California is a very diverse place. Whatever it is you're looking for, it's probably here somewhere. However, not everybody is well-suited for all of California!
I've lived here since 1987 and am a convert - I'm never leaving. And I've lived in a number of different areas, and become fairly familiar with quite a few more. I don't pretend to know about all of California and offer this guide in only the most general of terms. But hopefully this page will give you some hints about where you'd like to be.
San Francisco, Marin, Berkeley and Santa Monica are very liberal both socially and politically.
The Bay Area in general, and most of the LA area, is pretty moderate.
The Central Valley is mostly pretty traditional.
San Diego is mostly conservative, particularly the northern areas. So is much of Orange County, Simi Valley/Moorpark, Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley.
You'll want to do some research and also check with the individual schools about specific housing options. But in general...
San Francisco, San Jose, the Peninsula and Marin are very expensive places to live.
Most of LA and the East Bay are fairly expensive, but there are some pockets of relative affordability mixed in if you look for them.
San Diego and the Central Coast are also fairly expensive, but not like the Bay Area. Availability of housing can be an issue in the more remote areas, particularly along the Central Coast and in the Far North.
The Central Valley and desert areas generally have the least-expensive places to live in California.
If you're coming from the midwest or the south, you'll probably be a little stunned about how high rents are. Most colleges can help you find roommates to ease the cost a bit.
The greatest single influence on climate in California isn't how far north you are; it's how near the coast you are. The Pacific Ocean moderates the temperatures. San Diego is at the southern end of the state, yet daytime temperatures seldom get much over 80 degrees because it's right on the ocean. Meanwhile, Redding is so far north it's almost to the Oregon border, but daytime temperatures in the summer can reach 100 degrees there. That's because it's so far inland.
The climate in coastal cities is very moderate - it doesn't get too warm or too cold. A foggy place like Eureka seldom sees 70 degrees. San Francisco seldom gets much warmer than that. The city of Los Angeles seldom gets much hotter than the mid-80's even in the summer. And none of these places gets snow or even freezing temperatures in the winter.
However, by the time you're as few as 30 or 40 miles inland, the climate becomes far less moderate. Few areas of California ever see snow unless they're in the mountains, but temperatures often approach the freezing point in the Central Valley during the winter. North or east of Sacramento, there can be snow (and lots of it up in the Sierras, as the Donner Party learned). Temperatures of 100 or more are common in the summer in all the areas of California that are away from the coast.
And the farther south you go, generally, the less rain there is. Eureka gets a lot of rain, but LA and San Diego often get fewer than 10 inches of rain per year. Rainy season for most of California runs from November through March. It seldom rains anywhere in California between April and October.
Particularly if you're from the Midwest or the East Coast, the distances between areas of California can be deceptive.
For example, it's about 400 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That's farther than from New York City to Pittsburgh or Montreal, Canada. It's also farther than from St. Louis to Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City or Louisville.
The greater LA area usually refers to the region from Riverside to Ventura (going east to west) and Santa Clarita to San Clemente (going along the 5 Fwy). It's about 120 miles from Riverside to Ventura, about the same as from one end of Long Island to the other. And farther than from Chicago to Milwaukee.
I suppose this is why so many Californians have a car. There are developed public transit systems in the Bay Area, and there is some public transit in the other metro areas, but living out here is easier if you have at least some access to a car.
Everyone thinks of going to the beach when they hear about California. And it's true the Pacific Ocean is right here.
However, going to the beach and hanging out all day in the sun is mainly a Southern California phenomenon.
There's beach farther north, but the water is colder. North of Marin, the water comes directly from just south of Alaska. If you want to go in, you'll need a wetsuit (even in summer) and it's really not a major activity.
Between Marin and Santa Barbara, there is plenty of shoreline but the water isn't that much warmer. Activities like windsurfing and jetskiing are big in the Bay Area, but aside from Santa Cruz the beach just isn't the attraction it is farther south. And that's because it's just too cold to want to get wet.
The beach scene you've heard about takes place from Santa Barbara to down beyond the Mexican border.
Major League Sports:
If you're here on a JC Basketball site, I presume you're probably a sports fan. Well, there are a lot of professional sports teams in California and as I'm sure you're aware their levels of success vary widely. I won't tell you who's winning or which teams to cheer for, but here's some info on going to games out here:
Los Angeles: The Lakers and Clippers (NBA) both play at Staples. Getting Lakers tickets has been tough the last few years, but with Shaq's departure it could be easier now. Clippers tickets are usually pretty easy to get (unless they're playing the Lakers). Ticket prices start at $10. The Dodgers (MLB) usually have big crowds, but tickets are normally available. Prices start at $6 but there are plenty of scalpers on Stadium Way if want something better. The Kings (NHL) also play at Staples. Tickets start at $22.50. They sell out about half the time but if you plan ahead it's seldom a problem getting what you want. That's if the NHL even has a season this year.
Orange County:: The Angels (MLB) play at Edison Field. Tickets start at $7. The Mighty Ducks (NHL) play at the Arrowhead Pond. Tickets start at $15 and have always been very available, provided they play at all this year.
The Bay Area: The Warriors (NBA) play at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Tickets are usually very available except for Lakers games, which require some planning. Prices start at $10. The Giants (MLB) play at beautiful Pacific Bell Park. It's worth a trip just to see the park, and of course you get to watch Barry Bonds as well. Most games sell out but with some advance planning tickets can be had, especially for weeknights. And the A's (MLB) play at the Oakland Coliseum. Tickets there are usually quite available, and they start at $8. The 49ers (NFL) play at Candlestick Park and at least when I lived there were sold out almost entirely on season tickets. The Raiders (NFL) play at the Oakland Coliseum, and tickets start at around $50. The Sharks (NHL) play in San Jose. They usually sell out, but you can get tickets for all but the most desirable weekend games if you plan in advance.
Sacramento: The Kings (NBA) are the only major league team in town and sell out every game. While it's sometimes possible to go in the day they go on sale to the public in September and get tickets, with the team as successful as it is it's not going to be easy. The scalpers usually hang out east of the stadium on the roads outside the arena parking lots.
San Diego: The Padres (MLB) play at beautiful new Petco Park on the south edge of downtown. It's a wonderful new stadium, with a wide range of ticket prices. Most of their games are near-sellouts since the ballpark is new, but with some advance planning you can get what you want. The Chargers (NFL) also play at Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium (near the junction of the 8 and 805 freeways). They usually eventually sell out, but there are seats available when they first go on sale in the summer, and prices start at about $30. They don't like Raiders fans down there and prefer not to sell them tickets, so if you want the Raider game be prepared to jump through some hoops.