The Best of California For Budget Vacations
The cost of living in California ranks among the highest in the country. But visitors don't need a movie star's net worth to enjoy the wealth of attractions the state has to offer, from redwood forests in the north to sunny weather in the south. Here are some of the best things in California to experience and explore on a budget.
There are some surprisingly cheap attractions in San Francisco. Catch part of a Giants game for free from the waterfront promenade; tour the Mission District's street murals; walk across the Golden Gate Bridge for a panoramic view of the city; and make faces at the sea lions at Pier 39. In the fall, the tourist rush slows, the fog lifts, and hotel rates drop. The city's temperate weather is also at its warmest.
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is home to one of the nation's most infamous prisons. Night tours are less crowded -- just a few hundred people are allowed -- and provide sunset and nighttime views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline. Visitors get a boat trip to and from Alcatraz, a guided tour outside the prison, a self-guided audio tour inside the prison, and programs available only to evening visitors.
From Sequoia to Joshua Tree, California is endowed with some of the country's best national parks, and Yosemite is an undisputed gem. Seven-day admission with a car costs $30 (all occupants included). Nearly the size of Rhode Island, the park boasts 800 miles of trails that accommodate the rugged outdoorsman as well as the leisurely walker. Yosemite features epic views of granite cliffs and breathtaking waterfalls. Adventure-seeking families can camp, hike, and climb at any time of year and take advantage of free shuttle service in Yosemite Valley.
Just off the coast of Southern California's highly developed urban sprawl, the Channel Islands are a rugged reminder of what the area used to look like. An excellent winter destination, the national park comprises five islands with more than 2,000 species of plants and animals. Of these, 145 are found nowhere else in the world, and dolphins, harbor seals, and sea lions abound. The 175 miles of shoreline provide snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities, while the islands themselves offer hiking, camping, and tide pools to explore. Visit during a whale migration -- gray whales from late December to mid-March and blue and humpback whales in summer -- for a boat tour.
If a California wine country vacation would make your bucket list but Napa is too pricey, go next door to Sonoma County. The wines stand up to some of the best anywhere, and the food is just as appealing. Affordable lodging options include the Sonoma Creek Inn, El Pueblo Inn, and Best Western. Farther south, Paso Robles is an up-and-coming destination with more than 200 wineries.
For those who love silky, full-bodied California wines and appreciate good value, Cline is a must-know winery. This small family producer in Sonoma County delivers wines with high-end flavor profiles and velvety texture spanning a range of prices, with more than one selection in the everyday-drinking category. Visitors toast the complimentary tastings and beautiful grounds.
Officially known as California State Route 1, Pacific Coast Highway is a legendary 656-mile scenic road trip that runs from the north around Leggett to the south near Dana Point. If you're not up for the entire lengthy trip, a popular stretch runs from Monterey and ends in Morro Bay. Dazzling views of soaring cliffs along the Pacific Ocean coastline, paired with tight turns, make this a scenic trip that takes about four to five hours to complete, depending on how often you stop for the views.
The Pacific Surfliner transports passengers past some of Southern California's most iconic scenery -- think dramatic cliffs and coastline, ocean as far the eye can see, and picturesque mountains and valleys. If the journey is timed just right, this jaw-dropping scenery is bathed in a beautiful, golden sunset or a brilliant sunrise. The route from San Diego to San Luis Obispo runs through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, all of which are among the region's most intriguing cities. The Surfliner also passes through Anaheim, providing easy access to Disneyland. Fun fact: The Surfliner has special racks for surfboards and bikes.
With trees so large you can drive through them, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in northern California are well-known camping destinations. Make reservations early to guarantee a spot. Many of the campgrounds with basic facilities (no flush toilets) are available for $12 or $18 a night, with a first-come, first-served rule.
With mild temperatures in the 70s during the winter, San Diego is a great destination to consider for a laid-back vacation, whether for families or empty nesters. There is plenty to do besides strolling along the beautiful beaches, such as visiting the art museums and Balboa Park. This is a town rich in living history, from a 91-year-old wooden roller coaster at Belmont Park to the USS Midway, an aircraft-carrier-turned-museum. For an unforgettable outing, experienced divers can try to catch a spiny lobster. Get a lobster report card October through March for less than $10 (a one-day fishing license is an additional $15).
