10 Top-Rated Things to Do in California
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Sunny days, a fun-loving culture, and endless outdoor activities give the California lifestyle a special appeal. The Golden State is the place to enjoy life, whether dining on outdoor terraces or walking along the beach.
The state's spectacularly beautiful landscapes provide the backdrop for outdoor adventures, from hiking through primeval forests in the state's northernmost county to rock climbing in the desert and skiing in the mountains or sunbathing on sprawling sandy beaches near the border with Mexico. Each region of California offers visitors different things to do.
Sophisticated cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, offer world-class cultural attractions, while the small towns welcome visitors with friendly laid-back vibes.
From visiting museums and attending rock concerts to sunbathing at the beach and skiing in the mountains, the variety of things to do in California means that there is something for everyone.
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1. Soak Up the Sun on the Beaches
California boasts 1,000 miles of beaches along its coastline. Much of the shoreline features sublime sandy beaches in pristine environments. The list of top beaches is long, and includes plenty of variety.
Classic California beaches include Zuma Beach in Malibu (one of the top day trips from Los Angeles), East Beach in Santa Barbara, and Pacific Beach in San Diego. At these perfect beaches, visitors can sunbathe, play beach volleyball, and admire the crashing ocean waves.
Some of the best beaches for surfing are Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, Main Beach in Santa Cruz, Butterfly Beach in Montecito, Pismo State Beach, and Huntington City Beach (legendary for its surfing culture).
For the most idyllic scenery, try Paradise beach in Malibu. Tucked into a small cove, this hidden gem of a beach has been pictured in Hollywood movies. This sheltered beach features gentle waves and a beachfront café with an outdoor terrace.
Not to be missed are the dramatic coastal stretches featuring oceanfront mountains and rocky headlands, such as Big Sur, Mendocino, and Stinson Beach in Marin County. Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur dazzles with its unspoiled natural scenery, a swatch of fine white-sand shoreline backed by an ocean bluff.
For fun in the sun, the Main Beach in Santa Cruz and Santa Monica State Beach in Santa Monica are good choices. Old-fashioned amusement parks are found at both of these well-equipped sandy beaches.
2. Take a Hike
Hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail is an invigorating experience not to be missed at Yosemite National Park. Ranking high on a list of Yosemite's top hikes, the trail takes you straight to one of Yosemite's most stunning sights. Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America. The round-trip 7.2-mile hike involves a 2,700-foot elevation gain; however, you can simply hike up 1,000 feet to Columbia Rock for amazing views of Yosemite Falls.
Majestic mountain scenery awaits at Mount Shasta, an awe-inspiring snowcapped peak that soars to 14,163 feet. Some of the best hiking trails at Mount Shasta include the five-mile round-trip trail to the summit of Black Butte (1,800-foot elevation gain), which affords breathtaking views of the Trinity Alps, and the Gray Butte Trail, an easier 3.5-mile round-trip hike with a 750-foot elevation gain that also offers panoramic views of the landscape.
For an easy yet thrilling jaunt along the coastline, add the McWay Waterfall Trail in Big Sur to your list. This short trail (only 0.6-mile round-trip) takes you to the most frequently photographed site in Big Sur, the 80-foot McWay Waterfall, which drops from a sheer cliff into a small sandy cove. Another top hike in Big Sur is the trail that leads to Partington Cove.
In Northern California just a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Marin County is packed with gorgeous hiking trails. Tourists flock to the Muir Woods National Monument, an old-growth redwood forest with trails that wind through the lush, shaded canopy of giant trees.
Other highlights of Marin County are hikes with sweeping ocean views, including the Dipsea Trail that leads from Muir Woods through the redwood forest and traverses coastal rolling hills until reaching the picture-perfect Stinson Beach. The hiking trails around Muir Beach also feature stunning vistas of the coastline and the expansive deep blue waters of the Pacific.
