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California

Your Guide to California

Sandy Beaches, Seaside Drives, and Sunshine Galore

California is the state that truly has it all — natural treasures (Yosemite National Park, Big Sur, and Lake Tahoe), lively metropolises (San Francisco in NorCal and Los Angeles in SoCal), and stretches of deserts, beach, and forests in between. No wonder its called The Golden State.

Only a handful of states can hold a candle to California’s rich geographical makeup. You can see pristine coastline, lush forests, arid deserts all within a day’s drive. The state is home to renowned natural wonders such as Yosemite National Park, with its towering waterfalls and granite cliffs, and Joshua Tree National Park, named after the bizarre Joshua Trees that lend to this park’s otherworldly quality. The famous Highway 1 is hailed as one of the top 10 scenic drives in the world, offering 656 miles of unadulterated views of the Pacific Ocean.

When it comes to iconic cities, California doesn’t fall short. You’ll most likely fly into Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, although the state’s capital, Sacramento, also has a regional airport. Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, a star-studded city glamorized by Hollywood and your gateway to the beloved Disneyland theme park. San Francisco is home to some of the USA’s most historic landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Meanwhile, San Diego charms visitors with its laid-back atmosphere, world-class zoo, and beautiful Balboa Park.

California’s diversity is a defining feature of the state, reflected in its urban landscapes and culinary offerings. From the tech-centric atmosphere of Silicon Valley to the artistic vibe of neighborhoods like The Mission in San Francisco, there are strong cultural enclaves all around the state. And you can’t forget how heavily influenced California is by immigrant communities, evident in areas like San Diego’s Hispanic Old Town and San Francisco’s Chinatown, the first Chinatown in the nation. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the heritage and traditions of the migrants that shaped California while sampling, in my opinion, he best food in the USA.

For outdoor enthusiasts, California is paradise. Whether you’re surfing in the glassy swells of Santa Cruz, hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains under the shade of giant Sequoias, or skiing in the Lake Tahoe region, California provides endless opportunities for recreation. And let’s not forget that California is renowned for its world-class vineyards and wineries, particularly in regions like Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The combination of wine and gourmet cuisine amid rolling hills makes California’s wine country a must-visit for connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. The largest state on the USA’s West Coast promises an unforgettable journey for every type of traveler!

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Drive the entirety of the scenic and seaside Highway One route
Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Find the best angle of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles and snap a picture
Stay at a retro motel in Palm Springs
Camp under the stars Joshua Tree National Park
Hear the barking sea lions at La Jolla Beach in San Diego
Spend a day on the trails at Big Sur State Park
Stand in the shadow of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park
Take a boat out onto crystal clear Lake Tahoe
Ride a rollercoaster at the Disneyland Magical Kingdom Park in Anaheim
Sip on a glass of local Napa vintage
Ride dune buggies in Pismo Beach

Destination Guide to California San Francisco

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VIETNAM

Transportation – It is a near impossibility to travel around California without a car. Renting a car is the most economical way to travel around and it provides flexibility for exploring scenic routes, reaching remote destinations, and visiting national parks. But you run the risk of parking in major cities with costly parking and high-rates of break-ins, along with expensive gas needs. In major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, public transportation, including buses and trains, can be efficient for navigating urban areas and avoiding traffic. But Los Angeles is seriously unreliable when it comes to public transport. Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are widely available and convenient for short distances or when public transit is less accessible. Additionally, domestic flights may be necessary for covering long distances between regions, especially if planning to explore both Northern and Southern California (see Planning Your Trip).

Climate – California experiences sunny, temperate weather year-round, implied in its nickname “The Golden State.” It’s most similar to Mediterranean climates along the coast with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers, while inland regions experience more extreme temperature fluctuations, and mountainous areas see alpine and desert conditions. “June Gloom”, “May Gray” and “No-Sky July” are  terms used to describe a weather pattern that brings low-lying clouds and mist during the early summer. The best months to go are April/May and September/October.

Food – California cuisine is characterized by its emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, a diverse range of culinary influences, and a commitment to healthy and sustainable practices. Known for its farm-to-table philosophy, the cuisine often features vibrant salads, seafood, and innovative dishes that showcase the state’s rich agricultural bounty and cultural diversity. The fusion of global flavors, a focus on seasonality, and a laid-back approach to dining contribute to the unique and eclectic nature of California cuisine.

