Ten Californian Experiences

Of course, many essential Californian experiences are found in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major towns and cities, as well as in the National Parks; those are all dealt with under separate articles. This article details those that don't fit into those categories.

Hearst Castle

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was a multimillionaire publisher, who inherited a mining fortune, and also a property at San Simeon, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Between 1922 and 1947 he built a fabulous palace here, designed by Julia Morgan in eclectic styles - neoclassical, oriental, Venetian, Renaissance, Gothic, Spanish mudejár - and sumptuously decorated with precious art, antiquities and furnishings from around the world. This is where Hearst would invite scores glittering movie stars from Hollywood for lavish weekends. It remains a stunningly beautiful complex, breathtaking in its ambition, its views and its sheer extravagance. www.hearstcastle.org


The Disneyland Resort at Anaheim, near Los Angeles, was the original Disney theme park - a pioneering venture when it first opened in 1955, and a testament to the extraordinary vision of its creator, Walt Disney. Riding high on his string of feature-length animated film successes, starting with 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' in 1937, Disney took a bold risk in launching his theme park - a 'Magic Kingdom' based around the fairytale characters of his movies, plus Main Street USA, an idealised version of small-town America in 1900. The Park is divided into eight themed 'lands' (Fantasyland, Frontierland, and so on), and is in a constant state of evolution, with newer rides and shows based, for example, on Indiana Jones, Buzz Lightyear, and the Pirates of the Caribbean. Every aspect of Disneyland - from its concept to its many attractions, and its organization involving some 12,000 staff - has been meticulously thought through, setting a gold standard for all other theme parks. Disneyland Resort also includes the adjacent Disney's California Adventure, exploring the Californian Dream in rides and other attractions designed primarily for adults and teenage visitors. www.disneyland.com

Oakland Museum of California

Oakland, lying on the other side of the Bay from San Francisco, has the most comprehensive collection of art, artefacts, photographs and other exhibits relating to the history, art and ecology of the state. The museum is laid out on a three-tiered complex of terraces, galleries and patios, built in the late 1960s. Many of the exhibits are presented in three-dimensional dioramas. www.museumca.org

Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Spanish were the first Europeans to colonise California, bringing their influence to bear through a military presence and the Catholic Church, which endeavoured to convert the native population to Christianity. The first Church mission was established by the Franciscans in San Diego in 1769, and a further 20 followed, spaced out at intervals of about 30 miles (48 km) along a road leading north to San Francisco. All of these old missions have survived in some form - fine old monastic complexes with an old-world simplicity that speaks eloquently of another era. One of the best, and largest, is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, to the south of Los Angeles. It was founded in 1776, but ruined by an earthquake in 1812; it has now been carefully restored to give a vivid impression of mission life in those pioneer days. Other notable missions include the Santa Barbara Mission and the Carmel Mission. www.missionsjc.com

Beaches of Southern California

Surfing, white-sand beaches and warm summer sunshine play an integral part in California's public image. But this is essentially an image of Southern California; Northern California (which begins halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles) has a far less predictable coastal climate, and you may need a wetsuit to keep warm when swimming, even in the summer. Orange County, to the south of Los Angeles has a series of beaches and resorts famous for the surf, bronzed beach life and millionaire mansions. They include Huntington State Beach, Corona del Mar State Beach, Doheny State Beach, and Laguna Beach. The further south you go towards the Mexican border, the warmer it gets; San Diego County has some fine beaches, particularly at La Jolla (pronounced 'La Hoya').

