Second Cities: The best destinations to visit from Los Angeles
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Los Angeles has long been a leading lady among top travel destinations. She’s a glittering, gritty city where you’ll find stars on the streets and in the skies. After she’s dazzled you with her Hollywood sign and Sunset Strip, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach Boardwalk and the rejuvenated streets of downtown, it’s time to go beyond this sprawling City of Angels for a change of pace and scenery.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is hiding in plain sight, along the Pacific Coast Highway. Many roadtrippers from Los Angeles mistakenly pass by San Luis Obispo on their way to Santa Barbara or San Francisco. However, those who migrate north from Southern California (SoCal) to the countryside of SLO Cal (a local reference to San Luis Obispo and its surrounding area) will find a rich wine country, cider trails, unique food experiences, outdoor adventures, historic landmarks and museums — all with the laid-back attitude of L.A. but without some of the pretense.
Getting there: You can reach San Luis Obispo on one of United Airlines’ direct, hourlong flights from LAX. One-way Saver Awards start at 10,000 points for economy. For a more scenic route, take the three-hour road trip along the famed Pacific Coast Highway. You may not be able to swap points for the journey, but you can earn points and save money by booking a rental car with discount codes from airline program partners.
Where to stay: Travelers looking for a truly eccentric experience won’t want to miss the legendary themed rooms at Madonna Inn, a quirky and unique boutique hotel. Marriott also has a handful of properties in the area, though only the Courtyard San Luis Obispo is in the city proper. Redemption rates for this Category 5 property range from 30,000 to 40,000 points per night. For a beachfront location a few miles north in Pismo Beach, the pet-friendly Vespera on Ocean, Autograph Collection (Category 6) has 110 rooms with elevated beach décor, direct boardwalk access, a casual on-site restaurant, and a Bonvoy PointSavers rate of 45,000 per night.
What to see and do: Like Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is both a city and county. A visit to San Luis Obispo starts in its historic downtown. Window-shop cute storefronts, leave your mark on Bubble gum Alley and help make a unique ice cream flavor at Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Wonderland.
SLO Cal has over 250 wineries and wine lovers should head to Paso Robles where more than 40 grape varieties are grown and a wine-centered event happens practically every weekend. There are over 100 tasting rooms, including a good number of vineyards that offer pairing menus, along with a la carte menu choices. Wine tours are available or you can taste at top spots like Margarita Vineyards (whose original vineyards were planted in 1774), learn about organic and biodynamic wine farming at AmByth Estate and feel like you’re in Italy at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort.
Surfers love the low-key vibes and decent waves of Pismo Beach. In the summer, the beach is packed with sunbathers, events and beautiful views. This beach is also home to Pismo Beach State Park, where visitors can kayak and spot the seasonal movement of wildlife, like Monarch butterflies and whales. A few other fun-in-the-sand SLO Cal activities include horseback riding, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rides and off-road driving through the Oceano Dunes.
The Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market is one of the state’s best. If you’re in town on a Thursday, browse the market stalls and street food vendors and soak up an earful of live music. While you’re in the area, try one of SLO Cal’s unique food and beverage experiences. Zip line through valleys and vineyards with Margarita Adventures in Santa Margarita, kayak to and learn about oyster farms in Morro Bay with Central Coast Outdoors, make personalized tea blends at The Secret Garden Organic Herb Shop or forage for ingredients to make your own elixirs with Central Coast Distillery.
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina is a Channel Island that’s technically still within Los Angeles County. However, its Caribbean-meets-New England vibe makes it feel much farther away. Unlike the car-clogged streets of Los Angeles, Catalina Island restricts the number of cars allowed on the island, and, as a result, you’ll find mostly golf carts and pedestrians in the streets. The island is popular with active people who want to enjoy the outdoor land and water activities.
Getting there: The ferry to Catalina Island leaves from the harbor in downtown Long Beach (a 30-minute drive from L.A. or a 90-minute ride on the FlyAway bus from LAX). The Catalina Express is the only company to offer year-round daily service, though its schedules change with the seasons. Ferries depart every 30 minutes or so between Long Beach and Avalon and the trip takes about an hour.
Where to stay: With the exception of the Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Island, accommodations on Catalina Island are independent boutiques. The Avalon Hotel is one block from the waterfront in a charming, three-story Craftsman building with wraparound balconies on each floor. All rooms have harbor views, though the best views are from the rooftop pool where you’ll get a 360-degree view of the town.
