From epicurean adventures to natural wonders, surf spots to stunning cities, there’s a slice of the Golden State for you. Leigh Crandall rounds up best bets for every type of traveler
Best for Foodies: Yountville
This Napa County town hosts a constellation of Michelin-starred eateries. Almost 20 years after it first opened, Thomas Keller’s three-starred French Laundry is still one of the toughest reservations in the land; you’ll have a better chance of snagging a table at Bouchon, which offers stellar bistro fare like steak frites. Helmed by award-winning chef Perry Hoffman, étoile at Domaine Chandon has the area’s only fine dining within a winery — splurge on the tasting menu with pairings, which includes dishes like yellowtail Hamachi and roasted lamb loin. For a fancy locavore lunch, make a reservation on the outdoor courtyard of Richard Reddington’s Redd, overlooking the vineyard-covered hills.
Best for Friends: Palm Springs
Bring your posse to this desert town, where spaing, shopping, golfing and eating options abound, and the accommodation ranges from hipster and affordable to swank and sprawling. Our perfect day: breakfast and the “bacon flight” at local favorite Cheeky’s followed by a morning of shopping the boutiques along Palm Canyon Drive. In the afternoon, head to Agua Serena Spa in nearby Indian Wells, which offers of-the-area treatments like a “Cactus Sun Repair Wrap”. For dinner, try Purple Palm for a fun, Moroccan-style dinner al fresco.
Best for Sport: Big Sur
The 90 miles of rugged coastline between Carmel and San Simeon that make up the Big Sur area offer eye-popping views and myriad sporting opportunities. Explore the redwood groves at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, hike to the beach and the McWay Falls, or go surfing at Sand Dollar Beach. Visitors to the area can also saddle up with Molera Horseback Tours for rides through Andrew Molera State Park. Tours range from one to two-and-a-half hours and take guests across flower-filled meadows and forests, then end with a ride along Molera Beach. For lunch, stop at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn for California cuisine in a spectacular cliffside location overlooking the Pacific.
Best for Families: San Diego
Kid-friendly attractions abound in this SoCal city. If there are animal fans in your crew, opt for a visit to the famous San Diego Zoo where visitors can see exotic animals from across the globe; on select dates they also offer overnight programs for adults and kids. Other options for families include the rides and plastic creations at Legoland, the New Children's Museum in downtown San Diego, the action-packed San Diego Air & Space Museum, and, of course, sand castle-friendly beaches like Coronado and Mission.
Best for Romance: Santa Barbara
Charming sleeps, excellent restaurants and fantastic beaches, all in a to-die-for coastal location make Santa Barbara a winner for couples seeking romance. Oenophiles can follow the urban wine trails that criss-cross the area; active types can opt for a waterfront bike ride (stop at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on Stearns Wharf for lunch and order the crab sandwich on toasted sourdough) or just kick back at local spa favorite, Float. And, if you’re visiting over a Sunday in the summertime, pack a picnic and head to the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club to take in a tournament.
Best for Art: Carmel
With over 100 galleries crammed into one square mile, this charming, coastal town feels like an open-air art museum. Make your first stop the Carmel Art Association, the city’s oldest gallery, which has pieces from more than 100 local artists; elsewhere, look out for work by Cali legends Armin Hansen and Ansel Adams. Delve deeper into the town’s history as an art colony with the Carmel Heritage Society’s self-guided tour past notable cottages like the Cypress House, the first built in the Carmel Point area, and the Frank Lloyd Wright House at the end of Carmel Beach. Architecture and garden enthusiasts should also save an afternoon to wander around the circa 1771 Carmel Mission, while theater fans can take in a play at the Forest Theater, an amphitheater framed by towering pines (productions of Peter Pan and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are planned for this year).
Best for Music: Los Angeles
Famous music venues like Whisky a Go Go, The Roxy, and House of Blues make Los Angeles an top choice for musically inclined travelers. Amoeba Records, the largest independent record shop in the world, is also a must visit, and fans of classical music and movies are in for a treat this summer, when Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing his most famous scores at the alfresco Hollywood Bowl amphitheater, which then moves to the Walt Disney Concert Hall come fall.
Best for Shopping: San Francisco
Unique boutiques put the City by the Bay at the top of our list for shopping destinations. Start in the Mission, where the Candystore Collective and Bell Jar stand out for their well-edited clothing collections, as does Monument, a must-stop for vintage lovers on the hunt for homewares, clothes and estate jewelry. Hit Haight Street for a taste of San Francisco in the ‘60s at bowling-alley-turned-record-store Amoeba Records or take a stroll down Fillmore Street lined with flower shops, modern interior design stores like Nest and charming boutiques including My Roommate's Closet.