Lonely Planet California

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Lonely Planet: The world's leading travel guide publisher

Lonely Planet California is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Spot the stars in Hollywood, explore the Napa Valley's world-famous wineries and soak up the rays on SoCal's picturesque beaches; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of California and begin your journey now!

Inside Lonely Planet's California Travel Guide:

  • Color maps and images throughout
  • Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests
  • Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots
  • Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices
  • Honest reviews for all budgets - eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss
  • Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience - wildlife, landscapes, wine, cuisine, beaches, film, television, music, the arts, history, literature, politics
  • More than 100 maps
  • Covers San Francisco, Napa & Sonoma Wine Country, Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada, Los Angeles, San Diego, Disneyland & Orange County, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and more

eBook Features: (Best viewed on tablet devices and smartphones)

  • Downloadable PDF and offline maps prevent roaming and data charges
  • Effortlessly navigate and jump between maps and reviews
  • Add notes to personalize your guidebook experience
  • Seamlessly flip between pages
  • Bookmarks and speedy search capabilities get you to key pages in a flash
  • Embedded links to recommendations' websites
  • Zoom-in maps and images
  • Inbuilt dictionary for quick referencing

The Perfect Choice: Lonely Planet California, our most comprehensive guide to California, is perfect for both exploring top sights and taking roads less traveled.

  • Looking for a guide focused on one of California's major cities? Check out Lonely Planet's Los Angeles, San Diego & Southern California or San Francisco guides for a comprehensive look at all these cities have to offer; Discover San Francisco, a photo-rich guide to the city's most popular attractions; or Pocket Los Angeles and Pocket San Francisco, handy-sized guides focused on the can't-miss sights for a quick trip.

Authors: Written and researched by Lonely Planet, Sara Benson, Andy Bender, Alison Bing, Celeste Brash, Tienlon Ho, Beth Kohn, Adam Skolnick, John A Vlahides

About Lonely Planet: Since 1973, Lonely Planet has become the world's leading travel media company with guidebooks to every destination, an award-winning website, mobile and digital travel products, and a dedicated traveler community. Lonely Planet covers must-see spots but also enables curious travelers to get off beaten paths to understand more of the culture of the places in which they find themselves.

List price: $24.99

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California’s Top 25

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Sashay out onto San Francisco’s iconic bridge to spy on cargo ships threading through pylons painted ‘International Orange.’ Memorize the 360-degree views of the rugged Marin Headlands, downtown skyscrapers and the speck that is Alcatraz ( GOOGLE MAP ; %Alcatraz Cruises 415-981-7625; www.alcatrazcruises.com; day tours adult/child/family $30/18/92, night tours adult/child $37/22; hcall center 8am-7pm, ferries depart Pier 33 half-hrly 9am-3:55pm, night tours 6:10pm & 6:45pm). Not too far away, you could spend days getting lost in Golden Gate Park without uncovering all of its secret haunts, like the paddleboat pond and bison paddock, or fully exploring its innovative science and art museums. Weekend traffic closures make the park even more of a paradise for pedestrians and cyclists.

Ditch the cellphone and hug a tree, dude. And why not start with the world’s tallest trees, redwoods? California’s towering giants grow along much of the coast, from Big Sur north to the Oregon border. It’s possible to cruise past these trees – or even drive right through them at old-fashioned tourist traps – but nothing compares to the awe you’ll feel while walking underneath the ancient ones. Meditate on eternity at Muir Woods National Monument, Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwood National & State Parks (www.nps.gov/redw; state park day-use per car $8; c).

 

If You Like…

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Infused by immigrant cultures for more than 200 years, California cuisine is all about creatively mixing it up, from kim-chi tacos to vegan soul food.

Chez Panisse Chef Alice Waters revolutionized California cuisine back in the ’70s with seasonal locavarian cooking.

French Laundry High-flying kitchen mastered by Thomas Keller is a gastronomic highlight of Napa's wine country.

LA's food trucks They're everywhere now, but LA sparked the mobile foodie revolution, now with 200 chefs on wheels.

Ferry Building Duck inside San Francisco’s waterfront collection of artisanal food vendors, or come for the farmers market.

Fish tacos Start your search for this tasty Mexicali snack by the beach in San Diego.

Barrels from California’s vineyards may steal the scene, but what’s being brewed in big copper vats across the Golden State (maybe in a garage next door) is just as award-winning.

Lost Coast Brewery In Eureka, knock back a pint of Downtown Brown while admiring conceptual-art beer labels.

 

Month by Month

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Top Events

Rose Bowl & Parade, January

Fleet Week & Miramar Air Show, September

Cinco de Mayo, May

Coachella Music & Arts Festival, April

California State Fair, July

Typically the wettest month, January is a slow time for coastal travel. Mountain ski resorts are busy, as are Southern California's deserts.

