Best California Destinations: How to Pick the Best One for You

 The best California trip depends on how you and your companions want to spend those precious vacation days. To help plan a California visit that will be perfect for you, we've compiled the most interesting sights, attractions, and things to do by interest. 

Whether you are into exploring nature, traveling with the family, off on a romantic getaway, seeking adventure, a foodie, or love culture, the Golden State has options aplenty. 

If you already have a specific California location in mind, we've compiled an extensive breakdown of the best things to do in...

01 of 10

Classics

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

If you want to be sure you cover all those spots that your friends and neighbors say you've "just gotta see!" these are the most iconic of California's best-known sights and attractions.

Los Angeles

From the beaches to the mountains, Los Angeles is Southern California's hub for fun and amazing weather.  

San Diego

The southernmost city before entering Mexico, San Diego has amazing food, outdoor activities, and climate. 

  • Sea World: For the life aquatic, this theme park offers rides, animal exhibits, and shows. 
  • San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park: Furry friends abound at these two attractions. 
  • Old Town San Diego: Shopping, spectacular Mexican food, and a touch of history line the streets of downtown. 

San Francisco

There's are good reasons so many people have left their heart in the City by the Bay

  • Fisherman's Wharf: Spend a few hours walking by the water while stopping for the sourdough bread, sidewalk food stands, and chocolate shops. 
  • Golden Gate Bridge: Go for the iconic photo op—stay for the astounding architecture. 
  • Cable Cars: No visit to SF is complete without a ride on these functioning historical wonders. 

National Parks

California is home to some of the country's oldest, most popular, and beautiful national parks. 

  • Yosemite Park: Waterfalls, lush forests, and grand mountains await in Northern California. 
  • Death Valley: One of the hottest places in the world, Death Valley's views span from the heights of Dante's Peak to the lows of the salt flats. 

California Coast

The places near the Pacific Ocean that are fantastic options to see. 

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: This jewel of a facility acts as a refuge for a kelp forest, sea otters, and hundreds of sea creatures. 
  • 17-Mile Drive: The winding road is an ideal short road trip to spot wildlife, the ocean, and luxury homes along the way. 
  • Highway One: Spanning 750 miles of road, this is the road to take for enjoying small towns and stunning views. 
02 of 10

For Nature Lovers

Yosemite Valley from Valley View
Betsy Malloy Photography

We've listed some of the state's most exciting natural destinations, but also check out the top spots for scenery in nearby states.

Underrated and Spectacular

These under-visited spots are worth the trek as they are the most pristine.

  • East of Sierras: The fantastic landscape along US 395 is unmatched.
  • Channel Islands: These isolated islands near Santa Barbara California's Galapagos have many endemic species.
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park: The eruption that occurred in 1914 resulted in a park with boiling steam vents and a geyser.
  • San Andreas Fault: The massive crack in the middle of California holds unique geological features.

Coast

Desert

  • Joshua Tree: A spare landscape that's great to zen out in. Popular with rock climbers.
  • Anza-Borrego: The largest desert state park in the U. S.
  • Death Valley: One of the world's hottest places, it abounds with austere natural beauty.

Mountains

Lakes

  • Lake Shasta: It can be crowded in summer, but in late fall or winter, you'll have it almost to yourself.
  • Lake Tahoe: It's over-developed, but a list of California lakes is incomplete without it—and there are still spots of seclusion to be found.
  • Mono Lake: Lowered water levels have created fantastic tufa towers and a unique ecosystem.

Animals

  • Monarch Butterflies: These fragile creatures gather by the thousands in winter from mid-October through February. 
  • Tule Elk: These once-endangered elk thrive in the central valley's Tule Elk State Reserve and around Point Reyes.
  • Whale-Watching: Where to see them depends on the time of year.
  • Elephant Seals: These animals winter at Ano Nuevo State Park near Santa Cruz, and Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle.

Trees and Wildflowers

Birding

03 of 10

For City Lovers

Downtown Skyline and Griffith Observatory
Wes Tennyson/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

If you're a city-lover who likes an array of choices in a single place with museums, shopping, culture, and great cuisine, California's got 'em. You know the city names already: San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Each has a special personality.

Though San Diego may not spring to your lips when someone mentions great California cuisine, this southernmost of California cities has some truly great restaurants. Add on the beaches, and fantastic weather and this is the city for relaxing in. 

