Shopping is an art form in California. Whether you're in search of the perfect cocktail dress or an authentic Mexican piñata, you'll find it here. Want to sample fresh produce? Try our farmers markets. Looking for a handmade ceramic bowl? Check out one of the many artist enclaves dotting the state. Simply looking for a great bargain on shoes? California has some of the largest outlet centres in the country. Or are you looking to indulge in the latest designer wear? Then head to our high-end shopping districts or malls.
You’ll definitely want to leave room in your suitcase for L.A. shopping.
If you’re ready to whip out the platinum card, head to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, home to Chanel, Giorgio Armani, and other mega-designer boutiques. Nearby Robertson Boulevard also has chic boutiques. Just east of Beverly Hills, upscale The Grove, across the street from the popular Original Farmers Market, has a village atmosphere, with a fountain-filled park and leafy outdoor cafes.
For celeb-spotting while you shop, aim for Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Also in town is the popular, pedestrian friendly Third Street Promenade, with big-name chains and a lively feel.
At the south end of the promenade, open-air Santa Monica Place features trendy boutiques and a rooftop dining deck with ocean views. Just south is Venice Beach’s fun and funky Abbot Kinney Boulevard, home to hip clothiers, galleries, and oh-so-cool restaurants and cafes.
Union Square, the elegant space encircled by tall palm trees in roughly the middle of San Francisco, is a bustling gathering place that also serves as a hub for California luxury shopping. Walk the streets around the square to jot down your anything-is-possible wish-list of finds at Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Dior and Bulgari (as well as at other major retailers such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nike). Slip into the sultry Clock Bar, in the Beaux Arts–style Westin St. Francis, to clink martini glasses and compare notes. Anyone longing for a European vibe will feel right at home wandering the narrow, boutique-lined, almost-pedestrian-only Maiden Lane (car-free from 11 am to 6 pm). It’s just off the square, and is home to Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as cafés that set up little tables on the street itself. Just south of the square, on Market Street, you’ll find Westfield San Francisco Centre, the city’s upmarket, indoor shopping centre.
Of course, all that shopping can be exhausting. Union Square makes it easy to recharge: the square has plenty of sunny benches for relaxing. Or order an espresso and a flaky pastry at the fancy Emporio Rulli, with its pleasant outdoor seating under market umbrellas in the square. World-class restaurants are clustered nearby too—book a table at Akiko’s Sushi Restaurant, Bouche or the Michelin-starred Campton Place, three of the best upmarket eateries. If you are on a tighter budget, try Dojima Ann for Japanese comfort food, or have the classic American diner experience at the Pinecrest Diner.
Come on a Sunday to enjoy a champagne brunch in the lavishly luxurious Garden Court of the Palace Hotel (a top spot for local matriachs spoiling their grandchildren), which is just one of many destination-in-themselves hotels in the area. During the Christmas season, Union Square transforms into a wintry, family-filled charmer, with an ice-skating rink and little ones staring up at an enormous Christmas tree—and glittering shop windows all around.
Insider tip: if travelling to Union Square by car, plan your journey with the help of this parking and street map of the area.
In-the-know visitors make sure to come to the Palm Springs area with room in their suitcases. Bargain hunters beeline for the town of Cabazon, home of Desert Hills Premium Outlets and an impressive list of designer brands including Prada, Burberry, and Gucci. Nearby Cabazon Outlets offers more great deals on clothes, shoes, and housewares.
In Palm Desert, the wide, artwork-and-flower trimmed street known as El Paseo has boutiques, galleries, and shops trendy enough to earn in the nickname “The Rodeo Drive of the Desert.” The Gardens on El Paseo retail complex is especially luxurious—a great destination for strolling on warm evenings before having dinner at one of its outdoor cafés—it really doesn’t get much better than this. Creativity also plays a big role in Palm Springs, where the Backstreet Art District features artist-owned galleries and working studios, giving you a chance to chat with artists as well as buy their one-of-a-kind pieces. Browse at shops in the appealing Uptown Design District, a hotbed of vintage and contemporary treasures in Mid-century Modern buildings as retro-chic as the items for sale inside.
