California is the most populous state in the United States as well as the third largest by area. It’s also the most racially and ethnically diverse state in the country, and that diversity has created a cultural melting pot that enriches life for all who reside and visit here. The state has extensive coastal landscape and scenic views for everyone to enjoy, from deserts, beaches, and forests to mountainous wilderness and bustling cityscapes. Needless to say, there is no shortage of amazing things to see in California. We’ve compiled a list, in no particular order, of some of the Golden State’s top spots to help you plan your next trip.
1. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established Sequoia National Park, the second national park in the United States, to specifically protect the giant sequoia trees from logging. Fifty years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Kings Canyon National Park. These two parks in east-central California are contiguous and have been administered jointly since the 1940s.
The most recognizable features in the parks are the giant sequoia trees, the largest trees in the world. The General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume, measures a whopping 52,508 cubic feet and is one of the top attractions in California. Other residents of the parks include abundant and markedly diverse wildlife thanks to the parks’ range of elevations and habitats.
There are many ways to explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon, including from below and above. A guided tour of Crystal Cave, where visitors can see a prime example of a marble cavern, is available. Sweeping vistas can be found atop large granite domes such as Moro Rock, which rises thousands of feet and can be accessed via a 350-step staircase.
2. Redwood National and State Parks
Giant sequoias aren’t the only trees to have become California tourist attractions – redwoods occupy their own share of the limelight. The Redwood National and State Parks complex is home to groves of coast redwoods, the tallest and some of the longest-living trees in the world. Park-goers can experience the towering trees on walks, drives, bike rides, or overnight camping stays.
But tall trees aren’t the only attractions. Take advantage of the parks’ coastal location by seeking out beaches and scenic overlooks. Enderts Beach, for example, enchants visitors with its rugged appearance and opportunities to observe sea stars, crabs, and more in its tidepools. Fans of wildlife might also consider a jaunt to the Klamath River Overlook, where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean. Here, eagle-eyed watchers can spy various marine birds and seals. With a bit of luck (and maybe some binoculars), visitors may be able to spot migrating gray whales in the spring or fall.
Hikers who aren’t afraid to get their feet wet should check out the Fern Canyon Loop Trail. This walk follows a cobbled stream and is distinguished by its small canyon covered in verdant, leafy ferns. A herd of wild elk often treks through the area, adding to its striking beauty.
3. Palm Springs
Located within the Coachella Valley in Southern California, Palm Springs is a resort city known for its shopping, hotels and spas, and plethora of nearby golf courses. Winter, when snowbirds flock from colder climes to take advantage of Palm Springs’ balmy weather, is the high season here.
For thousands of years, the area has been inhabited by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and today more than 10% of the city sits on reservation land. Palm Springs became a playground for Hollywood celebrities in the 20th century; stars who had holiday homes here include Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Kirk Douglas, among many others. Celebrities still use Palm Springs as a hideaway today.
Palm Springs is one of the best places to visit in California for admirers of art and architecture, as the city claims to be home to the world’s largest concentration of preserved mid-century modern architecture. A self-guided tour of various mid-century houses, estates, and other buildings is almost enough to transport travelers back to the ’50s and ’60s. There is no shortage of evening entertainment options in Palm Springs, and one notable event is VillageFest, which takes place downtown every Thursday night. This pedestrian street fair features live music, booths with arts and crafts, and snacks from local restaurants.
Recommendation: Book this fascinating 1.5-hour tour of Palm Springs and see the houses once occupied by the rich and famous, including celebrities from Hollywood’s golden years. You will also discover where current celebrities live, so keep your eyes open for some star spotting!
4. Joshua Tree National Park
Yet another park named after a tree, Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California is known not for forests and greenery but for its captivating – and sometimes surreal – desert landscape. In fact, this park marks the spot where two separate desert ecosystems meet: the Mojave and the Colorado.
The weird and wild beauty of gnarled, spiny Joshua trees makes this park a must-see in California. Visitors have several options when it comes to exploring the desert, but careful planning is strongly advised: Deserts are lands of extremes, from scorching summer heat to freezing winter temperatures and even flash floods during the monsoon season from mid-July to early September.
