California is known as the mecca of celebrity culture in the USA and in some ways, it is; this is where you’ll find Hollywood, after all! But there’s a lot more to this large American state than famous faces, film studios and the amusement parks that go with them. It’s also home to Silicon Valley, the global headquarters of many big tech companies. And don’t forget the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
There’s also some fantastic natural beauty on offer in California. There are giant redwoods to see, deserts and rock formations, and fantastic beaches along the coast. It’s home to sweeping landscapes, vineyards, and a collection of cities that are as famous as the state itself: think San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Packed full of culture and good food, the best places to visit in California are fascinating to explore.
20. Santa Cruz[SEE MAP]
Located on the northern shore of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz lies just to the south of San Jose and San Francisco. Known for its beautiful beach boardwalk and counterculture scene, the city is a very pleasant place to spend some time, with lots of incredible scenery nearby.
Life in ‘Surf City’ revolves around its beaches and boardwalk, which attract everyone from families and students to hippies, surfers, and street performers. As such, there is a very youthful and bohemian feel about town, with watersports such as paddle boarding, sailing, and surfing to be enjoyed.
Besides its wonderful waterfront, Santa Cruz also has a fun and lively downtown home to a plethora of great restaurants, shops, and bars. In addition, the nearby Natural Bridges State Beach and Big Basin Redwoods State Park are both well worth visiting for their lovely nature trails and spectacular scenery.
19. Sonoma Valley[SEE MAP]
Part of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma Valley lies just to the north of the city, not far from San Pablo Bay. Home to lovely rural landscapes, the fertile valley is renowned for its vineyards and wineries. It was actually here that California’s world-famous wine industry began.
Much more relaxed and laidback than the glitzy and glamorous Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley is a pleasant and picturesque place to visit. In the town of Sonoma, you can find a number of excellent restaurants serving up local delicacies, as well as tasting rooms where you can sample some of the region’s fine wines.
Scattered around the Valley of the Moon (as it is also known) are sprawling estates and quaint wineries. Hiking and cycling are popular pastimes while taking a balloon ride above Sonoma Valley allows you to bask in the splendid scenery below.
18. Santa Monica[SEE MAP]
Bordered on three sides by Los Angeles, Santa Monica is a laidback beachfront city that offers a welcome respite from sightseeing around the home of Hollywood. Developed as a seaside resort town in the early 20th century, SaMo has long been a popular tourist destination due to its sun, sea and sand.
Jutting out into the Pacific is the bustling Santa Monica Pier, which sports a huge Ferris Wheel and old-fashioned amusement park. While this is great fun for the whole family, plenty of other activities can be enjoyed along its expansive beachfront, such as swimming, volleyball, and surfing.
Besides its golden sands, Santa Monica has a thriving alternative scene for visitors to delve into, with little art galleries and street murals to be found at the Bergamot Station Arts Center. A wealth of great bars, restaurants, shops, and hotels are also scattered about town catering to every budget and clientele.
17. Palm Springs[SEE MAP]
Palm Springs is a year-round desert playground on Interstate 10, connecting the Los Angeles area with Arizona. Home to many celebrities over the decades, Palm Springs is a good place to golf in the wintertime when temperatures are cooler than in summer.
The city, once popular with college students on spring break, is known for its mid-20th century modern architecture featured in many homes and business buildings. This architectural style is celebrated annually with Modernism Week. Sonny Bono, half of the defunct Sonny and Cher singing duo, once served as major of this southern California city.
While the desert oasis city once attracted Hollywood movie stars in the 50s and 60s, Palm Springs now appeals to all kinds of tourists and travellers and is home to a sizeable retiree population. There’s hiking in the nearby desert and San Jacinto Mountains as well as a plethora of museums to explore.
16. Joshua Tree National Park[SEE MAP]
Lying to the east of Los Angeles at the point where the Colorado and Mojave Deserts meet, Joshua Tree National Park is home to incredible wilderness and spectacular scenery. Named after the distinctive tree-like Yuccas that dot its diverse desert landscapes, the park has long been popular with nature lovers and outdoor aficionados.
Exploring the national park’s mountains, canyons, and rock formations really is a treat, with plenty of scenic trails and climbing routes snaking through the rugged scenery. As two separate desert ecosystems lie within the park, there is lots of diverse fauna and flora on show. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, and golden eagles can all be spotted from time to time.
