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Northern California vs Southern California: What’s the Difference?

Northern California vs Southern California: What’s the Difference?

Northern California vs Southern California – a rivalry that has been going on for decades. If you’re not from California, the competition between these two neighboring regions may perplex you. Why the needless tussle? You see, NorCal and SoCal, though in the same state, have plenty of stark differences. 

What comprises NorCal and Socal? 

Northern California vs Southern California

Southern California is generally considered as the region below Fresno in the central part of the state.

It is located below San Luis Obispo and borders Tijuana, Mexico to the south. Northern California, on the other hand, is the region that occupies the San Francisco Bay Area and everything above it, up until the Oregon border. 

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See Related: Best San Francisco Walking Tours

Map of Northern and Southern California

Let’s break down these vastly different territories by looking at a map of California. If you don’t know these two regions well, this visual map will help orient you to various landmarks and cities.

California Map

The differences between Northern California vs Southern California

Catalina Island
Catalina Island in Los Angeles, Southern California

Northern California’s mountains and volcanic geography starkly contrast Southern California’s flat deserts and less rugged faults. A coat is essential in the cold and precipitous North, while the South’s arid desert climate allows the freedom of short skirts and flip-flops.

Though a bit stereotypical, denizens of the North tend to be more urban and self-conscious than their ‘laid back’ and suburban southern neighbors. 

But differences lie beyond the superficial. The rivalry between these two regions has deeper and more historical roots when in 1850, pro-slavery Southern Californians made their first attempt to split the state (a complicated history best reserved for another discussion).

Today, however, grudges have been buried and all hostility has faded – it’s water under the bridge now.

And while these two regions live in harmony, the differences between them still play a huge impact on a traveler’s decision of which region to visit.

So where exactly should you spend your precious vacation leaves? The answer ultimately boils down to your preferences. 

To help you make the perfect itinerary, I compiled a list of the differences between each region, with a recommendation of fun activities and sights to see.

While NorCal and SoCal appeal to different tastes, one thing remains true: no matter where you go in the Golden State, you’re bound to have a great time. 

1. It’s warmer in Southern California

South Redondo, California

Most outsiders think of California as a sun-kissed paradise of beaches, with year-round clear skies. This is not always the case. The blissful, year-round warm weather that the Golden State is known for actually tends to be more of a Southern thing. 

While SoCal boasts of even temperatures all year, NorCal residents have the gift (or curse) of changing seasons – a gift if you enjoy crisp autumn days and the occasional rain; a curse if you’re a sun-loving beach bum. 

Speaking of sun-lovers, beaches are an integral part of life in California, but Northern California vs California beach life is very different.

NorCal beaches are often shrouded in fog, colder, and more volatile compared to SoCal beaches. While most people want the hot and humid climate of a tropical beach, others appreciate the mystical vibe that moody north coast beaches bring.  

Southern California sands are what most people think of when they imagine California. Here, golden sand beaches stretch for miles while great waves set the ultimate playground for surfers.

While there are more iconic beaches in SoCal, they’re also more crowded, especially during peak season. Here are more differences in Northern California vs Southern California weather.

Looking to go on a California vacation? Grab our free travel guide to help you explore California.

See Related: Priority Pass Review 2022: Is It Worth the Price?

Northern California 

Convict Lake in California
Convict Lake in Mono County, California

For NorCal residents, weather can be erratic when traveling from city to city. A triple-digit temp in Sacramento could easily dip to 80-degrees after just a three-hour drive to Tahoe. 

Summers in NorCal tend to be very warm with cool evenings, while spring and autumn sport milder weather with the characteristic fog in San Francisco.

Come winter between January and March, rain and snow will start to pour in. This turns the region into a playground for winter activities. 

Visit the Curry Village Ice Rink in Yosemite National Park between mid-November until early March for ice skating and scenic views of Half Dome and Glacier Point.

Light up an outdoor fire pit and stock up on s’mores supplies! If you’re looking for the best hikes in Northern California, you can explore the beauty of Yosemite through a private guided snowshoe hike.