Safety Travelers should stay vigilant when it comes to car break-ins, natural disasters, and challenging driving conditions. California is prone to earthquakes, wildfires, and occasional droughts. Look out for extreme weather in drier areas. Be cautious of aggressive drivers in high density driving areas. And stay extremely alert in tourist areas, especially as the number of break-ins have skyrocketed in SF.  Keep an eye on your belongings and don’t leave anything out in your car, down to spare change and phone cords. Keep a copy of your important travel documents (e.g., ID, passports, etc) on you at all time.

Health – In certain seasons, especially during wildfire season, air quality can be a concern, particularly in areas like Northern California. Visitors with respiratory conditions may want to check air quality forecasts and take precautions, such as staying indoors during poor air quality days.

What To Bring Home Compartes Artisan Chocolate Bars, Santa Cruz Dot Crewnecks, I Love You California Prints from 3 Fish Studios, La Fantasia Castello di Amorosa Wine, Box of See’s Candies, Mickey Mouse Ears, Route 66 License Plate, Packet of California Poppy Seeds, Blue Bottle Coffee

No time to get souvenirs? You can get the best California products from California Crafted.

Travel Tips for California

COST PER DAY

Meals: $20-50
Home rentals: $150-300 per night
3-star hotel: $250-300
5-star hotel: $400-500
Rideshare: $20+
Beers: $6-12
Cocktails: $15-22
Activities: $20-100

TOTAL = $250 per day for mid-budget

MUST PACK

Comfortable footwear
Sweatshirt
Waterproof windbreaker
Sunscreen
Sunglasses
Hat
Small backpack
Portable charger
Copies of travel documents (in case of theft)

GOOD ADVICE

Learn the local slang. Saying things like “San Fran” or “Cali” is a surefire way to tell you’re from out-of-state. San Francisco is known as “SF” or “The City.” People who live in the area around San Francisco refer to this area as “The Bay.” Locals use the word “hella” in lieu of “very.”

Navigating A Menu in California

IN-N-OUT BURGERS

The popular West Coast fast-food chain, In-N-Out Burger, has a cult-like following in California.  Known for its simple menu featuring burgers, fries, and shakes, people rave its emphasis on fresh preparation and a “secret menu” offering customization options. The iconic Double-Double Burger and palm tree-adorned logo have become synonymous with California’s laid-back lifestyle and culinary culture. Just make sure to order your fries animal-style.

ASIAN FOOD

You can find the best Asian food outside of Asia in California. Asian food is exceptionally popular in California due to a legacy of immigration and a demand fueled by Californians’ adventurous palates. From traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisine to the vibrant street food scenes of Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino dishes, California offers a melting pot of Asian flavors.

CIOPPINO STEW

A San Francisco born dish, Cioppino (pronounced “cha-PEEN-oh”) is a flavorful seafood stew created by an Italian-American fisherman. This dish includes a variety of fresh seafood such as fish, shrimp, crab, clams, and mussels, simmered in a rich tomato and wine-based broth. Fragrant with garlic, herbs, and spices, Cioppino is the perfect soup for when the chilly weather rolls in. Find a great bowl at Sotto Mare in North Beach, San Francisco.

MEXICAN FOOD

Due to its close proximity to Mexico, California’s obsession with street tacos and hearty burritos reflect the impact of geography on cuisine. Birria tacos have become a sensation, particularly in Southern California and San Diego. In San Diego, the birria taco trend has taken hold, featuring tender, shredded birria meat typically served in a crispy tortilla, dipped in consommé, and often garnished with onions, cilantro, and lime.  You’ll find some great burritos at La Taqueria and El Farolito in San Francisco and Guelaguetza in Los Angeles.

SEAFOOD

The state’s coastal culinary experience can be found in its oysters and the prized Dungeness Crab. Oysters in California are celebrated for their briny and succulent taste, influenced by the unique characteristics of the local waters. Popular varieties include the Kumamoto oyster (small and sweet) and the Pacific oyster (plimp and creamy). Dungeness crab season runs from November to June and is eagerly awaited by seafood lovers. The sweet and tender meat of the Dungeness crab is perfect for fresh salads, crab cakes, and Cioppino.

