Best Places to Visit in California

Santa Cruz waves on the beach

Best Places to Visit in California

Flag of California
Flag of California

I know, not my typical post, but I have a number of people who I know, that love to visit the Golden State.  It seems California is number one for a travel destination …, so why not see the best places to visit in California like a local!  Things you must do when in Northern California, but would only know this if you are a local, or have been advised by a local:  Here’s what we always like to do, or liked to do.

Visit the Coast

Of course you’re going to visit the coast.  Most visitors do the usual, and I think it’s a great place to start.  HWY 1 is an impressive beginning to your California visit.  You can typically start just south of San Francisco, and take it down the entire state, or just do partial runs of it.  The plus side:  Views.  It’s an amazing construct to drive right along the coast.  You’ll see in parts, a lot of nothing more than the ocean, and along other drive-thru’s you’ll see charming, quaint towns.  The down side:  not much more than it’s slower, more curvy, and if you might get sick of going a slower pace.  However, you can usually merge onto a freeway within a few miles anywhere along HWY 1.

My suggestion is to begin just below San Mateo, and take it to Santa Barbara.   Notice the numerous little coves along the coast.  It’s more than the eye can take in at times, but a must do!

Santa Cruz

For the Best Places to visit in California, this is one of my favorite towns along our northern California coast line.  I love the vibe there, and the beaches.  My kids and I have spent many a day on the near-empty beaches along this region.  Little towns like Soquel, Capitola and Seabright, are host to lovely resorts and breath-taking beaches.  Often you will find the little beaches set along these towns are typically empty!  That means, you have the whole beach to yourself.  What I’d recommend is stopping into Soquel or Capitola, find a great burrito shop, get lunch to go, and enjoy it on the beach.  Sometimes you can do some shell hunting and find a beach full of sand dollars that have washed ashore.  Other times, it’s perfect to just sit and enjoy the blue horizon of endless ocean.

Beach Boardwalk

After your secluded day in Soquel, drive a bit further north back to Santa Cruz.  The old town of Santa Cruz was revitalized after the Loma Preita earthquake in the 1990’s.  They have many great little shops, and large shops to browse around and many restaurants along the way to choose.   I almost forgot to mention the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  It’s a city icon, and happens to have one of the original wooden roller coaster’s still in operation.   Named The Giant Dipper, it was built in the 1920’s, and has always been one of my favorite roller coaster rides in the world!  There’s a great Whole Foods Market, and a favorite restaurant of ours, Cafe Cruz where you are sure to be surrounded by locals!  Great local seafood, and fresh local produce from the area!

The Mystery Spot

An attraction few visitors are sure to know about is The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz.  It’s a little bit off the beat and path, hidden in the forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, somewhere, somehow, they’ve managed to defy gravity.

Los Gatos

Also a California staple, and according to many of us local Californian’s, a landmark!  Los Gatos is a bustling town that sits along the back side of the Santa Cruz mountains, and has a direct freeway access to HWY 17, which takes you on a historical route to Santa Cruz.  The two towns are definitely connected, yet separated by 40 miles of windy road.  Los Gatos is an affluent town, and has a hippy, bohemian feel.  You can feast on the town’s best Gelato-(even the Italian visiting will feel they’ve found a comparable gelataree!) then roam the streets.  The shopping is deep here!  You can find anything and everything.  It’s laid out so that all you need to do is park the car, and walk the town (down-town and old-town).

Mexian Food

For food, we love feasting at Andalé’s mexican restaurant!  Simply delicious and they make a killer margarita.  It’s on the casual side, but the food is really, really delicious!  Another old-timer there is the Mexican restaurant Pedro’s.  They’ve been around forever, and also have killer margi’s, and make a mean chimichanga!   If you’re looking to get your hair done perhaps?  Los Gatos has over a hundred hair salons!!!  But, one that I love and always visit is Solei Salon, a salon that specializes in using 100% organic hair and body products, as well as organic color!!!  Go home with a California hairstyle, and some of the best hair care products in the world, made by Intelligent Nutrients.

Sequoia National Park

It coincides with Yosemite.  All I can say is to visit it.  Your mouth will be hanging open in absolute awe at the natural beauty.  Viewing mammoth trees, standing taller than life, and living up to over 1000 years old!  Please, put it on your list and don’t be surprised if you find the whole park is yours for the day.  Not sure if many people choose not to visit it, or don’t find the sequoia’s that interesting, but crazy as it is, this little park holds a thousand years worth of memories and stories to be told, all you have to do is listen.