Looking to spy winter wildlife? Just 60 miles down the coast is Ano Nuevo State Park. Visit between early December to early March to see a massive colony of elephant seals that migrate to give birth and mate. 

For San Franciscans going snowboarding and skiing, Tahoe is the best weekend getaway spot.

Rent skis for a day at Tahoe XC and explore 24 trails north of the city. You can even ski with your canine pal as most trails are dog-friendly! If you’re aiming to spend the night, consider checking Airbnb for an assortment of cozy cabins. 

If you’re looking for a respite from the cold, head further north to the clothing-optional Orr Hot Springs Resort in Mendocino where you can take a dip on communal hot springs, relax in private tubs under the night sky, or unwind in steam rooms.

You can rent a cabin, yurt, or set up camp on the establishment’s 27 acres of property. 

Another top site is Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one of the best aquariums in the state, playing host to one of the most diverse collections of marine life anywhere in the world. If that weren’t enough, this place served as inspiration for Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

If you’re looking for something more adventurous, you can kayak your way through the sea caves of Santa Cruz or dive in the waters to spy on a wide host of marine life. 

See Related: Do You Need a Car in Los Angeles?

Southern California

South California beach
Redondo Beach in South California

SoCal, on the other hand, more easily fits the California most people have in mind. The region boasts of an idyllic climate with average highs between 75 and 78 degrees and average lows between 52 and 56 degrees. Los Angeles, for example, receives 284 sunny days per year.  

SoCal’s year-round perfect weather makes it a great destination for a myriad of activities. Whether you’re exploring the coast or getting lost in the wilderness, there’s always something in this outdoor-friendly oasis that will beckon you to come out and play. 

A lot of vacationers head to Santa Barbara during the summer to enjoy its warm climate, coastal lifestyle, and Mediterranean architecture. State Street in Santa Barbara boasts Spanish-style architecture, shops, bars, and restaurants.

The crystal clear beaches of Santa Barbara are also some of the best in Southern California as it is never too crowded. 

San Diego is another popular summer destination for families looking for plenty of things to do. Here, sand, skyscrapers, and historical charm are the city’s main draw, with plenty of unique neighborhoods to explore.

Take a relaxed stroll around Balboa Park where the world-renowned San Diego Zoo is located, skate along the paved waterfront pathways of Mission Beach, or explore Coronado Island’s five beautiful island regions.

Consider renting a car in San Diego to hop around the coast and see all the beaches, zoos, and museums.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Palm Springs

2. It’s easier to get around NorCal

Bay Area Rapid Transit
Bay Area Rapid Transit

When travelers debate about Northern California vs Southern California, transportation always comes up – and when transit is discussed, the horrible traffic of SoCal’s Los Angeles takes center stage. The population is one of the main causes of SoCal’s difficult transit system – roughly 23 million people live in crowded SoCal as opposed to NorCal’s 15 million. 

If you’re planning to jump between Southern California cities, best to come prepared if you have no vehicle.

Those new to Los Angeles will quickly realize that getting around the city without a car can be very challenging, most especially because of its lack of bus or subway options. In the same way, cities in NorCal’s Bay Area also experience gridlock and commuter traffic, but they’re ultimately not as worse as SoCal. 

When it comes to public transportation, North California is the clear winner, thanks to its well-honed Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and buses that run through San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Breathtakingly scenic roads are also why Northern California road trips are so popular. The famous Highway 1 offers breathtaking views of the Pacific and Yosemite National Park. 

Except for the Metro Train, public transportation isn’t as well developed in Southern California, where most residents rely on cars to get around. 

See Related: Best California Road Trips: Your Ultimate Guide

3. There are nuances in cuisine

food hall with neon signs
Grand Central Market, Los Angeles

Food is another important topic when discussing the Northern California vs Southern California rivalry. More than anything else, it’s California’s ethnic diversity that shaped its food scene. Here, you’ll find a mix of vegetables, cheeses, fish, grilled meat, nuts, seafood, and a slew of cross-cultural dishes influenced by Mexican, European, and Chinese cuisines.

