Once that infamous California sunshine starts to dim for the night, you’ll find plenty of ways to keep the heat cranked up high. Theme parks go neon-bright, with open-late rides and light-the-night spectacles. Adjacent shopping and dining areas, most notably Downtown Disney and Universal CityWalk Hollywood, go into night mode with lots of family options, including entertainment. But grownup options have a sizzle all their own. Visit L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip to dance in legendary clubs—and be sure to scan the crowd for celebs and stars. Brewpubs, theater, comedy, and classic suddenly chic dive bars abound in downtown L.A., and in San Diego and San Francisco’s hippest neighborhoods, as well as in other urban cores, like Oakland, Fresno, and Palm Springs.
There may be no greater concentration of the young, hip, and beautiful than in the bars and clubs of this infamous stretch of roadway. The 1.6-mile strip of Sunset Boulevard is situated in the lively city of West Hollywood and upholds its reputation as a nightlife hotspot.
From the heights of swank hotel rooftops like the Mondrian’s SkyBar and the Tower Bar at Sunset Tower Hotel, to the glam-grunge of rock clubs like The Viper Room and Whisky a Go Go, there’s a setting to suit your style and mood. In addition to clubs with music ranging from indie singer/songwriters to major headliners, there are iconic comedy clubs such as The Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store. Or head to The Roxy—where Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered in 1974—for live music in an intimate, 500-capacity venue.
Grab a fireside cocktail at The Den or pair a hand-selected Irish whiskey with sliders at Rock and Reilly’s Irish Pub before or after a show. Hotels aren’t just for sleeping—popular venues like Bar Marmont (at Chateau Marmont) and the super-secret Mmhmm cocktail bar at The Standard are sleek spots to see and be seen.
The Sunset Strip isn’t just rock and roll. Spend the afternoon shopping at Sunset Plaza, which contains more than 20 stores, like Armani Exchange and H&M. Book lovers, don’t miss the iconic Book Soup, L.A.’s largest independent book store, with floor-to-ceiling shelves that contain more than 60,000 titles, many of which are limited edition. The store hosts frequent author readings, so check its calendar to meet your favorite novelist or hear from up-and-comers.
Pull up a chair and order a pint—you’re in one of America’s best microbrewery scenes, and well-established breweries like Stone and Karl Strauss have multiple venues to taste their beers, and hang out after dark, with inviting outdoor lounge spaces that take advantage of San Diego’s great weather. Other local favorites for craft brews and fun atmosphere include Pizza Port’s several locations as well as Coronado Brewing Company, Monkey Paw, and the Poor House. In the city’s nighttime magnet Gaslamp Quarter, check out retro-hip bars like Gaslamp Speakeasy, as well as Prohibition (complete with secret door and live music). Rocking out in San Diego’s Casbah or Belly Up Tavern venues is a must; both have great lineups of local and national acts. If folk music is more your scene, 24-hour Lestat’s Coffee House has live folk music nightly, as well as comedy on Tuesday nights. Want a drink near the beach? The Beachcomber, the Kraken, and Duck Dive are three top spots along the waterfront.
Four of L.A.’s hippest neighborhoods—Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Downtown, and Hollywood—are clustered together in central Los Angeles. Hang out in any of these areas to experience the hippest nightclubs and bars. Start off in Downtown L.A. area with a show or movie at the Downtown Independent, or catch a classical performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Frank Gehry’s stunning post-modern Walt Disney Concert Hall. Post-show, head to Villains Tavern for some classy craft cocktails made by the resident mixologist, or sample fine whiskies at Seven Grand. The Silver Lake area is hipster central; play pinball at Pins and Needles, sway to indie rock at The Echo or The Satellite, or just relax with the locals at popular Bigfoot Lodge or Red Lion Tavern.