The Pinnacles National Park

This is an amazing national park, that in my opinion, is often over-looked and very understated! Thus…usually upon any time of year, the park is nearly empty!  In the 1930’s President Truman named this park as a national monument. It has an expansive quality to it that includes over 26,000 acres to be explored. This is the park where if you are on the hunt to spot a Condor, you’ll find it.  The park has a rich history that spans from the Gabilians (a small chain of mountains within the California coastal range which raise up to 3000feet above the fertile Salinas Valley) to the Salinas mountain range. It’s believed that the Chalone Indians occupied this area until the early 1800’s.  The park is vast, expansive, and has a few little activities provided by the parks service.

Pack your Back Pack

For example, for younger kids you can check out a personal “Back Pack” that is filled with items to borrow for the day.  You’ll find a compass, magnifying glass, surveying toys, maps, a whistle, flash light, and other fun items the kids seem to enjoy.  The park also has “caves” which are inhabited by the local bat population.  The caves are closed certain times of the year due to breeding and birthing, but if you’re lucky, you can walk through the caves to get to the other side of the mountain.  If you go in the summer, it’s usually hot, so pack the necessary gear- water included!  You can picnic at the nice little vista lake that is at the center of the park, you can often see mountain climbers climbing the sides of steep granite peaks throughout the park.

All in all, it’s a great excursion, and a “must see” on your list.


It’s another “must see” on my list.  I love this park.  Every time we visit, I feel alive!  Such a beautiful discovery that was publicly and passionately acknowledged by world-famous photographer Ansel Adams, Naturalist, John Muir, and of course occupied by our beloved Awahneechee Indians who occupied the land.  Though the original history has been terminated, we’ve tried since the inception of this park to preserve the history.  Not much has needed to be done-while nature has proven king on this aspect. The park gives breath taking views of granite walls, high peaks, spouting water falls, and enormous sequoias.

Historical Buildings

There are a few historical buildings in the park, one being Yosemite Lodge, Awahnee Hotel,  and the Le Conte Lodge.  I could go on for pages and pages here…I’m sure you’ve all read or heard about Yosemite.  It’s one of the best places to visit and explore in California!  During the off season, the park is pretty much yours, thus allowing to successfully reserve a spot in the lodge, hotel, or Camp Curry possible.  If you’re traveling there during summer, you’ll need a years notice to secure those reservations.  However, there are hundred’s of hotels along the way to Yosemite.  Just do some research and plan ahead as possible for the summer months.


Don’t forget to drive through Watsonville.  A very “off off the beat and path” kind of place that is also within a stone’s throw to the artichoke capital of California’s coast, Castroville.  Watsonville is a well established landmark for growing strawberries, as well as being a back drop to a few of Steinbeck’s novels.  It’s a very small, rustic town that is home to many burrito/taco shops, as well as the world famous Phil’s fish market.    This small but memorable Phil’s Fish Market restaurant is a landmark in the area and has quite a reputation for the seafood.  The setting is very casual, and on a nice day, you can take your meal out to the back patio, finding yourself a stones throw from the Pacific and her sand!  When you’ve finished your lunch from Phil’s, drive a few miles south to Castroville.

Artichoke Capital

As I mentioned above, it’s the artichoke capital of the world.  You will see fields and fields of artichokes.   Yes, the scenery is amazing, from the sand dunes, to the amazing view, but this small stretch of town offers one of the best versions of fried artichokes you could ever imagine.  It’s a very famous eatery on wheels, called “The Choke Coach“.  You can always find this white coach parked in front of Castroville’s one main produce hub (stand),  Pezinni’s. This little produce shop sells everything artichoke, and has been featured on the Food Network, Martha Stewart and many other’s.  Yes, artichokes are a big deal in Castroville, but I think something greater happened there other than artichokes.  In 1948 Marilyn Monroe was crowned “The Artichoke Queen“.  That’s reason enough for me to at least, drive through for some fried artichokes!!

Big Sur

A perfect seg-way to this lovely town is crossing over the world famous, Bixby Creek Bridge.  I always knew Big Sur as a typical bohemian town.  Not much to see, other than a lovely, lovely coastline with hidden coves of turquoise water, a few great hotels and a must-visit restaurant.  We love stopping at Nepenthe a landmark that began mid century with a family that put this place on the map, forever!  It has an open and warm heart and the love is felt throughout this lovely restaurant.  Known for their amazing burgers, the view isn’t bad either,  and it seems no matter how busy they are, you can always find a happy spot there-a must visit!

While there are many places to stay in Big Sur, from the elite spa resorts, to camp grounds, the place I’d recommend is Deetjen’s.  I’ve stayed there a few times, and found it to be amazing!  Very rustic, down home, loaded with charm.  You’ll have a meal there you wont forget!  It seals the deal with authenticity and warmth.


