Perched at the edge of a continent, California is a wild, adventurous place. Superlatives are no exaggeration here in the Golden State, which is bigger than a few entire European countries. For starters, California is home to the world’s tallest, biggest, and oldest trees and the highest peak in the USA outside of Alaska, Mt. Whitney. As you travel, you’ll be awe-struck by California’s almost unbelievably diverse landscapes, from rolling, golden deserts of sand dunes and palm tree oases to snowy mountain ranges. Meanwhile more than 800 miles of bewitching coastline beckons, unfurling from Southern California’s movie-worthy beaches to the dramatically wave-tossed, rocky coves of Northern California.
But it’s not just about the land, it’s about the people, too. Californians are just as wonderfully crazy, beautiful, creative, and unconventional as you’ve heard. Nearly 40 million people live here and they speak more than 140 different languages. Chances are, every other person you meet in California was born somewhere else, either in another state or just as likely, another country. If the myth of the melting pot comes close to reality anywhere in the U.S., it’s here. See for yourself by taking a drive across Los Angeles, with its Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Thai Town, Little Armenia, the African American cultural hub of Leimert Park, and the Mexican neighborhoods of East LA.
For travelers, California is like the ultimate goodie bag: pick and mix all of your favorite activities, then pack them the into one fun-filled week, weekend, or month-long trip. Honestly, there are enough fascinating finds here for half a lifetime of never-boring exploration. I’ve been here for 20 years and I still haven’t seen it all – not yet, but I happily keep trying.
If your time is limited, you’ll probably want to start with one of the big coastal cities, cosmopolitan Los Angeles or offbeat San Francisco. From LA, cruise south to Orange County and San Diego for SoCal beach life perfected, or wind north along the sea cliffs of the preposterously pretty Central Coast. From SF, it’s a quick day trip to the wine country around Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, where you can tipple rare vintages among rolling vineyards. Or stick to the ocean and wind through Marin County and seaside Mendocino to the redwood forests of California’s North Coast.
California is an outdoor wonderland, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You can visit Lake Tahoe or Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra during all four seasons: chase waterfalls in spring, camp and hike in summer, go leaf peeping in fall, and ski and snowboard in winter. Some of California’s most impressive national parks are in the Sierra Nevada – Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon – just a short drive from California’s historic Gold Country, near the state capital of Sacramento. And don’t think that Northern California has cornered the market on outdoor adventures, not with Death Valley and Joshua Tree in SoCal, so close to the hip desert resort of Palm Springs.
You can visit California year round, but you won’t be able to go absolutely everywhere in every season.
Along the California coast, the busiest time to travel is between May and September, yet you may encounter equally balmy weather during April and October. If your heart is set on swimming in the Pacific, beach season doesn’t start until July, when ocean waters finally warm up (at least in Southern California). Beware of “May grey” and “June gloom,” when a foggy marine layer obscures the views and make coastal days dreary. The most reliable sunshine arrives in late July, usually staying until mid-October.
Peak season in the mountains – including Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks and Lake Tahoe, all in the Sierra Nevada – runs from late May through early September. Lake Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra adventure town of Mammoth Lakes are also packed during the winter ski season, usually lasting from mid-December through mid-March. Yosemite is a fantastic, less crowded place to visit during winter.
Down in Southern California’s deserts, the typical tourism patterns are reversed. High season for the desert resort of Palm Springs is during winter, between December and March. In desert national and state parks such as Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Anza-Borrego, spring wildflowers bring out the biggest crowds. The wildflowers bloom between February and April, starting at lower elevations farther south.
You can enjoy a trip to California’s big cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego – in any season. Summers can be extremely hot in LA, but in breezy San Diego the temperatures remain moderate. San Francisco tends to be cool and foggy during summer, but then very sunny and warm from late August into early October. Winters can be chilly and rainy in all three of these coastal cities, but snow is unheard of.
If you’ll be visiting the region around Sacramento, which includes California’s central valleys and the Gold Country in the Sierra Nevada foothills, plan to go in late spring or early fall for pleasantly warm days and crisp, cool nights. Summer is also a popular time to visit the Gold Country, but be prepared for blazing hot temperatures (you’ll quickly understand why swimming holes in rivers are so popular with locals).
How much time have you got? No, seriously. Once you arrive in California, you may find it harder than you’d expected to leave.
If you just want to take a quick city break in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego, a few days (say, a long weekend) will give you a sweet taste of what California’s metropolises offer. Quick excursions to wine country, theme parks, beaches, and nature preserves are doable day trips.
