How to explore Southern California by train

These days, freeways aren’t the only way to get around LA. Ever-worsening gridlock and major public investments in public transport mean that bopping around much of Los Angeles and Southern California via rail is an appealing option, and an ever-improving network of train tracks means that you can enjoy the region without blowing your horn – or your cool.

Direct train service will take you to many of SoCal’s top sights plus scores of equally worthy yet less-vaunted places. You can lie out on the beach, explore historically rich neighborhoods and cities, see world-class art, get a dose of Hollywood glamor or even leave the country. If you include short bus transfers, then even more of the region opens up, including LAX and Disneyland.

Another benefit to seeing Southern California by train: the low cost. Rather than letting your dollars burn up into your traffic-stalled car’s exhaust, save them for fun. Train fares range from only $1.75 for Metro to $36 for the Amtrak Surfliner from LA to San Diego.

When people ask how you coped with the terrible Southern California traffic, you can casually reply, “We didn’t. We took the train.” From north to south, here are some of the ways to get around Southern California by rail.

Follow the coast to Grover Beach

Far north from the crowded beaches of LA, Grover Beach along the Central Coast makes for an excellent day trip. The journey includes a ride along one of California’s most beautiful stretches of shoreline, some of which you can only see from the train. Just south of the old-timey beach town of Pismo Beach, Grover Beach is part of a long swath of sand backed by dunes that run for over 10 miles south. A short walk is all it takes to leave most traces of civilization – and people – behind.

From LA, Grover Beach is a nearly 5-hour ride, but it’s only 2 hours north of Santa Barbara, and that includes the most beautiful stretch of coast. Catch the morning Amtrak Surfliner train north and the late-afternoon one south, you’ll have about 4 hours on the sand.

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An Amtrak Surfliner train pulls into the mission-style train station in Santa Barbara, California, USA
The Mission-style Santa Barbara Amtrak station is only minutes by foot from both downtown and the Pacific © travelview / Shutterstock

Walk from the station to the beach in minutes in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s train station is a short, equidistant walk from the beautiful Mission-style architecture (and cafes and shops) of downtown, and the sunny beach and pier. There’s so much to see and do here that a day trip from LA can easily turn into an overnight trip. Luckily, you’ll have options, with up to four Amtrak Surfliner round-trips each day. A one-way ride takes about 2.5 hours.

Take the Metro to get arty in Pasadena

Take the Metro L/Gold Line train to Del Mar stop to explore downtown Pasadena, which is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. Wander through lush Central and Memorial Parks, then walk west to the Norton Simon Museum, one of Southern California’s best, with a collection including works by Rembrandt, Rodin, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and more. The sculpture-filled gardens are modeled on Monet’s Giverny.

Avoid the parking madness and get to the theme parks by rail

Metro’s B/Red Line subway goes right to Universal Studios Hollywood, where movies were first made in 1915 — and still are today. Next to the back lots, you can explore movie and TV lore and thrill to rides inspired by Jurassic World, Harry Potter and The Simpsons. Above the Metro station and outside the park are myriad shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

If you want to keep going with Southern California theme parks, you can also get to Disneyland by train – almost. Take an Amtrak Surfliner or Metrolink train to the impressive Anaheim station, then get a free transfer on one of the frequent buses that make the 20-minute run to the main gates of the Magic Kingdom.

Emerge from the subway in glamorous style in Hollywood

When the subway stop has the name Hollywood/Vine, there can be little doubt about what awaits. Frequent Metro trains on the B/Red Line serve the heart of Hollywood; hop off at Hollywood and Vine to stroll west along the Walk of Fame. Above the next subway stop, Hollywood/Highland, you’ll find the celebrity hand, foot and paw prints in the forecourt of what everybody calls Grauman’s Chinese Theater (ignore any of-the-moment name change). Nearby, the fusty, musty Hollywood Museum is a storehouse of Old Hollywood ephemera.

Avoid the Santa Monica Freeway and get to the ocean via light rail

Enjoy the beach with all the trimmings in Santa Monica, the last stop on Metro’s E/Expo light-rail line. Open-air cafes that have wealthy beach bums of all ages lounging about give the city a carefree air.

Just a half-mile west of the train’s stop, the glorious Santa Monica beaches await. Spread out your towel on the sand or head right out on the old Pier, with its photogenic amusement-park rides and arcades. Take the palm-tree-shaded waterfront walk a little over a mile south to Venice Beach, where colorful characters throng the Boardwalk.

Get to East LA by train – then explore the neighborhood on foot

Start a visit to East LA at the Mariachi Plaza stop on Metro’s L/Gold light rail line. As the name suggests, the eponymous musicians are often on sight and performing. Request a favorite ballad and tip well.

The surrounding Boyle Heights neighborhood is one of Southern California’s centers of Latinx culture; get to know the area by downloading one of several excellent walking tours from the Boyle Heights Museum. On your self-guided tour, you can stop at panaderias (bakeries), taco joints, top restaurants, historic churches and much more.

