California is a state that spans 900 miles along the Pacific. As such, there are a lot of things to do in both Northern California and Southern California, with each city and town having its own unique flavor.
How do I put California into words?
The reflection of the San Clemente pier on rhythmic waves during a sizzling sunset.
The unpleasant heat wave glazing Hollywood Blvd.
The fresh oysters off the Santa Monica Harbor.
The steep valleys and high hills that define the streets of San Francisco.
How do I define California?
Vast, diverse, patient.
Unsurprisingly, California is not your typical budget-friendly getaway. But since I was offered a travel scholarship to attend a conference in Orange County, CA, I jumped at the opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the most mentioned cities along the West Coast.
My grasp of the Golden State was a 20-day venture along the Pacific shoreline. In the land of opportunity, an endearment often associated with the late-19th century California Gold Rush, the pursuit of new beginnings and great wealth instigated one of the largest mass migrations to the western hemisphere. From the rich and fabulous to technical accessories, the evergreen state has become the epitome of the American Dream.
Things to do in Southern California
I arrived in Orange County expecting hot weather and beach sightings. In fact, my 20” x 14” was packed with short shorts and summer dresses. However, the April night proved incredibly resilient to global warming. A bit dazed by Orange County’s similarity with my hometown, my friend drove me through wide streets and high lights to his apartment near Main Street.
During the conference, we stayed at Chapman University. The campus was located a few minutes away from a street dotted with restaurants, bars, and palm trees. It was then that I found myself officially in California.
The early 2000s were filled with the most insane teen dramas. From Gossip Girl to The OC, many of us were tied to our couches and TVs for hours on end. Orange County, especially the Hunting Harbour and Newport beach area will be familiar to most, as they happen to be the main setting for 90210, Dexter and other binge-worthy shows.
Huntington Beach and Newport Beach are both popular coastal areas in Orange County. The harbors each house a wooden pier that dips deep into the sea. Their sandy pavements are streets away from restaurants & pubs, unifying calm ocean waters with the hype of weekend outings.
Just south of Orange County, sits a more vibrant Santa Ana. My friend took me to a community brunch featuring homemade delights and freshly squeezed orange juice. A Mariachi band played on stage while desserts, breakfast items, and fruits lined the street. The happy-go-lucky atmosphere brought me back to days of Berlin’s buzzing Christmas markets.
During brunch, I began chatting with a lady next to me. Tina turned out to be a Disney executive just home from Shanghai’s park opening preparations. After exclaiming how surprised she was that I’ve never been to Disney, she offered me a two-park inclusive ticket to the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
So I dropped my plans, picked up my bag and spent a day at Disney.
I honestly think it’d be a missed opportunity not to visit Disney while in California. The 4-D rides and night-time light show were some of the best I’ve experienced in my life. There really is a reason for Disney to be the most popular theme park in the world.
Tina definitely made a childhood dream come true.
Having spent 6 days in Orange County, I couldn’t wait to get to LA and revisit my city roots.
A youth ticket from Irvine to LA Union Station was $8.00 through Metrolink. When I arrived at LA’s fabulous central station, I made the stupid, determined mistake of locating a nearby metro by foot. No surprise here, but I swear no one, I mean no one, walks the streets of LA-especially while dragging a piece of luggage.
On Google Maps, the nearest station was some 25 minutes away. However, the seemingly short walk became incredibly miserable under the LA heat.
After two days hopping around downtown LA, I headed for a short visit to Santa Monica. The city houses a gorgeous 10-mile beach that sits right across a restaurant/ store-lined sidewalk. Artists, performers, beach walkers, dogs, bikers, rollerbladers fill the roads, pumping energy into the already lively neighborhood.
My friend took me up the Malibu Mountains to catch the sunset. We also struggled to settle down for some yoga along the road, which was deserted by but one vehicle every 20 minutes.
Santa Barbara is an upscale resort-like beachside city that sits in front of the Ynez Mountains. With its red-tiled rooftops and cream-colored walls, the whole town oozes a warmth reflective of its Spanish colonial heritage.
It wasn’t just relaxing, it was blissful.
I took a bus from LA to Santa Barbara that cost a hefty $80. It was a quick two-hour ride that placed me beside a contract firefighter that goes on week-long excursions into the wild.
As a professional chef, my host and her husband live in a cozy apartment near the cozy downtown core. Thomas runs a wine tasting service that takes customers to different wineries in and around the city. It was obvious that I hit the jackpot staying in the land of wine with two people who specialized in wine and dine.
I spent a few days walking along the Santa Monica Harbor and slurping fresh oysters in dozens. My host also took me up Lizard’s Mouth to catch the sunset embracing the town and sea below.
The hidden gem is a half-hour drive from the Santa Barbara city center. Tucked away in the middle of some mountain hills, it overlooks all of the city. To the south, the city sits quietly against the Pacific Ocean. To the west, the sea stretches out endlessly.
We reached Lizard’s Mouth right around sunset. A trail led us to an open platform that tilted towards a cliff meters away. Not a fan of heights, at one point, I found myself on all fours, praying to the almighty that I wouldn’t get blown right across the rocky formations into the wild. However, my host jumped around the rocks like no one’s business.
Once we reached the viewpoint, it was all worth it. The area was secluded, peaceful, and definitely one of my favorite sightings in California.
Things to do in Northern California
It was a sunny midsummer afternoon when I reluctantly left Santa Barbara, catching a $45 rideshare to SF.
