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Planning A Trip To California–Everything You Need To Know

We want to make your trip to California unforgettable.

Jason and I have lived in California for almost forty years. Both living and traveling here have provided us with a depth of knowledge that we’d like to share with you. Coming to California unprepared will not be enjoyable. Instead, it’s helpful to understand the depth and breadth of this state so that it can be fully appreciated.

The economy of California is the largest in the United States, and seventh largest in the world. It’s almost 164,000 square miles in size with a 840 mile long coastline. Home to nine national parks and 240 state parks, it will take a lifetime for anyone to fully explore all that the Golden State has to offer.

You have many options in California; expansive desserts, rugged mountains, sandy beaches, epic theme parks, vibrant cities, and charming small towns. And whether you like adventurous outdoor activities, art and culture, or world-class dining, it can all be found in the Golden State. 

So when it comes to planning a trip in California, we’re here to help!

Getting To California

If you’re planning to fly to California, you’ll likely opt for one of our larger, international airports; San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles, or San Diego. The largest by far is Los Angeles International (LAX) which welcomed more than 44 million departing passengers in 2019. 

Prior to 2020, I’d flown in and out of all these airports multiple times, and let me warn you, they get seriously busy. Our airports never seem big enough to keep up with the number of passengers. You’re likely to find constant construction as local governments continue to expand and improve them.

Here are a few tips when it comes to our airports;

  1. I avoid San Francisco International like the plague. This airport is notorious for weather delays. If you’re flying into the area, consider Oakland instead. 
  2. I wish I could say avoid LAX, but that’s almost impossible. They have a much larger selection of flights and often at better prices than the smaller, regional airports around it. My best advice is to allow plenty of time when you’re a departing passenger. Also come with plenty of patience!
  3. Our state is full of smaller, regional airports that are far more enjoyable to navigate. If one of these airports is close to your destination, definitely research the flights and costs to see if this is a good option for you.

If you’re flying into California, many cities will be more enjoyable with a rental car since public transportation in our state tends to be weak. This is especially true for Los Angeles. However, San Francisco is a great exception. This city has many public transportation options for getting around the city and beyond, so a rental car may not be needed.

California is a great road trip state, so if you’re coming by car, you’ll have endless options for exploring. I personally recommend Highway 1 and 395–the first follows the coast and the second leads to the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. A few cautions however if you’re new to road-tripping in California. First, traffic in all of our metropolitan areas can be awful. If you’re driving through cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, allow plenty of extra time. Second, allow time for extra stops. You never know when you’ll see a cool roadside attraction, state park or beach, or gorgeous viewpoint. 

California Geography

It would take an encyclopedia (remember those?) to cover all the regions in California, but I’m going to break it down by three commonly identified areas; Northern, Central, and Southern. While residents of this state have many similarities, there are also some common differences based on these regions.

Northern California

Typically Northern California refers to the San Francisco Bay area and all points North. Some of the best known and largest cities in this region include San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose. But in addition to the big cities in the region, there are hundreds of small, charming towns worth visiting. 

Among the most popular destinations for tourists in the North are Napa and Sonoma, Redwoods National Park, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Point Reyes, and Mendocino. This isn’t typically where you go to lay out on the beach and soak up the sun, but instead this part of the state is loaded with state and national parks offering a large number of outdoor activities.

The world famous Silicon Valley can be found in Northern California, and as a result, the tech industry is practically synonymous with this part of the state. Many, many tech entrepreneurs have made their home here and their wealth is apparent throughout the region.

Planning A Trip to California
McWay Falls in Big Sur, Central California

Central California

The most common division of California is Northern and Southern, but I don’t think this is fair to the amazing Central part of the state that includes the Central Valley and Central Coast. I define this as North of Los Angeles and South of San Francisco, stretching from the coast to the Nevada border. Some of the larger cities include Fresno, Monterey, and Salinas. 

Among the best known attractions in Central California are Santa Barbara, Monterey, Carmel, Cambria, Big Sur, Pismo Beach, and Paso Robles. While wine country generally means Napa and Sonoma, the wine regions in Central California are becoming quite famous and for good reason. The coast line in Central California is pretty rugged, offering dramatic views, especially along Highway One.

