California’s Most Underrated 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, Monterey, 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 Route 101 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 pit stops, camped in rural boltholes beneath dramatic mountain peaks, braved the scorching 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



Ventura County

Small-town, rustic, rural - Ojai might be in stark contrast to LA's urban sprawl, but that's exactly why Angelenos love it. This peaceful slice of California countryside has been a low-key refuge for urbanites who want to get away from the gridlocked city for decades. It is a place where orange blossom-scented air, blousy bougainvillea and "that pink moment" (the dusky, liminal time around sunset when the breezy valley gets bathed in a peach-toned glow) come pretty much guaranteed. With corporate chains banned from the town, there's been a boom in independent shops, restaurants and cafés. You'll find mom-and-pop charmers sitting cheek-by-jowl with locally owned fine diners: try Nocciola for stylish Italian plates, or the tiny Ojai Tortilla House for the best burritos in town. If you're just passing through, grab some road-trip reading at Bart's Books and hit the family-run Ojai Ice Cream for a serving of killer homemade fudge to nibble on the road. Farmer and the Cook is a favourite among those looking for a vegan option - the raw cabbage-leaf tacos are a highlight. After lunch, head out to the Matilija Canyon's natural hot springs for a restorative soak.

Where we're staying: Keep it casual in a classic Airstream at Caravan Outpost

Make it a trip: Fly into LA, then start your CA road trip with the 90-minute journey to Ojai


Marin County

Steep green hills hugging brilliant-blue bays, streamlined white yachts and a fair few Silicon Valley bros: 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 sleepy 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: Onboard the historic Yellow Ferryboat

Make it a trip: Take a day trip from San Francisco, using the ferry, or make Sausalito a stop on a road trip - it's only a 10-minute drive from the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge



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

Twentynine Palms

San Bernardino County

Palm Springs is hot property right now, thanks to its distinctive topography (all burnished city streets backdropped by distant, snow-capped mountains), mid-century architecture, Hollywood money (looking at you, Leo DiCaprio) and festival fizz. But the city's old-school creatives are seeking pastures new - and a touch of their hometown's former serenity - in the lunar-like landscapes surrounding Twentynine Palms. This offbeat military town is a melting pot for Slab City-inspired artists and strait-laced military types (spot the barber-shop signs advertising a "short back and sides"). Take a morning walk through the sun-bleached streets to a soundtrack of distant artillery fire to get a feel for the contrasts of this otherworldly place. Browse quirky art galleries, such as Glass Outhouse, and bohemian homeware shops, like Habitat, then try your hand at local obsession desert rockhounding. Search for hidden gems in the rugged mountains, monolithic rock formations, ancient lava flows and desert dunes that make up the Mojave Trails National Monument (keeping in mind the rules set out by the BLM), then clink beers with your fellow rockhounders at popular watering hole Fine Line Cocktails. Not so keen on digging in the dirt? One of California's last drive-in theatres, Smith's Ranch, offers screenings under the starry skies.

Where we're staying: Keep cool beside the purple-hued pool at the colourful 29 Palms Inn

Make it a trip: Twentynine Palms is just under a three-hour drive from LAX



Riverside County

Wine-soaked weekends are easy to come by in California, but if you want to avoid the Napa and Sonoma crowds, 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 Francisco

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 flashier 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)


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 refreshing antidote to San Francisco's creeping gentrification. 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 trip 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 (bonus points if you can distinguish the Monterey Coast mothers-on-tour from the yoga-trimmed LA lifestylers). Nearby, you'll find the area's inky, oozing tar pits - a rare natural asphalt lake 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


Los Alamos

Santa Barbara County

Grab your Isabel Marant cowboy boots because, despite its "Little LA" moniker, this Santa Barbara town still offers a glimpse of the Old West, thanks to its sun-baked clapboard buildings, vast, cloudless skies and mountain backdrop. Equidistant between the wine towns of Santa Maria and Santa Ynez, what was once a sleepy farming town shaded by old cottonwoods has gently transformed into an under-the-radar dining destination serving up a new generation of Californian cuisine. Wander from curio shop to thrift store, stopping along the way at French bistro Bell's, whose delicate savoury take on millefeuille (involving caviar) is famed locally. We also love the leafy garden at Pico, where you can work your way through a wine list of the region's best bottles while ordering from a rustic menu that features the likes of roast quail, burrata and plum salad, and ricotta agnolotti. Road-trippers like to pull in at Full of Life for a tasty flatbread, while overnighters can be found doing whiskey shots under the moose's head at rowdy 1880 Union Saloon. This is wine county, so be sure to try Lo-Fi Wines and Casa Dumetz, before getting back on the road.

Where we're staying: Skyview Los Alamos

Make it a trip: Fly into LAX and head into wine country; nearby vineyard hotspots include Santa Maria and Santa Barbara


San Luis Obispo County

Nestled between weathered Monterey forests and tussling Pacific waves, the seaside town of Cambria, in San Luis Obispo County, feels like an Oregon offshoot on California's central coast. Windswept, wild and romantic, its emerald-needled pines edge rocky clifftops. Bed down at this Route 101 stopover for a winter retreat for two en route to San Francisco. Book a room at the newly opened Whitewater lodge, a popular escape for urbanites, and stay in one of the 25 Nina Freidenberger-designed rooms, each of which brings a dose of Scandi chic to the Golden State. Located on the gorgeous - and gorgeously named - Moonstone Beach, a spring visit will guarantee vibrant wildflower displays and fair weather for exploring by bike. Dine at Sea Chest (no reservation required), which is famed for its fresh shucked oysters served beside the sea.

Where we're staying: Whitewater

Make it a trip: Cambria is a four-hour drive from LAX and San Francisco International Airport. It's a midway stopover on Route 101

Photo credit: Jessica Alexander

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