Held before the Tournament of Roses college football game, this famous New Year’s parade of flower-festooned floats, marching bands and prancing equestrians draws over 700,000 spectators to Pasadena, an LA suburb.

Firecrackers, parades, lion dances and street food celebrate the lunar new year, falling in late January or early February. Some of California’s most colorful celebrations happen in San Francisco and LA.

Usually another rainy month for coastal California, but mountain ski resorts stay busy. Low desert gets more visitors as wildflowers start blooming. Valentine’s Day is booked solid at hotels and restaurants.

 

Itineraries

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First-timers can get a taste of both halves of the Golden State – Southern and Northern California – on this 450-mile coastal drive, lazily stretching from the 'City of Angels' to the 'City by the Bay,' with astounding ocean panoramas almost all along the way.

Swoop down on Los Angeles for stargazing and clubby, cosmopolitan style. Cruise north through celeb-happy Malibu, strung with idyllic beaches. Hop aboard a boat to Channel Islands National Park from Ventura, then slow down for sophisticated seaside Santa Barbara, nestled against wine country.

North of retro-1950s Pismo Beach and the vivacious college town of San Luis Obispo, Hwy 1 curves past picturesque diverting little beach towns like Morro Bay, Cayucos and Cambria before skidding to a stop beneath hilltop Hearst Castle.

 

Road Trips & Scenic Drives

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California is irresistible to road trippers. Gas up and get ready for your jaw to drop, from serpentine coastal drives and sun-washed wine-country vineyards to towering redwood trees, skyscraping Sierra Nevada peaks and dramatic desert landscapes. Just make sure that rental car has unlimited miles – you'll need 'em all.

Consider joining AAA or Better World Club to cover emergency towing and roadside assistance service.

Talking or texting on a cell phone without a hands-free device while driving is illegal in California.

Readily available at self-service gas stations everywhere, except in national parks and remote desert and mountain areas. Expect to pay more than $4 per US gallon.

The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans; %800-427-7623; www.dot.ca.gov) has the latest updates on road closures, construction delays and detours, and winter chain-control requirements.

Unless otherwise posted, 65mph on freeways, 55mph on highways, 35mph on secondary roads.

 

Beaches, Swimming & Surfing

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Beach life and surf culture are part of California's free-wheeling lifestyle, so play hooky on any day of the week and go hit the waves like locals do. Southern California is where you'll find the sunniest swimming beaches, while Northern California's rockier, often foggy strands beckon to beachcombers.

Coronado, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla

Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park, Doheny State Beach

Santa Monica, Venice, South Bay, Malibu

East Beach, El Capitán State Beach, Refugio State Beach, Carpinteria State Beach

Main Beach (Santa Cruz), Moonstone Beach, Cayucos, Pismo State Beach

Stinson Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore, Pacifica State Beach

Sonoma Coast State Beach, Lost Coast, Trinidad State Beach

If lazing on the beach and taking a dip in the Pacific is what your California dreams are made of, look no further than Southern California (SoCal). With miles and miles of wide, sandy beaches, you will find it easy to get wet and wild almost anywhere between Santa Barbara and San Diego. Ocean temperatures in SoCal become tolerable by May or June, peaking in July and August.

 

California Camping & Outdoors

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California is an all-seasons outdoor playground. Go hiking among desert wildflowers in spring, swimming in the Pacific under the summer sun, mountain-biking among fall foliage and whale-watching in winter. For even bigger thrills, launch a glider off ocean bluffs, climb sheer granite walls or hook a kite onto a surfboard.

California's Best Places to Camp

4Sleeping

Cycling & mountain-biking Apr–Oct

Hiking Apr–Oct

Kayaking, snorkeling & scuba diving Jul–Oct

Rock climbing Apr–Oct

Skiing & snowboarding Dec–Mar

Whale-watching Jan–Mar

White-water rafting Apr–Oct

Windsurfing Apr–Oct

Backpacking John Muir Trail

Cycling Pacific Coast Highway

Hiking Redwood National & State Parks

Mountain biking Lake Tahoe

 

Travel with Children

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California is a tailor-made destination for family travel. The kids will be begging to go to theme parks and teens to celebrity hotspots. Then take 'em into the great outdoors – from sunny beaches shaded by palm trees to four-seasons mountain playgrounds.

See stars in Hollywood and get behind the movie magic at Universal Studios, then hit the beaches and Griffith Park for fun in the sun. What, it’s raining? Dive into the city’s many kid-friendly museums instead.

Think SoCal theme parks galore: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park, Legoland and more. Oh, and those sandy beaches just couldn’t be more beautiful.

Explore hands-on, whimsical and ‘Wow!’ museums, hear the barking sea lions at Pier 39 or Point Reyes National Seashore, traipse through Golden Gate Park and ride San Francisco's famous cable cars.