The Central Valley of California is responsible for most of the agriculture in this state, and is one of the most productive growing regions in the world. You’ll find a wide array of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy, and meat.

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Southern California

I’ve lived in Southern California for 40 years and love it, but I’m also aware of its downsides. This is the most populous part of the state, resulting in crowded attractions and almost constant traffic. I don’t say that to deter you, but to underscore the importance of good planning if you’re coming south.

Southern California begins at Los Angeles and continues south, all the way to the Mexican border. It’s home to miles of sandy beaches perfect for playing volleyball, getting a tan, or surfing. It’s also home to the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, and San Diego. Going inland, you’ll find Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and La Quinta along with Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Southern California is home to Disneyland. 

All of California is ethnically diverse, but in the LA and Orange County areas you’ll find an amazing collection of Asian, Mexican, and Central American neighborhoods offering terrific restaurants and shopping. These neighborhoods don’t often make it onto a tourist’s radar, but they should.

Planning A Trip To California--June Lake
June Lake

Planning A Trip To California In Bite Size Pieces

As hard as it can be, I strongly recommend selecting one region of California to explore for each visit. Otherwise you’ll spend much of your time inside cars, shuttles, and airports. Instead of rushing all over the state, choose one to three locations in North, Central, or South, and get to know that area in depth. 

In the next section I’ve outlined some of our favorite destinations in California and how you might enjoy them. On this blog you’ll find over 30 articles about travel in California.

California Highlights

Here are some of our favorite destinations in California and how to make the most of them.

Napa Valley

Located 60 miles north of San Francisco, Napa just might be one of the finest wine regions in the world. With more than 375 wineries in Napa Valley, it could take several lifetimes to try all the wine this region offers. 

Napa Valley is 30 miles long and 5 miles wide, encompassing five small towns; Napa, Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, and American Canyon. The valley floor is surrounded by the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountain Ranges which provide a dramatic backdrop while driving through the area.

This is not a cheap destination, so if you’re on a budget, it can be a nice day trip from San Francisco. Pick out a couple of wineries for tasting, enjoy a picnic lunch from Oakville Grocery and then head back to the city at the end of the day. I would definitely recommend a visit to Charles Krug, home of the oldest tasting room in California.

But if you have the money and want to spend more time here, book a night or two at Harvest Inn in St. Helena, dine at the Press, and explore the charming historic district in town. Here’s more specific recommendations for wine tasting in Napa Valley.

Planning A Trip To California
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francicsco

San Francisco And The Bay Area

Jason and I absolutely love San Francisco! And after dozens of visits, we still haven’t seen it all. But if I was helping a first-time visitor plan their trip, here’s what I’d recommend.

We like to stay in the vicinity of Fisherman’s Wharf. Specifically we like to stay at Hyatt Centric or Hotel Zoe.  Yes, it’s touristy, but it puts you within walking distance of many great neighborhoods, attractions, and restaurants. Parking is really expensive in this city, so we typically park once and get around on foot or by Uber.

Some of our favorite things to do in San Francisco include renting electric bikes and riding through The Presidio or over the Golden Gate Bridge, walking to the Ferry Building, exploring Chinatown, and dining in North Beach. If you enjoy art, definitely head to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And don’t forget to make plans for San Francisco at night–probably the best part of the day in this city. In the evenings take a ghost tour, cruise the bay, or relax in a jazz club. 

Central Coast Of California 

The beaches of the Central Coast are quite different from those in Southern California. The terrain is much rockier and the weather typically cooler. So while it can get busy in this part of the state, the crowds are always manageable. 

For this region I’ll recommend a short road trip starting in Santa Barbara, continuing on to San Luis Obispo, and ending in Monterey. Try to stay at least two nights in each location. 

Santa Barbara is known for its red-tiled roofs and scenic coastline. Browse the shops on State Street, walk along Stearns Wharf, ride bikes up the coast, and grab a meal in the Funk Zone. For an affordable hotel close to the ocean we recommend Castillo Inn.

