The California filming locations you need to visit

These days, it seems like Hollywood churns out more movies than McDonalds does milkshakes, with an endless conveyor belt of Box Office hits making their way onto our screens every single week. While it’s likely that some film crews don’t see beyond the studio’s four-walls during filming, many directors, past and present, have opted to combine L.A studio time with on-location shoots nearby. Not only does this create some serious on-screen magic, but it means viewers can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their favourite productions, too.

It’s little surprise, then, that these Golden State film spots are fast-tracking their way onto tourists’ must-see lists quicker than you can say ‘action’. Here’s a rundown of the California filming locations you can enjoy front-row access to, no backstage pass required.

Big Little Lies – Monterey

The first series of Big Little Lies was last year’s runaway TV smash hit. Scooping a string of awards from Emmys to Golden Globes, and boasting a star-studded cast of Hollywood big-hitters, we’re delighted that it’s back on our screens for series two. Each episode brought with it a tangle of drama, tension and suspense, but the standout star of the series? The location. Set in California’s rugged coastal town of Monterey, viewers were wowed by the heady concoction of imposing cliffs, swirling Pacific ocean waves and moody beach scenes. 

Bixby Bridge and Pacific Coast Highway 1. Credit: istock/LeoPatrizi

Although set in Monterey, much of the filming for the show actually takes place around 20 miles south of the area, in beguiling Big Sur – like clifftop Bixby Bridge which features in the show’s opening credits and Lover’s Point Park where Blissful Drip coffee shop was purpose-built for series two. Along Highway One towards high-end neighbourhood Carmel, lies Garrapata State Park and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, both idyllic nature spots where some of the show’s beach scenes were shot. You’ll also find world-famous golf course Pebble Beach neatly perched on the coastline of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the cast are said to have played a round or two in their downtime.

Back in Monterey sits the Aquarium where Jane gets a job in the latest series and family-owned Italian trattoria Paluca on Fisherman’s Wharf that served as the inspiration for Blue Blue cafe.

Us – Santa Cruz 

If you’ve seen Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning horror movie Get Out, then chances are you’ll be well aware of his latest macabre flick – ‘Us’. A spine-chilling story about a woman who returns to her childhood vacation town for the summer, only for things to take a hair-raising turn. Setting the backdrop for the creepy tale is Santa Cruz, an offbeat beach town in California’s central coast, just an hour south of San Francisco. The boardwalk amusement park with its famous Giant Dipper, which is open year-round, featured in many of the film’s scenes, along with some of the surrounding streets including high-end East Cliff Drive. 

Giant Dipper, Santa Cruz. Credit: istock/NickLustPhotography

Although it looks scary on screen, Santa Cruz is actually well-known for being home to a typically Californian surfer set, with laid-back, welcoming vibes to match, so the only screams you’re likely to hear are from those riding the amusement park attractions.  Boasting the oldest surviving boardwalk in the US (founded in 1907), thrill-seekers can be found mingling with locals to the tune of old-school arcade games, while watersport enthusiasts sun themselves on the beach in between catching ‘gnarly’ waves. Back in the town centre, you’ll find an eclectic mix of vintage record stores, boutiques selling Cali-style surf apparel and even a 1950’s-style sci-fi themed diner.  Surprisingly, Us isn’t the first horror movie to be filmed in this area -1987 cult vampire film Lost Boys was famously shot here, too and locals celebrate each year with open-air screenings right on the beach. 

Some Like it Hot  – San Diego

Some Like it Hot is often touted as Marilyn Monroe’s finest film, with her defining role as ditzy glamourpuss Sugar Kane wowing critics and movie-goers alike. The 1959 story about a duo of male musicians who witness a murder and consequently find themselves joining a women’s musical troupe in full drag, is a hair-brained, screwball comedy that’s truly stood the test of time. Although the gang are on their way to Florida in the film, the now legendary beach scenes were actually shot in San Diego’s Coronado Island. With its 24/7 sunshine, this golden-sand beach welcomes visitors and fans of the movie year-round. Hire candy-coloured bikes and cruise around the island on two wheels, visit 1950’s-style diner Clayton’s Coffee Shop, decked out in red-leather booths and old-fashioned jukeboxes, or simply flop down on the warm sands and gaze out at the yachts floating in the marina, just don’t hold your breath when it comes to meeting a millionaire, Marilyn-style.

