16 Best Cities in California

Written by Lisa Alexander
Updated May 10, 2024
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You may be planning to visit California because of its sandy beaches and sunny lifestyle, but you will find more in the Golden State than just natural beauty and outdoor activities. California's sophisticated cities are brimming with gourmet restaurants, vibrant neighborhoods, and world-class cultural attractions.

With the feel of a European city, San Francisco in Northern California blends old-world charm and a happening atmosphere. Los Angeles in Southern California is the largest, most sophisticated city in the state and the second-largest metropolitan area in the country.

Typical of SoCal, the laid-back cities of San Diego and Santa Barbara boast balmy weather, spectacular sandy beaches, and handsome Spanish-style architecture. The port city of Oakland in Northern California has a diverse, multiethnic population and loads of cultural attractions.

Long Beach is the place to enjoy outdoor activities, seaside scenery, and an unpretentious ambiance. The state capitol, Sacramento will surprise you with interesting tourist attractions and a quaint historic district.

Learn about the best things to see and do in the state's top urban destinations, with our guide to the best cities in California.

1. San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco

A breathtaking setting and charming European-style neighborhoods set San Francisco apart from other cities in the state. For a metropolis with less than a million inhabitants, this cosmopolitan, small-scale city in Northern California is brimming with attractions.

You will find some of the finest restaurants in the country, fabulous boutique shopping, award-winning theater performances, and interesting museums.

On first impression, San Francisco wows you with its stunning location alongside the Pacific Ocean coastline and the expansive San Francisco Bay. Adding to the dramatic scenery: The city features over 40 hills in an area of only about seven by seven miles.

Wandering around on foot (with stops to take cable car rides) is the best way to see the sights of San Francisco. Because the city is compact, it is easily walkable, as long as you don't mind hiking up some steep streets. Along the way, you'll be dazzled by elaborate Victorian houses, a colorful mix of cafés and shops, and lovely hidden gardens.

Astounding views are found at the highest vantage points, but especially from Telegraph Hill, the fashionable Nob Hill neighborhood, and Russian Hill. There are also fabulous vistas at some of San Francisco's best parks.

Coit Tower in San Francisco
Coit Tower in San Francisco

To experience the best of San Francisco, challenge yourself to a self-guided walking tour, or at least part of one. Be sure to visit North Beach for Italian restaurants and cafés; Union Square for a shopping spree; and Chinatown for authentic atmosphere and cuisine.

Other neighborhoods are a bit further away from the center of town but are worth going the extra distance: The Mission District is known for trendy restaurants on the Valencia Corridor. The Marina is a happening area for shopping and dining and has views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marina Green.

If you're vacationing in San Francisco with young children, check out the top things to do with kids. You will love that the kid-friendly attractions like the Aquarium of the Bay are found right next to the city's top attractions such as Fishermen's Wharf and Pier 39.

San Francisco is famous for its restaurant scene. The city boasts more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the United States. You can choose from Chinese, Thai, Italian, Moroccan, Indian, and other ethnic restaurants; small diners; casual farm-to-table restaurants; Michelin-starred dining establishments; and vegetarian restaurants.

2. Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles at sunset
Downtown Los Angeles at sunset

Los Angeles is second only to New York City in terms of population. Over three million people live in the city of Los Angeles. However, the sprawling Los Angeles metropolitan area is home to more than 10 million inhabitants. The downtown is a typical urban jungle of skyscrapers and busy streets, except for palm trees and bright sunshine reminding you that you're in SoCal.

The city's western border features wide swaths of sandy beaches, which are a top draw for tourists and add to the quality of life for local residents. Los Angeles is arguably the best city in the country for beaches, which extend for about five miles along the Pacific coastline.

Venice Beach is famous for its fun-loving and artsy vibes, while Santa Monica offers a classic Southern California beach scene complete with an amusement park, oceanfront restaurants, and chic boutiques.

Other must-see sites in Los Angeles include Hollywood, with its star-studded Walk of Fame and Rodeo Drive designer boutiques; the Universal Studios Theme Park; Griffith Park; and Disneyland (in Anaheim) if you are visiting with kids.

3. San Diego

San Diego skyline
San Diego skyline

Balmy weather and beautiful beaches provide the perfect setting for San Diego's active outdoorsy lifestyle. This sunny SoCal city is known for its surfing culture and laid-back vibes, but it also has a quaint historic downtown and top-notch cultural attractions.

San Diego is California's oldest city, with the first mission, founded in 1769. After being destroyed in a fire, the Mission San Diego de Alcalá was rebuilt in 1777 and today is a National Historic Landmark with luxuriant gardens.

