California Travel Guide

Photo by Nigel French/Shutterstock

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why you should visit California now


From beach-side sunsets in SoCal to the knotted grapevines in Napa, California is an iconic travel destination with something to offer every visitor. Outdoor lovers can hike among the redwoods, spend the day surfing, or road trip along California’s iconic coastlines on Highway 101. Those in search of an urban adventure can head to San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles for world-class nightlife, art, and culture, while travelers eager for a taste of West Coast cuisine can easily fill a week (or more) samping fresh, culturally diverse food or sipping wine at internationally renowned vineyards.

What to know before you go to California


When's the best time to go to to California?

California is great to visit any time of year, but spring (March through May) and fall (September and October) are generally the best times to go. Both seasons bring milder temperatures in Southern California and the desert regions, while fall is cool-and-foggy Northern California’s warmest time of year.

Winter brings rain and snow, making it an ideal time to visit areas like Tahoe and Mammoth for peak ski and snowboarding conditions. If you’re in search of sun, stick to southern destinations, like San Diego, Death Valley, or Palm Springs for bright, pleasantly warm (55-70 degrees) days.

Beginning in March, much of the state warms up, giving way to incredible wildflower blooms after the winter rains. This is also when Southern California gets warmer, but hasn’t yet hit unbearably hot temperatures.

June through August, you’ll find hot (90-100 degrees) daytime temperatures in San Diego, L.A., and the desert areas, but cool evenings. Do not expect the same from San Francisco, whose position by the bay makes for foggy, cool weather for much of the summer.

How to get around California

A car will almost always be your best option for traveling within California. You can rent one from any major airport or city for between $30 and $80 per day. Amtrak also runs several train routes throughout the state, which make for a fun, easy alternative to driving up and down the coast, or inland towards Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada.

Flights between cities also tend to be quick and inexpensive. For example, a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles is around 1.5 hours and can cost as little as $100 roundtrip depending on the time of year.

San Francisco is the one part of the state where you can get around without a car through a mix of public transportation, rental bikes, Ubers, and walking.

Can't Miss things to do in California

It’s nearly impossible to pick just a few things to do in a state as large and diverse as California, but some of the most iconic activities include...

  • Spending a day by the beach, sunning or surfing, in San Diego or Santa Cruz
  • Hiking among the redwoods at Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, or Redwoods State Park
  • Checking out the scene at Venice Beach in Los Angeles
  • Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
  • Taking a road trip along the 101, making sure to stop in Big Sur
  • Tasting and learning about how wine is made in one of California’s 12 major wine regions, like Napa, Sonoma, or Santa Barbara
  • Eating your way through California’s fresh, produce-forward cuisine, influenced by the many different cultures that call the state home: Fish tacos in San Diego; Cioppino and sourdough in San Francisco; Locavore brunch by the beach in Los Angeles; and so, so much more
  • Smoking weed—legally
  • Visiting Disneyland, with or without the family

Food and Drink to try in California

Expect to eat and drink well in California. As the “produce basket” of the United States, the state has an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables (many of which are organic), as well as seafood and locally sourced meat. As you explore, keep an eye out for local specialties, like oysters in Tomales Bay, dungeness crab on the central coast, and avocados everywhere.

Travelers here can also look forward to food from around the world, especially in urban centers like San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. From Korean-Mexican taco trucks to the best dang dim sum you’ve had outside of China, you’ll find both innovative fusions and classic iterations of international cuisines.

As for drinks, California has robust beer, cocktail, and — yes, of course — wine scenes. In urban centers like L.A. and San Francisco, as well as smaller towns throughout the state, visitors can enjoy world class mixology and cocktails at everywhere from dive bars to high-class establishments.

For wine, Napa might get most of the attention, but California actually has 12 major wine regions, each of which is worth a visit (especially if you want to avoid the Napa crowds). Beer-lovers will enjoy checking out one of California’s more iconic breweries like Russian River, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and Stone Brewery, or venturing to some of its more quirky offerings, like the sours-only brews from The Rare Barrel in Berkeley.

Culture in California

The Californian culture stereotype might be a sea of sun-splashed surfers in SoCal, but thanks to diverse and multicultural communities, vibrant art, film, music, and fashion scenes, and rich histories throughout the state, there are many ways to explore culture in California.

For music, head to iconic theaters like The Greek in Berkeley, California, or one of the many music festivals hosted throughout the state: Coachella, Outside Lands, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, High Sierra Music Festival, and Bottlerock—just to name a few.

Major museums include the Getty Center, LACMA, and MOCA, and the Broad in L.A.; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Visitors can also explore art through monthly art walks in San Diego, L.A., San Francisco, and Oakland, or by DIYing a tour of each city’s public murals and art pieces.

Local travel tips for California

  • Looking for that quintessential Californian sunshine and surf? Head to Southern California; the northern part of the state is actually cool and foggy for much of the year.
  • No matter what time of year you visit, bring a jacket. Even if it’s beautiful and sunny during the day, temperatures can drop significantly after sunset and vary between—and even within—regions.
  • Pack your hiking shoes and get outside. California has more national parks than any other state, making for endless nature to explore.
  • When it comes to California wine regions, Napa is the most famous, but also the most crowded; many wineries require advance reservations. Head to Sonoma, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, or Monterey for a more low-key wine tasting experience.

Guide Editor

AFAR Editors