From the beaches to the mountains, from the forests to the deserts, from the big cities to the theme parks, when you visit California there is literally something for everyone!
Down below are 30 incredible California places to visit that we have personally experienced that I suggest you put on your California bucket list for your own California trip.
Stop dreaming and go visit the Golden State!
- Places to Visit in Southern California
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, San Diego
- Barker Dam, Joshua Tree NP
- Sunset Cliffs, San Diego
- Malibu Creek State Park, Los Angeles
- Balboa Park, San Diego
- Huntington Beach, Orange County
- Mission San Juan Capistrano
- Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles
- Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree
- La Jolla, San Diego
- Griffith Park, Los Angeles
- Disneyland, Anaheim
- Laguna Beach, Orange County
- Venice Beach, LA
- Places to Visit in Central California
- Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
- Channel Islands National Park
- Yosemite Valley
- Santa Barbara
- Big Sur
- The Presidio, San Francisco
- Mariposa Grove, Yosemite
- Badwater Basin, Death Valley
- Napa Valley
- Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
- Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite
- Places to Visit in Northern California
- Bodie Ghost Town
- Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
- Planning a Trip to California
Places to Visit in Southern California
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, San Diego
One of my favorite things to do in San Diego was go hiking in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Located a couple of miles north of La Jolla, it’s 2,000 acres of beautiful coastal state park.
There’s a range of coastal hiking trails of various lengths and levels with ocean vistas and vegetation including the rare Torrey Pine.
We did The Guy Fleming Trail which is an easy 2/3-mile loop walk and one of the most popular Torrey Pines hikes as it offers a little diversity through shady pines, rugged orange cliffs, purple and white wildflowers and cactus with broad spiky leaves.
Next time we visit I want to do the Razor Point Trail as you pass by beautiful red sandstone cliffs and get to climb the Red Butte.
I think this reserve is one of the most beautiful places to visit in California, so don’t forget your hiking shoes!
Barker Dam, Joshua Tree NP
I wasn’t expecting to see such a sight like this in Joshua Tree National Park.
A 1-mile loop walk takes you past Barker Dam which was created as a watering hole for cattle. It opens up to a gorgeous expansive vista of the surrounding mountains, rocks and Joshua Trees making it one of the prettiest things to see in California.
Don’t miss the petroglyphs and pictographs on the rocks near the end of the trail. They are very vivid and interesting to look at.
Video: Joshua Tree National Park
Sunset Cliffs, San Diego
This place was recommended by many as one of the best places to take in a famous San Diego sunset.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a 68-acre City of San Diego regional park which extends 1½ miles along the Point Loma peninsula western shoreline, and just a couple of miles south of the Ocean Beach pier.
You get incredible ocean views, dramatic cliff formations, and keep an eye out for the mermaid atop Ross Rock that juts out from the cliff face.
Park on Sunset Cliffs Blvd, then walk a bit to the large open nature cliffs area.
Be careful with young children as there are steep drop offs from the cliff. There are pathways to get down to the beaches below for the adventurous and popular for surfers.
Put this on your list of best places to visit in California for sunsets!
Malibu Creek State Park, Los Angeles
You don’t have to go too far from downtown Los Angeles to escape the congestion and concrete.
If you’re looking for one of the best places to visit in Southern California for hiking, drive 25 miles from downtown and it brings you to Malibu Creek State Park which we found to be a very scenic park.
There’s over 8,000 acres of rolling tall grass plains, oak savannah’s, and opportunities for mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing and horseback riding.
The park was formerly owned by 20th Century Fox Studios and has been seen all over the world in movies and television shows, and is L.A.’s most spectacular park!
What we did was combine our visit with a coastal drive from Malibu into Santa Monica which is part of the Pacific Coast Highway, and the chance to spot celeb homes if you know where to look!
Balboa Park, San Diego
Welcome to the cultural playground for children and adults, and one of the top places to visit in San Diego California.
Balboa Park is America’s largest urban cultural park and one of the best things to do in California with kids – it has everything to suit all ages and your family’s preferences:
All up there are 17 Balboa Park museums and you could literally spend an entire day here.
Even just wandering around appreciating the incredible Spanish Renaissance and Southwest architecture and beautiful gardens is enjoyable.
- The Spanish Village Art Center set in a charming Spanish town square.
- Reuben H. Fleet Science Center – an interactive educational playground for the kids
- Botanical Building – houses more than 2,000 tropical plants.
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- Natural History Museum Center
- San Diego Air and Space museum
- World famous San Diego Zoo
This park is one of the all-round best places to visit in California, with something for everyone!
