Southern California Dreaming: Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego
No matter how carefully you plan your movements to avoid busy routes at peak hours, you will inevitably encounter heavy traffic in L.A., Orange County, and San Diego.
Allow yourself twice as much time as you think you'll need to negotiate LAX.
Day 1: Arrival/Los Angeles
As soon as you land at LAX, make like a local and hit the freeway. Even if L.A.'s top-notch art, history, and science museums don't tempt you, the hodgepodge of art-deco, beaux-arts, and futuristic architecture begs at least a drive-by. Heading east from Santa Monica, Wilshire Boulevard cuts through a historical and cultural cross section of the city. Two stellar sights on its Miracle Mile are the encyclopedic Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the fossil-filled La Brea Tar Pits. Come evening, the open-air Farmers Market and its many eateries hum. Hotels in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood beckon, just a few minutes away.
Day 2: Hollywood and the Movie Studios
Every L.A. tourist should devote at least one day to the movies and take at least one studio tour. For fun, choose the special-effects theme park at Universal Studios Hollywood; for the nitty-gritty, choose Warner Bros. Studios. Nostalgic musts in half-seedy, half-preening Hollywood include the Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard, the celebrity footprints cast in concrete outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and the 1922 Egyptian Theatre (Hollywood Boulevard's original movie palace). When evening arrives, the Hollywood scene boasts a bevy of trendy restaurants and nightclubs.
Day 3: Beverly Hills and Santa Monica
Even without that extensive art collection, the Getty Center's pavilion architecture, hilltop gardens, and frame-worthy L.A. views would make it a dazzling destination. Descend to the sea via Santa Monica Boulevard for lunch along Third Street Promenade, followed by a ride on the historic carousel on the pier. The buff and the bizarre meet on the boardwalk at Venice Beach (strap on some Rollerblades if you want to join them!). Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills specializes in exhibitionism with a heftier price tag, but voyeurs are still welcome.
Day 4: Los Angeles to Palm Springs
Freeway traffic permitting, you can drive from the middle of L.A. to the middle of the desert in a couple of hours. Somehow in harmony with the harsh environment, midcentury "modern" homes and businesses with clean, low-slung lines define the Palm Springs style. The city seems far away, though, when you hike in hushed Tahquitz or Indian Canyon; cliffs and palm trees shelter rock art, irrigation works, and other remnants of Agua Caliente culture. If your boots aren't made for walking, you can always practice your golf game or indulge in some sublime or funky spa treatments at an area resort instead.
Day 5: The Desert
If riding a tram up an 8,516-foot mountain for a stroll or even a snowball fight above the desert sounds like fun to you, then show up at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway before the first morning tram leaves (later, the line can get discouragingly long). Afterward stroll through the Palm Springs Art Museum where you can see a shimmering display of contemporary studio glass, an array of enormous Native American baskets, and significant works of 20th-century sculpture by Henry Moore and others.
Day 6: Palm Springs to San Diego
South through desert and mountains via the Palms to Pines Highway on your way to San Diego, you might pause in the Temecula Valley for lunch at a local winery. Otherwise go straight for the city's nautical heart by exploring the restored ships of the Maritime Museum at the waterfront downtown. Victorian buildings—and plenty of other tourists—surround you on a stroll through the Gaslamp Quarter, but the 21st century is in full swing at the quirky and colorful Horton Plaza retail and entertainment complex. Plant yourself at a downtown hotel and graze your way through the neighborhood's many restaurants and nightspots.
Day 7: San Diego Zoo and Coronado
Malayan tapirs in a faux-Asian rain forest, polar bears in an imitation Arctic—the San Diego Zoo maintains a vast and varied collection of creatures in a world-renowned facility comprised of meticulously designed habitats. Come early, wear comfy shoes, and stay as long as you can stand the sea of children. Boutique-y Coronado—anchored by the gracious Hotel Del Coronado—offers a more adult antidote. Tea, cocktails, or perhaps dinner at the Del makes a civilized end to an untamed day.
