There might be 100 different answers to the question “what is California known for?”. Here, though, we’re sticking to 27 essentials that define it to the world.
One of the most popular destinations in all of North America, California is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, and Hollywood. Other things unique to California are Coachella, the Wine Country, Silicon Valley, and Surf Culture, in addition to less obvious sights and cultural aspects.
Californians are hella creative
1. The Hollywood Film Industry
Though brimming with landmarks like its namesake sign, the Walk of Fame, and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood’s global fame derives from the gigantic industry historically located in the neighborhood and its surroundings. In 2019 alone, studios released 87 titles and made an astonishing $42 billion at the box office worldwide.
Ironically, Paramount is the only of the so-called Big Five whose facilities are still in Hollywood proper. Columbia has been on Westside L.A. since 1990, and Disney, Universal, and Warner are northwards, in the San Fernando Valley.
People now commonly look back at the hippie age sympathetically and even admiringly, but at the time it was a whole nother story.
Beat poets, also referred to as “hipsters”, were notorious for their bohemian lifestyle and experimental drug use. “Squares” then took to calling youth they thought copied the Beats — while more interested in drugs than actual poetry — “hippies”.
Yet their legacy includes the sexual revolution that the West only from that point on started to embrace, tons of fantastic music, yoga and veganism now being everywhere,… So we owe a lot to those loonies who panhandled through the streets of San Francisco holding signs of “make love, not war”.
3. California Cool Decor
Because Californians have to do everything their own way, of course they’d come up with a house decor style that mixes together the state’s bohemian, laid-back, beach-loving, and artsy vibes. Since modernist icons such as the Eames House (1949) and the Stahl House (1960, pictured above) have made a name for themselves, Cali Cool has invaded homes all across the world.
4. Music Festivals
While Coachella might be the trendiest festival out there these days, the passion of Californians for music festivals dates back to the counterculture era. The Monterey Pop Festival, held in mid-June 1967, featured legendary acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, The Mamas & the Papas, and the Grateful Dead.
Monterey set the stage for the upcoming Summer of Love and even inspired Woodstock, which took place in upstate New York two years later, as well as all other subsequent events in the same format.
5. Silicon Valley
Resented by folks who miss the days when San Francisco wasn’t the most expensive city in the U.S. (neighboring Oakland now ranks second), Silicon Valley is nonetheless one of the main forces behind California’s booming economy.
Companies headquartered in the high-tech hub between San Jose and Palo Alto, at the southernmost end of the Bay Area, launch innovative products and solutions virtually every day. Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Tesla, among many other household names, have made their way into our daily lives and redefined our relationship with technology.
California is known for its mouthwatering cuisine
6. Fresh & Local
“Locally sourced” is the key to understanding the appeal of California’s gastronomy with foodies. What’s more, the obsession of Californians with whatever superfood that has just been confirmed as the new elixir of life makes the state truly exciting for culinary tourism. For fancier eaters, it boasts 90 Michelin-starred restaurants, which attests to its excellence food-wise.
7. Wine Country
While wine has been produced north of the Bay Area since the early 1800s, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that California’s Wine Country started to trend. Before that, there were around 25 wineries in the triangle within Napa, Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley. Now, there are more than 800 world-class cellars.
8. In-N-Out Burger
Though In-N-Out is now present in select locations across six other U.S. states, it’s still very much a California (family) business. Founded in 1948 by the Snyder couple, it has never adopted the franchising model to avoid compromising the quality of its food or its customer service.
The chain’s Animal Style dressing, together with its fairly simple menu (hamburger, cheeseburger, and the “Double-Double”), has developed a cult following — so much so that when a new store opens in a previously unserved area, folks will line up for hours just to try an In-N-Out burger.
California is known for its stunning landscape
9. Countless National and State Parks
Fine, “countless” is an overstatement, but California’s 280 state parks and 28 areas protected by the federal government (nine of which are national parks) make up the largest park system in the United States.