Just up the road from Silver Lake lies Los Feliz, a laid-back, walkable neighborhood featuring some of L.A.’s greatest nightlife options. (It’s also home turf for a heavy dose of celebrities, including Mad Men’s John Hamm and sultry Eva Mendes.) Catch the classic lounge act of Marty & Elayne at The Dresden, sip mai tais at Tiki Ti bar, or enjoy cocktails and burlesque at Harvard and Stone. Finish up in Hollywood with improv by the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, catch a live, in-store performance by a national act at Amoeba Records, or enjoy an intimate singer-songwriter set at the tucked-away-in-a-back-alley feel of Hotel Cafe.
Built up in the 1930s as a suburb accessible by Fresno’s (since retired) streetcars, the luminous Tower District is the city’s leading nightlife destination. The district is named for the neon-lit Tower Theatre, a 1939 Art Deco masterpiece and national historic landmark designed by S. Charles Lee, the architect of many of Hollywood’s most famous theaters. It’s now the 761-seat Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts, which hosts a busy lineup of local and national rock, jazz, and comedy concerts, as well as film screenings. When you come for a show, give yourself time to take in such architectural details as the lobby’s bas-relief etched-glass panel depicting hunters and blacklight-illuminated circular murals painted with fluorescent pigments.
For more live theater, book a table at nearby Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, home to the Good Company Players, a troupe that also stages productions a block away at the 2nd Space Theatre. Music fans should check the schedule at Strummer’s, a concert hall, restaurant, and club named for Joe Strummer, The Clash’s late frontman.
With all of the live performances, restaurants, art galleries, vintage clothing shops, and record stores, this walkable district positively buzzes after dark. Less than a block from the Tower Theatre, dine at eclectic Veni Vidi Vici, a popular restaurant with a menu that incorporates Asian and Italian influences. Sequoia Brewing Company makes a great place to lounge pre- or postshow; try its China Peak Pilsner or a General Sherman IPA. And for more craft beer (plus classic arcade games!), head over to the bicycle-themed Spokeasy Public House.
Several times a year, special events turn the entire Tower District into a giant party. These include the celebrated Rogue Festival (the city’s annual fringe festival), the Fresno Film Festival, and an annual Mardi Gras parade.
In San Francisco, there are few quiet nights, and though bars and clubs may call it quits at 2 a.m., the city makes sure you stay busy until quitting time. For classy entertainment, the city boasts outstanding symphony, classic and contemporary ballet, and opera companies. There’s also a thriving theater community, most notably the American Conservatory Theater, which presents classic and new works at The Geary Theatre, near Union Square. Broadway road shows always stop in San Francisco; check the schedule for SHN, which presents most works at the impressive Orpheum Theatre, on Market Street. City Arts & Lectures offers intriguing conversations with celebrities, stars, and global movers-and-shakers. Attend an open-to-the-public gallery show, or a special museum night. For rowdier fun, there are rock concerts at the legendary Fillmore, indie bands at Bottom of the Hill, and open mic nights at Hotel Utah Saloon. Here, nightlife wouldn’t be complete without a bit of hopping around the city’s bevy of bars, from upscale establishments with craft cocktails (like Bourbon & Branch and The Alembic) to longstanding neighborhood watering holes (The 500 Club) where you can go elbow to elbow with the locals.
For a concentrated dose of nightlife, dining, and oh-I-need-that shopping, be sure to visit the bustling, pedestrian-only Universal CityWalk complex. Actually, you can’t really miss it—walking routes from Universal Studios Hollywood’s main parking structure take you right through CityWalk. Plus, there’s no admission, so you can visit CityWalk even if you don’t have tickets to the theme park. Don’t miss the dancing water fountain display at its center, designed by the same folks who created the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. And keep an eye out for the camera crews and hosts of the TV show Extra, who regularly film segments around the theme park and CityWalk.
