8 local-approved secrets to planning the perfect California vacation
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Californians glow with pride when we show off our state — yet we gripe when our favorite beaches, restaurants and hideaways get “discovered” and start swarming with crowds. We’re also of the opinion that most visitors spend far too much time on guidebook “must-see attractions” and leave without ever experiencing what we consider the real California.
Here are the secrets we share with those who really want to be in the know.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
There are fabulous beaches right in the cities
While it’s true that some of California’s most famous beaches require a road trip, many more do not, and some are smack in the middle of major cities, accessible via a quick drive or even public transportation. From downtown San Francisco, it’s just 15 minutes by car to the sheltered cove of Baker Beach, located in the Presidio and offering stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In San Diego, the delightfully swimmable Mission Beach is 15 minutes from historic Old Town, while Coronado Beach, anchored by the retro pink Coronado Hotel, is under 20 minutes from San Diego International Airport (SAN).
And in Los Angeles, the long sandy stretches of Dockweiler State Beach, El Segundo and Manhattan Beach are all between 10 and 15 minutes by car from Los Angeles International (LAX).
Quirky local museums are more fun than big international exhibits
“Do your own thing” has long been a motto of Californians, and that philosophy plays out in the many small museums tucked away throughout the state. Not only do these offbeat offerings have some of the most interesting exhibits you’ll find, but often they tell you more about California itself than the more established institutions.
In San Francisco, for example, the Walt Disney Family Museum is a must for kids of all ages. Its galleries feature everything from early sketches of beloved cartoon characters to historic exhibits that examine Walt Disney’s role in World War II. And don’t miss the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which in recent years has offered some of the city’s most groundbreaking shows, including exhibits honoring cartoonist Roz Chast and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The current exhibit, honoring Levi Strauss and the history of American denim, is available online.
The GLBT Historical Society Museum offers another intrinsically San Francisco viewpoint, with rotating exhibits of art and cultural artifacts, much of it donated from the collections of local activists and supporters. Exhibits are currently online until the museum reopens.
Los Angeles and the surrounding area are so ridiculously rich in quirky museums, it’s hard to single out just a few, but highlights include the Neon Museum of Art in Glendale and the Valley Relics Museum, where two full airplane hangars at the Van Nuys airport are filled with all the retro Americana you could want to evoke the bygone days of the SoCal dream.
And in Sacramento’s Victorian Old Town, the California State Railroad Museum displays 19 steam engines from various eras, as well as special exhibits on railroad history and toy trains to delight little ones. On weekends, you can take a ride on one of the elegant passenger trains complete with observation cars and a first-class observation car.
There’s almost nowhere you can’t bike
More and more travelers are choosing to sightsee by bike, taking advantage of the fresh air, parking ease and ability to swiftly bypass traffic. To accommodate them, bike rentals are available in almost any California destination you can think of, and city-sponsored or accommodated bike-share programs are on the rise.
In Santa Monica, Breeze Bikeshare is not only easy to use, it’s also currently free courtesy of the Santa Monica city government. In Los Angeles, Metro Bike Share has locations all over downtown and at many Metro stops, making it easy to take the train, then get off and bike. Metro trains and buses also allow you to bring your own bike onboard.
San Francisco’s bike share program, now called Bay Wheels, operates via the Lyft app and — huge news — includes the option of e-bikes, which come in handy on the city’s steep hills. The system also operates in San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland. In Sacramento, Uber operates an all-electric bike program called Jump, with additional coverage in West Sacramento and Davis. Santa Cruz has its own Jump bike system as well.
The Central Coast is California’s best-kept secret
The vast majority of visitors to California choose to focus their visit on sunny southern California or the cultural mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area, possibly with a Yosemite or wine country adventure tacked on. That means most vacationers entirely miss out on seeing the central part of the state, something Californians know is a big mistake.
Because from San Luis Obispo, with its historic Spanish mission and fast-rising food and wine scene, to the vineyards and tasting rooms of Paso Robles and the Edna Valley, to the classic beach town vibe of Pismo Beach, California’s middle ground offers some of the state’s least crowded (and most crowd-pleasing) getaways. Not to mention that the stretch of Highway 1 between Monterey and Santa Barbara boasts some of that iconic road’s most spectacular vistas, including those of Big Sur. Now served by Alaska Airlines and United by way of San Luis Obispo airport (SBP), the Central Coast is the hot new area to explore for travelers ready for something new.
