainable practices and a serene atmosphere.

Kick off your morning catching waves at Swami’s Beach, a popular surf spot, or take a peaceful stroll through the San Diego Botanic Garden. When it comes to food, Union Kitchen & Tap serves locally sourced dishes in a relaxed setting. 

Safety in Encinitas is generally good, with lower crime rates compared to other cities in the region (total crime index of 34). Like any beach town, it’s wise to keep an eye on your belongings when you’re out enjoying the sand and surf.

Expected Daily Budget for Encinitas: $100-$200

16. Claremont

Located at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Claremont is known as the “City of Trees and PhDs” due to its lush landscapes and the presence of the Claremont Colleges. Ontario International Airport is about a 15-minute drive away. 

For accommodations, the DoubleTree by Hilton Claremont offers comfort and convenience.

One of the top things to do in Claremont is to hike in the nearby Claremont Hills Wilderness Park, offering panoramic views of the area. Alternatively, explore the Claremont Village, filled with boutiques, galleries, and eateries. 

For a dining experience that ranges from casual to upscale, Bardot offers French-inspired cuisine in a chic setting.

Claremont is an academically oriented community and, therefore generally safe. if you’re hiking or spending time outdoors, always be prepared and aware of your surroundings, especially in mountain areas.

Expected Daily Budget for Claremont: $100-$200

17. La Jolla

La Jolla, a jewel of the San Diego coastline, is renowned for its rugged cliffs, clear waters, and upscale atmosphere. 

To get to La Jolla, land at the San Diego International Airport and make your way by rental car up the I-5 N about a 2-minute drive away. 

For panoramic ocean views and vintage glamor, book a stay at La Valencia Hotel. 

Begin your day snorkeling or kayaking in La Jolla Cove, where you can get up close with sea lions and various fish species. For art enthusiasts, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla is a must-visit. 

George’s at the Cove offers modern California cuisine with breathtaking ocean views for a leisurely lunch break or night out. 

The affluent area of La Jolla is well-patrolled, making it one of the safer spots in Southern California. But as always, keep your wits about you, especially when it comes to petty crimes around hotspots like the Cove.

Expected Daily Budget for La Jolla: $200-$350

Best Cities in Southern California: FAQ

Best Southern California Cities

What cities are considered Southern California?

Southern California, often abbreviated as SoCal, includes a range of cities from Los Angeles, and San Diego to smaller cities like Newport Beach, Pasadena, and Carlsbad. The region stretches from Ventura in the north to the U.S.-Mexico border in the south.

What are good cities to live in Southern California?

Cities like Irvine, Pasadena, and Carlsbad are often cited as good places to live in Southern California due to their high quality of life, excellent schools, and employment opportunities. These cities offer a mix of suburban comfort and urban amenities.

What is the safest town in Southern California?

Newport Beach consistently ranks as one of the safest cities in Southern California, according to various crime statistics. Its low crime rate is often attributed to its affluent community and effective local policing.

What is the most expensive area to live in Southern California?

Beverly Hills, Malibu, and Bel Air are among the most expensive areas to live in Southern California. These neighborhoods are known for their luxury homes, celebrity residents, and high cost of living.

Best Cities in Southern California: Final Word

From cultural immersion in Pasadena to outdoor adventures in Carlsbad, the best and safest Southern California cities provide a unique blend of attractions. 

Whether you’re drawn to the luxurious lifestyle of Newport Beach or the bohemian charm of Ojai, there’s a city in Southern California that’s perfect for you.