Ultimate California: Top Places to Visit

For a very long period have I yearned to live the California dream; not the fame and wealth sort although I would not refuse it, but simply the perceived fun and happy lifestyle by the beach, soaking up the year-round sunshine with a cold pressed juice in one hand and a Kindle on the other.

With all the media access that I have to the world of globetrotters (been in the travel biz for nearly two years), I am constantly vulnerable to envy upon hearing all about the adventures that happen across the ocean.

My thoughts were, “Right. That’s going to be me. It’s got to happen, pronto.”

After a few months in search of travel buddies, I was over the moon when two amazing, like-minded postgrad friends from Imperial College, Liz and Bibiana wanted to come along on this adventure with me.

Three girls with ten days in the Golden State — it was perfecto mundo (sentiment from the trip; we used this phrase when all are in agreement of a plan).

The great upside about planning your trip early is you get to look forward to it and feel the excitement slowly creep in. With two months to spare, I indulged in the Visit California guide books and probed into reviews and tips to make the best of the time we have there. Being the slight type A personality, I did not mind the planning at all but rather, I enjoy the stability and certainty as a result. It was a win-win situation.

Cutting to the chase, here are my picks for ‘Must Experience in California’ and the overall low-down, in no particular order.

1. Los Angeles

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The City of Angels, a truly special place blessed with constant warmth and sunshine. There is so much going on in this vast county, each corner with a character of its own. Home to the world’s entertainment industry, celebrity spotting at Rodeo Drive and Robertson Boulevard, and the signature Hollywood hills are classic on the checklist.

Beach culture adds a lot to the amusing LA scene too — neon hotpants roller skaters, health fanatics accessorised in trendy sportswear, surfers in spawned spandex wetsuits — they are anything but dull.  You can find the opportunity for a great (down) time to hit the waves or, purely, people-watch at Venice Beach (some call it sketchy but I’d say down to Earth), Santa Monica (more affluent), or Manhattan Beach (local hidden gem) to name the popular few.

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One of the biggest reasons why I fell in love with California is the amount of national parks and the lifestyle associated with it — hikes, concerts, lookout points. With hilly landscapes comes grand panoramic views. The cost? Nothing but your breath. It is big effort to work your way up, but it’s worth every step as the endless view takes your breath away, with the city just as beautiful when it comes to light during nightfall — I am speaking specifically of the Griffith’s Observatory experience. You may have a life-changing moment here, take it from me.

2. San Diego

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Photo credit: Navid Serrano

I have to admit, I was gutted that I didn’t manage to fit in San Diego into my California itinerary, even though I was repeatedly advised to. Both vacationers and locals spoke highly of San Diego; a paradise for all ages — easy going and laid back yet affluent, family-friendly, ritzy and raucous downtown scene, bronze summery beach and year-round sunshine — it’s no surprise it’s nicknamed ‘America’s Finest City’.  Just you wait you fine thing, I’ll come for you in no time.

3. Malibu

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Lined up along the 21-mile Malibu coast are opulent beach houses, all belonging to the mega-rich. Warning: these sights can make your eyes and heart ache with envy.

Park up and take a stroll along the beach. If you come across ‘No trespassers’ or ‘Private beach’ signs, don’t feel obliged to turn down that rare opportunity to explore Malibu. As much as residents like to impose access restrictions, Malibu beach IS public under state law. You might want to get the Malibu Beaches app for tips on secret sites and access from experienced local beach-goers. Who knows, you may stumble across insider tips on the best time to catch Ellen DeGeneres come out of hiding.

Make a pit stop and pick one, or even two of the widely celebrated restaurants with untainted ocean view as you tuck into a farm-fresh brunch platter. Nobu Malibu, Moonshadows and Malibu Farm Cafe are popular not just with the public but the A-listers too. My first-hand brunch experience at Malibu Farm Cafe was nothing short of refreshing and gratifying; it was well worth the 45-minute queue. Food review post to follow shortly.

As much as one likes to stay close to the coast, don’t miss the turn into Pepperdine University. You’ll be in for a treat, as you ascend towards the campus. Just 10 minutes from sea level and you’ll be looking over the picturesque Pacific Ocean by the rugged Malibu Canyon. The best part is you can have this all to yourself on weekends or term break days.

4. Pacific Coast Highway

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One can’t claim they have done California without cruising down State Route 1 a.k.a Pacific Coast Highway. It is considered as the nation’s favourite scenic path that offers 6 hours of majestic views. The coast takes you on an exhilarating drive with several sharp drop-offs and narrow shoulders; some drivers may find this uneasy. But all is not bad as you get to grips with the road, you become eager at every bend because behind them awaits the surprising view that calls for a pit stop.

The drive encompasses several areas that make up an essential part of the whole Route 1 experience — Morro Bay,  Cambria, Santa Barbara, San Simeon, Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Bixby Bridge, Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterrey —   do not miss them. With so much to see and do, I would recommend taking two days as the absolute minimum. We managed to tick off the above, well nearly, in just two full days with a night stopover in the neat little town of San Luis Obispo.

Thanks to Bibiana who was tireless behind the wheel throughout the journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Being the passenger gave me all the chance to appreciate the scenic drive and to capture it all on my Canon that was forever on standby mode. Read in detail about the road trip covering 500 miles.

5. San Francisco

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As Anthony Bourdain said, “Anyone who doesn’t have a great time in San Francisco is pretty much dead to me.”

The beauty of The City, as the locals call it (no, it’s not Frisco), transcends the hilly landscapes and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. This lively metropolitan city owes its reputation to the upbeat and liberated culture, and fast-forward thinking where almost anything goes. Perched prettily on the hills are some quirky houses with designs dating back to the historical Edwardian style, all the way to postmodern artisinal hippy homes influenced by the radical culture movement since the 70s.

Technology isn’t the only limelight of San Francisco; the gastronomy scene is starting to dominate too.  Thriving on variety, you’ll be spoilt for choice — from the epicurean two Michelin star Acquerello in swanky Nob Hill, to America’s best burrito at La Taqueria in Mission District, a trendy neighbourhood very well-known for outstanding Mexican food.

Apart from the regular visit from Karl the fog smothering the city, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city on foot — watch sea lions bask in the sunshine at Pier 39, cruise to the unescapable Alcatraz island, hang off the cable car towards downtown for the thrill, cycle along the promenade towards Golden Gate Bridge, sip state-of-the-art dripped coffee, the list goes on. San Francisco was a lot of fun, especially when I was privileged to be hosted by a local friend, Siong whom I stayed with in the heart of Mission.

I hope that at this point, you would walk away with adequate California travel tips, and take on this adventure in no time. Who knows what tomorrow brings, right?

Next up…

I’ve only revealed the tip of the iceberg of my ten day adventure in California. In your next visit, expect to be blown away by the panoramic photos of LA, food review in the top rated restaurants, a road trip diary conquering Big Sur, and tips on exploring San Francisco in three days; complete with my 10-day California trip itinerary.

Watch this space :-)

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