California Holiday Planning Guide
The country's most populous state, California includes landscapes that range from the forested northern coast to harsh southern deserts. Sandwiched right in the middle of the state is a fertile valley, home to farms, vineyards, and orchards. California's cities offer diverse attractions, from amusement parks and upscale shops to award-winning restaurants and innovative art galleries. Outside the state's big urban centers, popular places to visit in California include some of the nation's most rugged national parks, ancient forests, towering mountain peaks, and ski resorts. More than just a surfing destination famous for its beaches and winding coastal roads, California also boasts one of the world's largest economies, bolstered by the booming tech industries.
Places to Visit in California San Francisco
: A top destination for California vacations, this "City by the Bay" combines scenic beauty with outstanding ethnic and cultural diversity, easily discovered on foot or by bike, train, streetcar, or cable car.San Diego
: Just north of the Mexican border, this big city with a small-town atmosphere offers great nightlife, diverse cuisine, a thriving musical scene, and a mild Mediterranean climate providing endless chances to swim, boat, kayak, hike, or cycle.Los Angeles
: Home to over 17 million people, this "Entertainment Capital of the World" boasts attractions that range from adventure-packed amusement parks and modern movie studios to family-operated vineyards and scenic coastal roads.Napa Valley
: A mild climate and idyllic location in the northern section of the state make this wine region one of the top places to visit in California, where you can enjoy not only excellent vintages, but also breathtaking scenery and exquisite gastronomy.Santa Monica
: A popular tourist destination since the early 20th century, this resort town sits on a picturesque bay and serves as a convenient base for exploring nearby L.A., Malibu, and Beverly Hills.Santa Barbara
: One of America's most affluent urban centers, Santa Barbara draws vacationers with its wide beaches, renowned wineries, and a range of shopping and dining options, as well as quick access to a vast national forest sheltering threatened and endangered animals.La Jolla
: Situated on the curving coastline of Southern California, this city boasts a mild year-round climate and serves as a water lover's paradise just a short drive from downtown San Diego.Mariposa
: Proud of its small-town atmosphere and Old West heritage, Mariposa preserves the feel of a bygone era and features a history-infused downtown filled with buildings dating back to the 1850s.Sonoma
: Less than an hour's drive from San Francisco, Sonoma sits in the heart of one of the world's top wine-producing regions and boasts the largest town square in California.Lake Tahoe (California)
: Providing an ideal setting for active California vacations, this "Lake of the Sky" benefits from about 300 sunny days each year and draws outdoor enthusiasts with its blue-green waters made for swimming, boating, kayaking, and windsurfing.
Things to Do in California
Popular California Tourist AttractionsAlcatraz Island
: Once an infamous maximum-security prison, this popular California attraction sits on a small island in the San Francisco Bay and offers tours of old cell blocks and military fortifications, considered escape-proof until three inmates mysteriously vanished using a makeshift raft.Golden Gate Bridge
: One of the most photographed structures in the United States, this suspension bridge features iconic red towers and offers numerous vantage points overlooking San Francisco Bay.Disneyland Park
: Spread over 34 hectares (85 acres), this giant entertainment complex features eight themed lands and offers numerous rollercoasters and boat rides, live shows, and indoor and outdoor games, making it one of the world's favorite family-oriented vacation destinations. Universal Studios Hollywood
: Ranking among the top places to see in California, this film studio, theme park, and self-contained city entertains with a range of live shows, thrill rides, and behind-the-scenes tours offering insight into the secrets of the movie-making business. San Diego Zoo
: Home to nearly 4,000 of some of the world's rarest animals, this zoo features cage-free exhibits recreating natural habitats of pandas, gorillas, orangutans, koalas, antelopes, and other wild creatures.USS Midway Museum
: Visit this former naval aircraft to see its war room, sleeping quarters, engine room, pilots' ready rooms, and the brig, along with over 60 interactive exhibits and about 30 restored airplanes.Monterey Bay Aquarium
: Situated inside a former sardine cannery, this aquarium is now home to thousands of plants and animals from over 600 different species, including creatures of a giant kelp forest growing in an 8.5 m (28 ft) viewing tank. Getty Center The Publications
: Located in the hills overlooking L.A., this six-building complex contains a large collection of pre-20th century European art, including Vincent van Gogh's famous "Irises."Cable Cars
: Established in the 19th century, San Francisco's cable cars trundle up the steep streets through some of the city's iconic neighborhoods, filled with art galleries, shops, restaurants, and museums.Griffith Observatory
: Add some fascinating learning to your California itinerary at this renowned L.A. observatory, offering free admission to numerous space and science exhibits, designed to teach and entertain visitors of all ages.
