If you’re visiting Los Angeles for the first time, you’ll notice very quickly just how big the city is. With a population of around 4 million people and especially how the city is spread-out over such a vast area, you will quickly realise that a car is essential to get around but especially if you want to head outside of the city.
With that said, if you plan to stay within Los Angeles, the city offers one of the best public transport systems in the USA via its metro system comprising of six lines and a substantial bus network.
Assuming you’re coming as a tourist, renting a car is easy and relatively inexpensive.
In terms of driving licences, most US states and rental car companies accept driving licences from most countries but it’s well worth getting an International Driving Permit (known as an “IDP”) which you can get from your country’s driving licence authority (and often via driving associations).
Normally these are issued free or for very low cost but make sure you get your IDP well in advance of your trip. And whilst we’re on the subject of paperwork, make sure you get an ESTA visa exemption at least 48 hours before your flight departs otherwise you won’t be permitted to even board your flight, let alone enter the US (see a full ESTA guide here).
Also, do check the requirements from the car rental company before you book your car hire to avoid any problems when you arrive.
Often the easiest thing to do is to rent your car at Los Angeles International Airport. Once you get your car and before you set off, make sure you have some form of GPS system (for example, on your phone) because getting lost is incredibly easy in a city the size of Los Angeles.
And just as a final note, Los Angeles traffic is notoriously heavy and especially the 405 highway (or motorway) which is the main highway between Los Angeles and San Diego to the south. So just remember to give yourself plenty of time when travelling on highways and, try to avoid early mornings and early evenings when the traffic is particularly heavy.
So, with that said, here are three fantastic trips that you can take outside of Los Angeles.
Trip to San Diego
San Diego is one of the delights of California and a must-visit city. From Los Angeles, you’ll need around 2½ hours or more depending on the traffic levels on the 405 highways.
You can see most of the main city attractions across a couple of days providing you plan in advance. But if you want to take things easier, three days is probably a better bet.
Assuming you go for two days, in terms of travelling, a good itinerary would be to leave in the morning from Los Angeles which would get you into San Diego by lunchtime. Then spend the remainder of the day and all of the following day staying in San Diego and return to Los Angeles on day three (so this means a 2-night stay in the city).
In terms of the main places to visit, it should include: Balbao Park, Mission & Pacific Beach (it would be madness not to visit a beach, especially in California), Gaslamp Quarter, the Old Town, USS Midway aircraft carrier and SeaWorld.
Day Trip to Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is located about 100 miles (161 km) west of Los Angeles and a straightforward drive along the 101 highway which will take you around 2 hours or so.
However, this is a spectacular drive along the pacific coast and so it’s well worth taking your time and stopping along the way to admire the beaches and views over the Pacific Ocean and soak up the atmosphere of what California is really like. For example, a good stop point is at Loon Point which is not too far from Santa Barbara.
You can easily visit Santa Barbara in one day providing you’re ready for a long day. If you prefer to take it easier, then a one-night stop is generally more than enough.
The city is considered one of the most glamorous cities in California and is notable for its Spanish architecture and its famous seafront lined with palm trees.
There are plenty of places to visit including the Santa Barbara Mission (or monastery) and the city centre is excellent for shopping. If nature is your thing, then whale-watching cruise tours are definitely worth trying: many humpback whales and other species are very common in these waters.
Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re starting to get rather tired of beaches, then a daytrip to Joshua Tree National Park is definitely within easy reach from Los Angeles.
This national park is located around 2 hours east of the city and an easy and spectacular drive along the I-10 highway. The park is just another example of just how much variety there is in this large state and is notable for its desert terrains and sometimes bizarre geological features (you can even take a special Geology tour).
If nature, hiking, camping or even rock-climbing is something you enjoy, then the park offers plenty of variety. To make the most of your time, it’s definitely worth planning ahead and visiting one of the four visitor centres when you arrive. For more information, check their website here: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm