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An Insider’s Guide to the 30+ Best Things to do in California

Last Updated on 26th January 2023 by Sophie Nadeau

Situated in the West Coast of the USA, California is a large state that’s got something for everyone. Whether you want to go on a stunning road trip, eat mouthwatering food, or explore unique and interesting architectures in vibrant cities, here’s your ultimate guide to the best things to do in California.

California is a state that is home to a population of just under 40 million residents. Located on the West Coast of the USA, the bordering states are Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. To the South, California is bordered by the Mexican state of Baja California.

los angeles sunset

What is California known for?

California is famous for its sandy beaches, as being the home of Hollywood, and for its world-class wines. Other highlights of the State (which is larger than countries such as Italy and Greece and around the same size as Germany) include hiking through National Parks, surfing, and for its giant trees.

Indeed, California is home to the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, which is close to 5000 years old! Other fun facts about the US State include that California is the “Avocado Capital of the World” and the Hollywood Bowl is the largest outdoor amphitheater in the world. 

california illustration

Best things to do in California

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Even if you only spend one day in LA, Griffith Observatory is a must during your time in the city. Located on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, the observatory offers breathtaking views of the Hollywood Basin, including of the Pacific Ocean and of Downtown LA.

The facility itself is free to visit, and once inside visitors can learn about stargazing. Nearby, the West Observatory Trail in Griffith Park is a 6.4 mile hike. As long as it’s a clear day, you can see as far as the ocean!

Griffith Observatory

Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles

Of course, when it comes to visiting California, one of the most famous cities is that of Los Angeles, which is probably best-associated with Hollywood. The Hollywood Walk of Fame comprises of 2700 star-shaped badges set into the street along 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and 3 blocks of Vine Street.

Almost all of your favourite Hollywood Stars will have their very own badge, if only you know where to look! Just note that, as a historical landmark which is one of the most popular places to visit in California, the Hollywood Walk of Fame can get incredibly busy, and so it’s better to visit earlier in the day and mid-week if possible.

Enjoy beautiful beach towns

One of the greatest charms of visiting California is the chance to explore beautiful beach towns. With laid back charm and endlessly beautiful vistas, there’s no shortage of small towns where you can enjoy a relaxing break away. Some of the most popular towns include Carmel-by-the-Sea and Sausalito.

Sausalito Boardwalk

Redwood National and State Park

Redwood trees are world-famous thanks to the fact that they’re some of the tallest trees on the globe. Well-marked trails take visitors deep into the forest below the impressive red giants in the ancient forest. The Redwood National and State Parks are actually a series of forests along Northern California’s coast, meaning that there are several parks to explore.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Presidio of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara

The Presidio of Santa Barbara is also known as the Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara and is a former military base in Santa Barbara which was constructed by Spain in 1782. Today, the complex operates as a museum and archaeological site, drawing a considerable amount of tourists on an annual basis.

For even more inspiration about this beautiful Californian town, be sure to check out how to spend one day in Santa Barbara.

Presidio church

Visit Yosemite National Park

For those who love hiking, stunning scenery, and the outdoors, Yosemite National Park will likely not require an introduction. The National Park is formed of a glacial valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Central California and covers 759,620 acres.

Famed around the world for its biological diversity, around 95% of the park remains wilderness to this day. Yosemite is home to thousands of miles of hiking trails and even climbing routes for more adventurous visitors and is particularly beautiful to visit during fall in the USA.

 Yosemite National Park

Lake Tahoe

Situated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is the largest freshwater lake of the mountains (indeed, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America). The Lake is popular year-round and offers ski resorts in the winter months and water-based activities in the summer.

Particular highlights of Lake Tahoe include Emerald Bay State Park (on the Western shores of the Lake), the beach town of Kings Beach (filled with independent shops and boutiques), and the Eagle Rock Hiking trail (a volcanic outcrop which provides fantastic views of Lake Tahoe below).

Lake Tahoe

Anza Borrego Desert

One of the most popular parks in the state of California is Anza Borrego Desert, which is named for an 18th-century Spaniard. As you can imagine from the name, Anza Borrego is a hot desert area in Southern California.

Despite what you might imagine of a desert climate, the Anza Borrego Desert has a surprisingly rich plethora of flora, with a diverse array of beautiful wildflowers that are stunning to take photos of. The best time of the year to visit to see the flowers is typically in mid-March.

Anza Borrego Desert

Anacapa Island

Ancapa Island is a small and uninhabited volcanic island off the coast of Port Hueneme in Ventura County. It’s the second smallest island of the Channel Islands National Park and is the island which is closest to mainland California.

There is no services or accommodation on the island, meaning that Anacapa Island can only be visited as a day trip from the mainland (though this is not necessarily a bad thing considering that the island is fairly small and can easily be explored over the course of a day- there are a few camping spots available).

Some of the more popular activities on the island include hiking, diving, and kayaking. Ferries transport visitors to and from Ventura Port once a day, though you’ll need to bring your own supplies such as food and water as there are absolutely no facilities available on the island. Find more information about island transportation here.

