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Travel guide California

Make yourself at home in the Golden State


39.3 million


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Time in California

When’s the best time to visit California?


Spring in California

Spring is a lovely time to visit San Francisco, with temperatures averaging 16°C (61°F). Crowds start to flock to the beaches during the ‘spring break’ holiday but the city is not as busy as in high summer. San Diego’s spring is a little warmer – think 19°C (66°F). The beachside hotels start to fill and surfers start to flock to the shore, but it’s still a great time to visit. Early spring is the best time to catch the intense flowering season of the brilliant yellow California poppy; head to Antelope Valley, Los Angeles county, and discover one of the reasons this is known as the ‘Golden State’.

Summer in California

Summers can get swelteringly hot during the summer months, making it the ideal time to hunt down the state’s best beaches. Venice Beach, in Los Angeles, is a great destination for people-watching. Across the San Diego Bay Bridge you’ll find Coronado Beach. Surrounded by pretty houses and manicured lawns, it’s an idyllic spot with a wholesome, small-town vibe. Temperatures in San Francisco and San Jose can hit highs of 23°C (73°F), and San Diego’s average summer temperature is 26°C (79°F), regularly climbing higher. The summer sees California’s biggest visitor numbers, and attractions will be at a peak, so remember to book in advance. This can be a great time to escape the city for a few days with a road trip.

Autumn in California

Autumn is when the coastal fog that often accompanies the summer weather lifts, meaning clearer skies. This is a great season to take in some of California’s wildlife. You can witness the shorebird migration at Point Reyes and at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge or make a wood cabin your home for a few days in Joshua Tree – this time of year is far less busy than the summer months. Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November, may affect certain opening times, so always be sure to check first and book ahead. Californians also love celebrating Halloween. If you’re visiting the theme parks, look out for special spooky festivities, which start as early as September.

What's on

Winter in California

Despite its reputation, California is not always hot and sunny. Winters in the Bay Area, which includes San Francisco and San Jose, can see temperatures dip to as low as 9°C (48°F). However, this is a great time to visit attractions, such as Alcatraz, as numbers are at their lowest and the city is quieter than the summer months. Just a three-hour drive north of San Francisco you’ll find the Lake Tahoe resort, actually comprised of seven resorts, where some say the best skiing in the country can be found. Further south in San Diego temperatures average 14°C (57°F), beaches are emptier (making for great walks) and visitor attractions such as Warner Bros Studio Tour have lower numbers daily.

California visa and entry requirements

If you’re a citizen of a country covered by the Visa Waiver Programme (such as the UK), you will need to have a valid e-Passport along with an approved ESTA to enter the USA. You can identify an e-Passport by the ‘chip’ symbol on the front cover.

You can apply for an ESTA online and should receive approval straight away, although we recommend applying at least 72 hours before departure, in case any travel authorisation is denied. An ESTA is valid for multiple journeys and lasts for two years, or until your passport expires.

You will no longer be able to enter the US using an ESTA if you have dual nationality with one passport being issued by a country eligible under the Visa Waiver Programme and the other issued by Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria.

UK citizens can also fast track US passport control by joining Global Entry, the US Customs and Border Protection programme. Membership lasts for five years and the application process includes background checks and a face-to-face interview at an official enrolment centre.

Remember, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you have the right documents to be allowed entry into the USA when flying into California airports.

Road trip essentials

  • Most hire cars now come with a sat nav, but if you plan in advance, you can bring your own pre-loaded with the correct maps and routes for places you want to visit. 
  • Make sure you always have a few bottles of water and some snacks in your car and a full tank, especially on long journeys and if you’re heading to the mountains or desert. 
  • Each state has its own rules and regulations when it comes to driving, for example, in California it’s 55mph on two-lane highways. 
  • Parking in many cities comes at a premium, so keep a few quarters to hand in the car for parking meters. 
  • If you do have a collision, ask the other driver to follow you to a safe place and call 911 to report the incident.

Discover our California road trip itineraries

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Northern California Triangle

The journey: San Francisco – Lake Tahoe – Yosemite

Classic Californian road trips

Classic California Coast

The journey: San Francisco – Monterey – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles – San Diego

Classic Californian road trips

Tipping in California

Tipping in California isn’t just for good service – it’s a part of the culture here.

Tipping is a part of the culture here, as many service industries such as hotels, restaurants, and transportation factor tips into their staff’s wages – but that doesn’t mean you have to go crazy with it. Our guide will help simplify who, when and how much to tip when you’re out and about in California.


For most restaurants, a tip between 15 and 20 per cent on the pre-tax total is pretty standard unless a service has already been added.


In bars a $1-$2 tip per drink is typical for beer or wine, 50 cents for soft drinks, and $2-$3 for cocktails or high-end bars.


Taxi drivers will expect you to round up the fare for longer journeys or airport trips, around 15-20 per cent is standard.


At hotels, porters, maids and other service staff will appreciate a dollar or two for their help with luggage etc.

You should also know ...


California is hugely diverse with many cities and towns having pockets and communities with strong heritage from countries across the world. For example, Los Angeles and the south of the state have large Hispanic traditions, San Francisco has a big Chinese community and other pockets of Vietnamese, Korean and Italian, to name a few. Always be mindful that customs in these areas can be very traditional.


California is very conscious of smoking and it’s only permitted in designated areas, and it’s against the law to smoke in enclosed spaces and public areas, such as bars, restaurants and shopping centres.

Discover more of California

From snowy slopes, to sunnybeaches; California is adazzling destination all year

Laura Chubb,  California-based travel writer

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