First-time visitors to California should give themselves at least a week to explore one of the big cities, then get out and see more of the state. From San Francisco, you could take a road trip up the North Coast into the Redwood Empire or down the Central Coast all the way to LA. If you’re starting from LA, you could cruise down to Orange County and wind up in San Diego, or head out to Joshua Tree and Death Valley, stopping off in the desert resort of Palm Springs.
For the grand tour of California’s coast, mountains, and deserts, plan on two weeks to hit all of the biggest highlights and most famous spots. Tack on a third week or take a whole month if you want to explore off-the-beaten path places and really get to know the Golden State.
Generally speaking, high season runs from May through September (summer) and low season from November until March (winter). Look for significant savings during the winter off-season, when accommodations may cost up to 50% less than in summer. Travel is also cheaper during the short shoulder seasons: April (spring) and October (fall).
This pattern is reversed in the deserts, where the cooler winter is high season and the broiling hot summer is low season. In the mountains, summer is still high season, but so is winter – at least, in places that offer skiing and other snow sports like at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes.
That said, every region of California still has its own high and low seasons. Here’s a thumbnail guide:
Northern & Southern California Coast
High season: May-Sep (beach season is Jul & Aug in SoCal)
Low season: Nov-Mar
Sierra Nevada & Other Mountain Areas
High season: Jun-Aug, also Dec-Mar at ski resorts
Low season: Nov-Apr (except at ski resorts)
Southern California Deserts
High season: Dec-Mar (through April in Joshua Tree and Death Valley)
Low season: Jun-Aug
Sacramento, Gold Country & Central Valleys
High season: May-Sep
Low season: Nov-Mar
You’ll often hear that California has a Mediterranean climate, meaning that it experiences hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Along the coast, summer temperatures rarely break 85ºF (30ºC) and winter overnight lows hover around freezing (32ºF, or 0ºC).
Across the rest of the state, however, regional micro-climates vary from arid desert to snowy alpine. Up in the mountains, you’ll see all four seasons: a balmy spring, a hot summer, a cool, crisp autumn, and a cold, snowy winter. Down in the low desert, frost may cover the ground on winter mornings, while summer brings record-breaking heat. In fact, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134ºF (57ºC) in Death Valley on July 10, 1913.
Generally speaking, California gets most of its precipitation during the winter months between November and March. However, the state is currently in the midst of a multi-year drought that has cut ski seasons short, drained reservoirs, and motivated the state government to enforce new water-saving policies. Forecasters predict that the winter of 2015/16 will see higher than average precipitation due to the El Niño effect of warmer ocean currents.
For current weather conditions and detailed area forecasts, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration online.
One other factor that greatly affects the weather in California – and it may impact your travel plans unexpectedly – is wildfire. Once restricted mostly to the hottest months of July, August, and September, wildfires are now known to blaze anytime between April and December. For the latest information on wildfires burning in California now, click here.
Why is California’s wildfire season worse than ever before? Severe drought is partly to blame for more frequent and larger fires. But the main culprit is previous decades of forest mismanagement plans, which called for putting out all wildfires instead of allowing some to burn naturally. Since some forests have not burned in over a century, their flammable fuel load is high, which is what creates ever bigger and more dangerous conflagrations. Some wildfires begin naturally with lightning strikes, while others are the result of human carelessness (such as a campfire that is not completely put out).
Tip: Please do your part to help prevent wildfires by making sure that campfires are kept small and closely monitored (or better yet, don’t build them at all). If you smoke, never dispose of your cigarette butts outdoors. Instead, put them in a designated ashtray or douse them with water before throwing them in a trash can.
10 of California’s Top Annual Events
January 1: Rose Parade in Pasadena
January/February: Lunar New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown
January/February/March: Titans of Mavericks surfing contest at Half Moon Bay
February/March: Academy Awards Ceremony in Hollywood
April: Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival near Palm Springs
July: California State Fair in Sacramento
July/August: U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, Orange County
September/October: Fleet Week in San Diego
October (first weekend): Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
National & State Holidays
January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March 31: César Chávez Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July 4: Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
September 9: California Admission Day
September (fourth Friday): Native American Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas
California is located in the Pacific time zone (GMT-7).
To check the local time in California now, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) begins in spring on the second Sunday in March, when clocks are advanced one hour. In the fall on the first Sunday of November, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. With few exceptions, the entire country (including California) participates in this ritual of “springing forward” and “falling back.”
What to Pack
Practically anything that you forget to pack, you can buy in California. In fact, you may want to intentionally forget to pack a few items, just so you can buy them new in California. For example, flip-flops or beach sandals and a soft, warm hoodie sweatshirt are perfect souvenirs of a coastal road trip. A big-brimmed, floppy sun hat is easy to find in wine country. In the mountains, few can resist buying a T-shirt or a refillable water bottle emblazoned with the name of a famous ski resort or national park.
