What is it about California that is so spectacular? A word could not embody its charm. A sentence could not describe its character. After nine extraordinary days in the Golden State, I now suffer pangs of longing for the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the memories I’ve made.
My travel companion and best friend joined me on this recent adventure a) to celebrate her 22nd birthday, and b) to see the other side of the country for the first time. I grew up in Jersey, and I can say with confidence that the West Coast has wooed me and won me over.
I’m clearly biased, but perhaps, the following nine reasons will convince you to create your own California experience. Perhaps writing this article will help remedy my serious withdrawal.
And perhaps, you will book a flight, set a date, and sync your GPS to the Pacific Coast Highway: destination, San Francisco. From NorCal to SoCal, adventure awaits. Here’s why:
1. California is a nature lover’s paradise.
Cali is beautiful. You’ve heard it a million times, but I assure you, it’s true. Within its borders, Cali contains the famous Yosemite National Park, an untouched wonder, filled with mountains, waterfalls, wildlife, challenging hiking trails and serene swimming holes.
On our trip, we booked an overnight bus ride to Yosemite from San Francisco. After seven hours and elevations of 3,000+ feet, we successfully hiked trails through the Vernal and Nevada Falls. The views were absolutely breathtaking and well worth the climb.
2. The ocean awaits.
Aside from its mountainous interior, California proudly bears the stunning Pacific Ocean. Having the opportunity to finally see it was really remarkable, and I highly recommend it.
Worlds away from the Atlantic, the Pacific dwells beneath coastal cliffs and sleepy beach towns beside boardwalks and farmlands.
To have a surreal experience, follow our itinerary: book a rental car (alright, it was a convertible, we couldn’t help it) and drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. The vistas along the way were worth every penny, and if you time it out right, you can drive beside the sunset.
3. There are city sights you don’t want to miss.
We spent the majority of our trip in San Francisco, a hub of pop culture. From the "Full House" house to the Golden Gate Bridge, there are icons that as Americans, we know and love, but probably have never seen.
Try to make it to The Fisherman’s Wharf for a touristy treat, Union Square for shopping, Golden Gate Park along Haight Street for a hipster’s paradise and Dolores Park for a fantastic San Francisco cityscape.
4. Lovers of literature, San Fran is The Promised Land.
The late 1950s brought the beginnings of the San Francisco Renaissance and the birth of the Beat Generation. The effects of literary revolution still linger in the city today.
San Francisco is home to incredible bookstores (City Lights is a must-see) that contain collections of classic, groundbreaking literature. If this makes your heart skip a beat (pun intended), you have to check out The Beat Museum on Broadway.
There are bookshelves brimming with banned books and a small exhibit dedicated to the great Jack Kerouac, among others.
If this isn’t your style, San Francisco still offers inspiration for anyone. The city showcases endless artistic expression, a strong counterculture presence and a certain individualism that trumps NYC. Compared to the Big Apple, San Francisco is small, but mighty, with a voice that is poetic and profound.
5. The nightlife.
Now for the fun stuff: San Francisco has plenty to do after dark, as long as you’re willing to find the party. Most bars and clubs close early, which was surprising for 22-year-olds accustomed to New York nightlife. Check out the Castro and the Mission for great clubs and bars.
Looking for something more low-key? Union Square has a variety of establishments, such as hilarious dueling piano bars and snazzy cocktail lounges.
Aside from San Fran’s after hours, we spent some time in the Santa Cruz scene, which was small in scope, but totally enjoyable. Sports bars and dance clubs line Pacific Avenue, but be sure to make some friends from the area to show you the best spots.
6. It’s the perfect place to be thirsty.
Home to Napa Valley, arguably the nation’s most popular wine country, California is a wine-o’s dream. Countless vineyards and wineries offer tasting tours, many of which provide transportation to and from the location.
During your stay in San Francisco, definitely check out Napa and Sonoma, located just north of the city, for great wine and gorgeous landscapes.
Within San Francisco’s city limits, classic mixed drinks and local beers are available in great supply. If hand-crafted beverages are what you seek, look no further than Bourbon & Branch.
Running as a traditional speakeasy near Union Square, this dimly lit, old-fashioned bar and lounge delivers delicious, one-of-a-kind cocktails. Reasonably priced and well worth the "no cell phone" rule, Bourbon & Branch is unique in all of the best ways.
Don’t miss it! Make a reservation, and remember your password at the door.
7. It’s easy to get around.
Despite its size, Cali has convenient options for public transportation. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) offers a speedy, inexpensive means of travel between major cities, from Berkeley to Fremont to the San Francisco International Airport. Beyond the Bay Area, Amtrak also offers reasonable travel itineraries that can take you up and down the coast as needed.
If you’re looking to explore, consider renting a car. Some options are pricy, but in the long run, shopping for a bargain could create priceless memories. We had the freedom to drive unlimited miles for four thrilling days, and because of it, we were able to see the Redwood Forest, the beach and other towns along the coast.
While experiencing San Francisco, BART can take you between the neighborhoods. Cabs are also widely available. They're more expensive, but worth it when you’re in a pinch.
And of course, riding a cable car is a stereotypically awesome way to get around! They’re cheap and run often, but just make sure you pay before you hop off!
8. Accommodations are available, even for the budget traveler.
The cost of staying in San Francisco does not need to be astronomical. In fact, it can be reasonable! First, consider hostels, especially The Green Tortoise on Broadway.
Travelers from all over the world crash here, and booking a night or two (or five, like us) sparks new conversations and forms lifelong bonds. Plus, a chain of travel hostels line the California coast; if you’re making your way to SoCal, hostel hopping is the way to go.
Next, despite their grungy, shady appearance, motels are super affordable and absolutely necessary when you have no other options. Driving to Santa Cruz without any planned accommodations was spontaneous and sort of stupid, but we were saved by the motel we found.
Finally, make friends in the city, especially if your stay is lengthy. After the first few nights out, we already had contacts that were willing to house us for the night, if needed. Luckily, a long lost friend was kind enough to share his beautiful apartment with us on our last night in San Francisco.
We were desperate and practically homeless, but forever grateful for the last minute, free housing.
9. A California stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.
There are good vibes all along the West Coast, and good people who are willing to share them. Make the most of your time in California by making friends. How, you ask? For starters, don’t be afraid to ask for directions or advice.
When we arrived in San Francisco, we didn’t even have to ask (our cameras and backpacks screamed, “TOURIST”) a kind stranger to give us directions; he approached us with awesome recommendations.
After this encounter, we made a point to always play the question game, at bars and hostels, in restaurants and on tours. It worked! We completed our trip through Cali without any major dilemmas and found extraordinary people along the way.
“California Dreamin’” is more than a major hit from the 60s. It is a chronic nostalgia for the sun-kissed land of lovers, the place where the wild ones roam and the wide-eyed dreamers endlessly chase the things they believe in.
It is a desire to find freedom in any form it takes, somewhere between the mountains and sea cliffs, beneath the palm trees and the Redwoods. It is euphoria, and it is an experience like no other. I beg you to find your way, and find it soon, and you will quickly understand how Cali so quickly captured our hearts.
When you return (if you return), you'll have a California story of your own.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It