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Where to Stay in California: 10 Best Areas & Places

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California, “The Sunshine State” is enormous. Seriously! It is the most populated state in the United States and has over 480 cities to explore. And that’s just the cities: California’s natural beauty and variety is just as enormous.

Choosing lodging can be overwhelming when considering where to stay in California, particularly in the most popular cities. To make your life easier, I’ve curated several accommodation options that you can check out at a range of price points.

Also, it should be noted that all the cities vary in affordability. The average hotel prices in San Francisco are about $100 more a night than in Sacramento.

However you decide to spend your time in beautiful California, any of these cities will be full of activity for everyone. We have a handy list below to give you a quick idea of which city best suits which kinds of travelers.

Whether you like taking a stroll down Santa Monica Pier or taking a California road trip and hitting up several of these cities, you’ll surely find your sunshine. Any choice is the right choice on a California getaway!

TL;DR

Location Average Hotel Price Average Airbnb Price
San Francisco $250 $200
San Diego $180 $150
Santa Barbara $220 $180
Palm Springs $200 $160
Los Angeles $210 $170
Lake Tahoe $180 $140
Napa Valley $230 $190
Sacramento $150 $120
Monterey $150 $160

Top Picks by Type of Traveler

Best for…

  • Solo Travelers: San Francisco
  • Foodies: Los Angeles
  • Families: San Diego
  • Nature Lovers: Lake Tahoe
  • Adventure Seekers: Palm Springs
  • Art and Culture Vultures: Santa Barbara
  • Beach Bums: San Diego
  • Wine Enthusiasts: Napa Valley

Where to Stay in California

1. San Francisco

The ferris wheel in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

When images of the Golden Gate Bridge come to mind, you’ve got San Fran on the brain. Home to Alcatraz, the Aquarium of the Bay, an iconic Chinatown, and (never forget) The Tanner Family.

San Francisco’s famous landmarks and world-famous sourdough bread are sure to win you over. Though fair warning, if you call this city ‘Frisco or San Fran in front of locals, you are probably not going to win them over.

Within the city itself, there are 36 distinct neighborhoods. The most well-known are the Mission District and Chinatown, though there is plenty to do and see elsewhere, especially around Pier 39, where you can shop until you drop or eat until you burst.

Or, if you want something as perfectly wacky as San Fran, pay a visit to the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum. Let’s be honest; it makes sense that a sex object museum lives in “The City.”

After you’ve bid farewell to your vacation budget, there are plenty of free or low-cost activities to keep you occupied around San Fran. Spend some time in nature at Golden Gate Park, visit the Musée Mécanique’s vintage penny arcade museum, or explore the historic Hyde Street Pier.

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2. San Diego

The entrance area at the San Diego Zoo
James Kirkikis / Shutterstock

An idyllic little city on the bay, basking in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean, San Diego is a spectacular place to stay in California. If you have kiddos along or you love nature-focused activities, this city is a champion of both, particularly since it is home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. If you love animals, you have to check out the hoards of sea lions who live on the beaches in La Jolla– but keep a safe distance for their sake and yours.

A stay in downtown San Diego puts you front and center to some of the area’s most beloved visitor spots, like Balboa Park and Seaport Village. Given the high walkability of the downtown area and the ample places to stay, it’s a good idea to consider finding a hotel there. Even if you stay elsewhere in the city, you’ll have no problem getting around, mainly if you’re used to metropolitan areas.

If you want old-style luxury, you must check out the Hotel del Coronado. This historic hotel is a seaside accommodation in Coronado, just across San Diego Bay.

The hotel was dubbed the biggest in the world, hosting several notable figures, including politicians, royals, and celebrities. It has also appeared in many films and literature throughout the years, such as Some Like It Hot.

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See Related: How to Get Around California (With and Without a Car)

3. Santa Barbara

Downtown Santa Barbara
travelview / Shutterstock.com

Lovingly known as the California Riviera, Santa Barbara is one of the smallest of the places to stay on our list. This petite city has some of the loveliest beaches in the state as well as a smattering of Mediterranean architecture–hence its nickname of the Riviera. You’ll find reminders of the city’s Spanish colonial lineage all over downtown with its white stucco and red tile roofs.