Take the Blue Line to admire Watts Towers

For decades, one of the unmissable sights in South LA has been Watts Towers, the soaring masterpiece of “found” folk art that first began over 100 years ago. Today, it anchors a vibrant community cultural center that celebrates African American creativity, from music to art. Sign up for the free tour and get ready for creative immersion. Metro’s A/Blue Line trains stop at the 103rd St/Watts Towers Station, mere feet from the site.

An Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train passing through the beach area in San Clemente, California, USA
You won’t have to walk far to reach the beach when you get off the train at San Clemente © Felipe Sanchez / Shutterstock

Hug the Pacific as you train it to San Clemente Pier

At coastal San Clemente, the only thing between your train and the Pacific Ocean is the beach. So begins a long and spectacularly scenic run for the historic railroad line as it continues south to San Diego.

Amtrak Surfliner and Metrolink trains pause at the San Clemente Pier stop, which (as you might surmise) is right at the base of the town’s pier that juts out into the Pacific. Hit one of the many casual seafood shacks and cafes, then stretch out on the beach, watch the surfers, wait for sunset and savor the full Southern California beach vibe.

Sail toward Long Beach via light rail

Scores of ginormous container ships lurk just off the harbors at Long Beach, each waiting for their chance to offload delayed cargo. And the maritime spectacle doesn’t end there at this once-gritty sibling city to LA’s south. The iconic 1930s trans-Atlantic steamship the Queen Mary is permanently moored near downtown, with its vintage cabins open for tours. For something much more vibrant, take in the vast briny spectacle of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Metro’s A/Blue Line trains circle through the center of Long Beach, close to the shore and with scores of cafes and bars with cool patios. The run south from Downtown LA takes under an hour.

Consider California’s mission past at San Juan Capistrano

Alight from your train in the heart of colonial California in San Juan Capistrano, along the Orange County coast. Famous for its swallows – which return every year on or around March 19 – the compact center revolves around the namesake 18th-century mission. At this complex, you can contemplate the legacy of Spanish colonization and its disruption of Indigenous cultures. Spend some time in the serene gardens, then explore the surrounding historic district.

Regular Amtrak Surfliner and Metrolink trains serve San Juan Cap from LA (2 hours).

A light rail train passes by the buildings of downtown San Diego, California, USA
The Mexican border is only a 45-minute light-rail ride from downtown San Diego © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Final stop: the border at Tijuana, Mexico

Believe it or not, you can reach Mexico by train: the San Diego Trolley’s Blue Line ends right at a pedestrian border crossing in San Ysidro. From there it’s only a 1.2-mile walk along a popular pedestrian route (cut-rate pharmacies abound) to Plaza Santa Cecilia, one of Tijuana’s oldest public squares.

From the plaza, stroll one of the main pedestrian drags, Avenida Revolución (La Revo), which is lined with restaurants, bars, shops and more. Duck into pasajes (passages, or alleys) for galleries and arty cafes. Head east for the craft beer bars of Plaza Fiesta, then walk the 1.8 miles back to the border crossing or use a ride app like Uber.

Amtrak Surfliner trains serve San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot from LA (3 hours). The trolley to the border takes 45 minutes from there.

The art deco waiting room of historic Union Station in Los Angeles, California, USA
Most rail services in Southern California pass through or near historic Union Station in Downtown LA © Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Your guide to Los Angeles and Southern California train service

Historic and beautiful Union Station in Downtown LA is the hub for much of the region’s rail service. You might recognize it from the dozens of film and TV shows shot there, including the noir classic Criss Cross, Bugsy, Catch Me If You Can and Hail, Caesar!

  • Amtrak Surfliner: The national train operator runs comfortable trains between San Luis Obispo in the north to San Diego in the south. Some beachfront stretches, such as those north of Santa Barbara and along the beach at Oceanside, are among the world’s most scenic train trips. There are as many as 10 round trips a day along busy stretches, such as between LA and San Diego.
  • Metrolink: The LA region’s commuter rail system fans out in all directions and provides regular service that links up with other transit systems. Major destinations along the eight lines include Palmdale, Oxnard, Burbank, San Bernardino, Anaheim and Oceanside.
  • Metro: Centered around LA, Metro is a mix of light rail and subways that serve must-see spots including Hollywood, Santa Monica, Pasadena and Long Beach. Major hotel areas are convenient to the train lines, especially those in Hollywood, Downtown LA, along Wilshire Blvd and near the beaches in Santa Monica.
  • Coaster: San Diego’s coastal commuter train service serves beach towns from Oceanside south to San Diego. (Amtrak’s Surfliners run on the same tracks.) Consider buying a ticket for a lovely day trip from San Diego.
  • San Diego Trolley Light Rail: Trains fan out across San Diego from a hub at San Diego Depot (also served by Amtrak Surfliners and Coaster). The Blue Line runs south to San Ysidro, where the border crossing to Tijuana and Mexico is only 500ft from the station.

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