Whether you dream of carving a wave for the first time, relaxing at a wine country estate, taking a spin on an iconic theme park ride, or walking through soaring redwoods, you will find your perfect getaway in California. What you will find here are ways to make that dream holiday happen without a hitch.
The tips and information here help you know the ins and outs of travel in the Golden State, with tips on best times to travel, transportation, accommodation and camping, even good-sense guides for bicycle fans. Details here can help plan your trip, and tell you where to turn for more useful information and insider tips once you get here. Happy planning.
Do you need to reset your watch? Call for help? Figure out the best time to visit? Find out details for disabled access? Here is a round-up of basic information to help you plan your trip, and to know what to expect and where to turn for help when you get here.
California is in the Pacific Time Zone (Greenwich Mean Time minus 8 hours). The state observes daylight saving time from early March to early November.
The state sales tax is 7.5%. Local taxes may add up to 1.5% to your total bill.
For local numbers, dial 411; for long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus 555-1212; for free phone numbers, call (800) 555-1212.
You can call 911 free from any public telephone to obtain emergency police, fire, or medical assistance.
Alcohol is sold throughout California to people age 21 and older. The legal drinking age is 21.
You must be 18 or older to purchase tobacco products in the state. Smoking is prohibited in all public buildings (including restaurants, bars, and casinos) and enclosed spaces throughout California. It is illegal to smoke within 20 feet/6 metres of doorways or windows of government buildings. Most large hotels have designated smoking rooms, If you smoke, request one, most hotels will fine guests who smoke inside a non smoking room. Many cities in California have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in public areas, and smoking is prohibited in some national and state park buildings and areas.
State Size & Drive Times
California is big, really big. If you were to drive the length of the state on Interstate 5, it would take you an estimated 15 hours, with little or no traffic, to get from Oregon to Mexico. At the end of your road trip, you would have driven nearly 900 miles/1,450 kilometres.
Downtown San Diego is less than 20 miles/32 kilometres north of the Mexican border and about 130 miles (210 kilometres) south of Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, it is 385 miles/620 kilometres north to San Francisco and from there, another 90 miles/145 kilometres north-east to Sacramento. You would put about 190 miles/305 kilometres on your car driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, and about 600 miles/965 kilometres driving from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta in Northern California. Needless to say, California is ideal for road trips.
Travelling with Disabilities
Visitors who have physical or other challenges can still have a fantastic time in California. Special services are widely available, and access to trails, buildings, and attractions is continually being improved. Here are some helpful resources.
The Americans with Disabilities Act states that all public buildings must be wheelchair accessible and have accessible bathrooms. Most hotels and attractions are now outfitted with wide doorways and wheelchair ramps. City streets now feature a growing number of pavement corners with dropped curbs, and some public transport vehicles are equipped with lifts. Many state and national parks now have fully accessible ADA trails. If you need details, call destinations and services in advance.
Help for Hearing & Memory impaired
If you have limitations seeing, hearing, speaking, remembering, or moving which affects your ability to make or receive phone calls, dial 711 to have a specially trained communications assistant relay telephone conversations for all your calls while you are in California.
Many cinemas and performance spaces have special headsets to help you hear. Ask when you purchase or collect your tickets.
Transportation & Car Hire
Major airport can provide on-site assistance to and from flights, including wheelchairs. Call your airline in advance for details. Some car hire companies offer specially outfitted vehicles with hand controls, wheelchair accessibility, and other assistance devices. Amtrak train service provides added services for passengers with disabilities, as well as a 15% discount on regular travel fares.
California is a year-round destination, with weather that has something for everyone, from sun worshippers to snow bunnies. The best time to visit really comes down to what you want to see and do. Here is some general information to help you know what to expect statewide.
