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 anywhere 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 that lively city's reputation as a nightlife hotspot.
From the heights of swanky 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 venues that showcase artists ranging from indie singer/songwriters to major-label 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 on Sunset 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.
Sunset Strip isn’t just rock and roll. Spend the afternoon shopping at Sunset Plaza, which contains more than 20 stores, including Armani Exchange and H&M. Book lovers, don’t miss the iconic Book Soup, LA’s largest independent bookstore, 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 for a chance to meet your favourite novelist or hear from up-and-coming authors.
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 ‘30s as a suburb accessible by Fresno’s (now retired) streetcars, the neon-bright Tower District is now nightlife central in this part of the valley. Dozens of restaurants, bars, theaters, record stores, art galleries, vintage-clothing shops, and cafes attract locals and visitors alike, with sidewalks buzzing after dark. The 761-seat Art Deco-era Tower Theatre; look for an eclectic lineup of local and national rock, jazz, and comedy acts, as well as art film. For more live theater, book a table at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre, or see a performance by Good Company Players, both based in the Tower District. Sequoia Brewing Company, founded in 2000, makes a great place to lounge pre- or post-show; try a China Peak Pilsner or a Sequoia Pale Ale. For more craft beer and arcade games, head over to bicycle-themed Spokeasy Public House. Live music of all kinds—and, for the brave, karaoke—are on tap at Strummer’s, named in honor of the Clash’s late lead singer and guitarist Joe Strummer, and at Fulton 55.
Several times a year, the entire Tower District turns into a party, with special events bringing music and more to assorted venues. These include the celebrated Rogue Festival of the Arts, 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 am, the city makes sure you stay busy until closing time. For those seeking more refined forms of entertainment, San Francisco boasts an outstanding symphony orchestra, classic and contemporary ballet, and numerous opera companies. There’s also a thriving theatre community, most notably the American Conservatory Theater, which presents classic and new works at The Geary Theater, near Union Square. Broadway tours always stop in San Francisco; check the schedule for SHN, which presents most of the 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 Great American Music Hall and the legendary Fillmore; indie bands, R&B and hip-hop at smaller venues like Bottom of the Hill Amnesia Beer & Music Hall,and Slim’s; and open mic nights at Hotel Utah Saloon. The dance club scene thrives at favourites such as DNA Lounge, the Cat Club and Raven Bar. And nightlife wouldn’t be complete without a bit of hopping around the city’s bevy of bars, from upmarket establishments with craft cocktails (like Bourbon & Branch and The Alembic) to longstanding local watering holes (The 500 Club, Zam Zam and Vesuvio) where you'll be elbow to elbow with the locals. San Francisco is also home to some of the most renowned tiki bars in the state; get the full rum-soaked south-seas experience at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, Smuggler’s Cove and Pagan Idol.
Insider tip: the Bay Area is one of the state’s hot spots for craft beer; definitely keep an eye out for local brews on tap.
For a concentrated dose of nightlife, dining and oh-I-want-that shopping, make sure you visit the bustling, pedestrian-only Universal CityWalk complex. Actually, you can’t really miss it—walking routes from Universal Studios Hollywood’s main car park 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 centre, designed by the same people who created the Bellagio's 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, films are well represented here: grab one of the plush recliner seats at Universal Cinema, a 18-screen multiplex, or at the IMAX cinema, which projects films seven storeys high. And for thrills of a different kind, experience the sensation of free-falling while skydiving in a vertical wind tunnel at iFLY Hollywood. Free outdoor concerts feature light shows and plenty of room for dancing—though you might have to find someone to hold all the shopping bags you’ll be carrying with stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Fossil and Billabong lining the squares and avenues.
You won’t go hungry either. Choose from LA icons, such as the branches of Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs, Vivo Italian Kitchen and LudoBird (the Provencale 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 too, 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 cafés, street musicians, sparkling shops and soaring temples to everything Disney—this tempting pedestrian zone in Anaheim is 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 favourites such as 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 take it up a notch with contemporary Mediterranean cuisine at Catal, created by Los Angeles-area chef-restaurateur Joachim Splichal.
For those with a sweet tooth, there’s a branch of upmarket cupcake purveyors Sprinkles—the creative cupcake bakery credited with launching the cupcake craze—that’s not to be missed. And save room for a few scoops of artisanal goodness from Salt & Straw, an innovative family-run ice cream shop that offers hand-made, small-batch seasonal flavours such as Mummy’s Pumpkin Spiked Potion and Sightglass Coffee Cashew Praline.
There’s also plenty of live entertainment, activities and shopping: New Orleans–inspired music is the main course at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen®. Take the family bowling at the rock 'n roll-themed Splitsville Luxury Lanes after dining indoors or al fresco at the on-site restaurant Splitsville Dining Room. And stock up on gifts at the World of Disney® shop, or browse big-name stores such as The LEGO® Store or Sephora. Girly Disney fans will appreciate the vintage-inspired clothes and accessories at The Disney Dress Shop, and if your home is lacking some magic, call in at the Disney Home store to find the perfect themed kitchenware and decor.
Star Wars fans will love Star Wars™: Secrets of the Empire by ILMxLAB and The Void, a total-immersion virtual reality experience with state-of-the-art 3-D imagery and sound. Teams of four, in VR disguise, can engage with their favourite Star Wars characters, as well as with one another.
Insider tip: you don’t have to have a ticket to Disneyland to visit Downtown Disney (admission is free). Plus there's no need to worry about parking—it’s free for up to five hours with validation from participating locations.