Travel & Day Trips

What Are the Largest Cities in Southern California?

Southern California, affectionately known as SoCal, is a region known for its unique blend of vibrant culture, sprawling urban landscapes, beautiful coastline, and captivating history.

Amongst the sandy beaches, rolling hills, and famous landmarks, Southern California is also home to several bustling metropolises. Let’s explore the largest cities in Southern California.

I’ve been to all of these, so I can also share how they feel to visitors.

Los Angeles

Topping the list, Los Angeles is not only the largest city in Southern California but also the second most populous city in the United States, trailing only New York City. LA people often head up to our neck of the woods in Norcal. SF is way smaller!

Known as the “City of Angels,” Los Angeles spans an impressive area of 503 square miles and houses a population of approximately 4 million people. It’s a global hub for entertainment, culture, fashion, technology, and education. Its notable districts include Hollywood, famous for filmmaking, and the tech-centric Silicon Beach.

How Does it Feel?

Los Angeles is a crazy, sprawling, bustling place! If you visit, you will get stuck in traffic, probably for hours! LA is exciting and urban. It’s different from New York City, where everything is squeezed into a tiny physical space. LA is more spread out, but it feels giant just be nature of how much area it covers.

San Diego

As the second-largest city in Southern California, San Diego is admired for its idyllic climate, beautiful beaches, and vibrant lifestyle.

With a population close to 1.5 million, San Diego is known as the “Birthplace of California” due to its status as the first site visited by Europeans on the West Coast. The city is also recognized for its deep harbor, which houses a large active naval fleet, and its close proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border.

How Does it Feel?

San Diego feels much more manageable than Los Angeles, despite being one of the largest cities in California. Partly, that’s because there are more surrounding areas that lead to population centers beyond downtown.

Places like La Jolla and Carlsbad (home of LEGOLAND California) make the San Diego metro area feel big, even if the city itself doesn’t feel giant.

Long Beach

Long Beach, with a population of nearly half a million, offers a unique blend of suburban and urban lifestyles. It’s well known for its waterfront attractions, including the historic Queen Mary ocean liner and the Aquarium of the Pacific. Also, it is home to one of the world’s busiest seaports, the Port of Long Beach.

How Does it Feel?

Like part of LA! Honestly, I can’t tell any difference in feel between being in Los Angeles and being in Long Beach.


Sign at night for Hotel Rosedale in Bakersfield, California, August 3, 2019

Located inland at the southern end of the Central Valley, Bakersfield is the ninth-largest city in California. It’s known for its industries including oil, agriculture, and natural gas.

The city’s population stands around 380,000. Bakersfield has also made a significant cultural impact, particularly through the “Bakersfield Sound,” a genre of country music that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

How Does it Feel?

Bakersfield feels very spread out and industrial. You’ll see oil derricks, agriculture, and plenty of big stretches of open sky. It’s a big city, but very spread out–not at all like LA.


Home to the world-renowned Disneyland Resort, Anaheim houses a population of approximately 350,000 people. Located in Orange County, Anaheim has a rich history rooted in its 1857 founding by German Americans. Today, it’s a buzzing hub of tourism and entertainment, hosting millions of visitors each year.

How Does it Feel?

Anaheim feels like a home base for Disneyland, and not much else. When you’re in the resort, it’s often crowded. The rest of the city is mainly resorts and businesses serving Disneyland visitors.

Biggest SoCal Cities–Top 3 by the Numbers

RankCityCountyPopulationLand Area (sq mi)Density (pop/sq mi)
1Los AngelesLos Angeles3,792,621469.498,304.2
2San DiegoSan Diego1,307,402325.884,255.9
3Long BeachLos Angeles462,25750.719,203.6


Southern California’s largest cities, each unique in their characteristics, offer a diverse range of experiences. From the glitz and glamor of Hollywood in Los Angeles to the beautiful beaches of San Diego, from the busy seaport of Long Beach to the country music heritage of Bakersfield, and the enchanting allure of Anaheim’s Disneyland, these cities truly showcase the spirit and diversity of Southern California.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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