In a year when international travel came to a screeching halt, I decided it was my chance to finally explore more of my home state of California. There were nearly a dozen places that had spent years sitting on my bucket list, constantly overlooked for trips to more exotic international destinations. So I spent the year embarking on long daytrips and overnight adventures to a slew of Golden State gems including Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes, Palm Springs, Big Sur, Muir Woods, Big Pine Lakes, Solvang and more. I also made it my mission to unearth places in all of these Golden State gems that reminded me of the far-reaching places I was starting to miss being at home - Japan, France, Italy, Morocco and more. Below is a list of my favorite "international" discoveries, places I visited in California without ever having to hop on a plane.
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INDIAN CANYON, PALM SPRINGS
While Palm Springs isn't quite Morocco, there's a network of hiking trails tucked away in spectacular Indian Canyon that offer up viewpoints that will have you longing for the Sahara Desert. Home to the Agua Caliente Indians centuries ago, Indian Canyon is now a popular trekking destination where you'll find palm groves, oasis viewpoints and waterfalls scatted throughout Palm Canyon, Andreas Canyon, Tahquitz Canyon and Chino Canyon (the five canyons that make up Indian Canyon). (Location: 38520 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs)
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ETTAN RESTAURANT, PALO ALTO
For fresh Cal-Indian cuisine at one of the most beautiful restaurants in the Bay Area, head to Ettan in Palo Alto. The restaurant opened in early 2020, and you may have seen the entrance pop up on your Instagram feed. It's a facade made for selfies - an ornate blue doorway, matching blue tiles, exotic lanterns and beaded chandeliers. (Location: 518 Bryant Street, Palo Alto)
Fortunate One Store dress, linked here.
THORNBURG VILLAGE, BERKELEY
Built in the 1920s by developer Jack Wood Thornburg, the French-inspired Thornburg Village looks like a village straight from Beauty and the Beast. You'll find stone archways, gargoyles, cobbled alleys and even a Rapunzel-style tower in this little village. And to the surprise of many, the storybook setting is actually a tiny neighborhood of apartments and houses set a couple blocks away from the University of California campus in Berkeley. (Location: Hearst Street & Spruce Street, Berkeley)
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QUEEN WIHELMINA TULIP GARDEN, SAN FRANCISCO
One of the best kept secrets in Golden Gate Park is the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden. In a most unusual location next to dreary Ocean Beach, this oasis of flowers that surround a Dutch windmill looks like it belongs in The Netherlands. There are flowers year round, but visitors in early spring are treated to hundreds of bright tulips. It's a popular spot with locals on the weekend, especially if the weather is nice, so arrive early for picnics and photos. (Location: 1690 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco)
Fortunate One Store dress, linked here.
RED ROCK CANYON, CANTIL
If you can't find time for a weeklong road trip through Utah, then a quick visit to Red Rock Canyon might be a fun alternative. The state park is located an hour from Bakersfield in Cantil, but the orange rocks, desert cliffs and spectacular formations could easily pass for a postcard from Utah. (Location: 37749 Abbott Drive, Cantil)
SUNFLOWER FIELDS, DIXON
July is sunflower season in California, a month when all of Dixon seems to be in bloom. While the city itself is nothing like the South of France, the sea of sunflowers that can be seen from the highway are reminiscent of the fields in Provence. Please note, no flowers were touched or injured for this photo. There are wide pathways of dirt that divide the rows of flowers. (Location: Dixon, California)
ALCAZAR THEATRE, SAN FRANCISCO
The dreamy exterior of the Alcazar Theatre looks straight out of a trip to Marrakech, Morocco. Located in the Tenderloin just west of Union Square, this theatre has been built, demolished, rebuilt and gutted over its 100+ year history. The current standing structure opened in 1993, and has since been named a San Francisco Historical Landmark. The exterior of the theatre can be accessed any time of the day for photos, it sits on a relatively quiet stretch of Geary. (Location: 650 Geary Street, San Francisco)
BIG PINE LAKES
For a mini-version of Italy's Dolomites, you'll want to visit Big Pine Lakes, reachable via a 16-mile hiking trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trail takes hikers to seven stunning glacial lakes, the prettiest views being at the second lake, a terrific place to stop if you want to shave five miles off the trek. (Location: Bishop, California)
BAMBOO GIANT NURSERY, APTOS
That's right, this bamboo grove is in Aptos. Truly a hidden gem. Giant Bamboo nursery is home to several groves of bamboo of all colors and sizes, as well as a small pond, red torii and blooming plum blossoms that bloom in the spring. (Location: 5601 Freedom Boulevard, Aptos)
Arnhem dress, linked here.
It's not another country or state, but Pioneertown sure does feel like another time and place. Located 20 minutes from Joshua Tree, this historic treasure looks like a scene from Westworld or an Old Western film. A dirt road serves as the main drag, lined with wooden shopfronts, as well as hotel, dentistry, barber, bank and mill facades. A very charming place to stop after your visit to Joshua Tree.
Okay, I've never been to Mars (and I have no idea what the planet looks like), but I do know that Trona Pinnacles is completely otherworldly. Located 20 miles east of Ridgecrest, this National Natural Landmark is made up of more than 500 tufa spires that vary in size, shape and formation. The landscape could easily pass for another planet - maybe that's why it's been a filming location for movies, tv shows and commercials. FYI, it's a bumpy five mile drive from the main road to reach the pinnacles.
Forever 21 jumpsuit, linked here.
GINO & CARLO ALLEY, SAN FRANCISCO
Located in the heart of North Beach, the charming side street of Gino & Carlo is reminiscent of 1950s Rome. The bustling neighborhood, fondly referred to as San Francisco's Little Italy, is riddled with alleys and narrow streets, making Gino & Carlo an easy one to miss. Use Golden Boy Pizza as a point of reference (and grab a slice while you're at it!). The red, white and green alley is right around the corner from the popular pizza joint. (Location: 548 Green Street, San Francisco)
SHEIN jumpsuit, linked here.
ARIZONA CACTUS GARDEN, PALO ALTO
Located 45 minutes south of San Francisco, the Arizona Cactus Garden sits on the edge of the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto. The historic garden dates back to the 19th century when it was designed for Leland and Jane Stanford by landscape architect Rudolph Ulrich. Not many people know this desert oasis of cactus, succulents, aloe and agave plants exists, so it's usually a pretty quiet place to take photos. The garden is free to visit, and open 24 hours a day. (Stanford University, Palo Alto)
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