Day 8: SeaWorld and Old Town
Resistance is futile: you're going to SeaWorld. So what if it screams commercial? This humongous theme park, with its walk-through shark tanks and killer-whale shows, also screams fun. Surrender to the experience and try not to sit in anything sticky. Also touristy (but with genuine historical significance), Old Town drips with Mexican and early Californian heritage. Soak it up in the plaza at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; then browse the stalls and shops at Bazaar del Mundo and along San Diego Avenue.
Day 9: La Jolla to Laguna Beach
Positioned above an idyllic cove, La Jolla invites lingering. So slow down long enough to enjoy its chic shop-lined streets, sheltered beaches, and cultural institutions like the low-key Birch Aquarium at Scripps and the well-curated Museum of Contemporary Art. At Mission San Luis Rey, in Oceanside, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, you can glimpse life as it was during the Spanish missionary days. Once a haven for artists, Laguna Beach still abounds with galleries. Its walkable downtown streets would abut busy Main Beach Park if the Pacific Coast Highway didn't run through the middle of town.
Day 10: Catalina Island
Having spent so much time looking at the ocean, it's high time you got out on it—a quick excursion to Catalina, 75 minutes from the coast, will do the trick. Get an early start, catching the boat from Newport Beach, then use the day to explore this nostalgia-inducing spot. The harbor town of Avalon has a charming, retro feel, while the island's mountains, canyons, and coves are ideal spots for outdoor adventures. Take the 4:30 boat back to the mainland and overnight in Anaheim.
Day 11: Disneyland
Disney's original park is a blast even without kids in tow. So go ahead: skirt the lines at the box office—advance-purchased ticket in hand—and storm the gates of the Magic Kingdom. You can cram the highlights into a single day if you arrive at opening time with a strategy already mapped out. Alternatively, you can spend your final full day next door at Disneyland's sister park, California Adventure, which is a fitting homage to the Golden State. In either case, cap your holiday with a nighttime toast at Downtown Disney.
Day 12: Departure/Los Angeles
Pack up your Mouseketeer gear and give yourself ample time to reach the airport. Without traffic the 35-mile drive from Anaheim to LAX should take about 45 minutes. But don't count on it.
Sierra Riches: Yosemite, Gold Country, and Tahoe
Day 1: Arrival/San Francisco
Straight from the airport, drop your bags at the lighthearted Hotel Monaco near Union Square and request a goldfish for your room. Chinatown, chock-full of dim sum shops, storefront temples, and open-air markets, promises unfamiliar tastes for lunch. Catch a Powell Street cable car to the end of the line and get off to see the bay views and the antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique, the hidden gem of otherwise mindless Fisherman's Wharf. No need to go any farther than cosmopolitan North Beach for cocktail hour, dinner, and live music.
Day 2: San Francisco
A Union Square stroll packs a wallop of people-watching, window-shopping, and architecture-viewing. In Golden Gate Park, linger amid the flora of the conservatory and the arboretum, soak up some art at the de Young Museum, and find serene refreshment at the Japanese Tea Garden. The Pacific surf pounds the cliffs below the Legion of Honor art museum, which has an exquisite view of the Golden Gate Bridge—when the fog stays away. Sunset cocktails at the circa-1909 Cliff House include a prospect over Seal Rock (actually occupied by sea lions). Eat dinner elsewhere: Pacific Heights, the Mission, and SoMa teem with excellent restaurants.
Day 3: Into the High Sierra
First thing in the morning, pick up your rental car and head for the hills. A five-hour drive due east brings you to Yosemite National Park, where Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan, the 350-story granite monolith, greet you on your way to Yosemite Village. Ditch the car and pick up information and refreshment before hopping on the year-round shuttle to explore. Justly famous sights cram Yosemite Valley: massive Half Dome and Sentinel Dome, thundering Yosemite Falls, and wispy Ribbon Fall and Nevada Fall. Invigorating short hikes off the shuttle route lead to numerous vantage points. Celebrate your arrival in one of the world's most sublime spots with dinner in the dramatic Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room.
