California’s Under-the-Radar Destinations (And Why You Should Visit)

We’ve pulled together 12 of our favourite under-the-radar Golden State destinations to help you with your road-trip planning. Whether you’re a hiker gasping for some redwood-filtered fresh air, are looking to catch a live gig in LA’s music mecca or hoping to experience an otherworldly desert escape, we’ve got your back.

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LA, Big Sur, Palm Springs and the hills of San Francisco - they're all circled on your map, but the road in between perhaps looks a touch blank. Figuring out a route for your California road trip is a daunting task, so we've done the legwork for you in order to add a little (orange) juice to your Stateside adventure.

Whether you're a Highway 1 first-timer or an LA devotee looking for a new obsession beyond the city limits, we've sought out the very best hot-right-now stopovers, camped in rural boltholes beneath dramatic mountain peaks, braved the desert heat and checked in with the experts at Visit California to bring you our pick of the 12 most underrated locations to add to your California travel list. So, turn up The Beach Boys, baby, and get ready for a road trip to remember.

Lesser-known Californian destinations you must visit

Echo Park

Los Angeles, United States

LA's music mecca has played host to modern-day guitar heroes including Thom Yorke, the Rolling Stones and LCD Soundsystem, thanks to the tip-top scheduling at beloved venue The Echo and its thumping subterranean sister, Echoplex. Often overlooked for sultry Silver Lake, this eastern district, hemmed in by the Dodger Stadium and Route 101, is your ticket to the city's freshest sounds. Catching some live music is a no-brainer: try the mural-embellished Bedrock.LA, where young musos rehearse future LPs by day and run block parties by night. Post-gig, take care of the morning hangover with a Dirty Chai and deli bagel down at Stories Books & Café. In need of some fresh air? Jump on a swan-shaped pedalo and glide across Echo Park Lake, then pick up a bundle of head-clearing sage from the metaphysical market House of Intuition. Once you've got the headache under control, fuel up on tender chicharron and salsa verde tacos at Sunset Boulevard's Guisados, in preparation for round two (it's what Ronnie would want).The red velvet bar stools at mezcaleria Bar Caló are the most coveted seats in the neighbourhood right now.

Where we're staying: Noon on Sunset Hill is a great place to collapse, post-gig

Make it a trip: Fly into LAX, from where Echo Park is a 22-minute drive


Marin County

Steep green hills hugging brilliant-blue bays, streamlined white yachts and beachside boltholes: Sausalito might only be a 10-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, but it has a distinct character all of its own. This Marin County town has a rich cultural history: Otis Reading penned the lyrics for Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay here, Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours in a wood-panelled Sausalito recording studio and Kerouac waxed lyrical about its houseboat community in On the Road. Visitors can expect to find a laid back seaside spot with a contemporary edge: think fresh seafood, dockside people-watching opportunities galore and an architecturally diverse array of floating homes. Stroll the wharf at Waldo Point to ogle the various houseboats, then pop into Heath Ceramics to find near-perfect seconds of this renowned, timeless pottery for sale at heavily discounted prices. At mealtimes, it's got to be seafood: the sustainability-focused Fish serves standout lunchtime fish tacos and fresh shucked oysters on the waterfront, while Sushi Ran has a county-wide following for its Japanese-Pacific fusion cuisine.

Where we're staying: The Inn Above Tide for its waterfront views

Make it a trip: Hire bikes in San Francisco and cross the Golden Gate Bridge for a day trip, then take the ferry back, or make Sausalito a stop on a road trip - it's only a 10-minute drive from the city



Sonoma County

Welcome to California's "Gay Riviera"! This one-time logging town and 19th-century hangout for wealthy San Franciscans has been the R&R location of choice for California's LGBTQ+ community since the 1970s. Combining rustic, rural adventure in the red pine-swathed hills with full-on retro kitsch (cowboy hats and lumberjack outfits are very much encouraged), Guerneville offers a crash course in Cali contrasts. Hike through the Armstrong Redwoods Natural Reserve and travel by log-laden raft along the Russian River to release your inner adventurer, sip tasting glasses at the Korbel Champagne Cellars and browse art galleries and antique shops on Main Street for a little sophistication, then let it all go in the evenings. After tamales and tequilas at El Barrio, the carefree Rainbow Cattle Company is where everyone and their mother ends the night. Stomp your feet on the cocktail-soaked wooden floors at this iconic nightlife spot - on Tuesdays all profits are forwarded to a local charity.

