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20 awesome things to do in California

Dream big and discover sports and adventure, pampering and fine dining, comfort and luxury on America’s Pacific coast

By Time Out in association with Air New Zealand

What kind of holiday do you dream of? Whatever your ambitions, you’ll find the escape you’re looking for in bold and beautiful California. Whether you want to savour the cultural mix of Los Angeles and San Francisco, cruise the raw coastal beauty on a road trip along Highway 1 or scale the mountainous heights on an outdoor adventure, it’s all here. And with Air New Zealand, your dream trip starts the moment you take off.

Lake Tahoe

Biking and boating at South Lake Tahoe

Beautiful Lake Tahoe is a favourite retreat for weekenders and holidaymakers all year round. Even in mid-spring you can go skiing or snowboarding, and when the sun shines there are many ways to enjoy yourself on and around the water. Go stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking, scuba diving or fishing. Or get your thrills at Zephyr Cove with a speed boating session. The rugged landscape around the lake makes it perfect for hiking and biking (on- and off-road), too.

Skiing in the Sierra Nevada

Skiing in the Sierra Nevada

Even when the sun is shining on the surfers on the Pacific Coast, the vast and diverse landscape of California ensures that skiers don’t have to give up the snow season too soon. Resorts like Bear Valley are nestled in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, to the east of the state, between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. With a season lasting from December to April, the mountains offer pleasures for all abilities, from beginner slopes to untracked powder.
Surfing San Diego

Surfing in San Diego

Along California’s beautiful Pacific coast, there are plenty of spots to catch the waves. San Diego is a great choice, with plenty of social life when the sun goes down. Think you can handle the swell alongside the pros? Head for Trestles and Cardiff. You’ll find the waves at Del Mar and Blacks Beach won’t disappoint, either. Looking for fun and something less serious? Then the more gentle break at Oceanside and La Jolla Shores should get the surf out of your system.
Joshua Tree National Park

Walking trails in Joshua Tree National Park

Dotted with the distinctively shaped Joshua Tree cacti and stunning rocky outbreaks, this national park covers 550,000 acres of wilderness, perfect for hiking, wildlife watching and landscape photography. You can go climbing or bouldering, and for walkers there are fantastic routes to explore, from nature trails to challenging hikes. There are designated campgrounds, too, so you can stay late and see the stars twinkle in the desert sky.
Point Reyes

Wildlife spotting at Point Reyes

Thirty miles north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is a magnificent place to escape and embrace nature. See the Pacific crashing against its rocky headlands and spot whales and dolphins out at sea, or enjoy the peaceful, unspoilt habitaton of its grasslands and vast sandy beaches. Visitors are welcomed so long as they explore in the right spirit: in seal pupping season, for example, certain beaches are closed and during the best months for whale watching (December to April), the crowds are well managed.

Show at Ace Hotel
Spencer Lowell

Show at the Ace Hotel, LA

This LA outpost of the funky Ace Hotel chain only opened in 2014 and is already recognised as one of the best places in town for overnight stays and entertainment. Located in the former United Artists building, it lovingly taps into that maverick spirit of creativity. The remarkable, ornate 1920s movie palace here is the setting for live performances and screenings, with regular free DJ and music events upstairs in the evenings and at lunchtime.
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Adventures at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Perched on Monterey Bay and located on the famous Cannery Row, the aquarium has a rich heritage in innovative marine research, with a specific focus on ocean conservation. Here you can meet penguins and sea otters, take a  behind the scenes tour and watch the incredible ‘open sea feeding’ session in front of the vast 90ft window. No wonder this is one of the most exciting aquariums in the world.


Clubbing at Mercer, San Francisco

San Francisco is a party city with a wealth of great nightlife spaces, and Mercer is among the best. The little sister of the nearby megaclub Mighty, Mercer is more intimate and laid-back, but once the DJs get to work the floor is filled with an after-work crowd revelling in the best disco, house and hip hop sounds.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Drive-in movies at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, LA

A long-established highlight of the outdoor cinema season in the city, the Cinespia screenings at this glamorous landmark cemetery are a chance to enjoy some of Hollywood’s classic movies, old and new, with pre-show DJs, themed photo booths and a sociable, picnic atmosphere. Founded in 1899, Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the resting place for some of cinema’s biggest names – come for a tour in the day and stay for a gig or a movie at night.

Palm Springs

Festivals in Palm Springs

Palm Springs’ reliably sunny climate and desert setting have long made it a popular retreat for the rich and famous. It also appeals to major stars of sport and entertainment, who put in appearances at the many blockbuster festivals throughout the year. Coachella (in nearby Indio) is one of the biggest, but there are also weekly artisan events, an annual Desert Arts Festival, several film festivals and the ever-popular Splash House poolside festival in June.

