California needs no introduction. It’s one of the most iconic states in the USA, immortalised in countless pop songs and films and a key part of the fabric of modern-day entertainment.

One of California’s main draws is its extraordinary diversity. You can head to the snowy peaks near Lake Tahoe, experience the scorching deserts of Death Valley, or cruise along the jaw-dropping cliffs of Big Sur. Sip your way through the lush vineyards of Napa Valley and soak up the vibrant energy of the state’s cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Barbara, with its Spanish colonial charm.

California’s popularity and vast size make it a challenge to narrow down the must-visit spots, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. Fear not though, in our latest travel guide, we’ve whittled down some of our favourite destinations in this legendary US state, offering a glimpse into what you could experience on your own Californian adventure.  As always, please get in touch if you’d like to find out more about how we can help you create your own tailor-made Californian multi-centre holiday.


Yosemite National Park: Pristine Wilderness & Natural Wonders

Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Yosemite National Park sprawls across nearly 750,000 acres of pristine wilderness, with scenery that is nothing short of spectacular.  At the heart of the park is the Yosemite Valley, which boasts the towering granite monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome, the stunning waterfalls of Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, plus iconic viewpoints including Tunnel View and Valley View.

There are numerous walking trails of varying difficulties, mountain bike trails and plenty of opportunities for camping and other outdoor experiences.  Other highlights of the park include the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias where you’ll find trees that are over 2,000 years old and Glacier Point, located at the top of a 3200 ft almost-sheer cliff, with incredible views of Yosemite Valley.


Lake Tahoe:  Natural beauty & Outdoor Pursuits

On the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and about 150 miles north of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe is a stunning alpine lake with crystal-clear waters surrounded by towering trees and lush forests.

Must-do adventures include taking a scenic walk along the Tahoe Rim Trail and experiencing the numerous water-based activities in the lake’s pristine waters, including kayaking, paddleboarding and swimming.  In the winter, Lake Tahoe transforms into a winter wonderland, popular with skiers and snowboarders. One of the most popular towns is South Lake Tahoe with a good range of accommodation and restaurants, offering a perfect set-up for winter activities as well as summer fun.


San Francisco: Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz & Cable Cars

San Francisco, known as the ‘City by the Bay,’ is an irresistible blend of iconic landmarks, eclectic districts, and world-class cuisine. The Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering marvel, spanning the entrance to San Francisco Bay with its striking orange-red hue, offering breath-taking views.   The bridge offers pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, allowing you to soak up the panoramic views of San Francisco, the Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.

Alcatraz Island, once home to America’s most notorious criminals, provides a haunting glimpse into the past with its infamous prison.  To reach Alcatraz, take a ferry from Pier 33 for a scenic journey across San Francisco Bay with gorgeous views of the city skyline en route.  On arrival, you are free to roam the prison as you wish, with the help of the self-guided audio tours. You can step inside the cells and learn about the conditions endured by the inmates.

Another iconic destination is Lombard Street, in the Russian Hill area, which famously features a steep incline, and eight hairpin turns adorned with colourful flowers. Driving the route can be busy and laborious, so the best way to view this quirky landmark is to walk along the pavement, or simply admire its beauty from afar. The surrounding area is full of bustling shops, cafes and historic architecture.  Taking a trip on a cable car in San Francisco is an essential experience.  Make sure you take an outward-facing seat for the best panoramic views, especially towards the stunning San Francisco Bay.

There is no shortage of great places to eat in San Francisco.  From the delicious seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf to the authentic cuisine in Chinatown and Little Italy.  For an escape from the city’s hustle and bustle, head to Golden Gate Park, with its lush gardens and world-class museums. Or relax in the green spaces of Alamo Square with the iconic views of the ‘Painted Ladies’ – a colourful collection of Victorian houses built during the Gold Rush era – in the background.


Napa Valley: A Feast for the Senses

Heading north of San Francisco, you’ll find yourself in Napa Valley, a wine-lovers’ paradise boasting sprawling vineyards, picturesque landscapes, and charming towns. Top of your list will undoubtedly be to immerse yourself in the area’s wine culture, with visits to historic wineries such as Sattui Winery in St. Helena, Beringer, Domaine Carneros, or Castello di Amorosa. Here you can enjoy guided tours that offer a glimpse into the wine-making process with plenty of opportunities to taste the local wines.

Foodies will revel in the high-quality cuisine on offer in the region, from the heavenly pastries at Bouchon Bakery to the three-Michelin-star fine-dining experience at The French Laundry and everything in between.  A great way to view the region whilst enjoying sumptuous food and wine is to take a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train which starts in downtown Napa and travels northbound through the heart of Napa Valley, passing through the towns of Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena.  For a break from food and wine-tasting, head to Napa Valley Museum, or explore nature at the Skyline Wilderness Park.  For an unforgettable experience, take a sunrise hot air balloon ride to capture the breath-taking views of the region from the skies.


The Big Sur: Rugged Cliffs, Waterfalls & Tranquillity

The Big Sur region between Los Angeles and San Francisco boasts some of the most rugged and visually stunning coastlines in the world. Stretching 90 miles, it offers pristine beaches, lush forests and towering cliffs.  One of the most iconic sights in Big Sur is the Bixby Creek Bridge, where sheer cliffs frame the huge arched bridge, offering panoramic views of the ocean below.

Other gems include the McWay Falls, an 80-foot-tall waterfall that cascades directly onto a pristine beach, creating an almost surreal scene and is understandably popular with photographers and nature lovers.   Also, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in Monterey County is a great way to immerse yourself in the ancient redwood groves, where you’ll find walking trails, secluded beaches and diverse wildlife.


