Famous for Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a multitude of incredible beaches, the best cities in California have much more to offer lucky visitors. Often located in beautiful settings alongside the Pacific Ocean, old neighborhoods, each with their own identity and feel to them, are interspersed among modern cities that are home to an endless array of fantastic museums, world-class restaurants and lively bars.
With a healthy beach scene, you can trawl through these city’s streets and then relax and lounge on the pristine sands before heading to get a cocktail later in the evening.
Map of cities in California
Despite having almost twice the size and population of San Francisco, San Jose is often overlooked in comparison with its more prestigious neighbor. Rampant development projects unfortunately mean that it is somewhat lacking in identity.
The oldest Spanish settlement in California, and one of the largest cities in the country, San Jose is a diverse place and is now at the heart of Silicon Valley. Explore the various neighborhoods and you will find charming local communities with some great museums, galleries and parks scattered here and there.
A liberal city with a bohemian feel to it, Santa Cruz is a fun place to visit with some of the best beaches in the whole of the States. Full of eccentric characters from all walks of life, it is a countercultural hub that has an infectious and energetic atmosphere to it.
Thanks in part to its influential student body, the center of Santa Cruz is buzzing, with lots of bars and restaurants on offer. Even just spending time down by the waterfront watching people go by is an experience in itself. From here, there are several state parks that you can check out.
Located in Orange County, Newport Beach is renowned as much for its idyllic setting as its wealthy residents. While it is certainly true that fantastically rich people enjoy the city and its accompanying pleasures, it is possible to visit Newport Beach on a slightly less extravagant budget.
Incredible sunsets bathe the fantastic beaches in a radiant glow most days, and there are some great surfing spots and delicious seafood to try out. For a more upmarket side to the city, head to the appropriately named Fashion Island and wander around its huge malls.
Located in the picturesque Napa Valley, this city’s proximity to San Francisco makes it perfect for a day trip – especially if you are looking to sample some of the region’s fantastic wines. While cute Victorian cottages and run down warehouses were once the norm, an increase in real-estate prices has re-energized the downtown area, so now there are lots of nice eateries to check out.
There are plenty of great activities to engage in here; visitors can go horseback riding, take a cruise, or even ride in a hot air balloon. However, with over three hundred wineries in the area, it is often wine tours that triumph over everything!
One of the best cities from which to explore everything the Los Angeles region has to offer, Santa Monica certainly receives its fair share of tourists, who choose it for its proximity to several popular destinations.
Lying on the Pacific Ocean, the city’s laidback hippie vibe is enticing, and an eclectic mix of people rub shoulders within its bars and restaurants. While many people head to the beaches, or the pier with its distinctive Ferris Wheel, others prefer to wander around the farmer’s markets and trendy boutiques or delve into Santa Monica’s lively counterculture.
With one of the largest ports in the country, Long Beach is remarkably one of the most diverse cities in the whole USA. This in itself makes it well worth a visit, as each community has impacted the city in one way or another.
Due to its vast size, the city has everything – from quiet suburban areas and exclusive neighborhoods to the usual urban sprawl. There are many tourist attractions worth checking out, such as the fantastic floating Queen Mary museum. In addition to all this, there are lots of great restaurants and bars to discover.
Located in California’s Central Valley, Fresno is smack bang in the center of a desolate landscape, with four incredible national parks lying nearby. Consequently, many people stop here on the way to Yosemite National Park or the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Although the city’s surrounding farmland has suffered from droughts in recent years, this has helped stimulate sustainable approaches to food, which has in turn fueled Fresno’s culinary renaissance. Home to a number of diverse communities from around the world, Fresno is a great option if you want a peaceful base from which to explore the national parks.
With its stunning setting on the Pacific coast, Monterey is a beautiful place to stop by. It has a lovely historic center, with many old buildings dating back to the period when Spain and Mexico ruled California.
The city’s magnificent aquarium is one of the main attractions that draws tourists to Monterey, and its incredible Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is home to a plethora of interesting marine mammals.