FRENCH DIP SANDWICH

Did you know the French Dip sandwich originated in Los Angeles? Storgy goes that in 1918, a local fireman requested that, Philippe Mathieu, owner of the restaurant Philippe The Original, dip a roast beef sandwich into the juices of the meat to soften the bread. And thus, the French Dip sandwich was born. The sandwich typically features thinly sliced roast beef on a French roll, and it can be served with or without cheese. It is often accompanied by a side of au jus (the meat juices) for dipping. Ordered the pickled eggs as a side.

 

ICED MINT MOJITO

A trip to the Bay Area is incomplete without an order of Philz Coffee’s signature drink, the Iced Mint Mojito. Unlike the name suggests, this alcohol-free coffee is inspired by the mojito cocktail featuring a combination of fresh mint leaves, coffee, cream, and sweetener. When muddled together, you have a refreshing and super unique caffeinated treat.

CALIFORNIA WINE

California’s internationally acclaimed wine industry is characterized by diverse regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Paso Robles. From the iconic Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to unique blends and experimental styles, California’s winemakers thrive on innovation. Cult-status wines from boutique producers add an air of exclusivity to the region’s wine culture. If you visit a vineyard, some bottles are only sold at the site so make sure to pick up a bottle when and while you can.

Plan Your Trip

WHERE TO FLY INTO

California has several major airports, and the most suitable one for you will depend on factors like your location, airline preferences, and budget. Here are some of the key airports in California:

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): Serving as a major international gateway, LAX is the primary airport for those visiting Southern California, including Los Angeles, Anaheim, and surrounding areas.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO): Located in the Bay Area, SFO is a major hub for travelers heading to San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and the surrounding regions.

San Diego International Airport (SAN): Ideal for those visiting Southern California, SAN is the primary airport serving San Diego and nearby attractions.

Oakland International Airport (OAK): Situated in the Bay Area, OAK is an alternative to SFO and is convenient for travelers heading to Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay locations.

John Wayne Airport (SNA): Serving Orange County, SNA is a good choice for those visiting Anaheim, Newport Beach, and other parts of Southern California.

Sacramento International Airport (SMF): If you’re heading to Northern California, including Sacramento and the surrounding areas, SMF is a convenient option.

Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC): Located in the Silicon Valley area, SJC is suitable for those visiting San Jose and the tech-centric region

SUGGESTED TRAVEL DAYS

Given the vastness of the state, manage expectations accordingly. Chances are you won’t be able to cover everything in one trip!

California is split into three regions: North (NorCal), Central, and South (SoCal). The gateway to the Pacific Ocean, to the north, it shares borders with Oregon; to the west, Nevada and Arizona, and to the south, you can travel to Mexico. Just don’t forget your passport. California’s capital, Sacramento, is two hours north of the larger and more well-known NorCal city, San Francisco.

For those ten days, here’s a doable all-driving itinerary:

San Francisco (2 days)

San Francisco to Monterrey/Carmel-by-the-Sea (2 days)

Carmel-by-the-Sea to Pismo Beach on Highway 1 (1 day)

Pismo Beach to Los Angeles Highway 1 (1 day)

Los Angeles (2 days)

San Diego (2 days)

San Francisco and beyond

Northern California

For a first-time traveler to Northern California, the region unfolds as a captivating tapestry of diverse landscapes and vibrant cities. As you explore the iconic city of San Francisco, you’ll be greeted by the sight of the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge spanning the bay, a symbol of the city’s charm. The hilly streets, historic cable cars, and eclectic neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Mission District offer a rich cultural experience. Beyond the city, Northern California beckons with its lush wine country, including Napa and Sonoma, where rolling vineyards produce some of the world’s finest wines. The towering redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument provide a humbling and awe-inspiring encounter with nature, showcasing the grandeur of these ancient giants.

Venturing farther north, the coastline transforms into rugged cliffs and picturesque beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway. The charming town of Mendocino, with its Victorian architecture and coastal allure, is a hidden gem. As you navigate through the region, the diverse geography unfolds with pristine lakes, lush forests, and the looming presence of Mount Shasta. Whether tasting wines in renowned vineyards, exploring the urban sophistication of San Francisco, or communing with nature in serene landscapes, Northern California offers a dynamic and immersive introduction for any first-time traveler.

