11 Best Places to Visit in California
California beckons visitors with sunshine, stunning landscapes, and urban sophistication. A place of dreams, this alluring state has it all - spectacular sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains, idyllic farmlands, and ancient redwood groves, along with interesting, multicultural cities. Tourists flock to picturesque San Francisco to be amazed by the steep, rolling hills, sandwiched in between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Los Angeles dazzles visitors with quintessential Southern California scenery and Hollywood glamour. San Diego and Santa Barbara have perfect balmy weather, golden sandy shores, and historic Spanish architecture.
Another top reason to visit California is the great outdoors. Yosemite National Park is a must-see nature site, where awe-inspiring granite cliffs are draped with dramatic waterfalls. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a breathtaking alpine backdrop for hiking, boating, and skiing. Further south, in the Sierra National Forest, is the more off-the-beaten-path destination of Mammoth Lakes, a pristine environment that boasts well-groomed trails and excellent fishing in hundreds of lakes and streams.
1 The San Francisco Bay Area
This famous city is known for its eclectic culture and surreal beauty. When the afternoon sun shines on the steep hillsides or the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city has a mystical quality. Visitors are immediately awed by the scenery and stunning views, from the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, to the hilltop mansions of Pacific Heights, and the picturesque row of "Painted Ladies" Victorian houses. While exploring the top sights, tourists discover the charm of the city's walkable (albeit steep) streets and the historic neighborhoods that are full of multicultural flair. Several must-see spots all within walking distance are North Beach (Little Italy), Chinatown, Russian Hill, and Fisherman's Wharf.
Today, San Francisco is California's most sophisticated city, a place to enjoy world-class opera, ballet, theater, and gourmet dining. The city has an impressive assortment of top-rated restaurants offering a wide range of global cuisine and trendsetting menus. The hip and edgy Mission district is known for its array of ethnic cuisine, atmospheric coffee shops, and up-and-coming restaurants. The stylish Hayes Valley neighborhood is dotted with upscale fine-dining restaurants as well as interesting boutiques.
For visitors with more time, adding on a few San Francisco day trips is a wonderful way to extend a vacation. The San Francisco Bay Area has a wealth of urban and natural attractions. Just north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, the charming waterfront town of Sausalito in Marin County is a favorite tourist destination, plus getting there by ferry is half the fun. Just beyond Sausalito are inspiring nature trails at Tennessee Valley, Stinson Beach, and Muir Woods. Further north in Sonoma County are places for scenic hikes along the coast and in the rolling hills. Across the Bay, the university town of Berkeley offers the inspiring scenery of its ivory tower campus along with impressive cultural attractions and gourmet restaurants. Also in the East Bay, the vibrant multicultural city of Oakland boasts flowering parks, interesting museums, historic theaters, lively neighborhood events, and summer festivals. For those seeking a classic California beach town complete with a boardwalk amusement park and surfing scene, Santa Cruz is the place to go. To appreciate the wild, rugged Pacific coast, head to the country town of Half Moon Bay, then make a stop at the rural community of Pescadero to visit the State Beach bird sanctuary or to attend a candlelit barn-house dinner at Harley Farms Goat Dairy.
2 Los Angeles and Disneyland
Los Angeles epitomizes the sunny Southern California lifestyle, with its wide, palm-fringed boulevards; exclusive designer boutiques; and sun-drenched beaches. This sprawling urban center was founded in 1781 and built up during the film industry boom of the 1920s and 30s. The city is still synonymous with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. But long before movie stars, a Spanish missionary expedition arrived in this spiritually inspiring location by the mouth of a river in 1769 and called the town "El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles" (the City of Our Lady the Queen of Angels"), which referenced a painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels at the Chapel of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy. For insight into the history, visit the San Gabriel Mission church and museum. The mission church continues to provide Catholic masses to the public.