While hiking, rock climbing and camping are all popular, the park’s dramatic geography and odd-shaped Joshua Trees make for some incredible photos. Such is the majesty and mystique of the Mojave Desert that U2 famously named one of their best-selling albums, The Joshua Tree, after it.
15. Laguna Beach[SEE MAP]
Set in a very scenic spot along southern California’s Pacific coastline, Laguna Beach is a beautiful place to visit with a very Mediterranean look and feel. While it is home to lots of beautiful beaches and luxury resorts, the popular seaside resort city is particularly known for its thriving artistic community.
Gorgeous public sculptures and art galleries can be found around town, with quaint cottages and artistic-looking homes and houses dotted here and there. Every summer, it hosts many fantastic events, such as the Festival of Arts, Sawdust Festival, and Pageant of the Masters, where artists showcase their latest creations.
Laguna Beach itself is just as impressive as its many artworks. Secluded coves and golden sands line the rugged cliffs that tumble down to the Pacific. While its many trails and paths are perfect for hiking or cycling, its wild waters attract surfers, and there is some exceptional scuba diving to be had beneath the waves.
14. Anaheim-Disneyland[SEE MAP]
Part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Anaheim is known for one thing and one thing only: Disneyland. However, this does it a major injustice. Over the years, it has slowly grown into the largest city in Orange County and so has much more going for it.
Home to a diverse range of neighbourhoods, Anaheim has pockets of great bars, restaurants, and shops, with many of these to be found clustered around downtown. It’s also a great place to visit if you want to watch baseball or hockey; both the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are based here. In addition, it boasts a large convention centre and hosts many events and competitions throughout the year.
Its main draw is admittedly Disneyland, which attracts millions of visitors every year with its exhilarating rides and plethora of entertainment opportunities. Fun for all of the family, the major tourist destination is home to shops, restaurants, and hotels, with another theme park and spa located within the resort.
13. Carmel-by-the-Sea[SEE MAP]
Located just to the south of Monterey Bay, Carmel-by-the-Sea lies along California’s Pacific Coast Highway in a very scenic spot. Surrounded by dramatic cliffs and verdant hills, the oceanside town has long been popular among artists, writers, and poets due to its spectacular natural setting.
The former artists’ colony has a very quaint look and feel; this is in large part due to its charming cottages and atmospheric old houses. Its rich artistic heritage is still on show in the numerous art galleries and studios dotted about town. Fine restaurants, cosy cafes, and boutique shops abound, and there are lots of lovely inns and B&Bs for visitors to stay at.
At the heart of the small town is the beautiful white-sand Carmel Beach which over the years has been replicated and reproduced in countless paintings and artworks. While it is often shrouded in mist, its sumptuous setting and fierce sunsets make it very popular among locals and out-of-towners alike.
12. Channel Islands[SEE MAP]
Strung out along southern California’s scenic coastline, the Channel Islands are a small archipelago of eight islands surrounded by the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Five of the Channel Islands lie within a national park of the same name that protects and preserves its sensitive ecosystems. With rugged canyons, jagged cliffs, and pristine beaches, they are a fantastic place to explore.
While two of the islands are inaccessible to citizens (as they are used by the US Navy), fishing, scuba diving, and sailing are permitted in their surrounding waters. The only inhabited island is Santa Catalina, home to the small town and village of Avalon and Two Harbors.
The island has been a tourist resort since the 1920s, with chewing gum magnate William Wrigley kicking off the tourism movement. Catalina Island is, however, also a popular day trip destination since it’s just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.
It’s a good place to ride glass-bottom boat to explore reefs and old shipwrecks; snorkeling and scuba diving also are popular activities. Native Americans have lived on the island for 8,000 years; you can learn more about them and the island’s history at the Catalina Island Museum. Surprisingly, the island even boasts a small population of American bison that were brought to the island during the filming of a movie.
11. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks[SEE MAP]
These two national parks are located next door to each other in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, and both are famous for their enormous giant sequoia trees. These trees can grow to be more than 300 feet (90 meters) tall and their trunks can be as much as 100 feet (30 meter) wide.
Sequoia National Park, which was established in 1890, is also home to Mount Whitney, which is the highest point in the contiguous United States. Interestingly enough, Kings Canyon boasts the deepest canyon in America.
The parks are also home to a lot of wildlife species, including bobcats, gray foxes, bears and mule deer. If they’re lucky, visitors might even be able to spot bighorn sheep or mountain lions. Both parks are popular with backpackers and hikers, and there are 14 campgrounds available for visitors.
