Whether you dream of carving a wave for the first time, relaxing at a wine country estate, taking a spin on an iconic theme park ride or walking through soaring redwoods, you will find your perfect getaway in California. What you will find here are ways to make that dream holiday happen without a hitch.
The tips and information here help you know the ins and outs of travel in the Golden State, with tips on best times to travel, transportation, accommodation and camping, even good-sense guides for bicycle fans. Details here can help plan your trip and tell you where to turn for more useful information and insider tips once you get here. Happy planning.
Two October 2019 fires — the Kincade Fire in northeastern Sonoma County and the Saddle Ridge Fire in Los Angeles County — have all been contained. There were no fatalities associated with either fire and the affected acreage of these two incidents amounts to less than 0.08% of California’s total area.
It is worth noting that California is a massive state—roughly 900 miles long and 350 miles wide. For a better sense of the distances separating many California communities, please review California Geography Essentials, which also lists drive times between key destinations.
If you are planning a trip to California and want real-time perspective on its destinations, visit Here Is What California Looks Like Right Now, a continually updated blog post showcasing traveler photography.
For any visitors who remained concerned about their California travel plans, several resources can provide real-time updates: In addition to the CalFire website, you can access livecams and air-quality information at WestCoastTravelFacts.org.
California attracts more than 250 million tourists each year, many of whom are eager to swim, ski, hike and of course, sample local wines. Others map out memorable road trips that lead them from ocean breezes in the morning to snowy trails by nightfall. 'California is such a varied state, with many different climates,' says Los Angeles stylist Morgan Simonds of Better Off Dressed, 'so it’s important to pack one key item to address each: everything from a fleece to a bikini, walking shoes to high heels.'
Whether you’re visiting from Florida or France, you’ll want to be strategic about what you bring with you. 'As a New Yorker who visits California four times a year, I am always struck by how unexpectedly cold I get,' says Lori Bergamotto, Style Director for Good Housekeeping. 'I learned quickly that layering is the only solution if you desire comfort at any temperature. Denim jackets, lightweight cardigans, capes, ponchos, even a swingy trenchcoat can all be dressed up or dressed down and will prepare you for whatever the weather may be.'
Of course, no one wants to traverse the state weighed down by gigantic suitcases. The trick is to pack smart, whether you’re visiting a big city or tasting Pinots, and to wear more than one layer when you travel. Before you pack your bags, review our recommendations below.
Channel California cool
'You often hear that California style is laid-back,’ says Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen of Sunkissed Steph, 'and that's because it’s true! Whether you're down the coast in LA, the land of denim shorts, or in the Bay Area, where hoodies reign supreme, the style here is definitely on the casual and comfortable side.' What's more, Californian style is highly individual. 'You can definitely wear a blazer and jeans here,' says Simonds, 'but we would pair it with a rocker t-shirt and a cool pair of trainers to give the look more of an edge.
Pick versatile pieces
'Stick with neutral colours (a white t-shirt, or a shirt) if you need to look polished, along with dark jeans, or black or navy trousers, etc.,' says Bergamotto. 'You can get so much more mileage out of simple styles. That said, know your agenda,' she advises. 'Let your itinerary determine if you go more practical and polished, or more bohemian and beachy.'
If you're setting sail in San Diego, you’ll want a scarf for when the wind picks up. When visiting a vineyard in Napa Valley or Santa Ynez Valley, definitely pack a pair of dark-coloured flats that can absorb spills and grass stains. Headed to the desert? Pack strappy tops and plenty of sun cream. In San Francisco, where rain is more frequent, an umbrella is a good idea. And if you’re going out to nice dinners in LA, take a neutral pair of wedges you can wear again and again.
Bergamotto considers the slip dress 'the traveller's best friend', saying, 'Wear it alone with sandals for a sweltering day; throw a white t-shirt under it or a cropped top over it with a pair of trainers if the temperature is in the low 20s; add a denim jacket to that if the temperature dips into the teens and for cool nights add a cardigan or cape with heeled boots.'
Streamline your accessories
In terms of accessories, don’t forget essentials, like a hat and sunglasses, but try to simplify what you bring on the jewellery front. Basic studs and a stack of bracelets that can be worn day in and day out without standing out too much are ideal. 'For a little sparkle, layer a colourful jewelled necklace with a charm necklace,' suggests Simonds.
