Whether you are looking for amazing beaches, scenic coastal hikes and drives, astonishing mountain peaks, deep blue alpine lakes, forests, deserts, waterfalls or the tallest trees on our planet, you all find it in California. All – and more. Volcanoes. Dolphins and whales. Sea otters. Fabulous sunsets. Lovely small towns. Cities that make you fall in love. We share our 100+ travel tips for California.
California is our happy place. Our perfect place. We lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for one year, and we travelled throughout California extensively. It was actually California where our story as travelers started. We know that the world is full of inspiring places and people. But for us it was California that lit the fire.
California is large. It’s around the same size as France or Germany. It’s the third-largest state in the USA by area, and the largest by population. While people often think of Los Angeles or Hollywood (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) when thinking of California, it offers so much more. Vibrant cities and towns. Natural beauties. Wildlife. It’s a state of extremities – it contains the hottest place on the planet, but it’s also home to the tallest and largest trees in the world. With great weather all year, it’s a paradise for outdoor lovers. It was a paradise for us. And now let us help you to explore the best of it!
Travel tips for San Francisco
It’s probably our favorite city in the USA. Vibrant, funky, wonderful. Walk on the streets and think of all those snippets from movies that make you feel like you’ve already been there. Bike if you dare – but be prepared for steep uphills and downhills. San Francisco – as you know quite well from those movies – is built on hills.
Hop on the iconic Cable Car. That’s a convenient and scenic way to conquer the steepest streets.
Walk on the Embarcadero Waterfront. Enjoy the views of the skyline, the San Francisco Bay, Port of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.
Walk to Pier 39, the favorite resting area of sea lions. We could usually see countless of them sunbathing and playing on the pier.
Visit one of the craziest streets in the world: Lombard Street. It’s the crookedest street we’ve ever seen. Coit Tower is a great place to have a view of it from above.
Drive or hike up to Twin Peaks for the best panorama above the city. The best time might be sunset. And I’d wait for the darkness and the city lights, too.
Take a ferry to Alcatraz Island. This island of the legendary prison is now open for the public. Even the ferry ride there is an experience itself with all the views of the city, the bay, Golden Gate and, of course, Alcatraz Island. Then you can walk through the cellhous with an audio guide.
Grab a bite of local food at Ferry Building Marketplace. It’s known both for the quality and diversity of fresh farm products. Cheese, olive oil, jam, organic vegetables and fruits. The waterfront tables offer nice bay views.
Visit the California Academy Of Sciences. It’s a natural history museum – and an exciting one! It has an aquarium, too, and its planetarium is one of the biggest digital planetariums in the world. We found it stunning. Our other favorite thing in the museum was Osher Rainforest, a four stories high globe that houses animals and amphibians of the tropic.
Visit De Young Museum if you’re interested in art and culture. It houses collections of American paintings, art and sculpture, and also artifacts from ancient civilizations.
Walk in Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinatown is not just the largest one outside of Asia, but also the oldest of its kind in North America. You can marvel at firecrackers and parades at the Chinese New Year celebrations late January or early February.
Drive, walk or bike the Golden Gate Bridge. Our favorite views of it are from the roads and trails of Marin Headlands opposite of San Francisco. There’s also a nice viewpoint right by the road after crossing Golden Gate by car. And you can explore the coastal hikes north of Ocean Beach to get more views of it.
Driving northbound on Golden Gate Bridge is free. Tolls are collected only as you drive into San Francisco.
If you cross the Golden Gate by car, visit Point Bonita Lighthouse in the Marin Headlands for a pretty panorama. It offers a more distant view of Golden Gate, but the views of the bay and the ocean coastline are very impressive. Just make sure to check the opening hours before you go, because the tunnel to the lighthouse is only open on certain days.
Walk on Ocean Beach. It’s the longest, most famous sandy beach in San Francisco. It’s facing west which means fabulous sunsets.