Rich Table by Daniel Brooks
Daniel Brooks/Rich Table

Rich Table, San Francisco

Rich Table combines San Francisco’s beloved farm-to-table dining with an adventurous attitude to unique flavours – dried porcini doughnuts, sardine chips with horseradish dip and black cod with mustard greens, mango and chanterelles are typical of the daily changing menu. One of the most exciting restaurants to open in the past couple of years, it’s set in the buzzing Hayes Valley district, a stone’s throw from the Opera House and the SFJAZZ Center. Booking ahead is a must.


Racion, Pasedena

The Basque-style tapas at this small Pasadena restaurant have earned plaudits from foodies and a well-deserved five-star review from Time Out Los Angeles. Unpretentious and with a menu that progresses from smaller items to larger ones, the focus is on food, rather than the carnival of starstruck dining. Typical dishes include croquettes stuffed with buttery chicken, citrus-cured salmon, wild mushrooms a la plancha and seafood delights like house-made squid ink pasta peppered with mussels and piquillo peppers.


Alma, Los Angeles

At this Downtown restaurant, chef Ari Taymor has crafted a tasting menu inspired by Alma’s Flower Avenue garden in Venice Beach. The emphasis on natural, seasonal cooking makes the thoughtful menu a real highlight: hot seaweed and tofu beignets with lime aioli, Shigoku oysters topped with fermented radish, and Taymor’s signature dish, frozen duck liver that has been smashed into a hundred pieces and tossed with smoked maple, carrot and coffee granola. It all makes for bold, rich and exciting dining.

Brockton Villa Placeholder

Brockton Villa, San Diego

Fancy dining with table views of the Pacific Ocean? Who wouldn’t! Set in one of La Jolla’s original beach cottages, Brockton Villa’s menu lives up to its location. From crab cakes to chowder, familiar seafood dishes are taken to a whole new level here, alongside more adventurous dishes like macadamia nut crusted scallops and lobster risotto. Open from breakfast to dinner.

Morimoto Placeholder

Morimoto, Napa

Masaharu Morimoto is one of America’s celebrity chefs, not only as a star of ‘Iron Chef’ and ‘Iron Chef America’, but also for his visionary cooking – bringing together western and Japanese traditions in a contemporary style entirely his own. His restaurant in Napa is inventive and deservedly acclaimed. Dishes include creations like tuna pizza, octopus carpaccio and sea urchin carbonara, soups, noodles and a raw bar with Maine lobster and oysters.


Furnace Creek Resort

Furnace Creek Resort, Death Valley

The lush oasis of this resort offers a haven of cooling swimming pools, golf and spa pampering away from the intense desert that surrounds it. Death Valley National Park is one of the world’s most incredible landscapes: the rugged mountain peaks are snowy in winter but the valleys are below sea level, making the land extremely hot and arid. It’s a fantastic place to explore, but having Furnace Creek’s hotels to retreat to is a welcome and luxurious relief.

Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo

Ornate, quirky and unashamedly colourful, the Madonna Inn is a much loved trip back in time. Set in lush countryside just a few minutes from the chic, boho Californian town of San Luis Obispo, the hotel has a retro, rock ’n’ roll feel about it, with each bedroom whimsically and individually decorated. However, the experience is five-star, with riding, swimming, spa and dining offerings. Oh, and bright pink tennis courts. Ooh la la.
Auberge du Soleil

Auberge du Soleil, Napa Valley

Nestled discreetly in the hills of California’s beautiful wine country, Auberge du Soleil boasts the kind of classy luxury you’d expect if you were on the vineyard trail. Built around the ambitions of French-born restaurateur Claude Rouas to establish a Provençal dining experience that reflects the landscape, the hotel is a must for food lovers and anyone seeking five-star spa relaxation.

Fireside Inn

Fireside Inn, Moonstone Beach

A drive up or down Highway 1 is an essential experience on any Californian holiday, and there are several beautiful towns and villages along the way. Cambria, just south of Hearst Castle at San Simeon, is a charming, laid-back stopping-off point and its waterfront, Moonstone Beach, is lined with lovely places to eat and stay. The Fireside Inn is one of the best, offering countryside comfort and romantic sea views. And when the fog rolls in off the Pacific, simply snuggle by the fire.

La Boheme

Hotel Boheme, San Francisco

There’s boutique hotels, then there’s this place, oozing history and with a cosy, sitting-room feel. Refurbished in recent years so that modern comfort is discreetly ensured, the decor still reflects the hotel’s rich history and its boho North Beach location, with special focus on its popularity in the Beat years. You can even sleep in ‘Allen Ginsberg’s room’ – number 204.


Your holiday starts with Air New Zealand

Always wanted to stretch out and put your feet up in Economy? The Economy Skycouch™ transforms three seats into a flat space – it’s like having your own couch on a plane. Flying daily to Los Angeles, Air New Zealand are the airline to fly to California with. Air New Zealand’s amazing in-cabin service, excellent food and wine selection and seriously hot entertainment choices ensure your dream California holiday starts the moment you board your flight.


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