California Travel Guide

Super useful & totally free travel guides, written by locals who love the state of California

The Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur
California’s coastline is magical, and Big Sur has 90 miles of the best.

Why We Love California: California is a destination that beckons to people around the world, and there’s no doubt as to why. The state has more icons (both city and natural alike) than you can count, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, the famous redwood forests, and lowest point in the contiguous U.S. (Death Valley), and the highest (Mt. Whitney). 

Best of California

🏙️ Places to Visit

California is one of the most versatile states in the U.S. and there’s no doubt as to why it’s such a popular travel destination. The golden state boasts mountains and beaches, bustling cities and sleepy villages, and both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous U.S.! Here are some of the most iconic destinations in California

  • San Diego – California’s southernmost city is full of beach towns, stunning coastline, a lively downtown, and historical sites.  
  • Santa Barbara – A central coast beach town that celebrates its historic Spanish architecture, a youthful downtown area, and picturesque rolling hills. 
  • Los Angeles – The world-famous city of the stars is a sprawling urban jungle with tons of famous destinations.
  • San Francisco – The culturally eclectic coastal town is the most diverse and unique in the state and home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Yosemite National Park – One of the most famous national parks in the U.S., renowned for its spectacular views, challenging hikes, and Half Dome peak.
  • Big Sur – California’s longest stretch of undeveloped, rugged coast is some of the most stunning I’ve ever come across.
  • Sequoia National Park – Famous for its giant sequoia trees, which tower overhead and offer a one-of-a-kind experience.
  • Long Beach – A diverse coastal city that strikes a balance between urban epicenter and classic beach town.
  • Joshua Tree National Park – The southernmost national park in the state is a stunning desert landscape spotted with spiky and whimsical Joshua trees.
  • SolvangThis Danish-inspired village in southern California allows you to visit Denmark without ever leaving California!

👉 Read our full list of the best places to visit in California.

Things to Do

There’s no lack of memorable adventures to be had in California’s cities, mountains, beaches, and deserts!

  • Walk among the world’s largest trees in Sequoia National Park – Sequoia trees are the largest in the world and there’s a whole forest of the ancient giants right in California! 
  • Experience the magic of Hollywood at Universal Studios – Strolling through famous movie and TV sets, and immersing yourself in movies on the rides at the theme park is one of the top things to do in LA.
  • See the Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco’s iconic bridge is spectacular up close! Drive over it, walk onto it, or for the most unique experience, take a boat underneath it!
  • Wine Taste in Napa Valley – Taste some of California’s renowned wines in the wine country of Napa Valley.
  • Go Brewery Hopping – California’s craft beer scene is experiencing a renaissance. No matter where in California you travel, it’s easy to find one of the top California breweries nearby.
  • Unleash your inner child at Disneyland Park – Los Angeles’ Disneyland inspires joy and wonder in kids and adults alike!

👉 See the full list of best things to do in California.

🗺️ Where to Stay

View of people in the coastline of San Diego
The coastal city of San Diego is a top destination in California.

California is a giant state with countless places to stay. The obvious destinations are San Francisco, and LA but here are some of my favorite under-the-radar destinations!

  • San Diego – The perfect place to stay if you want both city life and a laid-back beach getaway! For inspiration, check out the guide on things to do in San Diego.
  • Santa Monica – LA’s most well-known beach town is a great choice for where to stay in LA for access to most of the city’s most famous sights. 
  • Palm Springs – Southern California’s desert oasis is a top destination for those wanting a relaxing getaway spent poolside at a resort. 
  • Carmel By the Sea – This charming beach town nestled on the Monterey Peninsula feels like a fairytale village with its quaint cottages.
  • San Luis Obispo – A somewhat overlooked destination, San Luis Obispo is a coastal 

👉 Read the guides on where to stay in San Diego, Oceanside, and Long Beach.

🛎️ Best Hotels

Much like the landscape, the hotels of California are individualistic and breathtaking and there’s no better way to experience the state’s beauty than with a stay at one of these iconic hotels. 

  • Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur – Enjoy a romantic and luxurious stay perched atop the rugged cliffs of Big Sur. The resort is designed to mirror the natural, dramatic beauty of the coast.
  • Mission Inn Hotel and Spa, Riverside – One of California’s oldest and most lavish resorts and spas that has a stunning blend of old-European grandeur and historic California architecture.
  • The Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco – San Francisco’s historic landmark hotel sits on the picturesque Nob Hill and has stunning views of the San Francisco Bay. Walking through the halls is to walk down history.
  • Hotel del Coronado, San Diego – San Diego’s most iconic red-roofed resort sits steps from Coronado Island’s sun, sand, and ocean.
  • Auberge du Soleil, Napa Valley – Embrace the opulence of Napa Valley at this luxurious, European-inspired resort that boasts a world-class spa and restaurant.
The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa with beautiful flowers in California
Mission Inn Hotel and Spa in Riverside. (photo: PradaBrown / Shutterstock)

🚗 Best Road Trips

The Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park during sunrise
Watch the sunrise on Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park.

With its numerous spread-out landmarks and iconic cities, California is possibly the most road trip-friendly state in the U.S. Check out our California road trip itinerary or any of these top road trips in CA: 

  • San Diego – Palm Springs – Joshua Tree National Park – Visit southern California’s jewels! Get a taste of everything with the beach towns in San Diego, the desert resorts in Palm Springs, and the stunning desert of Joshua Tree. 
  • Los Angeles – Santa Barbara – San Luis Obispo – Nothing beats a road trip up California’s stunning central coast! Start in LA, and make your way north to the quaint towns of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
  • Napa Valley – San Francisco – Big Sur – Hop from sipping wine in Napa to exploring San Francisco’s cityscape to exploring the rugged Big Sur coastline. 
  • Death Valley – Sequoia National Park – Mammoth Mountain – Visit one of the hottest places on Earth (in Summer) and the lowest elevation in North America n Death Valley then travel north to walk among the giant sequoias and finish at the beautiful mountain lakes of Mammoth Mountain.
  • Santa Cruz – Marin – Redwood National Park – Start in the eclectic beach town of Santa Cruz, then explore the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. Finish in the dense forest of Redwood National Park.

⛱️ Best Beaches

California is famous for its stunning coastline and beaches, and these are some of the most amazing the state has to offer.

  • Pfeiffer State Beach – Located in Big Sur, Pfeiffer State Beach is an isolated sandy beach hidden in the undeveloped coastline. What makes it spectacular, though, is its unique purple sand.
  • Torrey Pines State Beach – The beaches nestled beneath the cliffs of Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve in San Diego are some of the best beaches in Southern California! Read more about San Diego’s best beaches.
  • Montaña de Oro State Park – This state park contains dramatic hills and cliffs that plunge into the ocean and the many artistic rock formations in the water set these beaches apart.
  • Pointe Lobos State Natural Reserve – this natural area just south of Carmel By The Sea contains tons of hiking trails that lead to stunning protected coves with turquoise water. 
  • Gold Bluffs Beach – A remote beach in Northern California surrounded by green forest that will make you feel like you’re in the pacific northwest.

⛱️ Read the full guide to the best beaches in California.

Scenic view from one of the beaches in Big Sur
Big Sur’s beaches are some of California’s most incredible.

⛰️ Best Mountains

View of a man on top of Mt. Whitney
Views from Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S.

California is home to numerous breathtaking mountains, including the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.

  • Mount Whitney – At 14,505 ft this peak of the Sierra Nevada in eastern California is the highest in the contiguous U.S.
  • Mount Shasta – Though it’s been quiet for the past 15 years, this is an active volcano that juts 14,179 ft into the air and draws hikers, climbers, and skiers from all over.
  • Mount San Jacinto – This 10,834 ft peak is Southern California’s favorite mountain to hike and explore and is famous for its panoramic views.
  • Mammoth Mountain – In the winter this mountain is a skier’s and snowboarder’s playground and in the summer it reveals hiking trails to crystal clear lakes.
  • North Palisade – The 4th tallest mountain in the state sports some tough ascents that beckon to mountaineers and rock climbers.

