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The Best of California's Big City Neighborhoods

The Best of California's Big City Neighborhoods
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Where to shop, eat, and explore in top cities statewide

As one of the largest states in the country, it’s no surprise that California’s biggest cities have neighborhoods that are extraordinarily diverse, international, and downright interesting. Here’s a look at some of the coolest attractions and local favorites in six of the Golden State’s hottest urban centers.

San Diego neighborhoods
Known as the “birthplace of California,” San Diego offers sunshine, beaches, and a casual, friendly vibe. Inviting neighborhoods abound, from the historic Gaslamp Quarter —16½ blocks in the city center with shops, hopping nightlife, and The New Children’s Museum a short walk away—to the charming island town of Coronado , known for the iconic Hotel del Coronado and a picture-perfect beach. For the ultimate San Diego experience, plan to visit the beaches and attractions around Mission Beach and Mission Bay , one of the world’s largest water parks. Rent kayaks or standup paddleboards, zoom on jet skis or new water jetpacks , or go sailing. For family fun near Mission Bay, head to SeaWorld San Diego or Belmont Park beachfront amusement park.

Just northwest of expansive Balboa Park , go to artsy Hillcrest , center of San Diego’s LGBT community with an appealing retro look—think 1950s-style storefronts with bright awnings, quirky boutiques, and homey sidewalk restaurants. Nearby, low-key North Park and South Park neighborhoods have an ultra-local vibe, with quaint restaurants and pubs serving the some of the region’s renowned craft beers.

For a sense of the region’s Mexican heritage and Early California history, explore Old Town San Diego, a 12-acre designated state historic park. Preserved or restored adobe and wooden buildings house shops, museums, a theater, and restaurants, some serving hand-made tortillas.

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L.A. Neighborhoods
On first glance, the “City of Angels” seems to be mostly made up of freeways. But exit off these car-filled thoroughfares to discover an appealing collection of distinct regions, some chichi, some scruffier, but all with interesting shops, eateries, or other attractions. As for exploring the city, doing it by freeway can be a traffic-clogged challenge—especially during rush hour. Instead, opt for L.A.’s larger streets—Sunset, Wilshire, Santa Monica, Olympic and Pico Boulevards—that start at the coast and go inland to downtown L.A. (or simply DOLA) and to the far Eastside. Use one of these, rather than Interstate 10 or Highway 101, to see far more city and less brake lights.

One of the region’s prettiest enclaves is Santa Monica , best known for 3½ miles of wide, sandy beach and a lively pier, is also a shopper’s heaven. Beeline with your plastic to Main Street , Third Street Promenade , glitzy Santa Monica Place, and Montana Avenue . If you like a side of celeb-spotting with your shopping, browse the trendy shops and eateries in Brentwood Country Mart . Just north, swanky Pacific Palisades has oceanfront mansions and the must-see Getty Villa, filled with ancient art (admission is free, though there is a fee for parking). Stroll Malibu’s acclaimed beaches to the north, or, south of Santa Monica, catch the wild scene of street performers and skateboarders along Venice Beach ’s boardwalk. Beverly Hills has high-end stores like Chanel and Prada on Rodeo Drive ; for slightly reduced sticker shock, try the wallet-friendly chains on Beverly Drive —also great for spying beautiful homes and estates. West Hollywood , a hub of L.A.’s gay culture, is home to the Pacific Design Center —an amazing place to browse for home décor. For movie-star memories, stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame and stop by the TCL Chinese Theatre, both in Hollywood . For edgy galleries and experimental theater in black box studios, visit funky North Hollywood (nicknamed NoHo) and its thriving arts district . Order a latte at an outdoor café and watch the scene in one of the city’s most appealing neighborhoods, Silver Lake , an artsy enclave with fun shops like Yolk , a great spot for gifts.

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San Francisco neighborhoods
Jaw-dropping views and iconic landmarks are the heartbeat of San Francisco , thanks to sites like the Golden Gate Bridge , Alcatraz Island and the dramatically renovated Bay Bridge , linking the city to Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay cities. But San Francisco’s neighborhoods, divvied up by its signature hills, are also part of the city’s magic, and exploring these enclaves, either by foot, cable car, or even a motorized Segway, is one of the best things to do in the City by the Bay.

Along the bay front, start at touristy but fun Fisherman’s Wharf and PIER 39 . Rent bikes to pedal the flat Embarcadero to the food-centric shops of bustling Ferry Building Marketplace , then continue on to AT&T Park (adjacent streets have lively pubs and eateries, especially on days when 2010 and 2012 world champion San Francisco Giants are playing ball) and the sprawling Mission Bay complex, where a paved path hugs surprising restored wetlands .

The city’s diversity shines through in neighborhoods like Italian-esque North Beach —sip a cappuccino at a small café and watch the scene—and raucous Chinatown , claiming to be the largest Chinese community outside Asia. The Mission District , originally the hub of San Francisco’s Mexican community, still has excellent taquerias, but it has morphed into one of the city’s hottest places to find cutting edge cuisine, especially along the Valencia Street corridor (favorites Locanda and Bar Tartine ). Enjoy the city’s outstanding ballet, symphony, and opera companies in the cluster of historic buildings in the city’s Civic Center area, also home to the elegant Asian Art Museum . The edgy Fillmore District is a music hub, with great jazz at Yoshi’s SF . Shopping hotbeds include venerable Union Square (Tiffany & Co., Macy’s, and the sublime boutiques lining Maiden Lane ), Hayes Valley (eclectic boutiques and sidewalk cafes, and the SFJZAZZ Center ), and the civilized shops and dress-up restaurants of Sacramento and California Streets in elegant Pacific Heights. The heart of the city’s famous gay culture beats in the Castro (look for outrageous shops and great dining).

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Other city neighborhoods
San José California’s third largest city (after L.A. and San Diego), the dynamic urban center of the booming Silicon Valley, has several appealing pockets. Visit downtown San José to see outstanding modern works at San Jose Museum of Art and the soaring beauty of Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph . Kids love the ultra-hands-on Children’s Discovery Museum and Tech Museum of Innovation , and everyone can romp in Guadalupe River Park and Gardens . The charming Willow Glen neighborhood south of downtown has shops and restaurants lining Lincoln Avenue , while West San Jose has the wacky-weird fun of the Winchester Mystery House and sophisticated high-end shopping at Santana Row . More on San José at

Sacramento. California’s state capitol since 1854, this city now ranks as a serious art town. The Crocker Art Museum is one of the city’s crown jewel—adjacent to Capitol Park and the Old Sacramento area of restored buildings, museums, and shops—has world-class art by premier California artists, including Ansel Adams and Wayne Thiebaud. Midtown  attracts a young crowd and is full of hip restaurants, bars and boutiques, as well as more than 30 art galleries and performing arts venues; B Street Theatre , Capital Stage and Comedy Spot are three local favorites. More on Sacramento at

Fresno. Centered in one of the world’s leading agricultural areas and the closest major city to Yosemite National Park  and Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks , this relaxed city has several worthwhile diversions. The city’s Tower District  is full of art galleries, nightclubs, performing arts venues (such as Roger Rocka’s ) and the historic Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts. The Mural District  downtown is the city’s cultural arts center, where large-scale murals decorate the exteriors of both residential and mixed-use buildings. Other worthwhile attractions include the extraordinary Forestiere Underground Gardens and leafy and lovely Woodward Park Shinzen Japanese Garden . More on Fresno at


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