Santa Barbara: Laid-back Spanish Charm

Between the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean lies the picturesque coastal city of Santa Barbara. This charming, laid-back city exudes Spanish Colonial charm with its red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings, and avenues lined with palm trees. For some culture, head to the Santa Barbara Presidio, a historic landmark that offers insights into the Spanish colonial era, and the adjacent Mission Santa Barbara, with its beautiful architecture, gardens, and religious artefacts.

For beachside relaxation or a spot of surfing, popular spots include East Beach and Butterfly Beach where you will also catch a wonderful sunset. The city’s vibrant downtown area offers a mix of boutiques, great restaurants, and art galleries, or head to the creative and artsy Funk Zone with its galleries, wine tasting rooms, and eclectic shops. The Santa Barbara region is also famous for its wine production, particularly of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and the Santa Ynez Valley, home to numerous wineries, is just a short drive from downtown Santa Barbara.


Los Angeles: Hollywood, Culture & Theme Parks

Nestled along the picturesque coastline of the Pacific Ocean, Los Angeles is known as the entertainment capital of the world. From the iconic Hollywood sign to the sun-kissed shores of Venice Beach, there is something for everyone among the must-see sights of this sprawling metropolis. Begin your LA adventure by exploring the glittering streets of Hollywood, where you can stroll along the legendary Walk of Fame. Hike to the Hollywood sign or, slightly easier, get a great view from Griffith Observatory, which also offers stunning views of the city skyline and hills. Go window shopping in the trendy upscale boutiques of Beverly Hills or soak up the vibes of Venice Beach or the nightlife of Downtown LA.

For some added culture, head to the Getty Center to admire the art collections or bask in the sun at the Santa Monica Pier. If theme parks are your thing, head to Universal Studios for a day of fun with exciting rides and live shows. Or head just outside of the city, to Disneyland – Walt Disney’s original theme park – with rides, parades, fireworks shows, and a large dose of Disney magic. For an escape from the city, head to Malibu, roughly 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. From the world-famous surf breaks of Surfrider Beach to the rugged cliffs of Point Dume, Malibu offers stunning scenery with a laid-back ambiance. It’s where a lot of the celebs live, so you may even spot a Hollywood star while dining in a local Malibu restaurant!


Death Valley: A Surreal Landscape on a Galaxy Far, Far Away…!

Nestled along the border of California and Nevada, within the heart of the Mojave Desert, Death Valley is home to towering sand dunes and vast salt flats. At Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, a sprawling salt pan covers nearly 200 square miles.

Formed by the evaporation of a prehistoric lake, its thick layers of salt and minerals are a testament to the desert’s ancient history. For Star Wars enthusiasts, Death Valley holds a special draw, having served as the backdrop for iconic scenes in cinematic history. In ‘A New Hope,’ it transforms into the desolate home planet of Luke Skywalker, Tatooine, while in ‘The Return of the Jedi,’ it sets the stage for Jabba’s Palace.


San Diego: Beaches & Balboa park

Located near the border of Mexico, San Diego is situated along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, offering a vibrant beach scene. For something lively, head to Pacific Beach and Mission Beach with their funky bars and excellent dining options. If you’re after prime surfing, San Onofre is the place to be, or for some snorkelling or diving, head to La Jolla Cove.

Beyond the beaches, Balboa Park is home to museums, botanical gardens, and recreational spaces, including the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Old Town State Historic Park showcases Spanish colonial heritage amidst charming streets lined with museums and restaurants. As night falls, the Gaslamp Quarter is the place to be with an array of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.

No visit to San Diego is complete without a journey to Coronado Island, renowned for its pristine beaches, quaint town adorned with chic boutiques and laid-back cafes, and panoramic views across the city skyline. If you’re looking for a day out, head to one of the theme parks including SeaWorld, Aquatica, Belmont Park, and Legoland.


Pacific Coast Highway (PCH):  The ultimate road trip

For those who love exploring under their own steam, hiring a car and heading on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is a must-do adventure that incorporates many of the best spots in California. Offering one of the most scenic drives in the world, the route winds along California’s stunning coastline, showcasing incredible views of rugged cliffs, serene beaches, and some of the state’s most charming coastal towns.

This iconic highway, officially known as Highway 1, stretches over 650 miles from the north, near Mendocino, down to Dana Point in the south. Along the way, you’ll encounter the coastal redwood forests of Northern California, and the vibrant city of San Francisco with its Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars. Continuing south, you’ll pass through the picturesque Monterey Bay, the dramatic beauty of Big Sur with its iconic Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls, and the artistic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Further south, you’ll explore Santa Cruz with its beach boardwalk and surfing culture, then relax in Pismo Beach with its rolling sand dunes. You’ll continue to the Spanish colonial beauty of Santa Barbara, the sun-kissed beaches of Malibu and the bustling city of Los Angeles. Your journey will conclude in San Diego, where beautiful beaches and Balboa Park await.


California Dreamin’?

California’s mix of diverse landscapes and buzzing cities mean there’s something incredible around every corner.  Please get in touch if you’d like to chat to one of our team or you’d like us to curate your own Californian adventure.

Mathew Woodward Senior Travel Consultant

Matt has been working for eShores since 2012, but has worked in the industry for the last 24 years, so is highly experienced. When it comes to hands on knowledge, Matt has travelled extensively, especially in the USA where there aren't many places he hasn't been to. Matt is fun, loves a chat, but is down to earth, so you'll always get his honest opinion.