Between the San Diego Bay and Broadway, the Gaslamp Quarter National Historic District dates back to the Victorian era. This area brims with trendy shops, restaurants, and happening nightlife. Take a stroll through this district to soak up the ambiance, browse the boutiques, and stop to enjoy a gourmet meal or attend a theater performance.

If you're traveling with young kids, you will find plenty of things to do in San Diego. Ranking high on the list of children's attractions are the San Diego Zoo, the 1,400-acre Balboa Park, and the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Outdoor activities are another main draw of San Diego. Some of the top outdoor adventures include kayaking in sea coves, cycling along the coast, and sailing in the San Diego Bay.

4. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara

This chic seaside town has it all: gorgeous waterfront scenery, fantastic hiking trails, an enchanting downtown, and a gourmet dining scene focused on farm-to-table cuisine.

The city boasts 25 expansive sandy beaches that extend along the Pacific Ocean for over 100 miles. With the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop, Santa Barbara's coastline has justly been called "the American Riviera." Lined by swaying palm trees, glamorous oceanfront restaurants, and superb amenities, Santa Barbara's best beaches radiate glamour and natural splendor.

Santa Barbara is more of a beach resort town than a big city, but it gets a mention on this list because of its extensive cultural attractions and the charm of its downtown area. If you're planning a beach vacation or a relaxing getaway, Santa Barbara is the perfect place to visit.

Other highlights of Santa Barbara include the harbor which has waterfront restaurants and wonderful sea views, the Old Mission Santa Barbara known as the "Queen of the Missions," and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a jewel of Spanish Revival architecture.

5. Oakland

Lake Merritt, Oakland
Lake Merritt, Oakland

The cityscape of Oakland sprouts up alongside an urban waterfront and working port. From many spots in San Francisco across the bay, views of Oakland's downtown appear beyond the graceful Bay Bridge (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places).

Oakland is a suburb of San Francisco and is just 12 miles away (about a 20-minute drive across the Bay Bridge), but it's also a city in its own right. Recently Oakland has become an up-and-coming place to live, with a diverse population, multicultural ambiance, and trendy restaurants that appeal to hipsters and young professionals.

In the past decade, the high cost of living in San Francisco has forced many people to relocate to Oakland. Now the city is becoming just as happening as San Francisco.

Be sure to check out Lake Merritt, Jack London Square, and the other top attractions in Oakland, such as the many ethnic eateries. The choice of cuisine includes everything from Thai and Burmese to Ethiopian and Indian food. The local African-American community has a rich cultural heritage and boasts several excellent soul food restaurants.

Summer festivals, street fairs, and year-round cultural events draw many visitors to Oakland. Not to be missed is the Oakland Art Murmur, which features musical entertainment, gourmet street food, and art gallery receptions. Popular summertime festivals include Art + Soul Oakland, the Temescal Street Fair, and the Eat Real Festival at Jack London Square.

6. Long Beach

Long Beach, California
Long Beach, California

Long Beach is a real working city that embraces the fun-loving SoCal lifestyle. This lively port town (one of the busiest in the world) is only 30 miles south of Los Angeles, and its population is often considered part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

The downtown Waterfront District brims with cultural attractions and restaurants with harbor views. Here you can visit the Aquarium of the Pacific to admire sea creatures and Rainbow Harbor to set off for a harbor dinner cruise, a whale-watching tour, or a charter boat fishing trip.

One of the top tourist attractions in Long Beach is The Queen Mary, the historic British ocean liner designed for transatlantic journeys, which is now retired and permanently moored in Long Beach. The Queen Mary has been converted into a maritime museum, an event venue for conferences and dinners, and a 3-star hotel decorated in nautical Art Deco style.

7. Santa Cruz

View over Santa Cruz
View over Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has the charm of a carefree beach town along with the energy and cultural attractions of a big city. If you visit during the summertime, you may not explore further than the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. However, there is much more to this small urban seaside community.

Surfers and sun-worshippers flock to Santa Cruz when the conditions (waves and sunshine) are right, but you don't need to love the beach culture to appreciate this city.

If the natural world fascinates you, then you will enjoy visiting the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center near the Santa Cruz Wharf and the 135-acre Arboretum & Botanic Garden on the U.C. Santa Cruz campus.

Set aside some time to stroll through the downtown area of Santa Cruz (on and around Pacific Avenue). For a casual meal, you can choose from a wide variety of restaurants and cafes. You'll also find shops that sell everything from surfboards to greeting cards, toys, and jewelry. Many of the boutiques are locally owned, which gives the city a special character.