Weather & Seasons
Much of California has a Mediterranean-like climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. On the coast, the average daily high temperature hovers around 70°F/21°C and up, but can occasionally spike to 80°F 27°C or more on hottest summer days. Freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter. The state’s legendary fog often hugs the coast from roughly Monterey north, usually during summer months. It often burns off by midday before rolling in again at dusk. Further inland, summers are hot and dry, winters cool and wet, with occasional brilliant blue days and temperatures cold enough to freeze puddles on the ground, but not much more than that. At higher altitudes, the weather reflects more of a four-season cycle, with beautiful summers, striking autumn colour, and cold, snowy winters followed by snow melt springs (waterfall season!).
As you browse this site, check out the average temperature by season for the regions and destinations you are considering.
Timing Your Visit
Most visitors head to California during the peak summer months (June through August); that is when you can expect the biggest crowds at top attractions, and high-season rates at hotels and resorts. But even in the middle of summer it is possible to hop off the beaten path and have forests, fields, and even beaches almost to yourself.
If you love the high country, you might need to wait until summer to access the highest roads and trails through the Sierra Nevada, as well routes into wilderness areas around Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, the state’s tallest volcanoes.
Spring (typically March through early May) is one of California’s most beautiful times of year. Although it can still be cold at higher elevations, temperatures are comfortable and fresh throughout much of the state. Hillsides are blanketed with lush green grass and wild flowers. California’s deserts, awash with poppies, paintbrush, and other desert blooms, are much more pleasant during the spring than during the scorching heat of summer. During these months, you will also encounter shorter lines and better deals: Many of the state’s top tourist attractions are still operating at a slower pace, and hotels often charge low-season rates until June.
Autumn (September through November) brings mild weather and, in some parts of the state, spectacular foliage (especially the High Sierra). This is a great time to visit California’s beautiful wine regions during during grape harvest time, known as “the crush” (generally August to October). The San Francisco and North Coast regions, often shrouded in fog during the summer, typically see some of their sunniest days during the “Indian summer,” (September through October).
If you plan to ski, snow usually coats the mountains November to March, with some resorts staying open into April or beyond. And, if Mother Nature is fickle, snow-making equipment often supplements with amazingly good man-made snow. Look for downhill runs for skiers and boarders, terrain parks, cross-country and snowshoe trails, and ice-skating rinks.
Each of the California Welcome Centers scattered throughout the state are staffed with personal travel concierges. These knowledgeable experts are ready to provide information that will enhance and enrich your visit including suggestions on where to eat, what to see, and where to stay. Welcome Centers also offer free maps and brochures on local attractions and things to see and do.
Anderson (Shasta Cascade)
Auburn (Gold Country)
El Dorado Hills (Gold Country)
San Francisco (San Francisco Bay Area)
Santa Rosa (San Francisco Bay Area)
Truckee (High Sierra)
Mammoth Lakes (High Sierra)
Merced (Central Valley)
Oxnard (Central Coast)
Pismo Beach (Central Coast)
Salinas (Central Coast)
Buena Park (Orange County)
Oceanside (San Diego County)
Ontario (Inland Empire)
Yucca Valley (Deserts)
California is big—nearly 800 miles/1287 kilometres from the Oregon border to the north all the way to the Mexican border just south of San Diego, and an average of roughly 200 miles/321 kilometres wide. Fortunately, California also has a lot of airports, so flying is relatively easy, and a great way to get around the state, especially if your time is limited. Easy airport access also makes fly/drive holidays an attractive option.
We have highlighted the state’s 10 international airports, some that rank as destinations in themselves, with museum-quality artwork installations, outstanding shopping, fine dining, and even spoil-yourself spas, because getting a massage really is better than simply sitting in a plastic chair while you wait for your flight.
Whether you dream of a luxury suite overlooking the ocean, a boutique hotel in the heart of a city, a full-service resort, or a serene campsite under the stars, California has the perfect place to spend the night. Book a stay at a major chain almost anywhere in the state, or consider accommodations as distinctive as California itself: handsome stone-and-timber mountain lodges, restored Gold Rush hotels, snug inns, and ultra-exclusive retreats in one-of-a-kind settings. There are also millions of acres of unforgettable parkland where all you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, marshmallows, and a few good campfire stories. And, maybe, a reservation.
