Planning a visit to California? Looking for bucket list attractions in the Golden State? From art and culture to historic buildings and from sandy beaches to snow capped mountain ranges, explore the best things to do in California in our epic guide. Also read our post on the Best Places to Visit on the West Coast.
California. Its very name invokes thrilling stories of explorers, pioneers, and innovators. From the expedition ships that ventured near its coasts to the prospectors that reached the state via dangerous mountain roads, the state has attracted adventurous souls since the earliest times. Even today it continues to attract the brightest and the hard-working to seek fortune in Silicon Valley.
California is just that kind of place. When most people think of the Pacific Coast or the West Coast of the USA, they think of the Golden State of California. This state has a rich history. It was here that the first European settlement on the West coast was established in Old Town San Diego. And it was here that the gold was discovered in 1848 that led to the mass migration and settlements in the Wild West.
“When California was wild, it was the floweriest part of the continent.”
– John Muir
California has a variety of attractions from the sunshine beaches of Southern California to the majestic coastal redwoods of Northern California. The central coast is rugged while the Sierra Nevada is home to the beautiful Yosemite National Park. We love California for a couple of reasons: it’s fantastic cities, beautiful natural scenery, and its diversity.
Best Things to do in California
There are a variety of things to do and places to visit in California. The state is very big and diverse and has something for every type of traveler. Whether you love beaches or the mountains, whether you like the sun or the snow, whether you are a city person or love the rugged outdoors, California has the perfect place for you. Here are some of the best places to visit in the great state of California.
Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
San Francisco is the ultimate Californian getaway and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge it’s #1 tourist attraction. Visitors love to see the bridge from Crissy Fields and walk across it to the Golden Gate Vista Point. They can also drive or bike across it for a unique experience. San Francisco also has many other things to do apart from the bridge. The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful building with Greek architecture while the Fisherman’s Wharf is a lively waterfront area. Other San Francisco attractions include a ride on the cable cars, the biggest Chinatown in the country, and the island of Alcatraz. San Francisco’s Mission District has amazing murals and is home to Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city.
Also Read: Portland to San Francisco Road Trip Itinerary
Fall in love with the coast at Big Sur
Along California’s Central Coast, lies the region of Big Sur. It is roughly 90 miles long and extends roughly from Point Lobos to San Simeon. The coastline here is mostly public land, as a result, it is unspoiled and remains in its natural form. The beauty is preserved via many state parks, scenic areas, and national forests. Big Sur has beautiful viewpoints, panoramas along the coast, small coastal communities, pristine beaches and coves, and lots of wildlife. You will also find an occasional grove of the coastal redwoods in Big Sur. The region is best explored on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Some of the most popular and scenic attractions in Big Sur include McWay Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge, Point Sur Lighthouse, Pfeiffer Beach, and Lime Kiln State Park.
See Yosemite through the eyes of Ansel Adams
California is home to the stunning Yosemite National Park. This is one of the most popular national parks in the country. The Yosemite Valley is the perfect base for exploring the national park. In the Yosemite Valley, you will find the Visitor Center, lodges, and tours to explore the highlights like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan. The scenic Tioga Pass Road and Glacier Point Road have viewpoints from where you can see the Yosemite Valley from above. Yosemite also has many groves of the giant Sequoia trees. The Mariposa Grove is especially popular with tourists. Visit the Ansel Adams gallery near the national park to see black and white photographs of the stunning landscape.
Also Read: Best Road Trips in California
Worship Hollywood in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is home to Hollywood and one of the best places to visit in California for movie buffs. Visitors can enjoy movie sets and thrilling rides at Universal Studios. Other movie studios like Warner Bros Studios, Sony, etc also offer behind the scenes tour of their movie studios. Hollywood Blvd is an essential visit while in the city. Here you can see movie stars on the sidewalk and the Chinese Oriental Theatre and the Kodak Theatre which hosts the Oscars. Visit the comedy clubs on Sunset Strip to watch your favorite actors performing live. Non-movie attractions in Los Angeles include museums like LACMA and the Broad, Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park, the Getty Center, and Santa Monica Pier.
