Okay. You are ready for your California road trip or short vacation and you are wondering what are the best things to do in California? That is a difficult question to answer in one blog post, but we are here to help.
California is probably the most diverse state in the USA. You can find what is unique about the USA in this one state: mountains, beaches, deserts, farmlands, amazing cities, incredible national parks, small towns, theme parks, great food and wine.
So diverse that in many places you can be skiing in the morning on the slopes and surfing the waves by mid-afternoon.
We’ve been traveling to and through California for years, and still have so many things left to do on our bucket list.
We’re taking our top attractions and California experiences, plus recommendations from friends and readers still on our list to share with you this BEST of the best things to do in California!
As you can see the comments at the very bottom have been lit up with great recommendations. We’d love for you to add yours to this growing community resource list.
This is your hub for all the best places to visit in California, including top California attractions, theme park secrets, cool cities, unique outdoor adventures, amazing national parks, and beautiful beaches.
My new hobby this year is my record player. Savannah and I love to dance to California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas. It takes me back to our memories of California travels each time. Put that song on while you read this post.
- Experience a California Beach Sunset
- Learn and Play at Balboa Park, San Diego
- Kick Back at Ocean Beach, San Diego
- Hike the Torrey Pines Coastal Walk, San Diego
- Go Surfing at Huntington Beach
- Visit the lowest and hottest point in the US: Badwater Basin
- Sunrise and Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
- Camp on the Colorado River, The Needles
- Love the Joshua Tree National Park
- Honky Tonk in the High Desert at Pappy & Harriet’s
- Attend the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
- Attend the Disneyland Halloween Party
- Ride the Incredicoaster & Guardians of the Galaxy, California Adventure Park
- Play volleyball at Manhattan Beach, LA
- Bike Venice Beach to Santa Monica, LA
- Slide The Oue SkySpace, Downtown LA
- Peruse The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA
- Pose with the Melrose Place Murals
- Hike Malibu Creek State Park
- Hike Griffith Park (Hike to Hollywood sign)
- Take in the View of LA at Griffith Observatory
- Soak in a Rooftop Sunset in LA
- See General Sherman, the World’s Largest Living Tree
- Shop, Eat and Play in Santa Barbara
- Spend time in Danish Solvang
- Kayak the Sea Caves of the Channel Islands National Park
- See (and smell) the Elephant Seals at San Simeon
- Surf Santa Cruz
- Road Trip the Big Sur
- Hike with Rainbows at Yosemite’s Mist Trail
- Experience Tunnel View, Scenic Drive HWY 41, Yosemite
- Bike Golden Gate Bridge
- Visit Alcatraz
- Visit the Oldest Chinatown in the USA – San Francisco
- Hug a Redwood Tree at Muir Woods, San Francisco
- Hike the Lands End Trail in San Francisco
- Eat the Best Croissants in the Country, San Francisco
- Wine Tasting Napa Valley | Sonoma
- Tube the Russian River with a Pliny the Elder
- Go Supping (and Skiing) at Lake Tahoe
- Visit the Bodie Ghost Town
- Kayak Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Road Trip the Adventurous and Scenic Lost Coast
- Drive the Avenue of Giants
- Grab a brew and delicious meal at SeaQuake Brewery
- Campsite Dreaming at Panther Flat Creek Campground
- Fern Canyon, Redwoods National Park
- What else should we do in California?
- Sightseeing Pass: Save Money on California Travel
- Car Rental for California
- Booking California Accommodation
- G Adventures Tours
Experience a California Beach Sunset
There’s something amiss if you don’t catch a California beach sunset. It’s FREE and readily available. Grab your cooler and kick back on the sand or cliff to watch this fiery evening event.
I’ll never forget my first one from the deck of the hole-in-the-wall bar on Pacific Beach, San Diego. The whole bar started clapping once it sunk below the horizon. This was something I had never experienced before and felt it just as memorable as the beauty of this natural daily event.
We’ve always seen our favorites in the San Diego and Hermosa Beach area.
Learn and Play at Balboa Park, San Diego
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.
Kick Back at Ocean Beach, San Diego
We’ll be honest with you, there aren’t too many California beaches we’ll hang out on. We find the ocean way to cold, and the air temperatures a little too moderate (not all the time but mostly), they can be overcrowded and not as visually spectacular as I imagined.
And beyond San Francisco they are too wild. For beach days, we prefer East Coast USA.
But, there are a couple of beaches we love, Ocean Beach in San Diego is one of them. It;s an experience and reminds us of Byron Bay in Australia.
There’s a grassy strip out the front which is full of adults who haven’t lost the joy of unencumbered play with friends and strangers.
Groups of men and women support each other’s Acro Yoga poses, another group encourages balance mastery on the slack lines, hula hoop wanabees wiggle those hips (my girls included) and others let their spirits free in drumming circles with bongo drums, acoustic guitars and voices.
We spent days here back in 2004 with friends and locals playing beach volleyball during the day, hitting the bars up at night, and enjoying bonfires. That’s the California Dreaming I’m talking about.
Read More: 16 Amazing things to do in San Diego with kids
Hike the Torrey Pines Coastal Walk, San Diego
One of my favorite cheap things to do in San Diego with kids is visit Torrey Pines State National Reserve.
It has a collection of coastal hiking trails with ocean vistas and native vegetation, including the rare Torrey Pine, which is only found in Torrey Pines State Reserve and Santa Rosa Island.
The Torrey Pines hiking trails are of various levels for all ages and run along the cliff faces or switch back down to the shores below.
We hiked the Guy Fleming trail, which is an easy 2/3-mile loop walk and one of the most popular Torrey Pines hikes.
Go Surfing at Huntington Beach
As Aussies, we know what makes a great beach. Huntington Beach in Orange County is our favorite California beach for the total package: 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!
While there, stay at the Kimpton Hotel in a room with ocean views. It’s one of our favorite California boutique hotels.
Read more: 15 Things to do in Orange County with kids and top things to do in Huntington Beach, CA, a guide to the Mission San Juan Capistrano and things to do in Buena Park
Visit the lowest and hottest point in the US: Badwater Basin
You may find Death Valley appear on this California list of things to do a few times. It’s one of the most extraordinary and uniquely beautiful national park in the US.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the US on the salt plains. The name says it all. This also known as one of the hottest places on earth.
Kick off your shoes and walk along the salt trails. It was incredibly windy when we visited.
Read More: Top 9 Things to do in Death Valley National Park
Sunrise and Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
Zabriskie Point is one of the most strikingly beautiful vistas I have ever seen. Just when you think you’ve seen all colors, shapes and swirling designs in Mother Nature, something comes along that’s so new and unique.
The great thing about this Death Valley National Park attraction is it’s beautiful at sunrise and sunset and looks completely different each time. Don’t miss either.
Camp on the Colorado River, The Needles
Chances are you have not heard of this place in California. We only wish we didn’t have forward plans and stayed here longer. It’s a true hidden California gem.
The Colorado River is the border between Arizona and California, and the Pirate Cove Resort lies on its banks.
This secluded California oasis is located at the Moabi Regional Park just 11-miles southeast of Needles, California, a city in eastern San Bernardino County near the borders of Arizona and Nevada and roughly 110 miles from the Las Vegas.
Nestled among the palm trees and surrounded by pristine white sandy beaches, this is the place to come for those who love spectacular scenery, off-roading and ATV adventures, camping and boating.
I loved watching the sunrise over the river early each morning. It was fantastic to stay by the Colorado River after seeing the masterpiece it carved up in the Grand Canyon.
This RV resort is massive. Our camp site was isolated and two miles away from the main area where the restaurants are. It was so pretty and peaceful. They have a funky pirate bar and regular events.
Love the Joshua Tree National Park
We fell in love with the Joshua Tree, which reminded me so much of the Truffula trees in the Lorax. It has a similar playful, unique, and striking presence and aura.
It’s not just the Joshua Trees to love here but junipers, scrub oaks, Mojave yuccas and the prickly pear cactus, one of our favorites from Big Bend National Park.
The scenery is spectacular with its white boulders and Joshua Trees dotting the landscape. Anyone who loves rock climbing will want to visit Joshua tree – it’s a renowned California climbing place.
Read More: Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids
Honky Tonk in the High Desert at Pappy & Harriet’s
This may be one of the most unique California attractions no one has told you about yet. Perched in the high desert in a dusty abandoned town reminiscent of a spaghetti western is Pappy & Harriet’s, an infamous music venue.
It’s at Pioneer Town which was originally constructed to be an Old West movie set.
Pappy’s is the place legends are mad of and a spot on the map for music lovers. We loved coming here for dinner and watching some live music.
Don’t expect anything fancy though – that’s part of its magic.