Anacapa Island

Legoland California

For those heading to California with kids (or who are simply big kids at heart), one of the most popular theme parks in California is Legoland California. The resort consists of accommodation, a theme park, miniature park, and an aquarium.

Old Sacramento Waterfront

If you’re in search of somewhere with a little history, then you simply must visit Old Sacramento, which is a historic district in downtown Sacramento. The district is characterised by its buildings which were constructed in the Gold Rush-era, as well as cobbled lanes, and a handful of museums.

Old Sacramento

Desert Hot Springs

Desert Hot Springs is a city in Southern California which is so-called thanks to an abundance of natural hot mineral water in the area. The Californian settlement is located between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Jacinto Mountains.

With this being said, the mineral water has to be pumped out of the ground and so it’s not possible to experience the hot springs for yourself unless you visit a spa or hotel.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located in Palm Springs and is the world’s largest rotating tram car. Opened in 1963 to take visitors from the Coachella Valley floor to close to the top of San Jacinto Peak, taking a ride on the tramway is easily one of the best things to do in California.

From the top, visitors can enjoy views of the surrounding valleys and the view is really at its best around sunset when candy colours dance across the sky. There is a small restaurant at the top of the aerial tramway that serves light drinks and snacks (though it’s pretty pricey).

San Jacinto Peak

Burney Falls

Situated along Burney Creek in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Burney Falls is a beautiful waterfall that’s popular among locals and visitors to California alike. The falls are 129 feet high and a staggering 379 million litres per day flows over the falls.

The falls are so impressive that they were nicknamed the “the Eighth Wonder of the World” by Theodore Roosevelt and are at their heaviest between April and October (which is also peak season for visiting the park). In the nearby area, there are plenty of hiking trails.

burney falls

Venice Beach, Los Angeles

Venice is one of the most popular districts of Los Angeles and has long been famed for its hipster and independent vibe. Located right by the sea, highlights of the area include strolling along the beachfront boardwalk, surfing opportunities, and eating at one of Venice’s many restaurants.

venice sign

The Hess Collection Winery & Art Museum

Hess Persson Estates was founded in 1978, though the site was home to one of the oldest wineries in California. For the past few decades, the winery has become famous for its fine wines and is a popular spot for wine tastings, where visitors can learn about Californian wines.

Other highlights of the Estate includes an art museum and vineyards that are a little off the beaten path. Please note that the winery is by appointment only and so you should be sure to book in advance. Wine tastings are also available to be booked as cheese pairings.

Death Valley National Park

Located across California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest, and lowest (when compared to sea level) National Park in the US and is home to North America’s driest spot. The park is also the largest national park to the South of Alaska.

death valley

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is situated in the Bay of San Francisco, just over a mile offshore from the mainland. The island is steeped in history and is famed due to the fact that it was once used as a federal high-security prison.

The prison was closed in the Spring of 1963. Today, the former prison complex is still on the island and has since become a popular tourist attraction, attracting some 1.3 million visitors on an annual basis. Purchase your Sail & Jail Boat Cruise & Alcatraz Ticket here in advance.

Alcatraz Island

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla comes from the Kumeyaay name for the area, which means the place of the caves. A popular beauty spot in California, La Jolla Cove is in La Jolla, San Diego and is free to visit.

The beach is widely regarded to be one of the best beach destinations in California. If you want to get a closer up view of the coves then you might consider booking a sea cave kayaking tour like this one.

la jolla cove

17 Mile Drive

Of all the road trips to take in California, one of the prettiest is the 17 Mile Drive. As its name would suggest, the 17 mile drive is a 17 mile stretch which is a scenic road in Monterey Peninsula. For more inspiration, be sure to check out our guide to the best road trips in the USA.

17 mile drive

The Getty Center

One of the most important cultural centres when it comes to art in California is the Getty Centre. Located in Los Angeles, the centre boasts a museum and library. The museum itself is completely free to visit, though there is a fee for parking.

getty center

USS Midway Museum

What started out life as a naval aircraft carrier has since been transformed into a museum detailing the history of aircraft in the USA. The museum is located in downtown San Diego and many of the aircraft on display were constructed in Southern Californian.

USS Midway Museum

Santa Monica Pier & Beach

One of the top things to do in California is to head to Santa Monica Pier and Beach, which can be found in downtown Los Angeles. The area is particularly well noted for its early 20th-century pier (which in turn is home to a number of cafés, bars, and shops) and its sandy beaches.

Santa Monica Pier & Beach

Santa Cruz Vineyards

Of course, California is particularly famous for its wine, and so one of the best places to experience the wine history of the region is none other than within the Santa Cruz vineyards. In total, there are over 70 wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Santa Cruz Vineyards

Glass Beach

Located in Fort Bragg, one of the most unique places to visit in California is Glass Beach, which is so-called thanks to the fact that the entire beach is covered in sea glass from decades of when garbage was dumped into the ocean just outside of Fort Bragg.