Explore Golden Gate Park. It’s San Francisco’s largest urban park – even larger than New York’s Central Park. Don’t even try to walk there, rent a bike to see it all. Among other things there are ten lakes, large meadows, flower gardens, a windmill and a Japanese Tea Garden in the park.
Walk in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. It’s the oldest public Japanese garden in all of the United States, and it’s quite picturesque with the winding paths and ponds.
Hike in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s right north of San Francisco and offers countless coastal hikes. Rodeo Beach, a dark, pebbly beach is the starting point of several trails and a popular surfing beach.
Find redwoods near San Francisco. Coastal redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth. While the oldest ones are in Northern California, you can find some near the San Francisco Bay Area, as well. Big Basin and Portola Redwoods State Parks or Muir Woods has some smaller old growth redwood forests.
Travel tips for Los Angeles
Don’t spend too much time in Los Angeles. It was a disappointment for us, especially compared to San Francisco or San Diego. Growing up in Europe, Hollywood was such an iconic place in our eyes. In reality, there’s not much to see there. The famous sign can only be seen from a distance, because it’s on private property. The Walk Of Fame is just one of the busy streets, not even a walking street.
You can have the best view of the Hollywood sign from Mulholland Drive. Once you’re there it’s worth driving up to Mulholland Drive, the views above LA are not bad either.
Visit some of the theme parks. It’s the thing we truly enjoyed in Los Angeles. We visited Universal Studios and Disneyland, and had sooo much fun. You can find that Hollywood atmosphere in the theme parks.
There are fabulous beaches near Los Angeles. Countless of them. Venice Beach. Santa Monica Beach. Malibu. Just to name the most famous ones first.
Walk on Santa Monica Pier. It has a nice waterfront amusement park, and it also marks the end of famous Road 66.
Take a picture of El Matador Beach. Or take a romantic walk. A short drive from Malibu, this beach in the shade of large coastal cliffs is not that well-known. The rock formations on the shore and in the water are quite photogenic. The best time to see it is sunset.
Swim at Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach is south of Los Angeles, and it’s one of the most beautiful swimming beaches in Southern California.
Travel tips for San Diego
San Diego is worth a visit. It was such a pleasant surprise for us. We liked its unique cultural heritage and atmosphere – a mixture of modern American, Native American, Spanish and Mexican.
San Diego has fabulous beaches! Coronado Beach is one of our favorite swimming beaches in California. It’s a huge sandy beach with a pretty backdrop, and it’s always sunny. Since San Diego is in Southern California, that’s the best water temperature you can get here.
Walk in San Diego Old Town. It’s the site of the first European settlement in present-day California, and it offers a wonderful set of preserved streets. It features colorful annual festivities like Fiesta Navidad, Cinco de Mayo and Día de Muertos.
Balboa Park is one of the coolest urban parks we’ve ever seen. It’s not just a green space to hang out, it’s a center of culture and art, as well. Home to museums, art performances, impressive buildings and gardens. We especially liked the Desert Garden with HUGE cactuses in every shape and color.
Visit San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. It’s one of the largest zoos in the United States, houses more than 650 species, and it has lots of exotic and rare animals, like pandas. Do we need to say more?
Hike to the top of Cowles Mountain for a great panorama of the city with distant ocean views. Cowles Mountain is inside San Diego, and it’s a short, but steep hike to get to the top.
Take a walk on Mission Beach Boardwalk. Because this place is the symbol of California lifestyle. You can see people jogging, skateboarding, cycling. There’s soft sand and palm trees.
Walk in Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Of course, at sunset. It’s a breathtaking walk along the rugged coastline, offering great beach and sunset views.
Drive up to Point Loma Lighthouse in Cabrillo National Monument. It impressed us with views of the coastline, harbors and bridges. It offers trails for biking, hiking and jogging, too.
