17 Best Places to Visit in California

Written by Lisa Alexander
Updated Apr 13, 2023
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Author Lisa Alexander is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California and returns regularly.

California beckons you to visit with its sunshine, stunning landscapes, and urban sophistication. A place of dreams, this alluring state has it all: a spectacular coastline, snowcapped mountains, expansive deserts, idyllic farmlands, and ancient redwood groves, along with vibrant multicultural cities.

You should put San Francisco at the top of your travel itinerary for sightseeing, shopping, museum hopping, and gourmet dining. Next, head to Los Angeles to experience the quintessential Southern California lifestyle and to soak up the Hollywood glamour. For balmy weather and golden-sand beaches, San Diego and Santa Barbara are the places to go.

Spectacular nature sites await you in California. At Yosemite National Park, you will marvel over the majestic granite cliffs draped with voluminous waterfalls. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can go hiking and skiing in an exhilarating alpine environment. Closer to the Pacific Ocean, the world's tallest trees at Redwood National and State Parks will leave you awestruck.

Plan your travels to "The Golden State" with our list of the best places to visit in California.

1. The San Francisco Bay Area

Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline
Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline

When the afternoon sun shines on the hillsides or the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean over the Golden Gate Bridge, this breathtaking city has a mystical beauty. Almost every neighborhood of San Francisco features iconic postcard scenes, from the curves of Lombard Street to the rows of fanciful Victorian houses and the marvelous bay views.

San Francisco packs an incredible number of tourist attractions into just seven by seven square miles. It's a small, walkable city as long as you don't mind hiking up steep streets or hopping on a cable car.

Go on a self-guided walking tour through the city's most atmospheric neighborhoods, which are packed with famous tourist sights.

Whichever way you get around San Francisco, it's fun to explore Chinatown, a bustling area of shops and authentic Chinese restaurants; North Beach (Little Italy); and Fisherman's Wharf, a popular waterfront tourist destination.

Today, San Francisco ranks high on the list of top cities in California. This sophisticated metropolis offers world-class opera and ballet, a wide range of theater performances, and gourmet dining. The city has an impressive assortment of restaurants that serve local specialties and locally sourced farm-to-table meals, as well as global cuisine and trendsetting menus.

The hip and edgy Mission district is the place to try up-and-coming restaurants or sample ethnic cuisine, relax in a coffee shop, and browse unique shops. The stylish Hayes Valley neighborhood is renowned for its restaurants, as well as unique retail boutiques.

Coit Tower in San Francisco
Coit Tower in San Francisco

Across the San Francisco Bay (just a 30-minute Bart train ride away) are the university town of Berkeley, with its high-caliber cultural attractions and acclaimed gourmet restaurants, and the multicultural city of Oakland, which boasts interesting museums, historic theaters, lively neighborhood events, and summer festivals.

Try a guided walking tour of Berkeley's foodie highlights or delve into the authentic cuisine of Oakland at popular local restaurants.

Nature lovers can drive 30 miles south of San Francisco (via the scenic Highway One) to Half Moon Bay. Tucked away behind rolling hills, this oceanfront town fronts a stretch of wild, rugged Pacific coastline. It's a great place for walking along the beach, hiking, golfing, fishing, and bird-watching, or enjoying a seafood meal by the harbor.

About 17 miles farther south is Pescadero, a rural community with many small farms; a bird sanctuary at the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve; and a goat dairy (Harley Farms), which offers guided tours of the farm. Harley Farms has picnic tables and a boutique that sells goat cheese and other products made on the farm.

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2. Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Pasadena

Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica Beach

Los Angeles epitomizes the seductive image of sunny Southern California with its wide, palm-fringed boulevards; exclusive designer boutiques; trendy restaurants; and sun-drenched sandy beaches. Despite being a sprawling urban metropolis, the city has pleasant neighborhoods, spacious parks, and refreshing beachfront promenades.

The city established its raison d'être during the film industry boom of the 1920s and 30s and is still synonymous with Tinseltown glitz and glamour. Among the top tourist attractions of Los Angeles is the famous neighborhood of Hollywood, which has many iconic sights, including the Walk of Fame lined with star plaques honoring prominent movie directors, actors, and musicians.