The most important thing to pack for California is layers. Lots of layers. Chances are you’re going to experience a few different weather patterns while you’re here, sometimes all in the same city (San Francisco alone has dozens of micro climates). Be prepared for sunshine and rain, as well as unexpectedly cool evenings and mornings, especially along the coast.
All of the usual advice applies to packing for a trip to California. Remember to bring chargers for all of your electronics, including car chargers for road trips. A GPS isn’t necessary if you’ve got a mapping app on your smartphone. A swimsuit is handy not just for ocean, lake, and river swimming in summer, but also hotel pools and spa visits year round. If you’re traveling with children, bringing your own car seat can save you money. Otherwise, book ahead to rent a car seat (which is legally required in California for infants and small children) from your car rental agency.
Don’t forget to pack all of the prescription medications you might need in clearly labeled containers, along with copies of all of your prescriptions (using the generic names of drugs). Tip: Take back-up photographs of your prescriptions, including for medications, eyeglasses, and contact lenses, as well as any letters from your doctor(s), then store the images on your smartphone or in the cloud, in case you accidentally lose the originals.
A passport and often a valid U.S. tourism visa is required for foreign citizens who arrive in California from abroad, including from neighboring Mexico or Canada. U.S. citizens who want to cross the Mexican border, even just for a day, are also required to carry and show a valid U.S. passport.
What to Wear
Californians prefer to keep it casual as much of the time as possible. You will only need to dress up for dinner at some (but not all) four-star restaurants and maybe for evenings out in the cities, such as an opera or ballet performance or a Hollywood nightclub. Along the coast, the timeless look is board shorts, a T-shirt, a hoodie, flip-flops, and a beanie hat – and that’s year round. In winter, maybe they’ll toss on a down vest or jacket, but still keep the flip-flops! California’s most fashionable city is Los Angeles, but San Francisco is not far behind (except for all those young tech employees wearing start-up company T-shirts and college jeans). One thing that you won’t see many Californians go without in their closets is a fleece jacket. If you don’t have one, you can pick one up at outlets of popular brands in outdoor clothing and gear: Patagonia, North Face, and REI.
California can be a reasonably cheap or an extremely expensive place to visit, depending on your travel style and where you go. In general, the coast and its major cities, wine country, and desert and mountain resorts such as Palm Springs and Lake Tahoe cost more.
Budget If you’re staying in hostels or camping, eating cheap take-out meals, getting around on public transportation, and limiting how many attractions you visit and how much nightlife you enjoy, you can get by on about $75 a day. Budget around $100 a day to make the most of your trip, however.
Moderate If you’re traveling with someone else and sharing motel rooms, renting a car to get around, seeing the major sights, and going out for drinks and sit-down dinners, plan on spending $150 a day ($200 or more if you like to shop and splurge on activities like outdoors sports or spas).
Luxury If you’re a luxury traveler, $500 a day should cover staying in four-star hotels; eating out for lunch and dinner; enjoying entertainment, nightlife, daytime tours, and guided outdoor activities; and private transportation.
When you travel also makes a difference. For example, winter off-season prices for lodgings may be less than 50% of peak summer season rates along the coast. When room occupancy is low, polite bargaining may be possible for walk-in visitors at motels and hotels.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in U.S. dollars ($).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$$ => Tickets more than $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $100 to $300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms over $300 for a double room
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $15 to $22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => Over $22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$$ => Tickets more than $25 per person
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need them to be low, they’re high. And when prices dip, what happens? You have no free time to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from online booking websites like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type in your destination and the dates you are watching, and boom! When there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your email inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline websites.
That said, it’s advantageous to also visit an airline’s own website before booking. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator sites. Most airlines share time-limited, super-discounted specials via their social media pages or in email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mail lists.
Car Rentals & Ride Sharing
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Online booking websites like Hotwire and Kayak offer comparison price shopping. So does the Costco Travel website (for members only). There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell them what you want to pay and maybe they can hook you up with a car rental company who fits the bill. They have some great deals, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental or which company you rent from.
Tip: Some car rental agencies (mostly in the Bay Area) offer automatic tolling programs. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge or highway tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge or Orange County tollways, online.
Available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and some college towns across California, Zipcar is an option for short-term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant an hour away in the wine country. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune, if you could even get one. If you’ve joined Zipcar in advance of your trip, you can open the Zipcar app on your smartphone and search for a nearby Zipcar locale, then pick up your car and go. Membership starts at about $25, while rentals begin at $7 per hour (including gas, insurance, and 180 free miles). Foreign drivers can join Zipcar.
