20 Best Places to Visit in California
By Janet Benoir – October 18, 2023
California, often associated with celebrities and Hollywood, boasts much more than just glitz and glamor. This expansive American state is home to Silicon Valley, the hub of numerous notable tech companies. As you traverse its diverse landscape, you’ll also encounter the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, a symbol of engineering marvel and beauty.
The natural scenery of California will captivate you, from towering redwoods to picturesque coastlines. Discover magnificent deserts, unique rock formations, and stunning beaches. Immerse yourself in the ambiance of renowned cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego – each infused with rich culture and delightful culinary experiences. Your journey through California’s best destinations promises to be enchanting and memorable.
San Francisco, a globally celebrated city, is famous for its picturesque views, emblematic landmarks, and welcoming atmosphere. Located on a peninsula with the stunning San Francisco Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, this city serves as a favorite destination for many visitors.
The city’s diverse neighborhoods, each nestled on its mist-shrouded hills, boast lovely Victorian architecture and scenic streetscapes. Union Square houses theaters and museums, while Fisherman’s Wharf is the primary tourist hub. At Pier 39, you’ll find shopping, dining, and entertainment options, as well as sunbathing seals and charming views of the bay. Don’t miss a trip to Alcatraz Island and its renowned former federal prison, now a museum. An energizing yet refined place, San Francisco offers something for everyone.
Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States, can be found in southern California, nestled between the Pacific Coast, mountains, and valleys. This City of Angels boasts a variety of attractions and beaches, such as the lively Venice Beach and the celebrity-favored sands of Malibu.
When visiting Los Angeles, you’ll find some of the world’s most renowned amusement parks, like Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. As a prime destination for celebrity sightings, you can explore celebrity homes or indulge in some shopping at Beverly Hills’ designer stores. Additionally, you have the opportunity to dine at the same famous restaurants frequented by celebrities and the wealthy elite.
Anaheim, part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, is often recognized for Disneyland, but has expanded over the years to become the largest city in Orange County. A diverse range of neighborhoods provide fantastic bars, restaurants, and shops, especially around the downtown area. As a sports fan, you can enjoy baseball and hockey games, with teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim playing in the city.
Despite other attractions, Disneyland remains the main draw in Anaheim, bringing families from all over the world to experience the thrilling rides and various entertainment options. The resort houses several shops, restaurants, and hotels, further enhancing its appeal to visitors. Another theme park and spa are also located in the resort, offering even more opportunities for fun and relaxation.
Sun-kissed San Diego, often regarded as America’s finest city, is located on Southern California’s picturesque coastline. As the state’s second-largest city, it sits just north of the Mexican border and offers miles of golden sandy beaches and a laidback surfer culture. When in town, you shouldn’t miss the chance to relax on beautiful beaches like Mission Beach or La Jolla Shores.
Besides the stunning beaches, San Diego boasts impressive museums, historic sights, and world-class attractions. The city is well known for Balboa Park, which is home to the remarkable San Diego Zoo. Another area to explore is downtown, featuring a multitude of great shops, eateries, bars, and charming old buildings like Mission San Diego de Alcala that showcase San Diego’s Spanish roots.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park, one of the United States’ most renowned and visited parks, captivates millions of visitors every year. Situated in the western part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the park features awe-inspiring landscapes and iconic views. Explore attractions such as Glacier Point, which offers breathtaking vistas of Yosemite Valley.
Immerse yourself in the park’s mesmerizing natural beauty as you discover its multitude of lakes, streams, hiking trails, and equestrian paths. Revel in the astonishing sights of massive granite domes and cliffs, including the famous El Capitan and Half Dome. Yosemite is also home to magnificent groves of giant sequoias and towering waterfalls. Among these, the spectacular Yosemite Falls stands out, as it dramatically cascades down a 739-meter rockface.
Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, is nestled high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, with its shores spanning both California and Nevada. This popular tourist destination attracts visitors with its stunning blue waters and picturesque surroundings, offering an array of outdoor activities to enjoy amid its breathtaking beauty.
In the winter, you can visit Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and enjoy skiing and snowboarding at various ski resorts around the North Shore, such as Mammoth Lakes. Summer invites you to hike the mountain trails, sail on the crystal-clear waters, or simply relax on the beaches of Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe.
Spanning around 70 miles (110 km) along California’s renowned Highway One, Big Sur lies between the Carmel Highlands and San Simeon. This striking portion of the Californian coastline is characterized by its awe-inspiring jagged rocks, impressive redwood trees, and captivating beaches. Big Sur’s alluring natural beauty draws countless road trippers every year.