Where we're staying: The LGBTQ+-owned Boon Hotel + Spa

Make it a trip: If you're flying into San Francisco International Airport, Guerneville is just under a two-hour drive along Route 101. Stop by on your way to the Mendocino Coast



Riverside County

Wine-soaked weekends are easy to come by in California, but if you're after a quieter vineyard experience, try giving southern California's laidback Temecula Valley a try. Around an hour-and-a-half from LA - and just over an hour from San Diego - this rustic enclave is all about homegrown vintages and relaxed experiences, so there's no need to sharpen your nose: think less sniffing, more slurping. Check in to the 90-room Ponte Vineyard Inn, then start your exploring at Ponte's own winery and two vineyards - all of which are within walking distance, so no designated driver needed. With over 30 independent wineries dotted throughout the valley, your days will be full - and a little bit fuzzy by 5pm. Call in at the modern Akash for its low-key Taco Tuesday pairings and end a day of tours with a sipping session over a glass of bold red at Callaway Winery. Once you've imbibed enough, saddle up for some horse-riding trails through the golden hills, or take to the skies in a hot-air balloon.

Where we're staying: Ponte Vineyard Inn

Make it a trip: Temecula is just a 90-minute drive from LA, or a little over an hour from San Diego

Pacific Grove

Monterey County

With its gently curving coves edged by wild blooms and prim-and-proper Victorian architecture, Pacific Grove is the small-town alternative to its well-to-do neighbours Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once a summer retreat for church congregations, this peninsula town has retained a nostalgic provincial charm. Nature seems to favour the Grove. Take a springtime walk down the coast-hugging Ocean View Boulevard to encounter the jaw-dropping purple blooms of magenta ice plants that carpet the shoreline. Arrive in October, on the other hand, and you'll find yourself in good company. Monarch butterflies from all over the US choose to winter in Pacific Grove, clustering together in pine and cypress groves beyond the town limits. Away from the kayakers, divers and endless sea views of Asilomar Beach, local galleries and boutique homeware stores can be found tucked away between pastel-toned Victorian houses in the downtown area, and the west coast's oldest continuously operated lighthouse, Point Pinos, is just a short hike away.

Where we're staying: Gosby House Inn

Make it a trip: Pacific Grove sits on 17 Mile Drive, one of the USA's most scenic roads. The entire route takes around three hours (including photo stops)

Mammoth Lakes

Mono County

Exit Highway 395 and head into the rocky ridges of the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach this high-altitude hill town. Hugging the bottle-green curves of the lakes it takes its name from and surrounded by a thick, verdant forest, the unpretentious escape is the state's mountain-sports nirvana. While this is a ski town, famed for its challenging peaks, we'd recommend visiting post-snow season, with trail shoes in tow. Caught between expansive valleys and meandering waterways, Mammoth is all about adventure. Fuel up with a cold brew and doughnut at downtown Mammoth Coffee Roasting Co, then take a gondola ride up the mighty Mammoth Mountain to enjoy 360-degree views. The region's best hike takes in saline Mono Lake's wildflower-strewn edges and sparkling, salt-crusted shores, but the region's natural wonders don't stop here. A little further afield, you'll find the striking geological columns of the Devils Postpile and its neighbour, the 30m-high Rainbow Falls, plus Hot Creek's bubbling waters and spectacular geyser eruptions Then, there's the ghost town of Brodie - a once-buzzing gold-rush settlement that hasn't changed since the 1800s. Come evening, head back to Mammoth Lakes to sample a taste of the terroir at local microbrewery Mammoth Brewing Company, where the state's highest-altitude-brewed beers are made using fresh mountain water and local ingredients. For stronger sips and small plates of seared ahi and chipotle chicken tacos, try Shelter Distillery.