California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies can offer good suggestions for all types of accommodation, including resorts, hotels, and motels.
Hotels & Motels: Hotels and motels are the tried-and-true standard for most holidays, providing a safe, clean, and comfortable place to go to sleep at night. They are important here. Remember, California invented the motel back in the 1920s. Top chains are well represented statewide, and are often located in larger metropolitan areas and near tourist attractions and travel routes. Boutique hotels tend to offer a more intimate and luxuriously stylish environment for visitors. In more rural areas, consider independently owned accommodation, some in historic buildings.
Bed & Breakfasts: California has hundreds of B&Bs, many in historic homes or hotels and a growing number at family-run (and family-friendly) farms, ranches, and vineyards. B&Bs can give a sense of the region's local character, with helpful innkeepers happy to share insider travel tips. Your stay also includes breakfast—imagine, freshly baked scones, fresh eggs, or strawberries from the garden. To reserve a stay at one of nearly 300 B&Bs statewide, visit the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns (CABBI).
Resorts: Certain parts of the state—the Deserts region, coastal communities, mountain resort towns—are renowned for five-star retreats, with many championship golf courses and tennis complexes, spectacular swimming pools, destination restaurants, and elegant spas (often open to the public). California’s celebrated wine regions also have ultra-luxe retreats, with romantic settings, unparalleled farm-to-table cuisine, and, of course, incredible wine lists. Many resorts also offer special activities for children, like movie-and-popcorn nights, so parents can enjoy time alone while their children have experienced childcare. Weddings and reunions can book private event spaces and exclusive catering services. For top resorts statewide, check California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
RVs: You can also rent a house on wheels. RVs are welcome at public and private campgrounds statewide. Below are some resources to try; also check the California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
Camping: In California, camping is everything it should be—pitch your tent under the stars at campgrounds scented with pine trees, next to alpine lakes and desert oases, or on a spectacular stretch of coastline. If “roughing it” isn't your style, try “glamping,” or glamorous camping, in outdoor settings with fully equipped tents or rustic cabins or even Mongolian-style yurts.
Or, consider renting a ready-to-roll RV; check individual campsites in advance for any RV restrictions.
You can also backpack deep into California's expansive wilderness areas—just be sure you have a permit before you head out (check individual locations for permit requirements).
Many state and national parks permit camping, although some popular locations such as Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon tend to fill up months in advance, so reserve as early as possible. Federal lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, also have thousands of campsites, which are often without crowds, even during the summer months. There are also many outstanding private campgrounds statewide.
California is made for road trips. An easy-to-navigate network of more than 50,000 miles (80,467 kilometres) of good-quality highways and motorways link just about every corner of the state, with secondary routes leading to even more under-the-radar finds. Some of these roads are famous—Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast, legendary Route 66, and Avenue of the Giants (Highway 101 winding through towering redwoods). Some are workhorses—most notably Interstates 5 and 80—getting drivers (and truckers) up and across the state as quickly as possible. But even these heavy-lifters can lead you to surprising destinations.
No matter where you drive, remember the basic rules of the road. California law states that everyone in a vehicle must wear a seat belt, and motorcyclists must wear a helmet. Speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multi-lane motorways is 65mph/105 kilometres per hour (kph). On two-lane highways, the limit is generally 55 mph/90 kph. The speed limit on city streets is usually 35 mph/55 kph, though in residential areas and near schools, the limit is generally 25 mph/40 kph. It is against the law in California to write, send, or read text-based messages while driving, and drivers must use a hands-free device when speaking on a mobile phone.