Those intrigued by the idea of spotting Hollywood stars should head to their stomping grounds on Rodeo Drive, lined with haute couture boutiques; the exclusive Beverly Hills and Bel Air neighborhoods; and the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The upscale neighborhood of Franklin Village in Hollywood is also a good place for celebrity sightings.

Rodeo Drive
Rodeo Drive

Favorite L.A. beaches include the eclectic Venice Beach, a fun-loving scene of rollerbladers, cyclists, joggers, and street performers; and in the fashionable town of Santa Monica, the 3.5-mile Santa Monica State Beach (15 miles from Los Angeles, accessible by the Expo Metro line), which has an iconic pier and a beachfront path for walking and cycling.

Besides movie stars, beaches, fine dining, and shopping, Los Angeles is also known for its art scene and cultural offerings. The city boasts world-class museums and performance venues such as the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall (jazz and classical music performances) at The Music Center, and the Hollywood Bowl (pop music concerts, jazz, and classical music/orchestra performances).

Near the leafy town of Pasadena with its pleasant tree-lined streets (11 miles from Los Angeles) is The Huntington's 130-acre Botanical Gardens, filled with 16 different themed gardens, including a Desert Garden, an authentic Japanese Garden, and a Shakespeare Garden featuring plants cultivated in Renaissance England.

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3. San Diego: Sunshine, Beaches, and Spanish Architecture

View of downtown San Diego from Coronado Island
View of downtown San Diego from Coronado Island

Dip your toes in the sand and experience the fun-loving California lifestyle when you visit sunny San Diego. Appreciated for its year-round balmy climate, gorgeous scenery, beautiful sandy beaches, and outdoor adventures, this SoCal city seems to have it all.

Some of the key attractions in San Diego proper are Balboa Park, an expansive green space with ravishing gardens and several museums; the historic Gaslamp Quarter, which is full of boutiques, art galleries, and good restaurants; and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where museums, retail shops, and restaurants occupy the old adobe buildings.

If you are traveling with little ones, you'll love the city's kid-friendly attractions, as well as the family-friendly resorts. The top things to do in San Diego with kids include visiting San Diego Zoo; watching the dolphin and whale shows at SeaWorld; exploring the playgrounds at Balboa Park; admiring colorful sea life at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla; and spending time at The New Children's Museum.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

San Diego has the original Spanish mission (founded in 1769), the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá which was the birthplace of Christianity in California. The adobe building complex features a distinctive campanario (bell wall), a simple Mission Church (a National Historic Landmark), and a courtyard garden filled with tropical flowers and bougainvillea.

Mass is celebrated at the Mission Church twice daily Monday through Friday, once daily on Saturdays, and several times on Sundays. You may visit the Mission for an admission fee. Guided tours are available.

Several nearby destinations are good day trips from San Diego. For sunbathing and shopping, La Jolla (14 miles north of San Diego's downtown) is prized for its sandy beaches, as well as its quaint downtown full of gourmet restaurants, art museums, performing arts venues, and antiques shops.

Another worthwhile excursion from San Diego is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, in a tranquil setting 66 miles north. For the taste of a different culture, travelers can visit Tijuana in Mexico, just 20 miles south of San Diego. For a stress-free visit, take an organized tour from San Diego to Tijuana.

Slightly farther away (within two hours of San Diego) are many wonderful weekend getaway destinations such as the dreamy Catalina Island and the mountain resort of Idyllwild.

4. Yosemite National Park: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Yosemite National Park: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Yosemite National Park: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Nothing prepares you for the jaw-dropping natural splendor of Yosemite Valley. This striking landscape features sheer granite cliffs and domes carved by glaciers millions of years ago. When John Muir discovered Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, he described it as the "grandest of all special temples of Nature" and helped to establish the area as a protected national park.

A vast High Sierra wilderness of 1,200 square miles, Yosemite National Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and boasts 800 miles of hiking trails. Visiting Yosemite ranks among the top things to do in California. Keep in mind that you may need reservations to enter Yosemite National Park.