The Old Mission Santa Barbara 1786, part of that history, is one of the city’s most iconic sites to visit. This mission still houses a group of Franciscan monks as well as the museum. Meanwhile, visiting wine lovers will adore the local wine offerings in Santa Barbara or go shopping along the street promenade along State Street. You’ll find some top restaurants here too.

Make sure you take the time to embrace the city’s natural beauty as well in places like the Santa Barbara Orchid Garden or the sea lion-filled harbor. Better yet, head up to the Courthouse Clocktower for incredible panoramic views of the city. A visit to the courthouse is a must, with or without climbing the tower, since it is built in a Spanish castle or fortress style to match the city’s aesthetic.

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4. Palm Springs

Palm Springs mountain view and trees during winter
Tomasz Zajda / Adobe Stock

Palm Springs is the place to be when you’re looking for places to stay in California for relaxation. It’s one of the best resort towns in the state largely because, as its name implies, it’s blessed with a plethora of hot springs to enjoy. Not to mention the great culinary scene!

This city is also stacked to the nines with incredible Mid-Century Modern architecture, giving this little city an iconic visage. This city has also long been a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ travelers, making it one of the foremost queer travel destinations.

Set in the Coachella Valley, you’re poised for innumerable outdoor adventures. You’re surrounded on all sides by United States nature at some of its best and brightest.

You’re practically steps away from Joshua Tree National Park–okay, less than an hour away, but the point remains. Palm Springs may have natural springs at its beck and call, but if you’re willing to remove yourself from bliss for a day or two, you’ll experience so much more of what the area has to offer.

In the city proper, you can still enjoy nature-based activities too. There’s the Moorten Botanical Garden, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, to name a few. Not to mention the Palm Springs Art Museum or the Palm Springs Air Museum, both of which can provide an afternoon or morning of enlightenment.

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See Related: Visiting Tahquitz Canyon Trail in Palm Springs

5. Los Angeles

Aerial View Los Anges City, California
Newport Coast Media / Adobe Stock

Far and away the state’s most populated city, the beating heart of Southern California, the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles, is obviously one of the state’s most popular destinations. There is no shortage of unique places to stay in L.A., which is only fitting for Tinseltown.

If you are more fascinated with the style and the Hollywood-studded history of California than the natural elements, this is where you want to be. When it comes to iconography, outside of things like the Hollywood Sign in the Hollywood neighborhood, many of the spots you’ll want to see are in downtown Los Angeles.

Spots like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Broad, and The Grammy Museum are all located there. This is also where you’ll find some unique places to stay, like the old Hotel Figueroa with its rooftop pool.

If you’re looking for an affordable place to stay that will give you value for money, check out the Full Moon Inn. This motel will give you a taste of inexpensive luxury with its open tub, fully furnished private bathrooms, and well-equipped rooms.

Or get ready to get the star treatment at the luxurious London West Hollywood Hotel. For more hotel options with more comprehensive price ranges, don’t forget to check out the West Hollywood (WeHo), Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica neighborhoods.

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

6. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe Aerial View
Jeremy Janus / Adobe Stock

When people say they’re going to Lake Tahoe, they’re more than likely staying somewhere like South Lake Tahoe or one of the other cities around the lake. The giant freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a popular vacation spot for both beach bums and ski bunnies alike.

In fact, the Palisades Tahoe ski resort was home to the Winter Olympics in 1960. That only solidified Tahoe’s notoriety for winter sports.

Over in South Lake Tahoe is where you’ll find something you may not expect–a Scandinavian-style mansion. Known as Vikingsholm, this 38-room mansion is considered one of the best examples of Scandinavian architecture in North America. It was built by philanthropist Lora Josephine Knight in 1929. Now, you can tour the inside from June to September in the summer.

The lake itself is enormous, with each side offering something different for tourists. However, the Emerald Bay area or Emerald Bay State Park is the prettiest part of the lake’s scenic area. It’s also where you’ll find the aforementioned Vikingsholm.

Emerald Bay is also home to the only island in the lake’s natural area: Fannette Island. The island is accessible by boat, canoe, or kayak, as swimming isn’t allowed. On the island, you’ll also find a little stone building known as the Tea House, which Knight also built.

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7. Napa Valley

Vineyards in Napa Valley, California, USA
allard1 / Adobe Stock

California Wine Country, Napa Valley, or just Napa, has become known as one of the foremost wine-making locations in the world. The wine industry is so widespread in Napa that there are over 400 wineries.

