California is well known as one of the most foodie centered states in the country so narrowing down the state's best food travel experiences is a challenge. But, we've picked our top 6 must do food experiences in California – these are the top things every foodie traveler must absolutely try when visiting California.
Take Your Pick of Michelin Restaurants in the San Francisco Area
San Francisco is second only to New York City in the number of its Michelin starred restaurants. Michelin rated restaurants range from inexpensive Bib Gourmand restaurants, where a meal can be purchased for under $40, to the three starred and highly lauded French Laundry, frequently ranked as one of the best restaurants in the country.
Expect to pay through the nose for the three-starred restaurants, with Eater SF rating Saison, one of the three-starred restaurants, as the spendiest spot in the city; Eater's Bill Addison spent $864 on a meal for just himself, after cocktails, wine pairing, tax, and tip on his meal, though he decided it was one of the best meals of his life.
In 2016, the city had 50 starred restaurants with 5 three-starred restaurants and 74 Bib Gourmand restaurants. Click here to read more about the 2016 Michelin starred restaurants in San Francisco.
Head for the Vineyards
California is home to America's finest wine regions, with its dry, sunny climate perfect for Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons. Most think of Napa Valley and Sonoma, but it's also a joy to visit Mendocino, Paso Robles, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Sierra Foothills. Each region focuses on certain types of wines, depending on its climate, and it is easy enough to drive through the beautiful state, meandering through wineries as you please.
Here's the list of wines that each region does particularly well:
- Napa Valley: Cabernet Sauvignon. The country's most expensive Cabernets are produced in the Napa Valley and premium bottles can range from $150 to $200.
- Sonoma Valley: Zinfandels. The fruity and peppery Zinfandel wines are well-known across the United States, with Ravenswood and Francis Coppola as some of the largest producers in the region.
- Mendocino: This is one of California's most secluded wine regions and home to the largest group of organic winemakers in the country. Try Gewurtzraminers and Pinot Noirs and unique organic varietals.
- Paso Robles: While its known for its Zinfandel heritage grape, this region has become more famous for its varietals including the first Syrah to be planted in California.
- Santa Cruz Mountains: Try Merlots and Pinot Noirs in this beautiful location up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
- Sierra Foothills: Zinfandels are your best bet in this hotter climate, though Viogniers are also good options in this region.
If you go wine tasting in California, do your research beforehand because not every winery has open tasting rooms and some wineries offer much better service than others.
Indulge in Food Festivals
California plays host to some of the most interesting and unusual food festivals in the country, largely because it produces so much amazing produce. Check out these unique food festivals:
- Napa Truffle Festival: The country's top truffle chefs converge to take on the pricey fungi, with wild mushroom forays, truffle marketplaces, and dinners.
- Holtville Carrot Festival: A while back, Holtville was the Carrot Capital of the World. While it can no longer claim that title, the town still puts out a fun carrot festival each year.
- Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival: The Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival is the premier food and wine festival in California, bringing in celebrities from across the country to teach others about food, wine, and epicurean culture.
- California Strawberry Festival: The California Strawberry Festival is one of the nation's top food festivals, with everything strawberry served, from strawberry pizza to strawberry nachos to make-your-own strawberry shortcakes and strawberry crepes.
- Gilroy Garlic Festival: The Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of California's most famous and quirkiest festivals. No kissing after this festival but there are plenty of garlicky treats, including the famous Gilroy garlic ice cream.
Opt for the Beer Instead
If you prefer a nice stout to a Cabernet, California has plenty of breweries that offer tours and events. Check out some of these tours here:
- Anheuser-Busch Factory Tour, Fairfield: After grabbing some jelly beans, hop on over to the Anheuser-Busch Factory Tour, where you can learn more about how Budweiser is brewed or take part in other events, including music and art nights.
- Firestone Walker Brewery, Paso Robles: Firestone Walker offers short 30-minute tours which guide guests through their working brewery, ending at the Taproom Restaurant where guests can pair the brews with food.
- Sierra Nevada, Chico: Sierra Nevada offers several different types of brewery tours. You can try their 90-minute Brewhouse Tour which takes guests through the entire process of beer making, a summertime Sustainability Tour which focuses on the company's alternative energy efforts, an in-depth 3 hour Beer Geek tour, and a 2-hour Engineering tour showcasing the inner workings of the company's production systems.
Try a Factory or Produce Tour
California is a very fun place to take factory tours and see how our food is actually made. Here are some of our top choices for food factory tours in California:
- Boudin Bakery, San Francisco: The bakery produces San Francisco's famous sourdough bread and its 26,000 square foot flagship in Fisherman's Wharf is a fun place to spend a few minutes watching the bakers make the bread.
- Jelly Belly Factory Tour, Fairfield: The Jelly Belly factory tour is a fun way to see America's favorite jelly beans being made. If you visit in the fall, you can get the chance to see candy corn being made, as well, since the Jelly Belly company makes candy corn.
- Cowgirl Creamery: Cowgirl Creamery offers a $5 Cheese 101 class which includes an up-close view of curd making and a chance to sample all of their cheeses. This is a very popular class so book early for this one!
- Terranea Land to Sea Culinary Experience: Though it's not a traditional produce or factory tour, the gorgeous Terranea resort offers a unique Land to Sea Culinary Immersion package, where guests spend 3 days exploring all of Terranea's culinary offerings, from its sea salt conservatory to its 8 restaurants and chef's California Coastal philosophy.
Eat at Some of California's Most Famous Spots
California is home to some of the country's most famous restaurants with iconic dishes served up at these locations:
- Ghirardelli chocolate at Ghirardelli Square: You can try the iconic chocolate at 3 different locations within Ghirardelli Square, including trying a Ghirardelli sundae with hot chocolate poured on top.
- Pink's Hot Dogs: Pink's is a Hollywood legend, serving chili dogs, hamburgers, and huge portions, for over 76 years. Pink's Hot Dogs are now served all across Los Angeles but the original location at La Brea and Melrose is its most famous where celebrities, locals, and visitors rub shoulders to grab a hot dog.
- In-n-Out: In-n-Out's burgers are considered among the best fast food burgers in the country and experts say that you must order their burgers and fries "Animal Style," with a mustard-grilled patty, extra Thousand Island dressing, and extra pickles.
- Boudin Bakery: Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl is the first thing most people think of when they think of San Francisco's cuisine. Though clam chowder is a Northeastern dish, the chowder takes on special flavors with Boudin Bakery's warm sourdough bread bowl.
- Dim sum at Yank Sing: While there are many places across California to get dim sum, Yank Sing in San Francisco serves up some of the most exceptional dim sum in the city.
- Korean tacos at Kogi BBQ: In 2008, Chef Roy Choi introduced a new concept in food trucks by combining Mexican and Korean food into a Korean taco. Originally, the food trucks had difficulty attracting customers because of the unusual flavor combinations but, after working with food bloggers to spread the word, the Korean taco business took off. Today, Kogi BBQ has a fleet of K-taco trucks, two restaurants, and a location at the Los Angeles airport.