Every area of the park is dazzling, from its expansive meadows, free-flowing waterfalls, and crystal-clear streams to the giant sequoia tree groves. The park has incredible biological diversity, with more than 400 different animal species, including 262 species of birds.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

The most emblematic sights of Yosemite are Yosemite Falls, an amazing 2,425-foot waterfall, and Half Dome, the sheer-faced granite mountain. The trail to the top of Yosemite Falls and the all-day trek up to Half Dome are among the most challenging hikes in Yosemite; you must be in excellent physical fitness for both hikes and a permit is required to hike Half Dome.

If you're an avid hiker, you will enjoy the wide array of hikes at Yosemite National Park. There's even a portion of the legendary Pacific Crest Trail, found alongside the gushing Tuolumne River.

Easier trails include the hike to Vernal Falls footbridge and the loop around Mirror Lake, a pleasant spot sheltered by granite walls.

Yosemite National Park has two historic lodges (The Ahwahnee and the Wawona Hotel) and the modern Yosemite Valley Lodge. Visitors can also choose from hotels located in the nearby towns outside of the park such as Oakhurst, Groveland, and El Portal.

For those who prefer camping, there are rustic cabins and campgrounds throughout the park. It's recommended to make reservations for all types of overnight accommodations, including cabins and campsites, well in advance.

Read More: Top Attractions & Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

5. Lake Tahoe: Hiking, Mountain Biking, and Skiing

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe

Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, Lake Tahoe is a place of sublime beauty and serenity. The lake has brilliant turquoise waters with a translucent quality, and the scenery is so picturesque that it has a meditative effect.

The top things to do at Lake Tahoe include hiking, alpine skiing, and scenic boat cruises. To admire the alpine landscape, you can choose from many wonderful hiking trails in the South Lake Tahoe area. Some of the best campgrounds are also found in South Lake Tahoe.

For enchanting lakeside scenery, head to Emerald Bay State Park, the peaceful forests and beaches of D. L. Bliss State Park, and the densely-wooded Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. These parks also provide well-groomed nature trails and scenic spots for picnicking.

Kings Beach on the sunny North Shore of Lake Tahoe is a favorite place for swimming and boating, including kayaking and paddleboarding. Kings Beach is also a bustling town with many restaurants, casual eateries, shops, and street vendors.

Winter sports enthusiasts flock to Lake Tahoe from December until April (depending on seasonal snowfall) for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. The Palisades Tahoe ski area, the awe-inspiring Heavenly Ski Resort, and family-friendly Northstar California are world-class destinations for downhill skiing. Several other Lake Tahoe ski resorts also have top-notch facilities and superb alpine terrain.

Read More: Best Beaches on Lake Tahoe

6. Seaside Towns and Nature Sites of Marin County


Just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County is one of the most popular day trips from San Francisco. However, travelers should note that a car is required to get around in Marin, except for Sausalito, which is accessible by ferry from San Francisco.

The picture-perfect waterfront town of Sausalito has a quaint historic downtown, beautiful marinas, and sensational views of San Francisco. Sausalito is very touristy but is definitely worth visiting because of the unique setting.

For those sightseeing by car, it's a short drive from Sausalito to gorgeous nature sites: Tennessee Valley, appreciated for its springtime wildflowers and gentle walking trail to the beach, and Muir Woods National Monument, a dense forest of giant 1,000-year-old coastal redwood trees.

Because Muir Woods is such a popular destination, many tour companies offer organized day trips from San Francisco. For all other visitors, reservations are required for the paid parking at Muir Woods National Monument, as well as for the shuttle service from Sausalito (ideal for those traveling without a car).

A spectacularly scenic but difficult winding coastal drive along Highway One (about 30 to 45 minutes from Muir Beach) leads to Stinson Beach, appreciated for its 3.5-mile-long sandy shoreline and excellent facilities (picnic area, snack bar, public restrooms). The town owes its Bohemian ambience and touch of flower-child flair to the locally owned shops and organic restaurants.

Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore
Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore

To experience the wild, natural beauty of Marin County's coastline, drive six miles north of Stinson Beach to the Point Reyes National Seashore on Tomales Bay. This splendid coastal environment includes peaceful hidden coves, sandy beaches, nature trails with sweeping ocean views, and protected estuaries that are ideal for kayaking.

A paradise for bird-watchers, Point Reyes is home to a remarkable variety of avian species, including the snowy plover, northern spotted owl, Peregrine falcon, and brown pelican.

Continuing farther north is Bodega Bay, a fishing village and laid-back resort area (27 miles north of Point Reyes Station in the Point Reyes National Seashore) where Marin County borders Sonoma County. If you're outdoorsy and a beach lover, you will appreciate the area's invigorating natural environment.

Head to Bodega Bay for nature walks, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and surfing. Despite being a quiet coastal community, Bodega Bay has an extensive choice of hotels, lodges, and vacation rental options.

Read More: Top-Rated Weekend Getaways in the Bay Area, CA

7. Gold Country in the Sierra Nevada Foothills

"Cottage" of Empire Mine owner in Grass Valley
"Cottage" of Empire Mine owner in Grass Valley

In 1848, when John Sutter and James Marshal were building a sawmill at Coloma along the American River, they discovered small nuggets of gold on the site. This pivotal moment led to the "Gold Rush" of 1849, changing the course of California's history. Thousands of gold-seekers flocked to this location in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hoping to find their fortunes.

You can see where gold was discovered at the old sawmill in Coloma (today it's part of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park). Try panning for gold in the American River just as the gold miners did in 1849. The park offers gold panning lessons. After touring the site, explore the park's hiking trails or have a picnic under the oak trees.

About 40 miles north of Coloma are the atmospheric Gold Rush towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City. At Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, you may tour the old mining area and the property's Victorian "cottage."

Be sure to visit the charming downtown of Grass Valley. This historic town has many mid-19th-century buildings that are filled with art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.

Don't miss Nevada City, known for its historic inns and restaurants. Nevada City also hosts cultural events such as First Friday Artwalks, summertime music concerts, and several film festivals throughout the year.

Beautiful nature sites are found throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills. Nestled in a canyon, the South Yuba River State Park is a good place for bird-watching, swimming, and hiking.

For summertime recreation, the American River attracts many visitors to its riverfront parks. Dave Moore Nature Area (two miles from Coloma) has hiking trails and picnic areas. In the Coloma-Lotus Valley, the South Fork of the American River is the place to go for white-water rafting experiences.

The Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park in Pilot Hill (four miles from Coloma) has 12 miles of hiking/biking trails plus fishing areas.

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8. Rural Sonoma County, Napa Valley, and Calistoga

Hiking trail in Sonoma County
Hiking trail in Sonoma County

Tucked away along a rugged stretch of ocean bluffs and craggy headlands, the Sonoma Coast State Park offers pristine scenery, solitude, and secluded sandy beaches.

Sonoma County is one of the best places to visit in Northern California for scenic hikes in the rolling hills and along the coast.

To explore the picturesque sun-drenched countryside of Sonoma County, head to Trione-Annadel State Park where you can go hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding along the park's network of trails. Trione-Annadel State Park is also a great place for spotting springtime wildflowers and fishing at the park's Lake Ilsanjo.

The Foothill Regional Park offers seven miles of trails through a serene landscape of oak woodlands, flowering meadows, and gently rolling hillsides, plus three ponds for fishing. There are also picnic tables located in various areas of the park.

Besides stunning nature sites, Sonoma County and neighboring Napa Valley boast plenty of cultural attractions.

A favorite tourist destination, the town of Sonoma features a central plaza and an old Spanish Mission. The central square of Sonoma is a great place to take leisurely strolls, browse the boutiques, and indulge in a gourmet meal. Sonoma is known for its restaurant scene. You can also enjoy picnics on the tree-shaded lawn of the central square.