Shopping in The O.C. is almost as legendary as surfing. Start at expansive South Coast Plaza, California’s largest luxury shopping complex, with iconic luxury brands such as Hermes, Chanel, and Prada. Newport Beach has more spoil-worthy shopping at Fashion Island, where Italian-style piazzas palm trees, and koi ponds (plus ocean views) feel more like a resort than a shopping mall. Another posh option: Fashion Island, just offshore from Newport Beach; check the website for special appearances by top designers.
For bargain hunters, The Outlets at Orange offers more than 120 value stores, including Nordstrom Rack and a Banana Republic outlet, as well as a host of not-just-shopping attractions, including an indoor Vans SkatePark, movie theatres, and bowling at the light- and music-filled Lucky Strike Lanes.
For a twist on big-box shopping, visit Costa Mesa’s relaxing The LAB Antimall, focusing on appealing independent shops. At The ARTery, see quality handcrafts and artwork displayed in tricked-up shipping containers. At South Coast Collection (SOCO), browse at home decor and culinary stores surrounded by handsome landscaping.
If you like your shopping with a dose of entertainment and amusement-park fun, visit Irvine’s Spectrum Center, where a soaring Ferris wheel, plus a carousel and kiddie train for the little ones, give you a unique way to take a break between boutiques. Late nights are lively here too, with movie theatres, Irvine Improv Comedy Club, and quality restaurants.
The only thing better than scoring the perfect outfit or designer shoes is to get them for a bargain price. That’s why shopping in the Inland Empire can be so sweet—it’s a hot bed of top-quality outlet centres filled with designer and brand name finds.
Biggest of the bunch is Ontario Mills is California’s largest outlet centre. With more than 200 stores, it literally has brand names from A (Abercrombie & Fitch) to Z (Zumiez). Look for great deals in for clothes and shoes for men, women, and children, plus accessories, electronics, sporting goods, and home wares. There’s also a big selection at the Lake Elsinore Outlet Centre, where you’ll find deals at stores for Nike, Gap, Guess, and Armani Exchange.
Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along the swanky El Paseo district in Palm Desert. First, you’ll want to see all the art. A roughly 1.5 kilometre strip and adjacent streets are home to one of the largest concentrations of art galleries anywhere in Southern California. As inviting and engaging as a European salon, these galleries let you get close to art, chat with knowledgeable gallery owners and staff, and even meet the artists during special openings and events.
There’s also the photo-worthy public art installations along El Paseo Drive that make the stroll that much more memorable. The renowned El Paseo Art Walk, happening on the first Friday of every month, November through May, is a great opportunity to attend exhibit openings and artist receptions.
Then you’ll want to get something to eat—dining al fresco is the way it’s often done here. Try oysters on the half-shell at Pacifica Seafood Restaurant, or wood-fired pizza at Sammy’s with nothing but a blue (or starry) sky above. Or perhaps order a juicy steak accompanied by jazz in the more sequestered environs of Sullivan's Steakhouse.
And of course—there’s the shopping. There’s a reason El Paseo reminds people of Rodeo Drive, what with the impeccably appointed boutiques of top designers, including Bottega Veneta and St. John, tempting you to come in brandishing your credit card. Find more shops at the largely open-air (and exquisitely manicured) Gardens on El Paseo complex: Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Trina Turk, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Bahamas, and more.
In Santa Barbara, State Street is synonymous with shopping, and if you don’t want to be tempted, you’d better put on blinders before you walk. If you’re ready to dive in and enjoy, start at State Street’s upper end, with luxury retailers such as Tiffany & Co. at La Cumbre Plaza. Next up, La Arcada; it’s twisting walkways with fountains and flowerpots allow plenty of time to gaze into boutique windows and think, “Oh, I really need that…”
Grab an espresso at local favourite The French Press to keep you going then continue south to the babbling fountains and lush landscaping at Paseo Nuevo shopping centre, home to more than 50 stores. Continue to Victoria Court, with an alluring mix of independent shops and top restaurants. Once you’re ready to call it quits, settle in at Blue Tavern (California cuisine with a Peruvian twist), Olio (perfect wood-fired pizza in a rustic chic setting), or Bouchon (classy to the max).