You can immerse yourself in the scenic vistas by exploring several state parks, home to renowned sites such as the Bixby Bridge and the impressive rock towers at Pfeiffer Beach. Big Sur offers renowned experiences catering to outdoor enthusiasts, as its lofty cliffs and expansive ocean views have earned a near-mythic status. Millions of visitors are drawn to the region’s epic wilderness and abundant recreational opportunities each year.
Nestled in California’s Bay Area, Napa Valley is renowned for its breathtaking scenery and top-tier wineries that draw tourists worldwide. Meandering through the stunning vine-covered hills provides the perfect opportunity to experience the region’s beauty. However, be mindful that the roads may become crowded during summertime.
The area boasts numerous high-end restaurants, cozy bistros, and outstanding spas to enhance your relaxation. For outdoor enthusiasts, Napa offers splendid hiking trails, golf courses, and horseback riding experiences. Don’t miss the chance for a memorable hot air balloon ride over the picturesque countryside. Of course, a wine tasting tour remains the most popular activity in Napa Valley. With over 200 wineries to choose from, you’ll find it delightful to sip local wines under the warm sun.
Surrounded by Los Angeles on three sides, Santa Monica provides a laidback beachfront experience, serving as an ideal break from exploring the world-famous Hollywood. Established as a coastal resort town in the early 1900s, Santa Monica has a long history of attracting tourists with its idyllic ocean setting.
The lively Santa Monica Pier extends into the Pacific Ocean, boasting an enormous Ferris wheel and a nostalgic amusement park. While the pier offers entertainment for everyone, you can also partake in various beach activities such as swimming, volleyball, and surfing along the extensive shoreline. In addition to its golden sands, Santa Monica boasts a vibrant alternative scene with unique art galleries and street murals at the Bergamot Station Arts Center.
Palm Springs serves as a desert haven for countless individuals, including celebrities who have made it their home over the years. Golfing here is particularly enjoyable during the winter months, given the cooler temperatures compared to the sweltering summer months. You’ll also notice the city’s remarkable mid-20th century modern architecture, showcased through various homes and commercial buildings. Each year, this unique aesthetic is honored during Modernism Week.
Establishing its roots as a hotspot for Hollywood stars in the 1950s and 60s, Palm Springs offers abundant attractions for tourists and locals alike. With a thriving retiree community, it also offers plenty of outdoor activities, including hiking in the surrounding desert and San Jacinto Mountains. Additionally, you’ll find numerous museums to discover as you explore the city, which was once graced by Sonny Bono as its mayor.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park lies east of Los Angeles, where the Colorado and Mojave Deserts converge. The park is named after its unique tree-like yuccas scattered throughout the diverse desert terrain. It has long been a favorite destination for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers.
You’ll find numerous picturesque trails and climbing routes weaving through the rugged landscape. The park encompasses two distinct desert ecosystems, resulting in a diverse array of fauna and flora. Keep an eye out for coyotes, rattlesnakes, and golden eagles as you traverse the terrain. Hiking, rock climbing, and camping are popular activities, and the dramatic geography and distinctive Joshua Trees make for incredible photographic opportunities.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Nestled side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are renowned for their awe-inspiring giant sequoia trees. Towering over 300 feet (90 meters) tall and boasting trunks as wide as 100 feet (30 meters), these natural wonders are a sight to behold.
In Sequoia National Park, established in 1890, you can find Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. Kings Canyon, on the other hand, holds the title for America’s deepest canyon. Both parks host diverse wildlife such as bobcats, gray foxes, bears, and mule deer, with the chance to spot bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park is known for being home to some of the world’s tallest and oldest trees. Established in 1968, the park aims to protect not only the awe-inspiring redwoods but also the diverse ecosystems found in the old-growth forests. As you explore the park, you’ll find that these colossal trees often reach heights of over a hundred meters and have existed for more than two thousand years.
The impressive coast of Redwood National Park also offers a breathtaking scene. The park’s shoreline is adorned with remote coves and beaches, unique landscapes complemented by the backdrop of the towering redwoods. You can enhance your experience of the wild beauty of Redwood National Park through activities like kayaking and whale watching, fully embracing the majesty of Northern California’s natural wonders.