10. Redwood National Park[SEE MAP]
Home to some of the tallest and oldest trees on Earth, Redwood National Park lies on California’s Pacific Coast in the northwest of the state. Established in 1968, the park protects the towering trees and the diverse ecosystems found in the old-growth forests.
While the mountains, rivers, and gorges dotting the region make for a fine sight, it is the enormous redwoods that are the star attraction. These magnificent trees often tower over a hundred meters, and some are more than two thousand years old. Hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding beneath them is an awe-inspiring experience as natural history lies all around you.
Redwood National Park’s rugged coast boasts some particularly dramatic scenery. Here, you can go kayaking and whale watching, with the redwoods forming a beautiful backdrop to the secluded coves and beaches along the park’s shores.
9. Santa Barbara[SEE MAP]
Set in a scenic spot between the steep slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is one of California’s most pleasant and picturesque coastal cities. As it boasts a majestic mountain backdrop, beautiful beaches, and a sunny climate, it is often billed as the ‘American Riviera’.
Besides its breathtaking setting, the city itself looks a treat. Lush parks and charming Spanish-style buildings dot the palm tree-lined streets. Of its many attractions, the Old Mission is the most famous and impressive due to its lovely architecture, flower-filled garden, and centuries-old artworks. As it is also home to exquisite restaurants, boutique shops, and art galleries, Santa Barbara is often seen as an upmarket destination.
Lying just 160 kilometers to the northwest of LA, it makes for a fantastic day trip or weekend getaway, with many festivals and cultural events held here throughout the year. Whether it’s hiking along the scenic coastline, surfing at the beaches, or visiting the nearby vineyards and wineries, Santa Barbara certainly has something that appeals to everyone.
8. Napa Valley[SEE MAP]
Located in California’s Bay Area, Napa Valley has long been a popular tourist destination and is famed for its beautiful landscapes and world-class wineries. Driving around its rolling hills and fertile vineyards is the best way to explore the region’s sights and scenery, although the roads can get quite busy in the summer months.
While most people come to sample the valley’s delicious wines, many gourmet restaurants, classy bistros, and award-winning spas are also dotted about. As such, it is a wonderful place to relax and unwind, with plenty of boutique hotels and luxury resorts to indulge yourself at. Napa also offers excellent hiking, golfing, and horseback riding, while hot air balloon rides above its idyllic countryside make for an unforgettable experience.
The most popular thing to do is embark on a wine tasting tour. The region has more than 200 wineries for you to choose from. Set among row upon row of grapevines, the gorgeous estates are lovely to visit. Sampling some of the excellent local wines in the sunshine is what Napa Valley is all about.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Napa Valley
7. Big Sur[SEE MAP]
Located between the Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, Big Sur is a large, rocky stretch of the Californian Coastline. True to its name, Big Sur covers a rather large expanse of the coast; although it doesn’t have any official boundaries, it lines around 70 miles (110 km) of the California’s famous Highway One.
The area is a magnet for travelers on road trips, who are attracted by the incredible jagged rocks, towering redwood trees and breathtaking beaches along the route. More than just beautiful scenery for driving through, the area also provides plenty of top hiking opportunities which wind their way through the several state parks encompassed by Big Sur. These are home to sights, such as the iconic Bixby Bridge and rock towers at Pfeiffer Beach.
Big Sur’s towering seaside cliffs and ocean views have acquired an almost mythic reputation. As such, millions of people visit the region each year for its epic wilderness, stunning views, and ample outdoor recreation opportunities.
6. Lake Tahoe[SEE MAP]
The largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe lies high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, straddling the California and Nevada state line. Long a popular tourist destination, its beautiful blue waters lend themselves perfectly to all kinds of outdoor activities, while a number of towns and cities dot its scenic shores.
Sparkling in the sun, Lake Tahoe stands out delightfully against the majestic mountains and forests that surround it. The lake became a vibrant winter sports destination after the 1960s Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley on the North Shore. Summer brings hiking in the mountains and boat trips on the lake, as well as days spent lazing on the shore, swimming, and BBQs.
Lake Tahoe is a great place to relax, unwind, and immerse yourself in nature, but it also has some pretty towns and cities to discover. The Nevada side of the lake attracts gamblers due to its many casinos, while Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe have lovely beaches. In addition, Reno isn’t too far away if you want to head to a larger city at some point.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
5. San Diego[SEE MAP]
Often called ‘America’s Finest City’, sun-kissed San Diego is home to miles of golden sands, a laidback surfer culture, and many world-class attractions. The second-largest city in the state, it lies on Southern California’s scenic coastline, just north of the Mexican border.