Along motorways with heavy traffic, carpool lanes (also called “diamond lanes” for the diamond-shape pattern painted on the lane’s surfaces) are identified by black-and-white signs that include details on times and days of enforcement (usually during peak rush hour periods on weekdays). To drive in most carpool lanes, you must have at least two people (including the driver) in the car. Some lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area have a three-person minimum. Tempted to use the lane when you don’t have the required number of riders? Don’t! Fines are staggeringly high, close to $400 in some areas. In the Los Angeles area, carpool lanes may have specific entry and exit zones. Adhere to them or you could get a hefty fine.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) publishes an online version of its Driver Handbook, which thoroughly explains California’s rules of the road.
Extreme weather can result in cars and trucks being required to use chains and/or snow tyres. At times, it may even close mountain routes. Check restrictions and closures before you go.
Report an accident, crime, or an unsafe driver by calling 911 from any phone.
Get ready to roll. With its mild climate, outstanding highway system, and non-stop gorgeous scenery, California stands out as the perfect place for a road trip. And hiring a car is about as easy as it gets. Whether your trip itinerary is a statewide tour of California’s greatest hits, a family visit to iconic theme parks, or an off the beaten track adventure, there is a vehicle to match your mood and style> Snazzy convertibles, family friendly vans, rugged models that can handle all types of conditions (even snow), or campers and RVs, all in excellent shape and with good road assistance and optional insurance policies.
Car hires are available throughout the state. Most major companies have locations at major airports and in convenient city locations. To hire a car in California, you must be at least 25 years old (in most cases) and have a valid driver's licence and credit card (used as a security deposit). Non-U.S. citizens must have passports. Rates may vary, with factors including location, car size and style, accessories (a child safety seat or a GPS, for example, may be extra), and the day of the week that you rent. Picking up and dropping off a vehicle at different locations can also increase rates. For best rates, try booking a car at the same time you reserve your flights.
We have compiled a list of reputable companies with hire offices statewide. Check charges in advance. There are lots of options including insurance coverage and extras, so be sure you get what you need and know what you are paying for before you drive away. Companies may also offer a pre-pay fuel plan with discounted prices, worth considering if you know you will likely use up at least 1 tank of petrol.
Another fun way to explore California is to travel by train. It is a great way to enjoy the scenery instead of focusing on the road ahead. Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlightand Pacific Surfliner trains follow ultra-scenic routes up and down the coast. TheCapitol Corridor provides an easy east-west route across Northern California, while the San Joaquin slices through the broad and sunny Central Valley with connections to Yosemite National Park and other destinations. Along the way, there are options to link to Amtrak Thruway buses, which serve more than 90 destinations statewide. Plus, you can disembark and hire a car at major stops to do additional exploring. Depending on the route, you may be able to book a space in a special sleeping car, with access to an exclusive parlour car.
Local & Scenic Railways
Though Amtrak is the largest train service in the state, it is not the only one. In Northern California, Caltrain has regular service between San Francisco and San Jose. In Southern California, Metrolink offers service on seven regional lines that connect L.A., Ventura County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. Trains dedicated to certain themes and in specific locales, such as the Napa Valley Wine Train, also provide a unique way to see some of California’s première destinations.
For an easy and often fun way to get around California’s larger cities and communities, do what an increasing number of locals do and hitch a ride on a bus, subway, ferry, or light rail system. Using public transportation can be an efficient, affordable, safe, and eco-friendly option, particularly in areas where roads, parking, and urban traffic can be confusing and frustrating. Some transport systems let you buy multi-day passes. Check ticket options online before you arrive to get the best deals. Two companies, CityPass and Go, also offer deals on local transportation options in San Francisco and Southern California.
You can also use buses to take longer trips around the state. Greyhound is the nation’s primary long-distance bus company, offering routes linking big cities and rural destinations statewide, and heading out of state too.
Here are links to California’s major regional transport organisations. Most offer a variety of travel options, such as buses, subways, and light rail, and in some cases, ferry boats. For more local information on transport options in Northern California, visit 511.org.
