This legendary state is about so much more than its most famous cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with no fewer than nine spectacular national parks, between them dotted with the likes of redwoods, sequoias and Joshua trees, a long coastline of cliff-lined Pacific beaches, and mountains harbouring incredible wildlife as well as ski resorts.
And that’s not even to list all the entertainment and venues associated with the global industry that developed out of Los Angeles’ Hollywood neighbourhood, or California’ fabulous food and wine scene. When you’re in LA, we particularly recommend checking out West Hollywood, one of the city’s most buzzing areas, for its nightlife and restaurants.
With inspiring scenery and an adventurous spirit, Greater Palm Springs, also in southern California, embraces nine thrilling cities – the iconic Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and the festival-goers’ favourite Coachella – as well as the mystical Joshua Tree National Park.
East of San Francisco in the north of the state, in the Sierra Mountains, Yosemite National Park is best known for its soaring ancient sequoias, but the charming historic Gold Rush era town of Mariposa on the way into the park is worth making time for too. The least-crowded half of the National Park is in Tuolumne County, which has more historic gold mining towns and an array of gourmet restaurants and wineries in which to treat yourself. North of San Francisco, Sonoma County is also famed for its wines, especially those from the Sonoma Valley.
When to visit
California is very much a year-round destination but we particularly recommend April, September and October, when there are fewer people and balmy temperatures perfect for the many outdoor activities on offer here, including hiking and exploring Tuolomen County and Yosemite & Mariposa, wine tasting in Sonoma County, venturing into the desert-scapes of Greater Palm Springs and urban-exploring in West Hollywood. If you do feel like toasting yourself on a California beach, however, the summer months, and especially July, see highs of 30°C.
It’s a little-known fact that California is one of the best places in all North America for mountain scenery and downhill skiing, with the season running from December to March but conditions at their optimum and crowds at their minimum in the latter month. We particularly rate Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite and Big Bear to the east of Los Angeles.
The state was an independent country for a month in 1846. The 31st state, it has more inhabitants than the whole of Canada (about 40 million), and one in four of them is not US-born.
The Joshua trees, that are the most famous plant life around Greater Palm Springs, were named after Biblical figure Joshua, by 19th-century Mormon settlers who believed that their outstretched branches guided them on their journey.
Yosemite National Park was founded by Scottish naturalist, writer and forest conservationist John Muir, who raised awareness of the area’s unique beauty and became known as ‘the father of national parks’.
Gold was discovered in Tuolumne County in 1848, setting off the major Gold Rush of the following year, which brought an astounding 300,000 people to California from the rest of the USA and even from overseas.
Marilyn Monroe was discovered lounging by the pool of the Garden of Allah, one of West Hollywood's venues that was popular with a gay clientele and that led to West Hollywood becoming the LGBTQ mecca that it is today.
Sonoma County has more than 425 wineries, from small family-run businesses to globally fêted wine houses, many of them award-winning. California itself is home to quarter of all wineries in the USA.
Step back in time to the Gold-Rush era, get adventurous in the wilderness or discover lively neighbourhoods. From world-famous national parks to historic towns and bustling cities, California can offer something for everyone.
Here are some of our recommendations for your time there...
Gold-Rush Era meets Modern Day
Venture to the inland state capital Sacramento to find out about Gold Rush-era traditions and architecture in its old town and to learn more about this part of the USA in venues including the California State Capitol Museum and the California State Railroad Museum. There are also modern-day breweries, bars, clubs and restaurants – some Michelin-starred.
Into the Wilderness
Get out into the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park for superb hiking, biking, rock-climbing and bouldering, ranger-led events, geology tours by 4X4, astrology and sleeping under the stars. One of the most famous routes is the Boy Scout Trail, a challenging route into the Wonderland of Rocks.
Explore the magnificent landscape
Yosemite National Park is another world-class hiking spot, with trails to suit all levels. Among our top recommendations for those ready for an adventurous trek are the 12-hour, 22km round-trip Half Dome Hike, with lots of ascent, and the 12km Yosemite Falls Trail up to a spectacular lookout.
Step Back in Time
Wander around Columbia, in Tuolumne County, a preserved Gold Rush town and home of the Columbia State Historic Park, with a century-old stagecoach to ride, gold panning, Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen, the St Charles Saloon and the Historic Fallon House Theatre.
Visit the off-the-beaten-track Dry Creek family winery, which was modelled on a Loire Valley chateau and offers an inviting tasting room and lush picnic grounds. Among the world-class wines you can sample here are various limited-production, single-vineyard bottlings that are only available at the winery.
Explore colourful neighbourhoods and iconic venues
Go on a crawl of West Hollywood's famous comedy clubs and live music venues, which include the legendary Whiskey a Go Go rock club that opened on the Sunset Strip in 1964.