Dramatic coastal landscapes define Northern California's Mendocino county, renowned for its quiet coves, pristine rivers, gurgling creeks, hidden sandy beaches, and luxuriant forests. Some of the best hiking trails in Mendocino include the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail in Van Damme State Park and the Headlands Trail at Russian Gulch State Park, which affords amazing ocean views.
The glamorous beachfront town of Santa Barbara is surrounded by rugged mountains and lush canyons traversed by scenic hiking trails. The Romero Canyon Loop provides access to the Santa Ynez Mountains through a narrow ravine and alongside a chaparral-covered ridge; the hike's 2,000-foot elevation gain rewards with views of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands.
One of the top hikes in Santa Barbara is the trail to Inspiration Point, where the summit offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the city of Santa Barbara.
With an abundance of untouched nature sites, Humboldt County offers some of California's most striking landscapes. Visitors are awed by magnificent scenery in the county's primeval redwood forests. The James Irvine Trail is one of the best hikes in California's Redwood National and State Parks.
California's Redwoods National Parks also offer many other spectacular hiking trails throughout the state.
3. Admire Masterpieces of Art
Los Angeles and San Francisco are home to some of the best art museums in the country. Los Angeles in particular boasts prestigious galleries that rival some of the museums of New York City.
The most prestigious museum in Los Angeles is The Getty Center, which contains an exceptional collection of European paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts set on lovely manicured grounds with city views.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has the largest art collection in the western United States, with over 100,000 items representing art from antiquity to the present. The LACMA has a noteworthy assortment of Latin American, Islamic, and Asian Art.
San Francisco delights art lovers with two top-notch museums found in breathtaking natural settings. Modeled after the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris, the Legion of Honor museum presides over a wooded hillside that looks out onto the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to its stunning location, the museum has an excellent collection of European fine arts.
In a beautiful corner of Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum can be visited using the same-day admission ticket that provides entry to the Legion of Honor museum.
4. Enjoy Outdoor Adventures in the Parks
Thrill-seeking, adventure-loving outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of activities to choose from in California.
For those who enjoy camping, hiking, and rock climbing, Joshua Tree National Park is a popular place to visit. Joshua Tree's 8,000 climbing routes make it a world-class rock-climbing destination. The park's high-desert monzo-granite rock faces and boulders provide challenges suitable for all ability levels.
Not only is the Yosemite Valley famous for its iconic landscapes, but it is also a mecca for outdoor activities. Yosemite National Park offers opportunities for hiking, camping, fly-fishing, and world-class rock climbing.
The Mammoth Lakes area is another top destination for outdoor adventures, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, and mountain biking. During summertime, Mammoth Lakes is a great place for boating on crystal-clear lakes and fly-fishing in the pristine rivers. In the winter, Mammoth is one of California's top ski destinations.
Blessed with gorgeous coastal scenery and balmy weather almost year-round, San Diego is the ultimate SoCal destination for outdoor adventures. Sporting enthusiasts can choose from a wide variety of activities, from hiking on trails with ocean views to cycling on bayside paths and kayaking in sea caves.
Lake Tahoe in Northern California's High Sierras is a paradise for outdoor activities year-round. During summertime, lakeside nature walks, hiking, cycling and water sports keep visitors busy. In the winter, downhill skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing are the main draws.
5. Dine at Gourmet Restaurants
Foodie travelers should put California at the top of their must-visit destination list. The Golden State is a premier gourmet dining destination in the country.
With farmlands, dairies, and orchards covering much of the state, California produces fruits, vegetables, nuts, cheese, and other food products that supply grocery stores nationwide. Local chefs snap up the freshest and best ingredients for their restaurants, while farmers markets make available the best produce sold by local vendors.
California boasts an extraordinary choice of restaurants, from organic farm-to-table cuisine and ethnic street food to Michelin-starred restaurants. There are 90 restaurants in California that have been awarded at least one of the coveted Michelin stars.