Where we're staying: Enjoy serious camp vibes at Tamarack Lodge & Resort

Make it a trip: Heading to Yosemite? Make Mammoth Lakes your adventure base


San Francisco County

Blink and you'll miss this small central district, wedged between Potrero Hill and the big blue bay, whose industrial blocks offer a glimpse into San Francisco's history. Having survived the great 1906 shake, the city's residential areas rub shoulders with sprawling warehouses once used by shipbuilders. Today, these old spaces have been claimed by the city's artists. Opening later this year is the Institute of Contemporary Art, but, in the meantime, you've got the vast Dogpatch Arts Plaza, with its open-air exhibitions, the socially sustainable Minnesota Street Project and The Midway, which puts on immersive contemporary art experiences. Dogpatch's other main drawcard is its dining scene. You'll find stuffed croissants and freshly brewed coffee at Neighbor Bakehouse; riffs on Indian classics at Minnesota Street's Besharam; burgers, Bloody Marys and live bands at bayside The Ramp; and tasting classes on the state's best biodynamic bottles at sommelier-run Ungrafted. Third Street is food central. Sample Latin flavours at Yucatán-native Gilberth Cab's eponymous rotisserie and grill, before moving on to event space The Pearl for a pisco sour on the rooftop, or to the old-school Dogpatch Saloon to take in a lively jazz session.

Where we're staying: Dogpatch hotels are slim on the ground. We suggest making your base the elegant Palihotel San Francisco - a 15-minute drive away

Make it a trip: Accessible via the Muni T metro line, Dogpatch is well worth a day's exploration on a San Francisco city break



Santa Barbara County

Bed down beside Snow Peak-clad campers on the edges of Carpinteria State Beach for a weekend of nature-bathing with Santa Barbara's well-heeled set. A haven for seals, sea lions and all manner of other sea creatures, this plush oceanside town is squeezed between the vast Toro Canyon Park and the majestic waves of the Pacific Ocean. This is where LA's most-active residents head for a weekend away: the surf at Rincon Beach is legendary, while the trails across the "Carp" bluffs are famed for their wildlife. Nearby, you'll find the area's rare, natural asphalt lake that was once harvested of its sticky contents by the indigenous Chumash to waterproof their boats. If your campsite cooking isn't up to scratch, fuel up at the Padaro Beach Grill on shrimp tacos and fish sarnies, with a side helping of ocean views.

Where we're staying: We'll be pitching up at the Carpinteria State Beach campsite

Make it a trip: It's only a 90-minute drive from LA

Ocean Beach

San Diego County

Just north of Point Loma, this southern Californian district has garnered a reputation for its silver-haired surfer population. Sure, it's a surf hotspot, but it's also a hippie enclave often compared to San Francisco's Haight-Asbury, and it also has the honour of being considered America's most dog-friendly district (the country's first official leash-free dog beach opened here). Take a stroll and you'll discover a kaleidoscope of culture and a community as vibrant as the wall murals flanking its sandy streets. The biggest attraction here, however, is the breathtaking beach scenery. Watch the wave riders and sunbathers of Newport Avenue Beach, pet pooches on Dog Beach, or paddle in the mirror-like tidal pools below San Diego's fishing pier. Grab some breakfast or a post-surf lunch beneath the striped awning of nearby The Little Lion Café (try the black bean and sweet potato vegan breakfast tacos), then head to Newport Avenue, the district's quirky hub, to peruse open-air brewery bars, antique stores and hole-in-the-wall fish taquerias. Don't miss the Wednesday farmers' market for live music, local artists and some top-notch kombucha.

