For so many reasons, California represents the best of what America has to offer for travellers. It is the combination of iconic imagery you have seen many times on TV combined with enough mystery to keep fresh discoveries at every turn; is the wild west at its best, still seen in small dust-towns that dot the deserts, abutting Beverly Hills sophistication; it is the remnants of miners who came out in search of prosperity over 100 years ago, and still home to the highest concentration of technological innovations that we see in the tech world today. And, it is the stop-you-in-your-tracks sort of beauty that keeps people coming back for more.
As with California itself, this article is going to have to decide which things to talk about, there is no way to cover it all — it is simply too expansive. In this, the first in a two part series on California, we will divide the state into North and South, as this is typical to what most itineraries will entail (at least until they get that fancy high speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco going, something that despite being voted for, is quite unlikely to ever get off the ground). Without further adieu, here is your guide to Southern California.
The Cities – Los Angeles is by far the most iconic of California cities, though most are often a bit surprised by its layout upon arrival. It is far more expansive and less concentrated than people imagine — which could mean a lot of miles on the famed LA freeways. Hollywood of course is a must visit, where you can see everything from the famed studios and sign itself, to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with all of its hand prints still lining the ground outside. If you are lucky enough, you may even catch a movie premier. In recent years, the Staples center, where both the LA Kings hockey and Lakers basketball teams call home, has started a complete revitalization of the downtown areas. The art walk is worth a visit here, as is the alley – an insiders only alleyway area where you can find all the best in knock-off goods. In Orange County, expect a bunch of cities that all feel newer and less compact. For a true and happy median, the city of Long Beach — long the redheaded stepchild of LA and OC both — serves as a great example of big city meets beach life. It is also arguably what should have been Los Angeles proper, had the town been founded by the Dutch or English, rather than the Spanish.
San Diego is also a ‘don’t miss’ on your agenda, with its close proximity to the US/ Mexico border, and Gaslamp district of restaurants and shopping downtown. Lastly, for those who don’t mind a little desert heat – a drive out to Palm Springs is a wonderful daytrip. This former playground to old Hollywood is an oasis of charm in the middle of the desert. You can also take a tram up to the top of a nearby mountain to go from sweltering heat, to snowcapped pictures in a matter of minutes.
The Beaches – When most people plan to add beach to their vacation, they end up going to either Santa Monica or Malibu, due to their ease of use from close proximity to LA. These are certainly “good enough” beaches for most and should not necessarily be discounted. However, for the picturesque beach experience that most of you are thinking of, you are better off going a bit further south into Orange County. From Huntington Beach to San Clemente, you have town after town of unbelievable beach vistas, good surf break, and great sand. Beachside restaurants, piers, and hidden nooks all offer a variety of experiences. For a small town feel by the beach, check out Laguna Beach, for an Old California beach town, head to San Clemente, but for the classic, best surf and possibly to catch a giant surf contest — there is nothing better than Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City.
Nature & the Quintessential – There are likely more iconic things to see here than almost anywhere else, from Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain, for the amusement park junkies, to the fabled Santa Monica Pier, if you have ever seen a cool sunny outdoor scene on television, there is a good chance it is here. We recommend a drive down Pacific Coast Highway, with the best spots being from Malibu to Santa Monica or from Huntington Beach to Laguna (both referenced as North driving South) as these are the best combinations of driving with the top down where you can still see and be seen — like driving down Gulf Road with a much more relaxed vacation-like feel. Should you head inland, head inland to the Palm Spring desert and Joshua Tree, or up into the Big Bear Mountains. For those feeling especially adventurous, there is the often bragged about, locals only ‘California-triathlon’ to try. This is where you snowboard, skate, and surf, all in the same day. You will have to start either at the beach end with an early morning surf that ends with night-boarding in Big Bear, or work your trip the other way around, but with only a three hour drive separating these two natural wonders, this is one of the few places it can be achieved (hint: the skating or skateboarding portion happens anywhere in between).
The most important thing on this list so far is how much is being left out. There is simply too much to see and talk about. You could spend weeks exploring every cove and small town and still not have seen it all. From the wineries of Santa Barbara and Temecula to the Catalina Islands, a southern California trip will not disappoint. You will have to at some point make hard decisions on which parts will have to be left out — there is simply too much beauty and outdoor activities to do here — a place to see and be seen, if ever there was one.
Check out part 2 of California unmapped, where we travel to Northern California for the best of the best