Related: Audley Travel
California’s vastness encompasses a mind-boggling diversity — soaring sequoias and iconic cityscapes, misty islands and sunny beaches, historic vineyards and cutting-edge couture.
With so much to choose from, it can be hard to plan what to see and do on a trip to the Golden State. We asked our USA specialists to pick the state’s best bits based on what they’ve found on their many trips. Here are their suggestions for where to go in California for culture, wildlife, beaches, wine and scenic drives.
The best beaches in California: Los Angeles
Sure, you can go to Los Angeles for the movie stars, the high-end restaurants or the impressive history. But at its heart, LA is a city of beaches. For more than a century, people have come here for the cloudless blue skies, buttery light, and the seemingly endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
These are not exclusive beaches filled with glamorous people. Instead, you’ll find town-side beaches fronted with family-run taquerias, hip cafes and surf shops, upscale stores, and funky boutiques peddling everything from aromatherapy candles to antique collectables.
Santa Monica is home to one of the last of California’s old wooden piers, which dates back to the early 20th century. Marking the end of the storied Route 66, the pier is resplendent with carnival games, arcades, and rides like a roller coaster, Ferris wheel and vintage carousel.
Known as Surf City, Huntington Beach is the focal point of the West Coast’s surf culture. Decked out in sleek wet suits and sporting brightly painted longboards, surfers flock to this miles-long stretch of uninterrupted golden sand to take advantage of the curling waves. In fact, many of the area’s professional and semi-pro competitions happen right here.
It can be a little intimidating to watch seasoned pros and experienced amateurs alike gracefully navigate the incoming swells and effortlessly pop up into standing position. But a 90-minute lesson with a good instructor can teach you the basics of the sport — how to position yourself and the board, how to pick the best wave and how to get up onto the board.
The best wine region in California: Napa Valley
Though it’s the country’s most prestigious wine region, Napa Valley is surprisingly small. It’s just a few miles wide and you could easily drive its length in just an hour. But speeding through would mean that you’d miss so much — historic small towns, internationally renowned restaurants, stately wineries and rolling hills hemmed by mountains and covered in endless rows of flourishing grape vines. To truly appreciate Napa Valley, you need to slow down.
As with most wine regions, Napa can get very busy, especially at the big producers where coaches roll up regularly to disgorge hordes of visitors. That’s why we suggest a private tour of the smaller wineries. Starting in the mid-morning, your guide can drive you from one estate to another, where you’ll meet the owners, indulge in tastings with in-house sommeliers and stop for a picnic lunch at one of the wineries.
To slow down even more, you can cycle between wineries. Almost every bicycle rental shop will offer maps marking out several options. You can plot your own route on narrow roads meandering through lush fields, larger roads with protected cycle lanes and even a network of well-manicured trails that are entirely free from cars.
If you prefer a more leisurely exploration, we suggest the Wine Train. Board a lushly restored vintage train and travel in a style reminiscent of the early 1900s as you chug slowly through the valley. Guests indulge in a multicourse gourmet meal that’s been carefully paired with local wines before the train stops at various wineries for tastings and tours.
The best place for wildlife in California: Yosemite
There are nine national parks in California, and choosing the best one for wildlife is frankly a matter of opinion rather than objective fact.
With rugged shorelines, teeming tidal pools and rich marine life, the Channel Islands National Park has an excellent claim to the title. On the islands themselves, you could encounter foxes, lizards and mice, as well as a host of birdlife. From a kayak, you might see many varieties of whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions. And if you choose to snorkel or dive, you can swim among yellow-orange garibaldi fish, giant black seabass, California spiny lobsters and many-legged sunflower stars.
Joshua Tree National Park offers a unique glimpse at the conjunction of two different desert ecosystems and all the animals inherent to both — snakes and lizards with scales like jewels, sandy-furred bat-eared foxes, and majestic bighorn sheep. That’s not even mentioning the animals (and trees) at Redwood, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
If pressed to choose just one, we’d reluctantly choose Yosemite. Though the park is known for its massive waterfalls and titanic trees, it also overflows with wildlife.
