California's top experiences
From towering redwood forests in foggy Northern California to perfectly sun-kissed surf beaches in the south, this 'Golden State' alongside the Pacific simply begs to be explored. Come for the landscape, stay for the sensational meals, and glimpse the future in the making on America's creative coast.
San Francisco’s Golden Gates
Sashay out onto San Francisco’s iconic bridge to spy on cargo ships threading through pylons painted ‘International Orange.’ Memorize the 360-degree views of the rugged Marin Headlands, downtown skyscrapers and the speck that is Alcatraz. Not too far away, you could spend days getting lost in Golden Gate Park without uncovering all of its secrets, like the paddleboat pond and bison paddock, or fully exploring its innovative science and art museums. Weekend traffic closures make the park even more of a paradise for pedestrians and cyclists.
Ditch the phone and hug a tree, dude. And why not start with the world’s tallest trees? California’s towering giants grow along much of the coast, from Big Sur to the Oregon border. It’s possible to cruise past these trees – or even drive right through them at old-fashioned tourist traps – but nothing compares to the awe you’ll feel while walking underneath the ancient ones. Meditate on eternity at Muir Woods National Monument, Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwood National & State Parks.
As winemaking in neighboring Napa Valley grows ever more upscale, here sun-dappled vineyards are still surrounded by pastoral ranchlands. The uniqueness of the terroir is valued in this down-to-earth wine country, where you taste new vintages straight from the barrel inside a tin-roofed shed while playing with the winemaker’s pet dog. Relax and enjoy a late-harvest zinfandel with a scoop of white-chocolate ice cream drizzled with organic olive oil. This is Sonoma: conventions need not apply.
Note: despite extensive wildfire damage in the region in late 2017, most vineyards are open and operational. If you have a specific vineyard in mind for your visit, call ahead to confirm opening hours.
Called the Pacific Coast Highway farther south, locals in Northern California simply call the 400-mile stretch from San Francisco to Crescent City 'Highway 1.' Small communities punctuate the coast as the highway alternates between hairpin switchbacks and straight stretches through pastoral farmland. In Fort Bragg, stop and admire the 'glass beach'; admire the lumber baron’s old Victorians in Eureka while relishing in its current artistic community, or pause to admire the lighthouses that stand as silent guardians of the continent's confluence of land and sea.
Where orange groves and walnut trees once grew, Walt Disney built his dream, throwing open the doors of his 'Magic Kingdom' in 1955. Today, Disneyland and neighboring Disney California Adventure are SoCal’s most-visited tourist attraction. Inside Anaheim’s mega-popular theme parks, beloved cartoon characters waltz arm-in-arm down Main Street USA and fireworks explode over Sleeping Beauty’s castle. If you’re a kid, or hopelessly young at heart, this really is ‘The Happiest Place on Earth,' at least for a day.
The production studios have moved away, but Hollywood and its pink-starred Walk of Fame still attracts millions of wide-eyed visitors every year. This once-gritty urban neighborhood in LA is undergoing a rebirth of cool, blossoming with hip hotels, glittering restored movie palaces and glitzy velvet-roped bars and nightclubs. Snap a souvenir photo with the iconic Hollywood sign as a backdrop – go ahead, we know you can’t resist.
Yosemite National Park
Welcome to what conservationist John Muir called his ‘high pleasure-ground’ and ‘great temple.’ Everything looks bigger at Yosemite National Park, whether you’re getting splashed by thunderous waterfalls that tumble over sheer cliffs, staring up at granite domes or walking in ancient groves of giant sequoias, the planet’s biggest trees. Meander through wildflower-strewn meadows in valleys carved by glaciers, avalanches and earthquakes. For sublime views, perch at Glacier Point under a full moon or drive the high country’s Tioga Rd on a cloudless summer day.
Santa Monica & Venice
How do you beat LA traffic? Hit the beach instead. Sunny Santa Monica grants instant happiness: learn to surf, ride a solar-powered Ferris wheel, dance under the stars on an old-fashioned pier, show kids the aquarium’s tidal touch pools or just dip your toes in the water and let your troubles float away. After the joys of Santa Monica, join the parade of New Agers, muscled bodybuilders, goth punks and hippie drummers at nearby Venice Beach, where everyone lets their freak flag fly. Did we mention jaw-dropping sunsets?
Death Valley National Park
Just uttering the name brings up visions of broken-down pioneer wagon trains and parched lost souls crawling across desert sand dunes. But the most surprising thing about Death Valley is how full of life it really is. Spring wildflower blooms explode with a painter’s palette of hues across camel-colored hillsides. Feeling adventurous? Twist your way up narrow canyons cluttered with geological oddities, stand atop volcanic craters formed by violent prehistoric explosions, or wander Wild West mining ghost towns where fortunes have been lost – and found.
Beautiful Balboa Park is where San Diegans come to play – when they’re not at the beach. Across the park, immerse the whole family in more than a dozen art, cultural and science museums, marvel at the Spanish colonial and mission revival-style architecture while sunning yourself along El Prado promenade, or nab tickets for a show at the Old Globe Theaters, modeled on the famous Shakespearean original.