Farm-to-table is a way of life in the City by the Bay, and San Francisco's numerous farmers markets reflect the diversity found on every street. Perhaps the most famous is the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which runs three days a week throughout the year and provides goods to hundreds of area chefs. Saturdays, the largest of the three days, can draw some 100 vendors with varied options including dried pasta, olive oil, avocados, sprouts, smoked salmon, quail, mushrooms, tofu, figs, and granola. Save money by lodging at a place with a kitchen and preparing your own meals from the farmers market bounty.
There's no shortage of fun things to do or places to be seen in Los Angeles. For a selfie that will stand out, head to the amazing Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, a favorite destination for Angelenos and tourists alike. Take a moment to enjoy the famously beautiful city view, then turn around and get a photo with the skyline or the Hollywood sign in the background.
Straddling California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe has been ranked "America's Best Lake" by USA Today readers. The California side, known as Tahoe South, is a vibrant playground for aquatic adventurers. Between epic sunsets and the Sierra Nevada mountains, it's a spectacularly scenic place.
This resort town was an iconic "home away from home" for many early Hollywood stars and now provides an affordable and eclectic mix of movie nostalgia tours, midcentury modern home design, and desert landscapes for hiking and exploring. Joshua Tree National Park is a 45-minute drive away and Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel is even closer (non-guests can take a dip in the natural springs for $4 to $9, depending on the day of the week). To get to Palm Springs, drive two hours east from Los Angeles or fly into the open-air Palm Springs airport.
As fall arrives in this romantic Northern California coastal town, so do the rains, producing a bumper crop of mushrooms (some of which grow only on the Mendocino Coast). Some believe the mushrooms have amatory qualities, making this an ideal destination for couples. Go for a stroll or a swim at the beach, or take advantage of off-season rates and packages at local hotels.
Few activities are more exhilarating than racing through the air at 30 mph, far above one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world. Off the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, adventurers travel nearly three-quarters of a mile on five zip lines 600 feet above sea level ($99 to $129). Each stop includes an expert presentation about the geography, wildlife, landscape, and history of Catalina Island. Those with a higher risk tolerance -- and a higher budget -- can learn to hang glide high above scenic Lake Tahoe ($250 and up). Operators compare the experience to "riding a motorcycle in the sky."
This expansive arts center, a Los Angeles institution, features fine art collections, rare antiquities, and a special room for kids with hands-on learning and activities. The Getty Center boasts impressive architecture and visually appetizing gardens that change seasonally. Admission is free, although parking is $15 ($10 after 3:00 p.m.).
Most Pacific Coast Highway travelers pull over at the iconic Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed spots in central California and one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. The price of admission is only the cost of gas. Or for a nominal fee (placed in an honesty box), head to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and walk 500 yards to McWay Falls for a spectacular view of a waterfall meeting the beach.
Running from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the 212-mile John Muir Trail overlaps with much of the Pacific Crest Trail. Although it's one of the most beautiful and famous trails in the country, it's not very busy, and hikers are frequently left in solitude. Several camps and stores in the High Sierra backcountry provide supplies and warm showers along the way.
Hidden in Griffith Park is the old Los Angeles Zoo, which was moved to its current location two miles away in 1966. The old zoo held just 15 animals and became a target of criticism for the small enclosures. The old cages and stone exhibits are still there as a reminder of how much animal welfare standards have changed (one is recognizable as the backdrop for the bear scenes at the San Diego Zoo in the movie "Anchorman"). This abandoned site is open to the public and reasonably well marked. For an extra-spectacular city view, hike up Bee Rock, a hive-shaped outcropping on the ridge to the west of the old zoo.
Scenes from 1968's "Planet of the Apes," 1956's "Love Me Tender" with Elvis Presley, and the famous jump into the river in 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" were all filmed on the grounds of Malibu Creek State Park. What may be more memorable to TV fans is that the park was a primary filming location for the show "M*A*S*H." Because the park is still a draw for fans, state park officials have cleared overgrowth for a partial restoration of the set.