Go skiing or biking at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is California’s most popular outdoor playground. The lake is actually situated on the border of California and Nevada and lies in both states. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, Lake Tahoe is a year-round travel destination. During summer, visitors can hike, bike, enjoy the water activities on the lake. During the winter, Lake Tahoe is popular for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and just good old snow fun. The best way to enjoy Lake Tahoe’s scenery is to drive the loop road which takes about half a day at a leisurely pace. Places to visit near Lake Tahoe include Emerald Bay State Park and Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. The views from Emerald Bay are particularly striking and the park also contains a beautiful Nordic Castle named Vikingsholm.
Also Read: 24 Best Places to Visit in California in winter
Dig the historic vibe of San Diego
San Diego on California’s Pacific Coast is known for its beaches, year-round sunshine, and beautiful parks. There are many things to do in the city, most at the urban Balboa Park. Here you will find museums in beautiful Spanish colonial-style mansions, landscaped gardens including the Japanese Garden, and beautiful walking trails. The Japanese Garden has beautiful cherry blossom trees and is one of the best places to spot these beauties in SoCal. Another popular attraction is the Old Town. This sea is where the most historic buildings in San Diego are located. The Gaslamp Quarter is also worth a visit. It has amazing dining and nightlife. The Embarcadero or the Waterfront is a great place to shop for souvenirs, people watch and go on a whale watching tour.
Related: 22 Best Things to do in San Diego
Be a kid for the day at Disneyland
Located in Anaheim, California – close to Los Angeles – you will find the two Disney parks of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. Both are great to visit for Disney fans but younger kids especially love Disneyland. In ToonTown, they get to meet all their favorite characters including Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Another great place to visit is the Fantasyland where they can see storybook characters come to life and meet the Disney princesses. Other areas like Main Street USA, Frontier land, etc also have plenty of attractions for visitors of all ages. At Disney California Adventure, kids can visit the Disney Pixar Pier and ride amazing movie-themed rides including the Incredicoaster.
Have a luxury vacation in Palm Springs
The resort city of Palm Springs is located in California’s Sonoran desert and is one of the popular weekend getaways from Los Angeles. Palm Springs has many luxurious hotels, shopping, and cultural attractions. The city has a beautiful mid-century modern architecture which you can see on a guided tour. Another thing that Palm Springs is famous for is quirky, colorful doors! You can also see the doors on a guided tour. The city is also known for its museums including the Palm Springs Museum of Art. Downtown Palm Springs has a Walk of Fame, many candy, fudge, and date shake stores and is a great place to take a stroll. The area surrounding Palm Springs is known as Coachella Valley and it has many hiking trails through canyons and around Oasis and is perfect for those who love being outdoors. The trails will take you through desert lands and narrow canyons.
Also Read: Palm Springs Babymoon Guide
See the aquarium in Monterey
Located along the central California coast just a few hours south of San Francisco, Monterey is the ultimate day trip or weekend getaway for the Bay area. Monterey is the perfect coastal getaway. One of the most popular attractions in the city is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here, visitors can see thousands of marine plants and animal species in their natural environment. You can spot stingrays, whales, sharks, and jellyfish at the aquarium. Another popular attraction is Cannery Row. It was once home to Central California’s sardine-packing industry and now has been converted into a tourist hub that houses restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and bars. Visitors can go for whale watching tours in Monterey.
Drive the scenic road to Death Valley
Death Valley National Park is closer to Las Vegas than most Californian cities and is usually seen on a road trip from Las Vegas. Death Valley is one of the hottest, lowest, and driest places in the world. The best time to visit Death Valley is during the cooler winter months. On a visit to the park, visitors can see the salt flats at Badwater Basin and the stunning colors on the mountainside at Artist’s Palette on Artist’s Drive. Death Valley also has great hiking, historical structures like Scotty’s Castle, and photogenic panoramas of the area from overlooks like Dante’s View and the Zabriskie Point. The national park was a prime location for mining Borax in early times and visitors can see how the borax was transported using twenty mule wagons at Harmony Borax Works Trail.