You’ve got a bar, knotted beams, and a small stage and bar filled with cowboys and bikers, hippies, and musos. Grab yourself some mesquite barbecue and sit back and enjoy some tunes. You just never know who you may see here.
Attend the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
No California Bucket List would be complete without a live festival experience.
One of the most well-known in California is the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, in the Coachella Valley in the Colorado Desert.
The event unfolds over two consecutive weekends in April and has hosted a wide range of artists, from rock standouts and indie bands to mainstream pop performers like Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.
It’s location in the Greater Palm Springs area also gives you access to cool experiences like desert hiking, and Palm Springs eating, shopping and nightlife. I have not attended yet, but it’s high on my list!
Attend the Disneyland Halloween Party
OK, Disney fans. How can you have a things to do in California Bucket List without including Disneyland?
I’m not a huge fan and would MUCH RATHER do everything else on this list and have that be my California memories and I do think Orlando has the better version of the theme parks, but I’ll mention it just for you.
If you are going to visit why not make it a Bucket List experience and attend the Mickey’s Halloween Party because I did think that was pretty awesome!
Disneyland Halloween Time is not like what you might find in theme parks like Universal Studios or SCarowinds in North Carolina.
There are no haunted mazes or scary costumed characters jumping out to frighten you. Mickey’s not so scary Halloween party is a separate-admission Halloween-themed event held annually.
It’s just pure family-friendly costumed and Halloween treat fun. Get dressed up and take in a big treat bag – the amount of Candy you collect is ridiculous!
Read More: All of our tips for the Disneyland Halloween Party
Ride the Incredicoaster & Guardians of the Galaxy, California Adventure Park
I did really enjoy California Adventure Park though, which is next door to Disneyland and has some really cool rides.
Most memorable to me (and the stories we’ll tell forever) were the Incredicoaster Ride and Guardians of the Galaxy
The incredicoaster is a roller coaster that shoots off at the start and goes really fast around the track and has one loop. It plays the Incredibles theme song which makes it more intense, and it’s a long ride too.
One of the best rides I’ve been on is Guardians of the Galaxy. . I’ll never forget our little elevator capsule alternating between terrified screams and riotous laughing at everyone. I never expected such an epic ride.
Read More: Our best tips for enjoying California Adventure Park, Anaheim
Play volleyball at Manhattan Beach, LA
Manhattan Beach is the beach volleyball capital of the USA. Bring your ball and your friends and enjoy the nets lined up and down the beach front. You could probably even ask to join a group if you are on your own.
Manhattan and Hermosa Beach is our favorite area of LA and is where we typically head to if we are visiting Los Angeles. Craig and I attended the Six Man Volleyball competition here in 2006. IT was a hoot watching teams in costume playing volleyball.
You can ride, walk or roller blade along the beach promenade between the two. It’s a unique perspective of LA beach lifestyle.
Bike Venice Beach to Santa Monica, LA
We are not big fans of Santa Monica at all and are surprised that it is such a hot destination for Australian tourists to California.
However, we do enjoy riding bikes along the beach promenade from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. It’s a beautiful and easy bike ride and great opportunity to see California beach lifestyle.
Venice Beach is also a hoot. It’s the most eclectic, stuck in an 70’s acid trip, place I’ve ever been. The girls typically don’t like staying there for too long. Enough time to watch a few skateboarders do their tricks and basketballers carve up the court.
Read More: The Ultimate Guide of best things to do in Los Angeles
Slide The Oue SkySpace, Downtown LA
Are you brave enough to slide from the 70th to the 60th floor of California’s tallest building on a glass slide?
I thought nothing of it, but a few people behind me screamed the city down and many on social media said they wouldn’t do it.
The slide was over so quick you barely notice you’re held up by a piece of glass hanging off the side of a building. I thought it was fun and I promise you it’s not scary. I loved seeing the girl’s reactions doing it!
It is expensive though. It cost me $35 for a trip up to see the 360-degree panoramic views of LA, including one turn on the slide.
It will cost you an extra $8 each time you want to do the slide again. But the Oue Skyspace is a unique experience and worth doing if your budget is not too tight.
It’s also included in the Los Angeles Sightseeing Pass
Peruse The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA
Kinda weird that a bookstore is on a best thing to do in California list? Not really. It remains the most popular Instagram photos of ours – twice now.
The Last Bookstore is California’s largest used and new book and record store and began in a Downtown LA loft. It has grown since then to 22,000 square feet and is housed in the grand atrium of what was once a bank.