You’ll want a versatile handbag that can fit boarding passes, lip balm and more, without putting stress on your shoulders. Both Cuyana and Everlane are San Francisco based brands with beautiful bags that fit the bill.
For something child-friendly, consider a classic coat tote from L.L. Bean, which can handle everything from sand toys to nappies. Bergamotto is also a firm believer in large Ziploc bags because you can see the contents while keeping things separate. 'If there is a leak, whether toothpaste, sunscreen or hand sanitiser, it will be contained,' she explains.
Don't forget your feet
Streamlining your shoes can be tricky, especially if you have a formal event, such as a wedding in your travel plans. If that’s the case, plan to use the same pair of heels at the rehearsal dinner and the ceremony, and then bring one (or two) other adaptable styles that can go from day to night. 'The most transitional shoe in California is a flat lace-up sandal,' says Simonds. 'It can get you from the beach to a fun brunch, to a casual dinner with ease.'
A functional but cool pair of trainers or espadrilles works well while shopping, museum hopping or watching a baseball game. If you’re planning to swim, you’ll want water-resistant flip-flops or sandals; if you’re hiking, trainers or walking boots; and if you’re skiing, wear a warm, closed-toe style while travelling and hire boots when you get to the mountains. Even the most basic packages include skis, poles and boots.
Consider the children
Versatility is just as important when packing for your children. Select items that they can wear more than once, such as shorts, trousers and leggings in colours that work with multiple tops, since tops are harder to keep clean. (Ice-cream stains, anyone?)
In terms of their footwear, try to keep it simple. 'With our children we opt for trainers for both, plus one actual shoe, like bar shoes or flats for our daughter,' says Bergamotto. 'If we know we’ll be spending lots of time at the beach, then we skip the "shoe" and opt for water shoes, which also double nicely as casual stroll-around-town shoes.'
Shop when you arrive
Lastly, if your suitcases are nearly impossible to zip shut, think about what you can buy once you reach your destination and use up before you head home, such as sun cream, snacks and wipes. Also consider what kinds of things you’re likely to buy along the way, such as a sweatshirt or hat, so that you don’t end up with duplicates. Got all that? Alright. Ready, set, pack!
California is a year-round destination, with weather that has something for everyone, from sun worshippers to snow bunnies. The best time to visit really comes down to what you want to see and do. Here is some general information to help you know what to expect statewide.
Weather & Seasons
Much of California has a Mediterranean-like climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. On the coast, the average daily high hovers around 21°C and up, but can occasionally spike to 27°C or more on the hottest summer days; freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter. The state’s legendary fog often hugs the coast from Monterey north, usually during the summer months; it frequently burns off by midday before rolling in again at dusk. Further inland, summers are hot and dry, winters cool and wet, with occasional brilliant blue days and temperatures cold enough to freeze puddles on the ground, but not much more than that. At higher altitudes, the weather reflects more of a four-season cycle, with beautiful summers, striking autumn colour, and cold, snowy winters followed by snow melt springs (waterfall season!).
As you browse this site, check out the average temperature by season for the regions and destinations you are considering.
Timing Your Visit
Most visitors head to California during the peak summer months (June through August); that is when you can expect the biggest crowds at top attractions, and high-season rates at hotels and resorts. But even in the middle of summer it is possible to hop off the beaten path and have forests, fields, and even beaches almost to yourself.
If you love the high country, you might need to wait until summer to access the highest roads and paths through the Sierra Nevada, as well routes into wilderness areas around Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, the state’s tallest volcanoes.
Spring (typically March through early May) is one of California’s most beautiful times of year. Although it can still be cold at higher elevations, temperatures are comfortable and fresh throughout much of the state. Hillsides are blanketed with lush green grass and wild flowers. California’s deserts, awash with poppies, paintbrush, and other desert blooms, are much more pleasant during the spring than during the scorching heat of summer. During these months, you’ll also encounter shorter queues and better deals: many of the state’s top tourist attractions are still operating at a slower pace, and hotels often charge low-season rates until June.
Autumn (September through November) brings mild weather and, in some parts of the state, spectacular foliage (especially the High Sierra). This is a great time to visit California’s beautiful wine regions as it is grape harvest time, known as 'the crush' (generally August to October). The San Francisco and North Coast regions, often shrouded in fog during summer, typically see some of their sunniest days during the 'Indian summer' (September and October).
