Star-studded, sun-soaked and scenically spectacular; experience it all on a California holiday.
Imagine yourself in a classic convertible Mustang with the top down, the wind in your hair and a California dreamin’ playlist as your soundtrack, as you follow a road that hugs the shoreline. Pair a glass of Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon with an artisanal picnic from Oakville Grocery surrounded by some of the world’s finest vineyards; lace up your walking boots and hike the trails of Yosemite National Park; and spot film stars in the part-glitzy, part-gritty City of Angels, Los Angeles. If you want it, California’s got it.
In San Francisco, the high-tech and effortlessly cool start-ups of Silicon Valley meet a vibrant Victorian heritage and an alternative atmosphere that was born in the 1960’s flower power era. Five hundred miles to the south and a world away in terms of character, San Diego is the heart of SoCal’s enviable beach culture thanks to its 70-mile coastline and perpetually sunny climate. Beyond the unmissable highlights, there are lesser-visited national parks, towns and coastal regions that will draw you back again.
Discover the best California holidays from self-drives to city breaks and talk to one of our USA experts.
California holiday highlights
It is standard practice for resorts/hotels within the USA to charge a mandatory resort fee which is payable locally. This fee can be anywhere between 5USD to 40 USD per room per night and is not included in the cost of your Kuoni holiday.
Cities & coastal California
San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are a trio of bucket-list cities, each with its own individual character. Furthest north is hilly San Francisco, the youngest and coolest of the three with its start-ups, mega brands and unbeatable natural setting on a vast bay dotted with islands. ‘The City’ is celebrated for its diversity, inclusivity and liberal outlook; it’s outdoorsy, full of culture and it’s the coolest in terms of climate too. Sprawling Los Angeles can be a bit overwhelming at first but once you break it down into the cities that make up LA County area it becomes more manageable. You have Downtown LA, the original Tinsel Town of Hollywood, beachside Santa Monica, Malibu and Venice, and upmarket Beverly Hills. Anaheim, the home of the original Disney park – Disneyland, is just to the south, as are the coastal cities of Orange County like Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. Just a few miles from the international border is San Diego, a sun-kissed city with strong Mexican influences, a rich military history and a beautiful coastline that stretches on for miles.
The coastline between the three cities is hugged by the Pacific Coast Highway, a driver’s dream road. The most famous stretch winds its way between San Francisco and Los Angeles and passes through Big Sur, San Luis Obispo County and the city of Santa Barbara. To the north of San Francisco, as you travel towards the neighbouring state of Oregon, the coast gets wilder, the trees get bigger and the road gets quieter.
Just to the north of San Francisco are Sonoma Country and Napa Valley, two of the state’s premier wine producing regions. Napa Valley is the poster child of California’s viticulture industry, with world-renowned names like Beringer, Stag’s Leap and Screaming Eagle crafting their award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons along the 30-mile long valley. Aside from the wineries, there are Michelin-starred restaurants serving exquisite dishes and farmers markets selling organic, locally-sourced produce. Sonoma might not have as many prestigious names but it’s where wine production began in California and it has a more down-to-earth vibe than its famous neighbour just across the Mayacamas Mountains.
The age-old question asked of adventurers is whether they prefer deserts, mountains or coast. Whatever your answer is, California has it – Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have the mountains, Redwood has the coastlines and Joshua Tree and Death Valley have desert landscapes.
Yosemite National Park is the state’s most famous park and is visited by over 5 million people a year. It’s located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range on California’s eastern edge and encompasses 1196 square miles. Although approximately 95% of the park is wilderness, it’s the awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley that draws the crowds. The seven-mile valley was created by erosion and later widened and shaped by glaciers; today you can see sheer cliffs, iconic granite features including Half Dome, and seasonal waterfalls. Further south in the same mountain range are the twin national parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon where lofty mountains meet towering red-wood trees. These parks are quieter than their neighbour to the north but have similarly dramatic landscapes.
Death Valley National Park sits to the east of the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountains close to the California-Nevada state line. The park’s arid and landscapes range from the Panamint Range, where the highest point is 3368 metres above sea level, to the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. This corner of the USA is a land of extremes; the lowest point of the basin is 86 metres below sea level and the highest point in the contiguous United States (the 48 adjoining states), Mount Whitney, is just over 84 miles away at the eastern boundary of Sequoia National Park.
In the cities, it’s best to rely on public transport rather than take the car. In Los Angeles, most of the locals drive resulting in its renowned start-stop traffic. The quickly-developing metro system makes it easy to travel between Santa Monica, Long Beach, Hollywood and Universal City. San Francisco’s public transport system, Muni, is easy to navigate and cost-effective, and can you even say you’ve been to San Francisco without at least one trip on one of the historic streetcars? Walking up and down the steep streets is a great way to get to know the eclectic neighbourhoods and a fantastic workout.
The main way to get from destination to destination across the state is by car as public transport is few and far between. There is an Amtrak route, Coast Starlight, which connects Los Angeles and San Francisco with destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Car hire is easily arranged and there’s a wide selection of car shapes and sizes that you can choose from. Alternatively, you can hire a Cruise America motorhome and stop where and when the mood takes you. Remember that distances between the main destinations in California are long and there’s so much to see and do en route; we recommend driving no more than four to five hours a day (excluding stops) unless you have more than one driver.
Where is California?
California is in the south-west corner of the United States. It’s the third largest state and has an 840-mile Pacific Ocean coastline; it’s 560 miles at its widest point.
Best time to visit
At almost twice the size of the UK, 770 miles from north to south and featuring a huge variety of landscapes, California’s climate is not a one-size-fits-all affair. This also means it’s a year-round destination. Most of the state has a climate similar to Mediterranean countries with dry and hot summers and mild and relatively wet winters. On the coast, the temperatures never tend to get too high thanks to the sea breezes. Inland – and particularly in places like Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in the east – the mercury soars into the low 40s; Death Valley currently has the official record for the hottest temperature recorded on earth of 56.7 degrees Celsius.
While California has a reputation as being sun-kissed, this is not always the case along the northern coast, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area. The city is often covered in a chilly fog which rolls in off the Pacific during June, July and August. The best time to visit is from mid-September onwards, or during the spring months. The autumn is also a great time to visit the national parks of the Sierra Nevada although Yosemite Valley’s famous waterfalls tend to be at their best between May and early July when the snowmelt rushes off the High Sierra. The falls are a great spectacle, but you will be sharing the park with a lot of other people; plan well in advance and book your accommodation early if you want to visit Yosemite during the spring.
We recommend visiting Los Angeles from March to May and September to November when the air is at its clearest, the crowds are at their lowest and the average high temperatures hover around the low- to mid-20s. January and February can be very pleasant and while it won’t be as warm and dry as you envisaged California being, the theme parks and beaches will be far less crowded. It’s always a good time to visit perpetually-sunny San Diego – it’s pleasantly warm year round and more often than not there are blue skies. If you want to swim in the Pacific, visit in the summer or autumn when the sea temperatures are at their highest.