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; the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard; and Franklin Village in Hollywood. While in Hollywood, be sure to take a stroll down the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Other must-see tourist sights are Venice Beach, with its eclectic atmosphere, and the fun-loving Santa Monica beach scene. For culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum and LA Philharmonic Walt Disney Concert Hall are the top attractions. Los Angeles also has pleasant outdoor spaces, most notably the Huntington Botanical Gardens, filled with 12 vibrant gardens covering 120 acres, including a Shakespeare Garden and a Chinese-themed garden with pagodas. At this site, tourists can also visit the Huntington Library that boasts a collection of rare books, including a manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
For families with kids, the highlight of a vacation in Southern California is a visit to Disneyland. This famous amusement park is located in Anaheim, about 30 miles from Los Angeles. Focused on Disney-themed attractions, the park includes eight different themed lands, such as Mickey's Toontown, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. Highlights for preschoolers are the children's rides like the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and the Mad Tea Party spinning teacups, as well as the chance to meet Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, and Princess Elsa. Older kids enjoy the thrilling roller-coaster rides, like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Space Mountain, and Indiana Jones Adventure. Parents will appreciate that Disneyland has several excellent hotels and award-winning restaurants.
3 San Diego: Sunshine, Beaches, and Spanish Architecture
Blessed with a balmy year-round climate and beautiful beaches, San Diego is the quintessential Southern California city. The main attractions are Balboa Park, an expansive green space with distinctive gardens and several museums; the famous San Diego Zoo that is home to panda bears and other exotic animals; and Sea World. For sunbathing enthusiasts, the sandy beaches of La Jolla are worth taking the drive 22 miles north of San Diego's downtown. La Jolla is a quaint town, equally prized for its gourmet restaurants, art museums, performing arts, and antique shops. Another worthwhile tourist destination is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, in a lovely natural setting 66 miles north. More adventurous travelers will want to visit Tijuana in Mexico, which is only a short day trip from San Diego.
As the oldest city in California, San Diego has a wealth of historic attractions. Founded in 1769, the San Diego Mission was the original mission and the birthplace of Christianity in California. Listed as a Registered National Historic Monument, the mission buildings were crafted from adobe with a striking white-painted facade. Unique in its architectural style, the mission's church features a campanario (bell wall) that soars 46 feet high above a courtyard and garden blooming with flowers. For more historic ambience, head to the Old Town, an area teeming with cute boutiques, art galleries, museums, theaters, and authentic Mexican restaurants. San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter is another place to discover the charm of a bygone era. Covering 16 square blocks of city streets, this historic district is filled with restored Victorian-era buildings that stand alongside more modern buildings. Tourists enjoy strolling the Gaslamp Quarter to discover trendy boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants.
4 Yosemite National Park: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
A masterpiece created by Mother Nature, the Yosemite Valley is surrounded by sheer granite cliffs that were carved by glaciers millions of years ago. When the naturalist John Muir discovered Yosemite in the 1860s, he described it as the "grandest of all special temples of Nature." This vast wilderness of 1,200 square miles was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1984 and boasts 800 miles of hiking trails. The highlights of Yosemite are Yosemite Falls, a dramatic waterfall more than 2,000 feet tall, and Half Dome, an iconic sheer-faced granite mountain. Yet every area of the park is gorgeous, from its expansive meadows and crystal-clear streams to the giant sequoia tree groves. The park has incredible biological diversity, with more than 400 different animal species.
5 Lake Tahoe: Hiking, Mountain Biking, and Skiing
Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, this mesmerizing lake is a place of sublime beauty and serenity. The lake has brilliant turquoise waters with a translucent quality, and the scenery is so pristine that is has a meditative effect. Visitors come to admire the beauty and enjoy outdoor activities. During summertime, Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for hiking, mountain biking, water sports, and lakeside sunbathing. Kings Beach is a favorite place for swimming and boating. The breathtaking Emerald Bay State Park, the peaceful D. L. Bliss State Park, and the densely-wooded Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park have enchanting lakeside scenery, well-groomed nature trails, and lovely spots for picnicking. During the winter, usually from December until April, Lake Tahoe boast superb downhill skiing in powder-snow conditions, as well as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. Squaw Valley and Heavenly are world-class ski resorts that draw the most visitors for alpine skiing, but several other Lake Tahoe ski resorts also have top-notch facilities and superb alpine terrain.
6 Gold Country in the Sierra Nevada Foothills
In 1948, 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. A pivotal moment in California's history, this event led to the mass migration in 1849 to the West Coast known as the Gold Rush. Thousands of gold seekers headed to this location in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in hopes of finding their fortunes. Tourists can visit the gold discovery site at the old saw mill in Coloma, which is now part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Because of its historical significance, this park is one of the most important sites in California. Visitors have a chance to pan for gold in the American River just as the gold miners did in 1849. After touring the site, it's possible to explore the park's hiking trails or have a picnic under the oak trees. Other nearby nature areas include Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park, with 12 miles of of hiking and biking trails plus fishing areas; Dave Moore Nature Area, with a one-mile loop trail; and Bassi Road in Lotus, with scenic backcountry lanes. The American River is also a great place for white water rafting, kayaking, and fishing.
