Sep 22, 2023California, North America, Travel Advice, USA0 comments

The terracotta tiles, white walls, old wood, exotic plants, and bright merchandise at Old Town San Diego give it a very Mexican vibe.

We are all familiar with Southern California from TV and movies, but there are a number of things that will surprise you on your first visit. They definitely surprised me when I first came to California as a teenager!

Since then I have not only lived in LA for almost two years but have also spent numerous vacations all over Southern California. But still I am sometimes surprised by these unexpected facts.

Some of these surprises just make for a fun experience – like surfing dogs – but others can have a real impact on your vacation.

If you are planning a trip to Southern California read on so you are prepared and won’t be caught out.

Pacific ocean at sunset. It gets dark surprisingly early in Southern California.

If you live in Europe or anywhere else farther north you may be used to long summer evenings. Likely it won’t be dark until 10 pm and from the golden light of dusk until complete dark may take several hours.

Not so in Southern California. Due to its location much closer to the equator (LA is as far south as Casablanca in Morocco) it will likely be dark by 8 pm, even in the summer.

Actually, the time for sunset doesn’t vary much over the course of the year. You can expect it be dark somewhere between 8 pm in the summer and 5 pm in the winter.

Just as surprising is that it gets dark much quicker. Once the sun starts to set it may just take around 30 minutes to an hour until it is completely dark.

So if you don’t like to be out in the dark make a note of this and make sure to head back early.

Suprising Fact #2: Everyone turns in early

Clapboard wall with two round signs. One of which shows the opening times for The Original Farmers Market. The market closes surprisingly early.

You probably know that people tend to not stay out as late in the States as they do for example in Southern Europe. During my trip to Portugal restaurants didn’t start to get busy until after 8 or 9 pm.

But Southern Californians turn in much earlier than in some other parts of the country – and definitely earlier than you would expect of an entertainment mecca.

Most restaurants close by 9 pm, some even earlier. And while there are of course bars and nightlubs that stay open late – for the most part Southern California is asleep come 10 pm.

Suprising Fact #3: All the heat is in the sun

Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach's Design District in bright sunshine

Of course we all know that the heat during the day stems from the sun. However, in many regions days stay warm or even hot long after the sun goes down (or on the rare rainy day).

On my trip to Orlando earlier this year the air was still warm enough for swimming long after sunset. And even cloudy days were hot and muggy.

Not so in Southern California. The moment the sun sets (or clouds show up) the temperature drops. It won’t be freezing but there can be a definite nip in the air.

So make sure to take along a thin jacket or sweater, especially if you get cold easily!

Suprising Fact #4: Pedestrians are treated with respect

Wide street with crosswalk in San Clemente. The street is lined with palm trees and cheery white buildings.

On my trip to Orlando this summer I was shocked – and annoyed – to see how badly pedestrians are treated.

Even when I was crossing at a cross walk with flashing lights, cars just kept on driving. And not just one or two cars but dozens of cars drove on as if they were the only ones on the road.

This doesn’t really happen in Southern California. The moment a driver sees you they will stop and give you the right of way. Pedestrians are the kings and queens of the road. (Obviously there are exceptions so please do be careful when crossing streets!)

Per the official California Driver Handbook pedestrians always have the right of way, in marked and unmarked crosswalks (i.e. basically at any street corner).

But one big caveat: Drivers will mostly give you the right of way if they see you. California drivers are not used to many pedestrians so often forget to look out for them.

Be extra careful when crossing at a light. Drivers turning right on a red light (as is allowed in California) often focus so much on looking for oncoming traffic to their left that they forget to check to their right and just start driving.

This happened several times during my recent trip – the drivers were visibly startled and apologized when they did notice me. But if I had just started crossing when the pedestrian light changed to “Go” I would likely have gotten hit.

So enjoy being treated with respect in Southern California as a pedestrian but do be careful and make eye contact before crossing.

Suprising Fact #5: Rain will derail everything

Train tracks in Solana Beach's Coaster train station in the rain. Expect an unpleasant surprise when traveling in Southern California on rainy days

I lived in Alabama for a while as a teenager and the moment even a sprinkling of snow fell complete pandemonium broke out.

Well, Southern California is almost worse. Any amount of rain is unusual (well, this year not so much but in general) and will lead to chaos.

Case in point: As part of my trip from Solana Beach to the Queen Mary in Long Beach I was taking the Metrolink Orange Line from Oceanside to Union Station.

In the morning there was a little bit of rain, barely a drizzle. About ten minutes after the train had left Oceanside we stopped on the tracks for over an hour.

The tracks were – not surprisingly – wet and a train inspector had to check that there was no safety issue. We ended up going back to Oceanside so passengers who had changed their mind could bail from the train. Our trip started finally (again) with a 2 hour delay.

I ended up taking an Uber from Anaheim to the Queen Mary as I wanted to be in time for the Paranormal Tour I had booked as part of my stay. An unexpected expense!

So if you are traveling on a rainy day give yourself plenty of extra time and expect all kinds of delays.

Suprising Fact #6: The ocean is COLD

Wide sand beach at Torrey Pines with people on sand. Surprisingly few people are in the water

California beaches are often picture-perfect – a white swath of soft pale sand, palm trees in the distance, a bright blue sky, and clear turquoise water.

When you visit the beach you may notice that hardly anyone is in the water. Maybe you are asking yourself: Are there sharks?

Well, there may be sharks but the main reason you will see many more people out on the sand than in the water is that the water is pretty cold. You might even find it freezing!

Water temperatures in the LA area range from a icy 58° F (14.5 °C) in the winter to a still chilly 68 °F (20 °C) in August! This means that average ocean temperatures in August in sunny Southern California are almost the same as in Boston (67.5 °F/19.7 °C).

If you are looking for warm, balmy water to relax in Florida is definitely a better choice. Even in February – the coldest month of the year – average ocean temperatures in Florida are slightly higher than they are in August in Los Angeles!

No question, California beaches are great for long walks, exploring tide pools, playing ball games, or just relaxing in the sun.

But if you plan on spending significant time in the water to surf, bodysurf, or swim make sure to bring a wet suit or prepare to shiver!

Suprising Fact #7: California dogs live the high life

Board with menu of Tamarindo Restaurant in Del Mar. In addition to the usual food and beverage offerings it includes a dog menu with a choice of steak, chicken, or fish

You will see plenty of dogs in California. But you won’t just see them at the dog park or being walked on a leash.

In Southern California I have seen dogs on skateboards and I have seen dogs on surfboards. There are bakeries for dog treats and shops that sell doggy ice cream. You can get Halloween costumes for dogs and some restaurants even have special offerings for dogs on their menu.

If I was a dog Southern California is the place I would want to live!

Large well-groomed poodle with pink, purple and blue fur at an outdoor mall

How about you? Have you been surprised by one of these facts about Southern California? Did I miss something that visitors should be aware of?

Hi, I am Kitty and I love to travel! Welcome to my blog, where I share all I have learned on my trips - good and bad - to help you have a better, cheaper, and more perfect vacation!


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