A mosaic of Old and New Worlds, California’s cities have more flavors than a jar of jellybeans. Start in San Francisco, equal parts earth-mother and geek-chic, or Los Angeles, where nearly 90 independent cities are rolled into one multicultural mosaic, then drift down the coast, past perfect beaches, to surf-style San Diego.
Or escape to the peaceful Sierra Nevada mountains, detour to soulful SoCal deserts, cruise agricultural heartland valleys and lose yourself in northern redwood forests. On sunny days when the coastal fog lifts, over 1100 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline await. And no matter where you go, vineyards never seem far away.
California’s ‘Left Coast’ reputation rests on San Francisco, where self-expression, sustainability and spontaneity are the highest virtues. Free thinkers, top-tier museums and groundbreaking arts scenes thrive here. The city's diverse hill and valley neighborhoods invite long days of wandering, with great indie shops, world-class restaurants and bohemian nightlife.
Marin County & the Bay Area
The region surrounding San Francisco encompasses a bonanza of natural vistas and wildlife. Outdoors nuts adore Marin County, with its beaches, wildlife watching, hiking and cycling trails located just across the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s also a fertile garden of ecotourism opportunities, including experiences at farms that inspire chefs all around the Bay Area.
Napa & Sonoma Wine Country
Amid fruit orchards and ranch lands, these sunny valleys kissed by cool coastal fog have made Napa, Sonoma and the Russian River into California’s premier wine-growing region – and also a showcase for bountiful farm-to-table cuisine. Napa has art-filled tasting rooms by big-name architects; while in laid-back Sonoma, you may drink in a shed and meet the vintner’s dog.
North Coast & Redwoods
Metropolitan San Francisco, only a few hours behind in the rearview mirror, feels eons away from the frothing, frigid crash of Pacific tide on this jagged edge of the continent. The further north you travel on the region’s winding two-lane blacktop, the more dominant the landscape becomes, with valleys of redwood, wide rivers and mossy, overgrown forests.
Remote, empty and eerily beautiful, these are some of California's least-visited wild lands. They offer an endless show of geological wonders, alpine lakes, rushing rivers and high desert. The major peaks – Lassen, Shasta, and the Trinity Alps – have few geological features in common, but all offer backcountry camping under starry skies.
Gold Country & Central Valley
The state capital, Sacramento, is an unbeatable place to start digging up California’s roots. Then spread out across the river delta into the foothills to find a rich vein of Wild West history in gold-mining country. More tactile pleasures await those willing to plunge into a swimming hole, rattle down a mountain-biking trail or go white-water rafting in the icy currents of the American, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers.
Shimmering in myriad shades of blue and green, Lake Tahoe is one of the highest-elevation lakes in the USA. The horned peaks surrounding the lake are year-round destinations. Swimming, boating, kayaking, windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding and other water sports take over in summer, as do hiking, camping and wilderness backpacking adventures. Winter brings bundles of snow, perfect for those of all ages to hit the slopes at Tahoe's top-tier ski and snowboard resorts.
Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada
An outdoor adventurer's wonderland, the Sierra Nevada is a year-round pageant of snow sports, white-water rafting, hiking, cycling and rock climbing. In the majestic national parks of Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon, visitors will be humbled by the groves of solemn giant sequoias, ancient rock formations and valleys, and the ever-present opportunity to see wildlife.
This fairytale stretch of California coast is packed with wild Pacific beaches, misty redwood forests where hot springs hide, and rolling golden hills of fertile vineyards and farm fields. Go hiking in Big Sur, where waterfalls spring to life; hop aboard a whale-watching boat in Monterey Bay; surf from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara; or kayak the prized Channel Islands.
There's more to life in La La Land than just sunny beaches and air-kissing celebs. Los Angeles is intensely diverse and brimming with fascinating neighborhoods, from historic Little Tokyo to red-carpet Hollywood. This is the city of odd-loving Venice Beach, indie-loving neighborhoods such as Los Feliz and Silverlake, surf-loving beaches like Malibu, and rugged and wild Griffith Park.
Disneyland & Orange County
Orange County occupies one of the most inviting stretches of the Southern California coast. Beaches are often packed bronze-shoulder-to-shoulder with surfers, beach-volleyball nuts and soap-opera-esque beauties. Inland, Anaheim is home to the mother of all West Coast theme parks: Disneyland, aka the ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ is a parallel world that’s squeaky clean, enchanting and wacky all at once.
Palm Springs & the Deserts
There’s something undeniably artistic in the way the landscape unfolds in the California desert. Weathered volcanic peaks stand sentinel over singing sand dunes and mountains shimmering in hues from mustard yellow to vibrant pink. But it’s not just nature that has shaped the desert. A retro resort playground, Palm Springs has experienced a rebirth of Rat Pack-era cool. Or you can get dirty by rock climbing in Joshua Tree, then test your 4WD mettle in Death Valley.
With 70 miles of coastline and a near-perfect year-round climate, it’s tough to decide where to start in San Diego. Whether exploring maritime history, biking the beach paths, microbrewery hopping, attending ball games and horse races, or meandering through Japanese gardens, there are endless ways to experience the good life. When in doubt, do as the laid-back locals do and just take it easy – grab a fish taco and a surfboard and head for the beach.