The trend-setting Napa Valley is a mecca for luxury resorts, boutique hotels, and gourmet restaurants. Napa Valley's most renowned restaurant (and the most difficult place to reserve a table) is The French Laundry in Yountville (10 miles from Napa), awarded three Michelin stars.

Nestled in the foothills of Mount Saint Helena and surrounded by vineyards, Calistoga (30 miles from Napa) has a charming downtown and spas with mineral hot springs.

The Calistoga Spa Hot Springs hotel & spa treats guests to a pampering experience at its geothermal hot springs and recently updated resort property. The Calistoga Spa Hot Springs resort offers the famous Calistoga mud baths as well as yoga classes and massage treatments.

Read More: Top-Rated Hot Springs in California

9. Mendocino Coastline

Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino
Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino

For spectacular scenery, few places compare to Mendocino's dramatic coastline, where the deep blue waters of the Pacific crash up against sheer cliffs and lap into quiet, sheltered coves. Visitors are rejuvenated by the fresh air and inspired by the panoramic ocean views.

Typical of Northern California, the weather is often cool and foggy, better suited to hiking than sunbathing. Nature lovers enjoy walks along the ocean bluffs and secluded beaches, as well as through shady redwood groves at Mendocino County's many state parks.

Set on an ocean bluff overlooking Mendocino Bay, the historic village of Mendocino is a destination in itself. This well-preserved Victorian-era logging town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You will be delighted by the many tourist attractions, art galleries, locally owned boutiques, bed and breakfasts, and a wide selection of restaurants in Mendocino.

The town of Mendocino also hosts a wide variety of festivals throughout the year, from a Whale Festival in March to organic farming workshops and an Art in the Gardens event in August.

Read More: Top-Rated Romantic Getaways in California

10. Big Sur and Hearst Castle

Blooms along the Big Sur coast
Blooms along the Big Sur coast

Incomparably beautiful, Big Sur is a 90-mile stretch of mountainous coastline in central California. The two-lane Highway One route through Big Sur winds along daunting hairpin turns overlooking the ocean. One of the best West Coast road trips, the route starts just south of Carmel and ends at San Simeon, and the entire stretch feels a world apart because of its remoteness.

Guaranteed to take your breath away, the dramatic landscape of Big Sur features rugged ocean bluffs, shady redwood forests, and precipitous cliffs that drop off into the Pacific's crashing waves. Hiking is a good way to soak up the scenery. Many trails afford sensational vistas. There are also viewpoints at luxury hotels and restaurants throughout Big Sur.

At the southernmost point of Big Sur in San Simeon is Hearst Castle, which ranks high on the list of tourist attractions in California. Built between 1919 and 1922 for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the castle is an architectural masterpiece perched on a hilltop high above the Pacific Ocean.

Hearst called this magical place "La Cuesta Encantada" ("The Enchanted Hill"). In fact, the 38-bedroom (115-room) castle resembles a 16th-century Spanish cathedral. The enormous estate, including 127 acres of manicured gardens, pools, and walkways, has been converted to a State Historical Monument that is open year-round to the public for guided tours (available daily). The site has a Visitor Center with a cafeteria and gift shop.

Read More: Top-Rated Campgrounds near Big Sur & Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, CA

11. Santa Barbara: Sandy Beaches and a Charming Downtown

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse and red tile roofs of the city
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse and red tile roofs of the city

Santa Barbara is a dreamy seaside city in Southern California, a place for sunbathing, relaxation, and pampering. Often called "The American Riviera," this upscale resort destination is a beach lover's paradise with balmy weather, a lovely waterfront area, an expansive coastline of golden-sand shoreline, and amazing sunsets.

Traditional Spanish-style buildings, tile-adorned walkways, and palm-fringed streets give the downtown of Santa Barbara its special charm. You could spend hours exploring the downtown's art galleries, open-air markets, and locally owned retail boutiques, only to stop for a snack at a sidewalk café or a delicious meal at one of the top-notch restaurants.