The best treasures are kept upstairs. It’s a labyrinth of books suspended in flight as they erupt from a bookcase, tunnels built from books, hidden side rooms with more than 100,000 used books for sale, plus free-standing sculptures, and mobiles.
Read More: 14 Classic and Fun Things to do in Downtown LA
Pose with the Melrose Place Murals
Are you unsure of how to pose when it comes to taking photos with murals? I’m unsure without them as well.
It’s one of the reasons we loved this Melrose Ave tour. Not only did we learn a little about this famous street and artistic community, find great good options, and see beautiful murals, our guide was fantastic in helping us pose and get some great family shots.
This Melrose Ave selfie guided tour is one of our favorite tours we did in LA and in California. I just love looking back on these photos – priceless memories. Instagram lovers will check this as one of their favorite things to do in LA.
This was one of the tours on the LA Sightseeing Pass?
Read More: 20 Fun Things to do in LA with kids
Hike Malibu Creek State Park
Malibu Creek State Park is such a hidden treasure of Los Angeles and California. There was only two other people there when we visited. It’s like wondering into the wilderness of Southeast Asia. Oh wait, scenes form Mash were filmed here!
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!
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.
We combined our visit with a coastal drive from Malibu into Santa Monica which is part of the Pacific Coast Highway. You can check out Malibu Beach while here, which many say is one of the top beaches in California, but I beg to differ.
Hike Griffith Park (Hike to Hollywood sign)
Located a 20-minute drive north-west of downtown, Griffith Park is one of the largest urban wilderness municipal parks in the US.
It offers several hiking trails, deep canyons, pony rides, and stunning views over Los Angeles.
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.
Take in the View of LA at Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory which sits perched on a hilltop below the Hollywood Sign.
You can incorporate a visit here when you take on one of Griffith Parks hikes. It gives a beautiful view of Los Angeles.
Soak in a Rooftop Sunset in LA
Speaking of epic California sunsets, while in LA, don’t discount a downtown LA sunset. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and best observed from a funky roof top bar.
My two favorites are the rooftop bars of the art deco buildings, the Perch Rooftop Bar, and the Ace Hotel.
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See General Sherman, the World’s Largest Living Tree
Devastation. That’s what we felt at not being able to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. We didn’t have a lot of good luck on our 1 year RV US road trip with the weather.
We timed our visit to this region with a huge snowstorm that closed it. It’s on our California Bucket List for the future.
It’s worth a visit to see the beautiful, gigantic trees, especially the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume. It reaches 275 feet into the blue Sierra sky and has a girth of 36 feet at its base.
There are other taller and wider trees in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, but none has the combined weight and width of this giant.
If you can’t make it to these two California national parks, but can go to Yosemite National Park you can see giant sequoias there at Mariposa Grove
Shop, Eat and Play in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara on the Central California coast is one of our favorite places in California for its ocean location set against a stunning mountain backdrop, mixed Mediterranean Spanish colonial style architecture, boutique shopping and upmarket bars and restaurants.
Plus, you have nearby wineries – visit Kalyra Winery, it’s what we named our daughter after!
Spend time in Danish Solvang
If you’re tired of American culture, you can escape to the small Danish village of Solvang about 45 minutes from Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Baked goods are served fresh each morning, the village is filled with activities, seasonal festivals, wine tasting, and delicious Danish food. l
Craig visited briefly with the girls and his family in 2018 and they enjoyed walking around the village and visiting a pumpkin patch farm.
Kayak the Sea Caves of the Channel Islands National Park
Dubbed the Galapagos of North America, the Channel Islands National Park is one of the most underrated and under visited national park in the USA.
We loved our day trip here from Ventura 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. What more do you need?
It’s probably one of the most adventurous things to do in California, and one of the most beautiful places to visit in California.
Read More: Day trip to Channel Island National Park
See (and smell) the Elephant Seals at San Simeon
Called elephant seals for a reason, these giant marine mammals can be seen on the beach just off Highway 1 in San Simeon.
The Northern Elephant Seal migrates to the rookery, twice each year. While offshore, the elephant seal spends eight to ten months diving up to 5,800 feet deep for up to two hours. The remaining months of the year, they mate, birth, molt, and rest onshore between trips.
The Piedras Blancas Rookery hosts up to 24,000 elephant seals each year. Be warned they can be pretty smelly – but well worth the stop if you a road tripping highway 1.
Nearby is also the famous Hearst Castle – still on our to do list for California.
