As you may know, California is, without a doubt, one of my favourite places in the world. We have visited more than once a year for the last 15 years and there is a reason why: we never get bored as it really offers a lot of variety. Preparing a list with some of the best things to do in California isn’t as straightforward as one might think!
This list is based on many many trips, and my advice if and when you are planning a California road trip is to not to try and do too many things in one trip. Less is more as a road trip is not about ticking boxes. California isn’t a “once in a lifetime trip” – leave something for the next visits. After all, you would never attempt ‘to do’ France, in one go, would you?
1. See the Hollywood Sign
Some people like to hike it (which I heard can be fun), but one would argue it is not my way of doing it. You can drive quite close, or you can be driven by a private driver for 2-4 hours and literally tick off the tourist landmarks and then enjoy the rest of your time. It is worth every penny.
2. Ski With Lake Views in Lake Tahoe
When we skied in Lake Tahoe for the first time, I didn’t quite understand the geography (or gave it too much thought). We had a ‘purist’ skiing experience at Homewood and this photo is, without a doubt, my favourite memory of the trip.
3. Dock and Dine in Newport Beach
When this Dock and Dine experience appeared on my itinerary for Newport Beach, I also couldn’t quite picture it. You hire one of the Duffy Boats (with own drivers licence) and you can then have lunch at one of the various restaurants in the area who will help you with the logistics. From Nobu to Balboa Bay Resort was our route, and really quite good fun.
4. See The Snow in Palm Springs
If I could say I have visited the Greater Palm Springs are 10 times, I can say I have been on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway a good 5 times? Why? Because for a few hours you get literally transported to ‘a higher place’ and you can actually see snow. The temperature always drops a good 20 degrees (celsius) and there is a bar at the top (not the Four Seasons, but they do a decent gin and tonic).
5. Big Sur Road Trip
It is the ultimate stretch of California’s iconic Highway 1 and it comes with 2 bonuses which are worth a visit. We had lunch at Post Ranch Inn which was really nice and loved staying across the road at Ventana, which was absolutely perfect. We stayed only for a night, but I will stay for 2 when I return.
6. Eat Beautifully Fresh Seafood in Santa Barbara
And go wine-tasting at the same time. I know that it almost makes no sense – but it does if you read about our most recent road trip stopover in Santa Barbara. The organic farmer’s market was also fun (and delicious) and the Urban Wine Trail is a must-visit.
7. Enjoy a walk in the Redwoods in Sonoma County
There is a lot more to Sonoma than wine as we found out on our second visit to the area. This was our second visit to a redwood tree forests and it really was special. The height of the tress is really truly spectacular.
8. Enjoy the Sunset in Malibu
We loved our weekend in Malibu so much (and stayed at Malibu Beach Inn), I haven’t even written about it properly as I almost don’t want anyone else to go. It isn’t a secret as the hotel is almost always fully booked.
Malibu is a ‘quick’ drive from Santa Monica (30-60 minutes depending on traffic) and even if you are not staying in Malibu, it is a very easy day trip from the LA area.
9. Have a Proper Burger at Inn-n-Out
But what is REALLY one of California’s top attractions? And one of the California tips everyone should follow? Some say it is a visit to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Others, say it is the Universal Studios, whereas others say Yosemite tops it all. Well, you cannot go to California without a visit to Inn-n-Out. It is a simple as that.
I go for a straightforward cheeseburger, but Mr O goes for the Double Double and we don’t even order from the secret menu (google it for fun before your trip). Inn-n-Out is a California burger chain which puts all other burger chains to shame (in my opinion). It feels like you step back in time a bit, but they hand-cut the fries right there and then.
The good thing is that there are quite a few of them in California – surely one not far from other top attractions such as the San Diego zoo.
10. Have Brunch at Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice
This is how we almost always end of trips when we fly out of LAX, as Venice Beach is very close to the airport. Abbot Kinney Boulevard is as gentrified as it gets and brunch (or early dinner before your flight) at Gjelina is something we always do and recommend.
11. Shop at Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills
Obviously it makes no sense to buy anything made in Europe stateside, but you cannot not go to Beverly Hills and at least drive down the street. It is no different than Bond Street except for the palm trees and gorgeous sunshine.
Beverly Hills offers a great selection of shops, of course, but also great dining. (And houses. And hotels).
12. Have a Blowout at the Drybar
The Drybar is one of the best gifts California has given to the world (and can be enjoyed in other USA locations of course). But it’s the most genius idea ever – you have a menu with various blow-dry (or blow out as they call it) styles and you pick one. You have wine, USB chargers, sitcoms to watch and magazines. And an app that helps you find the nearest Drybar.
13. Watch a TV Show or Sitcom Being Taped
We have done it a few times (Chelsea Handler’s show back in the day was always fun) and highly recommend the experience if you are visiting the LA area. The tickets are free but in high demand, so do a bit of research first (it maybe months in advance).
We missed James Corden on our latest trip as we were waitlisted for a month and when we got the tickets, it would have meant cancelling seeing some dear friends (and that wasn’t right)!
Wondering what things to do in California this weekend? This could be a very fun idea.
14. Enjoy Fabulous Fish Tacos in San Diego
The geography plays a part here – and you can’t get any closer to Mexico than from San Diego. I love the ‘Californian’ Mexican food as the ingredients are super fresh and you can actually tell what is in the food. One of the reasons why I love California so much. And I have a thing for quesadillas.
15. Just Relax in Palm Springs
We went by mistake one year and have returned 12 times so far. And we love visiting Greater Palm Springs when it is really hot (say at the end of August) because it is a perfect contrast to the hustle and bustle of the LA area and the coast. For the last 5 years, we have been renting villas which are incredible value (and others share it with friends or just by ourselves).
I could go on and on about my favourite or the best things to do in California – 15 was just a taste of what there is to come when you book your next trip.
Can’t wait for mine!
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Check out my other Things to Do in California posts below:
Check out my California Guides below:
- California Travel Guide
- Best Places to Visit in California
- Best Places to Stay in California
- When to Visit California