Places to Visit in Calfiornia: How to Pick the Best One for You

To help you plan a perfect California visit, this article looks at things differently. It includes the most interesting sights, attractions, and things to do by interest. 

Whether you want to explore nature, have fun with the family, have an adventure, or eat some great food, the Golden State has options aplenty. 

01 of 06

Top 10 Places to Go

greetings from california card
Andy Castro/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

You could spend your entire vacation visiting one or a few of these iconic California places. But don't stop here. Check the rest of this list to find places where you can indulge your interests.

  1. Los Angeles: From the beaches to the mountains, you'll find plenty of things to do in Los Angeles. They include theme parks, beaches, cultural attractions, and exploring the city's film making history.
  2. San Diego: The weather is near-perfect for much of the year. The top things to do in San Diego include visiting the top tourist attractions, eating some fantastic food, and enjoying outdoor activities.
  3. San Francisco: There are lots of good reasons people say they left their hearts in the City by the Bay. The top 20 things to do in San Francisco are only a few of them. It includes old standbys, along with some ways to explore modern San Francisco.
  4. Yosemite National Park: The park's waterfalls, giant trees, and grand mountains are well known, but it can be so full of visitors that it ruins your experience. That is unless you know how to be a smart Yosemite trip planner.
  5. Death Valley: It's one of the hottest places in the world, but also one of the most fascinating. If you plan a Death Valley visit, you'll enjoy views that span from the heights of Dante's Peak to the lows of the salt flats. 
  6. Big Sur: The scenery and Pacific Ocean views are so captivating that you'll barely be able to keep your eyes on the road. But don't get too distracted or you'll miss these top things to do in Big Sur.
  7. Highway One: It's not exactly a place, but California's iconic highway spans 750 miles of road from north to south. That makes it the way to enjoy small towns and stunning views using the end-to-end guide to Highway One.
  8. Napa Valley: The wine-growing region north of San Francisco is world-renowned for its wine, cuisine, and gorgeous surroundings. You could linger for a week, but you can also get a good feel for it in a day.
  9. Lake Tahoe: The sapphire-blue lake on the California-Nevada border is known for its ski resorts. But you can plan a Lake Tahoe visit any time of year for the mountain scenery and fresh air.
  10. Disneyland: People started flocking to Disneyland the day it opened, and they've never stopped. You may have been to the Disney theme parks elsewhere, but plan your trip to the original Disneyland for its unique rides — and the feel of going to the only Disney park that Walt Disney ever set foot in.
02 of 06

For Kids and the Young at Heart

Mad Tea Party at Disneyland
Betsy Malloy Photography

If you're traveling with children or you're a kid at heart who enjoys a playful vacation, consider these options:

If you take the kids to San Francisco, a trip to the former prison of Alcatraz may keep their attention — and the ride across the bay provides a great view of the city. You can find a lot more things to do in the guide to San Francisco with kids.

Among the things to Do in San Diego with kids are playing at the beach or visiting the city's family-oriented theme parks and zoo.

In LA, there's not just something for everyone but bunches of things to do in Los Angeles with your kids. That includes enhanced showings of Disney films, grazing through the food stalls at the Los Angeles Farmers Market, or becoming an amateur fossil-hunter at the La Brea Tar Pits.

You might be surprised how many things there are to do in Wine Country with kids. While the adults enjoy a glass of vino, the kids can have fun touring the wildlife compound at Safari West looking at antelope, zebra, and dozens of other animals

Disneyland opened south of Los Angeles in 1956, and the Southland hasn't given up its dominance of theme-oriented fun since then. But it's far from the only place you can find theme parks in California.

03 of 06

Places for Food and Wine Lovers

Hilltop Dinner at Jordan Winery, Sonoma
Betsy Malloy Photography

If you're a foodie, you may want to find the best locales to sample the culinary delights or enjoy some local specialties.

While San Diego hasn't yet achieved a national reputation for the quality of its restaurants, but it boasts some excellent cuisine and innovative chefs. Head to the Hillcrest neighborhood or La Jolla for top-rated dining, eat a fresh fish taco or try some locally made brews. 

San Francisco has a dizzying number of terrific restaurants, tasty nibbles in the Ferry Building Marketplace, and some lovely places for afternoon tea. Devoted food-lovers may want to make the pilgrimage to Chez Panisse across the bay in Berkeley, where some say Alice Waters invented California cuisine. For today's superstar chefs, you can check the Michelin guide's current top-rated spots.

