Where to Go in California, Instead of San Francisco and L.A.

Vineyards in NorCal's Carmel Valley
Vineyards in NorCal's Carmel Valley

California is the third largest state in the U.S., taking up a whopping 163,695 square miles. That's close to 25 percent of the entire country. However, most tourists tend to stick to two cities when planning their itineraries: San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's understandable. These two cities are fantastic, with fashion, food, views, and a cemented place in the culture of the United States. However, we've also fallen in-love with several other spots in the Golden State (as have so many others), so, if you are looking to extend your California dreamin', we'd like to take this time to encourage you to tack on a few days to your trip for some beloved gems. After all, there's more to California than palm trees, star-studded streets, and cable cars -- though we love them just as much as we ever have. 

1. Santa Barbara

East Beach in Santa Barbara
East Beach in Santa Barbara

Around 100 miles north up Highway 101 from L.A., you'll find the drop-dead gorgeous coastline of Santa Barbara. The town is ideally located between the mountains and the sea, giving some spectacular views across the Pacific Ocean.

  • Why You Should Visit: This spot offers a cultured atmosphere with a quaint, natural vibe that is a welcomed relief to the hubbub of larger, louder, and busier cities. 
  • Recommended Activities: Wine tasting, orca and sea lion spotting, Spanish architecture tours, hiking in one of the many parks or botanical gardens, or just lazing at the beach
  • Wow Factor: Though the town still has under 100,000 residents, Santa Barbara's tourism industry brings in over one billion dollars each year -- and counting.

Our Hotel Pick:

2. Pacific Coast Highway

The misty,winding, and scenic PCH in Mendocino.
The misty,winding, and scenic PCH in Mendocino.

The Pacific Coast Highway's California leg "officially" starts up around Mendocino County and ends down south by Dana Point; it is a must-do for anyone who loves a good scenic road trip, coastline views, and/or the thrill of a twisting seaside road. 

  • Why You Should Visit: This 123-mile drive down the coast is a fantastic (and beautiful) way to see a large stretch of the Golden State. There are plenty of places to stop and admire the scenery, beach, food, and sun along the way. 
  • Recommended Activities: Just enjoy the ride, soak up the saltwater breeze, and stop off to sample delicious roadside bites. Don't let the stunning views distract you, though, as the Pacific Coast Highway (also known as Highway 1) is infamously twisty and turny.
  • Wow Factor: The PCH is considered one of the best road trips in the country (if not the world) -- just ask us.

Our Hotel Pick: 

3. San Diego

Sunset in La Jolla
Sunset in La Jolla

One of the more popular tourist destinations, outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles, is undoubtedly Southern California's San Diego

  • Why You Should Visit: San Diego is a clean, easy-to-navigate city just a couple hours south of Los Angeles that has the beach, oodles of family-friendly activities, theme parks, history, and fantastic foodie options. 
  • Recommended Activities: Animal lovers should not skip a visit to the San Diego Zoo, one of the country's best. Other points of interest include the gorgeous beaches, sunsets, and nature of La Jolla and Del Mar; the lazy, family-oriented vibe and sprawling coastline of Mission Bay; and historic areas, like Mission Valley and the city's Gaslamp Quarter -- the latter of which is known for its gastronomy and hip nightlife.
  • Wow Factor: With over 34 million visitors a year, San Diego is able to rake in around 10 billion extra bucks annually. The zoo alone sees around three million visiting faces a year. 

Our Hotel Pick:

4. Yosemite National Park

Waterfall at Yosemite National Park
Waterfall at Yosemite National Park

An absolute stunner, Yosemite National Park should be on everyone's bucket list. Whether you are a seasoned camper or prefer a few more creature comforts, there's a place for you here. 

  • Why You Should Visit: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of our country's most humbling and awe-inspiring landscapes, hundreds of animal species, and, of course, the popular Bridalveil Fall and towering granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.
  • Recommended Activities: Hiking, rock climbing, canoeing in the rivers, birdwatching, reconnecting with Mother Nature, and horseback riding  
  • Wow Factor: This protected park draws over four million tourists each year and has been considered a national treasure since the early 1800s. 

Our Hotel Pick:

5. Joshua Tree and the Salton Sea

The wide open landscape of Joshua Tree
The wide open landscape of Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is an easy add-on to your Los Angeles itinerary. In fact, at around two hours from the city, it's a favorite place for Angelinos to escape and find some peace, quiet, and, of course, Joshua Trees.

  • Why You Should Visit: A quintessential desert lined with huge boulders and cacti, Joshua Tree is an inspiring spot that is good for exploring, hiking, relaxing, and just plain rejuvenating. It lies against the Mojave Desert, has views of Coachella Valley, and is a prime spot for sunrises, sunsets, and stargazing.
  • Recommended Activities: Aside from soaking it all in, hiking, and reconnecting with nature, check out the colorful, man-made Salvation Mountain (featured in the movie "Into the Wild") and the western movie set Pioneertown, soak in an Integratron sound bath, or camp out in trailers at Hicksville. 
  • Wow Factor: Joshua Tree was named a national monument by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and upgraded to a national park in 1994, but humans have been visiting the area for nearly 5,000 years

Our Hotel Pick:

6. Catalina

View from the rooftop deck at Avalon Hotel On Catalina Island
View from the rooftop deck at Avalon Hotel On Catalina Island

Catalina Island is a small island off the coast of Southern California that was originally purchased in the hopes of becoming a resort-only town. These days it's got a lively local life as well as busy tourism flow. You can access it by boat from Long Beach, Dana Point, or San Pedro

  • Why You Should Visit: This relaxing island feels like a cross between New England's coastal towns and and a Caribbean getaway. 
  • Recommended Activities: Surrounded by the Pacific, here it makes sense for you to try your hand at at least one of the island's numerous watersporting activities or boat tours. But, if you'd rather relax, you can have a spa day, sip wine, and nosh by the water, relax on the breezy beach, or tee off for a round of golf.
  • Wow Factor: This 50,000-square-acre island gets around one million visitors a year, prompting its residents to rely heavily on tourism dollars. 

Our Hotel Pick:

7. Napa Valley

Vineyards in Napa Valley
Vineyards in Napa Valley

Napa Valley is known as the place to go in California for a wine getaway -- and we couldn't agree more. This picturesque stretch of Northern California is the Tuscany of the U.S. and famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon varietals. 

  • Why You Should Visit: Truly a spot that not a foodie or wine lover should miss, Napa Valley is a full sensory escape thanks to the excellent restaurants, warm breezes, expansive landscapes, and nosy wines. 
  • Recommended Activities: Wine tasting, hiking, and restaurant hopping
  • Wow Factor: California's wine country has seen a massive influx in tourism lately, rising 12.2 percent between 2012 and 2014. 

Our Hotel Pick:

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