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 travellers. So come, join the party, California style.
Heading the bill each winter at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee) is the annual Bracebridge Dinners, 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 Majestic Yosemite 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 Majestic Yosemite include the Grand Grape Celebration and Taste of Yosemite; for both events, the hotel’s Great Lounge is transformed into a culinary classroom. The Grand Grape Celebration—a toast to winemakers’ fall harvests with two-day sessions of wine tastings, seminars, and a gala five-course dinner—is held in November and December. At Taste of Yosemite in November, 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 Majestic Yosemite's kitchen. Beneath its 35-foot ceilings are culinary antiques like the original 1927 walk-in refrigerators, which were kept cool with 500-pound 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 SLO. 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 makes things extra-lively for events and holidays throughout the year—whether it’s annual celebrations or special occasions, like a week highlighting a new Star Wars display in Miniland, or perhaps celebrating the enigmatic LEGO Batman. The Carlsbad theme park shows its national pride in July for its patriotic Red, White & Boom celebration, with games, dance contests, and early-evening fireworks for July 4. 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. Come right after Christmas and you can take part in a family-friendly version of New Year’s Eve, with live music and a bedtime-friendly “brick drop” at 6 p.m. On special nights in December, add holiday fireworks and light shows to the mix.
Southern California is known for its sunshine and beaches, even in December. But you can still experience a winter wonderland when 'the happiest place on Earth' transforms into 'the merriest place on Earth' for the season.
Holidays at the Disneyland Resort is a special time, with magic around every corner. In Disneyland Park, there’s an 18-metre-tall Christmas tree in Town Square, complete with 70,000 lights and 2,000 custom-made ornaments. Wander down Main Street, USA with the smell of candy canes and gingerbread hanging in the air and decorations adorning the buildings.
Classic attractions take on a completely different feeling. Sleeping Beauty Castle sparkles with snow-capped towers, countless lights and a giant wreath. It’s a Small World Holiday dazzles with a spectacular light show and a seasonal version of the classic song. The Haunted Mansion gets a seasonal makeover too, courtesy of Jack Skellington and friends, for the Haunted Mansion Holiday. Fan favourites including A Christmas Fantasy Parade and Believe...in Holiday Magic make this time of year extra special.
Over in Disney California Adventure Park, a 15-metre tree sits on Buena Vista Street, and the spirit of the season is in full swing with the Festival of Holidays, featuring delicious foods and entertainment from many diverse cultures. And of course, Santa and his elves turn up at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail for some seasonal fun and games.
There are seasonal treats throughout the resort as well, from themed doughnuts and gingerbread men to decorated toffee apples and the ever-popular candy canes. Only a limited number of candy canes are made, so make sure you queue up at park opening time at the Candy Palace in Disneyland or Trolley Treats in California Adventure for a chance to try this tasty treat. You can find out more by calling the Disneyland Candy Hotline on +1 (714) 781 0112.
Insider tip: while the parks’ Christmas trees are first lit for the year in early-to-mid-November, both Disneyland and California Adventure have tree-lighting ceremonies every day during the season at 5 pm. Carollers roam the parks singing Christmas favourites while the giant trees come to life.