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Catalina Island
Photograph: Michael JulianoCatalina Island

The best car-free day trips from Los Angeles

Venture up, down and beyond the coast on one of these auto-free day trips

Michael Juliano
Edited by
Michael Juliano
Stephanie Breijo

L.A.’s best beaches and car traffic go hand in hand during the summer. But take the car out of that equation, and the stress of traffic disappears, too. We’ve picked out a few of our favorite day trip destinations that are reachable by boat, Metro or Amtrak, all within three hours or less for a trip starting at Union Station. No car? No problem: You can still make plans for a memorable day with these auto-free getaways.

1hr by boat; 1hr 30min to Long Beach Downtown landing from Union Station via Metro

Island vibes and stiff drinks are just a boat ride away. Accessible aboard the Catalina Express—with ferry launches in Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point—the rugged isle sports two landings: Two Harbors beckons overnight backpackers, while the walkable main port Avalon is suitable for a single-day visit. Make for Avalon and survey the dramatic, remote interior on the Ridgetop Eco Adventure ($84.95), an off-road tour on an open-air biofuel Hummer. Back in town, nosh on egg-topped avocado toast at Cafe Metropole before following the beachfront path to the Catalina Casino, an Art Deco auditorium whose ambience is mostly accessible via walking tours. Sink into the sand and take in the ocean views with a frosty Buffalo Milk cocktail at the nearby Descanso Beach Club, where you can legally drink on the beach. The classy Catalina Island Museum dives into the century-old vacation destination’s fascinating history, which includes Chicago Cubs spring training and proto- CIA military exercises. For dinner, savor seafood dishes on thedockside patio at Bluewater Grill Avalon. Before you leave island life, grab a sticky cinnamon bun from the Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. for the ride back.

Time Out tip: If you can, pony up the extra $40 for a round-trip upgrade to the Commodore Lounge on the Catalina Express. You’ll be sitting in a comfy, more private cabin with a complimentary cocktail in hand while the rest of the ship is still lining up to board.

Round-trip Catalina Express base fare $77

2hr 30min by train from Union Station

Step off the Pacific Surfliner and into the American Riviera, where the mountains meet the ocean. Up the Spanish-Colonial State Street, venture into an ivy-covered arcade for banana-topped Kahlúa French toast at Jeannine’s Bakery. At the end of the alleyway, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art ($10) has just wrapped up its renovation—and it’s still a bargain to see works of SoCal abstraction. Walk across the street through the Spanish-Moorish archway at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and climb atop the clock tower for sweeping views; on the way down, stop by the sublimely painted second-floor Mural Room. When it’s time to trek back to the coast, stop at Lilly’s Taqueria for flavorful, no-frills tacos, then watch the sun dip toward the surf from Stearns Wharf. Sip your way around the urban wineries clustered in the Funk Zone before landing at The Lark, a farm-to-table favorite just over a block from the train station.

Time Out tip: If you’re here for one reason only—to get wine-wasted—consider an Urban Wine Trail membership card, which includes onetime pours at each of the area’s 24 tasting rooms.

Round-trip Amtrak fare from $40

Solana Beach and Del Mar
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/atramos

Solana Beach and Del Mar

2hr 10min by train from Union Station

Grab your board and enough surf wax to give Madame Tussauds a run for its money because the Pacific Surfliner is more aptly named than you might imagine: These trains allow surfboards, which you can carry yourself or check like luggage. Hop off at the Solana Beach station, just two blocks from the beach. Stop by local fave Roberto’s to fuel up on rolled tacos and carne asada fries. After hitting Seaside Beach and Fletcher Cove, drop by the Culture Brewing Co. tasting room for a pint of beer. Looking for something racier? Only a mile south, Del Mar’s famous horse track does its thing from July to September—not to mention a bunch of performers at the San Diego County Fair (through July 4).

Time Out tip: Looking to stretch your legs after that train ride? The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve offers around 10 trails that hug the coast and one that lets you explore the marsh.

Round-trip Amtrak fare $62

3hrs by train from Union Station

With about a dozen round-trip trains darting south daily, you’ve got options galore for a quick getaway. You can exit at Old Town Station, stepping into the state’s first European settlement, which baosts folklórico dancing, restaurants, ghost tours and an 1830s adobe home. If you’re looking for something a bit more modern, exit the train at Santa Fe Depot, which lands you right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art ($10). Hoof or pedicab it to Little Italy for breakfast or lunch at the chipper café Herb & Eatery—don’t forget the house-made ice cream sandwiches—or snag dinner at the lauded fine-dining spot Juniper & Ivy. Hop the trolley to Petco Park for a Padres game or, if you’re in the mood for another museum, to Balboa Park: The plant-lush grounds house 17 museums, many of which were built during a pair of early-20th-century expositions. Just next door is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, in case you really want to go wild.

Time Out tip: Want to spend the day at the beach? At the San Diego Convention Center, take the bay ferry to the low-key resort city Coronado for only $7.

Round-trip Amtrak fare $70


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