Huntington Beach, Orange County
Located in Orange County, there’s a cool surfing culture and vibe, stunning sunsets, boutique shopping, and along the beachfront you’ll find rows of beach volleyball nets – which are used by pros and Olympic gold medalists, and free for you!
And famous Huntington Beach Pier is where the local surfers used to jump off to catch a wave, and every August the US Surfing Open is held at this beach.
Huntington Beach California is noted for its consistent waves that brings surfers from across the globe. If you want to learn how to surf, HB is one of the best beaches in California for surfing, and that would be one of the coolest things to do in California!
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Who knew that Orange County attractions are not just about theme parks and beautiful Southern California beaches.
There is also historical charm, and a worthy stop on your Southern California road trip, is Mission San Juan Capistrano, the birthplace of Orange County.
Founded by the Spanish in 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano is stunning, especially in June with the flowers setting the stoned walls of the mission alight.
The 10-acre site is filled with bougainvillea covered walkways, lush gardens, fountains and exhibits.
A main feature is the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which took six years to build and one minute to destroy in the 1812 earthquake that killed 40 people inside attending Mass – it’s now a fitting memorial to the strength and resilience of the local community.
And the Serra Chapel inside the mission is the oldest church in California. Mass is still held here.
This Mission is one of the most interesting places in California!
Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles
We always tell our Australian (and international readers) to head to the South Bay beaches of Manhattan and Hermosa, which are not too far from LAX.
These beach towns are two of the best places to visit in Los Angeles California that offer a local vibe and community feel, especially compared to the over touristy Santa Monica!
We love to wonder the streets of Manhattan Beach stopping in at the local cafes, boutique stores, and soak up the beach town atmosphere.
Then ride along the beach promenade between Manhattan Pier and Hermosa Pier (you can even go further: north to Marina Del Rey and South to Redondo Beach), it’s one of our favorite family things to do in Los Angeles.
And the sunsets at Manhattan Beach are stunning and worth the trip through LA traffic alone.
Be sure to stop for a sundowner at one of the many beer gardens along the promenade, and to grab some ice creams for the kids!
Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree
One of the most incredible things to do in Joshua Tree National Park is visit the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Located along the Pinto Basin Drive is a field of thousands of cholla cactus. Don’t worry, there’s a boardwalk and path winding through the cholla garden to protect you – just don’t stray off the path as they’re called “jumping cactus” for a reason!
They really are something else and with the mountains in the background it makes for one of the most beautiful places to visit in California.
La Jolla, San Diego
Looking for kid friendly places to visit in Southern California?
The small beachside community of La Jolla just north of San Diego is one of the top places to visit in California for those that love coastal charm!
La Jolla Shores is a mile-long beach and great for families, and quickly became one of our favorite places to visit in San Diego.
La Jolla Cove is a small beach tucked between sandstone cliffs and is apparently a good spot for diving and snorkeling when surf conditions are calm. Close by are the resident sea lions playing and sleeping on the rocks.
And just around from the Cove are the La Jolla Caves. You can pay to go down into one of the caves or just stand on the point and admire the views of kayakers and cave ridden coastline.
Griffith Park, Los Angeles
If you’re looking for nature stuff to do in LA away from the craziness of the urban congestion, Griffith Park is one of the largest urban wilderness municipal parks in the US.
Located a 20-minute drive north-west of downtown, Griffith Park offers several hiking trails, deep canyons, pony rides, and stunning views over Los Angeles.
If I lived in LA, I know I’d be hiking here all the time.
We did the hike to the Mt Hollywood Summit, a 4 mile loop trail, which offered spectacular views of Downtown LA, the Griffith Observatory, Hollywood Hills and the Hollywood sign.
Griffith Park also offers numerous other LA attractions including Griffith Observatory which sits perched on a hilltop below the Hollywood Sign.
The observatory has public telescopes and star parties for stargazing, and it’s now on my list of things to do in Southern California when I return to LA.
Video: Cool hikes in LA to do
Looking for fun places to visit in California with kids? Look no further!
On almost every kid’s bucket list is a dream trip to Disneyland, and many adult’s too – it is the Happiest Place on Earth after all.
Our kids definitely think this Disney amusement park is all that, and it’s at the top of their list of favorite places to visit in California.
They love all the rides, meeting the characters, watching the parades, eating the specialty treats, and just being a part of the magic that Walt created.
And some of the most fun we’ve had as a family was at the Disneyland Halloween Party. Yep. Halloween in Disneyland is a thing, and one of the most popular things do in Disneyland so be sure to grab your tickets early!
No doubt, Disney is one of the best places to visit in Southern California with kids (or without).