Surrounded by luxuriant gardens, with the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop, Old Mission Santa Barbara is known as the "Queen of the Missions" because of its graceful adobe architecture and exquisite natural setting. The Mission is open to the public daily (from 9:30am until 4pm) for self-guided tours of the Mission Church, Sacred Garden, and museum. The site also has a gift shop.

Old Mission Santa Barbara has been home to a community of Franciscan friars since 1786. The mission continues to serve as a space for Franciscan ministries and also has an active parish church. Mass is celebrated throughout the week at the Mission Church; services are held Monday through Friday at 8am, on Saturdays at 4pm, and on Sundays at 7:30am, 9am, and 11am.

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12. Palm Springs

Palm Springs
Palm Springs

With the towering San Jacinto Mountains and swaying palm trees as a backdrop, this desert oasis is synonymous with stylish poolside vacationing. In fact, Palm Springs has been a popular winter resort destination for Hollywood celebrities since the 1920s and continues to attract all kinds of tourists today.

The serene scenery and warm weather give the place a relaxing holiday ambience, while golf courses, gourmet restaurants, and interesting museums give visitors plenty to do. Just outside of Palm Springs are fabulous hiking trails at Mount San Jacinto and Indian Canyons.

Palm Springs hosts many cultural events throughout the year including film festivals and live music concerts. One of the most popular events is Modernism Week, which celebrates mid-century modern architecture and design, which is well represented in buildings throughout Palm Springs.

The famous Coachella music festival takes place just 23 miles from Palm Springs in April (purchase tickets well ahead of time before they sell out).

Less than an hour away is Joshua Tree National Park. Home to Joshua trees and dramatic rock formations, this is a popular area for sightseeing, hiking, camping, and climbing.

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13. Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel

Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz, California

This little pocket of Northern California coastline rivals Southern California in its seaside charm and vacation vibes. For those seeking a classic California beach town complete with a boardwalk amusement park and surfing scene, sunny Santa Cruz is the place to go. Surprisingly, it's only about a 90-minute drive south of foggy and frigid San Francisco.

The hillsides above the Santa Cruz coastline are covered with lush redwood forests, which can be explored on a train ride. With its fleet of old-fashioned steam locomotives, the Roaring Camp Railroads company operates scenic train rides through the redwood groves of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The company also runs trains from Roaring Camp in the mountains down to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

A gritty 19th-century seaport and fish-packing town, Monterey (about 40 miles south of Santa Cruz) provided inspiration for the vibrant stories in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row novel. Today Monterey's beautifully restored waterfront is home to the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Old Fisherman's Wharf, a historic pier lined with restaurants and gift shops.

For a romantic getaway, Carmel allows you to experience the enchantment of an adorable seaside village. This postcard-perfect town features fairy-tale cottages, hidden passageways, and enticing one-of-a-kind boutiques. Carmel has all the draws of a premier seaside resort destination: fine-dining restaurants, luxurious hotels, and a picturesque sandy beach.

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14. San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast

Avila Beach on the Central Coast
Avila Beach on the Central Coast

Known as the "Happiest City in America," San Luis Obispo welcomes you with its friendly atmosphere and interesting tourist attractions. Tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains just 10 miles from the beach, this fun-loving college town boasts year-round sunshine, a historic Spanish mission, and a weekly farmers' market with live entertainment

Two popular beaches on the Central Coast are within a 30-minute drive from San Luis Obispo: the surfer's favorite Pismo Beach and the more secluded resort-like Avila Beach which is a top destination for sunbathing, paddle-boarding, kayaking, and fishing.

Read More: Top-Rated Day Trips from San Luis Obispo, CA

15. Anaheim

Ferris wheel in Anaheim
Ferris wheel in Anaheim

The Disneyland Resort amusement park is the main tourist draw of Anaheim. However, this sunny Southern California city (about 30 miles from Los Angeles) offers plenty of other attractions.

If you're traveling with kids, be sure to visit the Knott's Berry Farm theme park (located six miles from Anaheim) and the playground at Yorba Regional Park, a landscaped 140-acre green space with picnic areas and hiking/biking paths.

Anaheim has several noteworthy destinations for dining, including the Anaheim GardenWalk near Disneyland, the Food Hall at the Anaheim Packing House, and the palm tree-lined Center Street Promenade.