Go surfing at one of the county’s famous beach breaks. Surf culture is part of California and San Diego. Moreover, you don’t get warmer sea anywhere else in California. Trestles in San Onofre, La Jolla shores, Black’s Beach or Silver Strand State Beach – there are only better and best choices. Oceanside Beach, Mission Beach or Pacific Beach could be suitable for beginners.
Travel tips for the Pacific Coast
Drive at least a part of California State Route 1. Famous Highway 1 runs along the Pacific coastline and rewards with fascinating ocean views. You can catch a glimpse of whales or dolphins, too, if you’re lucky. Or seals resting on the shore.
Spend a day at Big Sur. Big Sur is our favorite section of California 1. You can do the drive in one day, and you can stop for easy, scenic coastal hikes, as well.
Read our guide to roadtrippin’ Big Sur here!
Take a picture of McWay Falls. It’s probably the most photographed stop at Big Sur. This beautiful bay in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has a waterfall that flows right into the ocean. It looks like a perfect painting.
Explore some of the charming coastal towns. Sausalito and Carmel-by-the-sea are both in Central California, and they look like a painting: pretty houses with even prettier ocean views, beaches, lovely streets with flowers and palm trees. Santa Cruz is the surfers’ favorite, and it has an awesome beach boardwalk with an amusement park. Santa Barbara is another lovely stop while heading towards the south.
Fall in love with Santa Cruz. In addition to awesome surf breaks and its beach boardwalk amusement park, Santa Cruz has even more to amaze you. Like a photogenic natural arch and interesting tide pools on its Natural Bridges State Beach. Or sea lions resting at its pier.
Hike at Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes peninsula is one of our favorite places to hike on the Pacific coast. It feels so remote and unspoilt. Its beaches are the cleanest in California. It has a waterfall that flows into the ocean at high tide: Alamere Falls. And Limantour Beach or McClures Beach are pretty places to watch the sunset.
Read our detailed hiking guide to Point Reyes National Seashore here!
Hike the coastal trails of Mendocino Headlands and MacKerricher State Parks. For turquoise bays, large waves, nice tide pools.
Take colorful pictures of the Glass Beach of Fort Bragg. Honestly, we found the beach itself less impressive than in the pictures we’ve seen about it. The colorful glass pieces are interesting to photograph though.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of the most jaw-dropping places to explore on the coast of Southern California. Its trails with the high broken sandstone cliffs, deep ravines and unique plants are very scenic. And Torrey Pines Beach is the perfect place to chill out after hiking.
Travel tips for the national parks and state parks
See the tallest trees on Earth in the Redwood National and State Parks of Northern California. Hike under the thousand of years old coastal redwoods, and visit the tallest known living tree on Earth: Hyperion with its 379.3 feet / 115.61 meters height.
Read our guide to California’s Northern Redwoods here!
Visit scenes from the Jurassic Park movie in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Take the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon. Part of Jurassic Park was filmed there. Even if you don’t know this fact, it makes you feel like being in the age of dinosaurs.
Drive the Avenue Of The Giants. It’s a 32-miles long scenic drive in Northern California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park. No matter how big your car is, it will feel tiny under the giant redwoods.
California is also home to the largest trees on Earth: sequoias. Giant sequoias are the relatives of coastal redwoods. Though they are not the tallest nor the widest trees on Earth, they have the largest bole volume of all trees. General Sherman with its 1487 m3 estimated bole volume is considered the largest known living tree. Most of the sequoias can be found in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park.
Read our guide to Sequoia National Park here!
Drive through a fallen sequoia in Sequoia National Park. The bark of sequoias – even dead sequoias – is resistant to rot. One of the fallen giants are still there, one large hole is cut into it so cars can drive through it.
Visit the 5th tallest waterfall on Earth in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Falls is 2425 feet / 739 metres tall. The best time to see it is May or early June as it feeds from melting snow. Beware that it dries out by August.
Read our guide to Yosemite National Park here!