8. Sacramento

California State Capitol Building in Sacramento
California State Capitol Building in Sacramento

California's state capital merits a detour when visiting Northern California. It's a great place to stop on the way from San Francisco (about 93 miles away) to Lake Tahoe, which is just over 100 miles farther north. Without traffic, it takes less than two hours to get from Sacramento to Tahoe City.

Sacramento has a quaint historic area, Old Sacramento, that dates back to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and is classified as a National Historic Landmark (some buildings are also part of the Old Sacramento State Historic Park). Stroll through this lively area to browse the shops, visit the museums, and dine at one of the many restaurants.

Other things to do in Sacramento include touring the California State Railroad Museum, which displays a collection of restored steam locomotives that date from 1862 to 1944. It has eight full-size steam locomotives built before 1880 (out of less than 50 still in existence in the U.S.). Kids and adults alike love riding the museum's historic railroad cars.

Not to be missed while visiting Sacramento is the State Capitol building, which houses the Capitol Museum. Visit the Capitol Museum by taking a guided tour. Surrounding the Capitol building are luxuriant Victorian-era manicured grounds featuring tall leafy trees, a rose garden, camellias, shaded walking paths, a pond, and several memorial monuments.

9. San Luis Obispo

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo, California
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo, California

Pleasant weather and friendly small-town vibes make San Luis Obispo one of the state's most appealing cities. You can expect sunshine and bright blue skies much of the year, along with a warm welcome from locals.

Nestled along California's Central Coast, San Luis Obispo is known as the "Happiest City in America," and it's easy to understand why residents are so content. The city has a walkable downtown with quiet tree-lined streets and plenty of locally owned eateries and shops. For a relaxing experience, dine al fresco at one of the riverfront restaurants on Higuera Street.

Other things to see and do in San Luis Obispo include an old mission (founded in 1772) with an exquisitely decorated church, flower-filled grounds, and a museum; a well-attended weekly farmers market that presents live music; and an alleyway plastered with colorful bubblegum.

Not far from the city are beautiful beaches with sandy shores lapped up by the deep blue Pacific waters. Some of the best day trips from San Luis Obispo, such as Avila Beach and Pismo Beach, are less than a 30-minute drive away from the city.

10. Berkeley

View of Berkeley and Sather Tower on the U.C. Berkeley campus
View of Berkeley and Sather Tower on the U.C. Berkeley campus

Berkeley is a university town at its core, with a history of activism and a progressive intellectual bent. This vibrant city across the bay from San Francisco (one of the top day trips from the city) is home to the prestigious U.C. Berkeley.

The U.C. Berkeley campus features impressive Neoclassical architecture set in lush redwood groves. You must visit Sproul Plaza, a hub for the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s; Sather Tower for breathtaking panoramic bay views; and College Avenue, where today's students hang out at casual restaurants and busy cafés.

You will find plenty of things to do off-campus at Berkeley's outdoor spaces, such as the 34-acre University of California Botanical Garden; the picturesque Berkeley Marina, a wonderful spot for bird-watching and taking walks; and Tilden Park, which has an old-fashioned steam train and antique Herschell-Spillman Merry-Go-Round.

In an amazing hillside setting overlooking the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Berkeley Rose Garden displays 250 different varieties of blooms.

Berkeley is also a foodie destination, with exceptional restaurants and gourmet markets. California's farm-to-table cuisine movement began here at Chez Panisse, the French-inspired bistro that Alice Waters opened in 1971. The area around Chez Panisse is known as the Gourmet Ghetto, and this neighborhood brims with enticing eateries.

11. Monterey

Old Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, CA
Old Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, CA

This historic port town on the Central Coast delights you with its array of attractions and things to do, including a fabulous aquarium and an atmospheric waterfront area.

Monterey nestles along a pristine bay, which is designated as a marine protected area, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The bay provides habitat for an abundance of wildlife, including sea otters and blue whales.

Families with young children flock to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but anyone will appreciate the amazing marine life on display: tropical fish, an octopus that changes colors in its surroundings, African penguins, jellies, sharks, shore birds, and adorable frolicking sea otters.

The city's waterfront district is famous for Cannery Row, the old fish-packing facilities that were described in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row. Today the area is packed with touristy shops and restaurants.

A short walk from Cannery Row is Fisherman's Wharf, where you can enjoy the views at waterfront seafood restaurants or hop on a boat trip. Whale-watching tours and glass-bottom boat tours depart from Fisherman's Wharf.

If you're based in the Bay Area, you could visit Monterey as a weekend getaway. This popular seaside destination is just a two-hour drive south of San Francisco.