Los Angeles has plenty of places that earn the highest Michelin ratings, but it's also a great place for ethnic cuisine and reasonably-priced beachside cafes. Don't skip the Food Truck scene—the fare includes everything under the sun, from organic ice-cream sandwiches to authentic Lebanese hummus. 

You can also find fantastic wineries and eateries across the state:

  • At Camp Schramsberg, participants get to harvest grapes and learn about food and wine pairing.
  • The French Laundry, quite possibly one of the country's top restaurants, is in the small Napa Valley town of Yountville. It's only one of five Thomas Keller eateries in town. Local chef Cindy Pawlcyn also serves up fine cuisine in her Napa restaurants.
  • Forget that old saying about eating oysters only in months with an "R" in them; you can eat oysters any time of year in California. Get them fresh from Tomales Bay.
  • You can see famous chefs, learn their recipes, and taste their creations at the annual Yosemite Chefs' Holidays. Yosemite Vintner's Holidays are the wine lover's best bet.
04 of 06

Places for Nature Lovers to Go

Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo

TripSavvy / Kathleen Messmer

Start your quest for nature and natural beauty by browsing through a list of California's most scenic places. Then think about taking one of these California scenic drives that will make you swoon.

If you love animals and want to see some of California's unique species, you can find monarch butterflies. The fragile creatures gather by the thousands in winter from mid-October through February. 

Once-endangered tule elk thrive in the central valley's Tule Elk State Reserve and around Point Reyes National Seashore. You can go whale watching in California almost anytime, but where to see them depends on the time of year.

Elephant seals spend the winter at Ano Nuevo State Park near Santa Cruz, and Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle.

California's trees and flowers are just as spectacular as its critters. Giant sequoia trees grow in Sequoia National Park and Yosemite, but you can find redwood forests in many California locales. You can also find wildflowers if you know when and where to go.

If you're looking for birds, the majestic California Condor can be found in the Pinnacles National ParkSespe Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest, and in captivity at the San Diego Zoo. You can find places to watch herons and egret in California, too. Mono Lake and the Salton Sea are two of the majors stops on the Pacific Flyway.

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05 of 06

Places for Active Travelers

Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park
Betsy Malloy Photography

There is plenty to tourists active on a California vacation, no matter from beaches and hiking to winter sports and water activities.  

You can go to the beach almost anywhere along the California coast, but the experience varies, with water getting colder and rougher as you go north. For the stereotypical California beach culture with surfing, beach volleyball, and bonfires head to cities like San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles. Or discover California's best beaches.

Surfers flock to southern California or to Santa Cruz, one of the spots where surfing was born. The legendary Mavericks area has claimed the lives of professional surfers and is not for the casual surfer on vacation.

If you like your water still and warmer, opt for a houseboat vacation on Lake Shasta. Divers and snorkelers like Catalina Island for the clear water and underwater sea life.

California's ski season runs typically from Thanksgiving through Easter but may start earlier or end later, depending on the weather. Mammoth Mountain boasts the state's best snow, but its east of the Sierras location makes it the hardest to get to. Most Northern Californians ski at Lake Tahoe, and Southern Californians ski the mountains east of the coast. 

The High Sierra camps at Yosemite and Sequoia provide meals and a place to sleep, but they're so popular that you'll need to get into a lottery months beforehand to get a spot.

Other popular backcountry hiking trails include the Tahoe Rim Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. You can also climb Half Dome at Yosemite

06 of 06

Unique Places Off the Beaten Path

Old Car and Buildings in Bodie Ghost Town
Betsy Malloy Photography

If the interesting, quirky, offbeat, or just plain funky is more your speed, there are several wonderfully weird options in California. 

Do Western films, television programs, and ghost towns make your pulse race? Visit Bodie Historic Park to see what could easily be called the mother lode of Gold Rush ghost towns. You can also explore the places where western movies and television programs were filmed

From the northern coast to the Mexico border, you'll find more than a dozen California lighthouses strung along the coast, and they're all open to the public.  

Spooky sights all over the state cover the spectrum from frightening toy stores to creepy night tours. In San Francisco, try the Haunted Haight tour led by a ghost hunter, explore the most grisly murders in L.A. Or try San Diego's Whaley House,which some people say is the most haunted house in the United States. You can also take a California cemetery tour to find out more about fascinating characters who are no more.

If you ever wondered, "How do they do that?" there are lots of California factory tours you'll love. Options include glass blowing, chocolate making, hot sauce production, breweries, computer manufacturing, and more.