Surf Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has a kind of notoriety about it for its eclectic mix of people and experiences, but also its surf town vibe.
It’s surf history dates back to 1885 1885 when three visiting Hawaiian princes rode the local waves on redwood planks. Top surfers arund the world seek out the breaks here.
Craig and I didn’t love Santa Cruz when we visited in 2006. Mostly because of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an esplanade with rides and games like Santa Monica. It’s jut not our thing.
But we’ve heard so many people rave about this place for its other wonderful qualities that we want to go back and dive deeper into it.
Road Trip the Big Sur
While we have not yet taken the girls on this famous California road trip, Craig and I did it in 2006 and camped along the way. It was incredibly beautiful and everything you’ve dreamed on.
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 USA 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, and 17 Mile Drive.
Hike with Rainbows at Yosemite’s Mist Trail
Rainbows on a misty hike up to a beautiful waterfall? Of course, you do!
If we were to recommend one to make the things to do in California bucket list it would be the Vernal Falls.
There are so many amazing hikes to do in Yosemite National Park. You can read all of them in our in-depth guide on Visiting Yosemite with kids.
Yosemite is about waterfalls, and what makes this one so special are the 600 stone steps taking you beside Vernal Falls as it thunders 317 feet down and sprays you. It’s a very dramatic walk – and slippery so take care.
The highlight – look back and see all the rainbows. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Keep going to the top of the Vernal Falls and witness the power of the water surging over the edge as well as some pretty Emerald Pools (DO NOT SWIM)
Experience Tunnel View, Scenic Drive HWY 41, Yosemite
Are you ready for one of the most spectacular views in California?
Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park is best seen in May when the waterfalls are raging with all the snow run off.
It was out of this world beautiful. It was like watching the Lost World appear in a Disney Movie.
Bridalveil Falls plunders over the top down into the forested valley. Here is where you’ll get your classic view of El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rocks and Cathedral Rocks.
When you’re driving through Yosemite from the south gate down to the valley, you’ll drive through Wawona Tunnel. After you exit the tunnel, you are at Tunnel View!
Three Yosemite Falls and McWay Falls were featured in our Best Waterfalls in the US list.
See more amazing viewpoints and Yosemite experiences in this 3 day tour highlights post.
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Check out the beauty and diversity of California’s national parks
Bike Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most iconic sites in the USA. Make It one of the best things to do in California by biking across it.
It was too cold to do it when we visited with the kids, but Craig and I did it in 2006.
It was one of our most memorable San Francisco experiences. We rode over from the Fisherman’s Wharf area, stopping at Sausalito for fish and chips on the harbor and then continued riding to . and then catching the ferry back. Do as we do!
Read More: 28 Fun Things to do in San Francisco with kids
I was worried Alcatraz was just going to be a kitschy San Francisco attraction, but I was so wrong. The girls loved it as well and I’m sure are convinced now to never go against the law.
The Alcatraz Island tour is a fascinating and real insight into life in this notorious prison isolated on a small island in San Francisco Bay. The narrated audio tour – complete with audio effects – makes it all so real. Be sure to book this tour in advance.
Visit the Oldest Chinatown in the USA – San Francisco
As the biggest Chinatown in the world, and the oldest in the USA, this is one of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids from a cultural perspective as they will feel like they have been transported to China.
Chinatown is bustling with markets, restaurants and small alleyways. Wander the streets and admire the pagodas and murals depicting Chinese customs, culture and beliefs.
While here be sure to grab your infamous Golden Fortune Cookies, visit Ross Alley, and eat Dim Sum.
A hidden secret is the Tin How Temple, the oldest extant Tao Temple in temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and one of the oldest still-operating Chinese temples in the United States.
Read more: Neighborhood Guide for San Francisco
Hug a Redwood Tree at Muir Woods, San Francisco
California is known for redwoods, the tallest living thing, and you can see them in many places.
They are magnificent trees and very huggable. An easy place to see them is just outside the city of San Francisco.
Do the easy 2-mile loop walk and if you have kids be sure to embark on a journey of redwood discovery with their Junior Ranger Program.
Hike the Lands End Trail in San Francisco
A spectacular coastal trail in San Francisco filled with beautiful views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Lands End trail.
The Sutro Baths at the end of the Lands End Trail is fascinating. It was once the largest public swimming recreation area in the worl before being destroyed by fire.