The biggest and most charismatic residents are the park’s hundreds of black bears. Despite their name, these lumbering creatures are a deep burnished brown and generally good natured, unless they’re protecting cubs or food. The herds of bighorn sheep are actually more aggressive. If you’re lucky, you might spy one of the park’s elusive bobcats or mountain lions.
There are also literally hundreds of different bird species here, both resident and migrant. You might see the red-breasted nuthatches, tiny northern pygmy-owls or John Muir’s most-beloved bird, the American dipper, which seems to fly underwater as it hunts for minnows.
You’re more likely to spot wildlife with a good guide. A private guide can tailor your visit to your personal preferences, choosing long hikes or shorter walks, and directing you to the animals you’d most like to see. A tour also offers a chance to pick your guide’s brain for suggestions on what to do on later days in the park.
The best scenic drive in California: Big Sur
At the far western edge of the continent, the Pacific Coast Highway winds along the liminal space between earth, sea and sky. Rising and falling gently, this meandering stretch of road offers some of the country’s best scenery, all to be had for the price of a tank of fuel.
We suggest starting in Carmel-by-the-Sea and heading south towards San Simeon. It’s a purely practical direction of travel — because Americans drive on the right, you’ll be driving ocean-side, giving you better views and making it easier to pull off into the parking areas that dot the coast.
Along the way, you’ll see waves crashing against a rugged shoreline, sheer cliffs, towering redwoods and spindly-legged bridges that span large canyons. Traffic is thin and flows smoothly, and there’s almost always space at the pull-offs so you can pause to appreciate the panoramic views and take photographs. The route largely runs through the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, so the terrain is well preserved.
Do be sure to fill up your car’s tank before you head out though — filling stations are few and far between and expensive when you find them. Also, mudslides occasionally close portions of the route, so please check with your specialist.
You can stop for lunch at Sierra Mar, a restaurant in the opulent Post Ranch Inn. Perched high on a clifftop, its floor-to-ceiling windows offer unobstructed views of the crashing waves and distant ocean.
Other stops along the way include Point Piedras Blancas, home to a year-round elephant seal rookery. Slightly further south, Hearst Castle is the one-time pleasure palace of the 20th-century publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst. An opulent example of Gilded Age excess, the hilltop palace is being carefully restored to its original glamour.
The best place for culture in California: San Francisco
San Francisco is California’s eccentric grande dame — elegant and worldly, with a colourful past and unconventional charm. That oversized personality, plus its enormous historic importance, make it the state’s most intriguing city.
The must-see sights are instantly familiar to anyone who has watched American movies or television: Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf, the Castro and Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts and the painted ladies of Alamo Square, ornately decorated Victorian-era houses that sport white gingerbread fretwork against a background of bright pastels.
But there’s much more to San Francisco than the big-name attractions. The laid-back attitude invites you to meander slowly through the streets, exploring on foot or by cable car. You can always pause at one of the many coffee shops to sip a cup of fair-trade, shade-grown, artisanal coffee (or Ghirardelli hot chocolate) and watch the people parade. We particularly like to start the day at Eight AM, a low-key breakfast-and-coffee joint overlooking a mini park on Fisherman’s Wharf.
The city is full of quirky districts, each with its own distinct personality and worthy of exploration. We’re particularly fond of Chinatown. The biggest enclave of Chinese people outside of China, this is the oldest Chinatown on the continent, dating back to the early 1900s. Here, red lanterns bob overhead, fragrant incense smoke wafts from Taoist temples, people call to one another in Mandarin and Cantonese, and traditional herbalists hawk their wares.
A local guide can help reveal this vibrant district and its food. You might sample Peking duck, with its thin skin and juicy meat, or try steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste. It’s also a good way to learn the long and complex history of the area.
Disclosure: Our property, service and product reviews are sponsored by the proprietor or brand being appraised. All opinions remain our own and are in no way influenced by the sponsor.