⛷️ Best Ski Resorts

View of two people on a ski lift during winter

While California evokes images of sunshine and coast, its beaches are equally matched by its world-renowned ski and snowboard resorts.

  • Palisades Tahoe – Lake Tahoe’s largest ski resort and host of the 1960 Winter Olympics boasts 6,000 skiable acres across two mountains with an average annual snowfall of 400 inches.
  • Mt. Baldy Resort – Located in the San Gabriel Mountains, Mt. Baldy is the closest skiing and snowboarding resort to Los Angeles. 
  • Mammoth Mountain Resorts – With a summit at 11,053 feet that receives an average of 400 inches of snow each year, Mammoth is recognized as a world-class alpine skiing mountain.
  • Big Bear Big Bear Mountain Ski Resort offers 26 lifts and 55 runs between two mountains which are known for terrain parks, canyon terrain, backcountry, and beginner areas.
  • Badger Pass Ski Resort – What sets this resort apart is that it’s located in Yosemite National Park, one of only 3 ski resorts located in a national park!

⛷️ Read the full list of the best California ski resorts.

🎢 Best Theme Parks

A hand holding a Disneyland card
The happiest place on Earth!

California loves to celebrate its fun-loving culture with theme parks! Here are some of the most notable that the state has to offer:

  • Legoland – Located in Carlsbad, this park is a giant lego art piece, making it a favorite for kids and nostalgic for adults! 
  • Disneyland Park – Disneyland Park is the only one of the Disney theme parks whose construction was overseen by Walt himself and is completely magical!
  • Six Flags Magic Mountain – Located in LA, this theme park is made especially for the adrenaline-seekers who love roller coasters!
  • Universal Studios Hollywood – Celebrate the magic of movie-making through movie sets and interactive rides that transport you into TV and movie scenes.
  • Knott’s Berry Farm – This huge park boasts tons of rides and is one of the most-visited theme parks in the U.S.! Visit around Halloween to see the park transform into Knott’s Scary Farm.

🎢 See the full list of best theme parks in California.

🖼️ Best Museums

View of people walking around The Gardens at The Getty
The gardens at The Getty offer some of the best panoramic views of LA (photo: Droneandy / Shutterstock)

With such a rich natural history and with cultural landmarks in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, it’s no wonder that California has so many incredible museums.

  • The Getty, Los Angeles – The Getty is renowned for its collection of pre-20th century European, American, and Asian art, and offers unbeatable views of Los Angeles.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) – The largest museum in the Western U.S., famous for its modern art and the collection of instantly recognizable streetlights.
  • La Brea Tar Pits and Museum – In the heart of Los Angeles, you can visit prehistoric tar pits that constantly reveal fossils of ice age creatures, including wooly mammoths.
  • The Maritime Museum of San Diego – Located in San Diego Bay is one of the largest collections of historic ships in the U.S., including the world’s oldest active sailing ship, the Star of India.
  • Alcatraz Island – One of the most infamous federal prisons in U.S. history now sits abandoned and open to visitors on an island in the San Francisco Bay.

🏺 See the full list of the best museums in California.

🏞️ Best National Parks

The view from Pinnacles National Park in California
Pinnacles National Park in central California

California has the most National Parks of any U.S. state and each one is breathtaking and worth visiting for its unique reasons! 