Some 300 miles of hiking trails are available, ranging from short and easy to long and challenging. Horseback riding is another popular way to see the park, thanks to 253 miles of designated equestrian trails. Bike riding is also permitted, though the activity is only recommended on back-country roads. Arguably the best view in the park, however, requires an overnight stay, either on campgrounds or as part of a wilderness backpacking trek. As Joshua Tree National Park is an International Dark Sky Park, visitors who linger after dark are treated to unobstructed views of stars, planets, and comets.
5. Lake Tahoe
Straddling the border between California and Nevada in the Sierra Nevada range is Lake Tahoe, a large freshwater lake and a major tourist attraction for both states in which it sits. Lake Tahoe is the second deepest and sixth largest lake by volume in the US, as well as being the largest alpine lake in the country. Its impressive size means miles of coastline for resorts and activities that suit every taste, no matter the season.
Lake Tahoe is famous as a winter sports haven. There are more than a dozen ski resorts on the California side of the lake offering just about every snow sport one could want, including downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, sledding, snow biking, snow tubing, and ice skating. Nightlife options are abundant, from après-ski gatherings to fine dining to live music.
The fun doesn’t stop as the weather warms up. Outdoorsy Tahoe visitors can hike and bike trails up in the mountains or on the lake’s picturesque shoreline, and if the sparkling blue waters prove tempting, fishing and boating are available as well. For more easygoing vacation options, tourists can seek out various spas, shopping venues, and art galleries.
Recommendation: This scenic half-day hiking and sightseeing tour takes in waterfalls, glaciers, and possible sightings of the occasional bear. Whether you are a photography fan or nature lover, this is the ultimate Lake Tahoe tour.
6. Death Valley National Park
Hugging the border with Nevada in Southern California is Death Valley National Park, known as the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the US. Its name implies a barren wasteland, but it hosts almost 400 resilient species of animals as well as more than 1,000 plant species.
Hiking, backpacking, and camping are common activities here, but with hundreds of miles of backcountry roads and more than three million acres of wilderness, the most efficient way to see the park’s dramatic landscapes may just be by car.
The park is at its most stunning at sunrise and sunset, and several viewpoints have been identified to maximize these brief times of day. For one of the most impressive vistas in the park, head to Dante’s Peak in the early hours. At an elevation of 5,475 feet, this spot offers sweeping views made all the more breathtaking when the sunrise paints the skies with fiery hues. Sunset seekers should consider heading to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the largest sand dune field in the park. Three different types of dunes can be found here, and all of them look majestic through the pinkish filter of the desert sunset.
7. Napa Valley
This area north of San Francisco is unquestionably the best place to visit in California for wine enthusiasts. More than 375 wineries and 90 urban tasting rooms host wine tastings in Napa Valley, which boasts a dry Mediterranean climate perfect for growing wine grapes. And even if wine isn’t your passion, Napa Valley’s beautiful weather alone makes this region well worth a visit.
There are many possible approaches to organizing one’s vineyard tour schedule, whether it’s by grape preference, city, or price point. Another method is by mode of transportation, and the options are wide-ranging. After all, who wants to worry about how to hop from vineyard to vineyard? Wine tour groups can travel around via car, limousine, bicycle, train, trolley, or even on foot in a walking group. Other popular wine-related activities are culinary pairings at wineries and restaurants and hot air balloon rides, which give guests unparalleled views of the vineyards followed by a sparkling wine toast. You can book a hot air balloon ride here.
Not the biggest fan of wine? No problem. Revel in Napa Valley’s sunny weather by spending some time outdoors. Golfers will find plenty of courses to play in the area, and hikers, bikers, and equestrians can choose from several trails boasting sweeping valley vistas.
8. Yosemite National Park
Some 10,000 years ago, Ice Age glaciers melted in eastern California to reveal the landscape that would become Yosemite National Park. The newly uncovered land soon supported an impressive variety of plant and animal life. Native Americans lived and traveled through the area for thousands of years before the 1849 discovery of gold brought the first non-native people. Yosemite has been a tourist destination ever since, and with 747,956 acres to explore, it’s a park that visitors will want to return to more than once.
Hiking is popular at Yosemite National Park, and there are plenty of trails to choose from. Hikes range from easy to strenuous, and hikers can encounter a wide variety of stunning topographical features, including waterfalls, wildflower meadows, giant sequoias, valleys, and lakes.