Planning a California Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in California with Kids
Indisputably one of America's most family-friendly destinations, California offers plenty of activities designed especially for young travelers and their parents. The beaches of Malibu
remain the best places to enjoy swimming, surfing, and sailing. San Diego
draws visitors not only with its mild climate, but also its world-famous zoo--the largest attraction of its kind in California. Known for its cutting-edge movie studios and amusement parks, Los Angeles
offers a range of museums with kid appeal, ideal distractions for rainy days. Include San Francisco
on your California itinerary to ride the iconic cable cars and take advantage of kid-friendly shopping and dining options. California boasts an outstanding network of highways and byways, allowing families to quickly escape crowded cities and explore scenic destinations like Redwood National Park
and Lake Tahoe (California)
, tailor-made for nature lovers, photographers, and adventurous souls of all ages.
Things to Do in California with Kids
If your family is visiting California for its famous theme parks, you won't have to go much farther than Universal Studios Hollywood
to enjoy movie-themed rides, interactive shows, and behind-the-scenes tram tours of working sound stages and sets. Add The Walt Disney Family Museum
to your California tour to learn about the life and work of the legendary animator, film producer, and business mogul. A favorite with toddlers, teens, and their parents, this museum houses 248 awards Disney earned during his career, including the Oscar for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." If the little ones get tired of museum exhibits and theme-park rides, head to Madame Tussauds Hollywood
, where they can have their photo taken with replicas of Shrek or Wolverine. For a slice of California's natural wonders, visit Yosemite Falls
, the tallest waterfall in North America.
Tips for a Family Vacation in California
With so many kid-appropriate attractions and activities, your biggest challenge may be deciding what to include and what to leave out of your California itinerary. Many families don't want to miss the state's famous theme parks and movie studios, which you can easily plan your entire trip around. Make sure the children experience the great outdoors by visiting state and national parks, where in most cases the visitor center can advise you on the safest activities for young adventure seekers. Consider renting a car and spending at least part of your California holiday road-tripping on the state's scenic coastal routes. Wherever you go, always carry enough sunscreen for everyone, and bring hats and swimsuits. If you do go for California's natural wonders, make sure your little hikers wear broken-in shoes to prevent blisters and sore feet from spoiling the entire experience.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in California
Cuisine of California
A popular destination for gourmands and a hub for health nuts, California boasts a rich and varied cuisine that often fuses influences from French, Italian, Mexican, and Asian traditions. The style popularly called "California cuisine" uses ingredients low in saturated fats and consists of imaginatively presented dishes featuring lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, many grown in-state. Lean meats and locally caught seafood also play a big role in this regional culinary movement. If you're into fine dining, think about getting to know Los Angeles
by touring its award-winning restaurants, frequented by celebrities from around the world. For a more relaxed food experience during your California trip, head to Mission District
, the birthplace of the burrito and the oldest neighborhood in San Francisco
. Immigration continues to shape California's culinary landscape, with specialties from nearly every country on the planet available somewhere within the state. You can take a gastronomic trip around the globe by simply visiting California's famous food trucks, offering everything from sushi burritos and guacamole waffles to crepes smothered in ice cream and lasagna cupcakes.
Shopping in California
Few visitors coming to California to shop miss stopping at Union Square
and Rodeo Drive
, two of the state's major shopping areas. Most of California's big cities offer plenty of traditional grocery stores, shopping malls, and factory outlet centers, selling everything from fresh produce to state-of-the-art electronics. Enhance your California sightseeing experience by exploring outdoor markets, like Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market
, where you can best appreciate the abundance of local fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and more. If you're looking for some sweet souvenirs to take home, visit Ghirardelli Square
, a former chocolate factory and home to an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. To pick up a bottle or two of California's finest wines, explore the vineyards of Napa Valley
. Start with Pride Mountain Vineyards
, preserving traditional winemaking methods from the 19th century.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to California
History of California
Home to dozens of indigenous tribes long before the arrival of European settlers, California boasts a rich history spanning thousands of years. Early immigrants probably came 25,000 years ago, using a land bridge that once connected the American continent with Asia. Discover California's earliest history at sites like Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park
The first Europeans came in 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led a Spanish sailing expedition along the Pacific coastline. By the 18th century, Spain controlled much of the area, establishing numerous missions and military forts. Two of their small pueblos (towns) later developed into the modern cities of Los Angeles and San Jose. Add Old Mission Santa Barbara
to your California trip planner for more insight into these conquistadors.