12. Palm Springs

Downtown Palm Springs
Downtown Palm Springs

An oasis of sunshine and stylish living in the Sonoran Desert, Palm Springs has been a fashionable wintertime resort destination since the 1920s. You will still find reasons to visit: poolside relaxation, shopping, art museums, great hiking, or a few rounds of golf.

Palm Springs has a bustling downtown with many designer clothing boutiques, home decor shops, and trendy restaurants. The dining options range from authentic Mexican cooking to the finest French cuisine.

Despite the small-town feel and scale, Palm Springs offers the cultural attractions of a large city. The Palm Springs Art Museum displays an exceptional art collection (focused on modern and contemporary works) and features two sculpture gardens.

The renowned Modernism Week festival takes place in February. Palm Springs also hosts a weekly street fair called Village Fest on Thursday evenings.

13. Eureka

Victorian mansion in Eureka, CA
Victorian mansion in Eureka, CA

Eureka stands alongside the broad Humboldt Bay in California's Humboldt County near Oregon, a remote region blanketed with redwood groves. The wild landscape of forests extends to the Pacific coastline, which alternates between dramatic ocean bluffs and secluded sandy beaches.

Amidst this rural landscape, Eureka gives a taste of the big city, albeit on a small scale. Eureka is known for its performing arts, street art, cultural attractions, and bohemian vibes.

The Old Town of Eureka, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, ranks high among the city's top attractions. This area features beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings. The ornate facades conceal an eclectic mix of shops, cafés, restaurants, antique stores, and art galleries. You will enjoy taking a stroll to browse the shops and stop for a good meal.

Dating back to the 1850s, Eureka was formerly an important seaport and logging town. Ornately adorned Victorian mansions grace several streets of Eureka's historic district (Old Town) and reveal the wealth of lumber magnates and other prominent citizens over a century ago.

Be sure to see the Carson House, the Pink Lady Mansion, Abigail's Elegant Victorian Mansion (bed and breakfast hotel), and the Carter House Inns (a 3-star hotel). The Eureka Heritage Society provides maps that indicate the landmarks, designed for self-guided walking tours.

From the Old Town, it's a short walk to the Waterfront, which has a working wharf, marina, and a seaside boardwalk.

14. Healdsburg

Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg
Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg

If you're a foodie, then you must add Healdsburg to your list of places to visit. This fashionable small city in Sonoma County has a noteworthy restaurant scene.

For a splurge, sample haute cuisine at the Michelin three-starred restaurant SingleThread. You can also enjoy gourmet meals at the farm-to-table restaurant Valette or at PizZando, which specializes in authentic Neopolitan pizzas and classic Italian dishes.

Healdsburg is an easy weekend getaway destination from San Francisco. You can stay at upscale bed and breakfast hotels like the Belle de Jour Inn and the Camellia Inn, as well as luxury accommodations like the four-star Hotel Healdsburg and the Hotel Les Mars, a Relais & Châteaux property with lavishly decorated guest rooms and a casual farm-to-table restaurant.

15. Palo Alto

Stanford University, Palo Alto
Stanford University, Palo Alto

This cutting-edge city is home to one of the country's most prestigious universities and a hub for the computing industry. Movers and shakers in the high-tech world congregate here to attend conferences and to work at innovative companies.

Palo Alto nurtures entrepreneurs with start-up incubators, in addition to being an important location for venture capital and Fortune 500 companies. Anybody who's anyone in the technology sector most likely spends some time in this sunny Northern California city.

As a visitor, you will find interesting cultural attractions at Stanford University. The 8,000-acre campus features stately Spanish Revival buildings set on beautifully landscaped, leafy grounds. Highlights are the Stanford Memorial Church and the Cantor Arts Center museum, as well as the program of live performances held at Bing Concert Hall.

Be sure to visit downtown Palo Alto's University Avenue, a busy tree-lined street that caters to tourists, students, and professionals with an extensive choice of cafés, restaurants, and shops.

16. Los Gatos

Vasona Park in Los Gatos, California
Vasona Park in Los Gatos, California

When traveling from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, a good stopping point along the way is Los Gatos. The charming historic downtown delights you with its tree-shaded streets and views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Designed for pedestrians, the center of town has enough fancy shops, cafés, bakeries, and restaurants to keep you busy for a while.

It's fun to stroll about town and browse the boutiques. Many shops are independently owned and offer a unique selection of products, from stylish clothes and home decor to toys and books.

The area around Los Gatos is full of wonderful hiking trails. Some of the best places to hike include Los Gatos Creek Trail, the Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, and Castle Rock State Park.

Map of Cities in California