With a population and land mass outstripping many nations, climates ranging from oceanic in the northwest, hot desert in the southeast and Mediterranean in between, and a citizenry that is every bit as diverse, California is an essential state to experience for those visiting America.
It has some of the most massive trees in the world, the San Francisco Bay Area is leading the charge of the internet revolution, and Los Angeles is undoubtedly the media and entertainment production capital of the world.
In the midst of all these marquee attractions are smaller but no less memorable highlights that will make your California experience unique to you and those traveling with you. What follows is just a primer to help you get started exploring this cornerstone of the United States … don’t be afraid to follow your intuition as you make your way throughout the Golden State.
What To Do – Culture & History
While there are many aspects of California’s history that will compete for your interest as you travel through this state, none are quite as famous as Alcatraz, a foreboding prison island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Touted as America’s supposedly inescapable prison (five prisoners have never been found after attempting to escape, but it is likely that they drowned while attempting to swim to the mainland), it was home to this country’s most violent criminals from 1933 to 1963, including the likes of Al Capone and Rafael Miranda.
In addition to the old penitentiary, it is also home to the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast that is still in service and colonies of seabirds such as cormorants and egrets. Allow for an entire morning or afternoon to make the most of your visit here.
As you make your way south along the Pacific Coast Highway towards Southern California, plan to stop by the Hearst Castle. A truly opulent property in every sense of the world, this palatial mansion took almost 30 years to create for media baron William Randolph Hearst, who had only a few years to fully enjoy his masterpiece before passing away in 1951.
Being a living embodiment of what it means to live the good life, the richly detailed interior rooms, the Greek facades that face onto the decadent Neptune Pool area, and the gasp-inducing views of the Pacific and the arid ranchlands make the $25 admission fee for adults well worth the expense.
One of the greatest authors in American history called the state of California home, as John Steinbeck used its landscapes as a backdrop for many of the award winning novels that he penned over the years.
The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas contains exhibits on the philosophy behind his works, as well as those focusing on topics which he was passionate about during the course of his life. The welfare of agriculture workers in the state was one of his major preoccupations, a cause that inspired one of his greatest works, Of Mice And Men.
No discussion about cultural tourism in California can be completed without spending significant time talking about the contribution that Hollywood has made to the perceived identity of this state in the minds of people around the world.
Being a diverse neighborhood in center of Los Angeles, there is more than just the film industry to enjoy here, as food options run the gamut from Armenian (be sure to drop by the Sassoun Bakery) to Thai.
Once you have quieted the rumblings of your stomach, take in standard sights that include the Walk of Fame where famous entertainers are honored, Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theaters (the former is home to foot and handprints of many celebrities set in concrete, and the Hollywood sign, which grants an incredible view of L.A. below.
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
In the realm of modern attractions, the Golden Gate Bridge stands out as one of California’s most recognizable icons, connecting the northernmost parts of San Francisco with the suburbs and natural attractions of Marin County.
Being one of the tallest suspension bridges in the world, this span is a spectacular photographic subject, especially when a fog bank is rolling into the city from the Pacific Ocean.
While you could save time by taking Interstate 5, taking the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles is a far more scenic journey, as State Route 1 hugs the rugged Central Californian coast for over 650 miles.
Pocket beaches backed by steep cliffs, mountains abruptly collapsing to sea level in dramatic fashion, and countless chilled out communities will reveal to you why so many easterners have pulled up stakes from their former homes to make this land their new one.
During your time in the greater Los Angeles area, embrace your inner child and visit Disneyland, the theme park that set the precedent for all that followed in their footsteps. Pass through the arch of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, and eight separate parks with attractions ranging from exciting roller coasters to scheduled live shows will keep you occupied from morning until well into the evening.
California contains a great deal of natural diversity within its territory, which is bigger than many nations around the world. Redwoods National Park starts off this state in epic fashion, with massive coast redwoods that dwarf softwood trees found elsewhere in the USA.
Indeed, these beasts stretch as high as 379 feet tall, and can be as much as 26 feet in diameter. This place is made even more mysterious by the fog that is a near constant fixture during the summer months, so be sure to bring warm and waterproof clothing if you plan on including this park in your itinerary.
Located east of the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno, Yosemite National Park is one of America’s most celebrated natural preserves, as its soaring granite cliffs and peaks act as the centerpiece that draw in millions of visitors per year.
Many come just to photograph the timeless view available at the head of the Yosemite Valley, but those with a taste for adventure take advantage of its numerous trekking and climbing opportunities, many of which are centered around El Capitan. Standing 3,000 feet above the valley floor, this monolith is a magnet for adrenaline athletes, which scale its rock face, hike up its steep grades, and/or BASE jump off its lofty heights.