See the California State Capitol in Sacramento
The city of Sacramento is the capital of California. This is a diverse city and is often known for its hipster culture, in recent times. In spite of that, the city remains one of the most underrated places to visit in the country. Old Town Sacramento, situated on the Sacramento River, is historic and dates back to the California Gold Rush. It is amazing to explore and see the beautiful wooden sidewalks, historic architecture, cobblestone streets, as well as many museums. Also, a must-visit is the California State Capitol building and its grounds. Visitors can see the Capitol on a free guided tour. The State Library and many other historic buildings are also located near the State Capitol and beautiful to see. Train lovers should visit the California State Railroad Museum. This is one of the best railroad museums in the world and visitors can see restored vintage cars and engines.
See the General Sherman Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are actually two geographically different park areas that are administered as a single unit. They are located adjacent to each other in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Both the national parks are home to the giant sequoia trees. Kings Canyon National Park is also known for its canyon hikes, white water rapids, and the crystal clear water of the Kings River. Sequoia National Park is most famous for its General Sherman Tree, which at 275 feet tall and 103 feet wide is the largest tree in the world by volume. It is fascinating to see the tree up close and marvel at its grandeur. Activities in the parks include scenic drives, hiking to see the Sequoia tree groves, and white water rafting in the Kings River.
Enjoy a romantic stroll on the coastal bluffs in Mendocino
Mendocino, located on the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California, is a very charming and romantic city. It is popular for its quaint Victorian architecture and scenic coastal bluffs. Visitors can learn more about Mendocino’s history at the Kelley House Museum. The nature is really spectacular here. Mendocino is located smack dab in the middle of three state parks: Mendocino Headlands State Park, Russian Gulch State Park, and Van Damme State Park. Each of the parks provides access to the rugged coastline, pretty beaches, hiking trails, and camping locales. Russian Gulch State Park is known for its Russian Gulch bridge that spans the river while the Van Damme State Park is famous for its pygmy forest which is home to stunted trees. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is also located close to Mendocino and is beautiful to visit and photograph.
Drive down the Avenue of the Giants
The Avenue of Giants is a scenic byway in Humboldt Redwood State Park in Northern California. To access the highway, take the turn from Highway 101 near Stafford. The scenic Byway is 31 miles long and passes through some of the tallest redwood trees on the West coast. The trees here grow so close and so tall, that sunlight rarely reaches the byway. It is often shrouded in fog and mist that rolls inwards from the coast and looks enchanting and magical. Apart from the amazing drive through trees that reach up towards the sky, the Avenue of Giants has many attractions. Visitors can do an auto tour of the drive; there are 8 interesting, designated stops with loads of information. Visitors can go hiking along the byway to see the biggest groves. They can visit the One Log House and drive through the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree.
Photograph the unique Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The park is located over two desert systems: the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert. The park is named after the unique, scraggly Joshua Tree which grows profusely in the Mojave desert section of the park. Inside Joshua Tree, you will find unique landscapes of bare rock formations, desert washes, and unique trees and cacti like the Joshua Tree, Ocotillo, and Cholla cactus. Things to do inside Joshua Tree National Park include climbing over the boulders, hiking to the park’s oasis, spotting cacti flowers in the spring, and seeing the vista from Keys View. Visitors can also see the San Andreas faultline from the national park. The park looks beautiful in spring when the cacti are blooming and wildflowers are sprinkled throughout the desert landscape. Read our post on One Day in Joshua Tree for more information.
See the unique tufas at Mono Lake
Mono Lake is a very unique natural wonder in California’s eastern Sierra mountain ranges. This 65 square miles big saline lake was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago and is known for its fascinating geological formations known as the tufas. Tufas are towering limestone formations formed due to the deposition of limestone on the lake bed. The lake looks fascinating and eerily beautiful, especially at sunrise or sunset, due to the many tufas dotting its landscape. The lake is very popular for bird watching as hundreds of resident birds nest on its shores while migratory birds flock to the water source on their journey. Other activities to do at Mono Lake include photography, hiking, visiting the Mono Lake Visitor Center, and floating/swimming in its waters at Navy Beach.