Day 4: Yosemite National Park
Ardent hikers consider John Muir Trail a must-do, tackling the rigorous 12-hour round-trip to the top of Half Dome in search of life-changing vistas. The merely mortal hike downhill from Glacier Point on Four-Mile Trail or Panorama Trail, the latter an all-day trek past waterfalls. Less demanding still is a drive to Wawona for a stroll in the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees and lunch at the 19th-century Wawona Hotel. In bad weather, take shelter in the Ansel Adams Gallery and Yosemite Museum; in fair conditions, drive up to Glacier Point for a breathtaking sunset view.
Day 5: Gold Country South
Highway 49 traces the mother lode that yielded many fortunes in gold in the 1850s and 1860s. Step into a living gold-rush town at Columbia State Historic Park, where you can ride a stagecoach and pan for riches. Sutter Creek's well-preserved downtown bursts with shopping opportunities, but the vintage goods displayed at J. Monteverde General Store are not for sale. A different sort of vintage powers the present-day bonanza of Shenandoah Valley, heart of the Sierra Foothills wine country. Taste your way through Zinfandels and Syrahs at boutique wineries such as Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Renwood, and Sobon Estate. Amador City's 1879 Imperial Hotel places you firmly in the past for the night.
Try to time your trip for late spring or early fall to avoid the worst of the crowds and the road-closing snowfalls in Yosemite and around Lake Tahoe. Yosemite's falls peak in spring and early summer, while fall brings the grape harvest in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Parking in San Francisco is expensive and scarce. When you fly in, take a shuttle or taxi from the airport to the city, then use the excellent public transportation to get around.
For a visit in any season, reserve your hotel or campground accommodations in Yosemite as far in advance as possible—up to a year ahead.
Day 6: Gold Country North
In Placerville, a mineshaft invites investigation at Hangtown's Gold Bug Mine, while Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park encompasses most of Coloma and preserves the spot where James Marshall's 1849 find set off the California gold rush. Old Town Auburn, with its museums and courthouse, makes a good lunch stop, but if you hold out until you reach Grass Valley you can try authentic miners' pasties. A tour of Empire Mine State Historic Park takes you into a mine, and a few miles away horse-drawn carriages ply the narrow, shop-lined streets of downtown Nevada City. Backtrack to Auburn or Placerville to overnight in historic or modern lodgings.
Day 7: To the Lake
Jewel-like Lake Tahoe is a straight shot east of Placerville on Highway 50; stop for picnic provisions in commercial South Lake Tahoe. A stroll past the three magnificent estates in Pope-Baldwin Recreation area hints at the sumptuous lakefront summers once enjoyed by the elite. High above a glittering cove, Emerald Bay State Park offers one of the best lake views as well as a steep hike down to (and back up from) Vikingsholm, a replica 9th-century Scandinavian castle. Another fine, old mansion—plus a nature preserve and many hiking trails—lies in Sugar Pine Point State Park. Tahoe City offers more history and ample dining and lodging choices.
Day 8: Lake Tahoe
With advance reservations, you can tour the ultraluxe 1936 Thunderbird Lodge and its grounds. The picture-perfect beaches and bays of Lake Tahoe–Nevada State Park line the Nevada shoreline, a great place to bask in the sun or go mountain biking. For a different perspective of the lake, get out on the azure water aboard the stern-wheeler MS Dixie II from Zephyr Cove. In South Lake Tahoe, another view unfurls as the Heavenly Gondola travels 2½ miles up a mountain. Keep your adrenaline pumping into the evening with some action at the massive casinos clustered in Stateline, Nevada.
Day 9: Back to the City
After a morning of driving, return your rental car in San Francisco and soak up some more urban excitement. Good options include lunch at the Ferry Building, followed by a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or lunch in Japantown followed by shopping in Pacific Heights. People-watching excels in the late afternoon bustle of the Castro and the Haight. Say good-bye to Northern California at one of the plush lounges or trendy bars in the downtown hotels.
Day 10: Departure/San Francisco
Check the weather before you start out for the airport: Fog sometimes causes delays at SFO. On a clear day, your flight path might give you one last fabulous glimpse of the City by the Bay.
Fodor's Trip Planning Ideas
- Fodor's 100 Hotel Awards: Check out the winners of 2013
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Best of Europe: Fodor's Picks the Best Places to Visit in Europe