Big cities are often hyped among the best tourist destinations in California, but many of the state's small towns are gems. A trip to Pacific Grove combines beaches, history, and classic charm. Check out Point Pinos Lighthouse, have lunch at the Beach House restaurant, and enjoy an afternoon swimming or surfing at Lovers Point Park and Beach. The various small shops along Main Street invite leisurely shopping.
California's taquerias offer a delicious array of inexpensive bites. For great cheap tacos, go no further than Tacos Baja in East L.A. While the regular menu boasts plenty of inexpensive deals, on Wednesdays fish tacos are only 99 cents. La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara was a favorite of Julia Child, so it's no surprise the lines are long. Tacos are priced at about $2.50 and up, making this a cheap spot in a pricey town. In Oakland, fans rave about $1.50 tacos from the La Perla Taco Truck, giving props to the wide selection of meats, including tongue and tripe.
In a state lousy with great cheap taco shops, Las Cuatros Milpas in San Diego stands out. The handmade offerings center on handmade tortillas and corn flour tamales. The $5 burritos are filled with shredded meats and crumbled cotija and served with a side of rice and beans. Honorable mention: La Taqueria in San Francisco's Mission District. Its carnitas burrito was named America's best by the data-driven site FiveThirtyEight, which analyzed more than 67,000 burrito joints before conducting a taste test of 84 finalists.
There are usually about 20 different offerings at Bi-Rite Creamery, a popular ice cream shop with two locations in San Francisco. Sam's Sundae dresses up chocolate ice cream with bergamot olive oil, Maldon sea salt, and whipped cream, while flavors such as honey lavender, black sesame, and balsamic strawberry are presented in cones or cups. Avoid the line by opting for soft-serve versions offered at a separate window.
In the heart of San Francisco's Mission District is a small bean-to-bar chocolate factory that creates artisanal single-origin bars with beans sourced directly from farmers. The factory features an in-house café, and customers can tour the factory after business hours to learn about (and taste) each step of the chocolate-making process. The tour costs $5 and includes a gift card for a hot cocoa at the café.
Stone Brewing Co. was founded in 1996 as a collaboration between two friends who shared a love of music and excellent beer. The company's product labels feature a gargoyle, which is said to ward off cheap ingredients, pasteurization, and chemical additives. Tours are available for a small fee -- $5 for adults 21 and over -- and include a keepsake tasting glass and four 4-ounce samples of custom brews. Kids 12 and under are free, and older kids and adults not wishing to drink can tour the facility for $1.
Admission is free for Jelly Belly factory tours. Videos give visitors a peek into the jelly-bean-making process, while a self-guided walk along the elevated, quarter-mile-long tour lane provides a bird's-eye view of the operation. There are also interactive exhibits and free samples.
Some early Hollywood stars and studio founders are interred at this star-studded cemetery, founded in 1899 as Hollywood Memorial Park. They include silent actors Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, "Little Rascals" Darla Hood and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, and producer Cecil B. DeMille. Maps help visitors find these and other notable celebrities such as musician Johnny Ramone. An empty tomb honors Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in 1939's "Gone With the Wind" and became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. The previously racially segregated burial ground refused her wish to be buried there upon her death in 1952. Her cenotaph was installed in 1999, after the cemetery switched hands. You can also see many of the stars on the big screen, during the outdoor summer movie screenings hosted at the cemetery by Cinespia.
Solvang is a Danish village hidden in Southern California's Santa Barbara County. Its Main Street district is filled with boutique shops, traditional Danish bakeries, and more than 20 wine-tasting rooms pouring the best from the 100-plus wineries in the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley. Visitors can explore the town by horse-drawn carriage or surrey ride.
Pfeiffer Beach is known for a remarkable, one-of-a-kind feature -- purple sand. Beaches in Big Sur can be hard to find or access, due to the steep terrain, and many are on private property. But few regret making the effort to reach Pfeiffer Beach, and the drive through Big Sur is breathtaking. Entry is $10 a car.
