California has two faces. Well, actually, technically it has three, but no one cares about the third one.
The first and most well-known is warm, sunny Southern California, land of beaches, movie stars, ridiculously priced housing, and theme parks. The ultimate summer getaway that you don’t have to getaway to and that is summery even when it’s not summer.
Then there is Northern California, filled with hippies, tree huggers, redwoods (for hugging), even more ridiculously priced housing, and people who really like wine and organic food. The opposite of a summer getaway since no one wants to be here during the summer due to excessive amounts of fog.
The third is Bakersfield.
I have lived in Northern and Southern California long enough to appreciate their respective appeals, and while I cannot claim to be an unbiased observer (my heart will always belong to the Southern California shore), I think I can represent them both fairly.
The first thing you should know about Southern California is that no one in their right mind wants to live in L.A. “But what about all of those millionaire movie stars and their mansions?” you ask. Yeah, they either don’t want to live in L.A., or they’re not in their right minds. Seriously. All of the stories that describe L.A. as a stinking, dirty Hell pit are not exaggerating as much as one might expect. Still, nearly everyone from Southern California claims to be from L.A. when talking to outsiders which is probably why most people do not differentiate between them.
In many ways, Southern California is exactly what it advertises: sun, beach, glamour; a better life. The giltz and glimmer of Hollywood is long dead (walk alone in Hollywood at night. Go on, I dare you. Just don’t blame me when you get shot). However, most of Southern California really is an amazing place to live. While the sun does not shine year-round, rain is minimal. While it does get “cold” there, it rarely drops below the fifties in the flatlands and often hovers in the sixties even in winter. There is always something to do, and there are just so many different kinds of activities available—from spending the day at Disneyland to watching local bands in a dive bar to getting up at 6am to catch the best waves. And best of all, they’re available year-round.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Price of living, housing in particular, is unanimously considered the downside of living in Southern California, and when you visit other places, it really is shocking to compare prices of even simple things like groceries and gas. The higher minimum wage does not come close to making up for it. But in my mind, the sheer number of people that inhabit this land of excellent weather is equally troublesome. Apart from the ocean, there is very little natural area left, and if you’re trying to get away from it all, you’re in for a long drive. It can be depressingly oppressive to look out and see nothing but houses for hundreds of miles in every direction.
The One and Only Golden Gate Bridge on a Not-so-foggy Day
Northern California is undeniably a different environment despite sharing certain features. Though one couldn’t really call it cold in the inhabited portions, it does not share its southern counterpart’s warmth. I like to think that Southern California is mild on the warm side while Northern California is mildly cool. Of course, that depends greatly on where you are, but in the Bay Area (and let’s face it, how many people really live elsewhere in Northern California?), it holds true enough.
Unlike the south, people in Northern California do not all say they’re from San Francisco. It’s much more localized than that. People in the San Francisco Bay Area are broken up into factions: San Francisco (if you actually live there or close to it), the East Bay (or Oakland if that’s where you actually live…not that anyone wants to admit it), the South Bay (more commonly known as San Jose if that’s where you live, Silicon Valley if you live anywhere else, or Palo Alto if you’re that lucky), the Peninsula (if you can’t quite claim to be from San Francisco or Silicon Valley), and Marin (where everyone secretly wants to live whether they admit it or not). People are fiercely proud of where they reside for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. Considering how close they all are, however, each section really does have a different feel to it, something noticeably missing from the Southern California sprawl.
While the Southland has tourists’ images of Hollywood to contend with, its northern cousin faces two brutal tourist stereotypes. The more robust is that Northern California is basically the same as Southern California. That is, that it’s warm there. While San Franciscans love to laugh at tourists who brought nothing but shorts and t-shirts for their summer vacation and are now huddled in overpriced sweatshirts, it really stings NorCal residents that everyone lops them in with Southern California. It truly is a completely different atmosphere up north, and Northern California natives crave recognition for it.
As such, Northern Californians kind of hate Southern California. People in NorCal are proud of their home and all that it offers and look with disdain on vain, unnatural SoCal. They say that they like the—(insert one) food, wine, culture, politics, environment—in Northern California, but I still think they’re jealous that Southern California gets all the attention. One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship is that it is completely one-sided. People in SoCal do not care about Northern California other than as a vacation spot. They feel no jealousy, no disdain. They don’t even really talk about the difference (even the words NorCal and SoCal are a largely Northern California based phenomenon). They’re too oblivious to care. This, above all else, makes me think that the difference in perception really does lie in NorCal’s jealousy of SoCal; they don’t want to be lumped in with the egotistical people there and think they should get credit for having a genuine culture.
The other not-exactly-true stereotype is that Northern California is peopled by tree-hugging hippies. This is only half true. Honestly, there are a lot of hippies that stuck around after the sixties and seventies, and there are a lot more radically left-wing inhabitants. However, I would not call them the majority. Texas might, but I wouldn’t. Yes, Northern California is very liberal, probably the most liberal area of the country, but like anywhere, most of the inhabitants are moderate. Left-leaning moderates, but still. It’s not impossible to find a conservative, and while they are a lot less eager to share their beliefs than they would be in many places in this country, they are not entirely written off. Not entirely.
Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
Once you get past the stereotypes, Northern California has a number of great things to offer. The cuisine is unparalleled; I defy you to find another place in the world with such varied cuisine where everything tastes delicious. San Francisco gets most of the credit for having fantastic food, but you can find it all over the Bay Area. The East Bay in particular has fantastically cheap good food of all sorts.
Likewise, good wine is easy to find in the Greater Bay Area. With Napa a short drive north, it’s easy to get world class wines without a ton of effort, and Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, and Mendocino County all provide excellent, less-touristy options. Personally, wine tasting is my favorite Northern California activity, and getting to try wines at the actual winery is quite the pleasant experience, producing good conversation with the pourers and sometimes owners, offering a chance to try extra and special wines, and often presenting a lovely setting or picnic area as well.
But to me, the biggest draw of Northern California is the natural scenery. The coastline provides some of the most breath-taking views in the world, and nothing in Southern California comes close to equaling it. Because the water never really warms, people do not flock to it as they do down south, so much of the coast is essentially untouched, and seeing the beauty of the trees, cliffs, and sea combined in perfect, idyllic harmony is truly an unparalleled experience.
The Lone Cypress Tree on the 17 Mile Drive near Monterey–One of California’s Most Stunning and Most Photographed Views
Of course, there is much more to see in California. The redwoods are quite as majestic as the coast, and hiking through them is just as awe-inspiring. The mountains and desert are a vision as well, and while it lacks the beauty of other parts of the state, Central Valley is something to behold. After all, because of the valley, California produces more food than any other state. People live in these parts of the state, but few Californians considered them inhabited. Mostly, these are places people visit but do not stay. That may be unfair to say, but compared to the number of people near the cities, the populations of the more rural areas are practically negligible. Thus, we discuss the areas most Californians call home.
Northern and Southern California both have much to offer, and they are very different. However, it is that difference that really makes California as incredible as it is. California is all about diversity—of terrain, of people, of food, of culture. Ask someone in California where they’re from or about their ancestry or where they like to visit, and you’ll get a whole list of answers. The amazing thing about California is that it has everything. And while there may be two main places to live in California (and countless smaller ones), what truly makes California unique is that it encompasses all of these things, creating a place in the world that can be home to anyone.