To continue the Gold Rush-era discovery, head to the historic towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City about 40 miles away from Coloma. These atmospheric Gold Rush towns have the distinctive ambience of the mid 19th-century. The historic buildings are now filled with interesting art galleries, boutiques, and good restaurants. Empire Mine State Park is the top attraction in Grass Valley, where visitors may tour the old mining area and the property's stately old Victorian house. Bursting with Gold Rush charm, Nevada City appeals to tourists because of its quaint ambience and wide selection of restaurants and historic hotels. Most noteworthy, the National Hotel dates back to the 1850s and is one of the oldest hotels in the West.
7 Sonoma County and Mendocino Nature Sites
To experience the natural beauty of Northern California, an ideal place to begin is about two hours north of San Francisco. The Point Reyes National Seashore, on Tomales Bay, boasts spectacular coastal trails with views of the Pacific Ocean. The area also has peaceful hidden coves and protected estuaries that are ideal for kayaking. A paradise for birdwatchers, Point Reyes is home to a remarkable variety of avian species, including the snowy plover, northern spotted owl, peregrine falcon, and brown pelican. Point Reyes is equally remarkable for its plant life, with more than 900 species of plants, including rare and endangered species. The park's biodiversity supports a wide range of habitats, from grasslands and wetlands to chaparral and pine forests. During springtime, the meadows of Point Reyes are blanketed with vibrant wildflowers.
Continuing further north is Bodega Bay, a dreamy fishing village 51 miles north of Point Reyes, about a 90-minute drive along the Sonoma Coast. Beach lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy the invigorating natural environment of Bodega Bay. It's a great place for taking nature walks, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and surfing. For a quiet coastal community, Bodega Bay has an extensive choice of hotels, lodges, and vacation rental options.
Another top destination is the historic seaside town of Mendocino, about 100 miles north of Bodega Bay. In this idyllic pastoral landscape, visitors are rejuvenated by the fresh ocean air and inspired by the pristine sandy beaches and stunning coastal scenery. Since it's in Northern California, the weather is often cool and foggy, better suited to hiking than sunbathing. Nature lovers enjoy walks along the jagged Mendocino Coast or through the shady redwood groves. Outdoor enthusiasts head to Lake Mendocino for boating and fishing or the Big River Estuary and Noyo River for kayaking, as well as a chance to spot wildlife including river otters, seals, and birds. In addition to the natural attractions, the town of Mendocino has an abundance of art galleries, museums, shops, fine-dining restaurants, and performing arts.
8 Central Coast and Big Sur
With its wooded hillsides, undulating farmlands, and endless stretches of sandy beaches, the Central Coast is an inviting part of California to explore. Relatively undiscovered by tourists, the rolling hills are dotted with charming country towns such as Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles. The biggest city, San Luis Obispo, is tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just 10 miles from the beach. This fun-loving college town has a friendly atmosphere, year-round sunshine, and a historic Spanish mission. Two popular beaches are within a 30-minute drive: the surfer's favorite Pismo Beach and the more secluded and resort-like Avila Beach. One of the most famous landmarks in the United States, Hearst Castle, is about 40 miles away in San Simeon. An incomparable off-the-beaten-path California attraction, Hearst Castle was built in 1922 for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst Castle. Perched on a hilltop high above the Pacific Ocean, the castle resembles a 16th-century Spanish cathedral. This architectural masterpiece was created by architect Julia Morgan and is filled with priceless works art including a Roman floor mosaic from Italy, a 3,000-year old Egyptian statue, and an exquisite Rubens tapestry. Known to Hearst as "La Cuesta Encantada" ("the Enchanted Hill"), the enormous property is now open to the public as a museum.
While visiting the Central Coast, a must-see destination is Big Sur. This breathtaking 90-mile stretch of mountainous coastline is completely unspoiled because of its remoteness. Big Sur is only accessible by a two-lane road on Highway One that winds along daunting hairpin turns overlooking the ocean. The route starts 20 miles south of Carmel and ends around Ragged Point, about 15 miles north of San Simeon. Visitors are awestruck by the scenery of rugged ocean bluffs, shady redwood forests, and steep cliffs that drop off into the Pacific's crashing waves. Unforgettable sites include the lofty terrace of Nepenthe Restaurant, with its dazzling backdrop of deep blue seas, and the McWay Waterfall Hiking Trail, with the most iconic viewpoint in Big Sur.