  • Yosemite – Known for its spectacular vistas, challenging hikes, the famous Half Dome peak, and activities such as hiking, camping, river rafting, and rock climbing.
  • Death Valley – Despite its ominous name, this park offers incredible otherworldly views including sunrise at Zabriskie Point and Badwater Basin.
  • Sequoia – There’s nothing quite like strolling beneath the canopy of the largest trees in the world, including General Marshall, which, at 52,508 cubic feet, is the largest tree in the world!
  • Pinnacles – California’s newest national park is often overlooked. But it’s well worth a visit to see the rock formations, oak tree groves, and soaring California Condors.
  • Joshua Tree – The stunning desert landscape will enchant nature lovers with its hiking trails, whimsical Joshua Trees, and spectacular views. See our full guide on things to do in Joshua Tree.

👉 Read the full list of best national parks in California.

🐐 Best Wildlife

View of a bighorn sheep in California
Bighorn sheep

California is home to movie stars, famous cities, and gorgeous landscape… but also to some very unique wildlife!

  • California Condors – These massive, beautiful raptors successfully recovered from only 27 individuals to a healthy wild population in central California.
  • Monarch Butterfly Migration – Each year between October and February monarch butterflies congregate in California to overwinter, check out Pismo Beach for the highest density. 
  • Whales – California is a migration corridor for gray whales, humpback whales, and blue whales. Go on a whale watching tour to experience these magnificent animals up close!
  • Elephant Seals – Ever wonder what a cross between a seal and an elephant would look like? Head to Año Nuevo State Park or Hearst-San Simeon State Park between October and May to find out!
  • Bighorn Sheep – These regal animals call the California desert home. Head to Joshua Tree, Death Valley, or Anza Borrego to glimpse the herds wandering through the rocks.

California Travel Advice

🗓️ Best Time to Visit

California is a massive state with a variety of landscapes, some that receive snow, and others that swelter in the summer, so it’s important to plan your visit around the weather.

  • 🌼 Spring – Spring is an all-around great time to visit any place in California. The desert is blooming, the coast is warming up, and the mountains have snow.
  • 🌞 Summer –  While Summer is the best time to visit California’s coast, it’s best to avoid the desert regions as they can get dangerously hot. 
  • 🍂 Fall – Fall is a great time to visit the deserts, which are cooling down, and Southern California’s coast, which is pleasantly warm. 
  • ❄️ Winter – Winter is the best time for snow sports in the mountains, but if you aren’t a fan of the cold, or are hoping for a beach vacation it won’t be the best time to visit.

👉 For more detailed guides on Southern California’s seasons, take a look atThe Best Time to Visit San DiegoandThe Best Time to Visit Long Beach

🚌 Getting In & Around

California is a huge state whose destinations are separated by long distances which makes getting around difficult.

  • ✈️ Airports – The biggest airports in California are in San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), Oakland (OAK), and Sacramento (SMF)
  • 🚗 Driving – The ideal way to see a variety of California’s iconic destinations is by a rental car. Even the cities are sprawling, so a car makes getting around more convenient.
  • 🚇 Public Transit – Outside of San Francisco, California’s public transport is lacking. There are short-distance trains and buses between LA and San Diego.
  • 📲 Ride Share – Uber and Lyft are always an option in the bigger towns and cities but once you get more rural, they get scarce.
  • 🚴‍♀️ Biking – California is a giant playground for mountain bikers! Bikes are also a great way to explore the cities.
  • 🛴 Scooters – Scooters are a great quick option for getting around the bigger cities and towns.
  • 🚶‍♀️ Walking – Many of the big cities are too sprawling to be easily walkable. But the smaller towns have small downtown areas that allow for walking.

👉 Tips & Things to Know

  • 🔥 – Practice Fire Safety – California is known for its severe wildfires, and we are all responsible for falling the fire safety rules (no fireworks, minimal campfires, and discarding cigarettes properly).
  • ⛽ – Gas is super expensive – California has the highest gas prices in the U.S., partly because the taxes are so high so driving can get pricey.
  • 🚫 – Know the 4/20 rules – Weed is legal in California! But keep in mind that you must be 21+ to buy and smoke it (only on private property) 
  • ☀️ – Don’t underestimate CA sun – California sun can be strong and without sunscreen, you can get some nasty sunburns.
  • 🏜️ – Avoid the desert in Summer – The deserts in California get intensely hot in Summer, so it’s best to avoid them if possible. If not, bring lots of water.