Downtown San Luis Obispo (or SLO, as locals call it), saw a big boost at the end of 2019 with the opening of not one but two new hotels, both offering a welcome combination of upscale amenities and down-home warmth. The rooms at Hotel San Luis Obispo look out over Mission Plaza and the Ah Louis Store, built in 1874 and now home to local festivity planners Karson Butler Events. Helmed by chef Ryan Fancher, the Ox & Anchor has quickly become one of the town’s destination restaurants. At nearby Hotel Cerro, many of the airy rooms feature private patios opening onto a lush vegetable garden that supplies Brasserie SLO.
In Pismo Beach, the new Vespera on Ocean, a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is so close to the beach you could throw a seashell from your balcony into the waves (book a room from 40,000 points per night on off-peak dates). The Allegretto Vineyard Resort, Paso Robles’ newest and most exciting property, is the perfect home base for both wine tasting and a visit to the Field of Light at Sensorio, easily one of California’s most talked-about outdoor art installations.
Some of the cutest towns aren’t on the coast
Much of California’s history owes its roots to the California Gold Rush of 1849, which saw more than 300,000 people pour into the state, establishing a string of towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, where gold was seemingly running in the rivers. Today, many of those towns retain a colorful, wild west vibe, with wooden sidewalks and false-front clapboard buildings housing eclectic boutiques, colorful cafes and farm-to-table restaurants drawing from the bounty of the nearby central valley.
Strung along Highway 49, also known as the Golden Chain Highway, highlights include Sonora, Sutter Creek, Placerville and Nevada City, each of which also makes a perfect stop on the way to the mountains. While boutique hotels are the Gold Country’s pride and joy, travelers with points to burn will find Best Western Plus hotels in Placerville, Sonora and Angels Camp, along with a Holiday Inn in Auburn and a Travelodge in Angels Camp.
You can spot celebrities if you know their business
From Ryan Gosling’s Tagine to Robert de Niro’s Nobu, Los Angeles is chock-a-block of celebrity-owned dining establishments that naturally draw a crowd strong in star power. While it goes without saying that the owners themselves aren’t likely to be found behind the bar, the caché and attention to details such as back entrances and private booths make them popular with stars looking for a night on the town.
Even California Gov. Gavin Newsom is in on the action as a founder and owner of the Plumpjack Group (though his ownership is held in trust during his term in office). The most recent addition, Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn in Palm Springs, brings back the glamor of its Rat Pack heyday. Long known as a popular hangout for Cher, Liza Minelli, Barry Manilow and other stars of the ’70s and ’80s, it now draws the likes of Katy Perry, who has been spotted sipping cocktails poolside.
Cemeteries are the place to see stars of the past
One of the best ways to pay tribute to stars of the past is to visit one of the southland’s cemeteries, a number of which are known for their high-wattage residents. Top on many star maps is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the burial site of old Hollywood, where you’ll find the graves of Rudolph Valentino, Victor Fleming and Cecil B. DeMille along with more modern figures like George Harrison and Johnny Ramone.
Much-visited gravesites in Glendale’s Forest Lawn include those of Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole, while Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Truman Capote and Frank Zappa are just a few of the cultural icons buried in out of the way Westwood Cemetery.
In Palm Springs, Sinatra fans pay tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes with bottles of Jack Daniels and boxes of Camel cigarettes, which surround the fresh flowers that are delivered twice a week by an anonymous devotee.
Some of California’s best food is in immigrant communities
It’s a sad fact that many of California’s visitors completely miss some of the best food in the state by checking name-brand restaurants off a list or sticking with farm-to-fork standards. It’s true, it takes a bit of research for Los Angeles-bound travelers to find the best barbecue in Koreatown (Try Ham Ji Park, Oo Kook) or the best taco truck in San Diego, but it’s well worth the effort.
It may also mean venturing a bit farther afield. Who knew the best Sichuan in San Francisco is actually in San Mateo, 20 minutes to the south? Or that Fresno — a popular gateway to Yosemite — is home to the largest Hmong population in the U.S. and among the best places to try authentic Laotian food (Lao Cafe 2)? Or that one of the best places to be introduced to pupupas and other El Salvadoran and Guatemalan specialties, is humble Casa Mañana in San Rafael, California, an easy stop en route to Point Reyes National Seashore? In addition to discovering new cuisines, you’ll find these places are also very easy on the wallet.
Featured photo by EyeWolf/Getty Images.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,600
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
- Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.