Places You Can't Miss in Northern California

Book a Winery Tour in Napa
Walk around Muir Woods
Activtiies
Activtiies

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The gateway to Big Sur

Central California

Central California unfolds as a captivating blend of natural wonders, cultural richness, and a laid-back coastal charm. As you travel down the iconic, winding Pacific Coast Highway, the breathtaking coastline offers awe-inspiring views of rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The renowned Big Sur coastline, with its dramatic landscapes and iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, provides a picturesque backdrop, inviting you to savor the tranquility and serenity of the surroundings.

Inland, the Central California region boasts renowned wine country destinations such as Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, where rolling vineyards produce world-class wines. The laid-back ambiance of coastal towns like Santa Cruz and Monterey beckons with opportunities for whale watching, exploring historic Cannery Row, and enjoying the vibrant local art scene. Whether driving along scenic routes, indulging in culinary delights, or immersing yourself in the rich cultural tapestry of the region, Central California promises a journey filled with diverse experiences and a genuine taste of the relaxed Californian lifestyle.

Places You Can't Miss in Central California

The best taxis in Hanoi are Hanoi Taxi Group (white with red and blue stripes) and ABC (white and pink). A ride into the city should be around 370,000 VND (~$16 USD) and take around 30 minutes. Taxi meters start at 10,000 VND.  If you have a working simcard, use GrabTaxi or GrabMoto for a more inexpensive way to travel around the city.You can pay in cash, as well as card, although Grab Moto drivers prefer cash. There is no public transportation. Walking is advised in the Old Quarter, as the roads are closed off to cars at night and on the weekends. You can also bicyle around the much larger West Lake and watch old Vietnamese men fishing in Tay Ho.

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Laid-back Los Angeles and more!

Southern California

Southern California is dynamic playground of diverse landscapes, iconic attractions, and a sun-soaked cultural scene. The bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, with its glamorous Hollywood allure, invites you to explore celebrity-studded neighborhoods, iconic landmarks like the Hollywood Sign, and world-renowned museums like the Getty Center. From the lively energy of Venice Beach to the upscale ambiance of Beverly Hills, each neighborhood exudes its own unique charm, offering a kaleidoscope of experiences that capture the essence of Southern California’s urban vibrancy.

Venturing south, the coastal city of San Diego awaits with its laid-back atmosphere, beautiful beaches, and a rich maritime heritage. Balboa Park, with its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and diverse museums, provides a cultural haven, while the historic Gaslamp Quarter offers a lively nightlife scene. Further inland, the desert landscapes of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park showcase a different facet of Southern California’s beauty, where unique rock formations and the allure of retro-chic architecture create a distinct and memorable travel experience. Whether you’re indulging in the glamour of Hollywood, relaxing on the beaches of San Diego, or exploring the desert wilderness, Southern California promises a diverse and vibrant adventure for the first-time traveler.

Places You Can't Miss in Southern California

Fly to Danang International Airport, by way of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, or a regional Asian destination. Once you arrive in Danang, take a taxi to Hoi An. Typically, making transportation arrangements with your hotel or hostel in advance will give you a bit of a discount. The normal fare a one-way trip is 370,000 VND (~$16 USD). Look for properties that offer free bike rentals so you have the freedom of exploring. Also, taxis are hard to come the closer you get to Ancient Town.

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Yosemite to Sequoia

National Parks

California is home to several stunning national parks, each offering unique landscapes, biodiversity, and outdoor recreational opportunities. Here are some of the most popular national parks in the state:

  1. Yosemite National Park: Renowned for its towering granite cliffs, waterfalls, and giant sequoia trees, Yosemite is one of the most iconic national parks in the world. Highlights include El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
  2. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: These two parks are often managed together and are famous for their giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. The rugged landscapes also offer opportunities for hiking, camping, and exploring underground caves.
  3. Joshua Tree National Park: Known for its otherworldly landscapes featuring unique Joshua trees, massive boulders, and star-filled night skies, Joshua Tree National Park is a haven for rock climbers, hikers, and stargazers.
  4. Death Valley National Park: The hottest and driest national park in the U.S., Death Valley boasts surreal landscapes, including Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America), colorful artist’s palette, and unique salt flats. Despite its harsh name, the park has a diverse range of ecosystems.
  5. Channel Islands National Park: Comprising five rugged islands off the Southern California coast, Channel Islands National Park offers opportunities for hiking, camping, snorkeling, and wildlife viewing. Each island has its own unique character and ecosystem.
  6. Lassen Volcanic National Park: Featuring an array of geothermal wonders, including boiling springs, fumaroles, and the active Lassen Peak volcano, this park in Northern California offers a fascinating glimpse into the Earth’s volcanic activity.
  7. Redwood National and State Parks: Home to the tallest trees on Earth, the coastal redwoods, this park preserves old-growth forests along the Northern California coast. Visitors can explore the towering trees, hike through lush fern-filled canyons, and enjoy the scenic coastline.

