Sun, surf and stars; Southern California has it all. From the glitz and gossip of Hollywood, to the mid-century modern Palm Springs, and San Diego’s plentiful beaches and mean Mexican food, this vibrant region is where everyone wants to be.
In the state’s north, however, wine country, wild landscapes and quirky culture take centre stage. Discover the highlights from the steep streets of San Francisco to the mountain walks of Yosemite, the shores of Lake Tahoe to the seafood eateries in Monterey Bay.
Whether you start from the top and follow the sun down, or the other way around, here are the highlights you don’t want to miss while exploring California.
Landing at LAX, your first port of call is Tinseltown. While star-spotting tours and Hollywood Studios are a novel day out, you’ll also find sophisticated fine art in the Getty Center and incredible views from walks in Griffith Park.
LA is also a shopper’s paradise, with the likes of Rodeo Drive and the Grove on every bucket list. If you’d prefer a more local experience, head to the Melrose Trading Post, an open air market on every Sunday, or Third Street Promenade, a stone’s throw from Santa Monica pier.
While you’re on the coast, seek out some of LA’s lesser known beaches. El Matador is a spectacular secluded spot for sunset, while Hermosa Beach has a relaxed offering of cafes and restaurants popular with mostly locals.
Venturing south of LA you’ll not only find the happiest place on earth, Disneyland, and a host of other theme parks, but 112 kilometres of sun-drenched coastline in the San Diego County. Join the locals stand up paddle boarding on Mission Bay, kayaking along La Jolla’s shoreline, or walking around the city’s massive green lung, Balboa Park with a shave ice in hand.
If history has you fascinated, visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego, with its collection of seafaring vessels, including the USS Dolphin submarine, which holds the record for the deepest dive. While foodies should make a beeline for the Liberty Public Market, or the pedestrian friendly enclaves of Little Italy, North Park and the Gaslamp Quarter, offering unique treats from artisan jewellery and galleries to farm-to-table cuisine and Italian eateries. There’s no shortage of authentic Mexican fare either; head to Old Town, California’s first Spanish settlement for the best handmade tortillas in town.
Meanwhile Palm Springs, despite its lack of surf, has long been known as Hollywood’s playground. Its distinct Mid Century Modern architecture and desert oasis vibe – complete with 360 days of sunshine –make it a favourite for architecture buffs and Hollywood aficionados alike. Peek inside the homes of stars like Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball, shop in the Uptown Design District, dine alfresco downtown, browse the Architecture and Design Center, or bare the heat for a hike in the Indian Canyons.
Palm Springs also plays host to a slew of increasingly popular events, including the Coachella music festival, Modernism Week and the Palm Springs Film Festival, which bring streams of visitors into town each year.
San Francisco, with its towering Golden Gate Bridge, iconic cable cars and colourful Victorian houses, has a distinct style that feels worlds away from the state’s capital of Los Angeles. From historical Alcatraz Island to the labyrinthine streets of Chinatown, famed vintage shopping and the world’s oldest sourdough bakery, there’s a slice of something for every visitor.
Heading north from the city, a two-hour drive will land you in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, the heart of Californian wine country. While wine takes the cake on the world stage, there are many craft breweries and award-winning restaurants in the area also worth a visit.
Inland from San Francisco, nestled in the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains is Lake Tahoe. Summer brings crowds to the clear water beaches of the lake, while in winter, ski resorts keep its towns alive. Choose from a number of walking trails in the surrounding national forests, cosy up at a mountain lodge, eat your way around gourmet restaurants, and browse niche boutiques in the quaint town of Truckee.
Yosemite National Park, arguably the state’s most famous, is a must-visit. Be sure to see the iconic Tunnel View and giant sequoia trees, as well as browse the Ansel Adams Gallery, filled with the photographer’s black and white landscapes of the area.
The last stop on your northern California route is the former fishing city of Monterey. Immortalised by novelist John Steinbeck, Monterey’s rugged landscape is today better known for its chic bars in converted factories and seafood restaurants – what better meal to end your Californian adventure?
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