Read More: 20 Hidden Gems in San Francisco the locals love
Eat the Best Croissants in the Country, San Francisco
It pays to have insider knowledge. We were excited when our friend, Michael showed us around his home town San Francisco and introduced us to Arsicault bakery, one of the true hidden food gems of San Francisco!
The croissants here are award winning. Not just any award, but the BEST CROISSANTS IN THE COUNTRY award!
Oh My Gosh. They were divine! Have the ones filled with chocolate.
Read More: Mom‘s Solo 1 Day in San Francisco Adventure
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Wine Tasting Napa Valley | Sonoma
Just north of San Francisco is Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, both well-known wine tasting regions in California.
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.
Sonoma Valley seems to have more free wine tasting experiences; Napa being the more upmarket vineyard area.
We enjoyed a little wine tasting during our stay in Russian River in Sonoma County (see below) Wine tasting in Napa Valley is also on our list still to do in California. We also enjoyed wine tasting in Santa Barbara (Pink now has a winery here!)
Tube the Russian River with a Pliny the Elder
What is a Pliny the Elder you ask?
Visit Santa Rosa in the Sonoma County area and you’ll soon find out with the never-ending stream of people walking out of the Russian River Brewery with a $60 case in hand.
Yep a beer that good it fetches outrageous Australian prices and Pliny lovers line up for hours for the limited release of Pliny the Younger each year.
Pliny the elder and younger is known as one of the US’s best beer.
I did enjoy its smooth ride down my throat on a hot summer’s day and found it paired even better with a refreshing tube ride down the Russian River just steps away from our RV campground.
This is one of California’s hidden secrets.
Read More: 3 Reasons to Visit Russian River
Check out this wine tasting I did in Sonoma on my Northern California tour (also includes Lake Tahoe!)
Go Supping (and Skiing) at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of those dream California destinations – beautiful and available all year round. Nature abounds here and in the summer you can hike and enjoy water activities, like my favorite paddle boarding, and in the winter you’ll’ find some of the best skiing in the country.
Lake Tahoe is on the border of California and Nevada, whose crystal-clear waters and backdrop of towering mountains and granite cliffs earns it the reputation of being one of the most beautiful lakes in the USA.
Visit the 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
Kayak 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.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
One of the lessor known national parks in the USA is Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.
It’s rich in hydrothermal sites like Bumpass Hell, with its acres of bubbling mud pots, steaming sulphur vents, and, boiling springs. IT sounds like a mini Yellowstone National Park.
Lassen Peak Volcano blew its top in 1914. Now it’s dormant, and trails and overlooks let you these amazing sites from within dense woods and sparkling lakes. The summit offers views over the surrounding wilderness.
Road Trip the Adventurous and Scenic Lost Coast
Lost Coast Scenic Drive is 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.
The highlight is the spectacular Black Sand Beach at Shelter Cove, one of the most beautiful and unique beach in California.
This is a California attraction not many people do! Off-the-beaten path here we come.
Read More: Lost Coast California Road trip: Your guide to adventure
Drive the Avenue of Giants
The Avenue of the Giants is a 31 mile scenic road that snakes through the Humboldt Redwood State Park between Phillipsville (south) and Pepperwood (north) in Northern California.
It’s renowned for the soaring redwoods standing guard along the road and welcoming you.
Humboldt Redwood State Park has the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest in the world with more than 17,000 acres of ancient coast redwood and Douglas-fir trees.
There are plenty of places to stop along the way and hiking trails to experience the redwood groves. It’s spectacular and we share all the places to stop along the Avenue of the Giants in this post for short walks and tree hugging experiences.
Grab a brew and delicious meal at SeaQuake Brewery
California is full of great breweries and places to eat. It’s hard for us to recommend certain places as they all blend into each other. (Leave your favorite brewery or restaurant in California in the comments.)
One that we does not get lost in the crowd is SeaQuake Brewing in Crescent City on the Northern California coast near the Redwoods National Park.
We loved the ambiance, food, brew and craft cider from here. The Veggie Seastack was delicious! SeaQuake was one of our favorite breweries in California that we visited.
Campsite Dreaming at Panther Flat Creek Campground
Panther Flat Creek Campground is further north, yet still in redwood country.
We loved this relaxing stay by the stunning Smith River in the Six Rivers National Forest. The campsite was spectacular in the middle of the forest with largest sites, campfire rings and river access.
This was the RV camping experience I had been dreaming of.
Surrounding us were sections of the Redwood State and National Park. Don’t miss While there we took a scenic drive through the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park which was just spectacular.