Video: Disneyland with kids:
Laguna Beach, Orange County
Laguna Beach is a small coastal city in Orange County, halfway between LA and San Diego, and is a popular California vacation spot – it’s a little more upmarket than nearby Huntington Beach.
Known for its many art galleries, coves and beaches with tide pools and a boardwalk, there’s plenty of things to do in Laguna Beach for couples, families, and of course art lovers.
Some of the best beaches are 1,000 Steps Beach, Table Rock Beach (good for sunset), Treasure Island Beach, Victoria Beach and of course the main Laguna Beach in town.
Beyond the beaches you’ll find more than 20,000 beautiful acres of protected wilderness offering plenty of outdoor activities.
Laguna Beach boasts the most beachfront lodging options in all of California, making it one of the top California vacation spots for a beach getaway!
Venice Beach, LA
I always hesitate to put Venice Beach on any suggested list of places to go in California. Some people hate this place!
But it’s just so iconic LA and southern California, and one of those things to see in California you have to do once and make up your own mind about.
We’ve been several times and always enjoy watching the skateboarders, basketball games, gymnasts, and buskers – and the people watching here is first class!
Venice is colorful and eclectically cool with a psychedelic ambiance that’s trapped in the hippy free love movement of the sixties. If you’re looking for colorful LA experiences, then Venice Beach is a place for you.
There is a nice sized boardwalk filled with shops and a few restaurants/cafes, colorful murals and the odd busker and artist selling their wares.
And one of our favorite things to do in Los Angeles is ride our bikes along the beachfront from Venice up to Santa Monica and back!
Video: LA Beaches
Places to Visit in Central California
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
This is one of the most incredible places to go in California and not what I was expecting to see in Death Valley National Park.
Just going to Zabriskie Point made driving through Death Valley worthwhile. And it’s now one of our favorite California National Parks.
You’ll see ripples of white, yellow, mauve, pink, and chocolate sand dunes frozen in time that stretch out in front of you with a purple sandy river running through and the snow capped Panamint Mountain ranges in the background.
You can even see the salt flats down in the valley below.
The colors, shapes and textures are simply breathtaking and mind-blowing. Brilliant at sunrise or sunset.
Video: Death Valley National Park
Channel Islands National Park
Looking for unique California places to visit? Channel Islands is the least visited of the National Parks in the USA.
Not because it lacks adventure and beauty, but probably because of its remoteness off the coastline of California (80 minute ferry ride from Ventura Harbor), just 70 miles north of Los Angeles.
Looking for adventure? How about a sea cave kayaking adventure on Santa Cruz Island!
There’s not much else over on Channel Islands except for beautiful beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, and sea caves to explore on kayaks.
Oh, and snorkeling through the kelp forest and tiny island foxes waiting to grab your lunch
Considering all that, I think it’s one of the most adventurous things to do in California, and one of the most beautiful places to visit in California.
Video: Channel Islands National Park
Yosemite Valley is nothing short of breathtaking, and the prized jewel of Yosemite National Park.
It’s a natural wonder framed by some of the best plunging waterfalls you’ll see anywhere, and surrounded by incredible high granite summits such as Half Dome and El Capitan, and dense pine forest.
This glacial valley is about 7.5 miles long and approximately 3000–3500 feet deep that legendary naturalist John Muir called the “Incomparable Valley.”
Many rock climbers consider Yosemite Valley among the world’s very best climbing sites.
- Yosemite Falls
- Bridalveil Falls
- Half Dome
- El Capitan
- Vernal Falls
- Mirror Lake
- Tunnel View
Yosemite is without doubt one of the great places to visit in California, and one of the best national parks in California. And it’s not too far from Lake Tahoe, another place on my California bucket list.
Video: Yosemite National Park
With its palm trees, beach vibe, and stunning mountain backdrop, Santa Barbara on the Central California coast reminds me of a coastal town in North Queensland Australia – you have the sea and mountains meet as one!
Throw in boutique shopping and upmarket bars and restaurants along State Street, and the stunning ocean sunsets, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular places for a California vacation.
The Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, is an impressive place to explore. And downtown the Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs also reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage.
At just under a 2 hours drive from Los Angeles, it’s easy to add Santa Barbara to your California bucket list itinerary!
I haven’t been to Big Sur since 2006, but I remember it as one of most unforgettable stretches of coastline I have explored anywhere.
In case you don’t know, Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon. It’s bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the west by the Pacific Ocean, and it’s traversed by narrow 2-lane State Route 1, known for winding turns, seaside cliffs and views of the misty coastline.