If you plan to ski, snow usually coats the mountains November to March, with some resorts staying open into April or beyond. (If Mother Nature is fickle, snow-making equipment often supplements what falls with amazingly good man-made snow.) Look for downhill runs for skiers and boarders, terrain parks, cross-country and snowshoe trails, and ice-skating rinks.
Each of the California Welcome Centers scattered throughout the state are staffed with personal travel concierges. These knowledgeable experts are ready to provide information that will enhance and enrich your visit including suggestions on where to eat, what to see and where to stay. Welcome Centers also offer free maps and brochures on local attractions and things to see and do.
Anderson (Shasta Cascade)
Auburn (Gold Country)
El Dorado Hills (Gold Country)
San Francisco (San Francisco Bay Area)
Santa Rosa (San Francisco Bay Area)
Truckee (High Sierra)
Mammoth Lakes (High Sierra)
Merced (Central Valley)
Oxnard (Central Coast)
Pismo Beach (Central Coast)
Salinas (Central Coast)
Buena Park (Orange County)
Oceanside (San Diego County)
Ontario (Inland Empire)
Yucca Valley (Deserts)
California is big. Nearly 800 miles from the Oregon border to the north all the way to the Mexican border just south of San Diego, and an average of roughly 200 miles wide. Fortunately, California also has a lot of airports, so flying is relatively easy, and a great way to get around the state, especially if your time is limited. Easy airport access also makes fly/drive holidays an attractive option.
We've highlighted 13 of the state’s airports, 10 of which have flights that travel nonstop to international locations. Some rank as destinations in themselves with museum-quality artwork installations. see what’s going on at the LAX Art Program, the Arts Program at John Wayne International Airport in Orange County, and the Public Art Program at San Francisco International Airport. Many also feature outstanding shopping, fine dining, and even spoil-yourself spas (because getting a massage really is better than sitting in a plastic chair while you wait for your flight).
If flying into Los Angeles, one should know: LAX is the biggest and most well-known airport in the area, but depending on where you plan to be spending time in the city, it may not be the best choice. Burbank, Long Beach, John Wayne, and Ontario international airports also serve the region.
Whether you dream of a luxury suite overlooking the ocean, a boutique hotel in the heart of a city, a full-service resort or a serene campsite under the stars, California has the perfect place to spend the night. Book a stay at a major chain almost anywhere in the state or consider accommodations as distinctive as California itself: handsome stone-and-timber mountain lodges, restored Gold Rush hotels, snug inns and ultra-exclusive retreats in one-of-a-kind settings. There are also millions of acres of unforgettable parkland where all you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, marshmallows and a few good campfire stories. And, maybe, a reservation.
California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies can offer good suggestions for all types of accommodation, including resorts, hotels and motels.
Hotels & Motels: Hotels and motels are the tried-and-true standard for most holidays, providing a safe, clean and comfortable place to go to sleep at night. They are important here. Remember, California invented the motel back in the 1920s. Top chains are well represented statewide, and are often located in larger metropolitan areas and near tourist attractions and travel routes. Boutique hotels tend to offer a more intimate and luxuriously stylish environment for visitors. In more rural areas, consider independently owned accommodation, some in historic buildings.
Bed & Breakfasts: California has hundreds of B&Bs, many in historic homes or hotels and a growing number at family-run (and family-friendly) farms, ranches and vineyards. B&Bs can give a sense of the region's local character, with helpful innkeepers happy to share insider travel tips. Your stay also includes breakfast—imagine, freshly baked scones, fresh eggs or strawberries from the garden. To reserve a stay at one of nearly 300 B&Bs statewide, visit the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns (CABBI).
Resorts: Certain parts of the state—the Deserts region, coastal communities and mountain resort towns—are renowned for five-star retreats, with many championship golf courses and tennis complexes, spectacular swimming pools, destination restaurants and elegant spas (often open to the public). California’s celebrated wine regions also have ultra-luxury retreats, with romantic settings, unparalleled farm-to-table cuisine and, of course, incredible wine lists. Many resorts also offer special activities for children, like movie-and-popcorn nights, so parents can enjoy time alone while their children have experienced childcare. Weddings and reunions can book private event spaces and exclusive catering services. For top resorts statewide, check California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
RVs: You can also rent a house on wheels. RVs are welcome at public and private campgrounds statewide. Below are some resources to try; also check the California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
Camping: In California, camping is everything it should be—pitch your tent under the stars at campgrounds scented with pine trees, next to alpine lakes and desert oases or on a spectacular stretch of coastline. If “roughing it” isn't your style, try “glamping” or glamorous camping, in outdoor settings with fully equipped tents or rustic cabins or even Mongolian-style yurts.