You’ll find protected ancient redwood groves, open prairie lands, two major rivers, and 37 miles (60 km) of pristine California coastline to explore.
Fern Canyon, Redwoods National Park
Up in the Redwoods State Park is a canyon in a narrow gorge carved out by Home Creek. Its steep cliff walls are covered with ancient species of lush fern.
We wanted to visit here when exploring Northern California and in the Crescent City area but we just couldn’t make it happen as it was a little more off-the-beaten path.
A short trail follows a series of small footbridges past hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. Steven Spielberg filmed a Jurassic Park II scene within this canyon.
As a lover of all things green, forestry and ferns, this would be a wonderful California sight.
Fern Canyon is a canyon in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, California. The Redwoods National and State Park area is unusual as it is comprised of multiple state and national park areas.
Northern California Playlist
Watch our videos from our Northern California road trip.
What else should we do in California?
While we have seen and done a lot in California, there is still so much left on our bucket list. We have a few more things to experience based upon stories from friends and recommendations from our community.
Grab a printable copy of this bucket list when you join our free VIP email community. Lots of insider tips, guides, checklists and itineraries.
Share your recommendations and tips in the comments for the best things to do in California on our next visit.
Sightseeing Pass: Save Money on California Travel
Discount tourist cards are a great way to save money on popular attractions. With their skip-the-line tickets they can also save you a lot of time.
The Sightseeing Pass is our favorite discount attraction pass as it often includes quirky local attractions, walking tours, discounted food and shopping, and has a huge range of attractions and flexibility.
Car Rental for California
California is a fantastic road trip destination. If you have your own car, keep on reading.
If you don’t, Rentalcars.com is our most trusted source for car rental. (We’re affiliate partners with them as a result!)
Booking California Accommodation
Each of the posts below have accommodation recommendations specific to the destination and from our personal experiences + ones we have thoroughly reviewed.
We recommend finding California accommodation on Booking.com (includes apartments, villas, hotels)
G Adventures Tours
For those, who don’t want the hassle of organizing your own road trip of California, we highly recommend G Adventures guided tours.
- USA Road Trip: Pacific Coast to Las Vegas
- Sin, Surf and Sierras
- LA to New York
- California Sierras and the Coast
61 thoughts on “Epic Guide – 47 Incredible Things to Do in California (and hidden secrets)”
My first overseas trip was when I was about 9 and was taken to California! I remember Disneyland and Universal Studios were definite highlights for someone my age at the time, and even now at 20 I would kill to go back! I also remember Legoland was something fun for kids in San Diego and even San Jose might be a good place to stop! Definitely a lot to see and do in California! I can’t wait to see your travels 🙂 I love watching your snapchats!
Oh yes, besides Disneyland we’re hoping to take the kids to all the theme parks in California such as Universal Studios and Legoland. I’m sure even us big kids will love those – we love movies!
Thanls for following along on SnapChat, having some fun with that platform 🙂
While in California you have all the sports there to do a sporting event, baseball, you can see battle of the bay Oakland A’s vs San Francisco Giants, football (American), hockey, basketball the Bay Area has it all! I also loved as a kid going to Santa Cruz beach the boardwalk is fun, games, rides, yummy foods! I also suggest the Exploratorium in San Francisco for the kids, I went a few years ago after only going when I was about 9 and it was still fun!
If you go during Christmas time, Christmas in the park in San Jose is cool to experience as well. Lights, hot cocoa, lots of picture opportunities.
I’ll be moving back to California after being gone for almost 14 years and looking forward to taking my daughter to the places I loved growing up!
I’m a HUGE sports fan and my NFL team is the Niners so would love to see a game in San Francisco. And a Golden State Warriors game to see Steph Curry would be awesome too. Is StubHub still the best way to get tickets for sporting events?
And thanks for the tips on Santa Cruz. Sounds like a fun town. Will put that on our list for the Highway 1 drive! Hope your move back to California goes great!
Stub hub is the easiest way to get tix if they are harder to find tickets for bigger games. But otherwise, looking through the venue or team website will still provide you with plenty of options for most games.
I live near San Francisco. One of my favorite places to go is Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley. Lots of beautiful hiking trails. On some trails you can get really beautiful views of SF. They also have a merry-go-round, little farm area, a lake and botanical gardens. Great place to visit with kids!