Highlights include the impressive peaks of the Sierra Nevada, where three national parks are located (Yosemite National Park being one of them), the deep-blue to turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe, (around which you’ll find an extensive network of state and county parks), and the Death Valley in the Mojave Desert (more on that at #12).
10. Giant Redwoods
Redwoods, also called sequoias, are ubiquitous at the evergreen forests along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia in Canada through Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Giant sequoias in turn are exclusive to the Golden State. They have become a major symbol of the incredible diversity of ecosystems that California is known for.
Besides Yosemite, you can visit places like Sequoia National Park (home to General Sherman, the largest tree by volume on the planet) and the Redwood National and State Parks to take a closer look at these majestic trees.
11. Big Sur
State Route 1 spans most of the coast of California; it’s hardly more scenic, however, than when it crosses this isolated tract of mountainous land overhanging the sea right between the central and southern portions of the state.
Big Sur is home to roughly 1,800-2,000 permanent residents and has very limited tourism infrastructure. Yet even a day trip through its winding highway is worth the drive, if only to spot sea lions and pristine beaches from the dizzyingly tall cliffs. Adventurous travelers will enjoy the many trails through the redwoods and the shrubby chaparral.
12. The Death Valley
California is known for being home to the Mojave Desert, the driest in North America. The Death Valley, specifically, is the lowest elevation on the continent and one of the hottest sites on the planet. In spite of the harsh climate, its beautiful rock formations and spotless dunes are definitely worth a visit.
13. The Beaches of Southern California
Yes, their beauty is the stuff of legend. But unless you’re a pretty good surfer you should probably stay away from the water. It’s just glacial most of the time, and the waves are no joke either.
California is known for its peculiar climate(s)
14. A (Mostly) Mediterranean Climate
One of the things that California is known for is its perfect weather year-round. The state does have both cold and hot desert climates in some areas. Yet most of its territory is characterized by the same climate of southern Europe — which is perfect indeed.
15. San Francisco’s Indian Summer
In case you’re planning a San Francisco vacay around July, be advised you shouldn’t bother to bring swimsuits along. It’s quite chilly, and Karl the Fog rolls in virtually every evening. Trust me: not looking up San Francisco’s microclimate before packing taught me a bitter lesson.
In October, instead, while the rest of the country is already bracing for winter, everybody goes crazy over the warm and sunny weather, and the city explodes with outdoor events.
16. The L.A. Smog
When smog first seized the skies of Los Angeles in 1943, it was so hard to breathe that locals started wearing gas masks. As nobody knew what was happening, people thought the city had fallen victim to a Japanese chemical attack.
But the bad guys were more mundane: cars, which by then were already all over the place. After that, the city’s air quality would only worsen. Since the 1990s, though, legislation meant to reduce car pollution has been quite successful in reversing the trend. Scenes like the one pictured above are quite rare these days, yet L.A. is still notorious nationwide for its smog.
California is known for its rich history
17. California’s Spanish & Mexican Past
The fact that California was under Spanish colonial rule and subsequently became a province of independent Mexico before the U.S. annexed it surely left deep traces. Its architecture, political history, racial composition, toponymy (San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Cruz…) can’t be conceived of without taking into account this rather troubled history.
18. The California Gold Rush
In 1848, in the middle of the Mexican-American War, sawmill operator James W. Marshall discovered gold in California. A single year later, San Francisco had gone from a modest 1,000-inhabitant village to a boomtown. 24,000 people rushed there to join the mining effort.
Many other towns, such as Sonoma (seen above) sprang up around those years. The craze prompted Congress to admit California as a U.S. state in 1850, merely two years after Mexico had handed it over.
19. The Bear Flag
In 1846, within the context of the Mexican-American War, a group of 33 American immigrants started a rebellion in what was then the Mexican province of Alta California. This became noted as the Bear Flag Revolt, after the banner that the rebels had designed. The uprising resulted in the short-lived California Republic, which controlled roughly the region around the modern Sonoma County.