It’s more than Clint Eastwood’s town.  I love Carmel, and it somehow feels like home to me.  It’s quaint, charming and no matter when you go, it doesn’t disappoint.  The downtown village is rather small.  Find a parking spot, and stroll the streets which are dotted with everything from art galleries, to restaurants, to small specialty shops.  I’ve dined at multiple restaurants, and have never been disappointed!

If you’d like to stop in the local grocery store, Whole Foods Market (in Monterey, just 10 min. from Carmel), you can pick up the necessary picnic items, then drive 10 minutes further south to the “Downtown Carmel”  turn-off, drive straight down to the ocean (5 minutes), park, and walk down to the beach. Have your self a wonderful afternoon on the local beach with the view of Pebble Beach and 17 mile drive to the right, and the endless coast to the left.  Dogs are allowed on this beach, so guard your food, and simply enjoy!

Point Lobos State Reserve

Truly remarkable.  This is an extensive park which is reflective of the whaling era in California dating back to the 1800’s.  There is a small museum which takes you through the high’s and low’s of whaling along the California coast, and trails that allow you to wander along the coast line for hours!  Pack a lunch, and wander off to the tide-pool areas where you can peruse for shells and see starfish during the low-tide.

Hearst Castle, San Simeon

Now a state landmark, you can book a guided tour to see all the intricate details of this stately manor.  If you come from Europe and don’t find the California version of a castle intriguing, I’d say, think again.  The views of the Pacific alone from this castle are something you wont see anywhere else.  Take a special tour, like the “cottage & kitchen” tour.  It’s something you will remember forever!  Hearst was a media mogul, and had his now-famous daughter’s kidnapping in the 1970’s added to his fame and name.  Everyone from California knows the infamous story of Patty Hearst.  You can do the castle tour as a day-trip (passing through), or plan an over night in the local town of Paso Robles or Cambria.  These are small coastal towns, offering a bit more than the spectacular view of the Pacific!

sunbathing seals in San Simeon

Santa Barbara

It’s iconic!  It’s the most beautiful place before you fully submerse yourself into Southern California.  The weather is mild, the ocean grand, and the beaches are nearly empty!  The old town of Santa Barbara has a Spanish influence that was once very present.  State Street, which is the street that takes the “down-town” straight to the beach is what you want to find.  Once on this street, you can park the car and walk down to the beach-about a 30 min. walk.  Along the way, you can always find lots of ways to spend the mighty dollar.

You can enjoy the vibe of the area, and perhaps you are lucky enough to catch it on the day of their farmer’s market.  Otherwise, wander down to the beach and enjoy the views.  There is a free shuttle which runs from the top of the town, to the bottom where the beach is.  There’s also a pretty busy skate-board park down by the beach.

Gilroy Outlet Centers – Great shopping

The Premium Outlet centers are the best places to shop for deals and offer loads of inventory.  The Outlets are dotted all throughout California, but I think the best lay-out exists in Gilroy.  Just off HWY 101, they are easy to get to, and offer pretty much everything!  Coach, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Vans, Billabong, and soooo much more.

Carmel Plaza

When you’re in Carmel, visiting the beach or shopping, a public restroom is often hard to find, at least one that is clean and respectable.  After years of visiting Carmel and falling into the public trap of gross toiletts, we happened to find a hidden treasure…the seemingly new, Carmel Plaza shopping center.  It’s at the top of the town and is a wonderfully situated, multi-level outdoor shopping mall.  It has a select number of shops, and features several spots to sit down and enjoy a nice rest by open outdoor fire pits, or water fountains.  The bathrooms which are public, are very nice, and clean!

In-n-Out Burger

If you visit California, you have to stop here.  It’s the only fast-food chain I will recommend with great confidence.  This chain started out only in Southern California in the 50’s and delivered the burgers and shakes on trays, with their roller skates.  Things have changed over the years, but one thing hasn’t…the taste!  The chain in now located all throughout the state of California.  The burgers are  fresh, and somehow one of the best burger experiences I’ve had!  They fresh press their fries, the shakes are delicious, and the special sauce is a must!  Don’t miss it!

Stanford Shopping Mall

Located in the quaint, now ever-trendy town of Palo Alto, this shopping mall is a great stop.  It’s an out-door mall that has unique shops dotted throughout.  It has a wonderful feel, and who knows, you might be lucky enough to see some sightings of mega tech boss’ there!  It’s also very close to the world famous, Stanford University and heck, while you’re in the area, why not visit the famous Hewlett-Packard garage…the place where Silicon Valley started!  All in all, a charming town.

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1 comment

    • marisa gratny on 02/02/2018 at 23:40
    • Reply

    5 stars
    This is a great tour guide pitch! I want to go everywhere you mentioned- and I live here!!
    Nice recommendations and photos even… well thought out and nicely written!!

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