California Travel Guide

California has long been one of America’s most sought-after travel destinations. From sun-soaked surf towns and majestic redwood forests to vibrant cities and historic towns, there’s plenty for travelers to see & do in the Golden State.

For urban wanderers, the streets of Californian cities like San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles are among the most exciting in the USA. And not far from the state’s major cities, you can escape the concrete jungle to explore old-growth forests and mountain towns in Northern California or blissful beaches and desert canyons in Southern California.

Ready to experience one of North America’s most eclectic and exciting places to visit? Plan the ultimate Golden State road trip with this complete California travel guide, including where to go, what to see & do, when to visit, and how to get there!

Why Treksplorer? Founded in 2011 by Ryan O’Rourke, Treksplorer provides travel recommendations and advice to millions of readers every year. Our content is rooted in our writers’ firsthand experiences, in-depth research, and/or collaborations with other experts and locals. Read more about our editorial policy.

Where to go in California

San Francisco

Not sure where to start your ultimate California road trip? Carve out time to explore San Francisco. Not only is San Francisco the most popular travel destination in the Golden State; it’s one of the most alluring places to visit in the United States.

San Francisco is jam-packed with attractions, reflecting a long history from its humble beginnings as a gold mining town to the modern epicenter of Silicon Valley. As you wander about the city, you’ll catch spot iconic historic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Coit Tower, while experiencing one of the West Coast’s finest food & drink scenes.

San Francisco

Once you’ve soaked up all of San Francisco’s urban charms, slip just outside the city to experience some of Northern California’s natural beauty in Marin County. Start with the Muir Woods National Monument, named for John Muir, one of the country’s most famous conservationists. Spanning 554 acres, the nature reserve is famed for its towering old-growth redwood trees. 

San Francisco is also within easy reach of the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, two of the most important wine-producing regions in North America.

Ready to start planning your trip to San Francisco? Get started with these travel resources…

San Diego

No Californian city captures the laid-back spirit of the Golden State quite like San Diego. Located on the Pacific Coast at the state’s southwestern fringes, San Diego tousles up all of California’s charms in one (not-so) tight package.

San Diego

Within its over 370 square miles, you’ll stumble upon everything from hip art galleries and museums to breezy parks and pristine beaches. Many visitors start their journey at Balboa Park, spawling 1,200 acres in the city center. Home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo and several galleries & museums, the immense park can suck up an entire day on its own.

After exploring San Diego’s cultural attractions by day, slide over to the city’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. The lively downtown neighborhood is the epicenter of the city’s nightlife, jam-packed with restaurants, nightclubs, bars, lounges, and theatres.

Ready to start planning your trip to San Diego? Get started with these travel resources…

Los Angeles

With its Hollywood glamour, swaying palm trees, and bright sunny skies, it’s no wonder that Los Angeles is one of America’s most famous urban destinations. The country’s second-largest city, LA draws in travelers from far and wide to parade down its glitzy boulevards and soak up its modern American cultural charms.

Los Angeles’ downtown area is a bustling hub of activity. From the iconic Tower Records building to the sleek Staples Center, this is where Angelenos go to work, play, shop, eat, and party.

Los Angeles

But LA isn’t just all about big business. Within the city’s vast boundaries, you’ll find some of the country’s most beautiful parks, interesting museums, and eclectic art galleries.

Take a break from the city buzz with a stroll through Griffith Park to unwind to sweeping views of the San Fernando Valley. Or head to the Getty Museum in Brentwood, featuring a massive collection of European art and photography.

If you’re looking for something a little more low-key, check out the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica. Catch a game of roller hockey, ride a Ferris wheel, or grab a bite to eat at one of the many eateries lining the famed boardwalk.

Ready to start planning your trip to Los Angeles? Get started with these travel resources from our Los Angeles Travel Guide

Santa Barbara

With its Spanish mission architecture, charming downtown streets, and beautiful coastline, Santa Barbara is a picture-perfect California destination.

Santa Barbara’s rich history is evident throughout the city. Its cobblestone streets wind through old neighborhoods dating back to the 1800s. The gorgeous Mission Santa Barbara is another Santa Barbara must-see, giving a glimpse of the city’s Spanish roots from its perch between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Santa Barbara

The city’s coastal charms are apparent everywhere you look. From the coastal town of Goleta to the rolling hills of Montecito, the area’s natural beauty is hard to beat.

For a taste of the local history & culture, head to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Here, you’ll learn about the region’s fascinating history through relics dating as far back as the 15th century.

Ready to start planning your trip to Santa Barbara? Get started with these travel resources…

Palm Springs

Known as “the desert oasis,” Palm Springs sits smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. And while that may sound like a bad thing, it actually means Palm Springs has some of the best weather in the United States. Year-round, the desert town is soaked with sunshine and warm temperature, making it a haven for sun lovers.

Palm Springs’ climate is ideal for outdoor activities year-round. The city is home to a barrage of hot springs, spas, upscale resorts, and several golf courses, including the famed TPC Stadium.

Palm Springs

Another major draw for tourists visiting Palm Springs is its natural beauty. From the towering mountains to the sparkling lakes, Palm Springs offers visitors a variety of outdoor adventures, including hiking in the famed nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

If you’re looking for something a little different, head out to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Held annually since 1999 in the nearby town of Indio, the music festival draws thousands of music fans from around the globe.

Ready to start planning your trip to Palm Springs? Get started with these travel resources…

Other destinations in California

  • Yosemite National Park
  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Sequoia National Park
  • Death Valley National Park
  • Sonoma Valley
  • Mammoth Lakes
  • Pismo Beach
  • Redwood National and State Parks
  • Kings Canyon National Park

When to visit California

The best time to visit California is in the spring between April and May and in the fall between September and October. During the spring and fall shoulder seasons, temperatures in California are warm and pleasant with sunny weather. You’ll also enjoy an added bonus of spring blossoms or fall foliage throughout the state.

Big Sur

Although summer is the most popular time to go to California, the high tourism season also brings with it denser crowds and higher prices. If you choose to travel to California in the summer, be sure to book your accommodations well ahead of time—and prepare to pay a premium.

If you’re into skiing and snowboarding, winter is another great season to visit California. Hit the slopes at Tahoe or Mammoth to carve down some of America’s finest pistes—with spectacular views to match!

How to get to California

By air

California has several major international airports including Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and San Diego International Airport (SAN).

Popular airlines flying to/from California from domestic and international gateways include:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines

By road

California is well-connected by road to the neighboring states of Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon, as well as Mexico. Popular road routes to California include:

  • South Lake Tahoe to/from Reno, NV (1h6m)
  • Sacramento to/from Reno, NV (2h13m)
  • San Francisco to/from Reno, NV (4h4m)
  • San Francisco to/from Portland, OR (10h38m)
  • Los Angeles to/from Las Vegas, NV (4h27m)
  • Los Angeles to/from Phoenix, AZ (5h54m)
  • San Diego to/from Tuscon, AZ (5h54m)
  • San Diego to/from Tijuana (35m)

Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.