🧳 What to Pack

  • 🧥 – Layers – Especially in Fall and Spring, days can be warm and nights cool off drastically, so it’s a good idea to pack clothes that you can layer for quick temperature changes. 
  • 💧 – Reusable water bottle – Be sure to bring a refillable water bottle to keep hydrated in the strong California sunshine.
  • 🧴 – Sunscreen – Even on cloudy days, the California sun can give you a nasty sunburn, so be sure to bring and apply sunscreen!
  • 🥾 – Hiking boots – The best way to explore California’s natural beauty is by hitting the hiking trails!

👉 See our full California packing checklist.

🤓 Facts & Info

  • Population – 39.51 million
  • Capital – Sacramento
  • Largest Metro Areas – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, Riverside
  • Time Zone – Pacific Time Time (UTC -8 / UTC -7 during daylight savings)
  • Airports – San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), Oakland (OAK), and Sacramento (SMF)
  • Colleges & Universities – Stanford, University of California Berkeley, University of California Los Angeles, University of California San Diego.
  • Nickname – The Golden State
  • Demonym – Californian
  • USPS Abbreviation – CA
  • Governor – Gavin Newsom (Democrat)
  • CountryUnited States of America

💵 Costs & Budgeting

  • MERIC Cost of Living State Rank – #49 most affordable
  • 3 Star Hotel Room – $150-$250/night
  • 1 Bedroom Apartment Rental – $90-$150/night
  • Rental Car – $30-$100/day
  • Public Transit Ticket – ~$10-$30 
  • Take Out Meal for Two – $20-50
  • Sit Down Dinner for Two – $50-$200
  • Draft Beer – $7-$9

FAQs About Visiting California

Is California safe for tourists?

Yes, California is safe for tourists! It’s always a good idea to practice caution in the big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. The best way to avoid bad situations is to stick to the more commonly visited areas. For more specific details, check out the articles “Is San Diego Safe?” and “Is Long Beach Safe?

As for natural dangers, be aware of strong currents in the ocean, sunburns and dehydration from the sun, and rattlesnakes when hiking.

Are there COVID travel restrictions in California

California is fully open for travel as of the writing of this article. However, the state does recommend any unvaccinated people test themselves 3-5 days after arriving. Some counties also require a mask to be worn indoors at this time.

How big is California?

California contains 900 miles of coastline that stretches from the Mexican border up to Oregon and contains 163,696 square miles of desert, mountains, forest, and beaches. To drive between the northern and southern points of the state takes a minimum of 12 hours.

📰 California Travel Guides

California’s natural beauty and one-of-a-kind cities make it a bucket list destination! Hopefully, these guides will help you make the most of your trip to the Golden State.

Meet Our California Travel Experts

Ashleigh Bandimere

Ashleigh Bandimere grew up enjoying the sunshine and beaches of San Diego, California but her love of adventure led her to live in both Costa Rica and Spain before she returned to her hometown. Ashleigh’s passions include wildlife conservation, sustainability, seeing the world’s natural beauty, and sharing these interests with others.

👉 Read Ashleigh’s Articles

Victoria Folz

Victoria Folz is a freelance writer and travel enthusiast based in Southern California. She enjoys red eye flights, hiking, road trips, running, and solo adventures. Her favorite destination abroad is a tie between the island of Roatan and Porto Xeli, Greece. Visit her website here.

👉 Read Victoria‘s Articles

Jess Levy

Jess Levy is an artist, travel writer, poet, and marketer. A California native and ex-techie working in Silicon Valley by day, traveling by weekend searching for those hidden gems. She loves planning local and international trips to nourish her creative soul. She’s now back home by the beaches of Encinitas, San Diego, and loves uncovering the best dog-friendly experiences around.

👉 Read Jess’s Articles

🗺️ California Map