With cities, beaches, national parks, deserts and vineyards to explore, you’ll be spoilt for choice in the USA’s Golden State…
California’s sunny shores have long attracted those seeking the American dream. People once flocked west in search of gold and fertile farming land; today, it’s the bright lights of Hollywood and the tech giants of Silicon Valley that bring in a steady stream of new arrivals. In fact, almost everyone you meet is transplanted from somewhere else, creating a heady cultural mix in the diverse cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
But there’s more to California than urban glitz and glamour. The state’s dramatic coastline stretches for over 1200km, and along the way you’ll find some of the world’s most stunning scenery: the towering redwood trees of Marin County, the soaring cliffs and crashing waves of Big Sur, and the rolling vineyards of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Head inland and you can hike through the pine forests of Yosemite or marvel at the desert landscapes around Palm Springs. And the animal population is just as varied: look closely and you might spot bears, otters, condors, whales, dolphins and more.
San Francisco’s airport is extremely well served by international flights, so it makes sense to start our journey here.
San Francisco is frequently rated as one of the world’s top cities, and it’s easy to see why: it has a spectacular bayside position, an unwavering enthusiasm for top-quality food and wine, some excellent family-friendly museums (our favourites include the Museum of Modern Art, the California Academy of Sciences and the Asian Art Museum) and renowned counter culture. It’s also home to some of the world’s most famous landmarks, chief among them the Golden Gate Bridge. Located in the heart of the city with views over Treasure Island is Hotel Vitale, which offers relaxed, contemporary style alongside a buzzy restaurant and cocktail lounge. If you want something a little more intimate, opt for The Parsonage, a cosy B&B with wonderfully welcoming hosts.
North of the city lie the winelands of Napa and Sonoma, which are well worth a visit. Base yourself at one of the area’s stylish boutique hotels and spend a few days exploring, sampling local produce and tasting the finest vintages (we recommend the Russian River Valley for excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes). On your journey there, stop off in Marin County to discover huge redwood trees (many over 200 feet tall!) and go on an earthquake trail along the San Andreas Fault; Dancing Coyote Beach is a useful base nearby.
Leaving San Fran in the other direction, you join California’s Highway 1, a stunning but challenging road which clings to the mountains, rarely losing sight of the Pacific Ocean. The drive takes you through Big Sur, a rugged region of stunning beaches and redwood groves that has inspired writers and artists such as John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. Here, Post Ranch Inn is the ultimate romantic retreat, perched 1200 feet above the waves and set within 100 acres of grounds. Watch migrating whales from your terrace before cosying up in front of your fire, or study the stars with the resident astronomer. If you’d rather go retro, stay in a vintage trailer at Big Sur Getaway.
After you’ve gasped at Big Sur’s natural beauty, venture further down the coast to the former Spanish colony of Santa Barbara, with its whitewashed buildings and red tiled roofs. Relax on one of the serene beaches, browse the art galleries and boutiques, and explore the working wharfs, where fresh catches for the many restaurants arrive every day. Keep your eyes peeled, as Santa Barbara is a celebrity hotspot: Brad Pitt, John Travolta and Oprah Winfrey have all been spotted here. Base yourself at the Spanish Garden Inn for relaxed luxury.
Continue along Highway 1 and you’ll come to LA. A trip through California isn’t complete without a stop here, so set up camp at Palihotel Melrose (a funky hotel with a pop-up style restaurant in artsy West Hollywood) and take in the Venice boardwalk, Sunset Strip, Beverley Hills, Rodeo Drive, Muscle Beach and the Santa Monica Pier. Or see our other Los Angeles hotels for something a little more glamorous.
After all the lush scenery of the coast, detour inland to explore the iconic Joshua Tree National Park, which spans 2 deserts. Stay at Hope Springs on the outskirts of the park and splash around in natural geothermal pools before hiking past alien-like geological formations, or base yourself at kitsch ranch Spin and Margie’s Desert Hide-a-way for fun and folk music around the campfire. Those who prefer to be closer to the action should opt for the movie-star resort of Palm Springs, where the mid-Century Modern Movie Colony Hotel sits a stone’s throw from downtown restaurants and bars.
Back on the coast, bordering Mexico at the very bottom of California, is San Diego: a stylish harbourside city with tonnes to do, from Balboa Park (which features museums, theatres, public gardens and even a zoo) to miles of sandy beaches and plenty of good eateries. Finish your trip in style and stay at oceanfront Tower23 Hotel or upmarket The Keating.
When to Go
The best time to visit is dependent on the type of trip you want to take. The shoulder seasons (March to May and September to November) are perfect for making the most of everything California has to offer: the weather is warm and sunny, and you could happily explore the desert, hike through national parks and paddle in the Pacific. Steer clear of the desert from June to September, when temperatures can soar, and avoid San Francisco and the northern coast in July and August, when a thick sea fog often rolls in. The winter can see rain, though it doesn’t tend to hang around for long.
Our Top Tip
California is vast; travelling from north to south, exploring the coast and the diverse interior, would make for a great American road trip. But unless you have several weeks to spare, it would be foolish to cram in everything. For shorter breaks, we recommend focusing on northern California (San Francisco, Napa and Big Sur) or the south (Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs).
See our destination guide for more information on California and places to stay.