Drive and hike in Yosemite Valley. Tucked between huge white granite peaks, this glacial valley is home to eight impressive waterfalls. Do the full loop of Mist Trail – Panorama Trail – Four Miles Trail or hike up to the top of Yosemite Falls.
Explore Kings Canyon National Park. Drive through Kings Canyon. Keep an eye out for waterfalls – Grizzly Falls and Roaring River Falls are right by the road. Our favorite day hike in the park is Paradise Valley Trail to Mist Falls – it runs in the canyon along the clear green fork of Kings Creek. Otherwise, King Canyon National Park offers countless multi-day hiking trails, so you can challenge yourself.
Visit the hottest place on Earth: Death Valley National Park. It holds the record for the highest reliably reported air temperature in the world. Don’t go in the summer. Stay hydrated.
Walk on the salt flats of Badwater Basin. It’s Death Valley’s lowest and hottest area with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level.
Drive Route CA 190 through Death Valley. We haven’t expected a desert to be so diverse and exciting: salt flats, sand dunes, mud volcanoes, wild rocks and Zabriskie Point (yes, that’s a category itself: our favorite viewpoint, a landscape from the moon).
Enjoy the night skies in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s one of the best places for stargazing in the USA. Being located in the High Desert and far from major cities means that conditions are perfect for stargazing.
Guess what, California even has volcanoes. In fact, all four types of volcanoes can be found in Lassen Volcanic National Park. But you can also see hot springs, steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and even a boiling lake. The best time to visit Lassen Volcanic is summer.
Check out the 8 best hikes in Lassen Volcanic here!
Hike down into the crater of a real volcano in Lassen Volcanic. The name and the type of the volcano is both Cinder Cone. Its last (and only) eruption was in the 1600s. There are black lava beds and the colorful Painted Dunes formed by ash and lava around it.
Read our hiking guide to Cinder Cone here!
Try rock-climbing in the newest national park in the USA: Pinnacles National Park. It’s a real gem hidden in California’s continental area with amazing, unique rock formations and caves. It’s popular among rock climbers, but you can hike there, too. Condor Gulch and High Peaks Trails are very scenic.
Read our guide to Pinnacles National Park here!
Considering only national parks and ignoring state parks is a huge mistake in our opinion. There are some truly spectacular state parks in California. Like Emerald Bay State Park at Lake Tahoe. Or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or Andrew Molera State Park at Big Sur. Or Año Nuevo State Park with the elephant seals in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Get the “America the Beautiful” annual pass for unlimited admission to national parks. It applies to one vehicle, and it’s definitely worth it, if you plan to visit several national parks within one year.
State parks often charge 5-15 USD if you enter by car. Walking or biking into these parks is usually free.
Travel tips for seeing wildlife
Monterey Bay has rich marine life. It’s home to large kelp forests and many species of marine mammals. It’s one of the few places in the world where sea otters live. But you can also see harbor seals, dolphins, killer whales and migrating gray and humpback whales.
Go on a whale-watching trip in Monterey Bay. Of course, seeing whales is not guaranteed, but you have a high chance, especially if you go whale-watching in the migrating season. That’s from mid-December to March for gray whales, and from April to December for humpback whales.
Take the 17-Mile Drive around Monterey Peninsula. It offers several wonderful vista points along the way, and you have a good chance of spotting seals, dolphins or whales.
Monterey Bay Aquarium is probably the best aquarium we’ve ever seen. Interactive and exciting exhibits. All about ocean life. Ray feeding. Cute sea otters.
Hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. It’s located in the Monterey Bay area which means a great opportunity to see seals, sea lions, sea otters, seabirds, dolphins or whales close to the shore.
See cute elephant seal pups in Año Nuevo State Park. It’s the favorite resting and mating place of elephant seals. You can see them year round, but January and February is the time to see the pups.