Then move on to San Luis Obispo. Explore the historic downtown, pop into Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and then head out of town to sample some of the region’s wines. For a great boutique hotel, be sure to book Granada Hotel & Bistro.

In Monterey be sure to purchase tickets in advance for the aquarium. Even adults will appreciate this world-class attraction featuring hundreds of exhibits about marine life. We also recommend renting kayaks to explore the bay and look for sea otters. During our last trip we saw dozens of sea otters, both adults and babies, resting and eating amongst the kelp beds. The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is not cheap, but it’s location along Cannery Row with epic bay views make it worth every penny.

Planning A Trip To California
Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles

At 503 square miles in size with a population of 3.9 million people, there are endless ways to explore this massive and dynamic city. I’ve lived in LA and visited hundreds of times and still have much more to see. However, I’m confident in making the following recommendations for visitors.

First, I definitely recommend at least a day in LA’s downtown, but a weekend would be better. Art lovers will want to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Downtown LA Arts District. Foodies should head to Grand Central Market. And theater buffs can choose from the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theater, Disney Concert Hall, and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Our favorite hotel downtown is definitely the Omni Los Angeles. Downtown LA is also a great spot for rooftop drinks. My current favorite rooftop bar sits atop the Wayfarer Hotel.

Next, head northwest to Griffith Park. Visit the observatory, check out the zoo, or hike to the Hollywood sign. This vast urban park is much beloved by Angelenos and for good reason.

Finally, hit the beach in Santa Monica. Here you can relax on the sand, play volleyball, stroll along the pier, or ride bikes on The Strand. Santa Monica is also home to some of the best restaurants in the region including Elephante Beach House and Forma Restaurants & Cheese Bar. If you’re here on a Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday be sure to experience the Farmer’s Markets, a popular spot for local chefs to purchase their produce. For a reasonably priced hotel with ocean views, I recommend a stay at The Shore Hotel.  Here’s a more detailed list of things to do in Santa Monica.

It may seem strange that I’m not including Hollywood, but it’s among my least favorite parts of the city. It tends to be dirty and way too touristy. It’s very rare celebrities are seen here and most movies are made elsewhere. However, it’s also home to the famous art deco theater, Pantages. If there’s a show you want to see playing here, then a trip to Hollywood is worth it, otherwise, don’t bother.

Mammoth Lakes hiking--Jason along the Convict Lake trail
Jason hiking near Convict Lake

Eastern Sierra Nevadas

The Sierra Nevada mountain range stretches for 400 miles through the state of California and is home to three national parks; Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings. There are so many options for exploring this range, but my favorite place to do so is in Mammoth Lakes which can be found in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. 

This popular ski town is also an ideal destination in summer with hundreds of miles of hiking trails and dozens of lakes for boating and fishing. I recommend starting at Devil’s Postpile National Monument located next to Yosemite. This columnar basalt rock formation is the star of the show, and just a short walk from the parking lot. If you’re up for a moderate hike continue past Devil’s Postpile to Rainbow Falls. 

For an easier, but equally scenic hike head to Convict Lake. The three mile loop trail around the lake is pretty flat. You can grab lunch after the hike at Aspen Grill.

Venture out from Mammoth Lakes to Bodie Ghost Town. This once thriving mining town was home to 10,000 people and boasted two churches, a school, a Chinatown and 65 saloons. With the closing of the post office in 1942, the town became officially abandoned. Everything has been left as it was found. Today just 5% of the original structures remain, but even that gives visitors plenty to explore. 

Our favorite place to stay while visiting Mammoth is The Village Lodge. We typically reserve a one-bedroom condo which includes a fully stocked kitchen for us to prepare breakfast and lunch. For dinner we usually opt for one of the nearby restaurants.

Pacific Beach

San Diego

As my hometown for four years while attending the University of San Diego, this city has a special place in my heart. In fact we usually visit three to four times a year. And it keeps getting better and better.

San Diego isn’t nearly as large as LA, but it’s still a major city, so you won’t hit all the top sites in one visit. Here’s what I recommend doing for first-timers.