Some of the absolute must-see wineries include Alpha Omega, Long Meadow Ranch, V. Sattui Winery, and Chateau Montelena, to name a few. Napa is poised for the craft of vino because of its climate similarity to the Mediterranean.

There is more to do in Napa than just wine tasting, whether you aren’t a drinker or get tired of endless vino. Pay a visit to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, or the Napa Valley Museum.

In the valley, there are five towns to explore, too: Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, the city of Napa, and American Canyon. You’ll find that Napa is generally more expensive than our other places to stay in California but has some fabulous boutique accommodations.

Even if you find budget-friendly, unique hotels, you’ll pay more for this vacation’s other elements. Be prepared for those incurred costs. All those wine-tasting excursions add up, with some of the private ones costing in the hundreds. Your average wine tasting will run you roughly $40-$50 per person.

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8. Sacramento

California State Capitol building in Sacramento
Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock

Another of the special smaller cities in California is the state capital of Sacramento. This “Farm-to-fork-focused” city is also the capital of that particular brand of U.S. food culture, making it a prime California destination for foodies.

You’ll find Sacramento along the American and Sacramento Rivers. With its proximity to water, it’s clear why this city’s history is deeply rooted in the days of the California Gold Rush.

Pan yourself some golden history by exploring the Old Sacramento area, which dates back to the Gold Rush. This historical landmark will transport you back to the days of prospectors and gold nuggets without forcing you to leave the days of running water. This eight-block section of downtown Sacramento includes some of the oldest buildings in the city.

Getting into nature is easy to do from Sacramento, too. Hiking in the 275+ acre Discovery Park, seeing the wildlife at the Sacramento Zoo, or whitewater rafting along the American River are just a few of the options at your feet.

With the mild weather in Sacramento, you should have plenty of good weather for all of your outdoor adventures. Plus, you could even stay on an authentic paddlewheel boat at the Delta King Hotel, arguably one of the coolest hotels in California.

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9. Monterey

A foot path leads down to the Pacific ocean in Monterey California
mark smith nsb / Shutterstock

Part of California’s central coast, Monterey, doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other cities in this list. This part of the California coast has long been a significant part of the state’s history.

Monterey is where you’ll find the state’s first theater, public library, and even the first newspaper, among other landmarks. Plus, it’s home to the fictional “Jewel of Morro Bay,” a la Finding Dory, known as the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Another first for Monterey can be found at the iconic Hotel del Monte. Not only was this one of the best hotels in California, but it was also the first proper resort complex in the United States.

It opened in 1880 and closed as a resort hotel in 1942. Before closing, Hotel del Monte was considered one of the best luxury accommodations in the country.

It is still an operating hotel with modern rooms for members of the military and their guests. If you want to feel like visiting bygone luxury, pay this hotel a visit.

While this is hardly the hub of hotels in California, Monterey has several accommodation options. Many of which line the city’s rugged Pacific coastline.

You’ll also get the best of what this region of California has to offer. It’s especially perfect for outdoorsy types who can best enjoy the pristine beaches, parks to walk, and miles upon miles of gorgeous ocean views.

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10. Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge on the Big Sur coast of California
robertbohrer1 / Adobe Stock

Just south of Monterey is the utterly stunning Big Sur. Big Sur is easily one of the most visually striking parts of California’s central coast area. With unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean and the nearby Santa Lucia Mountains, you can’t go wrong here.

Beach bums and anyone looking for their own California adventure should add this region of Cali to the top of their travel itineraries. There are miles of breathtaking, rugged California coast to be explored, with the odd pristine beach thrown in!

For less oceanic-inclined travelers, Big Sur is also rife with beautiful Californian redwoods. While you can see them in a lot of areas around Big Sur, the best ones can be found in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Magnificent redwoods are popular sights for visitors because they are one of the oldest living species of tree. There is one redwood in Mitteldorf Preserve that is over 1280 years old.

This region is about a 90-mile-long stretch of coast. What makes this one of the best places to choose in California is that Big Sur is one of the longest pieces of undeveloped coastline in the mainland of the United States but is still rife with unique accommodations. If you’re seeking a rustic environment, book a boutique hotel in quaint and charming Carmel-by-the-Sea.

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