The classic American scenic drive through this roughly 90-mile-long stretch of coast along twisting Highway 1 is one of the best things to do in California and offers plenty of highlights like the famous Bixby Bridge, Mcway Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Limekiln State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, Hearst Castle, and 17 Mile Drive.
A return to Big Sur is definitely on my California bucket list of places to visit in California!
The Presidio, San Francisco
Presidio Park is one of the best places to visit in San Francisco California.
This 1,500 acre footprint in the middle of a bustling metropolis is a former military post, and a national historic landmark.
The Presidio joined the Golden Gate National Recreation Area – one of the worlds largest national parks in an urban setting in 1994 when the army left, and is a major outdoor recreation hub and natural oasis,
From refurbished red brick military buildings that now hold museums (such as the Walt Disney Museum) to restaurants and hotels to dozens of hiking trails and even a golf course, there are many unique and beautiful things to do in Presidio Park.
Video: Fun things to do in Presidio Park, San Francisco
Mariposa Grove, Yosemite
This is one of the most
You’ll be stepping into the world of the giant sequoias trees at Mariposa Grove, and whilst you won’t see as many as you’d find in nearby Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park, they are easily accessible and enough to amaze you!
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the largest sequoia grove in the southern section of Yosemite NP with over 500 mature big trees.
These incredible trees are the largest living things on earth, and the oldest, and grow to be around 4,800 years old so it’s a title they deserve.
A visit here is one of the best things to do in Yosemite.
The 2 mile Grizzly Giant Loop Trail takes you to visit famous trees such as the Grizzly Giant, Bachelor and Three Graces, and California Tunnel.
Badwater Basin, Death Valley
Welcome to the lowest point in North America!
In case you don’t know, Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park in the USA. And Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level – just one of the cool Death Valley facts!
It was such a thrill standing here, although incredibly windy, and Badwater Basin is where you can walk out on the famous Death Valley salt flats and see the hexagonal honeycomb shapes.
Definitely add this to your list of cool places to visit in California, lol.
Wine lovers will appreciate this world famous wine growing region, but it is much more than just that.
One of the main reasons to visit Napa Valley is that it’s just incredibly beautiful with hills covered in grape vines (that change colors all year), to the wineries with incredible architecture and gardens.
There are five towns that make up the Napa Valley region, and each one offers something different, from hot springs to hiking and boutique shopping to fine dining.
Besides the outstanding wine on offer, another reason to visit is the world-class food served up in the award winning restaurants.
So why not put Napa on your places to go in California list and stop in at all the wineries, or rent a bike and explore all the small roads, or check out all that Downtown Napa has to offer!
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
You can’t visit San Francisco without jumping on a ferry and doing a tour of Alcatraz – one of the iconic California points of interest!
Also known as The Rock, this famous island first served as a lighthouse and military site before becoming a Federal prison in 1963.
Some of the most infamous criminals in history were housed at Alcatraz including Al Capone, and you’ll learn all about the chilling history of this island on the excellent Cellhouse Audio Tour.
You’ll also get incredible views of downtown San Francisco and The Golden Gate Bridge on the ferry over and from the island.
Alcatraz is one of the most popular California attractions and books out up to a month in advance during peak summer season! Get your tickets here.
Video: Alcatraz Island + private walking tour of San Francisco
Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite
Looking to escape the crowds in Yosemite Valley?
The Wapama Falls hike in Hetch Hetchy was by far the quietest of the Yosemite National Park trails we did, and it was an adventurous hike with stunning scenery!
This off-the-beaten-path hike is one of the unique places to visit in California as so many people just stick to Yosemite Valley.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was created to supply the people of San Francisco with water after the devastating earthquake of 1906 destroyed their water source.
You hike through several rock crossings over waterfalls streaming down and through green forests to the end of the trail and the main event – Wapama Falls.
At 1,080 feet high, Wapama Falls is said to rival Yosemite Falls and is one of the tallest in North America.
Places to Visit in Northern California
Muir Woods National Monument
What a magical place Muir Woods National Monument is. Your first look at those towering and old redwood trees will have you in awe – it’s one of the most beautiful places in California!
A loop trail winds among a cathedral of redwoods along the Cathedral Grove and Bohemian Grove trail, and along Redwood Creek.
Muir Woods is just north of San Francisco and part of California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, making it one of the best day trips from San Francisco.
Open 8 am – 5 pm each day. I recommend you set aside a couple of hours for your visit.
Entrance fee is $15.00 for people 16 years and older. A parking reservation is $8.00 per vehicle and booking in advance is required as this is one of the most popular places to visit in California.