9 Santa Barbara
One of the loveliest seaside cities in California, this resort destination is a beach lover's paradise, with balmy weather and an attractive coastline of golden sandy beaches. Santa Barbara is also a historic town steeped in old-world charm. The 18th-century Mission Santa Barbara is known as the "Queen of the Missions" and is surrounded by flowering gardens, the Santa Barbara Courthouse exemplifies exquisite Spanish Moorish style, and most of downtown Santa Barbara is graced by traditional Spanish-style architecture. Santa Barbara is a place for relaxation and pampering. Go for a stroll along the waterfront, sunbathe at the beach, indulge in a luxurious spa treatment, and enjoy gourmet meals at pleasant outdoor patios.
10 The Redwood Forests and Pristine Coastline of Humboldt County
Rugged and unspoiled, Humboldt County is an escape to the great outdoors, a place for hiking, hunting, fishing, and outdoor adventure. This rural area delights visitors with its lush redwood forests, secluded beaches, and peaceful marshes filled with bird life. The combination of fragrant Douglas fir trees and salty ocean breezes give the place an invigorating feel. In this remote area of Northern California, the wide open spaces and fresh air inspire visitors to breath more deeply. The scenery provides endless inspiration for hikes through the towering redwood trees, along serene beaches, and across rushing rivers and steep ravines traversed by suspension bridges.
In the southern portion of Humboldt County, Humboldt Redwoods State Park is California's largest redwood state park, which includes the Rockefeller Forest, the world's largest old-growth redwood forest. Redwood National Park is famous for Fern Canyon, a densely wooded fresh-water creek with overgrown ferns (where scenes for Jurassic Park were filmed). The Arcata Community Forest, just a few blocks from downtown Arcata has an extensive network of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails, plus a playground and picnic areas. Arcata is also known for its Kinetic Grand Championship Bicycle Race annually on Memorial Day, when participants race past kinetic sculptures. Other must-see sights are Moonstone Beach, a gorgeous shoreline (near the fishing village of Trinidad), with views of rocky coves and jagged headlands. Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge draws visitors for scenic nature walks. Birdwatchers will be thrilled by the incredible diversity of species in the refuge and the chance to spot coastal birds like the western sandpiper or the great blue heron. More adventurous types head to the Trinity River for white water rafting, the Stone Lagoon for stand-up paddle-boarding, or Moonstone Beach for surfing.
Amid the magnificent redwood forests along the Humboldt Bay is the historic seaport of Eureka, Humboldt County's main urban center. Eureka's Old Town boasts hundreds of ornate Victorian buildings. The most notable mansion is the Carson House, built in the 1880s for lumber baron William Carson. Several of the old Victorians are now quaint bed & breakfasts with four-poster beds and an elegant ambience. Carter House Inns are housed in old Victorians with bright contemporary rooms. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the English Tudor-style Eureka Inn was built in 1922 for nature-loving vacationers. For an interesting perspective on Eureka, take a Humboldt Bay Harbor Cruise on a vessel that dates to 1910. This tour includes a historical narrative of the area and a chance to see harbor seals, shore birds, oyster beds, and other sea life, while fishing fleets cruise the waters in search of crabs, salmon, and shrimp. To take in the local culture, visit the Clarke Historical Museum displaying exhibits about regional history and the Morris Graves Museum, with a collection of Morris Graves' art work along with temporary exhibits.
11 Mammoth Lakes: Hiking, Fishing, and Skiing
Mammoth Lakes draws many visitors for outdoor adventures and boasts about 300 sunny days a year. The crisp mountain air invigorates the body and soul, while the beautiful 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 Pacific Crest Trail. The landscape varies from peaceful meadows and pine forests to granite crags, including a summit that soars to 11,053 feet. With nearly a hundred lakes, many stocked with trout, Mammoth Lakes is an incredible place for fishing during summertime. 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 covers 3,100 acres with 150 trails accessed by 28 chair lifts. Any time of year, Mammoth Lakes is ready to welcome visitors to its gourmet restaurants, rustic lodges, and upscale mountain resorts.