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

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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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
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
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
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
. 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

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

Where we’re staying: Gosby House

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
, 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

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
; 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
, 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

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
(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
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
sleek Airstreams, a 10-minute drive from the town

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


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
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

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
– 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

The Lowdown

Feeling inspired? Visit to book your dream California
trip now.

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