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Los Angeles

LA is a city of big freeways, big movie studios, big stars, and big dreams. Getting to know LA as a visitor means exploring it bit by bit, neighbourhood by neighbourhood; allowing one day to explore each area. Try rushing it and you’ll end up bewildered and more than a little exhausted! Those with limited time frames in the city should plan for a beachside lunch in Santa Monica, people-watching at the Venice Beach boardwalk, shopping in Beverly Hills, a visit to the Getty Centre and a stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. LA’s Burbank and Studio City areas are home to Buena Vista, Disney, NBC, Universal and Warner Bros studios, so film-buffs will want to make a bee-line here. The Warner Bros VIP Tour offers a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking, and the Universal Studios Theme Park promises ‘the Ultimate Hollywood Experience’ via film-themed rides and tours through the sets of past and present films and TV shows. Shoppers will be pleased to know that LA promises everything and more to those seeking designer, vintage, gifts and home wares. Retail devotees will want to hire a car to access the breadth of what LA’s city has to offer, or tackle individual areas on different days if going by hoof! Beverly Hills’ Wilshire Boulevard is where all the big department stores are found; West 3rd Street hides small, laid-back and super-cool boutique shops; Robertson Boulevard and Melrose Avenue offer designer goodies and prime opportunities for celeb watching; and La Brea Avenue is the place to shop for vintage treasures.

Regional California

South of LA are three very different places worth visiting, for very different reasons: Anaheim for its shopping outlets and theme parks (most notably, Disneyland); Palm Springs for its golf courses and celebrity mansions; and San Diego for its plethora of outdoorsy attractions. Anaheim is the best place to base oneself for theme park madness but it is also a great starting point for hiring a car and exploring nearby Huntington, Newport and Laguna beaches. Palm Springs, located two hours from Los Angeles, is a desert oasis nestled within the Coachella Valley and encircled by mountains. It began attracting Hollywood’s elite in the 1940s, when the likes of Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra commissioned architects to build their hip, mid-century homes, tennis clubs and golf courses. Thousands of admirers and design aficionados are drawn here each year – particularly during Modernism Week each February – but for most visitors, it is the awe-inspiring canyons and natural desert wonders that make Palm Springs so beguiling. San Diego is close to the Mexican border and boasts California's best weather year-round, with good beaches and places for outdoor recreation a-plenty. Its architecture and culture exude a wonderfully Spanish influence and visitors will find most of the popular tourist sights concentrated around the downtown and waterfront areas. The Old Town, Sea World, and the San Diego Zoo (one of the best zoos in the world) are day-trips in their own right, but there are plenty of locally guided tours and sightseeing adventures that can enjoyed by boat, trolley, bus or even a Segway!

North of LA is some of the state’s most dramatic coastline, fertile-green countryside and rugged wilderness parks. The hip town of Santa Barbara offers historians a Spanish mission (established 1786) and county courthouse to explore, as well as excellent opportunities to sail, kayak and camp within the wildlife-rich Channel Islands. There are spectacular coastline views to be had at Big Sur while, inland, California’s Sequoia, Death Valley, and Yosemite National Parks offer bus, bike, hiking and horseback tours through ancient and towering redwoods, granite valleys and rivers frequented by brown bears. The gorgeously green countryside of Sonoma and Napa Valley produces the country’s finest wines - and is best explored on a ‘sip-n-cycle’ tour of hospitable vineyards offering cellar-door tastings.

Las Vegas

Sin City comes alive at night – a sensory overload of neon lights, casinos, flashy hotels, pumping bars and Elvis impersonators. The Strip, a 6.8 kilometre stretch of road officially known as Las Vegas Boulevard South, is heavy with crowds by day and by night and flows like an artery through this city’s heart. But there’s a lot more to Las Vegas than glitz and ostentation – there’s great food to be had in the many Michelin-star restaurants, bargains to be found at the Outlet stores on South Grand Central Parkway, and an endless array of indulgent spa treatments that beckon including Caesar’s Palace’s famous Arctic ice room experience in which snow falls from the ceiling! Those who feel the need to escape the concrete chaos can join a two hour helicopter flight from Vegas to one of Mother Nature’s best attractions – the Grand Canyon. Consider taking off on an afternoon tour that will incorporate flights deep into the canyon where guests enjoy wine and nibbles before flying back over the lights of The Strip at dusk.

San Francisco

Affectionately referred to as The Fog City, San Francisco is a sophisticated harbour-side city famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island prison, hilly streets and historic cable cars. There’s so much to see and do in San Fran, and the best way to get around the city is with a ‘one-day passport’ card, valid on all public transportation. You’ll need a hire car to access some of the city’s farther-flung attractions. While the lure of Fisherman’s Wharf is hard to resists for most first-time visitors, a bay cruise; walk across the Golden Gate bridge; hike through Muir Woods’s ancient redwood forest; and stroll, cycle, jog or rollerblade the Crissy Field area of the Presidio are activities that come highly recommended by locals. An entire day can be spent enjoying the city’s favourite museums, gardens and attractions in the beautiful Golden Gate Park (which also hosts free concerts each Sunday during summer) but if you’re after stunning 360-degree panoramic views of the city, bay and ocean beyond, then head to Twin Peaks.

Seattle

With a coffee shop on practically every corner, the best way to plan your Seattle day is over a hot cup of ‘Jo’. A good idea is to start locally: wander the city’s many attractions at your own pace by foot or on board a hop-on, hop-off narrated tour – disembarking at whichever stops peak your interest. A multitude of museums, art galleries and theatres await, as does the open-air shopping mecca, Pike Place Market – a Seattle institution and one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Built on a steep hill overlooking the Elliott Bay waterfront, the market is one of the oldest continually operated public farmers' markets in the United States and features a variety of unique wares including antique showrooms, small family-owned restaurants, fresh produce stands and craft stalls. The Emerald City’s big-ticket attractions (The Boeing Factory tour, Museum of Flight, Pacific Science Centre, Aquarium, and the Woodland Park Zoo) mean that all members of the family have something to look forward to, but at the end of the day, the best thing to do in Seattle is look up – or out if you’re already within the city’s tallest tower, the Space Needle. The tower’s Observation Deck, a mere 500ft up, provides the best views of Seattle and its spectacularly beautiful surrounds. Treat yourself to brunch, lunch or dinner at the Needle’s revolving restaurant where the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Elliott Bay and surrounding islands can be enjoyed over a chilled glass of wine, Western Ranch steak or Seattle’s famous Clam and Corn chowder.

Los Angeles: the best month to visit is October but as a general rule, spring and autumn offer agreeably warm weather. Avoid the holiday crowds and humidity of summer.

Palm Springs: balmy temperatures make it a good year-round destination. Inland the temperatures soar dramatically in the summer.

Las Vegas: best visited during the summer months of June to September when it’s hot but dry. Winter’s daytime temperatures reach a chilly average of only 16°degrees Celsius.

San Diego: May and June can be overcast, cloudy or foggy as the ocean's mist gets stuck over the land. December to April is whale-watching season.

San Francisco: San Francisco's weather can be difficult to predict but March, April and May are characteristically cloudless and mild, with warm and dry days.

Seattle: the best time to visit Seattle is from September to November. As winter approaches, so does Seattle’s famously cold, wet weather.