Watch your kids gawk at Yosemite’s waterfalls and granite domes, then go hiking among groves of giant sequoias, the world’s biggest trees. In the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes is a year-round outdoor-adventure base camp.

 

Eat & Drink Like a Local

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As you graze the Golden State, you’ll often want to compliment the chef – and they’re quick to share the spotlight with local farmers, fishers, ranchers and artisanal food producers. Best of all, California cuisine keeps redefining and refining itself – and along with it, the way the rest of the country eats.

In the Central Valley in late April

On the North Coast in mid-June

In Santa Barbara County in early October

Near Monterey on the Central Coast in May or June

In Sonoma County in mid-August

In San Diego in mid-October

On the North Coast in early November

(www.datefest.org) Outside Palm Springs in February

(http://sdbw.org) Held city-wide in early November

On the Central Coast in early August

‘Let the ingredients speak for themselves!’ is the rallying cry of California cuisine. With fruit, vegetables, seafood and meats this fresh, heavy French sauces and fussy molecular-gastronomy foams aren't required to make meals memorable. That said, California’s food fixations are easily exaggerated: not every Californian demands grass-fed burgers with heirloom tomato ketchup.

 

Regions at a Glance

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California’s cities have more flavors than a jar of jellybeans. Start from San Francisco, equal parts earth mother and geek chic, or Los Angeles, where dozens of independent cities are rolled into one multicultural mosaic. Then drift down the coast, past cinematic Southern California beaches to surf-style San Diego. Or escape to the craggy Sierra Nevada mountains, detour to SoCal's soulful deserts and lose yourself in northern redwood forests. On sunny days when the coastal fog lifts, over 1100 miles of ocean beaches await. And no matter where you go, California's vineyards never seem far away.

California’s ‘Left Coast’ reputation rests squarely on SF, where DIY self-expression, sustainability and spontaneity are the highest virtues. Free thinkers, techies, foodies and renegade artists are all in the city's creative mix.

Outdoors nuts adore Marin County for its beaches, wildlife and hiking and cycling trails. Visit green farms that inspire Bay Area chefs, or keep things urban on the counter-cultural streets of 'Bezerkely' and 'Oaktown'.

 

San Francisco

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Get to know the world capital of weird from the inside out, from mural-lined alleyways named after poets to clothing-optional beaches on a former military base. But don’t be too quick to dismiss San Francisco’s wild ideas. Biotech, gay rights, personal computers, cable cars and organic fine dining were once considered outlandish too, before San Francisco introduced these underground ideas into the mainstream decades ago. San Francisco’s morning fog erases the boundaries between land and ocean, reality and infinite possibility.

Rules are never strictly followed here, but bliss is. Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz are entirely optional – San Franciscans mostly admire them from afar – leaving you free to pursue inspiration through Golden Gate Park, past flamboyantly painted Victorian homes and through Mission galleries. Just don’t be late for your sensational, sustainable dinner: in San Francisco, you can find happiness and eat it too.

AJan–Mar Low-season rates, brisk but rarely cold days, and Lunar New Year parade fireworks.

 

San Francisco by Cable Car

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Carnival rides can't compare to cable cars, San Francisco's vintage public transit. Novices slide into strangers' laps – cable cars were invented in 1873, long before seatbelts – but regular commuters just grip leather hand-straps, lean back, and ride downhill slides like pro surfers. On this trip, you'll master the San Francisco stance, and conquer SF hills without breaking a sweat.

At the 1 Powell St Cable Car Turnaround, you'll see operators turn the car atop a revolving wooden platform and a vintage kiosk where you can buy an all-day Muni Passport for $14, instead of paying $6 per ride. Board the red-signed Powell-Hyde cable car, and begin your 338ft ascent up Nob Hill.

As your cable car lurches uphill, you can imagine horses struggling up this slippery crag. Nineteenth-century city planners were skeptical of inventor Andrew Hallidie's 'wire-rope railway' – but after more than a century of near-continuous operation, his wire-and-hemp cables have seldom broken. Hallidie's cable cars even survived the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed 'Snob Hill' mansions, returning the faithful to rebuilt 2 Grace Cathedral – hop off to say hello to SF's gentle patron St Francis by sculptor Beniamino Bufano.

 

Marin County & the Bay Area

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The region surrounding San Francisco encompasses a bonanza of natural vistas and wildlife. Cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin and visit wizened ancient redwoods body-blocking the sun and herds of elegant tule elk prancing along the bluffs of Tomales Bay. Gray whales show some fluke off the cape of wind-scoured Point Reyes, and hawks surf the skies in the pristine hills of the Marin Headlands.

On the cutting edge of intellectual thought, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley draw academics and students from around the world. The city of Berkeley sparked the locavore food movement and continues to be on the forefront of environmental and left-leaning political causes. South of San Francisco, Hwy 1 traces miles of undeveloped coastline and sandy pocket beaches.