Ride-sharing companies such as Lyft are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smartphone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s often cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be.
Hopefully, your trip to and around California goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other countries. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000. U.S. travelers should check if their medical insurance at home will cover them while traveling in California.
Trip Interruption For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to cut your trip short, the insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage (up to a certain amount only).
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a storm-prone area during winter, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include free concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz, and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkely, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International, and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight; it’s often contracted with the above major players.
If you have pre-existing health conditions Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But they also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain timeframe after paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance If you buy your airfare or make other travel bookings with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO), Homeaway, and Airbnb become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, contact the US Travel Insurance Association.
The U.S. dollar fluctuates against other world currencies, but its value has steadily risen since early 2015. For current exchange rates, click here.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans may have a tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents), and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Most Californians do not carry a large amount of cash with them on an everyday basis, and neither should you.
If you withdraw cash from an ATM machine, most banks apply a surcharge of around $3 per transaction. Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, banks in California will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets such as pharmacies will allow you to get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods with your debit card – this is an easy way to get some cash while on the go without paying a surcharge.
Credit & Debit Cards
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card issuer before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state, and even Californians traveling far from home. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card declined when you try to use it at your destination in California. You should also call your bank or credit card issuer immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card – which doesn’t help if it is lost or stolen. Make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access, for example, by taking a photo of the back of the card with your smartphone.
Recently cards with embedded chips to deter counterfeit fraud have been issued. Banks and merchants that don’t offer chip readers may be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details about your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any California trip. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but a few other special situations also apply.
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% of the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10% to 15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In most places, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, restaurants in major metropolitan areas are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized on the bill – if you look closely for it, that is.
Bellhops normally receive $1 to $2 per bag that they assist with, but if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, tip them $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day, left under the card on in the envelope provided. Tip $5 per day at higher-end properties.
At hotels with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff (around $10 to $20 per day) who help you plan activities, make restaurant reservations, or acquire tickets. Concierges do not expect tips for giving out simple information, such as directions.
Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) deserve a 20% tip for their services when performed well, whether at the spa or in your hotel room.
At bars, tip bartenders and cocktail servers at least $1 or $2 per drink, up to 15% to 20% per round.
Airport porters are normally tipped $2 or $3 per bag.
Taxi drivers are tipped 15% to 20% of the total fare, rounded up to the next whole dollar amount. Limo drivers expect a minimum $20 tip.
Tip parking valet staff a minimum of $2 when they hand back the keys to your car.
SALES TAXES, LODGING TAXES & RESORT FEES
In California, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services varies from 7.5% to 10%, depending on where you are. In general, cities have higher taxes than rural areas do. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax also varies by location in California, ranging from 6% to 14% This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
PARKING FEES, TOLLWAYS & BRIDGE TOLLS
If you’re driving around California, don’t count on finding free parking everywhere you go, especially not in major urban areas. In the biggest cities like San Francisco and LA, hotels may charge $40 or more for overnight parking. Street parking in cities usually costs a couple of dollars per hour?; pay the parking fee at meters or centralized parking pay stations, which usually accept both credit cards and coins. Municipal parking garages charge similar rates, with a daily maximum of $20 to $35 (or more for leaving your car in the garage overnight). Private parking garages in cities cost even more. Shopping malls usually offer free parking, occasionally for a limited time only. A few local businesses will validate parking at a reduced rate in an adjacent or a nearby garage, but only if you make a purchase and bring your parking ticket with you to get it stamped by the cashier.
Most of the freeways in California are exactly that – free. A few highways in Orange County and LA are toll roads, but there are no toll booths at which to pay. Those have been replaced with cameras that record your license plate instead. Go online within 48 hours of using a toll road to pay what you owe, or else you will be fined. This applies even to visitors driving rental cars, as otherwise the car rental agency will bill you later not only for the toll and associated fines, but also a hefty administrative surcharge.
The same advice applies to visitors who drive over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. There are no toll booths at which to stop and pay, so if you don’t have a FasTrak electronic toll device installed in your vehicle, you will need to go online within 48 hours to pay the toll. The one-way car or motorcycle toll ($7.25) is only charged in the southbound direction when crossing from Marin County into San Francisco. For more Golden Gate Bridge toll information, click here.
Other Bay Area bridges still have cash payment lanes that you should use if you don’t have a FasTrak device installed in your car. These one-way bridge tolls (from $4 to $6 per car or motorcycle) can add up quickly as you drive around the Bay Area, but keep in mind that tolls are only charged in one direction. If you plan your trips carefully, you may be able to avoid paying tolls at least some of the time. For more information on Bay Area bridge tolls, click here.