If you take a boat trip around the bay, you may see sea lions, seals and dolphins if you are lucky. With lots of great restaurants and a number of lovely views over the ocean, Monterey will certainly not disappoint with all the great sights it has to offer.
Nicknamed the ‘Riviera of the West’, Santa Barbara’s proximity to Los Angeles makes it a great day trip due to its fantastic weather and picturesque surroundings. It has many great beaches, with East Beach being the most popular.
Relaxing on the sand or surfing the waves is divine. A fantastic place to live, Santa Barbara has lots of great bars and restaurants for locals and tourists alike to enjoy, as well as some impressive architecture, as demonstrated by the Spanish Mission Church.
Lying in the Southern Californian desert, Palm Springs is remarkably a resort city that used to attract Hollywood celebrities in the 50’s and 60’s. Now, however, the city caters to a very different crowd, as retirees and golfers mix in with hipsters and the large LGBT community.
There is a slightly dated elegance and grandeur to Palm Springs, as renowned architects once constructed amazing buildings for the rich and famous. As the main city in Coachella Valley, Palm Springs has some great hiking in its beautiful surroundings, and many people stop by during the Coachella music festival.
The capital of the state, Sacramento is set at the point where two rivers join, and is much more affordable than many of the other big cities in California. A sprawling place, interspersed among the modern buildings you can find trendy boutiques, farmer’s markets and more.
Old Sacramento is the historic center, offering some interesting museums, restaurants and old-style shops. The city isn’t a bad place to visit, and has some lively nightlife as well as a good arts and cultural scene.
Set in Orange County, Anaheim is synonymous with Disneyland; the theme park lies right next to it – consequently, most visitors head straight to the park. Apart from this, the city is home to major baseball and hockey teams, so is a great place to watch some of America’s most popular sports. As well as the numerous convention halls that dot Anaheim, it is a great stopping off point if you are looking to explore more of Orange County.
Lying on the Pacific Ocean, San Diego is a huge city that smacks of confidence in terms of all that it has to offer. There are over sixty beaches dotted along its shores, each with their own vibe and set of activities – whether that be swimming and surfing or beachside bars and watersports; all of them are bathed in resplendent sunshine for most of the year.
Due to this, each neighborhood has its own identity, and it’s a very laidback place, despite being so large. Full of amazing museums, San Diego also has a lively Downtown area, in addition to various theme parks, a zoo and an aquarium. Perfect for family holidays, this diverse and cosmopolitan city has everything that you could want.
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Simply stunning. Breathtakingly beautiful, craggy mountains loom behind the city, while idyllic beaches line its shores. Rolling valleys and luscious forests surround the aptly nicknamed ‘City of Angels’. Whether it is exploring the surrounding wilderness or visiting Hollywood and Beverley Hills, there is something for everyone in this massive city.
Somewhat mirroring its elaborate movie sets – created in the film studios which have made LA so famous around the world – the city has an electric range of architectural styles which are unrivaled in the States.
Brimming with energy and creativity, there is an endless array of galleries, shows and theater productions to watch. Add in a vibrant culinary scene and the famous beach spots at Venice Beach and Santa Monica, and you have one hell of a city.
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Set on and amidst forty-three hills that tumble down to the water, San Francisco is an iconic city – in part due to its famous, mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Every year, it welcomes millions of visitors to its streets. Here you can be whoever you want to be, and its daring inhabitants have consistently pushed the boundaries of what is possible – whether that’s in terms of fashion and identity or innovation and technology.
This liberal community is a melting pot of cultures and people and there are a plethora of farmer’s markets and restaurants in this magical place, where fancy wine bars rub shoulders with quirky bars and trendy cafes.
Lying next to the Pacific, it is a beautiful city to behold. Numerous different architectural styles are shown off in its buildings and there are some great viewing points from the hilltops. Constantly evolving and changing, San Francisco’s climate reflects this – the weather changes throughout the day, with rain and fog giving way to glorious sunshine.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Francisco
See also: Top San Francisco Attractions