If you road-trip along the coast between San Diego and Sonoma, you'll be following in the footsteps of early Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests. Foremost among them was Franciscan friar Junípero Serra, who founded many of California’s 21 original missions in the late 18th century. Some missions, such as San Juan Capistrano, have been authentically restored, with flowering gardens, stone arcades, fountains, and chapels adorned by spiritual frescoes. Others are just the haunting ruins of an era long past, where ghosts still pace the cloisters.
Rising suddenly from the surrounding flatlands, there’s no other pile of rock in California that stirs the imagination quite like Mt Shasta. Native Californians believed that it was home of a sky-spirit chief. John Muir said its beauty made his ‘blood turn to wine.’ And a late-19th-century explorer reported that survivors of a lost continent were living in tunnels below its surface. Whether it’s the ‘energy vortex’ felt by today’s New Age pilgrims or the spine-tingling chills of hikers summiting its wind-blown peak, this mountain is magical.
The East Bay
While most travelers in San Francisco stay west, there’s plenty happening in the East Bay to justify the BART or ferry fare. Whether it’s exploring the street art on nearly every block in rapidly developing Oakland or embracing Berkeley’s long love affair with free speech and equality, the East Bay serves as an important counterbalance and contrast to the booming tech in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Anza-Borrego State Park
From a distance, California’s largest state park at first looks like a desolate expanse of some 640,000 acres southeast of Palm Springs and northeast of San Diego. But if you’re lucky enough to visit in the spring, it comes to life like no place else as wildflowers burst across the hillsides in great swathes of color. The rest of the year, it’s got great hiking – bring plenty of water as temperatures can soar – amid remote trails and petroglyphs, evidence of some 10,000 years of Native American history.
Often foggy and wind-tossed, the peninsular fishing village of Monterey calls to mind John Steinbeck and his gritty novels of American realism. Hop aboard a whale-watching cruise out into the bay's national marine sanctuary, some of whose aquatic denizens also swim in Cannery Row’s eco-conscious, family-friendly aquarium. Soak up the authentic maritime atmosphere at the West Coast’s oldest lighthouse in Pacific Grove, then wander downtown Monterey's hidden gardens and historic adobe-walled buildings from California’s Spanish, Mexican and early American days.
Speed over the curved bay bridge or board the ferry from San Diego to seaside Coronado, a civilized escape back to a more genteel era. Revel in the late-19th-century socialite atmosphere at the palatial Hotel Del Coronado, where royalty and presidents have bedded down and Marilyn Monroe cavorted in the 1950s screwball classic film Some Like It Hot. Then pedal past impossibly white beaches –consistently ranked among America’s best – all the way down the peninsula’s Silver Strand, stopping for ice cream and rainbow-colored cotton candy.
Nestled up against mossy, mysterious-looking redwood forests, the rocky Big Sur coast is a secretive place. Get to know it and find hidden hot springs and beaches where the sand is tinged purple or where giant jade has washed up. Time your visit for May, when waterfalls peak, or after summer vacation crowds have left but sunny skies still rule. Crane your neck skyward to catch sight of endangered California condors taking wing above ocean cliffs.
Justifiably calling itself the ‘American Riviera,’ Santa Barbara is truly idyllic. Waving palm trees, powdery beaches, fishing boats clanking about in the harbor – it’d be a travel cliché if it wasn’t the plain truth. California’s ‘Queen of the Missions’ is a rare beauty with its signature red-roofed, whitewashed adobe buildings – all of downtown was rebuilt harmoniously in Spanish Colonial Revival style after a devastating earthquake in 1925. Come escape just for the day, or maybe a wine-soaked weekend in the country. The city is bouncing back beautifully after devastating wildfires and mudslides down the coast, in the winter of 2017-18.
Even if you never set foot on a board – and we, like, totally recommend that you do – there’s no denying the influence of surfing on all aspects of California beach life, from fashion to street slang. With gnarly local waves, you won’t need to jet over to Hawaii to experience it for yourself. Pros ride world-class breaks off Malibu, Huntington Beach (aka ‘Surf City USA’), La Jolla and Santa Barbara, while newbies get schooled at ‘surfari’ camps along the coast from San Diego north to Santa Cruz.
Coastin' on Amtrak
Routes like Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner will tempt you to leave your car behind and ride the rails, especially in SoCal. South of San Luis Obispo, glimpse remote beaches from Amtrak’s panoramic-view observation cars. Blink and you’re already in Santa Barbara, then hop off for a seaside swim at whistle-stop Carpinteria or Ventura, before rolling into LA’s architecturally grand Union Station. Keep rolling south to historic Mission San Juan Capistrano and North County beach towns before finishing in downtown San Diego.