I spent the first day wandering downtown. Immediately, I felt a close bond with the city. Unlike LA, people actually walked on the streets in San Francisco! But for those looking to visit, try to avoid the Tenderloin area. I mean, being catcalled is one thing, but being followed by a group kite high in the middle of the day was just not a fun time.
SF’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese district outside Asia.
Stepping into Chinatown was as if I was like being transported back into 1960s Hong Kong. It’s a mixture of foreign-familiarity that many Chinese associates with these pagoda rooftops and dragon gates. Spoiler alert: much like lemon chicken or orange chicken on display in Asian buffets, this stereotyped nonsense doesn’t really exist in China. 😊
Unlike the traditionalist approach as taken by Chinatown, my lunch was spent somewhere a tad more modern. Situated on Howard St, Gold Club is a gentlemen’s club with booming music and dancing ladies. To draw crowds on weekdays, they serve a free all-you-can-eat buffet with a $5 entrance fee.
Visiting clubs, especially strip clubs, in the middle of the day is new territory for me. In my sweaty tank top and slippers, I was surprised that they actually allowed me entry. It was a drastic change stepping into a strobe lights-filled, bass-blaring showroom on a sunny afternoon. Neon signs aligned the walls while a go-go dancer performed striptease on stage. I don’t think I will forget the experience of stuffing myself with pasta and fried chicken while being entertained anytime soon.
Silicon Valley is yet another one of SF’s must-visits. From Apple to Google, some of the biggest tech firms’ HQs sit just outside of the city. Luckily, I had a few friends that worked at Tech giants making bigger dollar bills.
Knowing how hyped these co-working campus spaces are, I decided to pay a visit.
The Caltrain from SF to Mountainview is a bit over $8. After arriving, my friend picked me up and brought me to the Google Campus. Since he had to get right back to work, I grabbed a Google bike and rode around the humongous campus. Note: the bikes are employees only since they are in such a horrible condition. However, so long you don’t vocalize your civilian status, all is well.
The campus is divided into several sections. After half an hour, I decided that there really wasn’t much to it other than the area immediate the newly renovated Googleplex. To be honest, the rest of the buildings on campus were rather dated. Nonetheless, it had a vibrant vibe. Lawn chairs filled the open space and several food trucks sat in the front of the complex. There were spacious grounds for volleyball and other pastimes. Rumor be true- the inside of buildings also housed loads of recreational entertainment.
The beauty of being the guest of a Google Employee is that we get a visitor’s badge that accessed certain buildings and binge eat at cafeterias. Cafeteria really isn’t the right word, as the amount of variety on display can put a buffet to shame.
Around noon, I took on another daunting task-Google to Facebook by foot.
I obviously made an incredibly stupid mistake thinking that a 20-minute drive on Google Maps would be a 40-minute walk tops.
Nope. The entire walk across highways and hills took me a good three hours. By the time I arrived at Facebook, my face was completed sunburnt from the California rays. Thank god for the view, and the occasional Starbucks.
The best way to get from one campus to another is a rental. If not, Uber becomes a great alternative to dragging yourself across plains and roads.
I could see why.
The Facebook campus was like a beautifully designed village. From bike shops to ice cream parlors, little stores lined the sidewalk. It may not be as big as Google, but FB HQ could be navigated without difficulty. Trying not to embarrass my friend too much with my tourist status, I whipped out my phone for a couple of shaky videos.
The last main sighting in SF was without a doubt, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Towering over the Golden Gate Strait, the bridge has become a symbol for San Francisco. At 1,280m, the structure is noted as one of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The stunning orange contrasts the ataractic blue, forming a spectacular sight that draws people from around the world.
Using public transport, you can reach the bridge by GGT bus (Routes 30, 70, and 101) from downtown. This is recommended by the city since parking is extremely limited near the bridge. However, for optimal views, we took a rental up the summit that lies behind the bridge.
Around 20 minutes up the hills, we stopped at Marin Headlands. The scenic point had a clear view of the Bay Area. The city formed a beautiful backdrop to the beautiful landscape. To the South-East, the bridge sat magnificently against the waters. To the South-West, the Pacific stretches on endlessly into the bright sunlight.
Before the day ended, we decided to drive down to Twin Peaks to catch the sunset. The summits sit right around the city, providing a beautiful view of San Francisco.
It’s safe to say that California lived up to its fame. The Golden State was welcoming at worst, oozing a lazy-comfort of a land that has been graced by constant sunshine and warmth. Its people were happy-go-lucky, an easy going crowd that substituted stress & hustle with Wednesday farmer’s markets. Of course, I only lived one side of CA, but I live its good vibes happily.
Aside from the places mentioned, there are much more to the land of the free. You can integrate a number of the following within the cross-state trip for a more enriching experience:
- San Diego
- Yosemite/Sequoia and Tahoe
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Salvation Mountain
- Central Coast
- Paso Robles
- Morro Bay
- Big Sur
I spent a total of 18 days running around California. Since I didn’t have to pay for the flight or accommodation, most of my $ went towards food and rides. City Passes are another great option to explore these places!
I spent around $170 on transportation between the three cities/ varies counties. Since a number of people helped me out along the way, even those costs were greatly minimized.
In LA, I exhausted $30 on a number of random things. In Santa Barbara, most of the money went towards oysters. With a few drinks and outings here and there, the total amount I spent traversing CA was around $280, which is just over $15 a day.
If this makes you consider Couchsurfing, go ahead and read whether the option is right for you 🙂 If not, you can consider some other budget accommodation options.
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