A Solo Traveler's Guide to California

Relax in the peaceful serenity of Yosemite National Park on a solo trip to California
Relax in the peaceful serenity of Yosemite National Park on a solo trip to California | © Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Alex Allen

The Golden State – home of iconic cities, epic coastal road trips and staggering national parks – is a cultural and geographic behemoth and, for solo travelers, it can be overwhelming just deciding where to start. That’s where we come in: so, notebooks at the ready as we lay out the essential tips, itineraries and hotels to make sure your California holiday is a solid gold hit.

What’s the vibe?

Despite its size, California is well geared up for solo travelers. Its international entry cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – are brimming with affordable accommodation. Public-transport infrastructure is better than in most states, and there’s an undercurrent of beatnik curiosity that attracts day-dreamers and drifters so, although you’re traveling solo, you won’t be alone.

An overview of a California solo trip

A Big Sur road trip is one of the top experiences you can have in California

Given its size, you’re best off picking one of three itineraries, allowing two weeks for each. First, there’s southern California, which includes Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. This is one for the city lovers, where urban exploring, zingy food and a dash of surf culture are top of the agenda. There’s the coastal road (or train) trip itinerary, between LA and San Francisco, via well-known stops such as Santa Barbara, Big Sur and Monterrey. Finally, the upstate itinerary: stops include Yosemite National Park, San Francisco for a deep-dive and the rolling vineyards of California’s wine country, across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Like the sound of the latter? Join our seven-day California Dreamin’: From Yosemite National Park to Napa and Sonoma Valley trip.

Where to stay in California as a solo traveler

You’ll find plenty of unique accommodation in California
Stay in retro properties or boutique boltholes all over the Golden State

California is a top tourism destination, so hotel chains often make an extra effort to entice guests, with fresh interiors, competitive prices and extra bells and whistles. Expect, too, countless unforgettable independent hotels, such as the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Or, for beachy, bohemian vibes, check out the Kimpton Goodland in Santa Barbara. To find your perfect bolthole, check out our favorite California hotels to stay like a local.

What to do in California as a solo traveler

California’s catalogue of must-do moments is head-spinning: the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains in the east are scattered with world-class ski areas such as Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes and Big Bear Mountain. There’s the Pacific-pounded west coast, as well as winelands, spectacular national parks and super-cool cities in between. These are three of the most essential experiences.

Visit a national park

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best national parks to visit in California

There are nine national parks throughout California, each with something different to offer – from ancient forests, to cactus-spiked deserts or thundering waterfalls. We particularly love Yosemite, for its scale and grandeur; Joshua Tree, for its sculptural rock formations and spirit-soothing silence; and Redwood, for its primordial forests bristling with the tallest trees on the planet.

Learn to surf

Adventure seekers should try surfing when in California

Hawaii may be the birthplace, but California was where surfing evolved from a sport into a lifestyle – it’s as synonymous with surf culture as it is with sunshine. Surf schools – which cater to a range of abilities from beginner upwards – include Corky Carrol’s Surf School in San Diego, Santa Barbara Surf School and Adventure Out in Santa Cruz.

Take a road trip

Salvation Mountain is one of the quirkiest stops you can make on a California road trip

It’s the quintessential Cali experience – and the only way to see more off-the-beaten-path attractions, such as Salvation Mountain, an art installation in the desert by the eerie Salton Sea. This is one of the few states where car rental firms waive the return fee for point-to-point trips, so it’s affordable as well as fun.

Eating and drinking in California

Foodies visiting the Golden State should stop by food trucks to sample tasty eats

California’s food scene evolves so fast, it’s almost impossible to pin down a particular dish, restaurant or even neighborhood that encapsulates the state.

Start off in the Mission District in San Francisco, home to the city’s Mexican community. As well as the best tacos you’ll find north of the US-Mexico border, it’s become a proving ground for up-and-coming chefs, with new bars and restaurants popping up every week. LA is the birthplace of California food truck culture: there’s everything from Korean-Mexican fusion (Kogi BBQ), to Spanish sandwiches (Tumaca) and stuffed bagels (Yeastie Boys).

Smaller towns host farm-to-table restaurants that make the most of what’s grazing, swimming or growing within arm’s reach. Whet your appetite with our 10 Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants and Local Eats.

Stay safe, stay happy

Hiking alone in the national parks? Keep your eyes peeled for California’s prowling wildlife: black bears, cougars and rattlesnakes. And if swimming or surfing, make sure you’re on a beach with a lifeguard, where shark attacks are far rarer than strong tidal currents.

Getting around California as a solo traveler

Having your own set of wheels is the best way to get around California

The car is (still) king in California – it’s the fastest, most convenient way to get around. Intercity travel by bus is cheap and fairly straightforward via operators such as Greyhound; one-way routes between San Diego, LA and San Francisco start at around $13. The only train route linking south and north is Amtrak’s Coast Starlight: prices for LA to San Francisco (on the way to Seattle) start around $50.

Cultural need-to-knows

There are few states as liberal as California. This is the kind of place you can strike up a conversation with a stranger and there’s a good chance it’ll lead to a helpful tip-off. So push your boundaries and don’t be too self-conscious. No one else here is.

Prefer to explore California with like-minded travelers? Join our seven-day California Dreamin’: From Yosemite National Park to Napa and Sonoma Valley trip, which includes a night in San Francisco, hiking in Yosemite National Park and a wine-tasting bike tour in the Napa Valley.

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