Walk on the beaches of Half Moon Bay and keep an eye out for seals. Harbor seals like resting on the cliffs of Pescadero State Beach. Look for them at Moss Beach and Pillar Point Bluff, too. Find the hidden Cowell Ranch Beach – the trail there leads you to views of another nearby beach that’s a seal preserve.
Walk the short trails of Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve in search of birds. The marsh is right behind the wild and beautiful Pescadero State Beach. More than 60 species of birds nest there.
Hike through the Tule Elk Preserve at Point Reyes National Seashore. We bumped into herds of tule elks several times while hiking on Tomales Point Trail.
Don’t forget your binoculars. Whether it’s seals, whales or dolphins that you see in the distance, you’d surely like to have a closer view.
Spot unique creatures of the ocean in tide pools. These shallow pools of seawater are home to starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, barnacles or anemones. We found the best tide pools at Moss Beach, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and Point Lobos. La Jolla Tide Pools near San Diego are also famous.
Tips for eating and drinking
Eat cheeseburger. It’s simple, delicious and American. And Californians believe their cheeseburgers are the best.
Napa Valley is among the best wine regions in the world. With more than 400 wineries throughout the region, you can’t say you don’t have a choice. Castello di Amorosa, an authentically-styled 13th century castle is one of the most famous wineries, and you can also visit their production area and torture chamber (don’t worry, you’ll only drink some more wine there).
Drink Mai Tai. This cocktail is based on rum, Curaçao liqueur, orgeat syrup and lime juice. And it was invented in Oakland.
Have a fortune cookie. Another Californian invention. Well, re-invention. There was a debate over who invented it – San Francisco or Los Angeles -, and finally, the judge ruled in favor of its origins being San Franciscan. Though they couldn’t determine if the cookies were original to Chinese-American or Japanese-American populations. Anyway, it’s a crisp cookie usually made of flour, sugar, vanilla and sesame seed oil with a piece of paper inside – your “fortune”.
Spoil yourself with Rocky Road. An ice cream combo of marshmallows, nuts and chocolate that was also invented in Oakland.
Eat Burrito. San Diego is the birthplace of the California Burrito. The city’s Spanish past and proximity to Mexico makes for great Burritos.
Weather in California
Weather is usually pleasant and sunny in California all year. There’s no real winter on the coast. Actually, we know of very few places in the world that have such nice weather as California coast: bright and sunny, not too cold and not too hot. California is a great place to spend time outdoors any time of the year.
Weather gets harsher as you get further from the coast. Inland areas and deserts can be extremely hot in the summer. Winter is freezing in the High Sierras. Lots of minor roads there are not cleaned hence impassable in the winter. Northern California can get very rainy in the winter months.
The Pacific Coast can be foggy, especially in the summer. Even though weather is relatively pleasant all year, winter can bring heavy rainfalls, and summer can bring dense fog to the Pacific Coast. However, low-lying fog at the California coast can look quite romantic, especially if you’re at a higher elevation with the fluffy clouds at your feet. It’s like walking in a dream.
The Pacific Ocean is cold. Water temperature is about 11-15 °C near San Francisco and 14-20 °C in Southern California throughout the year. It’s the warmest by September after the hot summer in the South.
Tips for visiting in different seasons
A lot of places which are too hot during late spring or summer become pleasant by autumn. Mostly the continental parts of California, Southern California and the deserts. Like Death Valley or Pinnacles National Parks. Or the spectacular palm canyons of Agua Caliente near Palm Springs.
Winter is a great time to enjoy the lush green hills. Actually, it’s the only time. After the winter rains, California turns green. You can conquer Mission Peak or Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see lovely waterfalls in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Or you can walk on the coastal trails of Half Moon Bay or Point Reyes. But hurry up, the landscape most probably dries out by April.
Experience spring wildflower blooming in the deserts. They’re short, but spectacular. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park usually have blooming flowers starting from February. Even Death Valley can be full of flowers for a short period of time if conditions are met. It’s worth checking online reports about current conditions though, because desert bloomings are easy to miss.