1. Learn the basic road laws. Ride in the direction of traffic and use the bicycle lanes when available. California law says you must ride as close to the right side as possible, unless the road is too narrow to be shared—in which case you are allowed to “take the lane.” (Not all motorists understand this, though, so always take precaution in this situation.) The California Bicycle Coalition outlines all the bike laws to know before you ride.
2. Wear this, not that. Cyclists under 18 must wear a helmet, but realistically it’s a good idea for everyone. And if you need to hear your playlist while you ride, keep it to one ear—a law passed in 2016 does not allow for headphones in both ears.
3. Nervous on the road? Find protected trails. Road riding isn’t for everyone, and California has miles upon miles of protected road. Go to traillink.com and type in a specific city and it will show you the distance, surface type, and mileage of routes in the area. Or start by reading Bicycling magazine’s list of the best bike paths in California.
4. Research your route. Check out bike mobile app Strava’s city guides for routes in Bakersfield, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and more—coffee shops and photo ops included. Also, the California Bike Coalition has a solid list of free online maps for routes from Humboldt County down to San Diego. You can also get turn-by-turn directions using Google maps: Dark green lines denote protected bike trails (read: no cars), light green lines show dedicated bike lanes, and dashed green lines indicate bicycle-friendly roads.
5. Consider a cycling event. Start by choosing an enticing ride and let that inspire your trip planning. On any given weekend, you’ll find dozens of cycling events throughout California. Want to tackle a century (100 miles) in wine country? Attend a mountain biking clinic? Check the event calendars on SoCalCycling.com, Raceplace.com, Active.com, or TourOfCalifornia.bike for ideas.
6. Try a cycling tour. An organized bike tour can be a simplified, luxurious way to see new parts of California. Dozens of companies—including Backroads, Trek Travel, Bicycle Adventures, DuVine, and many more—offer trips everywhere from Joshua Tree to wine country to the northern coast, and they often include gourmet local cuisine and overnight stays at high-end resorts.
7. Find a group. Local cycling clubs often have group rides for all levels, either through a local shop or otherwise. USA Cycling has a fairly comprehensive list of clubs, but sometimes just walking into the local bike shop and asking is the easiest way to get info.
8. Watch AMGEN Tour of California in person. If there’s one way to get inspired, watching a world-class bike event is it. With Tour de France-level riders cycling throughout California every May, the AMGEN Tour of California presents a rare opportunity to see a pro peloton up close.
California attracts more than 250 million tourists each year, many of whom are eager to swim, ski, hike, and of course, sample local wines. Others map out memorable road trips that lead them from ocean breezes in the morning to snowy trails by nightfall. “California is such a varied state, with many different climates,” says Los Angeles stylist Morgan Simonds of Better Off Dressed, “so it’s important to pack one key item to address each: everything from a fleece to a bikini, hiking shoes to stilettos.”
Whether you’re visiting from Florida or France, you’ll want to be strategic about what you bring with you. “As a New Yorker who visits California four times a year, I am always struck by how unexpectedly cold I get,” says Lori Bergamotto, Style Director for Good Housekeeping. “I learned quickly that layering is the only solution if you desire comfort at any temperature. Denim jackets, lightweight knit cardigans, capes, ponchos—even a swingy trench—can all be dressed up or dressed down and will prepare you for whatever the weather may be.”
Of course, no one wants to traverse the state weighed down by gigantic suitcases. The trick is to pack smart—whether you’re visiting a big city or tasting Pinots—and to wear more than one layer when you travel. Before you pack your bags, review our recommendations below.
Channel California cool
“You often hear that California style is laid-back,’” says Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen of Sunkissed Steph, “and that's because it’s true! Whether you're down the coast in L.A., the land of denim shorts, or in the Bay Area, where hoodies reign supreme, the style here is definitely on the casual and comfortable side.” Plus, California style is highly individual. “You can totally wear a blazer and jeans here,” says Simonds, “but we would pair it with a rocker tee and a cool pair of sneakers to give the look more of an edge.”