In Beverly Hills, ritzy Rodeo Drive is a must (even if it's just for window-shopping), with to-die-for boutiques like Prada, YSL, and Versace. In-the-know shoppers also head to nearby Beverly and Canon Drives, with beautiful shops and some of the best celebrity spotting in California. Head for The Grove nearby, a luxurious outdoor shopping entertainment center, where you can eat, shop, then catch a movie or stroll to the adjacent Original Farmers Market—a great spot for food-oriented shopping.
In the LGBT enclave of West Hollywood, discover trendy boutiques like Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, and Stella McCartney, as well as nightclubs and notice-me street-side cafes, all popular with celebrities. Also visit L.A.’s Silver Lake neighbourhood, with appealing shops like Yolk or Hemingway and Pickett). If you’re an adventurous shopper, head for the L.A. Fashion District and Santee Alley, with more than 150 shops and street vendors selling almost everything imaginable—a great place to scour for bargain clothes. L.A.’s Citadel Outlet Mall has deals on big names like Calvin Klein and Michael Kors.
The stately brick buildings in San Francisco’s impressive 1895 Ghirardelli Square, the original site of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory (previously a woollen mill), are now home to a stylish collection of shops and restaurants, plus the luxurious Fairmont Heritage Place hotel. One of the most pleasant places to wander and shop in the city, it also has the distinction of being the first successful adaptive reuse project of its kind in the country.
Wind through passageways and across squares to visit a range of boutiques and gift shops, or relax with bay views from a selection of restaurants such as the Cheese School of San Francisco, a café, cheese shop
and cheese school; The Pub BBQ; McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steaks; and Pico Latin Street Food. Before you go, check out the square’s calendar of upcoming events.
If you have children with you, you probably have one destination in mind more than any other: the original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. The queue can be out the door but don’t worry—it moves fast. Soon you’ll be facing the staggering menu of sundae choices: will it be the family-size 'Earthquake'? (Eight scoops, eight toppings, bananas, whipped cream, almonds, chocolate chips and cherries.) Or perhaps the 'Gold Rush' (vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter). Afterwards, enjoy a round of mini golf at Subpar Miniature Golf, where the holes all feature miniature San Francisco landmarks.
This town’s shopping scene is eclectic, even funky. Downtown Pacific Avenue offers many shops with a local twist, including the venerable O’Neill’s where surfer guys and girls can find a bikini or board shorts, flip-flops, or a wetsuit—the creation and design of the city’s favourite son, the legendary Jack O’Neill (he still lives a beach ball toss from the beach here). The independent Bookshop Santa Cruz is packed with happy locals, especially during frequent author talks, and many other boutiques offer art, clothing, and home furnishings. Antique hounds should head to the Santa Cruz Antique Faire (8 a.m. to 6 p.m. the second Sunday of the month, on Lincoln St. between Pacific and Cedar Streets).
For the city’s most luxurious shopping experience, visit this snazzy outdoor mall, a mix between California’s relaxed stylishness and a swanky European village on market day. This walkable, nook-and-cranny-filled complex has benches for relaxing under leafy oaks, large sculptures by French artists André Dumonnet and Christine Foulché, antique fountains, live musicians, and open-air seating outside quality restaurants. It’s the kind of place where you can easily while away the hours, sitting on a bench perusing your purchases while nibbling fresh croissants from Cocola. If your shopping tastes run more toward Main Street than Paris boutique, there are familiar chains including Orvis and H&M. And, in the ultimate Silicon Valley indulgence, why not custom-design your own luxury all-electric car at Santana Row’s Tesla store.