While lounging on beautiful beaches such as Mission Beach and La Jolla Shores is a must when in town, San Diego also boasts fantastic museums and historical sights. Many of these are in Balboa Park, which is also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. In addition, Downtown has plenty of great shops, restaurants, and bars, as well as numerous beautiful old buildings – such as Mission San Diego de Alcala – which highlight the city’s rich Spanish heritage.
San Diego’s warm climate lends itself perfectly to all kinds of outdoor activities, with swimming, surfing, and watersports being very popular. Hiking and cycling along the stunning coastline is also a lovely pastime, and Tijuana is just a short drive away should you feel like a day trip to Mexico.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Diego
See also: Top San Diego Attractions
4. Death Valley[SEE MAP]
Home to a harsh and unforgiving environment, the fittingly named Death Valley lies in the arid Mojave Desert. Set in a national park of the same name, the valley boasts awe-inspiring landscapes and spectacular scenery.
From snow-capped mountains to colorful sand dunes, the unique desert landscapes of Death Valley are like no other place in California. Places of interests include the scenic vista of Zabriskie Point and historic sites like Scotty’s Castle, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns and ruins of ghost towns.
The park is also home to the barren Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America, as well as the fiery Furnace Creek – one of the hottest places on Earth. There are also towering mountain ranges as well as epic dunes, steep gorges, and life-giving oases.
Numerous hiking trails and mountain bike paths weave their way around the park’s diverse desert landscapes, too. As Death Valley covers a vast area, it’s a good idea to stock up on water and gas before entering the national park.
3. Los Angeles[SEE MAP]
The second-largest city in the USA, Los Angeles is located in southern California surrounded by the Pacific Coast, mountains and valleys. Known as the City of Angels, the city offers a wide range of attractions and beaches, including wild-and-crazy Venice Beach and Malibu, the sandy playground favored by movie stars.
Travelers to L.A. can find some of the best-known amusement parks on the planet here, including Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. Los Angeles is also one of the best places in the United States to go in search of celebrities. Tourists can look for celebrity homes or shop at the designer stores in Beverly Hills that cater to the stars. And in L.A., travelers can also visit and eat at the same famous restaurants that the celebs and the rich and famous dine at.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Los Angeles
See also: Top L.A. Attractions
2. Yosemite National Park[SEE MAP]
One of the most famous and popular national parks in the US, Yosemite is visited by millions of people every year. Located in the western part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the park is home to some of the country’s most impressive and recognizable vistas.
Attractions include Glacier Point, with incredible views of the Yosemite Valley, the nature center and Yosemite Museum and historic places like the LeConte Memorial Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel.
Tucked away among its mighty peaks, sweeping canyons, and endless verdant forests are countless lakes and streams, as well as a myriad of scenic trails and paths. Hiking, rock climbing, and horseback riding around the remote wilderness is a delight. The park is most known for its gigantic granite domes and cliffs, which make for distinctive and dramatic sights.
Besides the hulking El Capitan and huge Half Dome, the park also boasts groves of the giant sequoia and a number of towering waterfalls. Of these, Yosemite Falls is the most spectacular: it plunges 739 meters down the steep rockface.
1. San Francisco[SEE MAP]
One of the most famous and photogenic cities in the world, San Francisco is renowned for its scenic beauty, iconic sights, and open, accepting culture. Set on a peninsula with the beautiful San Francisco Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, it is one of the States’ most popular tourist destinations.
Often shrouded in mist, San Francisco’s many hills are home to a myriad of diverse neighbourhoods where gorgeous streetscapes with lovely old Victorian architecture on show. Superb theaters and museums can be found around Union Square, while Fisherman’s Wharf is the tourist center of the city. This is home to Pier 39, which boasts great shopping, dining, and entertainment options, as well as sunbathing seals and views of the bay. From here, you can take trips to Alcatraz Island and its famous federal prison (now as museum).
A very vibrant yet sophisticated place, San Francisco truly has something for everyone to enjoy and taking a ride on one of its cable cars is simply a must. These shoot you to the top of its steep hills where you can bask in the breathtaking views of the city and bay below and see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge stretching away into the distance.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Francisco
See also: Top San Francisco Attractions