In 1971, Alice Waters opened her famous restaurant, Chef Panisse, which forever shaped the California food scene.

With a focus on local, ecologically grown products, Chef Panisse was a massive difference from traditional Californian cooking that it became incredibly popular in the Bay Area and the whole state. Soon thereafter, “California cuisine” began – an internationally recognized gastronomy style. 

California cuisine refers to both NorCal and Socal, but there are nuances between both. 

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Northern California

Appetizers at Bravas Bar de Tapas
A selection of appetizers at Bravas Bar de Tapas

When it comes to the best things to do in Northern California, eating will top most lists. NorCal is where the farm-to-table movement started. With wine country located nearby, Italian, Mediterranean, and French-inspired food are common, as well as various Asian-inspired dishes. San Francisco’s Chinatown in particular is known for its influence on a lot of Asian cuisine in NorCal.

Many of Northern California’s restaurants, bistros, cafes, and grills use ingredients sourced from farmer’s markets and local growers. As the location of four of California’s 12 Michelin-star restaurants, NorCal is a gastronomic power to be reckoned with in the debate between Northern California vs Southern California. 

For superb Chinese food in San Francisco, check out Yank Sing. We recommend the one on Spear Street, because of its proximity to Ozumo San Francisco; a sizzling sushi restaurant that will sate any hunger for authentic Japanese cuisine.

For traditional Spanish dining, head to Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg, a popular restaurant mentioned by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the Top 20 Tapas Restaurants in the US. The menu is carefully prepared by James Beard-nominated chefs and includes family-style dishes like paella. 

For spectacular steak, head to Cattlemen’s, a Northern California chain of steakhouses with several locations throughout the region. Consistently regarded as one of the best steakhouses in NorCal, Cattlemens has been serving hand-cut steaks for more than 45 years. 

The award-winning Nick’s Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Marshall is one of the best places to go for flavorful seafood dishes sourced from Tomales Bay. Favorites include their beloved crab macaroni and cheese, and fresh oysters harvested from nearby waters. 

See Related: Weekend in Los Angeles Itinerary

Southern California

Pink's Chili Dog
Pink’s chili dog

In the battle between Northern California vs Southern California, SoCal wins when it comes to quick and portable food. The region’s car culture has massively contributed to the proliferation of drive-in and drive-thru restaurants in the area. 

Some of the most popular restaurant chains originated here, including Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Del Taco, Original Tommy’s, Panda Express, Fatburger, and the list goes on. While NorCal has plenty of Mexican food, you’ll find a lot more of it in SoCal due to its location near the border. 

Ed Fernandez Restaurant Birrieria is a great example of authentic Mexican food made with the very best ingredients. Their spicy stews are to die for.

SoCal is single-handedly responsible for the invention of some of the most popular dishes we know today. The California Roll, an inside-out maki sushi with avocado, crabmeat, and mayonnaise, was said to have been invented by a sushi chef in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. 

The flavorful cobb salad,  a classic salad made of lettuce, bacon, chicken, egg, avocado, and bleu cheese, was created here as well by the eponymous Robert Cobb of the Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood.

Avocados, oranges, dates, olives, nuts, and other sun-loving crops are common ingredients in dishes here, as well as a slew of delicious seafood sourced from the coast. 

If you plan on tasting your way around Southern California, there are plenty of places to visit. Spago in Beverly Hills, owned by the popular Wolfgang Puck, features gourmet fare like pan-roasted duck and veal schnitzel with a very extensive wine list. 

Phillipe the Original in Los Angeles serves the most popular melt-in-your-mouth French Dip sandwich – an integral part of the SoCal restaurant scene since 1908. 

If you’re looking for wineries in Southern California, you won’t be disappointed. While NorCal’s Napa Valley is arguably the most popular (it’s certainly the most famous) in the California wine world, SoCal has its fair share of unique vineyards, from Santa Barbara to San Diego. 