San Diego, California. Credit: istock/stevezmina1

Always Be My Maybe – San Francisco

Netflix’s surprise hit of the year, Always Be My Maybe is an unlikely rom-com featuring comedienne Ali Wong as a successful businesswoman who returns to her San Francisco home for a new venture. Here, she bumps into an old friend, and as the story unfolds, past feelings are rekindled in a hilarious series of mishaps. The film not only features a laugh-out-loud cameo from Keanu Reeves, but as it’s filmed predominantly in San Francisco, it brings to life so many of the city’s iconic sights in a series of beautifully-shot sequences. The characters get dim sum in Chinatown (the largest in the US), play drinking games with Keanu in the beautifully ornate Fairmont Hotel and visit a restaurant at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. With shots of the city’s iconic cable cars, The Palace of Fine Arts, The Golden Gate Bridge and plenty of pastel-hued townhouses the city is so famous for, it’s sure to inspire some bayside wanderlust in all of us. 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California. Credit: istock/Nirian

Star Wars – Mojave Desert

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the mega-bucks Star Wars franchise is purely a product of CGI trickery and big-budget movie sets brimming with fancy gadgets. The jaw-dropping, out-of-this-world scenery that features in every one of the series’ big-money productions hardly seems like the real deal, but some of the most crucial scenes fans have come to know and love were actually captured on real-life sets that, spoiler alert, definitely don’t look like they belong on planet earth. One of these locations is the Redwoods in Northern California, an expanse of tree-studded national parkland that played home to the furry Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Visitors can marvel at the tallest trees on earth on a magical hike through the wilderness from one of five visitor centres. Spanning around 50 miles of dense forest, there’s plenty of ground to cover, but if you want to get specific, The Tall Trees Redwood Grove is said to be where filming actually took place, so that’s a good place to start.

In A New Hope, some of the scenes set in the vast desert wasteland of Tatooine were filmed in Death Valley National Park, a stark area of cacti-fringed sand dunes sandwiched between the remote Mojave Desert and the vast Sierra Nevada mountains.  Visit at night to see the sky blanketed in a carpet of twinkling stars or take a gentle drive through the multi-coloured hills and valleys by day, stopping at the majestic Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to catch the sunset – just be sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen, as temperatures can get close to a whopping 50 degrees celsius in the heat of the day.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California. Credit: istock/LucynaKoch

Sideways – Santa Barbara

The 2004 black comedy Sideways, featuring Paul Giamatti as a struggling writer who hot-foots it to wine country with his best friend whilst in the throes of a midlife crisis, put California’s wine region firmly on the map. Most of the movie was shot around the upscale city of Santa Barbara and the surrounding lush landscapes of the Santa Ynez valley. As famous for its wine as it is for its star-studded homeowners (Oprah famously has a house here), this beautiful coastal region is the perfect place to combine with a trip to Los Angeles. Not only is it home to a shimmering coastline, gourmet restaurants and unbeatable shopping, it’s just two hours away from Hollywood so a dual-centre trip will be a cinch. Sip Merlot (if you know, you know) and enjoy a picnic of local produce before strolling through rows of verdant vineyards as you take in the views of this sun-dappled paradise.

Vineyard landscape (Santa Ynez Valley, California). Credit: istock/S. Greg Panosian

Los Angeles – Pretty Woman/ La La Land

Rodeo Drive was just another designer boutique-lined street before Julia Roberts came along in Pretty Woman. Now, you can join the queue of film buffs taking snaps of the flashy cars, palm-fringed boulevards and glittering hotels that have become so synonymous with the city in the years since, including the Beverly Wilshire where Vivian and Edward’s story begins.

Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Credit: istock/tobiasjo

More recently, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s (a.k.a Mia and Seb’s) star-crossed love match in La La Land cast a whole new light on the City of Angels. From literally flying high at the Griffith Observatory to dancing in the moonlight at Cathy’s Corner near Griffith Park, and watching jazz at the Lighthouse Cafe to Sebastian playing keyboard at the El Rey theatre, the movie’s most show-stealing scenes were filmed in locations in and around the city, making it easy for visitors to pay homage to the Oscar-winning flick.

Los Angeles skyline & Griffith Park Observatory. Credit: istock/4kodiak