While the much larger (and far more expensive) Aquarium of the Pacific in nearby Long Beach gets more attention, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium has the largest collection of Southern California marine life in the world. There's also something for architecture buffs -- the building was designed by well-known architect Frank Gehry. Best of all, entry is free (although a donation of $5 for adults and $1 for children is suggested, and parking outside the aquarium is $1 an hour).
There's no denying the significance of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, recognized as an official historic landmark for its role in Beat culture. But The Last Bookstore has grown along with L.A.'s revitalized downtown and now holds the title of California's largest used and new bookstore. Its 22,000 square feet on two floors of the Spring Arts Tower hold 250,000 books, as well as thousands of vinyl records and graphic novels. The building also includes the Labyrinth Above the Last Bookstore, which features the gallery shops of local artists and mind-boggling installation art, such as a tunnel made from stacks of old tomes.
It's hard to choose among California's many beautiful gardens, but this one located right in Golden Gate Park has unmatched diversity. The microclimate of the 55-acre park allows plants from all over the world to thrive. A California garden features native succulents and redwoods, while other gardens showcase the flora of South America, Asia, Australia, the Mediterranean, and South Africa. Monthly plant sales let visitors bring the gardens home, and a horticultural library includes books for kids. Admission is free for city residents; otherwise $8 for adults.
Feel like you've been there, done that, seen it all? This quirky destination may prove otherwise. After a bridge in the San Gabriel Mountains was completed, a flood wiped out the road leading to it. With the road never replaced, it's now a "bridge to nowhere" -- two hours from Los Angeles but accessible only by a 5-mile hike (with a free permit).
Hosting more than 2,500 sellers and attracting more than 20,000 buyers each month, the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena has been delighting crowds for more than 45 years. The flea market is open on the second Sunday of every month and is one of the best in America.
Not only is the Los Angeles Central Library the country's third-largest public library, with a catalog of more than 6 million items, it's an architectural landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Free docent tours of the building and its art are offered whenever the library's open, and there's a free tour of the surrounding Maguire Gardens on Saturdays.
More than half a million people attend the annual West Hollywood Carnaval, held along Santa Monica Boulevard. The free event features multiple music stages, while nearby bars draw visitors with themed drink specials and contests. This night of excess and outrageous costumes (leave the kids at home) ends with a celebrity guest being crowned "Queen of the Carnaval."
Anyone looking for a genuine Old West adventure, should book a trip to the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in the Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara. The ranch offers the opportunity to unplug and experience rustic California with Western-themed accommodations, 50 miles of horseback riding trails, a 100-acre lake for fishing and boating, wildlife walks and more. Barbecue enthusiasts should definitely join in the ranch's BBQ Bootcamp where they'll learn the fine art of making spice rubs and grilling Santa Maria-style tri tip (the local specialty), get tips from local chefs, winemakers, and brewers, and spend the afternoon enjoying the ranch facilities.
Monterey Bay is known for some of the best whale watching along the coast, thanks to the cold and nutrient-rich Monterey submarine canyon. Whale-watching season here is nearly all-year, so there's a good chance of spotting blue and humpback whales, along with orcas, dolphins and porpoises. Lucky visitors may spot a rare minke or fin whale, and from mid-December to May, look for migrating gray whales. Monterey Bay Whale Watch is a highly rated tour company, and don't miss the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.
While you can find rejuvenating hot springs throughout California, the famous cliffside springs of the historic Esalen Institute in Big Sur offers one of the most stunning locations. It's also a little easier to get to then some of those that require long hikes. While the hot springs are regularly available to guests at the pricey bohemian retreat most of the day, non-guest visitors can make a reservation for a late-night soak and unwind in the hot, healing waters from 1 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $35 per person. Sure, it's late, but a moonlit soak there is a bucket list-worthy experience not to be missed.
