Planning a special date might be more challenging this year, so take the opportunity to change your usual routine—trade dinner for two at your favorite restaurant for an activity that’s both revitalizing and wallet-friendly. Thanks to Southern California’s enviable year-round weather, there are plenty of outdoor options to choose from. Keep the romance alive with these eight creative date ideas.
1. Plan a photo shoot for two
If you’ve been meaning to take some new pictures with your sweetheart, plan a photo session with colorful wall art as a backdrop. Make a day of it by driving through L.A. and stopping to pose in front of Melrose Avenue’s poppy Paul Smith Pink Wall, the heart-covered Love Wall on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and La Cienega Boulevard’s geometric Mondrian Wall that honors the iconic Dutch artist. For an outdoor visual-arts mecca that’s off the beaten path, visit the Lompoc Murals, a collection of 36 murals in and around downtown Lompoc that depict the city’s history.
2. Go stargazing
The movies make nighttime stargazing look easy—just pull off the road and look up. But in Southern California, home to multiple metropolises and oodles of artificial light, seeing stars takes a little more planning. The light pollution solution is to find a dark-sky spot in a less populated place, such as Joshua Tree National Park, a designated International Dark Sky Park. In the San Gabriel Mountains, the Angeles National Forest has wonderfully clear skies and is home to Mount Wilson Observatory.
3. Pack a picnic
Sure, you could pack your own snacks and sandwiches—and try to remember the utensils—but it’s a lot easier to leave the picnicking supplies to the pros. Order a vegetarian-friendly basket from Santa Monica’s Uplifters Kitchen (424-268-4904), equipped with house-made focaccia and spreads, a farmers market salad, and sweet treats. Or try Mar Vista’s Lady and Larder, a tiny shop that’s gained a following for its pretty herb-and-flower-garnished cheese and cured meat boards. If you’ve planned a Valentine’s Day vineyard visit, Solvang’s Cailloux Cheese Shop (805-350-8328) will assemble an artisan basket to fit your budget; make sure to request the shop’s signature peppadew pimento spread and fresh bread. Cailloux also offers picnic baskets and waterproof blankets you can buy or rent for the day.
4. Have a beach bonfire
Spending an evening listening to crashing waves under the moonlight sounds delightful and budget-friendly, but at this time of year it can be a tad chilly. To stay warm on the sand, pick a beach that’s equipped with fire pits for safe bonfire-building. You’ll find plenty at Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas, Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach, and Point Mugu State Park in Malibu. All of the fire pits are first come, first served, so arrive early.
5. Take a hike
It’s well worth a potentially muddy hike to wind up at a wondrous waterfall. The approximate 4-mile round-trip trek through Malibu’s Escondido Canyon Park takes you to the base of the multitiered Escondido Falls, the tallest falls in the Santa Monica Mountains. Hardy hikers can trudge through the Montecito foothills to the striking Tangerine Falls. In Palm Springs, the Tahquitz Canyon desert trail winds past ancient rock formations and rewards hikers with a dramatic 60-foot waterfall. Some waterfalls are seasonal, and some trails charge parking fees, so check conditions and fees before you head out.
6. Catch a drive-in movie
One silver lining of 2020? The comeback of the drive-in movie theater. Couples can cozy up in the car at San Diego’s South Bay Drive-In Theatre (619-423-2727; southbaydrivein.com), which dates to the 1950s, or the Polynesian-themed Mission Tiki (909-628-0511; missiontiki.com) in Montclair, both of which show newly released double features nightly. Goleta’s West Wind Drive-In (805-837-0380; westwinddi.com), part of the world’s largest drive-in theater chain, shows first-run movies and also sprinkles in throwback films and cult classics. Cheap double-feature movie tickets make this a great budget date.
7. Stroll along a pier
If you and your date want to soak in ocean views without getting sand in your shoes, stroll one of Southern California’s many remarkable piers. You’ll spot plenty of wave-riding surfers while walking the turquoise-railed Manhattan Beach Pier, which ends at the iconic red-roofed Roundhouse Aquarium. If fishing is your thing, cast your lines (no license required) from Oceanside Pier. And you can gaze out at miles and miles of coastline from Huntington Beach Pier, one of the longest piers on the West Coast, at 1,850 feet long. Though not technically a pier, the 2,300-foot-long Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara certainly feels like one. The oldest working wooden wharf in the state bustles with restaurants, shops, and even a wine-tasting room.
8. Re-enact a classic romantic movie
Even if you don’t possess the dance skills that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone showed off in the romantic musical film La La Land, you can still follow in the duo’s choreographed footsteps to see sites from some of the movie’s most memorable scenes. Though it was closed at press time for the pandemic, you can still see Griffith Observatory and view-filled Griffith Park, where Sebastian and Mia’s famous tap dance took place. Get a peek at the marquee-clad exterior of South Pasadena’s historic Rialto Theatre, where the two had their first date. And top off the date by tracing the couple’s walk along Pasadena’s century-old Colorado Street Bridge, a concrete arch that towers 150 feet over the Arroyo Seco.
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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.