California Destinations: How to Pick the Best One for You

  • 01 of 11

    Best Things to Do by Location

    California signs
    Betsy Malloy Photography

    The best California vacation depends on you and your personal interests, and those of your traveling companions. To help you plan a California vacation that will be perfect for you, we've compiled some information about our most interesting sights, attractions, places and things to do by interest. Use this guide to help you decide where to spend the most time, or to find places off the beaten path that may appeal to your special hobbies and passions.

    For many of California's most popular cities and destinations, we've compiled a list of the best things to do in...

  • 02 of 11

    Classics

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

    Have you dreamed of a California vacation for so long that you feel like you've already been there? Do 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

    There are many things to do in Los Angeles including the most popular spots and attractions. The City of Angels' most classic things to do include:

    San Diego

    San Diego's most classic tourist stops include:

    San Francisco

    The City by the Bay's most classic spots include:

    National Parks

    California is home to some of the country's oldest and most popular national parks, and what may well be the hottest place on earth:

    California Coast

    Rest of California

  • 03 of 11

    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

    They're listed first because under-visited spots are still the most pristine.

    • East of Sierras: The fantastic landscape along US 395 is unmatched.
    • Channel Islands: I call these isolated islands near Santa Barbara California's Galapagos, they've got so many endemic species.
    • Lassen Volcanic National Park: It erupted in 1915 and has been recovering ever since.
    • San Andreas Fault: The big crack in the middle of California holds unique geological features.

    Coast

    • Big Sur's Ventana Wilderness: The Santa Lucia Mountains draw hikers and animal inhabitants including California condors.

    Desert

    • Joshua Tree: Not really trees, they look kinda like them. Popular with rock climbers.
    • Anza-Borrego: The largest desert state park in the U. S.
    • Death Valley: Possibly the world's hottest place, 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 seems incomplete without it.
    • Mono Lake: Lowered water levels have created fantastic tufa towers and a unique ecosystem.

    Animals

    Trees and Wildflowers

    Birding

    • California Condors: Where you can see them in the wild, take a tour or get a closer look in a zoo.
    • Herons and Egrets: Not always where you might expect.
    • Mono Lake: A major stop on the Pacific Flyway.
    • Bolsa Chica: This coastal wetland is improbably located in Orange County.
  • 04 of 11

    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 museums, shopping, culture and great cuisine, California's got 'em. You know the city names already: San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Each has its special personality.

    Many city-lovers also enjoy the arts, so be sure to click on through to California for Culture-Lovers to find out more.

    We figure most shoppers can find their way to the local mall on their own, but you might want to also check out our California shopping guide to learn about some of the most interesting local shopping areas.

    San Diego

    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.

    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, great shopping in the Garment District and along Melrose Avenue, window-shopping on Rodeo Drive, nightlife that could take away New York's "never sleeps" title, top-notch theatre and you can always find a good meal here long after restaurants in the other cities have gone to sleep.

    Wine Country

    Napa Valley is home to some great restaurants, which may be enough if you're a true "foodie" at heart.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    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 are for you.

    City Kids

    These guides to California travel with kids may help you find more stuff to keep the kids 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.

    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.

  • 06 of 11

    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 its most romantic.

    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 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.
    • Northern California Hideaways: Great hotels that you can just check into and hang out.

    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: This seaside jewel is a great place for oceanside walks, window-shopping or lingering over gourmet cuisine.
    • Southern California Hideaways: Great hotels for a weekend escape, where you can settle in and stay put until you're ready to go home.

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

  • 07 of 11

    For Active Travelers

    Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park
    Betsy Malloy Photography

    You can find plenty to keep yourself active on a California vacation no matter where you go, so we've organized this page by type of activity.

    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

    Divers and snorkelers like Catalina Island for its clear water and underwater sea life.

    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.

    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 on your mountain hike, 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.

    More Active Pursuits

    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.

    If you want to climb Half Dome at Yosemite, our guide will help you get prepared.

  • 08 of 11

    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, home to more museums than almost any other American city, where there are plenty of actors, both famous and excellent-but-undiscovered. 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:

    History

    Find the most authentic of California's 21 Spanish missions, a couple of presidential libraries and the Ellis Island of the West.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    For Food and Wine Lovers

    Hilltop Dinner at Jordan Winery, Sonoma
    Betsy Malloy Photography

    If you're a foodie, you may want to read about California cuisine, learn what it is (and isn't), and find the best places to sample California cuisine and original foods.

    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.

    San Francisco

    Some critics say San Francisco has better restaurants than New York, a statement I'll leave to the experts to debate. Nevertheless, it has a large number of terrific restaurants, fun grazing 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 my 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.

    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 the nicest ambiance we've seen at a food and wine event. The associated silent auction includes travel, food and wine packages and a lot more, giving you a chance to get something special at a great price. And to top it all, proceeds of the event support the Beverly Hills Bar Association's pro bono work.

    Elsewhere

    Napa and Sonoma are obvious choices for wine lovers, but you can find wineries almost everywhere these days.

    • 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.
    • 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 winelover's best bet.
  • 10 of 11

    Vacation Grab Bag

    Old Car and Buildings in Bodie Ghost Town
    Betsy Malloy Photography

    Our grab bag is chock-full of interesting, quirky, offbeat and just plain funky things to do.

    The Old West

    If Western films, television programs, and ghost towns make your pulse race, find the mother lode of Gold Rush ghost towns, the locales of some of your favorite western films and television programs and clue you into a western film festival so good you'll be wishing you brought your six-shooter.

    California Lighthouses

    Do you get in a frenzy over a Fresnel lens? 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, these haunted sights cover the spectrum from haunted toy stores to really creepy night tours that make even a skeptic like me wonder... 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.

    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.

    High-Tech Troopers

    Looking for a saber-toothed cat? Want to design your own roller coaster? Surprisingly, San Jose and Silicon Valley don't have a stranglehold on high-tech tourism. Find out what there is for the technically-oriented and scientifically curious to see in Los Angeles and San Diego, too.

  • 11 of 11

    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, here are some options:

    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, but nudity laws in California vary widely. We'll tell you where you can bare it all and where taking it all off is likely to result in arrest.

    Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered

    You probably already know about San Francisco's Castro, 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.