Outdoorsy folks will find lots to do at Yosemite, no matter the season. Rock climbing, biking, river rafting, and skiing might appeal to the athletic crowd, while more low-key explorers can enjoy activities like birdwatching, fishing, and stargazing. The Yosemite Museum and the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee provide insight into the history of the park and the native people who originally resided in the area.
9. Mammoth Lakes
Not far from Yosemite National Park is another all-season outdoor playground, the town of Mammoth Lakes. Part of the Sierra Nevada Range, Mammoth Mountain is the star here and the highest chairlift-serviced peak in California. Winter shines brightest at this well-known ski area, but there are attractions aplenty year-round.
Naturally, some of the most popular winter activities on the mountain are downhill skiing and snowboarding. However, there are also miles of terrain suitable for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling, and tubing, sledding, and ice-skating provide fun for the whole family. If by chance the weather is less than perfect, indoor offerings include bowling, golf simulators, and trampolining.
Summer almost rivals winter when it comes to outdoor pursuits in these parts. Lakes, streams, and creeks allow for fishing and swimming as well as boating, kayaking, and paddleboarding. Back on land, visitors can enjoy sun-soaked alpine views at campsites, on hiking and biking trails, and even on two golf courses. Adventurous visitors can get an up-close look at the terrain via rock climbing and mountaineering. If a peaceful retreat is more your scene, consider traveling to Mammoth Lakes in the fall, when the crowds recede and the foliage in and around the town bursts into striking fiery colors.
10. San Francisco
If you only have time to see one city in the Golden State, San Francisco, the best place to visit in Northern California, should be at the top of your list. It is the fourth most populous city in California, but its landmass only covers around 50 square miles; this density means that there is an abundance of attractions within close proximity of each other. Whether your travel must-see list is focused on nature, culture, or flavors, you can tick them all off in San Francisco.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is undoubtedly San Francisco’s most popular tourist attraction, but the Golden Gate green spaces shouldn’t be missed, either. To the north is Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a dog-friendly area with opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, and much more. To the south, Golden Gate Park has a Japanese tea garden, an aquarium, a nine-hole golf course, and the de Young Museum among its many attractions.
Recommendation: Sail along San Francisco’s breathtaking waterfront, under the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, and around notorious Alcatraz Island on this award-winning Golden Gate Bay Cruise.
For guaranteed culture, history, and phenomenal food, consider taking a tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. To the south, the Mission District is the historic center for San Francisco’s Mexican-American community. This neighborhood has thriving Latino culinary and artistic scenes, as well as the Mission San Francisco de Asís, the city’s oldest standing building.
Situated on the Monterey Peninsula, this resort town may be the best place for vacation in California if you’re seeking peaceful stretches of coast, quaint architecture, and a community focused on the arts. Carmel’s population is less than 4,000, so the town retains a tranquil, secluded feel despite its popularity. Golf aficionados who travel here get the added perk of proximity to the renowned Pebble Beach Golf Links.
One of the town’s best loved attractions, Carmel Beach looks postcard-perfect thanks to its white sands, cypress trees, and backdrop of rocky bluffs. Rip currents and rogue waves prevent swimming most of the time, but wading, sunbathing, and meandering along the Scenic Bluff Path are all excellent ways to enjoy the coastal scenery. Carmel is famously dog-friendly, so feel free to bring your (well-behaved) pup along as your beachside buddy.
If art and architecture pique your interests, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Carmel has nearly 100 art galleries within one square mile, as well as art workshops, tours, and monthly and annual art-focused events. Architecture buffs should definitely visit the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, built in the late 1700s, and Carmel’s iconic cottages, which look like they’ve been plucked from the pages of a fairytale.
12. Big Sur
Roughly 25 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea is Big Sur, a rugged stretch of coastline famous for its pristine appearance. It’s impossible to drive through Big Sur along the twisting Highway 1 without making at least a few stops to soak in the unspoiled scenery. Whether you’re carving out time for some roadside attractions or deciding to stay a few nights at one of Big Sur’s campgrounds, cozy cabins, or picturesque lodges, don’t forget your camera – you’ll want to capture this coastline.
One of the most photographed sites in Big Sur is Bixby Bridge. Rising 260 feet above Bixby Creek and its surrounding canyons, the concrete span bridge is one of the tallest of its kind in the world. There are several nearby spots along the road where cars can pull over for a quick stop, and these are ideal places for photographing the bridge, which stuns against a backdrop of mountainous coastline, particularly at sunset.
