When it comes to kids, the Golden State certainly lives up to its name – California is one paradise of a playground. Go in autumn or winter and you’ll find the sights quieter and your accommodation costs, particularly in the cities, much lower than during the popular summer months. From world-class museums to weird and wonderful wildlife, here's why California should be your next family trip.

1. You can spend the day in jail

From the moment your boat cruises out into misty San Francisco Bay, your children will realise that Alcatraz is a museum with a difference. The island can look quite foreboding on a chilly San Fran day, a feeling that only increases as you make your way around the silent cellblocks. The excellent audio tour brings the infamous prison to life, and you can try out some of the compact cells for size, hear guards talk about the Birdman of Alcatraz, and contemplate the (very few) daring escapees who, once they’d managed to break out of their cells, still had the icy, choppy, shark-infested waters of the Bay to navigate.

Where to stay

Loews Regency San Francisco has a prime position at the heart of the city’s central Financial District. Rooms are smart and sophisticated; try and book a Bay View Room for superb views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s a gym and spa, and a 40th-floor Sky Deck offering more fantastic panoramic views.

Jail cells on Alcatraz, CaliforniaBrian Polar/Shutterstock

2. Monterey Bay’s aquarium is peerless

Occupying an old sardine factory on historical Cannery Row, Monterey Bay Aquarium is a major draw for adults, let alone their children. Forget any aquarium you’ve ever been to before; Monterey’s superlative version will make them look like glorified goldfish bowls. Most people make a beeline for the Open Sea (a vast display of swirling sting rays, sun fish and tuna shoals) or the world’s first live Kelp Forest. However, there are plenty of smaller exhibits, such as the dazzlingly backlit jellyfish. Make sure you catch the super-cute sea otters at feeding time.

Where to stay

Well located for Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, charming Casa Munras is a boutique hotel whose attractive hacienda styling is a nod to the city’s past life as capital of Spanish California. Tidy, spacious Deluxe Doubles sleep four in two beds. There’s a central swimming pool and an excellent on-site tapas restaurant.

Jelly fish in Monterey Bay AquariumCassiohabib/Shutterstock

3. There’s almost limitless sand

With 840 miles of coastline, California has plenty of fabulous options when it comes to spending a day by the sea. But Santa Monica, west of Downtown Los Angeles, has good reason to claim top spot. Boasting a huge swathe of soft, honeycomb-coloured sand, the state beach here combines a laidback SoCal vibe with the old-school amusements of Santa Monica Pier. Rent a tandem bike or two and ride down past the street performers on Venice Boardwalk to the beefcakes pumping iron at Muscle Beach.

Where to stay

Backing onto the beach and just a couple of blocks from the pier’s vintage rides, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel enjoys a superb location on Ocean Avenue. To the front, it’s a short walk to Main Street’s restaurants and shops; out back, an inviting pool overlooks swaying palms and the Pacific. Stylish, airy rooms are big enough for five and come with 52-inch flat-screen TVs.

Santa Monica pier, rides, sunset, Californiaoneinchpunch/Shutterstock

4. There’s a spooky ghost town

There’s gold in them thar hills. Or at least there used to be. In the late 1870s, Bodie was a thriving gold-mining town in the Eastern Sierra. The gold dried up and the townsfolk moved away. But the bars, shops and houses remained, and today Bodie’s rickety old wooden buildings look pretty much the same as they did in its Wild West heyday. Stop at the Boone Store, where tins of food gather dust on the shelves, take a photo in front of the wonky hotel and peer into the town morgue.

Where to stay

Head to the tastefully furnished two-bedroom cottage at Cain House in Bridgeport, 20 miles from Bodie. This is a great place to hole up after a day at the ghost town – preferably in front of the cosy stove in the wood-floored living room. Guests have free use of the attached B&Bs bikes.

Bodie, ghost town, CaliforniaStockdonkey/Shutterstock

5. There’s plenty of wildlife on the Central Coast

California is home to a remarkable variety of marine life, but the most impressive animals can all be spotted along a stretch of the Central Coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. At Piedras Blancas, dozens of bulky elephant seals lie snorting and stinking in the sand just a few feet below a clifftop boardwalk. At various points along the Big Sur, such as Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel, and in Moss Landing on Monterey Bay, a bit of patience can be rewarded with the sight of sea otters bobbing about in the kelp forests offshore.

Where to stay

Lovely Oceanpoint Ranch in Cambrai, seven miles south of Piedras Blancas, has huge queen beds and a brilliant family “Bunkhouse” that features a stylish en-suite master bedroom, bunk beds and a well-stocked kitchen. There are gas fire-pits for roasting marshmallows, a multitude of outdoor games (shuffleboard, bocce, boules – you name it) and a trail that leads to nearby Moonstone Beach for rockpooling.

Elephant Seals, San Simeon, CaliforniaKris Clifford/Shutterstock

6. You can enrol at Hogwarts

It would be difficult to come to California and leave without visiting at least one theme park. Los Angeles has all the big names, but for the best blend of rollercoaster rides and movie magic, Universal Studios Hollywood takes some beating. You could spend hours in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter alone, riding a hippogriff, shopping for wands on Diagon Alley or supping on Butterbeer. But save time, too, for the Studio Tour (for close encounters with Jaws and King Kong) and motion-simulator rides such as Despicable Me and The Simpsons.

Where to stay

Just off Hollywood Boulevard, Loews Hollywood is less than five-minutes’ drive from Universal Studios. Stylish rooms have access to a heated rooftop pool that overlooks Hollywood & Highland, an entertainment complex home to restaurants, shops and cinemas. Book your ticket through the hotel and you can visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour before the park opens.

Harry Potter, Orlando Universal, Wizard Castle, CaliforniaSnorlaxing/Shutterstock

rough guide california coverExplore more of California with The Rough Guide to California. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

This feature contains affiliate links. All recommendations are editorially independent. Top image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock.



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