High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this all-seasons adventure base camp revolves around the USA’s second-deepest lake. In summer, startlingly clear blue waters lead to splashing, kayaking or even scuba diving. Meanwhile, mountain-bikers careen down epic single-track runs and hikers stride along trails threading through thick forests. After dark, retreat to a cozy lakefront cottage and toast s’mores in the firepit. When the lake turns into a winter wonderland, gold-medal ski resorts keep downhill fanatics, snowboarders and Nordic traditionalists more than satisfied.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades' chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents and steamy fumaroles, not to mention its colorful cinder cones and crater lakes. You won’t find the crowds of more famous national parks at this off-the-beaten-path destination, but Lassen still offers peaks to be conquered, azure waters to be paddled, forested campsites for pitching your tent and boardwalks through Bumpass Hell that will leave you awestruck.
Downtown Los Angeles
Restaurants, nightspots, hotels, cultural institutions and transit options have sprung up like the cranes that dot the skyline, making DTLA the place to be. Bask in the undulating stainless steel curves of Walt Disney Concert Hall, commune with world-beating contemporary art at the Broad Museum, or check out modern music history at the Grammy Museum. Then break for a meal at the century-old but ever-evolving Grand Central Market before browsing the galleries and boutiques of the Arts District, Olvera Street and Chinatown. At night survey the city lights from a rooftop bar; Perch, the Standard or Spire 73 will do quite nicely, thank you.
A star-studded oasis in the Sonora Desert since the retro days of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, ‘PS’ is a chic desert resort getaway. Do like the A-list stars do: lounge by your mid-century modern hotel’s swimming pool, go art-gallery hopping, vintage shopping, and drink cocktails from sunset till dawn. Feeling less loungey? Break a sweat on hiking trails that wind through desert canyons across Native American tribal lands, or scramble to a summit in the San Jacinto Mountains, reached via a head-spinning aerial tramway.
As a classic American road trip, this historic highway ‘from Chicago to LA’ (as the song goes) is hard to beat. All along the ‘Mother Road’ between the beach and the Arizona border, stretches of California’s eastern desert are punctuated with one-of-a-kind attractions offering up a mix of history and kitsch: the First McDonald’s Museum, Wigwam Motel, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, Peggy Sue’s Diner, Bagdad Cafe, Calico Ghost Town. Keep your eyes peeled, and you never know what you might discover.
SoCal amusement parks
The Disneyland Resort may be the biggest theme park in SoCal, but it’s hardly the only one. Universal Studios Hollywood mixes movie mania, blockbuster-themed rides and the magic wands and butterbeer of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In northern LA County, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor are twin parks stacked with roller coasters and water rides designed to make you scream your head off. Knott’s Berry Farm boasts some of America’s most terrifying coasters alongside Camp Snoopy, targeted at younger thrillseekers. In northern San Diego County, Legoland California is worth a day or two for Lego-themed rides and learning opportunities and an entire ‘Miniland’ of world monuments built of the plastic bricks. And if you have a just a few hours (or a few bucks) to spare, the amusement parks of the Santa Monica Pier and San Diego’s Belmont Park are historic, hometown throwbacks.
Point Reyes National Seashore
If one park could encapsulate Northern California, Point Reyes would get our vote. Step across the San Andreas fault, then stand out by the lighthouse at what feels like land’s end and peer through binoculars at migratory whales. Witness the raucous antics of a seasonal colony of giant elephant seals at Chimney Rock or hike among free-ranging herds of hulking tule elk. Then drive out to windswept beaches, where the horizon stretches toward infinity.
In Orange County, Huntington Beach draws the hang-loose surfer crowd, while yachties play in the fantasyland of Newport Beach. But further south, Laguna Beach beckons, with its sophisticated blend of money, culture and natural beauty. Laguna’s bohemian past still peeks out in downtown’s art galleries, adorable arts-and-crafts bungalows tucked beside multimillion-dollar mansions and the annual Festival of Arts and dramatic Pageant of the Masters.
Tossed like so many lost pearls off the coast, the Channel Islands are California's last outpost of civilization. They’ve been that way for thousands of years, ever since seafaring Chumash tribespeople established villages on these remote rocks. The islands support an abundance of marine life, from coral reefs to giant elephant seals. Get back to nature in Channel Islands National Park, a wildlife haven with fantastic sea kayaking and snorkeling, or make a posh getaway to Mediterranean-esque Catalina Island, with its harborfront hotels.
Joshua Tree National Park
Two deserts – the Colorado from the south and the Mojave from the north – meet northeast of Palm Springs to create Joshua Tree National Park. This desert park is 794,000 acres of otherworldly landscapes, a paradise for rock climbers, hikers and mountain bikers. Nestled among the mountains, streams and oases are the namesake Joshua trees, with splayed limbs crowned with fronds. Camp out in the park, or stay, play and eat to the north in funky little towns like Joshua Tree with its art and folk music scene and Pioneertown, originally an old west movie set and now headlined by a hipster honky tonk.
Mendocino is the North Coast’s salt-washed sand castle of dreams. Restore your soul and ramble out onto craggy headland cliffs or through berry brambles. In summer, fragrant bursts of lavender and jasmine drift on fog-laden winds over the town's unique redwood water towers. Churning surf is never out of earshot, and driftwood-littered beaches are potent reminders of the sea’s power. Originally a 19th-century port built by New Englanders, Mendo today belongs to bohemians who favor art and nature.
Originally published in May 2016, last updated August 2019.
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