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California dreaming: The best things to do in California

California has more art, culture and outdoor activities on offer than ever, plus a boundary-pushing culinary scene with an insatiable appetite. Here are the best things to do in California.

For almost two years, the closest we've come to California is hearing The O.C. theme song during one of our pandemic reruns. Now that the Golden State is open and ready to safely welcome Canadians back, we mean it when we say "California, here we coooooome!"

Don't think for a minute that the third-biggest U.S. state has been resting on its laurels. Since the pandemic began, California has opened 62 new hotels, from Anaheim to Sacramento. And in addition to 27 new Michelin star restaurants, California has welcomed a number of food popups to satiate pandemic cravings.

Perhaps you've visited Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco in the distant past but need a refresher? Or maybe you've been deciding between an epic trip to Yosemite National Park or a coastal drive along the inimitable Pacific Coast Highway? With 12 regions and 423,970 square km to work with, California is bigger than many countries — so how on earth do you choose? We've broken down some of the highlights of each region, with some suggestions on where to head for every type of trip. Of course, we're Foodism, so we've naturally included a healthy sprinkling of foodie destinations, wine where-tos and restaurant reccos. But as the world opens up, it seems only right to include the best hiking trails and art installations to burn off those tacos, plus some fab spots to lay your head after all that adventuring. Take that, bucket-list.

To learn more and to start planning your trip, head to visitcalifornia.com

The best things to do in California by region

1. Central coast

Gilroy

With the Big Sur and the Santa Barbara coastline cutting spectacular views across the sea cliffs and rolling vineyards of this region, we highly recommend driving to soak in all the outrageous optics of the Central Coast. Gilroy, located in Northern California's Santa Clara County, might be known for the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which has drawn lovers of the stinky stuff since 1979. However, the Gilroy Taco Trail — with burritos, enchiladas and tamales — is another great reason to stop by.

2. Central Valley

Lodi

If you're a fan of cabernet sauvignon and merlot from California, you've likely seen the name Lodi before. The grape-growing region is home to all of California's grape varietals and is the largest appellation in the state. Of course, wineries are on any visitor's to-do list — but be sure to experience the full bounty of the area. From farm stands overflowing with ripe peaches to the newly renovated Waterfront Grille right on the California Delta, it pays to stay a while.

3. Deserts

Palm Desert

Don't be fooled by the name — this area of California is awash with things to do. From world-class shopping and midcentury modern architecture to golfing, we think you'll keep busy. Palm Desert in Coachella Valley is home to The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, which is active in conservation research and habitat protection. If you need to hide from the rays, take cover at the El Paseo Shopping District, which is packed full of shops, restaurants and art popups.

4. Gold Country

Sonora

Named after The Gold Rush, which sent 300,000 pioneers migrating to California in the hopes of striking it rich, Gold Country is still charming visitors today. Sonora, a.k.a. The Queen of the Southern Mines, is conveniently located near to Yosemite National Park and the foodie capital of Sacramento, but linger a little and enjoy its understated appeal. Historic hotels and charming B&Bs, quirky boutiques and galleries, plus stunning hikes like the Dragoon Gulch Trail are all part of its appeal.

5. High Sierra

Truckee

Whether you prefer to hit the slopes or the hot tub with a glass of wine in hand (we know which one we prefer), this region of dramatic beauty certainly provides ample backdrops. High Sierra is the gateway to Lake Tahoe, the home of high-altitude pursuits. Just 20-minutes away from its north shore sits Truckee, a twee mountain town that's teeming with museums, galleries and sophisticated cuisine highlights like Drunken Monkey and craft brews at FiftyFifty Brewing Co.

6. Inland Empire

Temecula Valley

If you're looking to fly a little under the radar, this is an alpine adventurer's paradise. As the name suggests, Inland Empire is tucked away from the ocean, but what you lose in coastal views, you more than make up for in uncrowded wilderness. It's also a great wine getaway for anyone travelling to bigger destinations like San Diego, Palm Springs or Los Angeles, with a stunning Mediterranean climate for grape growing. Cap off your visit with a hot air balloon ride.

7. Los Angeles

Burbank

A visit to La La Land wouldn't be complete without some time carved out in the Downtown district. Hit up the foodie mecca that is Grand Central Market and buy a ticket to the long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a must-do for any movie buff. But Burbank, on the southeastern end of the San Fernando Valley is where the magic really happens. Go behind the camera and learn some of the tricks of the trade at Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood, one of the biggest working studios in L.A.

8. North Coast

Mendocino

Mendocino, precariously perched on the rocky headlands above the Pacific Coast is not just a pretty picture. The coastal hamlet has become a coven for artists inspired by its idyllic ocean views. Order leisurely brunches at farmhouse cafes, get lost in its quirky bookstore and keep your eyes peeled for gray whales which pass by on their annual migration. The nearby (and delightfully named) Eureka recently opened The Redwood Sky Walk at the Sequoia Park Zoo, offering a new way to experience Northern California’s Famous Coastal Redwood treasures.

9. Orange County

Newport Beach

It might remind you of Marissa, Ryan and the gang, but there's a world of attractions beyond the teen drama in Orange County (although there are enough boardwalks and beaches to get your fill). Hang ten and soak up Newport Harbour's surf culture — either by taking lessons or by enjoying the adjacent shops, restaurants and amusement parks that make up this beach town. Accommodation wise, rub shoulders with the elite at the Fashion Island Hotel Newport Beach, with their snazzy rooftop deck.

10. San Diego

Del Mar

Seventy miles of sun-soaked coast? Sign us up. Head to Del Mar for some of the region's best beaches and oceanside dining. Poseidon is a scenic spot, but we wouldn't turn our noses up at a deep-fried Oreo from the San Diego County Fair. If you're visiting central San Diego, catch a show at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, the first permanent open-air performance venue in the San Diego Symphony’s century-long history.

11. San Francisco Bay Area

Napa Valley

It doesn't get more inspiring than San Francisco, the state's centre of innovation. The Presidio Tunnel Tops project, a 14-acre oasis at the centre of San Francisco’s Presidio featuring beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge, is due to open in spring 2022. Our destination pick, though, has to be Napa for some of the best New World Wine on offer. Oenophiles should take a vino interlude to enjoy the Napa Art Walk, a new exhibit of 10 kinetic sculptures by seven artists.

12. Shasta Cascade

Redding

'Upstate California,' a.k.a. the northeast corner of the state, has enough lakes, trails, campgrounds and houseboats to satisfy any outdoorsperson. With over 300 days of sunshine, Redding is the second sunniest city in the U.S. and home to the state's longest river, where you can go swimming, sailing and kayaking.

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