Tip: Some car rental agencies offer tolling programs, which you can usually opt into or out of. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, online.
National Park Entrance Fees & Passes
If you’re only going to be visiting one national park during your trip to California, go ahead and pay the one-time entry fee, which costs up to $30 per vehicle for a seven-day pass at Yosemite National Park, for example.
If you’ll be visiting multiple parks and you are also planning to see more National Park Service (NPS) sites within the next 12 months, an annual “America the Beautiful” interagency pass ($80) could save you money. You can buy the pass at any national park entrance station or purchase it online in advance.
U.S. citizens aged 62 and over are eligible for a lifetime senior pass, which costs $10 in person or $20 by mail. U.S. citizens with qualifying permanent disabilities are entitled to a free lifetime pass (apply in person, or pay $10 by mail). Active duty U.S. military personnel are also eligible for free passes.
All of these passes cover free entrance to all 397 NPS locations across the country. The senior pass also entitles users to 50% off fees for certain activities, such as camping.
The most popular way to get to California is to fly, though many people do drive here. Long-distance Amtrak trains are a scenic option for getting to the coast. Long-distance Greyhound buses are a reliable, though less comfortable option that will save you money. Even for those on a tight budget, however, airfares to California are often cheap enough that it only makes sense to fly, given how much time you’ll save by doing so.
Getting around California might take more time than you expect because the state is so big. Flights between Northern and Southern California are fast but not cheap, so most visitors opt to drive instead. Renting a car for your entire trip is probably necessary if you’ll be traveling outside of major metropolitan areas. Trains are useful for getting up and down the coast between the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego, while inland rail services are limited. Greyhound and other regional bus lines connect major cities, but few small towns.
If you’re traveling on a shoestring budget or just prefer not to drive, you can use public transportation to visit much of the California coast, as well as Yosemite National Park. Athletic road cyclists gravitate to the coastal route alongside the Pacific Ocean, but you’ll need a couple of weeks to cycle the entire route.
Most people fly into California, then rent a car and drive around. Public transportation such as buses and light-rail trains, private taxis, and shared-ride shuttle vans are all options for getting into the nearest city from major airports.
California’s busiest airport for domestic and international arrivals is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Southern California, followed by San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in Northern California. Serving primarily domestic travelers but also some international flights, smaller regional hubs include Oakland (OAK) and San Jose (SJC) in the San Francisco Bay Area, Burbank (BUR) and Long Beach (LGB) near LA, and San Diego (SAN) and Orange County (SNA) elsewhere in SoCal.
By car, the only thing to know ahead of time about driving to California is that sometimes you’ll have to stop at an agricultural inspection station when entering from a neighboring state. To avoid spreading agricultural pests and blights, you may not bring any fresh fruit, vegetables, or plants into the state; bringing in firewood, which may harbor wood-boring insects, is also strongly discouraged. If you do have any of these items in the car, declare them to the agricultural inspection officer and you’ll usually be allowed to surrender them with amnesty (that is, they’ll make you throw them away as long as they don’t suspect you of intentionally smuggling contraband into California).
A few scenic long-distance Amtrak train routes reach California, including the Coast Starlight from Seattle, WA via Portland, OR, which makes stops in the Bay Area and on the Central Coast before finishing in Los Angeles. The California Zephyr arrives in the Bay Area from Chicago, IL via Denver, CO. The Southwest Chief also starts in Chicago, but travels a southern route via Albuquerque, NM to Los Angeles. The Sunset Limited also has Los Angeles as its destination, but it starts in New Orleans, LA and travels via Texas.
A Greyhound bus is probably the most exhausting, but sometimes the cheapest way to reach California from major cities across the USA.
Your Own Wheels
California is a big place, and you shouldn’t underestimate its size. It measures 800 miles long from its top at the Oregon border to the bottom of the state at the Mexico border. That would take at least 12 hours of non-stop driving if you stick to the boring inland freeways, or a couple of days following the slow, windingm and scenic highways along the Pacific Coast.
Most locals and travelers use cars to get around California. If you’re not driving your own car, you can rent one from just about any airport. Book rental cars in advance for the best rates and availability. Often the cheapest rates are found on travel discounter sites like Hotwire and Priceline, but always compare those with prices quoted on the car rental agency’s own website. Costco members should search the Costco Travel site for deals. Car Rental Express is a search engine for independent car rental agencies, which may charge less and/or rent to younger drivers under age 25.