Hike on the coastal bluff trails in early spring. It’s the time when hundreds of vibrant orange California poppies are in bloom.
Hiking season in the Sierra Nevada is usually from May to September. Summer is the high season for hiking at Lake Tahoe, in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and in Yosemite’s backcountry.
Check out our favorite day hikes in the Sierra Nevada here!
May and June is the best time for waterfall hikes since most of them are fed by melting snow. It includes the spectacular waterfalls of Yosemite, lots of lovely waterfalls in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, or waterfalls in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Redwood forests.
See the spectacular “Firefall” of Yosemite during the last two weeks of February. Horsetail Fall is a seasonal waterfall in Yosemite Valley. It flows only in winter and early spring. But it’s only a few days during the last weeks of February when you can catch that famous effect when the sunset makes it look like fluid fire.
Marvel at an air show over the San Francisco Bay during Fleet Week. It’s a free annual event that takes place in the Fisherman’s Wharf. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels present the air show, but this event also hosts the largest parade of ships on the West Coast. It’s held on the first or second weekend of October.
Swimming in the ocean can be dangerous because of the strong currents. Swim at patrolled beaches. Never ignore warning signs.
If you are caught in a riptide, don’t fight it. The ocean is stronger than you are. Go with the current – and try to relax (yes, I’m as serious as any flight attendant when telling people to remain calm in emergency situations). But you need to save your strength to help yourself. Because eventually, the current will die out, and then you’ll be able to swim parallel to the shore.
California is home to wildlife that can harm you if you’re not careful. The most important safety tip when hiking in bear county or mountain lion county is: do not approach them. If you give them space and leave them alone, there’s a good chance that they won’t care about you. Most wildlife naturally avoids humans.
Avoid hiking at dawn, dusk and at night. Those are the times when mountain lions and bears are the most active.
Avoid hiking alone. Yes, there are mountain lions and bears, and they’re less likely to attack a group of people than one person. But it’s not just because of wildlife that you better not hike alone. You can get lost or get injured. Even if you’re an experienced hiker, let someone know about all the details of your hike if you choose to do it alone.
Stay on marked trails when hiking. It’s not only for protecting sensitive environments, but for your safety, as well.
If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run. Face the animal and maintain eye contact, never turn your back on it. Make noise (don’t scream though; yell, shout or bang your walking stick) and try to look as big as you can (raise your arms, stand close to other people, open your jacket, pick up small children). Back away slowly to give the animal more space. If it attacks, fight back. Hopefully, you’ll never need this last tip. Encounters with mountain lions are very rare.
If you encounter a black bear, do not run either. Running away from wildlife screams that you’re a prey (which you aren’t). Black bears are not typically aggressive. Slowly back away from them while not turning your back on them. Make loud noises – yell, clap or bang on pots and pans. Be especially careful with mummy bears as they’re very protective of their cubs.
If you camp in bear county, store food out of reach of bears. Don’t cook or store food in your tent. Don’t leave food in your car and don’t leave it unattended. Keep food in the food storage lockers that are available at most campgrounds. Even the scent of food is enough to pique a bear’s interest, so keep food away from where you’ll be sleeping. Read more safety tips when hiking and camping in bear county here.
Several species of rattlesnakes also live in California. Wear sturdy boots and long pants when hiking in snake inhabited areas. Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through brushy areas. Like with all wild animals, show respect and leave rattlesnakes alone.
If you hear a rattle, stop and locate the snake. Then back away from it slowly to give it the opportunity to move along.
Check weather conditions before visiting national or state parks. The website of U.S. National Park Service offers up to date alerts, and California state parks have a common website, too. Wildfires are a danger in hot months, and flooding can be a problem during sudden heavy rainfall.
Call 911 when in emergency. It’s an emergency telephone number for the North American Numbering Plan that includes twenty countries, primarily in North America. But make sure to use it in emergency circumstances only.
Have you been to California? Any favorite places?
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