Everyone loves a party, and there’s nothing like the good-time atmosphere at California’s top events. Here, you’ll find festivals, fairs, competitions, and championships worth adding to your itinerary, or making destinations in themselves. Escape to food and wine extravaganzas in bucket-list destinations like Napa Valley and Yosemite.
Take part in rock-the-world music festivals like Coachella near Palm Springs or Outside Lands in San Francisco.
Take part in rock-the-world music festivals like Coachella near Palm Springs or Outside Lands in San Francisco. See the stars walk by at film festivals and awards shows in Los Angeles, whoop it up with the kids at classic country fairs in the Central Valley, and watch ultimate athletes take on monster waves at Maverick’s or zoom across the state in Amgen Tour of California.
While many events have plenty of space for all, some, such as Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, often sell out well in advance, so pre-planning is essential (check websites for details on tickets and dates). But some of California’s signature events, like the wacky Kinetic Grand Championship along the North Coast, are walk-on-up-it’s-free gatherings of locals and lucky travelers. So come, join the party, California style.
Heading the bill each winter at Yosemite's majestic Ahwahnee Hotel is the annual Bracebridge Dinner, a lavish 18th-century English Christmas celebration featuring more than 100 performers and a seven-course feast. The December show, a loose adaptation of an episode from Washington Irving's Sketch Book, has been held every year at the Ahwahnee since 1927. The four-hour program features music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance rituals, traditional yuletide decorations, and plentiful food, song, and mirth. The event is held for less than a dozen nights in mid- to late December, so tickets tend to sell out fast.
Other popular winter events at the Ahwahnee Hotel include the Vintners' Holidays and Chef’s Holidays; for both events, the hotel’s Great Lounge is transformed into a culinary classroom. Vintners’ Holidays, a celebration of winemakers’ fall harvests with two-day sessions of wine tastings, seminars, and a gala five-course dinner, are held in November and December. At the Chefs’ Holidays in January and February, California's finest chefs strut their stuff during an hour-long skills demonstration; the master chefs then prepare a gala dinner for all. One of the perks for attendees is insider access to the Ahwahnee’s kitchen. Beneath its 35-foot/10.7-meter ceilings are culinary antiques like the original 1927 walk-in refrigerators, which were kept cool with 500-pound/226.8-kg blocks of ice from nearby Mirror Lake.
Throughout the year, special events offer a great way to wine, dine, listen, play, and mingle with locals. The summer season kicks off in early May with Flavor of SLO, where local chefs, vintners, and craft beer makers showcase their talents on the grounds of the historic Jack House and Gardens in downtown San Luis Obispo. Summer also brings the annual Roll Out the Barrels celebration, featuring local wines and food pairings at an al fresco event at Mission Plaza (attendance also gets you a two-day passport to visit local wineries). In October, Madonna Inn, the incomparable temple to kitsch, teams up with Firestone Walker Brewing Company to present the Central Coast’s own ranch-country take on Oktoberfest, with delicious brews and classic German fare paired with plenty of live music, dusty cowboy boots, and high spirits.
The region’s Mediterranean climate means anytime is time for a party—or festival. One of the biggest—and splashiest—is Pebble Beach Food & Wine, a dress-up fancy multi-day affair showcasing celebrity chefs (Thomas Keller, Tyler Florence) and winemakers for a decadent weekend of feasting, toasting, and learning. Beautiful cars, exclusive settings, luxurious atmosphere—sure it’s a splurge, but it’s worth it, at least once. Another premier event is September’s Monterey Jazz Festival, a 3-day party of sound. The world’s best jazz performers (think Herbie Hancock and Booker T. Jones) take part, bee-bopping, boogying, swinging, and syncopating on eight local stages.
Other events round out the calendar. Two premier fall festivals are the Carmel Mission Fiesta, celebrating the region’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, and Taste of Carmel, with local restaurants and food purveyors serving their culinary creations at a series of events, including a swanky soiree at the Carmel Mission.
Need something to do? Oakland’s event calendar is packed with a wide array of ways to learn and experience the character of this dynamic city, first hand. In summer, take part in Art + Soul Oakland, with live music and dance parties, barbecue face-offs, poetry slams, and an eclectic, multicultural artisan marketplace.
September’s Eat Real Fest feels like a state fair in the streets—an urban celebration that aims to help people understand where their food comes from, and who grew, raised, or made it. It’s all about delicious, regionally sourced, sustainably grown foods, and you’ll find plenty of ways to eat and learn about the ultra-fresh food showcased here.
Oakland also offers cultural events throughout the year, including performances by the Oakland Ballet and Oakland East Bay Symphony, at the Paramount Theatre, an Art Deco masterpiece in downtown Oakland (guided tours, the first and third Saturdays of the month, are well worth it).
LEGOLAND California keeps things lively on special holidays. For Halloween, the goal is to entertain—not frighten—the smaller set. There’s a “Brick-Or-Treat” party every Saturday night (and some Fridays) in October, with special entertainment, costume contests, giant LEGO Halloween models, fireworks, and of course plenty of sweet treats. At Christmastime, the park brings snow—yes, real snow—to Southern California, using it to dress up various sites around the park, including the world’s largest all-LEGO Christmas tree (a cool fact, but how much competition does it have?). Build a snowman using LEGO bricks, sing carols with the Jingle Jammers, and stock up on LEGO brick gifts too. On special nights in December, add holiday fireworks and light shows to the mix.
Southern California is better known for beach weather in December than its white Christmases. But Disneyland Resort turns into a winter wonderland during the annual Season to Sparkle. Classic attractions take on a whole different feeling, including Sleeping Beauty Castle, where snow caps its tower and 80,000 lights sparkle like icicles. It’s A Small World features a spectacular light show and a holiday song medley, and parade characters don plenty of red and white.
The resort gets tricked up for Halloween, too, as Main Street, U.S.A. is transformed into a Pumpkin Festival with scores of hand-carved Jack O’ Lanterns. Prepare to get spooked at the Haunted Mansion, draped in black for the ghostly-ghastly holiday. Frontierland has a cultural spin, displaying traditional skeletons to commemorate Mexico’s annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). After dark, let the little ones come in costume (you can too) to join special dance parties and photo ops with classic Disney villains, and of course enjoy treats, during Mickey’s Halloween Party (offered on select evenings in September and October).