I love talking to East Coast people or random strangers from Europe all about California. So many people think that if you’re planning to visit California that you’re going to be surfing, getting tan… and then getting plastic surgery, but that’s just not the case. That’s why we’ve created this California travel guide. Most of the best things to do in California aren’t even at the beach!
Having lived in both San Francisco and Orange County, and of course traveling all over the state, we’ve gotten to experience hundreds of small towns and hiking spots. Some of the best things to do in California are way off the beaten path, while others are in the middle of Los Angeles.
Understanding Travel Within California
California is a huge state with millions of people. Because maps are weird and sometime that size of a state or country is a little skewed, someone new to the West Coast might not fully grasp the enormity of California. The driving map below should help clear up confusion about what’s driveable in a day or not.
Note: there are train routes through Amtrak that will get you between major cities and the Coaster to cover the Southern coast of San Diego county, but California by train isn’t as easy as European destinations or even the state of New York.
What you'll find...
- Understanding Travel Within California
- California Road Trip Routes
- Southern California
- The Central Coast
- Northern California
- Please pin this for later!
California Road Trip Routes
Of course we need to start with the best road trips for our California travel guide. These travel plans will either take you across a specific region or they’ll guide you along a theme. With endless scenic highways and long stretches of interstate connecting the cities, you can plan a wide variety of sights and stops for a California road trip!
Southern California is more than Los Angeles. SoCal includes San Diego, Palm Springs, Orange County and more! Spring through fall it’s mostly sunshine and beaches, but there are also incredible hiking spots in Southern California, including phenomenal super bloom spots!
Everything we include our our SoCal region is within a three hour drive, most destinations are closer to each other, but three hours tops.
One of our favorite getaway cities in the USA, San Diego can be luxury or totally budget. We’ve been countless times, and between the free things to do in San Diego and the great food, it’s the perfect family destination. And the San Diego Pride Festival is awesome!
We’ve got more about SD than what’s listed here, so dig in and plan an awesome San Diego getaway. It’s good to consider budget travel when you visit California!
Don’t worry, we have more on the way, but for now, let’s just say that Orange County is more than Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm… We love the theme parks, but there’s so much more! We’ll be rolling out additional info and tips, but for now, dig into the food and fun of central Orange County. A great California family destination!
Los Angeles Area
Despite all our time in Los Angeles, we haven’t written a ton about it. That’s all about to change though, so stay tuned. In the meantime, we do have some great, truly California travel recommendations for free things to do in LA as well as a complete guide to the Santa Monica Pier and surrounding neighborhood. More to come…
Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley
We LOVE Palm Springs! The town is fun and adorable, there is wonderful hiking, and you really do experience a side of nature that you might not think about when you’re planning your California travel. From downtown to Joshua Tree National Park, the many palm oasis to horseback riding around Palm Springs, we’ve got ideas for it all!
We recommend at least two days in Palm Springs to really enjoy it. You can stay for a week and not run out of things to do, but two days is fine.
The Central Coast
We would quickly say that California’s Central Coast is one of the most overlooked regions of the state. We have done several road trips through the area and love it. From wine and agritourism in the Santa Maria Valley to history and culture at Hearst Castle, you’ll find all kinds of things to do on the Central Coast. Our kids LOVE San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay (we do too) and they are thrilled each time we return.
Whale Watching Tips
That’s right! Even though you can see whales all along the California Coast we have consistently seen them when we’re in this area. We’ve seen both blue whales and gray whales along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) here. If that’s one of your goals with doing a California Coast road trip, be sure that you take time to pull over and just watch the horizon of the ocean. The best places to see whales on the Central Coast include:
- Big Sur
- Cambria (Moonstone Beach and bluff)
- Nipomo Dunes (Guadalupe, CA)
- Off the Channel Islands (accessible via Ventura)
Whale watching from the California shore takes patience, but it’s doable and very likely in fall and spring. Good luck!
SLO Cal, Cambria and San Simeon
If we ever move to California, it’ll be to the San Luis Obispo area. Home to Cal Poly SLO and Morro Bay, this part of the California Coast is much more sleepy than what you’ll find from Santa Barbara south. The fog rolls in often and the food is awesome. We love this part of the coast for kayaking, hiking, and enjoying famous sites.
And you know what’s just north of San Luis Obispo? Cambria and San Simeon! Here you’ll find Central Coast wineries and Hearst Castle. One visit to this part of the coast and you’ll be planning your return trip.
From the Bay Area and up to the Oregon border, Northern California is its own land. It’s a part of the state unlike anywhere else. San Francisco, Sacramento, Napa and Sonoma counties, and even up into Redwoods National Park, you’ll find a gazillion different sorts of sights and activities.
NorCal has several airports to fly into, with San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK) and Sacremento (SMF) being the largest. SJC, down in San Jose, is also good sized and even has international flights!
If you have always wanted to do the train down the coast, you can actually catch Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle all the way to Los Angeles, stopping in Portland, Crater Lake National Park, the Siskiyou Mountains and then the Bay Area.
San Francisco Bay Area
Someday we’ll create our complete guide to San Francisco with kids that includes everything from SFMOMA to the Castro, but for now, let’s keep it with the things that give you both the best city experiences AND that show you more of the San Francisco Bay Area. There are some interesting National Park sites and iconic spots you just have to visit with or without kids. Have you explored the best kept secret in San Francisco, aka Telegraph Hill? Have you been to the National Park that doubled as the Forest Moon of Endor?
Northern California Coast
Once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge you enter a whole new world. From Marin County to Del Norte County, you’ve got lighthouses, vineyards and sleepy towns. It’s actually fascinating to see how different this part of California is in comparison with SoCal’s coastal towns. You’d never guess that they’re in the same state.
There are some really wonderful hotels and inns along the coast. We enjoyed both the Bodega Bay Lodge and Carter House Inn, two very different hotels, and they really added to our Northern California Coast experience. Great home bases for exploring Sonoma County (Bodega Bad Lodge) and Eureka and the Redwoods (Carter House)
California National Parks
Some of the most iconic National Parks are found in California. While we still have a few to visit we’ve been to most of them. The Sierra Madres are home to Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Death Valley. As you head to the coast you find Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, Muir Woods, Cabrillo, and more. So many amazing National Park sites!
And be sure to check out some of our recommendations for National Park lodges and hotels near the parks. There are many options to consider based on budget and time of year you’re visiting.
We truly love our time exploring California and know you will too. If you have any questions or need help planning a trip, send us a note. We have knowledge and experience beyond what we’ve shared here, and have lots of contacts all around the state.