Less than a month later, the American army, which soon would occupy the entire province, absorbed the insurgents. But the inspiration to the current California State Flag, officially adopted in 1911, has proved enduring.
California is known for its man-made landmarks
20. The Golden Gate Bridge
Spanning the strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific (i.e. the Golden Gate), the international orange, Art Déco bridge needs no introduction. It has served as San Francisco’s (and California’s) most iconic monument from its opening in 1937. To protect the bridge from corrosion by the bay’s salty air, a team of more than 30 painters has been continuously repainting it since the late 1960s.
21. Googie Architecture
If you’ve ever watched The Jetsons (Gen Z should Google it), you know what Googie architecture looks like. Originating in Southern California around the middle of the 20th century, it synthesized the Atomic Age, car culture, and the space race into a pop aesthetic.
Possibly the one modernist style that the American middle class ever approved of, Googie architecture was a widespread sight across the country for the best part of 30 years. It left behind emblematic monuments such as the LAX Theme Building (seen above), the oldest operating McDonald’s, the Norms La Cienega diner, and Seattle’s Space Needle.
Florida’s Magic Kingdom may be slightly more popular. But Disneyland is the second amusement park in the world when it comes to number of visitors. Opened in 1955, the happiest place on Earth is the sole theme park that Walt Disney managed to supervise through completion before passing.
California is (in)famous for its one-of-a-kind culture
23. The Los Angeles vs. New York City Rivalry
The City of Angels couldn’t be more different from the Big Apple. It’s sunnier, warmer, spread-out and car-oriented, and more about having fun than working. Nowadays, the only feud that still stands is the one between the L.A. Dodgers and the New York Yankees, two of the most successful baseball teams in the United States.
It’s intriguing, though, how New Yorkers are forever saying how they hate L.A., whereas Angelenos don’t seem to care that much about New York.
24. Surf Culture
Despite hailing from Polynesia, surfing got big on the shores of California, brought over by Hawaiian students in the 1880s. It has since developed into a permanently thriving scene, spawning new surfing styles, its own lingo and music, clothing items like bikinis and boardshorts, and even a whole new sport: skateboarding.
25. Car Culture
Between the 1940s and the 1960s, suburbs expanded in every direction. At the same time, car-owning households went from a little over 40% to 80% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, youth in Southern California were, of course, a step ahead and wouldn’t settle for simply having cars. They’d soup up the engines, paint the cars crazy colors or patterns, and race them on dry lake and river beds.
In recent decades, regular cars became more potent, and the government implemented a (relatively) comprehensive transit system. (Contrary to popular belief, L.A. does have a subway!) Hot rodding, as the fad was called, then subsided into a cult movement. Yet cars remain an integral part of the Californian way of life.
26. Celebrity Culture
Some of us may wish we weren’t familiar with the Kardashians. That said, whenever we meet people who really aren’t we secretly wonder what is wrong with them. That speaks volumes about the pervasiveness of celebrity culture. And because L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world, VIPs have turned into an inseparable bit of the Golden State’s culture.
27. Progressive Politics
Much to the frustration of most Central Valley Californians and middle Americans, the leanings of California’s large coastal cities shape a lot of the country’s political discussion. The state’s currently at the forefront of issues championed by progressives, e.g. racial and economic equality, climate action, access to healthcare, immigration reform, LGBT rights, and cannabis legalization.
To pare California down to 27 of its most distinctive attractions and cultural phenomena, we sure had to leave out many of the state’s trademarks. Palm trees like the ones above, for example, dot most of its southernmost beaches. Yet they’re actually Mexican fan palms, and California has plenty of things originating within its borders to brag about.
Share with us in the comments which item you found most fascinating! And don’t forget to tell us which other things that California is known for you’d add to the list. Last but not least, take a look at our post on Vegas as you plan your next trip to the western United States; the city’s a mere four-hour drive from L.A. Plus, you can’t possibly miss out on crossing the Mojave Desert!