Experience the magic of Disney
Now home to Galaxy’s Edge land – a state-of-the art re-creation of the iconic Star Wars wild frontier planet Batuu – Disneyland Resort opened back in 1955 and embraces the Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure theme parks, three hotels, and Downtown Disney with its shops, restaurants and entertainment district.
Delve into the local art scene
The innovative, forward-thinking Palm Springs Art Museum is an artistic hub in the heart of Downtown. An architectural feature in itself, the Museum is also home to 28 galleries, two sculpture gardens within its beautifully landscaped grounds, and a popular local bistro. The permanent collections embrace modern and contemporary art, architecture and design, and Native American Art.
Wander amongst giant sequoias
Near Wawona, in the southernmost part of Yosemite National Park, Mariposa Grove is the largest grove of giant sequoias, with several hundred mature examples of the tree – two of them among the world’s 30 biggest giant sequoias. They’re best seen by walking the loop trail along the edge of the grove, taking about two hours.
Water sports on the lakes of Tuolumne County
On Don Pedro Lake alone you can boat, fish, swim, water ski, wind surf, sail and stay on a houseboat. Throughout Tuolumne County you’ll find a number of similar lakes and reservoirs to enjoy active pursuits such as kayaking and paddle boarding.
Visit a farmers' market
Sonoma County is arguably California's food and wine hub, so its artisan markets are a delight - places not only to browse local produce, but also to meet friends over food-truck treats, hear live music and pick up crafts. Sonoma County’s oldest and largest farmers' market is Santa Rosa with its friendly farmers, fishmongers, bakers and chocolatiers.
Check out the LGBT+ scene
Wander down rainbow-flagged Santa Monica Boulevard with its many clubs, gay bars and boutiques.
From fine dining to hearty comfort food, we've picked out our favourite spots to eat across California...
The French Laundry, Yountville
Holder of three Michelin stars, The French Laundry in Yountville is one of the best restaurants in the world, offering daily nine-course tasting menus (one vegetarian). Iconic dishes from chef Thomas Keller include oysters and pearls (pearl tapioca, oysters and caviar), butter-poached lobster and truffle-infused custard.
Mr Lyons, Palm Springs
Going strong since 1945, Palm Springs' Mr Lyons was a favourite of none less than Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. A classy take on a steakhouse, still oozing glamour and vintage charm, it offers classics such as prime rib, mac and cheese and shrimp cocktails alongside modern vegan options.
Single Thread, Healdsburg
Another three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Single Thread is part of a five-acre farm between Russian River and the historic San Lorenzo Ranch in Sonoma County, also embracing a luxury inn. Boutique ingredients for the food and cocktails, grown on the rooftop garden, include chingensai greens and yurine (lily bulbs).
Charles Street Dinner House, Mariposa
Mariposa’s Charles Street Dinner House is another vintage venue serving steaks, seafood, barbecue sandwiches and other comfort-food classics in a historic building with an Old West theme and rustic decor including wood-panelled walls and old wagon wheels. It’s on the main street, handy for the California State Mining & Mineral Museum.
The Standard Pour, Sonora
The Standard Pour in the old Pickering Lumber office building on the outskirts of Sonora, Tuolumne County, built in 1924, offers casual dining based on local farm products including artisanal cheeses, along with craft beers and unique wines. Popular dishes include chicken pot stickers, spiced totts, Cuban sandwiches and tacos.
Dan Tana's, West Hollywood
An Italian stalwart on Santa Monica Boulevard, Dan Tana’s has an Old Hollywood atmosphere that takes you back in time, along with red-jacketed staff, many of whom have worked here for decades. Call ahead to be with a chance of getting a table and sampling such dishes as veal cutlet Milanese à la George Clooney.
Dim Sum in San Francisco's Chinatown
One of the USA’s oldest Chinese districts is chock a block with dim sum restaurants both traditional and contemporary, budget and high end. Brave the long queues for dim sum takeout joint Good Mong Kok Bakery with its giant bao-filled steamers, or go for broke at the upmarket Yank Sing or Dragon Beaux.
The Terrace Restaurant at Desert Willow Golf Resort, Coachella Valley
Views don’t come much better than from the eatery at this two-course sporting venue in the Coachella Valley minutes from Palm Springs, open for breakfast and lunch daily and offering the likes of buttermilk pancakes, huevos rancheros and crême brûlée French toast in the morning, plus coconut shrimp , papaya chicken and crab cake sliders.
The Ahwahnee Dining Room, Yosemite Valley
A venue as appealing at the food it serves, this spot for breakfasts, Sunday brunches, lunch and dinner has a 10m-high beamed ceiling, exposed stone walls and floor-to-ceiling windows to drink in the Yosemite Valley views as you feast on the likes of seared scallops and boysenberry pie.
Craft Beverage Trail, Tuolumne County
This trail delivered to you by text and email allows you to taste your way through the delicious wines, beers and ciders of Tuolumne County, from Sonora to Yosemite. Stop-offs include The Horn Brewing Company, the Inner Sanctum Cellars Winery & Tap Room, and the Indigeny Reserve, with a branded T-shirt awarded to anyone who visits all nine venues.
Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria, Sonoma County
Set in a 1900s landmark building, this is a rustic space for meats, fish and produce from sustainably minded local farms, ranches and fisheries. Among your options are Neapolitan-style pizza, handmade pasta, house-cured salami and daily specials from the wood-burning oven. Don’t miss the gnocchi with head-on Gulf shrimp.
Sushi Ginza Onodera, West Hollywood
This sleek spot serves top-notch Edomae-style traditional sushi with fish imported from Toyosu fish market and Niigata prefecture rice tinted in red vinegars, dispensed from a wooden counter as part of its omakase tasting menu. Named after Edo, today known as Tokyo, this style of preserving results in a more tender texture.
From historic hotels to boutique B&Bs and laid-back lodges, California boasts some beautiful places to rest your head between all of your adventures.
Discover some of our favourites here...
The Kimpton Sawyer, Sacramento
In downtown Sacramento, the Kimpton Sawyer has a sleek pool deck, a wellness concierge, the option of a Peleton or a mirror gym in certain suites, a rooftop lounge with yoga and Pilates sessions, and even a bar menu of zero-proof drinks - along with bespoke cocktails, California wines, microbrews, and high-end tequilas and mezcals.
The Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood
An A-listers’ hangout where Keanu Reeves once lived for four years, the Chateau Marmont above the Sunset Strip has a feel of old Hollywood in its bungalows and suites. Opened in 1927 and known as the ‘castle on the hill’, it offers an outdoor pool, in-room spa treatments, and American and Japanese restaurants.
Tenaya Lodge, Mariposa County
At Fish Camp in Mariposa County, the Tenaya Lodge is a great place from which to explore the great outdoor, with nearby downhill skiing, hiking, biking and rock climbing depending on season. In summer, naturalist tour guides will help you discover the surrounds, while in winter, you’re an hour’s drive from the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area
The Fleur Noire, Palm Springs
The Fleur Noire in Palm Springs is an adult-only boutique hotel of casitas, bungalows and suites decorated with graphic floral wall murals. Head to La Boisson, its gorgeous rosé and champagne bar, to enjoy a huge array of curated offerings that can be served to you out by the heated pool if you so desire.
Farmhouse Inn, Sonoma County
A lovely escape deep in Sonoma wine country, Farmhouse Inn is a luxury boutique hotel with two farm-to-table restaurants (one fine dining) and a spa. As well as running evening wine hours in cooperation with its local winery partners, it offers VIP tasting itineraries to local vineyards hand-selected by the inn’s owner.
Rush Creek Lodge and Spa, Yosemite National Park
In a hillside woodland setting at the Highway 120 West entrance to Yosemite National Park, the new Rush Creek Lodge & Spa is another wonderful place for park outings, with a recreation team offering hiking tours, camping tours and adventure gear rentals such as trekking poles, backpacks, binoculars and bicycles.
Hotel Caza Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
Its location in the heart of the city’s historic former docklands is a winner for us, with many major attractions, restaurants and bars all within walking distance. But the Caza has plenty to do on-site too, thanks to its outdoor heated pool, games room, all-day dining and comfortable rooms, some with bay views.
Palm Mountain Resort & Spa, Palm Springs
Just steps from the famed Palm Canyon Drive with its nightlife, restaurants, shops and galleries, this sunny option has an outdoor pool that is chilled in the summer and heated in the cooler months, plus a pampering spa. Some of its comfortable rooms have a shared patio with a fire pit, others are by the poolside.
Yosemite View Lodge, El Portal
In El Portal just steps away from the entrance to the national park, this hotel sits alongside a spectacular stretch of the Merced River and has dramatic views from the balconies and outdoor spas of many of its rooms. It also has one indoor and three outdoor pools, a pizzeria and two restaurants, one with a riverside terrace.
Hounds Tooth Inn, Oakhurst
Located in Oakhurst, a short distance from Bass Lake and Yosemite National Park, this charming boutique property – part of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection – offers up airy rooms and suites with a mixture of Victorian and contemporary styling, some with spa baths. Evenings see convivial receptions with wine, cheese and tapas.
The Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection
This stylish option in the heart of wine country is a restful retreat offering yoga classes on the lawn, a heated outdoor pool, and accommodation that includes cute cottages with outdoor fireplaces or hot tubs. Wine tastings are hosted here, and there’s upmarket California and Latin-inspired cuisine across two restaurants.
Hotel Ziggy, West Hollywood
This boutique hotel sets the scene for your discovery of this hip neighbourhood with its saltwater pool with DJ sets, its music venue and its pizza shop. The colourful and eclectically decorated accommodation includes poolside rooms that double as VIP cabanas, while the property as a whole is decorated with quirky art created with recycled materials.