These national parks showcase the diverse natural beauty that California has to offer, from towering mountains and ancient forests to desert landscapes and coastal wonders. Each park provides a unique and unforgettable outdoor experience.

Places You Can't Miss in Southern California

California is home to several stunning national parks, each offering unique landscapes, biodiversity, and outdoor recreational opportunities. Here are some of the most popular national parks in the state:

  1. Yosemite National Park: Renowned for its towering granite cliffs, waterfalls, and giant sequoia trees, Yosemite is one of the most iconic national parks in the world. Highlights include El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
  2. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: These two parks are often managed together and are famous for their giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. The rugged landscapes also offer opportunities for hiking, camping, and exploring underground caves.
  3. Joshua Tree National Park: Known for its otherworldly landscapes featuring unique Joshua trees, massive boulders, and star-filled night skies, Joshua Tree National Park is a haven for rock climbers, hikers, and stargazers.
  4. Death Valley National Park: The hottest and driest national park in the U.S., Death Valley boasts surreal landscapes, including Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America), colorful artist’s palette, and unique salt flats. Despite its harsh name, the park has a diverse range of ecosystems.
  5. Channel Islands National Park: Comprising five rugged islands off the Southern California coast, Channel Islands National Park offers opportunities for hiking, camping, snorkeling, and wildlife viewing. Each island has its own unique character and ecosystem.
  6. Lassen Volcanic National Park: Featuring an array of geothermal wonders, including boiling springs, fumaroles, and the active Lassen Peak volcano, this park in Northern California offers a fascinating glimpse into the Earth’s volcanic activity.
  7. Redwood National and State Parks: Home to the tallest trees on Earth, the coastal redwoods, this park preserves old-growth forests along the Northern California coast. Visitors can explore the towering trees, hike through lush fern-filled canyons, and enjoy the scenic coastline.

These national parks showcase the diverse natural beauty that California has to offer, from towering mountains and ancient forests to desert landscapes and coastal wonders. Each park provides a unique and unforgettable outdoor experience.

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Watch California Highway One Roadtrip

MY PACKING LIST FOR CALIFORNIA

Do more research

California.com – Discover the best of California. Whether you’re searching for authentic experiences, unique destinations, or high-quality services, you’ll find it here.

Whimsy Soul – A top California travel blog with in-depth guides and road trip ideas for California

A Passion and a Passport – California-based blogger with a 9-5

California Through My Lens1,500 posts full of great California adventures and videos to inspire your travels

The Awkward Traveller – Follow the awkward adventures of Southern Californian-turned-Portlandian, Kay Kingsman

La Jolla Mom – Tips to help you plan and spend less on San Diego vacations

Love & Loathing LA – Chronicling one woman’s mission to discover and experience all things Los Angeles

No Back Home – A travel obsessed mom and a nature obsessed son exploring at home in Southern California

GenniferRose -AN ODE TO EVERYTHING CALIFORNIA, TRAVEL AND FINDING BEAUTY IN EVERYDAY THINGS.

Northern California Style – I’m a blogger, writer and third-generation Northern Californian who just renovated my 1965 home and am working on a tiny West Shore Tahoe cabin.

The Travel Pockets – Traveling sisters based in LA/San Diego with comprehensive hotel reviews

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Filipina-American Millette Stambaugh is a thirty-something former expat who has traded her nomadic ways for Philadelphia living. Corporate worker by day, content creator by night, Millette specializes in visual storytelling and joyful journeys and wants to help others find their "next somewheres." Follow her escapades on Instagram, Youtube, and Tiktok @thenextsomewhere.

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