San Diego has several beach neighborhoods that we enjoy; La Jolla, Pacific Beach, and Mission Beach. La Jolla is the most upscale of the three and probably the quietest. In one day you can check out Sunny  Jim’s Sea Cave, watch the sea lions at La Jolla Cove and then head to the Torrey Pines Gliderport to watch the paragliders float over the ocean.

In Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, rent bikes (we like electric ones) and cruise the three-mile oceanfront boardwalk. You can continue on to additional bike paths that wind their way through Mission Bay. There are dozens of restaurants, bars, and breweries to stop along the way if you get hungry or thirsty. This is the part of town where people come to party. It’s always lively and typically crowded, but I think that adds to the fun.

End your exploration of San Diego at Seaport Village and the Embarcadero. This is also a fun place to rent bikes. Or just stroll along enjoying the many shops, parks, and restaurants. There are also a few museums along the way including USS Midway and Maritime Museum of San Diego.

Our favorite places to stay in San Diego include the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, and Tower 23 Hotel in Pacific Beach.

Don’t forget to make plans for San Diego at night!

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Cautions For Planning A Trip To California

As much as I love my home state, it has its challenges and one of the greatest ones for visitors is traffic which I’ve mentioned above. I do want to call out one specific spot that can cause tremendous delays; the Grapevine. This 40-mile stretch of the I-5 freeway connecting Southern to Central California is prone to accidents–often from semi trucks–and inclement weather. And when there are problems, there aren’t many alternatives. So if you’re planning to drive this road, check in advance for road conditions. 

Since I’ve suggested visits to several beach towns, I’ll also caution you about parking tickets. Many small beach cities rely on parking ticket revenue and therefore take enforcement very seriously. If you’re parking in a metered spot, be sure to keep the meter fed. Most towns offer an app for payment which can notify you when the meter will expire and offer the option to extend. I highly recommend downloading and using these apps.

Don’t assume California is always warm and sunny, no matter what you see in movies and on television. Living in a beach city, Jason and I always see visitors in shorts and t-shirts on cold days. They look miserable. And while I know it’s easy to research the weather in advance, for some reason people just like to assume California will always deliver gorgeous weather. Most beach cities (of which I’ve suggested many) start out chilly and overcast in the morning due to the marine layer. And many cities in Northern California like San Francisco, can be chilly all summer long. In addition to double checking your phone’s weather app, just b\pack some warm clothes to be safe.

Napa Valley
Napa Valley

Tips For Saving Money In California

Visiting California isn’t cheap. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Arizona where all the prices were lower. But we love California, and have learned many ways to stretch a dollar.

First, try visiting during a season other than summer. I know our summer weather is great, but it will be the most expensive and crowded. If you enjoy warmer weather, much of our state stays warm into mid-fall. And since many kids have returned to school by then, the prices are typically lower. The exception is the Eastern Sierras. The peak season here is winter, so it can be a reasonably summer priced destination with loads of outdoor activities.

For the past two years I’ve found that hotel rooms in San Francisco have become much more reasonably priced for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure how long this will last, but if this is a city you’ve been eager to visit, come soon.

I mentioned above that LA and Orange County are full of great Asian, Mexican, and Central American neighborhoods that offer terrific restaurants. If you’re looking for more affordable, but excellent food, look beyond those in the immediate area of tourist destinations. In Anaheim, about a mile down the road from Disneyland are some of Orange County’s best ethnic restaurants. Nothing fancy, but authentic and delicious. Other cities in Orange County with affordable and tasty ethnic food include Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. In Los Angeles, reasonably priced, family owned eateries can be found everywhere. Do a bit of research and you’ll have better food at cheaper prices.

Finally, look for discounts on sites like TravelZoo, Groupon, GoldStar, and LivingSocial. Over the years I’ve booked hotel rooms, theater tickets, and attractions through all of these. While I know this applies to any destination, I know first hand that there are always attractive offerings in California. In a quick search of TravelZoo I found discounts on wine tasting, rooftop bars in Los Angeles, hotels near Disneyland, the new Cirque du Soleil show in LA, and much more–-all places I’d personally recommend.

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