Think twice before renting an RV. No, think three times. While you’ll see tourists driving Cruise America and other rental company RVs all around California, don’t rush to be like them. RVs are expensive to rent, and the price of gas in California (just about the nation’s highest) can break your budget. RVs aren’t easy to drive, and you may not even be able to go some places in California in an RV because of road and parking restrictions.
A good compromise might be renting a smaller campervan instead. Surfers have done this for decades, but the trend is just now catching on with all kinds of travelers. Originally from New Zealand, Jucy Rentals is one reliable campervan rental agency in San Francisco and LA. Vintage Surfari Wagons rents restored retro VW buses in the LA area. For even trippier rentals, talk to Escape Campervans in LA or San Francisco.
If you’re an experience motorcyclist and have money to burn, you can rent motorcycles in major cities and a few towns. In San Francisco, Dubbelju is an independent motorcycle rental agency. Eagler Rider has 10 rental locations across the state. In bigger beach towns, you might find moped and scooter rentals available by the hour or the day.
For ambitious road cyclists, the Pacific Coast tour is the most popular route. Get all the details from the Adventure Cycling Association.
Airports & Airlines
Occasionally flights are useful and not prohibitively expensive, for example, if you want to quickly get between major hubs like Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). Flights on discount carriers like Southwest and JetBlue to smaller regional airports, such as Oakland (OAK), Burbank (BUR), and Long Beach Airport (LGB), can be convenient, as the airport experience is much less hassle than at international gateway airports.
In the Bay Area, San Jose (SJC) is another alternative for incoming and departing flights, although it’s much less well connected to San Francisco on public transportation. In Southern California, Orange County (SNA) and San Diego (SAN) are smaller regional airports that may be convenient for travelers who will be exploring the entire region.
If you’re traveling to the Sierra Nevada and don’t want to drive the whole way, the closest airport to Lake Tahoe is actually Reno (RNO), across the state line in Nevada. In the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes (MMH) airport mostly serves LA weekenders who come to ski and snowboard in winter. The closest airport to Yosemite, and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks is Fresno (FAT) in California’s central valley.
In the deserts, Palm Springs (PSP) is convenient only if you want to avoid the hassles at LAX and zoom straight out into SoCal’s deserts.
On California’s Central Coast, smaller regional airports include Santa Barbara (SBA), Monterey (MRY), and San Luis Obispo (SBP). But these airports won’t save you much money or time compared with flying into LA or San Francisco first, then renting a car.
California has a patchy network of passenger train routes, most run by Amtrak. The most scenic Amtrak routes in California hug the coast, and are worth taking just for the experience and the views. The Coast Starlight, which runs once daily in each direction between LA and Seattle, Washington, has a sightseeing observation car, a dining lounge, and sleeper accommodations. The most beautiful section of the route – parts of which you can’t even get to by car – stretches from Ventura and Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast. Amtrak’s regional Pacific Surfliner trains also ride the same rails from San Luis Obispo south to LA and beyond to San Diego. You can even bring surfboards and bicycles on board Surfliner trains. Amtrak’s regional San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor trains are mostly useful for getting between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Buy tickets online in advance for the cheapest fares. If you’re going to be doing a lot of travel by train, Amtrak’s California Rail Pass might save you money. It’s valid for seven days of travel within a 21-day period. Even with a pass, you will still have to make reservations and get tickets for each leg of your trip. Currently, these passes cost $159 per adult (50% off for children).
Greyhound buses are usually the last choice for getting around California. In recent years, Greyhound has reduced its services. Buses no longer stop at as many small towns, instead connecting major cities with larger regional centers only. Still, Greyhound buses can be useful for short trips, for example, between LA and Anaheim (Disneyland) or between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Book online in advance for the cheapest fares.
In the Sierra Nevada region, Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) runs useful, but infrequent and somewhat expensive bus routes from the Gold Country, Central Valley, and Eastern Sierra that converge on Yosemite Valley. Not all routes run year round.
You’d think that with so much coastline, there might be passenger boat service up and down California. Nope. Ocean waters are too choppy, as you’ll find out when taking a ferry over to Channel Islands National Park or on a winter whale-watching cruise anywhere along the coast. The only place where getting around by boat might be practical and save you some time is in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Parking Fees, Tollways & Bridge Tolls
If you’re driving around California, don’t count on finding free parking everywhere you go, especially not in major urban areas. In the biggest cities like San Francisco and LA, hotels may charge $40 or more for overnight parking. Street parking in cities usually costs a couple of dollars per hour; pay the parking fee at meters or centralized parking pay stations, which usually accept both credit cards and coins. Municipal parking garages charge similar rates, with a daily maximum of $20 to $35 (or more for leaving your car in the garage overnight). Private parking garages in cities cost even more. Shopping malls usually offer free parking, occasionally for a limited time only. A few local businesses will validate parking at a reduced rate in an adjacent or a nearby garage, but only if you make a purchase and bring your parking ticket with you to get it stamped by the cashier.