Santa Barbara is a stunning coastal city in California, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Its breathtaking beauty and natural surroundings have earned it the nickname ‘American Riviera’. You’ll be delighted by its palm tree-lined streets featuring quaint Spanish-style buildings, lush parks, and picturesque landscape.
The Old Mission stands out as Santa Barbara’s most renowned attraction, with its eye-catching architecture, centuries-old artworks, and a vibrant, blooming garden. As a visitor, you’ll be able to enjoy the city’s refined character through its fine dining establishments, boutique shops, and art galleries. Located just 160 kilometers northwest of Los Angeles, it’s an ideal destination for day trips or weekend getaways.
Santa Cruz can be found on the northern shore of Monterey Bay, just south of San Jose and San Francisco. It is renowned for its picturesque beach boardwalk and vibrant counterculture atmosphere, making it an ideal destination to unwind and take in the stunning surroundings.
Spend your time in “Surf City” immersed in the beach and boardwalk culture where families, students, hippies, surfers, and street performers gather. Enjoy the youthful, bohemian energy of the city while partaking in watersports such as paddleboarding, sailing, and surfing. The lively downtown area offers a wide variety of enticing restaurants, shops, and bars.
Situated in the San Francisco Bay Area, just north of the bustling city and near San Pablo Bay, you’ll discover the enchanting Sonoma Valley. This fertile area is celebrated for its beautiful landscapes, vineyards, and wineries, as it was here that California’s acclaimed wine industry took root.
Sonoma Valley offers a serene and picturesque getaway. In the town of Sonoma, you can indulge in delectable local cuisine at excellent restaurants and sample the region’s fine wines at various tasting rooms. The Valley of the Moon, as it is also affectionately called, also boasts expansive estates and charming wineries. Engage in popular activities such as hiking and cycling during your visit, or opt for a hot-air balloon ride to truly appreciate the stunning scenery below.
Laguna Beach, located along the picturesque southern California coastline, is a charming destination with a Mediterranean ambience. As you explore the area, you’ll discover stunning beaches, luxury resorts, and a vibrant artistic community.
You’ll find fascinating public sculptures and art galleries scattered throughout the town, as well as eye-catching cottages and artistically-designed homes. Each summer, a variety of captivating events take place, such as the Festival of Arts, Sawdust Festival, and Pageant of the Masters, providing opportunities to enjoy the latest artistic innovations.
Nestled south of Monterey Bay, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a picturesque coastal town along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. This awe-inspiring location, surrounded by majestic cliffs and lush hills, has long been a favorite destination for artists, writers, and poets captivated by its exceptional natural beauty.
Once a haven for artists, this quaint town continues to charm visitors with its delightful cottages and historic homes. Carmel-by-the-Sea proudly displays its artistic legacy through the numerous art galleries and studios scattered throughout the town. You will also find an abundance of exceptional dining options, charming cafes, boutique shops, and cozy bed & breakfasts. The town’s centerpiece is the stunning white-sand Carmel Beach, which visually captured the hearts of countless painters and artists throughout history.
Stretched across Southern California’s picturesque coastline, the Channel Islands form a captivating archipelago of eight islands encircled by the shimmering Pacific Ocean. Five of these islands are part of the Channel Islands National Park, which safeguards and maintains the delicate ecosystems within. Featuring craggy canyons, towering cliffs, and unspoiled beaches, this destination offers a fantastic opportunity for exploration.
Although two of the islands are off-limits to the public due to their use by the US Navy, the surrounding waters are ideal spots for fishing, scuba diving, and sailing. Santa Catalina Island, the only inhabited island within the archipelago, houses the quaint town of Avalon and the village of Two Harbors. Established as a tourist resort since the 1920s, it is also a popular day trip option, being situated just 22 miles from Los Angeles’ coast.
Death Valley, located in the arid Mojave Desert, is a stunningly beautiful yet unforgiving environment that forms part of the Death Valley National Park. The park is characterized by awe-inspiring landscapes, ranging from snow-capped mountains to vibrant sand dunes, which are truly unique to California. Among the must-see attractions are the panoramic views from Zabriskie Point and historic landmarks such as Scotty’s Castle, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, and the remains of ghost towns.
The park also houses the desolate Badwater Basin, which holds the title of the lowest point in North America, and Furnace Creek – notorious for being one of the hottest places on Earth. You’ll also find impressive mountain ranges, monumental dunes, steep gorges, and essential oases throughout the park. Additionally, numerous hiking trails and mountain bike paths offer a way to explore Death Valley’s extraordinary landscapes.