I started this blog with one goal in mind: to visit each of the fifty U.S. states. The rules are simple – airport layovers and other cop-outs don’t count. In order for the visit to qualify, I have to spend some money (on gas, public transportation or sightseeing) and stay for at least two nights.
California, here we come.
So here’s the deal – Even though I am only 23 years old, I need you to keep in mind that I saw Marissa Cooper die in a brutal car crash about ten years ago. That’s right, all of you 90s kids out there know that I’m talking about ‘The O.C.’ – the iconic show about life in Newport Beach. While its elite seemed to be constantly plagued with first-world problems, the ‘core four’ taught me some invaluable lessons about life, love, murder and blackmail.
Much to my excitement, the cast also showcased the state that I would eventually go on to call my home. After having binge-watched the show at the age of 15, I decided it was time for me to check out California – and maybe even find my own Seth Cohen.
But what do I know?
At an early age, I knew virtually nothing about the U.S. so in order to properly understand its diverse community, I stayed with a Mexican-American host family. After graduating high school in Belgium, I moved in with them – allowing me to live and study in San Diego for two years. In retrospect, I realized their hospitality changed my life and provided me with a window of opportunity.
Over the years, I’ve been able to visit California many times in many different ways: as a first-time traveler, a student, a resident and eventually even a as guide. Talk about coming full-circle.
“Welcome to The O.C., Bitch.”
Wait, they’ve got Mexicans?
First things first: California is not all cliffs, mansions and palm trees. While “The O.C.” had me believe that rainstorms don’t exist overseas, I quickly realized television isn’t always a reliable medium – shocker.
Upon meeting my host family at San Diego International Airport, I was mostly confused – frantically comparing my every experience to the TV show I had once considered ‘the ideal’. There were Mexicans in San Diego? They had an accent? None of the diversity that makes California so interesting was ever touched upon by the show and I, for one, was in shock.
I was too young to understand it at the time, but I was a privileged European that expected only infinity pools, gated communities and pool houses. Instead, I ended up with a one-storey home in the outskirts of the city.
Being a prejudiced European.
The lesson I learned? Don’t be so ignorant and accept different cultures with grace. It’s not about the elite and their luxurious ways – it’s about what’s below the surface. While my host family’ s home was no mansion, I was amazed to learn they had built most of it themselves.
They were not rich, yet they were willing to take in kids from all over the world and show them everything California had to offer – without asking for anything in return. That’s where I learned about respect, family and friendship.
My point is: while California is not the perfect place it is often made out to be, it is not hard to love its quirks. There’s a vibe that only Californians can bring to the table. They are hard-working, yet carefree. Excited in spirit, yet relaxed in their ways. The general rule is that residents of the Golden State are a warm-hearted bunch. Except for when they are forced to drive in the rain – omg, hide.
I’m broke. Like everyone else.
Better get out your wallet.
There are two ways in which I have experienced California: first as a tourist and then as a resident. While not the most expensive place I’ve ever been (that would be D.C.), it came in as a close second.
As a tourist, it makes sense. It’s a question of supply and demand: the more popular the destination, the higher the prices. While hostels and take-out meals are relatively cheap, you’ll pay a little more for rental cars and decent motels. If you’re a big spender – looking at you, dad – you can one-up others by staying at a resort.
In my experience, the cheaper you travel, the more you will see. If you stay at expensive hotels and dine at fancy restaurants, that’s where you’ll spend most of your time. Stay on the cheap, and you’ll want to get out of your room. This is what you can expect to pay on average.
- Hostel: $25 – $55.
- Two-star motel: $75 – $150.
- Three-star hotel: $150 – $300.
- Fast food: $6 – $12.
- Sports bars: $30 – $50.
- Three-course meals: $75 – $100.
Remember that tipping is not optional unless you are an asshole. Depending on the quality of the service, putting in another 15% – 20% of the total bill is customary. Don’t hide behind the fact that you’re a tourist and pretend you don’t know about this custom. You do. Everyone does.
My friends always make fun of me for being an awkward person. That’s why I travel – to get out of my comfort zone and become more at ease in dealing with sticky situations. While I’ve been successful in becoming less awkward, I’m sad to say weird shit just keeps happening to me.
I am sure there are plenty of strange things I forgot about but these things always stuck with me:
- I saw a woman defecating in public (a.k.a. shitting on the ground).
This was by far the most disturbing thing I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. As I was walking up the stairs of the Studio City metro station, a woman crouched down next to the escalator and took a dump. I couldn’t look away but I will spare you the details. That’s what they call a shituation.
- The ‘Big Bay Boom’ was a big bust.
Every Fourth of July, San Diego organizes the ‘Big Bay Boom’, a spectacle of fireworks launching across the waterfront. In 2012, some intern pressed the wrong button and set off 160,000 dollars worth of fireworks at the same time. The show started five minutes early and lasted about 20 seconds.