Most of the freeways in California are exactly that – free. A few highways in Orange County and Los Angeles are toll roads, but there are no toll booths at which to pay. Those have been replaced with cameras that record your license plate instead. Go online within 48 hours of using a toll road to pay what you owe, or else you will be fined. This applies even to visitors driving rental cars, as otherwise the car rental agency will bill you later not only for the toll and associated fines, but also a hefty administrative surcharge.
The same advice applies to visitors who drive over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. There are no toll booths at which to stop and pay, so if you don’t have a FasTrak electronic toll device installed in your vehicle, you will need to go online within 48 hours to pay the toll. The one-way car or motorcycle toll ($7.25) is only charged in the southbound direction when crossing from Marin County into San Francisco.
Other Bay Area bridges still have cash payment lanes that you should use if you don’t have a FasTrak device installed in your car. These one-way bridge tolls (from $4 to $6 per car or motorcycle) can add up quickly as you drive around the Bay Area, but keep in mind that tolls are only charged in one direction. If you plan your trips carefully, you may be able to avoid paying tolls at least some of the time.
Tip: Some car rental agencies offer tolling programs, which you can usually opt into or out of. While convenient, these programs usually charge extra service and “convenience” fees on top of any bridge tolls. If you can opt out, it’s usually cheaper (though a bit more hassle) to pay the tolls yourself at the toll booth or, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, online.
You may think you already know California from Hollywood movies and reality TV, but think again. The most populous U.S. state and the third-largest (behind Alaska and Texas) can’t be summed up in trite clichés. True, this is a state of beach bums and bronzed surfers, stoner hippies and Silicon Valley geniuses, glamorous movie stars and celebrities-turned-politicians. But it’s also home to outsider artists and political activists, “green” architects and locavarian chefs, innovative thinkers and boundary-breaking scientists. Most of all, Californians are a tribe of dreamers and rule breakers, about half of whom were born somewhere else in the country or the world. Come find out what makes us all stay.
California defines casual. The uptight rules of etiquette that you might find on the East Coast (or “back East,” as Californians say) rarely apply here. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, in California you can wear a Hawaiian shirt to dinner at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and have surprisingly frank and intimate conversations with people who were strangers until just 10 minutes ago. On the other hand, you might make plans to go out and have fun with someone here, only to have them cancel at the last minute by text or never show at all. (Californians are notoriously flaky.)
Still, elements of the social contract are essential to life in a state as diverse as California, where almost 40 million residents speak 140 different languages. Being laid-back is arguably the most important virtue among Californians, followed by tolerance for everyone else’s religious and political views, gender and sexuality, and choices of body piercings, tattoos, and hairstyle.
Smoking As in many areas of the U.S., smoking is banned inside all public buildings, which includes hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. Smoking may be permitted on outdoor patios at restaurants and bars, but not always. Ask before you light up and look around for ashtrays first.
Shoes When visiting someone’s home in California, or when staying in a bed-and-breakfast or private vacation rental, expect to take your shoes off at the door. Wearing shoes indoors isn’t commonplace, especially along the coast
Tipping One unquestionable rule of etiquette that even Californians abide by: tipping is not optional.