California offers a range of excellent skiing and snowboarding destinations for fluffy powder and warm sunshine. And while places like Tahoe and Mammoth are deservedly popular, Big Bear Mountain Resort in Southern California offers an excellent under-the-radar affordable option, especially for families. A short drive from L.A., the twin properties of Bear Mountain and Snow Summit (connected by a free shuttle) offer dozens of trails and hundreds of acres of terrain with options for all skill levels. There are also plenty of well-priced dining and accommodation options in the area.
Strolling a beach boardwalk is an essential California experience, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the most iconic -- and affordable -- options in the country. The bustling seaside amusement park features classic thrill rides like the legendary Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and family-friendly 1911 Looff Carousel. You'll also find arcade games, mini-golf, laser tag, bowling, old-fashioned carnival games, and fried food galore. And for those who want to unwind by the surf, there's an expanse of sandy shore to enjoy.
A trip to the land of giant trees, Sequoia National Park, should be on everyone's California bucket list. Gawk in wonder at these majestic, massive and ancient trees, chief among them The General Sherman Tree, the world's largest tree (by trunk volume). Soaring 275 feet in the air, measuring over 36 feet in diameter at the base, and occupying 52,500 cubic feet in volume (over half the amount of an Olympic swimming pool), the impressive tree is estimated to be about 2,000 years old -- making it merely a middle-age giant sequoia compared to those that are thought to be over 3,000 years old. It's an awe-inspiring sight to behold.
Come springtime, head to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve in Southern California for a spectacular display of golden orange California poppies, the state flower, blanketing the rolling hills. The display typically occurs in early April, and is contingent on a variety of factors, so check the Reserve's website for the latest reports, and be sure to stay on the official paths. Admission to the state park is $10 per vehicle, and in late April, there's a California Poppy Festival. Further south, Keys Creek Lavender Farm is also worth a visit in May and June.
Calling all history buffs, architecture aficionados, and anyone who enjoys urban exploration, should definitely sign up for a walking tour with the Los Angeles Conservancy. The esteemed preservation-focused non-profit offers expert-led tours ($15 per person, $10 for members) on a variety of themes, including Art Deco and Victorian architecture, historic movie palaces, and with their Last Remaining Seats program, you can see classic films in those theaters. And you can download free self-guided tours from their site. And in San Francisco, check out Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine for some eccentricity entertaining historic tours ($30 for adults, $15 for children).
California is full of quirky hotels that often feel frozen in time, and at the top of that list is the kitschy, and road-trip-worthy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. The whimsical hotel features 110 rooms, each with their own wildly colorful theme and name, such as the Caveman, Safari, and Swiss Chalet. Room rates start around $209 a night depending on the room. There are also several dining options, like the blindingly pink Gold Rush Steakhouse. And if you enjoy quirky themed rooms, check out The Victorian Mansion in Los Alamos, which features six ornately designed theme suites with secret doors and soundtracks, including the Egyptian, Roman, and Pirate rooms.
Surfing is an iconic pastime in California, and whether you're visiting or live there, chances are someone will ask you if you've caught a wave. So why not cross another item off your bucket list. While there are plenty of legendary surf spots along the coast like Mavericks and Rincon, Malibu is regarded as the best option for beginners. You'll typically find long, steadily rolling waves, and there's a good chance you'll spot a celebrity or pro surfer in the water. Whether it's your first time or you need a refresher, Malibu Surf Coach will have you hanging 10 in no time.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies migrate south from the Rockies to Central California's coastal areas, and it's a beautiful sight to witness. The jewel-like orange and black butterflies can typically be seen from mid-October through February at various sites, including ones in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. But one of the most popular destinations is the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove where visitors can observe thousands of them clustered on eucalyptus and pine trees.
A visit to the entertainment capital of the world wouldn't be complete without a behind-the-scenes tour of the Universal Studios' backlot. Fun for movie lovers of all ages, the 45-minute tram tour offers a look at iconic movie sets, including "Psycho" and "Jaws." The studio tour is included in admission to the Universal Studios theme park, which makes the starting price of $105 much more worth it. If you're looking for a less expensive, but still entertaining studio tour, Warner Bros. is a good option starting at $50 for California residents.
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