Not surprisingly, movies are well represented here: Grab one of the plush recliners seats at Universal Cinema, a 18-screen multiplex, plus an IMAX theatre projecting films seven stories high. And for thrills of a different kind, experience the sensation of freefalling while skydiving in a vertical wind tunnel at iFLY Hollywood. Free outdoor concerts feature lights shows and plenty of room for dancing—though you might have find someone to hold all the shopping bags you’ll be toting, what with stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Fossil, and Billabong lining the plazas and walkways.
You won’t go hungry either. Choose from L.A. icons, such as the outposts of Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs, Wolfgang Puck Bistro, and LudoBird (the Provencal fried chicken created by celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre), or have a craft beer at San Diego-born Karl Strauss Brewing Company. CityWalk is also home to some notable transplants from outside the Golden State, such as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Dongpo Kitchen (an offshoot of China’s popular Meizhou Dongpo), and the first California branch of Portland’s VooDoo Doughnut.
The warehouse-filled back streets of the East Bay are attracting urban wine warriors who like blending and bottling in the middle of city buzz. More than 20 wineries dot Oakland and the nearby cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, and Alameda; visit them on your own, or consider taking an entertaining guided tour by bike with East Bay Winery Bike Tours.
Oakland and surrounding cities are also enjoying a culinary renaissance as celebrated chefs open new establishments in up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Uptown, Jack London Square, Grand Avenue, and Glenview. Try sophisticated tapas at always-packed Bocanova, contemporary Japanese at Ozumo, or charcuterie and craft cocktails at Adesso. Chicken and waffle fans flock to West Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, where chef Tanya Holland puts her creative twist on classic soul food dishes.
Oakland is becoming a hotbed of artisanal food makers too, with getting-to-be-household names like Numi Teas, Blue Bottle Coffee and Linden Street Brewers making the region home base for operations. Learn more about this new wave on a guided walking tour with Savor Oakland, focusing on food, culture, and history. Wind down the evening and recline in Kasbah-like splendour at Layover.
Palm Springs is the best kind of party town, always evolving and never resting on its laurels. Hip hotels with poolside DJs attract the cool crowd; top spots include the Ace Hotel & Swim Club and the Hard Rock Hotel. Night-time also brings a host of bars serving desert-cool cocktails in outdoor settings: the Sidebar at the Riviera lets you relax on bed-size lounges to watch the stars while you sip. Party music keeps thumping late at Shanghai Reds, Village Pub and Zelda’s Nightclub. For entertainment, see who’s performing at area casinos, which draw headliners ranging from classic crooners (Johnny Mathis) to of-the-moment stars (Robin Thicke). Thursday evenings, a more casual party unravels along Palm Canyon Drive, as locals and visitors enjoy live bands, booths set up by local shops and foods at Villagefest.
Open-air cafes, street musicians, sparkling boutiques, and soaring temples to everything Disney—this tempting pedestrian zone in Anaheim aims to be as must-see as the resort's two theme parks. If you’re hungry when you get here, you won’t be for long: find creative and delicious dishes at born-in-California favorites like La Brea Bakery Café (the outdoor seating under leafy trees is particularly nice). Feel like you’re relaxing on an Italian piazza at Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria. Or bump it up a notch with contemporary Mediterranean cuisine at Catal, created by Los Angeles area chef-restaurateur Joachim Splichal. Save room for a stop at the branch of Sprinkles, the creative cupcake bakery credited with launching the cupcake craze.
There’s also plenty of live entertainment: New Orleans-inspired music is the main course at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen. Load up on gifts at the World of Disney shop, or browse big-name stores such as Fossil or Build-a-Bear workshop. Frozen fans will love Anna & Elsa’s Boutique, where kids ages 3 to 15 can get makeovers (with hair, nails, and tiaras) to look like one of the movie’s heroines, or even a “snow-frosted” hairdo in the spirit of the movie’s happy-go-lucky snowman Olaf (just be sure to book your spot ahead of time).
Insider tip: You don’t have to have a ticket to Disneyland to visit Downtown Disney (admission is free). Plus parking is free for up to five hours with validation from participating locations.