California is one of the most exciting holiday destinations in the world – from beaches to mountains, desert and national parks, it literally has it all. Located roughly 12 hours from pretty much everywhere in Europe, it is the classical road trip destination. And what does that mean? That you won’t to be going to just one place.
On the luxury front, it more than delivers. From incredibly understated to more sophisticated and glamorous accommodations, some of the best dining in the USA, you will be able to plan an unforgettable California roadtrip.
Things to Do in California
It would be unfair to come up with a single list of ‘things to do in California’ – what I love about is how little or not you can do.
Wine tasting? Check. Gorgeous beaches? Check. The desert? Check. Busy cities? Check. Relaxed beach towns? Check. But maybe you fancy some skiing? Or visit some of the most iconic US national parks? California can deliver there too.
If this feels too active, California also goes hand in hand with wellness – from all types of yoga and pilates, to the latest shade of green juice (‘That is ‘So LA’), you will be able to find more than just yourself in the Golden State.
Outstanding shopping (and that is not just Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills) also counts as an activity in California. And anything else you’d like.
Below are some ideas of the best things to do in California.
Places to Visit in California
Where would you like to go? You have heard of at least 10 places in California but it may not be so easy to decide on the perfect places for your next California road trip.
My perfect California roadtrip has 3 stops – and each for a minimum of 3 days. It may not be for everyone – but as a rule of thumb, I recommend visiting less places and stay for longer, so you really get a feel of each place. Many travellers make the mistake (myself included on my very first trip almost 20 years ago) of wanting to tick off so many places, and end up almost needing a holiday after returning home.
You can now fly into one airport and return from another – making California the perfect fly and drive destination.
Places to Stay in California
California offers some of the best hotel and ‘vacation rentals’ (villas for us Europeans). I cover most of the places I have stayed in my ‘destination articles’, but have done individual reviews for some of them.
Luxury hotels in California can get pretty pricey – you are paying for the real estate and of course, the experience and most places do get booked up way in advance. Put it this way, there are more than 70 people interested in staying at Malibu Beach Inn in a weekend in August. The key here is to book early and keep an eye on rates.
When to Visit California
We tend to visit in the Summer, but have now visited California pretty much all year round. We skied in Lake Tahoe in January, enjoyed delightful sunshine in Palm Springs in the Spring, drove down Highway 1 in the Summer and loved Dana Point in Autumn.
As a rule of thumb, Northern California is not very dissimilar to the UK, in the sense that Winters are colder (and even in the summer), it may rain and you will need a coat! Southern California, on the other hand, is milder – and you can expect to go to the beach maybe from April until November. Palm Springs, on the other hand, starts to get warm (in the 30c) in February – March, will get to high 40s during the Summer and temperatures will start cooling off in November, when their ‘high season’ officially begins.
What to Eat in California?
One of the reasons why we keep returning to California is the food. You won’t find another US state with as many incredibly food conscious residents as this part of the world – and it is home to many of the current dietary movements.
Being quite balanced myself, one thing I love is how fresh the ingredients are – and farm to table is really a big thing in California. They are creative with their salads, fish and meat and very proud of their proximity with Mexico which means that Californian Mexican food really is extraordinary. More and more you will see grilled fish, incredible seafood (local and from both US coasts) and obviously you will find a very good local wine to go with your meal.
I am one of the 10 people in the world not keen on avocados (my husband gets my share, don’t worry) – so everyone else will be in heaven.
How to Get Around in California?
This is where you have to get clever and plan your trip extensively before you leave. Are you starting at the North and ending in the South? Or vice versa? How many stops are you making? Can you avoid any back and forth?
We usually fly in and out of different airports (British Airways serves San Francisco and San Jose in the North and Los Angeles and San Diego in the South. We also sometimes use Las Vegas or Phoenix which are under 4 hours drive of Palm Springs, for example).
You need a rental car to get around – otherwise it will not the a roadtrip!
We use either Avis or Hertz (I would highly recommend you get Preferred status with Avis or Gold with Hertz) so your rental experience is much smoother (and you don’t get on any lines when you arrive).
Top tip (which works 50% of the time): when you return your car, and if you have a lot of luggage, ask to be driven back to the terminal. They may charge you $25 (or not), and it saves those dreadful car rental shuttles…
Also, if your credit card doesn’t cover it, make sure you have Excess Insurance which will cost you £50 a year for multiple rentals and is the best money you will ever spend.
Use N744400 as an AWD with Avis if you are a BA Gold Card Holder and with 211762 CPD with Hertz if you have an Amex Platinum.
You can obviously fly across the state – there are many local options but we have never really done it. I have heard that there is a train service between San Diego and San Luis Obispo (but have not tried it).
In the evenings, we tend to Uber or Lyft (or whatever).
What Documents Do I Need to Enter California?
In order to visit the USA, as a British or European citizen, you will need to have an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) which is an online process organised by the US Government. It is pretty straightforward to get, costs $14 and lasts for 24 months (2 years).
Do not use any other websites or services rather than the Official ESTA website – no one can represent you and the questions take 4 minutes to respond. Also, the system sends you a notification at 23 months to get you know it is expiring.
Current regulations require you to apply for your ESTA at least 72 hours before departure. If you have a valid one, there is no need to update your existing one (as you will be providing the additional passenger information – API – directly to your airline when you check in).