Take a day trip to Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island is one of California’s Channel Islands and is not a part of the national park. It is known for its resorts and palm-lined beaches. Located south of Los Angeles, off the Pacific coast, the island makes a perfect day trip from the city. The two main destinations on the island include the city of Avalon and the town of Two Harbors. Santa Catalina Island is popular for its luxurious lifestyle, nightlife, and upscale shopping. During the day, visitors can check out museums, play golf, or take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens. The island also has many restaurants and eateries and is one of the most popular destinations in California for vacationing couples and families. There are also many outdoor attractions on Catalina Island. The island is famous for snorkeling, diving, and biking. It is also a popular spot to watch wildlife.
Take Instagram worthy photos in Alabama Hills
Alabama Hills is a unique landscape located along Route 395 in Eastern California. The Alabama Hills are unique rock formations on the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. This unique landscape is located near Lone Pine / Mt. Whitney. The hills are a famous filming locale and featured in movies such as Django Unchained and Gladiator. In fact, one of the main roads in Alabama Hills is called the Movie Road. Visitors can also camp anywhere in Alabama Hills as the land is free for public use. There are many hiking trails and arches located in the Alabama Hills including Mobius Arch and Boot Arch. Another unique attraction in this fascinating landscape is the painted rock known as the Face of Alabama Hills.
Visit the windiest place in North America at Point Reyes
Point Reyes National Seashore has one of the most rugged coastlines in Northern California. Located about 30 miles to the north of San Francisco, it is a popular destination on the Pacific Coast Highway road trip along the West Coast. Point Reyes is the windiest place on the continent. A highlight of the natural area is the Point Reyes Lighthouse, built-in 1870. This scenic lighthouse can be accessed by climbing down a series of steps to the cape. Point Reyes also has amazing wildlife and is a great place to watch for migrating whales. Other animals and marine life that can be frequently spotted include sea lions, otters, elks, deer, eagles, and hawks. Point Reyes also has many hiking trails and picnic areas. It makes a great day trip from San Francisco.
Watch an amazing sunset at Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Lighthouse located in Pescadero, south of Half Moon Bay, is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country. This scenic lighthouse enjoys a beautiful location on a coastal bluff and looks stunning at sunset when the red-orange sky looks like a painting behind the whitewashed lighthouse. In spring, the area surrounding the lighthouse is blooming with wildflowers and looks as well as smells even more beautiful. The historic lighthouse was built in 1871 and at 115 feet tall is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast of the USA. Visitors can learn more about the lighthouse on a guided tour. The area around is protected by the Pigeon Point Lighthouse State Historic Park and has a sandy beach, picnic areas, tide pools, plus a boardwalk trail with a viewing area from where you can watch marine life and sea birds.
Go skiing in the shadow of Mount Shasta
Mount Shasta is an active stratovolcano located in the Cascade mountain ranges of northern California. The charming town of Mount Shasta is located on the slopes of the volcano. Mount Shasta has amazing outdoor activities year-round. Along with the peak of Mount Shasta, there are many mountain lakes and waterfall hikes surrounding the city. Visitors can go hiking, camping, biking around the city in summer. Lake Siskiyou is a beautiful lake that has many trails, the beautiful Wagon Creek Bridge, and is a paradise for fishing, boating, and kayaking. Mount Shasta City is also a popular winter destination for snowbirds. Visitors can stay at the ski resorts and learn skiing. Other snow activities include snow tubing, sledding, and snowshoeing.
Go on a cruise to the Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park located off the shores of California is one of the least visited national parks in the country. The park consists of 5 of the 8 Channel Islands and is an excellent place to watch the diverse marine life. The Channel Islands can be easily accessed from a boat cruise from Ventura. The Channel Islands Visitor Center is also located in Ventura and is a great place to visit to learn more about the islands. Each of the islands has a different attraction. Anacapa Island is famous for the iconic view from Inspiration Point and its historic lighthouse. Santa Cruz Island is famous for its sea caves while Santa Barbara Island is excellent for birding. The Channel Islands is also a great place for scuba diving among the sea kelps.
We hope you liked our post on the best things to do in California. The state has many other attractions such as the sea coves at La Jolla, the beautiful glass beach at Fort Bragg, and the lava tubes at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Did we miss out on any hidden gems in California? Let us know in the comments!