ADec–Mar Elephant seal pupping season and the peak of gray whale migrations.

AMar–Apr Wildflowers hit their peak on trails throughout the region.

 

Napa & Sonoma Wine Country

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America’s premier viticulture region has earned its reputation among the world’s best. Despite hype about Wine Country style, it’s from the land that all Wine Country lore springs. Rolling hills, dotted with century-old oaks, turn the color of lion’s fur under the summer sun and swaths of vineyards carpet hillsides as far as the eye can see. Where they end, lush redwood forests follow serpentine rivers to the sea.

There are over 600 wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties, but it’s quality, not quantity, that sets the region apart – especially in Napa, which competes with France and doubles as an outpost of San Francisco’s top-end culinary scene. Sonoma prides itself on agricultural diversity, with goat-cheese farms, you-pick-em orchards and roadside fruit stands. Plan to get lost on back roads, and, as you picnic atop sun-dappled hillsides, grab a hunk of earth and know firsthand the thing of greatest meaning in Wine Country.

AJan Bright-yellow flowers carpet the valleys during the off-season; room rates plummet.

 

North Coast & Redwoods

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There's a stretch of the coast with no road access called the 'Lost Coast,' but even the rest of the region, reached by a circuitous two-lane blacktop, feels far from the world's radar. The North Coast is no Beach Boys’ song; there are no bikinis and few surfboards. The jagged edge of the continent is wild, scenic and even slightly foreboding, where spectral fog and an outsider spirit have fostered the world’s tallest trees, most potent weed and a string of idiosyncratic two-stoplight towns. Explore hidden coves with a blanket and a bottle of local wine, scan the horizon for migrating whales and retreat at night to fire-warmed Victorians. As you travel further north, find valleys of redwood, wide rivers and mossy, overgrown forests. Befitting this dramatic clash of land and water are its unlikely mélange of residents: timber barons and tree huggers, pot farmers and political radicals of every stripe.

AJun–Jul The driest season in the Redwoods is spectacular for day hikes and big views.

 

Northern Mountains

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'Hidden California' gets bandied around fairly casually, but here you have an entire corner of the state that does seem forgotten. The coast and foggy redwood groves are far away, so prepare yourself for something completely different: vast expanses of wilderness – some 24,000 protected acres – divided by rivers and streams, dotted with cobalt lakes, horse ranches and alpine peaks; further east is a stretch of shrubby, high desert cut with amber gorges, caves and dramatic light that is a photographer's dream. Much of it doesn’t look the way people envision California – the topography more resembles the older mountains of the Rockies than the relatively young granite Yosemite. The towns are hospitable but tiny, with few comforts; come to get lost in vast remoteness. Even the two principal attractions, Mt Shasta and Lassen Volcanic National Park, remain uncrowded (and sometimes snow-covered) at the peak of the summer.

AJul–Sep Warm weather and snow-free passes are ideal for backcountry camping.

 

Sacramento & Central Valley

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The Central Valley is a vast swath of golden fields, rolling hills and scenic waterways that span 400 miles from Chico to Bakersfield. Its rich soil feeds the nation. Half the produce in the US — and nearly every carrot, almond and asparagus spear — was grown here.

In spring, the rivers swell and the orchards bloom. In summer, vast vineyards thrive under the relentless sunshine, and produce comes to market still warm from the fields. By fall and winter, the skies mellow and migratory ducks and geese fly in for a visit. The birds stay longer than most travelers, who tend to zip through on their way to more popular parts, but the shady streets and stately mansions of the region's Victorian-era towns and the uniquely scenic communities dotting the Sacramento Delta and Hwy 99, warrant more than a glimpse through the window.

AFeb–Mar Stop for pie and hot cider in the valley's technicolor Blossom Trail orchards.

ANov–Feb Catch the spectacular return of millions of migratory waterfowl in Sacramento.

 

Gold Country

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Hollywood draws the dreamers and Silicon Valley its fortune-hunters, but this isn't the first time droves of young folk looking to hit paydirt streamed into the Golden State. After a sparkle in the American River caught James Marshall’s eye in 1848, more than 300,000 hungry prospectors from America and abroad started digging for gold in the Sierra foothills. Soon California entered statehood with the official motto, 'Eureka,' solidifying its place as the land of discovery and opportunity.

The miner forty-niners are gone, but a ride along the aptly named Hwy 49 through sleepy hill towns, past clapboard saloons and oak-lined byways, is a journey back to the wild ride that was modern California’s founding. Between the quaint antique stores and sprawling wineries, fading historical markers still tell tales of Gold Rush violence and banditry. Many travelers hardly hit the brakes while rushing between California’s coasts and mountains, but those who slow down will be rewarded with a taste of the helter-skelter era that first kick-started the heartbeat of this state.

 

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