For fresh air and inspiring scenery, head to the 58-acre Oak Canyon Nature Center in eastern Anaheim has four miles of scenic hiking trails nestled in coastal canyons, oak woodlands, and scrub-covered rolling hills.

16. The Redwood Forests of Humboldt County

The redwood forests of Humboldt County
The redwood forests of Humboldt County

Humboldt County is an escape to the great outdoors, a remote area of redwood groves, secluded beaches, and rushing rivers. The combination of fragrant forests and salty ocean breezes give the air an invigorating quality.

While the wide-open spaces and towering trees may make you feel small, the incredible scenery instills a respect for nature. This unspoiled environment provides an inspiring backdrop for hiking, hunting, fishing, and outdoor adventures.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as an International Biosphere Reserve, the Redwood National and State Parks (which comprise four separate parks: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park) contain the world's oldest and tallest redwood trees, some reaching over 375 feet in height.

Many of the best hikes in the Redwood National and State Parks are found at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. This lush old-growth redwoods park features a scenic 10-mile drive, 75 miles of trails for hiking, picnic areas, plus a pristine beach.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is most famous for Fern Canyon. This fern-covered canyon traversed by a fresh-water creek was the filming location for some scenes in The Lost World: Jurassic Park movie.

A little over an hour south of Redwood National and State Parks is Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California's biggest redwood state park (covering 53,000 acres), which includes the world's largest old-growth redwood forest (17,000 acres).

Tourists under a giant redwood in Redwood National Park
Tourists under a giant redwood in Redwood National Park

Not to be missed is the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Be sure to drive through at least part of this 32-mile-long route through the forest to admire the lofty redwood trees and get a sense of the forest's enormity. The park also has 100 miles of hiking trails with plenty of variety for all fitness levels.

Amid the magnificent redwood forests along the Humboldt Bay is the historic seaport of Eureka, Humboldt County's main urban center. Among the top attractions of Eureka, the Historic Old Town boasts hundreds of ornate Victorian buildings. The most notable is the Carson Mansion built in the 1880s for lumber baron William Carson.

Several of the old Victorians have been converted into bed-and-breakfast hotels, such as the luxurious Carter House Inns. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the English Tudor-style Eureka Inn (now part of the Trademark Collection by Wyndham) was built in 1922 for nature-loving vacationers.

If you don't care much about high thread-count sheets and prefer to sleep under the redwood trees and stars, Humboldt County has camping sites in pristine locations.

Among the best campgrounds in the Redwood National and State Parks are Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, the Elk Prairie Campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and the Jedediah Smith Campgrounds at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Read More: Best National Parks in California

17. Mammoth Lakes: Hiking, Fishing, and Skiing

Mammoth Lakes
Mammoth Lakes

One of California's top off-the-beaten-path destinations, Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra Mountains is a mecca for outdoor adventures. The sunny weather and crisp mountain air invigorate the body and soul, while the incredible scenery provides an amazing setting for hiking and mountain biking.

Mammoth Lakes has more than 300 miles of hiking trails in diverse wilderness areas such as Devils Postpile National Monument and the backpacking routes along the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail. The landscape varies from peaceful valleys, meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and pine forests to high-mountain desert and granite crags, including a summit that soars to 11,053 feet.

With nearly a hundred lakes, as well as streams and creeks, Mammoth Lakes is an incredible place for fishing during the season, which runs from the end of April through early November. An exception is made for catch-and-release fishing, which is allowed year-round at the Upper Owens River and East Walker River.

In the winter, Mammoth Lakes is popular for cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, and snowboarding, as well as ice skating and sledding. The alpine ski terrain at the extensive Mammoth Mountain Ski Area covers over 3,500 acres with 175 trails. Because of the abundant snowfall at this high-alpine location, the downhill ski season extends as late as August.

Any time of year, Mammoth Lakes is ready to welcome visitors to its gourmet restaurants, rustic lodges, and upscale mountain resorts.

Map of Places to Visit in California

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