Columbia State Historic Park

The Gold Rush of 1848-50 transformed Northern California as thousands of prospectors stormed into the countryside in search of the nuggets that would make their fortune. The vast majority were disappointed, but for a while there was enough enthusiasm and wealth to sustain communities. One of these was the town of Columbia, which lies halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park; it survived largely intact, and in 1945 it was turned into a historic park. Original buildings include the city hotel, stables, a candy store, Daguerreotype photographic studio, the schoolhouse, a Wells Fargo Office (for the stagecoach). Visitors can enjoy stagecoach rides, and can also try their hand at panning for gold. www.columbiacalifornia.com

Nevada City

Lying to the north-east of Sacramento, Nevada City is another evocative vestige of the Gold Rush, and the subsequent Silver Rush of 1859. It developed rapidly in the decade after 1848, then faded in the 1860s. As a result it has been left with a superb collection of Victorian buildings for which it has earned the title 'Queen of the Northern Mines'. These include the National Hotel, the Nevada Theatre, an assay office, churches, a foundry, a firehouse (containing a museum) and a Chinese quarter. Interspersed with these are shops and restaurants and other attractions that chime with the Gold Rush theme. Nevada City also has a fine Art Deco courthouse, built in the 1930s. www.nevadacitychamber.com

Lake Tahoe

This beautiful lake sits on the border with Nevada, but more than half of it lies within California. Covering some 193 square miles (500 square km), it is surrounded by jagged peaks, and its great depth turns the water a deep blue. It is a popular place to come for camping, boating and hiking, while, in winter, the region is a centre for winter sports, with a number of ski resorts in the surrounding mountains; Lake Tahoe played host to the 1960 Winter Olympics. A 65-mile (105-km) road rings the entire shoreline, and visitors often combine a trip with a hop over into Nevada and to the casinos at Stateline on Lake Tahoe and at Reno. To the west of the lake is the historic town of Truckee, which grew as a transport hub from 1863 and still preserves an air of the Wild West.


This beautiful little town, lying comfortably on the low cliffs of the Northern Californian coast, overlooking the Pacific, owes its special qualities to its origins. It was founded in 1852 as a fishing village by settlers from the East Coast, who built their homes in the New England style that they had been brought up with. It later developed as a focus for the fishing and logging industries. It has retained its prosperity through tourism and as a centre for artists and writers. In spring and autumn, migrating Grey Whales can be seen off the coast.

Calistoga Hot Springs

This is the benign side of California's volcanicity. At Calistoga, to the north of San Francisco, hot springs bubble up, providing the raw materials for spas. In the relaxed atmosphere of this pleasant little town, you can lounge in hot mineral-water baths, or book a session of treatment involving hot moss-and-mud baths and massage at one of the numerous spa centres. Just to the north of Calistoga, there's the Old Faithful Geyser: every 40 minutes or so it sends a jet of boiling water 60ft (18m) into the air.

Comments on this article

John vaughan 27 December, 2010

I think you are underselling California. My choice would include Kings Canyon National Park, the Sherman Tree, the Mojave Desert and Reserve, Kelso Sand Dunes, the superb Bodie Ghost Town, Sonora Pass, The Tehachapi Loop, Calico Ghost Town, Shasta Lakes, The Feather River Canyon,The Spanish Mission Trail, the California State Railroad Museum, Lone Pine and nearby film set, the Salton Sea, Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake and many many many more - all blissfully away from the crowds. You are missing a trick with your list of 'populist' sites.

Sharon B 30 December, 2010

Wow! California, I want to be there...

amna ahmed 8 January, 2011

thank you john..that makes me wanna go and see california even more. your list of things to see sounds amazing...! Thank you for inspiring !

Hannah 9 January, 2011

It sounds incredible - especially the list that you've written John. I have the opportunity to study here in two years time, though I can't decide whether to study in LA or San Diego! Decision making is not my forte and how am I to choose when they both look amazing!

Kat 25 August, 2011

Just a note about your Disneyland post: You have it backwards, the movie Pirates of the Caribbean is based on the Disney Ride!

Rognvald 11 February, 2012

I'm a skier; you haven't mentioned Mammoth Lakes. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the skiing there is awesome. Not as big a European resorts but by American standards it is huge. The pistes (trails in the local lingo) are immaculate. My son and I discovered the run from the top via Climax and Upper Dry Creek to Canyon Lodge (Warming Hut Two!) and skied it all day. Been back three times.

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