History & Culture
California: A History by Kevin Starr (2005)
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H. W. Brands (2008)
Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra’s Dream and the Founding of California by Gregory Orfalea (2014)
The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)
California Indians and Their Environment by Kent G. Lightfoot & Otis Parrish (2009)
Ishi: Last of His Tribe by Theodora Krober (1964)
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis (1990)
Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit (2010)
Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger & Michael Swaine (1984)
Infinite Loop: How Apple, the World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane by Michael S. Malone (1999)
Nature & Science
My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir (1911)
A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate by Marc Reisner (2000)
Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada by John Muir Laws (2007)
The Yosemite by John Muir (1912)
Assembling California by John McPhee (1994)
Califlora: A Literary Field Guide (2012)
Bluewater Gold Rush: The Odyssey of a California Sea Urchin Diver (2006)
Fiction & Poetry
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990)
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (1990)
Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
Tales of the City by Amisted Maupin (1978-2014)Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle (1997)
Vineland by Thomas Pynchon (1990)
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)
Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1927)
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (1960)
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)
Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar (2011)
Essays & Memoirs
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto (1995)
My California: Journeys by Great Writers (2004) Where I Was From by Joan Didion (2005)
No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts (2009)
Black California: A Literary Anthology (2011)
The Shirley Letters: From the California Mines, 1851-1852 (1998)
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)
Food & Wine
Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters (1999)
San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook by Peggy Knickerbocker & Christopher Hirsheimer (2006)
Tartine by Elisabeth M. Prueitt & Chad Robertson (2006)
Judgment of Paris by George M. Taber (2005)
Whether you prefer 20th-century film noir, contemporary drama, silly rom-coms, biting satire, or eclectic documentaries, plenty of movies filmed in California will satisfy all of the cinephiles out there. Here are just a few of the classic California flicks, old and new:
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Dark Passage (1947)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
The Birds (1963)
The Graduate (1967)
Dirty Harry (1971)
American Graffiti (1973)
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Blade Runner (1982)
Barton Fink (1991)
L.A. Story (1991)
The Player (1992)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
Orange County (2002)
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
The Artist (2011)
California Highway Information
Enter the highway number you’ll be traveling on to get up-to-date information about road closures and construction. It’s invaluable in winter, especially in the mountains and along remote stretches of the coast. The toll-free phone number is (800) 427-7623.
DeLorme’s California Atlas & Gazetteer
When your GPS fails or you lose your cellphone data signal and Wi-Fi, you’ll be glad to have this along on any road trip, especially in wilderness areas such as the mountains and the deserts.
California Coastal Access Guide
The only book of maps and directions you’ll ever need to find all those secret beaches, coves, and surf spots.
Going fishing, surfing, kayaking, sailing, tide pooling, or beachcombing along the coast? Check here first.
The state’s official tourism website by the California Travel & Tourism Commission.
California State Parks
Learn all about the nearly 300 public parks, beaches, historical sites, nature reserves, and recreation areas statewide.
California Sunday Magazine
Colorful, in-depth feature stories on contemporary life in California, no matter how fractured or fantastical.
The definitive monthly magazine about life in the American West is headquartered in Oakland. Free, fun travel articles and recipes online.
Dude, check this Wikipedia page to learn why Californians insist on using surfer slang. Don’t forget to call the freeway “the 101.”
On your first trip to California, start in either sunny Los Angeles or foggy San Francisco, the most magnetic coastal cities for travelers. From San Francisco, take day trips to Muir Woods and the wine country of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, then detour to Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada. From Los Angeles, it’s a quick drive south to the postcard-perfect beaches of Orange County and San Diego, or east to the glam desert resort of Palm Springs, near Joshua Tree National Park. To get between LA and San Francisco, follow lazy highways along California’s hidden, jewel-like Central Coast.
Travel California from top to bottom – or rather, bottom to top – on an amazing road trip alongside the Pacific Ocean. San Diego’s best beaches are in North County, en route to Orange County, where surf and sun are a way of life. Around Los Angeles, get funky in Venice or go glam in Santa Monica and Malibu. On the Central Coast, stop in ravishing Santa Barbara and wild Big Sur before diving into Monterey Bay. From San Francisco, cross over the Golden Gate Bridge and wind through Marin County up to pastoral Mendocino before losing yourself on the Redwood Coast, stretching north to Oregon.
For every famous place in California, there are equally amazing destinations that maybe you haven’t heard of. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks get a fraction of the visitors that Yosemite does. While tour buses mob Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, other wine countries like Santa Barbara and Paso Robles stay relaxed. Most of far Northern California remains uncrowded, from Lassen Volcanic National Park and Mt. Shasta to the ‘Lost Coast.’ Even California’s Gold Country around Sacramento and the Eastern Sierra still feel like secrets. To really get away from it all, sail to Channel Islands National Park.
Southern California’s theme parks are the place that every kid wants to go first. Land in Los Angeles, then take the whole family to Disneyland before hitting the sunny beaches of Orange County. Drive south to San Diego or back to LA for extra fun in the sun. For more outdoor adventures, detour inland to the desert wonders of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, or head north into the Sierra Nevada to awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park, followed by relaxing on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Boomerang back to the coast and visit family-friendly San Francisco before zooming back to LA.
From Native Americans and Spanish conquistadors to ’49er gold miners and 1960s hippies, California is fascinating for anyone who digs the past. Make a few stops along the Mission Trail, which stretches from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Explore Sacramento, the state capital, before driving up into the mountainous Gold Country. The Eastern Sierra is loaded with historical landmarks, including the ghost town of Bodie and the somber WWII internment camp at Manzanar. Finish your historical tour of California in one of its oldest cities, Los Angeles, where every neighborhood has its own story to tell.