Trees and buildings with Hollywood sign in background.
California is the third-largest state in the US, surpassed only by Alaska and Texas. (Image Credit: Alessandro Porri on Unsplash)

Our LA correspondent, Emelia Turner, gives an insider’s view on how to make the most of a visit to the Golden State.

Interested in a trip to the states? California might be your next destination.

From the vibrant streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco to the serene beauty of the national parks, California has something for everyone.

Nicknamed ‘the Golden State’, it’s alluring attractions and sunny weather has seen international visits increase by 29% in 2023, reaching 15.1 million.

If it’s a location that’s on your bucket list, this guide will help you with navigating your way through the best that California has to offer, providing insights into key attractions and practical travel tips.

Getting to California

Plane flying over land.
One of the busiest airports in the world, approximately 66 million passengers travelled through Los Angeles International Airport in 2022, marking a year-over-year increase of about 37.51 percent. (Image Credit: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

Flying to California from the UK is straightforward, with several major airports serving the state.

Los Angeles International (LAX), San Francisco International (SFO), and San Diego International (SAN) are the primary gateways.

Direct flights are available from London through British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, making it easy to reach California without the hassle of layovers.

British citizens can typically enter the US without a visa for up to 90 days for tourism or business purposes under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

However, you must complete an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form in advance, which costs up to $21. This process is relatively quick and simple but should be done well in advance to avoid any last-minute issues.

Before you fly, it’s a good idea to print off all of your documents, including booking confirmation of the location you’ll be staying at, as these may be requested upon arrival in America.

Getting around California

Once in California, getting around efficiently is crucial to making the most of your visit.

Renting a car is often the best option, as it provides the freedom to explore both urban and rural areas at your own pace.

Remember, driving in the US means driving on the right side of the road, which might take a bit of adjustment if you’re used to driving on the left.

Public transport is easily available in major towns and cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, with options including buses, trams, and subways. However, coverage can be limited outside urban areas, so plan accordingly if you intend to visit more remote destinations.

Key destinations

Los Angeles
LA is a city teeming with iconic attractions.

Visit Hollywood to see the Walk of Fame and the TCL Chinese Theatre, or spend a day at Disneyland for a dose of magic and adventure.

The Santa Monica Pier offers a classic Californian experience with its amusement park and beachfront views, while the Griffith Observatory provides stunning panoramas of the city and the Hollywood Sign.

Keep in mind that LA traffic can be very heavy, so plan your travel times to avoid peak hours. The roads are generally the clearest between 11am-2pm, and 7:30pm-5:30am.

San Francisco

Construction for the Golden Gate Bridge began on January 5, 1933, and it was opened to vehicles on May 29, 1937. (Image Credit: Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash)

San Francisco is known for its picturesque scenery and historic landmarks.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see, offering spectacular photo opportunities and a chance to walk or bike across.

Take a ferry to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison, or wander through Fisherman’s Wharf for fresh seafood and lively street performances.

Chinatown, one of the oldest and largest in North America, offers unique shopping and dining experiences. San Francisco’s weather can be unpredictable, so pack layers to stay comfortable throughout the day.

San Diego
San Diego boasts a relaxed atmosphere and some of the best weather in California.

The San Diego Zoo, one of the most famous zoos in the world, is a fantastic place to spend a day. Balboa Park, where the zoo is located, is also home to numerous museums, gardens, and theatres.

La Jolla Cove is perfect for enjoying scenic coastal views and spotting marine life, while the Gaslamp Quarter offers a vibrant nightlife scene.

Don’t miss the opportunity to savour some excellent Mexican cuisine, reflective of the city’s close proximity to the Mexican border.

Practical tips

Cars on road with sun setting.
Los Angeles County contains 88 cities, such as Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Long Beach. (Image Credit: Lala Miklós on Unsplash)

Understanding local customs and etiquette can enhance your travel experience. In the US, it’s customary to tip 15-20% in restaurants and for services like taxis and hairdressers.

English is the primary language, but due to the large Hispanic population, you’ll also encounter a lot of Spanish, especially in southern California.

A basic understanding of Spanish phrases can be helpful, but most interactions will comfortably happen in English.

While credit and debit cards are widely accepted, there are many places that may not take card, particularly independent bars or restaurants, so be sure to take cash with you.

If you forget to take cash with you, ATMs are readily available for cash withdrawals. It’s a good idea to inform your bank of your travel plans to avoid any issues with card usage abroad.

California operates in the Pacific Time Zone (PT), which is 8 hours behind GMT. Keep this time difference in mind when planning calls or communications with friends and family back home.

In case of emergencies, dial 911 for police, fire, or medical assistance. This number is toll-free and can be dialled from any phone.

Healthcare in the US can be expensive, so travel insurance is essential. Ensure your insurance covers medical expenses, including emergency evacuation. Pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, are widely available for any over-the-counter medication that you may need.

While flights to California do take at least ten hours from the UK, the distance is well worth it for the abundance of attractions and experiences on offer in the Golden State.

It’s a good idea to stay for at least a week to fully make the most of your time there. However, no matter how long you stay, there will always be more waiting for you upon your return.