San Francisco

Union Square is the United States' third-largest shopping area and home to the largest department store west of New York City, but it also has some charming streets lined with local boutiques, and the City by the Bay is often ranked as having some of the best restaurants in the world.

Los Angeles

A huge, sprawling, energetic city, Los Angeles is great for almost any citified pursuit. It's got more museums than you could visit in a month, and great shopping in the Garment District, along Melrose Avenue, window-shopping on Rodeo Drive. The nightlife that could take away New York's "never sleeps" title, there is top-notch theatre, and you can always find a good meal here long after restaurants in the other cities have gone to sleep.

04 of 10

Spas, Resorts and Romantic Getaways

Getting Away from San Francisco
Beckyd4l/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It's not surprising that many of California's most relaxing destinations are also the most romantic. There are many excellent hideaway hotels in Northern California and Southern California to just hole up and order room service. 

Northern California

  • Benton Hot Springs: If you'd like seclusion and breath-taking scenery, head east of the Sierras to this charming, bed and breakfast inn that has its own naturally-fed hot tub spas.
  • Big Sur: With a relaxing, double-whammy of gorgeous scenery and laid-back ambiance, it's no wonder Big Sur lodging puts out "no vacancy" signs weeks in advance.
  • Calistoga: Calistoga is steamy even before you arrive. Its natural hot springs are harnessed by local spas for relaxing mud baths and mineral water soaks. Stay in the pleasant, walkable downtown and you can have a car-free weekend.
  • Occidental: One of the cutest little towns you'll ever see, with an unusual spa nearby, fine dining and an even finer Inn make Occidental ultra-appealing.
  • San Francisco: Often voted one of the world's most romantic cities, San Francisco is a great place for a quick getaway.
  • Valley of the Oaks: For a real "in the middle of nowhere" destination with star-studded history, visit William Randolph Hearst's Hacienda and nearby Spanish mission.

Other cute, quaint and romantic northern California destinations include Victorian Ferndale and Eureka, Cayucos, quiet Cambria, and the Mendocino Coast.

Southern California

  • Catalina Island: With eucalyptus and wild fennel scenting the air, Catalina is almost like a dose of relaxing, natural aromatherapy.
  • Julian: This former gold rush town is filled with antique shops and surrounded by apple orchards, which accounts for the plethora of local restaurants serving good, old-fashioned apple pie.
  • La Jolla: The seaside jewel is a great place for oceanside walks, window-shopping or lingering over gourmet cuisine.

Other relaxing and romantic southern California destinations include Ojai, Santa Barbara, and Cambria.

Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10

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.  

Beaches

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, go to San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles or discover California's best beaches.

Water Sports

Surfers flock to San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles or to Santa Cruz further north, one of the spots where surfing was born. Located a little further north off Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, legendary Mavericks 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.

Skiing

California's ski season normally runs 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. 

Back Country Hiking

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 just to get a spot.

Other popular backcountry hiking trails include the Tahoe Rim Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. There is also the option to climb Half Dome at Yosemite

Golf

You'll find plenty of great golf courses, both public and private all over the state, but especially in San Diego, Palm Springs, and Pebble Beach near Monterey. For an unusual golfing experience, tee off on the world's lowest course (214 ft below sea level) at Death Valley.

06 of 10

For Culture Lovers

Urban Light at LACMA, by Chris Burden
Betsy Malloy Photography

California's largest cities also offer the richest opportunities for enjoying the arts, but you'll find some gems off the beaten path, too including the house where Eugene O'Neill wrote his most famous plays. We'll tell you where to see Tony Award-winning drama, internationally-renowned music festivals, Shakespeare under the stars, and outstanding art collections.

Los Angeles

If you love film, the theater, and museums, you can't go wrong in Los Angeles, with many live performances featuring undiscovered talent, state of the art movie theaters, and innovative works of art.  If architecture is your passion, Los Angeles is also the place for you. Creations by Frank O. Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Meier's Getty Center lead the lineup but don't miss Pasadena's Arts and Crafts-style homes and the area's numerous architectural museums.

San Francisco

If you're a Rodin fan, head for San Francisco and Palo Alto, where you'll find many of the master's works at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and at Stanford University's Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Center for the Arts. San Francisco is also home to highly-acclaimed theatres and performing arts companies. A few places to enjoy good architecture in San Francisco include City Hall, the deYoung Museum, the Golden Gate Bridge, or take a tour of Victorian Architecture

History

California has a rich history dating back to the 1700's— visitors have a wide selection of fascinating sights to explore from a couple of presidential libraries, the Ellis Island of the West, Route 66, the San Diego Mission district, and California's 21 Spanish missions. 

