Travel to California?
This is the wackiest state in the country with a mind-numbing list of tourist-friendly
cities and attractions,
a feast of moreish eye-candy, a
luscious coastline, magnificent mountains
and spectacular deserts.
The people are mostly relaxed, friendly and really know how to have a good time, the climate is superb (that's why filmakers chose Hollywood originally), the mix of cultures, architecture and events is fascinating. California cuisine is exceptional, reasonably priced and - here's the best bit - waiters/waitresses are frequently 'resting' or wannabe actors/actresses so charming (nice, even if it is an act!) and stunning, the most beautiful service staff in the world.
This has to be
the most fun state to play in North America, with endless options and
only state in the union where you can fall asleep under a rose bush
in bloom and freeze to death.' W. C. Fields
• Cars are vital for getting around California, and that means for un-packaged foreign tourists too,
yet roads are jammed and signage poor, necessitating
occasional emergency manoeuvers across multiple lanes of traffic by befuddled, panicked tourists. Get Sat-Nav and save your marriage!
• Fog is common along the north coast during the summer, spoiling
the views and making driving hazardous.
• Rip tides are much in evidence along the more surfy beaches so
swimming can be tricky though signs will usually warn you and lifeguards
monitor more popular beaches.
Best: September-October for the north coast, anytime of the year for the mountains as a whole.
June-September for the south, except the deserts which are best
visited in the spring for coolness and flowery bloom.
Worst: June-August intense heat in
the deserts, Nov-March mountains, esp. north get chilly or impassable.
This massive state offers over-extended geographic possibilities,
so either pick the top spots and be prepared for lengthy
and/or expensive transport in between destinations or stick to one zone
and explore it thoroughly.
California's Mountains and Deserts
The Central Valley and Coastal region
Highway 1, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), runs more-or-less from San Diego in the south to Seattle in the north of the state and sports outrageously scenic
cliffs, beaches and marine wildlife -
including seals, sea lions, otters, sharks and whales - for much of the northern section
while down south are stretches
of fine, well-serviced sands with good facilities and modest surf - all that in addition to three sensational cities and numerous funky little resort towns in between!
From south California to north
Diego: choose this southern Cal city over Los Angeles if you want to
feel more welcome and don't mind about missing iconic sights, though avoid the wetter winter months and - unusually - May and June when a heavy sea fog tends to block sunshine.
Head Downtown for traditional buildings and for evening meals; the atmosphere in the Gaslamp Quarter is delightful.
Surfing is good along the nearby beaches,
the Embarcadero waterfront has a Maritime Museum and nearby Balboa
Park is a landscaped botanical delight of near centennial age with
Spanish style buildings, theaters, and worthwhile museums.
Mission Bay, a reclaimed marshland, has the original Sea World and a fine beach, Ocean beach is perhaps the most popular stretch of sand and pier is while out on Coronado island Coronado beach is big, with good sand and plenty of facilities.
Los Angeles and the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Angeles: 88 cities within this monster City of Angels, so take your pick
of the best bits, but make sure you visit spacious and slightly unhinged Venice beach and tour
the houses of the rich and famous as well as taking a trip Downtown. More
Ventura to Channel Islands: just north of LA and directly off Ventura the Channel Islands National
Park is essentially a wildlife refuge, with an abundance of seals,
seal lions and the like. You can get to the islands from Ventura
and Santa Barbara by ferry or take a plane.
Barbara: an affluent, tranquil resort town with endless palm
trees and gorgeous old Spanish style architecture, but kept down
to earth by a mass of students.
Splendid architecture everywhere, but everywhere, is a big attraction:
there's the Town Hall, El Presidio rebuilt Spanish fort, the old
Mission, the Museum of Natural History and many more; or stroll
the seafront, the upmarket shops or head 12 miles south to big, friendly and wildlife-visited Carpinteria State Beach.
Photo by George Zhao
Hearst Castle: an exceedingly over
the top statement of wealth created for a mega-rich newspaper publisher,
worth a tour to see old-fashioned American excess or just because you like the movie Citizen Kane (based loosely on Hearst's life); but book ahead,
Hearst Castle tours are popular.
Tourists often take a beach break 4 miles north of Hearst Castle, following a miniscule sign to Piedras Blancas Beach and its massive elephant seal colony.
Big Sur, Pacific Coast Highway
Photo by Poco a Poco
Big Sur: the biggest attraction apart from the cities is this stunning
Coastal beauty is protected here with virtually no street lights
and few amenities but there are several parks and attractions - the Julia
Pfeiffer Burns State Park will show you a waterfall into the sea;
the Andrew Molera and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or Venata Wilderness
will get you hiking.
Big Sur is about 120 miles (193 km) south of San Francisco and 245 miles (394 km) north) of Los Angeles.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, a very small, artistic community that is dog friendly but high-heel unfriendly (no heels higher than 2 inches are permitted!).
Monterey is an attractive, affluent town with a
Spanish/Mexican history and an interest in art and marine life.
Head downtown to see a fine cluster of historic structures, Cannery Row for John Steinbeck memorabilia and now home to sports fishing, tourism and a large sea lion colony, the superb Monterey Bay Aquarium
and whale watching trips. Monterey is also famed for its jazz festival.
Santa Cruz: a beautiful resort
town with an historic beach front, so head for the Boardwalk for original
amusements, take a spa or hit the Santa Cruz beaches.
Bodega and Jenner are good base towns for exploring the marine wildlife
of the northern coastline.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Photo by Wattewyl
Francisco has a compact layout with a real community feel, an interestingly hilly layout serviced by quirky trams, a world famous bridge, a smart alternative culture, good outdoor recreational opportunities nearby, and
seals like it. All-in-all one of the most tourist-friendly cities in America. More San Francisco
Photo by Stan Shebs
Napa and Sonoma Valleys: these valleys
cut through the Coast Range from the Sacramento Valley and are
the top wine growing regions in the state.
Calistoga, St Helena and Sonoma are worthwhile stops while touring
the many wineries for freebies in Sonoma and not-so-freebies in
Napa; also try a spa or mudbaths in the area.
Sacramento the state capital is mainly for historical tourists as Old Sacramento
has an abundance of period buildings.
Sutter's Fort is how it all began; an old steamboat sits on the
river, plus there are several good museums: the California State
Railroad, Indian Museum and the Discovery Museum.
Festivals and Parades
January, Tournament of Roses, Pasadena, Los Angeles,
an immense flowery spectacle and games.
May, Cinco de Mayo, City Hall, Los Angeles, colourful stateside representation of Mexico's biggest celebration.
May, Chinese New Year, Chinatown, San Francisco, mythical beasties and other oriental stuff.
October, Halloween Costume Parade, The Castro,
San Francisco, where deranged and morbid costumes abound.
December, Christmas Parade, Hollywood, Los
Angeles, celebrities kick the season off.
Map | PCH Map | SW USA Guide | California Mountains/ Deserts
San Francisco Guide | Los Angeles Guide | USA