- Drizzle is considered a rainstorm – and treated like one.
On one of the few rainy days of the year, I was waiting for a package to be delivered. Once the mailman had dropped it off, I was about to go outside to grab it when my host mom yelled at me that it was not safe and I should stay inside. It was drizzling and they were terrified.
Long story short: a Californian will take a dump just about anywhere – just not outside when it’s raining.
The good, the bad & the lazy.
So what should be on your list?
Let’s get to the gist of this post – the only part that’s even remotely useful to anyone but me. In order to share my experiences in depth, I’ve listed all of the activities I’ve ever done in the state of California. They are labeled either as a gem or a tourist trap and I’ll be linking to new articles as I write more reviews. I know, I’m the gift that keeps on giving.
Some of the good stuff I’ve done. There’s no particular order, so just pick and choose as you like.
|Sea World San Diego||San Diego||Avg. $90|
|San Diego Zoo||San Diego||Avg. $52|
|U.S.S. Midway||San Diego||Avg. $15|
|San Diego County Fair||San Diego||Avg. $20|
|Cabrillo National Monument||San Diego||Avg. $10|
|Sunset Cliffs Natural Park||San Diego||Inc. with previous|
|The Beaches||San Diego||FREE!|
|Coronado Island||San Diego||FREE!|
|Old Town||San Diego||FREE!|
|La Jolla Cove||San Diego||FREE!|
|Balboa Park||San Diego||FREE!|
If you are into theme parks, the movie industry and art – L.A. is for you!
|Universal Studios||Los Angeles||Avg. $100|
|Warner Bros. studio tour||Los Angeles||Avg. $62|
|Paramount Pictures studio tour||Los Angeles||Avg. $55|
|Disneyland||Los Angeles||Avg. $95|
|Disney California Adventure||Los Angeles||Avg. $95|
|Tour of Celebrity Houses||Los Angeles||Avg. $25|
|Getty Museum||Los Angeles||Avg. $13|
|Walt Disney Concert Hall||Los Angeles||FREE!|
|Griffith Observatory||Los Angeles||FREE!|
|Downtown Los Angeles||Los Angeles||FREE!|
|L.A. Live (Staples Center)||Los Angeles||FREE!|
Want a little bit of everything? San Fran is just the place for you!
|Alcatraz||San Francisco||Avg. $43|
|Walt Disney Family Museum||San Francisco||Avg. $20|
|Lombard Street||San Francisco||FREE!|
|Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market||San Francisco||FREE!|
|Golden Gate Bridge||San Francisco||FREE!|
|The Painted Ladies||San Francisco||FREE!|
|Golden Gate Park||San Francisco||FREE!|
|Twin Peaks||San Francisco||FREE!|
|Fisherman’s Wharf||San Francisco||FREE!|
The National Parks.
Let’s not forget about the beautiful National Parks California has to offer!
|Death Valley||Eastern California||avg. $20|
|Yosemite Ntl. Park||Mariposa||avg. $25|
|Sequoia & King’s Canyon||Fresno||avg. $30|
|Joshua Tree Ntl. Park||San Bernardino||avg. $15|
Ugh, I wasted time on this shit. I recommend avoiding these places and replacing them with a gem.
|Whale Watching||San Diego||Avg. $25|
|Cabazon Dinosaurs||Palm Springs||Avg. $10|
|Angel Island||San Francisco||Avg. $10|
|Beverly Hills||Los Angeles||FREE!|
While I consider certain things to be a waste of time, first-time travelers don’t always listen to my advice. These places are tourist traps for a reason. Even though everyone I’ve ever taken to Beverly Hills comes back disappointed, they would be equally dissatisfied if they hadn’t visited. It’s the eternal paradox – just make sure to prioritize.
California has a lot to offer: if you’re a movie freak like me, you’ll feel at home in Hollywood. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, head on over to Anaheim for some of California’s most thrilling rides. Most of all, remember to socialize – hang out with the locals.
While this might sound like a foreign concept to many outsiders (a.k.a. Europeans), it’s totally normal – and even expected – when visiting the Golden State. Random people will start conversations when you least expect it and you would be surprised as to what you can learn from them if you’re open to it.
It’s part of the quirky, diverse culture that makes California one of my favorite spots in the U.S.
“Hush, Ben. I don’t have time for all of your nonsensical references to teen television.” You’re right. Here’s what your main take-aways should be from this article:
- Visit California – it’s worth it.
- Hang out with locals.
- Eat Mexican food, it’s the best there is.
And if you don’t like California, you can always move back to Pittsburgh. Yes, that’s another “The O.C.” reference. Us 90s kids will never change.
Ben Voyage, bitch!