At the conclusion of the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, California became a remote province of the independent nation of Mexico. Cattle ranches spread under the ownership of the Spanish-speaking residents, popularly called Californios. Over the next few decades, the arrival of settlers from the U.S. and Canada increasingly challenged Californios' land claims.
In 1846 rebels against the Mexican rule established the short-lived California Republic. This revolt coincided with the Mexican-American War, which ended with a treaty that secured American control of California. By the time California became the 31st U.S. state, the discovery of gold had transformed the future of this region and caused massive social and demographic upheaval. A major economic boom drew immigrants from the east of the U.S. and abroad, while the indigenous population sharply declined. Visit Oakland Museum of California
during your California tour to gain a better understating of these 19th-century developments.
Americans continued to move west after the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. This westward movement extended into the 20th century, when the building of major highways made travel to and across California easier and less expensive. The state's mild climate and varied landscapes drew filmmakers from around the world, with the famous Hollywood studio system developed by the early 1920s. As movies and TV shows became globally popular entertainment mediums, Los Angeles took center stage as the "Entertainment Capital of the World." Stop by The Hollywood Museum
to see over 10,000 pieces of movie memorabilia and learn the history behind California's thriving film industry.
Landscape of California
California covers approximately 423,000 sq km (163,000 sq mi), its diverse geography encompassing everything from the rugged Sierra Nevada in the east to the highly urbanized Pacific Coast in the west. Redwood fir forests dominate the northwest part of the state, while the southeast includes Mojave Desert
, a vast dry area receiving less than 15 cm (6 in) of rainfall per year. The central section of California includes the Central Valley, a large agricultural area. Mt. Whitney
ranks as the highest point in the contiguous United States, while Death Valley is the hottest and lowest area in North America. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, each year California experiences about 37,000 earthquakes. Create a memorable California itinerary by driving or cycling along the state's lengthy coastline, and leave enough time to discover its mountainous natural wonders, including Yosemite National Park
and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
Holidays & Festivals in California
A huge draw for both domestic and international tourism, California's many festivals celebrate everything from regional foods and sports to cars and movies. Plan your California holiday for April if you want to attend the famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio
, or visit Sacramento
in June to attend the Northern California Blues Festival. Each year, thousands of beer lovers flock to Avila Beach
, home to one of the largest and oldest regional beer festivals in America. The Los Angeles Film Festival, a nine-day movie extravaganza, screens everything from short student films to mainstream blockbusters. A good choice for families with kids, the Los Angeles County Fairs offers carnival rides and games, along with musical performances and arts and crafts exhibits.
California Travel Tips
Climate of California
Though most of California benefits from a pleasant Mediterranean climate that makes it a popular year-round tourist destination, the state also includes mountainous areas known for brutal winters. The northern section of the state receives more rainfall than its southern areas, with snow a rare occurrence except in the mountains. The cool California Current causes frequent summer fogs and moderates the temperatures of coastal cities. As a result, summer in San Francisco and Los Angeles remains the coolest of all major metropolitan centers in the United States--so pack layers if visiting during this time. Areas farther away from the sea experience significantly hotter summers. During the warmest months, Death Valley often sees temperatures in excess of 49 C (120 F), which makes it one of the hottest areas in the world. Time your California vacation for the shoulder season (April-May, Sept-Oct), when you can take advantage of mild temperatures and sunny days.
Transportation in California
California features one of the most extensive state highway systems in America, which means that the car remains the most convenient way to travel between urban centers and the many state and national parks. If your time for sightseeing in California is limited, consider flying, a good option for quickly crossing big sections of the state. Visitors with limited budgets often take buses or trains, which provide an affordable and comfortable way to get around and see much of California. Good scenic train routes include Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
and Napa Valley Wine Train
. If you want to cover shorter distances and travel by a greener mode of transportation, consider cycling some of the state's designated bike routes.