07 of 10

For Food and Wine Lovers

Hilltop Dinner at Jordan Winery, Sonoma
Betsy Malloy Photography

If you're a foodie, you may want to learn what California cuisine is (and isn't) and find the best locales to sample the culinary delights. 

San Diego

While it hasn't yet achieved a national reputation for the quality of its restaurants, San Diego boasts some excellent cuisine and innovative chefs. Head to the Gaslight District, Hillcrest, or Old Town for fresh fish tacos, amazing chicken wings, or locally made brews. 

San Francisco

The city has a massive amount of terrific restaurants, tasty nibbles in the Ferry Building, an exciting Farmers Market and some nice 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, but you'll have to reserve a month ahead (exactly) and make a deposit for the privilege.

Los Angeles

The home of Spago, Campanile and local favorite La Brea Bakery has plenty of fine dining, but Los Angeles is also a great place for ethnic cuisine and reasonably-priced beachside cafes. The Farmers Market here is more of a tourist stop than a gourmet shop, but many locals swear by it. Don't skip the Food Truck scene—the fare includes everything under the sun, from organic ice-cream sandwiches to authentic Lebanese hummus. 

In Beverly Hills, the annual Vintage Bouquet Food and Wine Extravaganza delivers a quality that rivals the state's best food and wine festivals—and their elegant surroundings on the grounds of Greystone Mansion create a fantastic ambiance. 

Elsewhere

Napa and Sonoma are obvious choices for wine lovers, but there are also fantastic wineries across the state.

  • The Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival and the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend are among the state's top food and wine events
  • At Camp Schramsberg, participants get to harvest grapes, learn about food and wine pairing and bottle their own bubbly to take home (and sample plenty of great sparkling wine along the way).
  • The French Laundry, quite possibly one of the country's top restaurants is in the small Napa Valley town of Yountville, but there are plenty of other great places to eat in this area, too, including the Culinary Institute of America's Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant.
  • Forget that old saying about eating oysters only in months with an "R" in them, you can get fresh oysters from Tomales Bay's oyster farms north of San Francisco any time of year. Wash it down with a glass from a local wine provider. 
  • You can not only see famous chefs but also learn their recipes and taste their creations at the annual Yosemite Chefs' Holidays. Yosemite Vintner's Holidays are the wine lover's best bet.
08 of 10

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. 

The Old West

Do Western films, television programs, and ghost towns make your pulse race?  Visit places like Bodie, one of the mother lode of Gold Rush ghost towns, where some of your favorite western movies and television programs were filmed. 

California Lighthouses

From the San Francisco to San Diego, you'll find over a dozen California lighthouses strung along the coast, and they're all open to the public.  

Ghosts' Favorite Haunts

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

Factory Tours

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

Film Fans

There's more to see than Universal Studios, and most of it is in the Los Angeles and Hollywood area. You can find out how to go behind the scenes and tour back lots, find out what a foley artist does and discover classic film locations you can visit at major studios like ​Paramount, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros

 

Continue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10

Alternative Lifestyles

Man wearing a colorful wig and star-shaped sunglasses
Matthew Roth/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you want to enjoy your alternative lifestyle on your California vacation, some places are more ideal than others. 

Clothing Optional

With so many beaches, it's not surprising that some of them are not for the "textiles." Santa Cruz County, San Mateo County, and parts of San Diego are some of the best places to find a nude beach. As nudity laws in California vary widely, be sure to do your homework before heading out. 

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered

You probably already know about San Francisco's Castro District, where you can take the Cruisin' the Castro walking tour to learn more about its history. In southern California, West Hollywood and Palm Springs have vibrant gay communities, as does San Diego.

10 of 10

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, these places will keep everyone entertained. 

Theme Parks

California's first theme park, Disneyland opened south of Los Angeles in 1956, and the Southland hasn't given up its dominance of theme-oriented fun since then. From SeaWorld to Magic Mountain, and Knotts Berry Farm to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, there are age-appropriate choices near every major city. 

Zoos and Animals

San Diego is the best spot for critter-oriented adventures, but San Francisco has its share, too, and of course, there's the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Was this page helpful?