California is one of my favourite places in the world. It is a big statement to make, but for the last 20 years, I choose to visit the Golden State at least once a year and my love for it is well documented on this blog.
California is the third-largest state in the United States and roughly the same size as France. Most people wouldn’t dream of ‘doing France’ over two weeks, and one of the things I am attempting to do (with my repeat visits) is to showcase that a visit to California isn’t a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip – there is no need to pack in 5 places over 10 days and not see that much.
Needless to stay, California is a synonym of ‘road trip’ and I think it lends itself incredibly well to it – namely as you can usually fly in and out from different airports (British Airways, for example, flies into San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego, but I have also found that Phoenix in Arizona can be handy if you are starting your trip in Palm Springs, for example).
Below you will find almost a menu of some of the best places to visit in California – based on my previous trips and linking into, where possible, to in-depth articles which I have written and will hopefully help you plan your own California road trip.
Sonoma has a special place in my heart – it could be because it is where Williams Sonoma was founded (one of my favourite USA stores) but also because it has some lovely Portuguese restaurants (and a community which I had no idea).
Much less commercialised than its neighbour, it does understated luxury like very few places do. And the Pinot Noirs really are wonderful.
Probably one of the places with the best marketing in the world – Napa Valley put California wines on the world map and whenever I am in the USA, I keep my wine miles to a minimum and only choose wines from here or nearby Sonoma Country.
We enjoyed our day trip on the Wine Train and look forward to visiting again in the near future (as last time we went it was the day after an earthquake happened and we had a rather different experience).
Lake Tahoe, California
We have only visited Lake Tahoe once – and we went skiing, believe it or not. We couldn’t quite grasp the fact that you could ski various resorts in one trip (it is very different from the Alps) and that made it quite fun.
Next time I would like to visit in the Summer, as the lake really was quite stunning.
Stay at The Plumpjack in Squaw or book a room at the Ritz-Carlton in Northstar.
Big Sur, California
Big Sur is one of the best places to stay in California, and it’s also one of the best-known. The drive on Highway 1 is certainly one of the most iconic, especially if you get a clear sunny day (it is a 50-50 chance!).
Santa Barbara, California
The more we visit Santa Barbara, the more we want to buy a house there. It could be because of the fabulous views, or the Urban Wine Trail (which really brings a new side of this town to life), but we really love it.
The Restoration Hardware store on the main street personifies SB – and maybe so does the Goop boutique? I know!
Stay at the Belmond El Encanto (or try the new Rosewood, which looks pretty special too).
We have finally stayed in Malibu last Summer and wondered why we had never done it before! Staying there (rather than just driving past and stopping for lunch) really made us ‘get’ Malibu a bit more.
From its Design Center, to the Malibu Mart – we really felt like we were away from the rest of the world (but with all mod cons, which is part of the appeal).
Stay at Malibu Beach Inn (and yes, they have proper European-style beach sun loungers, so you will really feel like you are ‘really at the beach’).
Beverly Hills, California
Located in Greater Los Angeles, Beverly Hills is probably where we base ourselves most often when we ‘are in LA’. Obviously known for its shopping (and Pretty Woman fame), it is home to some of the best hotels in California.
Its location means it is easy to get to other places such as West Hollywood and Hollywood, as we all know traffic is part of LA life.
We tend to stay at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, but there are plenty of others to try such as the new Waldorf Astoria (book here) or the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel (check availability).
Santa Monica, California
Located on the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica is one of the best known California beach towns and one that has ‘really improved’ over the last decade. Luxury hotel options have always been a bit limited (but new hotels like Santa Monica Proper are changing all this – check availability here).
Hiring a ‘vacation rental’ is a good option in this part of California as there are some pretty fab beach houses with your name written all over it.
Besides the more touristy Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica place, head to Montana where you will find a more neighbourhoody selection of shops and cafes (and of course, a drybar).
Greater Palm Springs, California
I always say that I first visited Palm Springs once by mistake and have been back every year (except for one, when my father passed away) and it is one of the places in California I ‘need’ to visit every year.
Made up of a more than a handful of ‘cities’ – of which Palm Springs is the best known – it keeps us interested year after year.
Mr. O loves the golf, I love hiring a villa and not sharing a pool with anyone – but it is interesting how many hotels are now opening in the area. Check out the Ritz Carlton in Rancho Mirage or The Parker.
Newport Beach, California
Some call it Beverly Hills on the water, and Newport Beach really is a very wealthy bubble that could only exist in California. There is a lot of boat eye candy to enjoy, as well as some pretty fabulous shopping.
We stay at Balboa Bay Resort as it offers a great location is on the water (but is missing a pool with a view or beach access), but the bar view makes for a great cocktail hour.
Dana Point, California
Dana Point is our little secret place – and home to one of the best beach hotels in California (from a European perspective) and close to many other interesting places to visit, like Newport and Laguna Beaches.
We have been 4 times now and like the quaint marina (and recommend a whale and dolphin watching boat trip) and incredible beach walks at Monarch Beach.
There are plenty more fabulous places to stay in California. I will make sure to update this page often.
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Check out our other Places to Stay in California posts below:
Check out our other California Guides below:
- California Travel Guide
- Best Things to Do in California
- Best Places to Visit in California
- When to Visit California