California is a vast state that inspires fantasies, from Baywatch and the Beach Boys to Silicon Valley, or from liberal San Francisco to the national parks and wineries of the North. Joshua Tree National Park is a great, scenic desert expanse east of L.A. Dress lightly and hydrate frequently there. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the second-largest in the U.S., and one of the best anywhere. You can see a multilevel kelp forest and the creatures that inhabit it. Little needs to be said about the old-growth redwoods parks of the North. They offer spectacular hiking and scenery.
In L.A., you can see Griffith Observatory and great views from Mt. Hollywood, a location featured in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause. There are bells and whistles like nine planetary scales, a camera obscura, and the world’s most advanced star projector. Not too far away is the Hollywood Bowl, which has held classic performances from artists like the Beatles and the Doors. The L.A. County Museum of Art on Wilshire is a fairly amazing, boundary-breaking collection of works by old masters and innovators alike, and it holds lots of interesting events worth keeping tabs on. Further south, check out California’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg at Old Town State Historic Park in San Diego, and stop by the nearby Mexican market Bazaar del Mundo. San Francisco’s Mission District includes colorful murals which were intended originally as a protest against U.S. foreign policy in Central America, but grew to become a unified expression of culture among Latinos in the city. There are 50 to 70 Mission murals in the eight-block radius of Balmy Alley.
California cuisine can be quite down-home or very elevated, but is generally made with care. One could argue that the most advanced food culture in the U.S., particularly in regard to clean food and holistic health, is here in the Golden State. In San Francisco, the combination of fresh seafood from spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and Italian-Americans in North Beach led to a classic tomato and fish stew called cioppino. Alice Waters has stressed local and organic foods at her renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. L.A. is extraordinarily diverse, and in Hollywood alone you can see Thai neighborhoods with Buddhist shrines, and blocks with signs for Armenian establishments, including restaurants. Cooks in Southern California can be highly experimental. In Napa and Sonoma counties, chefs utilize the extraordinary local produce; grapes are only the beginning of wine country food.
A few dishes sound like they really personify the California ethos. San Francisco has the Dirty Hippie, a goat-buttermilk panna cotta topped with hemp and sunflower seeds; Korean bibimbap with grass-fed steak, organic vegetables, spicy gojuchang, and a Sonoma farm egg atop rice, served sizzling in a stone pot. In L.A., eat squid-ink pasta with Dungeness crab, sea urchin, and jalapeno, or choose from creative pizzas with squash blossoms and mozzarella, eggs and bacon, or stinging nettles and salami. There are many, many simpler, cheaper options. See how well you do at the world-class Santa Monica Farmers Markets, which have ready-made foods like tamales and crepes as well as ingredients you can use in the kitchen. The bike valets at the Sunday market are there so you can have a, like, TOTALLY eco-conscious experience.