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Get in the Mood: What to Read and Watch Before Going to California

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Hollywood, Malibu, San Francisco, Napa Valley, San Diego… California is the center of many stories, both fictional and real. Before you head off to the Golden State, here are a few must-see novels, series and movies set in California to get your imagination going under the gentle rays of the incomparable West Coast sun.

The O.C.

A highly intelligent but underprivileged teenager, Ryan Atwood finds refuge with his lawyer after an arrest in this iconic 2000s series. The mansions and beaches are enough to make you dream, but to see the home of the Cohen family, you have to travel to Ocean Breeze Drive in Malibu. And the harbor that is featured in just about every episode is, in fact, Redondo Beach. A guilty pleasure to be enjoyed without moderation!

Available on Amazon Prime

La La Land

Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle embraces Los Angeles with his camera in this musical comedy that redefines the codes of the genre. An invaluable source of inspiration for your next trip to California! The film’s stunning cinematography pays homage to such iconic landmarks as the Griffith Observatory, Cathy’s Corner on Mt. Hollywood Drive, the Hollywood Hills and the Hermosa Beach Pier. If you’re looking for original stories or good movies set in California and more specifically Los Angeles, this is it.

Available on Amazon Prime

300 Reasons to Love San Francisco

Contributor Marie-Joëlle Parent’s family has lived in California for six years. She’s been exploring her adopted city with great curiosity ever since. Always on the lookout for the latest restaurant opening, but also for the little hidden secrets and endearing stories that make San Francisco what it is.

Big Little Lies

Masterfully directed by the late Jean-Marc Vallée, this adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel tells the story of wealthy families whose seemingly perfect lives are upended by an incident involving two of their children. Filmed primarily in Monterey, just south of San Francisco, the movie features the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where Jane and her son, Ziggy, spend some quality time, as well as the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the must-see attractions in Big Sur.

Available on Crave


The autobiographical story of Cheryl Strayed, who decided to take her life in her own hands and hike nearly 1,800 kilometers of the Pacific Crest Trail with no prior hiking experience after being pushed to the brink by the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and her destructive addictions. A story of will, introspection and perseverance, beginning in the Mojave Desert.

Available on Disney+ and Crave

Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy

The New York Times bestselling Good Vibrations chronicles Mike Love’s legendary, raucous, and ultimately triumphant five-decade career leading the Beach Boys, one of the most beloved American bands in history.

If the book isn’t enough to transport you to California, perhaps the rhythms of the quartet’s most popular album, Best of The Beach Boyss, will give you a taste of the beach and sunset. This is the perfect soundtrack for any trip to the California coast!

Straight Outta Compton

The biopic tells the story of N.W.A., one of the most influential groups in hip hop. Best known for their lyrics, which describe life in South Los Angeles with brutal candor, the band has endured in an almost constant state of controversy. Skateland USA, the roller rink where the five first performed, still stands.

Available on Amazon Prime

Licorice Pizza

Inspired by Gary Goetzman’s life, this heartfelt semi-autobiographical movie is about two young men who fall in love in 1970s San Fernando Valley. Shot entirely in the area, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson was keen to recreate some of the iconic locations of the era, including the Tail O’ the Cock Tavern, which was a celebrity favorite until it closed in 1987. Assuredly one of the best recent movies set in California.

Available on Amazon Prime

The New California Wine

Writer John Bonne is editor and chief wine critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. In this guide, he offers an unprecedented look at California’s new generation of winemakers and how they are innovating and changing the face of winemaking. Through gorgeous photographs of the lesser-known regions of the state, you will experience a true revolution on every page. Best read over a good Napa Valley red.


As the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, Harvey Milk had no political aspirations in the early days of his career. In the end, it was the discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco that prompted the activist to get involved. The building on Castro Street where Milk used to run a boutique before embarking on a political career is still standing today. This is exactly where the film was shot, though it’s been restored to look like it looked in the 1970s. Gus Van Sant’s film has won several prestigious awards and is sure to bring tears to your eyes as you experience 1970s San Francisco.

Available on Amazon Prime

The Mountains of California

The American writer and first modern naturalist’s love of the California environment pervades this classic work, first published in 1894. Through the author’s own expeditions to Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, and Mount Whitney National Parks, the book pays tribute to the beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Once in California, visit Muir Woods, which was named in his honor and is located just a few minutes north of San Francisco.

Pretty Woman

Set in the glamorous, glittering world of Beverly Hills, this now iconic movie embodies the allure of the American Dream through a love story that is as unlikely as it is endearing. The movie’s cult status is due in large part to the chemistry between the two lead actors and the luxurious California setting. Some of the most iconic Los Angeles locations used in Pretty Woman include the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where much of the movie takes place, and Rodeo Drive.

Available on Amazon Prime

Endless Summer

This vitamin-packed documentary from 1966 has lost none of its relevance in spite of its age. It looks at the allure of the ocean in Malibu and follows two surfers on their quest to catch the perfect wave. The movie is ideal for inspiration for a surf trip to California, as it perfectly captures the laid-back vibe of the Golden State and its world-class waves.

Available on Amazon Prime

Here are a few other suggestions of novels, series and movies set in California to check out before your trip:

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
  • Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock
  • Clueless
  • Where I Was From essays by California-native Joan Didion
  • Almost Famous by Cameron Crowe
  • In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart
  • Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • Drive with Ryan Gosling
  • Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
  • Beverly Hills, 90210
  • People We Meet on Vacation novel by Emily Henry

The comments and contributions expressed are assumed only by the author. The recommendations, intentions or opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Transat AT Inc. or its affiliates. See terms of use of the Air Transat website.

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