The premier foodie destinations in California include San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, the Napa Valley and Sonoma, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.
In San Francisco, tourists love sampling the fresh seafood at Pier 39 restaurants. Not only is the food delicious, but these restaurants feature a lively ambience and fabulous waterfront views.
Several of San Francisco's best fine-dining establishments with three Michelin stars include Quince, which serves upscale California cuisine; the innovative contemporary French restaurant, Atelier Crenn, helmed by a renowned female chef; and the contemporary Asian restaurant, Benu. Other top restaurants with at least one Michelin star include Gary Danko, Sons & Daughters, Acquerello, Lazy Bear, and Campton Place.
Other noteworthy restaurants are Rich Table, which specializes in California cuisine; Slanted Door, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant; and a Mano, which offers handmade Italian pasta and other authentic Italian specialties. For those who prefer vegetarian cuisine, the city has a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Across the bay from San Francisco is another foodie town. The farm-to-table California cuisine movement began in Berkeley over 50 years ago with the opening of Alice Water's Chez Panisse bistro. Today this quaint, cozy restaurant still offers superb French-inspired cuisine.
The area around Chez Panisse, known as the Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood, is brimming with other excellent restaurants including Lo Coco's, a Sicilian restaurant & pizzeria, and Vanne Bistro at the Sens Hotel.
A short drive from the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley is the trendy Temescal neighborhood in Oakland, which has great restaurants such as Burma Superstar, an authentic Burmese restaurant, and Pizzaiolo, which serves Italian cuisine and wood-fired pizzas prepared from locally sourced ingredients.
The Napa Valley appeals to gourmands with its gastronomic restaurants. Awarded three Michelin stars, The French Laundry is a special destination that requires booking reservations well in advance. Other acclaimed restaurants are Bouchon, a traditional French bistro, and The Restaurant at the Auberge du Soleil resort, which features splendid views of the Napa Valley from its outdoor dining terrace.
Los Angeles also has a noteworthy dining scene, with a variety of restaurants ranging from casual ethnic eateries to Michelin-starred dining establishments. Some of the most acclaimed restaurants include RED O, an award-winning Mexican restaurant with a hip atmosphere; Osteria Mozza, a rustic Italian restaurant that offers handmade pasta and dishes prepared from local ingredients; and Wolfgang Puck's famous Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills.
With an abundance of chic dining options, Santa Barbara lives up to its image of a glamorous beach town. The city has hundreds of restaurants, many of which are top-notch quality. However even the upscale restaurants have a laid-back ambience, and dressing up is not necessary.
Top restaurants in Santa Barbara include bouchon, which offers farm-to-table California cuisine and traditional French dishes; The Palace Grill, a happening restaurant that serves the finest New Orleans cuisine prepared from high-quality ingredients; and Los Agaves, a family-owned Mexican restaurant.
6. Go Skiing
Winter is one of the best times to visit California if you enjoy downhill skiing and snowboarding. The state is home to some of the best ski resorts in the United States, including Palisades Tahoe and Alpine Meadows in Lake Tahoe.
Other top ski resorts in California include Heavenly Ski Resort in the Lake Tahoe area and the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in the Sierra National Forest of the Eastern Sierras, just over a five-hour drive from Los Angeles. Both Heavenly and Mammoth Mountain have superb terrain parks in addition to extensive alpine ski slopes.
7. Attend a Music Festival
Music lovers come from far and wide to attend some of California's most popular festivals. High-caliber performances and a fun-loving social atmosphere makes these festivals worth a detour.
The Coachella Valley Music & Art Festival is one of the most famous and exciting festivals with hugely popular concerts that draw jam-packed crowds. The lineup features some of the biggest names in current rock, pop, hip hop, and electronic music. Legendary performers like Beyoncé, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Björk, Daft Punk, and Amy Winehouse have performed at Coachella.