Or, consider renting a ready-to-roll RV; check individual campsites in advance for any RV restrictions.
You can also backpack deep into California's expansive wilderness areas—just be sure you have a permit before you head out (check individual locations for permit requirements).
Many state and national parks permit camping, although some popular locations such as Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon tend to fill up months in advance, so reserve as early as possible. Federal lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, also have thousands of campsites, which are often without crowds, even during the summer months. There are also many outstanding private campgrounds statewide.
California is made for road trips. An easy-to-navigate network of more than 50,000 miles (80,467 kilometres) of good-quality highways and motorways links just about every corner of the state, with secondary routes leading to even more under-the-radar finds. Some of these roads are famous—Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast, legendary Route 66 and Avenue of the Giants (Highway 101 winding through towering redwoods). Some are workhorses—most notably Interstates 5 and 80—getting drivers (and truckers) up and across the state as quickly as possible. But even these heavy-lifters can lead you to surprising destinations.
No matter where you drive, remember the basic rules of the road. Below is a rundown of the laws everyone should know before getting behind the wheel in California, along with a few resources to get you the travel information you need.
Mandatory personal safety measures
California law states that everyone in a vehicle must wear a seat belt, and motorcyclists must wear a helmet.
Speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multi-lane motorways is 65 mph, although in some areas it is 70 mph. On single-carriageway roads, the limit is generally 55 mph. The speed limit on city streets is usually 35 mph, although in residential areas and near schools the limit is generally 25 mph.
Speed limit enforcement
In many areas of California, speed limits are enforced by aircraft, meaning excessive speeds are detected from the air by an aircraft you can’t see, then radioed in to a police car which will pull you over. There are also speed-detecting roadside cameras. The best policy is to stay within the speed limit.
It is against the law in California to write, send or read text-based messages while driving, and drivers must use a hands-free device when speaking on a mobile phone.
Along motorways with heavy traffic, carpool lanes (also called 'diamond lanes' for the diamond-shaped pattern painted on the lane’s surfaces) are identified by black-and-white signs that include details on times and days of enforcement (usually during peak rush hour periods on weekdays). To drive in most carpool lanes, you must have at least two people (including the driver) in the car (some lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area have a three-person minimum). Tempted to use the lane when you don’t have the required number of people? Don’t - fines are staggeringly high, close to $400 (£300) in some areas. In the Los Angeles area, carpool lanes may have specific entry and exit zones; adhere to these or you could get a hefty fine for that as well.
Extreme weather can result in cars and trucks being required to use chains and/or snow tyres. At times, it may even cause mountain routes to be closed. Check restrictions and closures before you leave.
Report an accident, crime or an unsafe driver by calling 911 from any phone.
Get ready to roll. With its mild climate, outstanding highway system, and non-stop gorgeous scenery, California stands out as the perfect place for a road trip. And hiring a car here is about as easy as it gets. Whether your trip itinerary is a statewide tour of California’s greatest hits, a whole family visit to iconic theme parks or an off-the-beaten-track adventure, there’s a vehicle to match your mood and style—snazzy convertibles, family-friendly people carriers, rugged 4x4s and pick-up trucks that can handle all types of conditions (including snow), even camper vans and RVs. All with good breakdown assistance and optional insurance policies.
Car hire is available throughout the state; most major companies have offices at the larger airports and in convenient city locations. To hire a car in California, you must be at least 25 years old (in most cases) and have a valid driver's licence and credit card (used as a security deposit). Non-US citizens must have passports. Rates may vary, with factors including location, car size and style, accessories (a child seat or in-car GPS, for example, may be extra) and the day of the week that you hire it. Picking up and dropping off a vehicle at different locations can also increase rates. For the best deal, try booking the car when you book your flights.
We've compiled a list of reputable companies with offices statewide. Check charges in advance. There are lots of options including insurance coverage and extras, so be sure you get what you need and know what you are paying for before you drive away. Companies may also offer a pre-paid fuel plan with discounted prices, worth considering if you know you’re likely to use up at least one full tank of fuel.