What to see and do: A walk along the streets of Catalina Island can feel like a walk back in time. Stroll Main Street, Crescent Avenue and Sumner Avenue, which are lined with hotels, restaurants and quaint shops. There’s a big food scene here, so it’s worth joining a food and wine tour to get a good taste of what the island has to offer, or head straight to the Lobster Trap, a longtime favorite.
Nearly 90% of the island is managed as a protected nature preserve, making it a draw for wildlife and nature lovers. The marine life just off Avalon, a tiny coastal resort city within Santa Catalina Island, is spectacular and divers are often blessed with over 90 feet of underwater visibility as they swim with sea lions and schools of fish through the undulating kelp forest. Dolphin boat tours are also a big highlight here as is the sky-high parasailing.
Several hiking trails for all fitness levels snake across the island, including hourlong hikes, full 37-mile journeys around the island and calf-cramping trails up 2,103 feet to the island’s highest peak, Mount Orizaba. Lucky hikers may spot ground squirrels, Catalina Island foxes and shrews. There are also many types of seabirds, ranging from quail to bald eagles. Just note that you’ll need a permit (they’re free and available at the Catalina Conservancy) to hike since it’s protected land.
The resort town of Palm Springs has been luring Angelenos to the Sonoran Desert since the early 1900s, though it really took off in the 1930s to 1950s when Hollywood elites took note of the town as an easy and relaxed getaway. Today, Palm Springs still evokes a feeling of Old Hollywood glamour and eccentricity thanks to its many midcentury modern buildings, hip pool parties, excellent vintage stores and wellness experiences. In Palm Springs, it’s not uncommon to see retirees, hipsters or famous faces all lounging around the same pool or chowing down at the same brunch spot.
Getting there: It’s less than a two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. The two main highways are Interstate 10 and California 60. United occasionally has a few nonstop flights during the week, but they are expensive compared to driving.
Where to stay: It may seem unlikely that a former Motel 6 property could morph into one of the hottest hotels in town, but the Ace Hotel & Swim Club has done just that — it is the place to be seen in Palm Springs. The hotel embraces and builds on its retro digs with contemporary midcentury modern furniture. It sports a desert-lodge vibe and adds touches like an old-school photo booth and vending machine.
Cash out 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for a standard reward stay at Triada Palm Springs, Autograph Collection, a gorgeous (Category 5) Spanish Colonial building within walking distance of the Palm Springs Convention Center. Other good Marriott options include the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel and the Avalon Bungalows Palm Springs, a member of Design Hotels (both with 35,000-point redemption rates). Hilton Honors members may want to check out the Hilton Palm Springs, which has a full-service spa and central pool area with plenty of lounge chairs.
What to see and do: Lounging by the hotel pool may seem like the official Palm Springs pastime, but this desert oasis has many more ways to spend time. For starters, Palm Springs is home to the most midcentury modern buildings in the country, making it a dream for architecture and design enthusiasts. You can self-drive or join a Palm Springs Modern Tours group which will take you to several architecturally significant neighborhoods like South Palm Canyon, the Historic Tennis Club Neighborhood and Vistas Las Palmas.
On the quirky side, check out the Cabazon Dinosaur roadside attraction, which includes two enormous replicas of a T. rex and a Brontosaurus, robotic dinosaur exhibits and a creationist museum. Just like in Hollywood, Palm Springs has a walk of fame, though the stars feature famous hometown heroes and local favorites. For that photo souvenir, there are also wacky sculptures all around town, including the Volkswagen VW Bug Spider, located at Hole in the Wall Welding, a life-size statue of Sonny Bono (Palm Springs’ former mayor) and a crew of large, faceless babies crawling around an empty lot.
Palm Springs is also a big wellness destination with many outdoor activities: hiking, biking and horseback riding. There is also the Desert Hot Springs with its natural mineral pools. You don’t have to walk too far before you stumble on a yoga class, meditation class or spa.
Vintage stores are huge here and good finds are easy to come by. Some of the best offerings can be found at The Frippery, Gypsyland, Bon Vivant and the Sunny Dunes Antique Mall.
Popular tourist attractions include the Moorten Botanical Gardens, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and Palm Springs Air Museum.
Featured photo by Reinier Snijders/EyeEm/Getty Images.