Held in the Coachella Valley about a 30-minute drive from Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley Music & Art Festival takes place over two weekends in April and sells out ahead of time. Besides amazing music concerts, the festival is known for its party scene. The festival offers outdoor dining options catered by top-notch restaurants. Many festival-goers camp near the concert venue; car camping and tent camping sites are available.
Another big name festival, Lightning in a Bottle is held over five days in May at Buena Vista Lake in Central California. The festival offers food stands and dining options, as well as other amenities such as a general store, lockers, and showers. A world-class lineup of musical artists perform at Lightning in a Bottle, representing a wide range of music genres, from pop and folk to hip hop and techno.
For those who love bluegrass music, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco is not to be missed. This free festival includes three days of performances held at Golden Gate Park. Also held in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park, Outside Lands entertains music lovers with a variety of music including country, pop, folk, and alternative. The festival features food stands catered by over 85 local restaurants.
In the Napa Valley, the BottleRock festival kicks off summer every year in late May with its fabulous musical entertainment. The festival also feature gourmet food stands, cooking shows, art installations, a spa, and a club.
The HARD Summer Music Festival takes place in San Bernardino (Southern California) over two days at the end of July or in early August. The festival's lineup focuses on techno, electronic, house, alternative dance, hip hop, and dance punk music.
A serene mountain-enclosed desert environment in Southern California provides the venue for the Desert Daze festival that feels mystical. Featuring an eclectic lineup of alternative and psychedelic rock, this independent rock festival takes place over several days in November or December. The festival site on Moreno Beach at the Lake Perris State Recreation Area includes campgrounds and lockers. Festival-goers can stay in the camping village and bring their own food.
8. Wander through an Ancient Redwood Forest
California's ancient redwood forests awe visitors with their magnificent grandeur (stately natural splendor.) These primeval forests are home to old-growth coastal redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees in the world, which soar to impressive heights. Some of the oldest coastal redwood trees reach 375 feet in height (the equivalent of a 35-story building).
The North Coast of California is the only place in the world that sustains ancient redwood forests, although what remains is only a fraction of the original old-growth forests (destroyed by logging since 1849). The cool, damp ocean air and rich, complex soils provide just the right conditions for the redwood trees to thrive, along only about a few hundred miles of the state's remote coastline.
Redwood forests have thrived in this environment for 160 million years; that's the Jurassic era when dinosaurs roamed the shady groves. A few of the oldest trees you'll see in forests today have been alive for 2,000 years (since the Roman Empire era), and many of the trees are 600 years old.
California's Redwood National and State Parks are found within the northernmost corner of California, in the rugged and unspoiled Humboldt County (about a 45-minute drive from Eureka). The parks are located along the coastal stretch from Crescent City to Trinidad.
The Redwood State Parks include Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. The Redwood National Park is located in Orick. Together these four parks cover 16,442 hectares of old-growth redwood forests, which have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as an International Biosphere Reserve.
There are also pockets of old-growth redwood forests in other areas of northern California. For those who do not want to make the long drive up to Humboldt Country.
The most easily accessible ancient redwood forest in California is Muir Woods National Monument. This popular tourist destination is one of the best day trips from San Francisco (a short drive form San Francisco) but gets overwhelmed with visitors. You must make a parking or shuttle bus reservation in advance. Organized tours are recommended.
Whichever old-growth forest you visit, prepare to be blown away by the natural splendor. Wander through the dense shady canopies, with sunlight barely filtering in through the towering redwood trees. The lush, tranquil scenery includes leafy ferns, moss-covered river banks, and a wide variety of wild mushrooms. Trails follow alongside babbling brooks and crystal-clear freshwater streams, adding to the peaceful experience.
9. Meditate at a Yoga Retreat
Yoga was introduced to California in 1937, when the Indian yogi Swami Paramahansa Yogananda created a hermitage in Encinitas (San Diego County) in Southern California. Later the hippie movement of the 1960s increased the general interest in practicing yoga.