More photo-worthy scenes lie off the beaten path. Pfeiffer Beach, for example, is a spectacular sunset spot, and features a frequently photographed rock formation known as Keyhole Arch. Venture into Limekiln State Park to find yourself among towering redwoods, waterfalls, and the park’s historic abandoned namesakes, 19th-century limekilns.
Recommendation: Discover the natural beauty of California at your own pace on this private 10-hour scenic tour of Carmel, Monterey, and Big Sur from San Francisco. Journey along the 17-Mile Drive, see the Big Sur Bixby Creek Bridge, go to Poit Lobos State Reserve and more.
13. Santa Barbara
Sitting right on the Pacific Coast with the Santa Ynez Mountains serving as a dramatic backdrop, Santa Barbara calls itself the American Riviera. With its Mediterranean climate, south-facing beaches, and plethora of cultural and culinary offerings, there’s no mystery as to why that nickname has stuck.
Santa Barbara is perhaps best enjoyed outdoors. With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, the beaches are a clear draw. Whether you’re a surfer, dog owner, horseback rider, overnight camper, volleyball player, stand-up paddleboarder, or whale watcher, or you’re on an outing with the family, there is a beach in Santa Barbara that caters to your interests. Outdoor enjoyment continues further inland, where more than 50 parks and public gardens contribute to the city’s lush landscape.
The foodie scene is strong in Santa Barbara, with many unique farm-to-table restaurants and craft breweries. Eateries here specialize in a variety of cuisines, from California coastal to Italian to Mexican to authentic Southern to reimagined diner fare. Many restaurants dish up their creations alongside wine from local vineyards. Make the most of your day or night out by pairing your meal with some entertainment, such as an opera or theater performance or a trip to one of Santa Barbara’s various museums.
14. Los Angeles
When it comes to sightseeing in California, Los Angeles is a must-do. The second largest city in the United States is an especially necessary pilgrimage for any television or movie buff, but this sprawling metropolis has enough varied neighborhoods to pique the interest of just about any traveler. Just like its many neighborhoods, greater LA is also home to multiple beaches, each with its own distinct personality and attractions.
While definitely tourist-heavy, iconic sites like the TCL Chinese Theatre and Hollywood Walk of Fame are unique to LA and worth a look for movie lovers. A drive down the historic, palm-lined Sunset Boulevard is another quintessentially Los Angeles experience, and the portion known as Sunset Strip is famous for its nightlife.
Not everything here is about the silver screen, though. With more than 4,210 acres of parkland, Griffith Park is the largest urban-wilderness municipal park in the country, complete with hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails as well as sports fields and three golf courses. The Griffith Observatory hosts the 290-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium, one of LA’s top attractions. The city also boasts dozens of museums, with collections focused on art, natural history, cars, fashion, film, the maritime industry, world cultures, and much more.
Recommendation: Discover the history and the attractions of Los Angeles on this private full-day tour. This tour will take you through downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica Beach by SUV.
15. San Diego
Less than 20 miles north of the Mexican border is one of the best places to visit in Southern California for families: San Diego. As well as boasting typical coastal city attractions like beaches, San Diego offers a diverse array of parks and gardens, a large collection of historic sites, and tours for all ages.
There are 31 beaches in San Diego County, so all the usual ocean activities can be enjoyed, including snorkeling and scuba diving, surfing, paddleboarding, kayaking, boating and sailing, fishing, and, of course, swimming. Whale watching tours and cruises around San Diego Bay are other fun options on the water. Two major attractions for family outings are Belmont Park, an amusement park with a roller-coaster, bumper cars, and other rides, and the San Diego Zoo, one of the best zoos in the US and most well-known tourist attractions in California. The zoo serves as a 100-acre wildlife park as well as an accredited botanical garden.
History buffs will find plentiful points of interest in Old Town San Diego, where many significant structures built in the 19th century remain. Several of these buildings now house museums that offer insight into subjects like Old Town’s first inhabitants, the history of the Sheriff’s Department, and more.
It’s not hard to find fun things to do in California; the hard part is choosing which ones to do first. California’s size might make it seem intimidating as a vacation destination, but there’s no need to get overwhelmed. Once you’ve identified your favorite landscape or pastime, you’re well on your way to enjoying the sunshine.