Pick versatile pieces
“Stick with neutral colours—a white tee, or a white button-down shirt if you need to look polished, along with dark denim jeans, black or navy pants, etc.,” says Bergamotto. “You can get so much more mileage out of simple styles. That said, know your agenda,” she advises. “Let your itinerary determine if you go more practical and polished, or more bohemian and beachy.”
If setting sail in San Diego, you’ll want a scarf for when the wind picks up. When visiting a vineyard in Napa Valley or Santa Ynez Valley, be sure to pack a pair of dark-coloured flats that can absorb spills and grass stains. Headed to the desert? Pack tank tops and plenty of sunscreen. In San Francisco, where rain is more frequent, an umbrella is a good idea. And if you’re going out to nice dinners in L.A., take a neutral pair of wedges you can wear again and again.
Bergamotto considers the slip dress “a traveller’s best companion,” saying, “Wear it alone with sandals for a sweltering day; throw a white tee under it—or a cropped top over it—with a pair of sneakers if the temps are in the low 70s; add a denim jacket to that if the temps dip into the 60s, and for cool nights add an oversize cardigan or cape with a heeled bootie.”
Streamline your accessories
In terms of accessories, don’t forget essentials, like a hat and sunglasses, but try to simplify what you bring on the jewellery front. Basic studs and a stack of bracelets that can be worn day in and day out without standing out too much are ideal. “For a little sparkle, layer a colourful jewelled necklace with a charm necklace,” suggest Simonds.
You’ll want a versatile handbag that can fit boarding passes, lip balm, and more, without putting stress on your shoulders. Both Cuyana and Everlane are San Francisco–based brands with beautiful bags that fit the bill.
For something kid-friendly, consider a classic coat tote from L.L. Bean, which can handle everything from sand toys to diapers. Bergamotto is also a firm believer in large Ziploc bags because you can see the contents while keeping things separated. “If there is a spill, such as toothpaste, sunscreen, or hand sanitizer, it will be contained,” she explains.
Don't forget your feet
Streamlining your shoes can be tricky, especially if you have a formal event, such as a wedding, in your travel plans. If that’s the case, plan to repeat the same pair of heels at the rehearsal dinner and ceremony, and then bring one (or two) other adaptable styles that can go from day to night. “The most transitional shoe in California is a flat lace-up sandal,” says Simonds. “It can get you from the beach to a fun brunch, to a casual dinner with ease.”
A functional but cool pair of sneakers or espadrilles works well while shopping, museum hopping, or taking in a ball game. If you’re planning to swim, you’ll want a water-resistant flip-flop or sandal; if you’re hiking, a sneaker or boot; and if you’re skiing, wear a warm, closed-toe style while traveling, then rent boots when you get to the mountains. Even the most basic packages include skis, poles, and boots.
Consider the kids
Versatility is just as important when packing for your children. Select items that they can wear more than once, such as shorts, pants, and leggings in colors that work with multiple tops, since shirts are harder to repeat. (Ice-cream stains, anyone?)
In terms of their footwear, try to keep it simple. “With our kids, we opt for sneakers for both, plus one actual shoe, like Mary Janes or flats for our daughter,” says Bergamotto. “If we know we’ll be spending lots of time at the beach, then skip the ‘shoe’ and opt for water shoes, which also double nicely as casual stroll-around-town shoes.”
Shop when you arrive
Lastly, if your suitcases are nearly impossible to zip, think about what you can buy once you reach your destination—and use up before you head home—such as sunscreen, snacks, and wipes. Also consider what kinds of things you’re likely to pick up along the way, such as a sweatshirt or hat, so that you don’t end up with duplicates. Got all that? Alright. Ready, set, pack!