Today, yoga is part of California's popular culture. Classes and retreats are designed to offer physical, as well as health and spiritual benefits. Tourists who choose to attend a yoga or meditation retreat will be rewarding with a rejuvenating experience. Most of California's yoga and meditation retreat centers are found in picturesque surroundings.
Green Gulch Farm Zen Center is set on 115 acres in Marin County (about an hour's drive north of San Francisco), nestled in an idyllic valley just a short walk from the Pacific Ocean. A short trail leads from the center, through a wooded grove to the beautiful Muir Beach. Green Gulch has a traditional Japanese guesthouse, a retreat center, and an eight-acre organic farm.
Also in Marin County, the Spirit Rock Meditation Center is cradled by oak-studded rolling hills in the sunny San Geronimo Valley. The center offers classes on Buddhism and meditation, as well as weeklong meditation retreats.
With its awe-inspiring coastal scenery, Big Sur has welcomed spiritual seekers for decades. The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is set in the remote Los Padres National Forest just outside Big Sur. The center welcomes guests for day visits and overnight stays in the spring and summer.
Set on a hillside on the Big Sur coastline, the Esalen holistic educational center offers astounding ocean views and interesting workshops.
In the Ojai Valley (90 miles north of Los Angeles and 35 miles from Santa Barbara), Meditation Mount is beautifully situated on a sheltered hillside with spectacular views. The center includes a Meditation Room, Chi Room, and The International Garden of Peace for walking meditation. The center's wilderness setting provides a sense of sacredness and tranquility, to inspire meditation practice. Visitors must preregister for a visitation time; there are no overnight stays.
10. Visit a Small Organic Farm
California is on the forefront of organic farming and produces almost half the organic food products in the country (including nearly 70 percent of the nation's organic vegetables). Organic farming has a mission of enhancing biodiversity and restoring ecological harmony, along with supplying consumers with pesticide-free fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other food commodities.
An awareness about organic food products is part of California culture. The majority (90 percent) of California households regularly purchase organic food products, and many people frequently shop at local farmers markets.
Tourists enjoy visiting Sonoma County in Northern California, a picturesque rural area with many small organic farms. With its rolling hills, dense oak groves, and freshwater streams, Sonoma is one of the most beautiful places to visit in California.
Sonoma County Farm Trails lists farms that are open to the public. Happy Apples Farm has a picnic area and a farm stand that offers seasonal orchard apples. Lavender Bee Farm grows fields of organic lavender plants and sells soap, bouquets, and lavender oil at its farm boutique.
McEvoy Ranch, a family-owned organic olive-tree estate, produces extra-virgin olive oil made in the Tuscan style and also has workshops and tours available by reservation. Bivalve Dairy in Petaluma is an organic farm that welcomes the public for guided tours.
Visitors could also sample the local bounty by taking a food tour. The Small-Group Sonoma Walking Food Tour allow participants to taste locally made artisanal cheeses, olive oil, and chocolates. The tour also includes a progressive lunch at various food shops on the historic plaza in downtown Sonoma, as well as a visit to the Mission San Francisco Solano.
About 40 miles (an hour drive) south of San Francisco, Hidden Villa in the Los Altos Hills is an organic farm that is open to the public for visits. Nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of the south peninsula region, Hidden Villa also has eight miles of hiking trails and picnic areas and hosts special events.
The Paso Robles region of Central California is also home to small organic farms. Focused on sustainable farming, Windrose Farm in Paso Robles supplies local farm-to-table restaurants and farmers' markets and also hosts farm stays, tours, and seasonal dinners.
In Paso Robles, travelers can spend the night in a tranquil setting surrounded by rolling hills and olive orchards. The Rêves de Moutons in Paso Robles offers farm stays in a lovely setting of vine-covered rolling hills. The farm produces traditional French-style sheep and goat milk cheese.