Chances are, you've often thought you'd like to visit California. It's one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, and it's my home state. So if you're ready to make the thought reality, here's an insider's guide to at least get you started going in the right direction. After all, the state is 770 miles long; it's easy to get lost.
Head south if you're looking for weather in the Golden State. (It's named after the gold rush.) Florida is the Sunshine State, but, in fact, San Diego has the best weather in the United States. Temperatures along the coast range from the 60s in the winter (maybe the high 50s on really cold days) to the mid 90s during the dog days of summer. Even in August, however, there's no humidity and there's always a sea breeze.
San Diego used to be a sleepy beach town (and home to the Pacific Fleet) but it is today an enormous metropolis. Basically, everyone in L.A. got sick and tired of living in L.A. and moved to San Diego, making San Diego just like L.A. Still the beaches cannot be beat for lots of nice sand (without anything growing in it) and plenty of surf.
If you've got kids, San Diego offers the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park. And you may think you've seen a zoo, but you really haven't until you've seen the San Diego Zoo.
Los Angeles also has some good beaches, but in Los Angeles, it's all about seeing crazy people. And no, I don't mean the latest cult, I mean movie stars. Personally, I suspect L.A. is a circle of hell, but there is a lot to see and do if you haven't been there before.
Take the kids to Disneyland, which came before Disney World in Florida, and take a walk down Hollywood Boulevard. See the stars and Mann's Chinese Theater. At night, leave the kids at home and check out the Sunset Strip.
Do everything you can to avoid the freeway.
For my part, I prefer the part of California north of Los Angeles and south of San Francisco, and it's the part probably least frequented by non-Californians.
First up the coast is Santa Barbara. SB may be the most charming small town in the world. It's certainly the most charming in California and I highly recommend it (and I would even if I hadn't been born there). It's an old town by California standards. White mission-style buildings with red-tile roofs stretch from one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (the only one in California facing south) all the way up to the peak of the mountains only a mile or two back.
There's a ton to do along the beach, like renting bikes and rollerblades. They always had these funny bikes that look like red golf carts, but now they also have these hilarious little three-wheel motorized trikes that speed all over the place. Santa Barbara is good if you're traveling with kids or without. If you're looking for a romantic weekend it's great.
Even better (if possible) is Big Sur a little further north. Perched on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur might be the most romantic place in the world. Anywhere north of L.A., you want to remember that Californ-y may be "sunny," but like the song goes, it's also cold and it's damp. In other words, take a light jacket or sweater, because even in Santa Barbara in August you may need it some days. Also, be prepared for fog. This is even more true in Big Sur, but it's the fog swirling around the cliffs that make it such an extraordinary spot.
Then, a few hundred miles later, is Fog City, also known as San Francisco. It's the No. 2 tourist destination in the U.S. (after New York City), so I won't go into it too much more, you probably know it all. Suffice it to say that it was my favorite city growing up.
The rest of California, I don't know so well. I may have lived there, but like I said, it's a big state. There's north of San Francisco. Green rolling hills stretching several hundred more miles up the coast. And if you thought it was cold and damp in SF, then you haven't seen anything yet.
And there's inland. Which is hotter than heck. For a desert, it's still a good place to visit. Anza Borrego is beautiful in a sandy, dry, nothing-there sort of way if you like that sort of thing.