This twelve-day trip hits Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego. If you need to save a couple of days you might consider trimming out the Palm Springs days, but avoid that if you can. You'll see all of Southern California's top attractions, from Hollywood to SeaWorld and back again.
Day 1: Arrival/Los Angeles
As soon as you land at LAX, make like a local and hit the freeway. Even if downtown L.A.'s top-notch art, history, and science museums don't tempt you, the hodgepodge of art-deco, beaux-arts, and futuristic architecture begs at least a driveby. Heading west, Wilshire Boulevard cuts through a historical and cultural cross-section of the city. Two stellar sights on its Miracle Mile are the encyclopedic Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the fossil-filled La Brea Tar Pits. Come evening, the open-air Farmers' Market and its many eateries hum. Hotels in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood beckon, just a few minutes away.
Day 2: Hollywood & the Movie Studios
Every L.A. tourist should devote at least one day to the movies and take at least one studio tour. For fun, choose the special-effects theme park at Universal Studios Hollywood; for the nitty-gritty, choose Warner Bros. Studios. Nostalgic musts in half-seedy, half-preening Hollywood include the Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard, the celebrity footprints cast in concrete outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and the 1922 Egyptian Theatre (Hollywood Boulevard's original movie palace).
When evening arrives, West Hollywood's restaurants are stoked up and the Sunset Strip club scene couldn't get any hotter—the parking nightmare proves it.
Day 3: Beverly Hills & Santa Monica
Even without that extensive art collection, the Getty Center's pavilion architecture, hilltop gardens, and frame-worthy L.A. views would make it a dazzling destination. Descend to the sea via Sunset Boulevard for lunch along Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, followed by a ride on this historic carousel on the pier. The buff and the bizarre meet on the boardwalk at Venice Beach (strap on some Rollerblades if you want to join them!). Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills specializes in exhibitionism with a heftier price tag, but voyeurs are still welcome.
Day 4: Los Angeles to Palm Springs
Freeway traffic permitting, you can drive from the middle of L.A. to the middle of the desert in a couple of hours. Somehow in harmony with the harsh environment, mid-century "modern" homes and businesses with clean, low-slung lines define the Palm Springs style. The city seems far away, though, when you hike in hushed Tahquitz or Indian canyons; cliffs and palm trees there shelter rock art, irrigation works, and other remnants of Agua Caliente culture. If your boots aren't made for walking, you can always practice your golf game or indulge in some spa treatments at an area resort instead.
Day 5: The Desert
If riding a tram up an 8,516-foot mountain for a stroll or even a snowball fight above the desert sounds like fun to you, then show up at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway before the first morning tram leaves (later, the line can get discouragingly long). Afterward stroll through the Palm Springs Art Museum where you can see a shimmering display of contemporary studio glass, an array of enormous Native American baskets, and significant works of 20th-century sculpture by Henry Moore and others.
Day 6: Palm Springs to San Diego
South through desert and mountains via the Palms to Pines Highway on your way to San Diego, you might pause in the Temecula Valley for lunch at a local winery. Otherwise go straight for the city's nautical heart by exploring the restored ships of the Maritime Museum at the waterfront downtown. Victorian buildings—and plenty of other tourists—surround you on a stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter, but the 21st century is in full swing at the leviathan Horton Plaza retail and entertainment complex. Plant yourself at a downtown hotel and graze your way through the neighborhood's many restaurants and nightspots.
Day 7: San Diego Zoo & Coronado
Malayan tapirs in a faux-Asian rain forest, polar bears in an imitation Arctic—the San Diego Zoo maintains a vast and varied collection of creatures in a world-renowned facility comprised of meticulously designed habitats. Come early, wear comfy shoes, and stay as long as you can stand the droves of children. Boutique-y Coronado—anchored by the grand Hotel Del Coronado—offers a more adult antidote. Tea, cocktails, or perhaps dinner at the Del makes a civilized end to an untamed day.
Day 8: SeaWorld & Old Town
Resistance is futile: you're going to SeaWorld. So what if it screams commercial? This humongous theme park, with its walk-through shark tanks and peppy killer-whale shows, also screams fun. Surrender to the experience and try not to sit in anything sticky. Also touristy (but with genuine historical significance), Old Town drips with Spanish and Mexican heritage. Soak it up in the plaza at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; then browse the stalls and shops outside the park of Bazaar del Mundo and San Diego Avenue.
Day 9: La Jolla to Laguna Beach
Positioned above an idyllic cove, La Jolla invites lingering. So slow down long enough to enjoy its shop-lined streets, sheltered beaches, and cultural institutions like the low-key Birch Aquarium at Scripps and the well-curated Museum of Contemporary Art. At Mission San Luis Rey, in Oceanside, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, you can glimpse life as it was during the Spanish colonial days.
Once a haven for artists, Laguna Beach still abounds with galleries. Its walkable downtown streets would abut busy Main Beach Park if the Pacific Coast Highway didn't run through the middle of town.
Day 10: Catalina Island
Having spent so much time looking at the ocean, it's high time you got out on it—a quick excursion to Catalina, 75 minutes from the coast, will do the trick. Get an early start, catching the ferry from Newport Beach, then use the day to explore this nostalgia-inducing spot. The harbor town of Avalon has a charming, retro feel, while the island's mountains, canyons, and coves are ideal spots for outdoor adventures. Take the 4:30 boat back to the mainland and overnight in Anaheim.
Day 11: Disneyland
Disney's original park is a blast even without kids in tow. So go ahead: skirt the lines at the box office—advance-purchased ticket in hand—and storm the gates of the Magic Kingdom. You can cram the highlights into a single day if you arrive at opening time with a strategy already mapped out. Alternately, you can spend your final full day next door at Disneyland's sister park, California Adventure, which is a fitting homage to the Golden State. In either case, cap your holiday with a nighttime toast at Downtown Disney.
Day 12: Departure/Los Angeles
Pack up your mouse gear and give yourself ample time to reach the airport. Without traffic the 35-mi drive from Anaheim to LAX should take about 45 minutes.
1. If you don't have 12 days to spare, or if really hot weather bothers you, cut this itinerary down to 10 days by skipping the Palm Springs segment and going directly to San Diego from Los Angeles. It's a 120-mi drive on Interstate 5.
2. Don't get shut out of anything you really want to see, and don't waste precious vacation time standing in line. Make reservations and purchase tickets in advance whenever possible. Discounted multi-venue packages are widely available.
3. No matter how carefully you plan your movements to avoid busy routes at peak hours, you will inevitably encounter heavy traffic in L.A., Orange County, and San Diego.
4. Allow yourself twice as much time as you think you'll need to negotiate LAX.
If you're looking to plan a road trip, check out Fodor's Open Road Chronicles. This sleek, portable journal is filled with helpful tips on planning your trip – everything from picking a route, to what to pack and what to do if you get lost. Plus, it's a great tool to tuck in your glove compartment and record your experiences on the go.