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11 fun budget date ideas in Southern California

Southern California boasts a plethora of budget-friendly date-night options, such as Griffith Park in Los Angeles. | Photo by Sean Pavone Photo / stock.adobe.com Southern California boasts a plethora of budget-friendly date-night options, such as Griffith Park in Los Angeles. | Photo by Sean Pavone Photo/stock.adobe.com

Planning a special date might be challenging this year, so take the opportunity to change your usual routine—trade dinner for 2 at your favorite restaurant for an activity that’s both fun 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 11 picks from our editors.

1. Plan a photo shoot for 2

The Paul Smith Pink Wall is a popular Los Angeles photo spot. | Photo by @abspugh/Instagram

The Paul Smith Pink Wall is a popular Los Angeles photo spot. | Photo by @abspugh/Instagram

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 bubblegum Paul Smith Pink Wall; the “You Belong Here” Love Wall outside Westfield Topanga & The Village or the heart-shaped Love Sculpture inside the mall (both are the creations of artist Ruben Rojas); and the Minecraft-inspired “Game of Love” Hearts Wall, created by artist Corie Mattie (aka LA Hope Dealer), displayed in the lobby of hip, DTLA boutique hotel The Audemar.

For an outdoor visual-arts mecca off the beaten path, visit the Lompoc Murals, a collection of 40 murals in and around downtown Lompoc that depict the city’s history.

2. Go stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park. | Photo courtesy NPS

Joshua Tree National Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park. | Photo courtesy NPS

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.

In the San Gabriel Mountains, the Angeles National Forest has wonderfully clear skies and is home to Mount Wilson Observatory.

On cloudless nights, you can see the heavens and get unparalleled views of Los Angeles' light show at Griffith Observatory, where you also can stargaze for free with the outdoor public telescopes until 9:30 p.m.

Another light pollution solution for a star-filled romantic night is to find a dark-sky spot in a less populated place, such as Joshua Tree National Park, a designated International Dark Sky Park.

While you are in Joshua Tree National Park, check out these 7 awesome hikes.

3. Pack a picnic

Plenty of restaurants around SoCal, such as Lady and Larder in Mar Vista, will put together a special meal to enjoy alfresco. | Photo courtesy  Lady and Larder

Plenty of restaurants around SoCal, such as Lady and Larder in Mar Vista, will put together a special meal to enjoy alfresco. | Photo courtesy Lady and Larder

Sure, you could make and pack snacks and sandwiches—and try to remember the utensils—but it’s a lot easier to leave the picnicking supplies to the pros.

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 vineyard visit, Solvang’s Cailloux Cheese Shop 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.

Here are 8 more places where you can pick up food for a perfect picnic.

4. Have a beach bonfire

Sitting around a fire pit on the beach is a popular—and wallet-friendly—date-night idea. | Photo by Global Moments / stock.adobe.com

Sitting around a fire pit on the beach is a popular—and wallet-friendly—date-night idea. | Photo by Global Moments/stock.adobe.com

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 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 the fire pits are first come, first served, so arrive early.

5. Take a hike

Tahquitz Canyon is home to a seasonal 60-foot waterfall, ancient irrigation systems, and rock art. | Photo by Cheri Alguire / stock.adaobe.com

Tahquitz Canyon is home to a seasonal 60-foot waterfall, ancient irrigation systems, and rock art. | Photo by Cheri Alguire/stock.adobe.com

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

Because of the need for social distancing, drive-in theaters have made a comeback. | Photo by  J. Eric Lynxwiller

Because of the need for social distancing, drive-in theaters have made a comeback. | Photo by J. Eric Lynxwiller

One silver lining of the pandemic? The comeback of the drive-in movie theater.

Couples can cozy up in the car at San Diego’s South Bay Drive-In Theatre, which dates to the 1950s, or the Polynesian-themed Mission Tiki in Montclair; both show newly released double features nightly.

Goleta’s West Wind Drive-In, 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.

Here are more fun, family-friendly drive-in theaters around Southern California.

7. Stroll along a pier

Amble along the Manhattan Beach Pier all the way to the Roundhouse Aquarium. | Photo by David Ricks

Take a walk on the Manhattan Beach Pier all the way to the Roundhouse Aquarium. | Photo by David Ricks

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.

On the oceanfront West Coaster rollercoaster at Santa Monica Pier, you'll have a perfect excuse to snuggle up while overlooking Santa Monica Bay.

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, among 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

Griffith Observatory was the site of a memorable scene in the musical La La Land—and can make for a memorable date night, too. Photo by Chones / stock.adobe.com

Griffith Observatory was the site of a memorable movie scene—and can make for a memorable date night, too. | Photo by Chones/stock.adobe.com

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 at 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 2 lovebirds 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.

Southern California is chock-full of cinema spots. Here are 8 movie locations you can—and should—visit.

9. Watch the sunset in San Diego

Sunset-lit cliffs at San Diego’s Point Loma. | Photo by Thomas Shjarback/Alamy Stock Photo

Sunset-lit cliffs at San Diego’s Point Loma. | Photo by Thomas Shjarback/Alamy Stock Photo

Grab your honey and head to San Diego's Point Loma in the late afternoon. Pack a picnic with goodies from Little Italy Mercato, San Diego’s largest farmer’s market, open every Saturday from 8 a.m.- 2 p.m. Bring a blanket, and watch the sun set from atop dramatic cliffs with the soothing sound of the waves below.

Not ready to turn in yet? For a special sweet treat, head back to Little Italy for a delicious gelato, pastry, or espresso at Pappelecco, then stroll around the shops along the harbor.

Tip: Check the tides before going to the cliffs. Big waves crashing against the rocks will leave you in the splash zone.

Read more: Top 10 romantic places in Southern California.

10. Go for an art walk in Laguna Beach

Walking path above the Laguna Beach shoreline. | Photo by Stephanie Starr/Alamy Stock Photo

Couples can enjoy beautiful views from the walking path above the Laguna Beach shoreline. | Photo by Stephanie Starr/Alamy Stock Photo

The Orange County beach town and artists’ enclave is a wonderful place for strolling hand-in-hand as you view public murals and sculptures that line the paths along the oceanfront.

On the first Thursday of each month, Laguna Beach hosts an Art Walk. Participants can visit 40 galleries that offer demonstrations and live music for free.

From June 24 to September 4, you and your sweetheart can check out the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival, featuring the creations of nearly 150 local artists, live music, fun art classes, and a variety of food and drinks.

11. Tour Santa Barbara County Courthouse

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse dates back to 1929. | Photo by Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse dates back to 1929. | Photo by Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo

Spend a day shopping in downtown Santa Barbara, and then stop by the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on Anacapa Street. You can take daily free tours of the Spanish Colonial-style building.

Look at the ceiling in the Clock Gallery during your tour. You will see paintings of the exact constellations from the date that Santa Barbara was named in 1602.

Don't forget an Instagrammable selfie with the landmark’s 4-faced clock tower.

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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.

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