Unfortunately, during recent years, a lot of the Glass from Glass beach has been stolen by visitors. Please note that it is illegal to take the glass from the beach and you should leave the glass for the enjoyment of future visitors!

glass beach

Disneyland California

One of the most popular theme parks in the world, let alone California, is Disneyland California. The Disneyland Resort offers 2 theme parks; Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park.

Located on the outskirts of Anaheim, this Disneyland Park boasts more cumulative visitors than any other theme park in the world (more than 700 million as of 2018).

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

The azure blue waters of Point Lobos State Nature Reserve in central California are simply stunning and the national park itself boasts hikes, diving opportunities, and even a whaling museum. Many of the hiking trails offer breathtaking views of the Californian coastline.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Golden Gate Bridge

One of the most iconic monuments in San Francisco, and the entirety of California is the Golden Gate Bridge. A suspension bridge constructed in the 1930s, the bridge was built to link San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County.

For more information, be sure to check out our guide to San Francisco and our suggestions for how to spend 72 hours in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge

Hollywood Sign

Overlooking the city of Los Angeles, one of the most famous monuments in California is the Hollywood Sign. Positioned on Mount Lee, the sign was created in 1923 and was originally known as the Hollywoodland Sign.

The sign was repaired in 1949 (when it was also renamed the Hollywood Sign- the name it bears to this day) and was reconstructed in the 1970s. Today, the best place to see the Hollywood Sign is in Griffith Park, which we recommend visiting during our one day in Los Angeles Itinerary.

Hollywood sign

Salvation Mountain

Rather unique looking and a must-see for those wishing to head off the beaten path during their time in California, Salvation Mountain is a large sculpture/ art installation by Leonard Knight.

Situated close to Slab City (home a population of an off the grid lifestyle community), Salvation Mountain is actually the second such art installation on site.

The first Salvation Mountain installation was created in 1984, though a rainstorm in 1989 unfortunately caused the first mountain to collapse. Knight saw this as God’s way of telling him that the first mountain was not safe and so he rebuilt the structure which visitors see today.

Salvation Mountain

San Francisco Cable Cars

So historic that they are now the world’s last manually operated cable car system, the San Francisco Cable Cars date back to the 19th-century, today riding on the cable cars is one of the top things to do in California.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today the Cable Cars still serve some of the most popular neighbourhoods of the city; Chinatown, the Financial District, and Fisherman’s Wharf to name but a few locations. A single ticket costs $8.

San Francisco Cable Cars

Universal Studios

California has no shortage of theme parks and one of the more popular in the US state to visit is Universal Studios. Located in the San Fernando Valley area, some of the top attractions of the park include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Jurassic World- The Ride.

Universal Studios

Winchester Mystery House

For those in search of a little mystery, the Winchester Mystery House can be found in San Jose and is the former home of Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester (of the Winchester Rifle Company).

The property was constructed in the latter half of the 19th-century and ever since its construction, many have claimed that it is haunted by those who were killed with Winchester Rifles.

Today, the house operates as a museum and is open to visitors for a fee. Please note that, as of 2022, it’s a requirement to book your tickets online ahead of your visit.

Winchester Mystery House

Solvang

Those looking to experience a little bit of European architecture (and more specifically, Danish) need not hop on a plane halfway across the world. Instead, Solvang is located in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California and is famed for its Danish architecture.

Solvang is Danish for ‘sunny field’ and the history of the town itself dates back to the turn of the 19th-century. With this said, the Danish buildings were not built until 1947. Today, there are plenty of timber-framed houses in the town which draw tens of thousands of visitors from far and wide on an annual basis.

solvang

Joshua Tree

If you’re in search of a place to visit in California that’s as equally special as it is stunning, then you should undoubtedly head to Joshua Tree. The unique protected area is named for the Joshua Tree, a kind of gnarled tree that characterises the area.

Today, the area is home to a number of wonderful hikes (some easy, others more challenging), unique landscapes, and rock mountains. Though most of the main attractions of Joshua Tree can be seen over the course of a day, it’s best to stay overnight to truly appreciate the ambiance of this special location.

joshua tree

Fisherman’s Wharf

Beautiful and serene, Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most visited and historic areas of San Francisco. Fun for all of the family to visit, there’s shopping opportunities, plenty of cafés and bars, and even boat tours to be taken of the nearby San Francisco Bay.

fishermans wharf

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Situated in Northern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is best-known for its hydrothermal sites, including bubbling mud pools, steaming fumaroles, and volcanoes. The park also boasts beautiful wildflower fields and clear mountain lakes, making it one of the best off the beaten path places to visit in California.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Follow the California Missions Trail

The California Missions trail is a 600 mile trail which is known as El Camino Real in Spanish (The King’s Highway) and takes around eight weeks to complete if you walk an average of 30 miles a day.

Encompassing wineries, churches, and Californian towns, the route actually follows centuries old Native American routes which once connected seasonal villages.

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Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She currently splits her time between Paris and London. Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.

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