Where we're staying: The Pearl is technically in the Point Loma district, but it's only a seven-minute drive from there to Ocean Beach

Make it a trip: Fly into San Francisco, spend a few days exploring the city, then hit Route 101 and head south for a coast-hugging trip through wine country


Mariposa County

Grab your cowboy hat. Mariposa might be best known as a gateway to Yosemite, but this quaint national park town offers much more than trail maps into the hills. This being original gold-rush territory, visitors can expect to see clapboard churches, Wild West storefronts and wood-shuttered windows aplenty. With so much to see and do here, this step-into-the-past deserves to be more than just a stopover on your national park road trip. Linger over lunch at farm-to-table joint 1850 Brewing Company and you'll be eating beneath antique curios from days long gone. Take a seat at the counter of Sugar Pine Cafe for Americana classics in a nostalgic diner setting. Worn out after scaling Yosemite's peaks? Charles Street Dinner House is a Mariposa institution. Order the signature hot apple pie - you won't regret it.

Where to stay: Inside one of Autocamp Yosemite's sleek Airstreams, a 10-minute drive from the town centre

Make it a trip: This is the gateway to Yosemite National Park, so make it your base camp for a mountain adventure


Sacramento County

Despite its wooden sidewalks and ample opportunities for wagon rides, California's capital is a little more offbeat than its clapboard streets first suggest. Forget state politics: this city is better summed up by the soft-focus cinematography of Greta Gerwid's Lady Bird (the indie flick was filmed here). Check out the film centre at the striking art deco Tower Theatre for a great line-up of under-the-radar flicks. Then, roll up your sleeves and get ready to explore the food scene. Surrounded by bountiful farmland, Sacramento is rapidly becoming the go-to place for the state's hottest restaurants. Don't miss the fried chicken sandwiches at Pangea, thin-crust pies at Masullo Pizza and New American plates at Michelin-recommended Localis. Arrive on a Saturday to catch the vibrant stalls and artisan makers at the Midtown Farmers Market, before turning your attention to political history, with a visit to the domed California State Capitol Museum. Hire a bike to wind your way to the R Street Corridor, where you'll find dozens of street-sharp boutiques and vintage treasure troves. Get suited and booted at All Good, a curated outdoor clothing shop popular among the city's creatives, then sign up for one of its bouldering trips, which will take you beyond the city limits.

Where to stay: Bed down at historic The Citizen Hotel

Make it a trip: Just an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco, the capital makes a good stopover en route to California's national and state parks


Alameda County

San Francisco's inland twin has more than 50 distinct neighbourhoods, but the one that the big-city creatives have been skipping across the bay and choosing to set up home in is Piedmont Avenue, known for its slower-paced streets and quirky shops and eateries. You'll need more than a day to visit every bric-a-brac store, vintage shop and restaurant along this famously long road. Adjacent to low-key Temescal (where we recommend you join a food tour with food journalist Sarah Henry to sample the best of the diverse local food scene), Piedmont Avenue is defined by its diverse restaurants and vintage emporiums. Start off at the vegan Timeless Coffee - make ours an oat milk latte with a slice of pecan pie, please - then get ready for some serious retail therapy. Try your luck at unearthing the perfect pair of perfectly faded blue jeans or tooled cowboy boots at Mercy Vintage, then hit women-owned Maple Street Denim for ethically made workwear. When you reach the road end, take a breather at the sprawling Mountain View Cemetery (designed by the same man behind NYC's Central Park), before sliding into a seat at CDP Bar - sister joint to chef James Syhabout's two-Michelin-starred Commis restaurant. Come dinnertime, join the area's drifters for Lao-inspired plates at The Saap Avenue or head to The Wolf for bistro favourites. Its urfa chilli-spiked margarita morena, pairing tamarind and tequila, hits the spot after a long day spent rifling through 1980s neon ​​knitwear.

Where to stay: We're torn between the pastel-hued Broadway Motel or, for views across the whole bay, bed down at the historic Claremont Club

Make it a trip: Visiting San Francisco? Set aside at least a day or two to venture to Oakland during your trip

The Lowdown

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