Video: Enjoying Muir Woods, San Francisco
Bodie Ghost Town
The Bodie State Historic Park, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of North east California, is one of the best “life frozen in time” gold rush, ghost town experiences.
By its peak in 1879, Bodie had a population of 7,000–10,000, one of the biggest towns in this area at the time, and it produced more than $35 million in gold and silver.
Bodie Ghost Town is preserved in a “State of Arrested Decay”, meaning Bodie is exactly as it looks when abandoned in 1942, right down to goods still on the grocery shelf and the weights lying around on the gym floor.
It had a reputation for lawlessness, stage holdups, street fights, and gun fights and became known as a shooters town. Tombstone had nothing on the Wild West-style gunfights often erupting throughout the town, no doubt after a shot or two at any one of the rumored sixty-five saloons.
Read more about my tour of the Bodie Ghost Town
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
In the middle of the Eastern Sierras near Yosemite National Park, you’ll find the ancient and mystical Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.
At over a million years old, Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America and has an average depth of 100ft.
Mono Lake is known as the Dead Sea of California. It’s 2.5 times saltier than the ocean and high in alkalinity. This is because Mono Lake has no outlet and only collects water where large quantities of salt accumulate.
It is known for its uniquely shaped Tufas – columns and spires of solid calcium carbonate formed when freshwater springs met the alkaline water of the lakes.
Read more about my visit to Mono Lake, California and what you can see and do.
Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park
Located 15-miles east of Highway 101 in Northern California, Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park is slightly off the beaten tourist track making it one of the best places to visit in Northern California away from the crowds!
It’s a gorgeous drive though, with a combination of old forest, small farms, and a few small towns.
Cheatham Grove is a hidden gem of Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, and is famous for being the backdrop for the scooter chase scene in the Star Wars movie, Return of The Jedi.
With only five miles of walking trails, it’s possible to get up close to a redwood forest full of big trees with few people.
Do the Cheatham Grove Trail, a 0.6 mile lightly trafficked loop trail located near Carlotta that is flat, wide, and easy and especially good for kids!
This small town and its black sand beach in Humboldt County made me feel like I was back on the Big Island of Hawaii, with parts of Australia and Ireland mixed in.
Getting to Shelter Cove requires driving the Lost Coast Scenic Drive, an adventure in itself, and I recommend you put it on your list of things to do in Northern California.
We started from the town of Ferndale and finished amongst the redwoods of Humboldt Redwoods State park which took us through high alpine forests and along the rugged coast.
Be warned, this road gets narrow and a bit bumpy in places, and allow approximately 4 hours to complete – it’s an extremely isolated section of the California coastline.
In Shelter Cove, walk on the black sand beach, keep an eye out for deer roaming the town, and grab a coffee or bite to eat at The Fish Tank which offers incredible ocean views!
Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Avenue of the Giants)
Located along the Eel River in Northern California, Humboldt Redwoods State Park is California’s 3rd largest state park and home to Rockefeller Forest, the world’s largest remaining contiguous old-growth forest of coastal redwoods.
Here you can drive along the 32 mile Avenue of the Giants making this one of the best places to visit in California to see redwoods by car.
And with more than 100 miles of hiking, biking, and riding trails, and 250 campsites, Humboldt offers something for everyone.
Do the Founders Grove Nature Loop Trail, 0.5 miles, and wrap your arms around Founders Tree, a 346 foot tall redwood with a circumference of 40 feet – it took all 10 of us to join hands to cuddle it.
Open year round with activities available throughout all four seasons.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is located along U.S. Route 199 and the Smith River in Northern California, 9 miles east of Crescent City.
It is the last in a long line of redwood parks that stretch up Northern California’s coast, and is densely forested with huge ancient trees.
Here you can drive the historic Howland Hill Road which passes through the center of the park and is one of the best redwood drives in all of California as it passes through a remarkable cluster of giant redwoods.
You can also fish, snorkel, or kayak on the Smith River, the longest major free-flowing river in California, or hike through a lush rainforest on 20 miles of trails.
Add this park to your list of California destinations.
Video: Lost Coast Road Trip and Humboldt State Park
Planning a Trip to California
Hotels in California
Booking.com has thousands of hotels in California to choose from at every price point. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
Flights to California
Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).
Rental Cars in California
RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
RV Rentals in California
For RV Rentals, check RVShare if you want to rent a unique RV or campervan and explore California.
Best Time to Visit California
Honestly, there is no real best time to visit California due to its diversity of activities and microclimates. But click on that link for a breakdown of regions within the state and the climates.
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I hope this post provided you with some California travel inspiration? What places to see in California would you add to this list?