For wine tasting, Check out the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara, the Cornell Tasting Room near the Southern California mountains of Santa Monica, and the ever-growing Paso Robles Wine Country between San Francisco and LA. 

See Related: Best Things to do in Palm Springs

4. NorCal is tech, SoCal is TV

The Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood Sign

The economy also comes into play when discussing the differences between North California vs Southern California. Southern California is generally known for its entertainment and media. 

If you’re looking for a more star-studded experience that includes dining next to celebs, breaking into a TV writer’s room, or attending casting calls, this region is your best bet. 

TIP: Take a Hollywood tour of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills to know more about the highlights of SoCal’s celebrity scene.

While SoCal is best known for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the people who work in the industry, the economy of Southern California is remarkably diverse. These include transportation/shipping, aerospace, bio-medicine, tourism, the military-industrial complex, and many more. 

It’s worthwhile to note that some of these industries are as big or even bigger than the entertainment industry. Many of the economic industries found in the south are also present in the north, but they do not meet the size of the former. 

Northern California, on the other hand, is dominated by technology. While there are other industries in the region, technology can be considered the foundation of the region’s economy, and with good reason – NorCal is home to Silicon Valley, a tech haven with flagships for Netflix, Facebook, Apple, and others. 

TIP: A guided tech tour of NorCal’s Silicon Valley is a great way to learn about the origins of its tech industry.

See Related: Best Things to do in Temecula, California

5. Attractions are varied

When discussing the difference between Northern California vs Southern California, talking about each region’s attractions is integral, especially if you’re a traveler looking for things to see and do. 

Northern California

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

There is an endless list of things to do in Northern California. Here, you’ll see beautiful beaches, rugged coastlines, soaring mountains, verdant vineyards, and dazzling lakes. 

You’ll find a plethora of coastal camping options in the north, thanks to its gorgeous redwood grove, sandy beaches, fern canyons, and volcanically active areas.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park Campground is one of the most popular RV parks Northern California Coast, along with Antlers Campground at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and the Burlington Campground at the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. If you want to go RVing, check out our full guide to renting an RV.

Known worldwide for its wine, NorCal is home to Napa and Sonoma, a region home to over 400 wineries. You’ll find family-run wineries to massive internationally known wine houses.

If you’re looking to hit the green, there are hundreds of amazing Northern California golf courses, including the McCloud Golf Club, Weed Golf Club, and the Golf Course at Mount Shasta Resort. However, there are some wineries in Southern California like Temecula, but it’s not nearly on the level of NorCal.

Backpacking Northern California is also popular, thanks to the region’s unique geography and plentiful hiking trails.

The Redwood National Forest, a 50,000-acre redwood forest, is a well-known place to fish, swim or hike, while the Yosemite National Park offers some of America’s best natural views.

Take a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge to see one of California’s most enduring symbols.

Southern California

Disneyland in Anaheim
Disneyland in Anaheim

The picture-perfect beaches that California is known for are more typical down south, where the world-famous beaches of Santa Barbara, San Diego, and LA are located. 

If it’s your first time in SoCal, a visit to Hollywood is a must. LA has long been associated with the television and film industry and hosts several iconic attractions including the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Sunset Strip. 

If the kids are tagging along, a trip to Anaheim is essential, as it’s home to Disneyland Resort.

If you’re glamping in Southern California, consider Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most popular national parks in the region. For hiking, backpacking, and biking, Death Valley National Park has plenty to offer. 

Palm Springs is home to some of the best Southern California golf courses, with lots of luxury hotels and resorts, stunning midcentury modern architecture, hiking trails, and a fantastic culinary scene. 

TIP: Accommodations can be expensive in California, regardless if it’s the North or South. Take advantage of online booking services and travel deals from Booking.com, Airbnb, Kayak Hotels, Amex Platinum, and Marriot Bonvoy

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