If you’ve never driven in the state, you may want to read through this brief overview of statewide laws and rules of the road before getting behind the wheel. To find out about any road closures, travel alerts or updates on conditions, visit Caltrans.
Another fun way to explore California is to travel by train. It is a great way to enjoy the scenery instead of focusing on the road ahead. Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains follow ultra-scenic routes up and down the coast. The Capitol Corridor provides an easy east-west route across Northern California, while the San Joaquin line slices through the broad and sunny Central Valley with connections to Yosemite National Park and other destinations. Along the way, there are options to link to Amtrak Thruway buses, which serve more than 90 destinations statewide. (Plus, you can disembark and hire a car at major stops for additional exploring.) Depending on the route, you may be able to book a space in a special sleeping carriage, with access to an exclusive dining car.
Local & Scenic Railways
Though Amtrak is the largest train service in the state, it is not the only one. In Northern California, Caltrain has regular service between San Francisco and San Jose. In Southern California, Metrolink offers service on seven regional lines that connect L.A., Ventura County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. Trains dedicated to certain themes and in specific locales, such as the Napa Valley Wine Train, also provide a unique way to see some of California’s première destinations.
For an easy and often fun way to get around California’s larger cities and communities, do what an increasing number of locals do and hitch a ride on a bus, subway, ferry or light rail system. Using public transportation can be an efficient, affordable, safe and eco-friendly option, particularly in areas where roads, parking and urban traffic can be confusing and frustrating. Some transport systems let you buy multi-day passes. Check ticket options online before you arrive to get the best deals. Two companies, CityPass and Go, also offer deals on local transportation options in San Francisco and Southern California.
You can also uses buses to take longer trips around the state. Greyhound is the nation’s primary long-distance bus company, offering routes linking big cities and rural destinations state-wide, and heading out of state too.
Here are links to California’s major regional transport organisations. Most offer a variety of travel options, such as buses, subways and light rail, and in some cases, ferries. For more local information on transport options in Northern California, visit 511.org.
1. Learn the basic road laws. Ride in the direction of traffic and use the bicycle lanes when available. California law says you must ride as close to the right side as possible, unless the road is too narrow to be shared—in which case you are allowed to “take the lane”. (Not all motorists understand this, though, so always take precaution in this situation). The California Bicycle Coalition outlines all the bike laws to know before you ride.
2. Wear this, not that. Cyclists under 18 must wear a helmet, but realistically it’s a good idea for everyone. And if you need to hear your playlist while you ride, keep it to one ear—a law passed in 2016 does not allow for headphones in both ears.
3. Nervous on the road? Find protected trails. Road riding isn’t for everyone, and California has miles upon miles of protected road. Go to traillink.com and type in a specific city and it will show you the distance, surface type, and mileage of routes in the area. Or start by reading Bicycling magazine’s list of the best bike paths in California.
4. Research your route. Check out bike mobile app Strava’s city guides for routes in Bakersfield, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and more—coffee shops and photo ops included. Also, the California Bike Coalition has a solid list of free online maps for routes from Humboldt County down to San Diego. You can also get turn-by-turn directions using Google maps: Dark green lines denote protected bike trails (read: no cars), light green lines show dedicated bike lanes, and dashed green lines indicate bicycle-friendly roads.
5. Consider a cycling event. Start by choosing an enticing ride and let that inspire your trip planning. On any given weekend, you’ll find dozens of cycling events throughout California. Want to tackle a century (100 miles) in wine country? Attend a mountain biking clinic? Check the event calendars on SoCalCycling.com, Raceplace.com, Active.com, or TourOfCalifornia.bike for ideas.
6. Try a cycling tour. An organized bike tour can be a simplified, luxurious way to see new parts of California. Dozens of companies—including Backroads, Trek Travel, Bicycle Adventures, DuVine, and many more—offer trips everywhere from Joshua Tree to wine country to the northern coast, and they often include gourmet local cuisine and overnight stays at high-end resorts.
7. Find a group. Local cycling clubs often have group rides for all levels, either through a local shop or otherwise. USA Cycling has a fairly comprehensive list of clubs, but sometimes just walking into the local bike shop and asking is the easiest way to get info.
8. Watch AMGEN Tour of California in person. If there’s one way to get inspired, watching a world-class bike event is it. With Tour de France-level riders cycling throughout California every May, the AMGEN Tour of California presents a rare opportunity to see a pro peloton up close.