Also, if you’re taking the Pacific Coast Highway from SF down south, definitely stop in Santa Cruz. The Beach Boardwalk amusement park there is super fun. They also have other nice beaches and some good hiking spots. Plenty of interesting shops and restaurants. If you pass through Monterey, I highly recommend stopping at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Have never heard of Tilden Regional Park, sounds cool with the kids for sure, thanks for the tip!
And will have to stop in Santa Cruz I’m sure the kids will love that boardwalk. I visited Monterey many years ago but never went inside the aquarium, we’ll have to check it out.
I live in L.A. but my sister lives near Wildcat/Tilden. It’s a great area and I do enjoy a hike there when I’m visiting her. Good recommendation.
Ok cool. Thanks for the tip!
Wow, there are so many things to mention. Looks like you’re hitting some of the big national parks and highlights, but here are a few other suggestions:
-Death Valley National Park – Beautiful desert landscapes, lowest elevation in North America, highest temperatures in the world (tempting, I know).
-Sequoia National Park – Easy hikes and beautiful scenery, home to the largest tree (by volume) in the world!
-Santa Barbara for beautiful seaside locations and wine tasting nearby
-Catalina Island for a short getaway
-Santa Cruz for a scenic beach town surrounded by redwoods.
-Big Sur for awesome cliff/seaside views
-Other than the national parks, there are some really cool stairways in Hollywood near the Hollywood Bowl, and Angeleno Heights is a great place for a view of downtown and for a walk around beautiful Tudor architecture.
-Northern California is absolutely crawling with gorgeous hikes. Mount Tamalpais is a great one just across the Golden Gate Bridge for iconic views of San Francisco.
-You haven’t made a trip to Los Angeles if you haven’t gone to a Dodger game and had a Dodger Dog!
Notable but not often mentioned scenic points along PCH from San Francisco to Los Angeles:
-Pigeon Point Lighthouse
-Los Angeles has some great museums, including the Getty (worth visiting for the view alone!) and the Broad.
As you may have guessed, I could go on about cool stuff in California all day! Enjoy your trip!
Cheers Tim. Great list of tips there, appreciate your time in sharing. Getting more excited about California by the minute!
My five cents:
I need about a week to just typewrite – ten fingers – all the things to do and see in California.
Will try to be as brief as possible.
One serious piece of advice concerning travel plans you have already made: I would skip California Disneyland in favor of the Florida one. Original Disneyland is outdated, extremely crowded and not so big compare to its east coast sibling. But that’s up to you.
I always favor SF over LA (SF is my favorite city in USA), LA and SS is on pair. Museum life is much more interested in LA, than anywhere else on east coast, but you have to pay a huge price in commuting.
As for a travel logistic: I would suggest to drive the state meridionally and do that twice – once along the coast via RT.1 and Rt.101 (use Rt.101 between Solvang and Pismo Beach, for example) all the way from San Diego to Oregon and then back along the Sierra Nevada range (or vise versa).
Seasons: any. This is the only USA state that can be traveled and equally thorough enjoyed any time of year. Of course, the travel itinerary will be really different at different seasons, but the state offers something magnificent any time of year. Having said that, I would avoid, if possible, travelling the state in summer months – the settings are bleaker due to water restrictions and many parks are unnecessary crowded. However, city hopping (San Diego-LA-SF) in summer is perfectly OK.
Orientation: I would highly recommend to purchase Delorme California Atlas and Gazetteer. Actually, I always use that type of atlases when travelling to any US states. It gives you much broader sense of surroundings that GPS, and is very helpful in planning, especially if you are nature-oriented traveler.
Natural features: try to visit ALL California National Parks and National Monuments. No exceptions. All of them are REALLY good. Yosemite takes at least a week (summer is terribly crowded here, any other season is good, some winters may be snowy, but it rarely happens), Lassen Volcanic, Sequoya, Redwood (both north and south stretches), Joshua Tree require at least several days to a week each if you are interested in hiking, smaller parks like Pinnacles, Muir Woods, Kings Canyon, Mono Lake, Anza-Borrego or Mojave desert can be done via a day visit or with a short stay nearby.
Death Valley NP is pretty specific place. It worth driving through at any season (allow about two days, three days if you want to go hiking toward bristlecone pines at western Death Valley or to ruins at the north of the park), however, try to get there in early March or so, when wildflowers may be in bloom, if rain cooperates. Choice of lodgings are limited here and Furnace Creek Inn is the only viable opportunity.
Here are few of my favorite small places in California, north to south:
Coastal area Oregon to SF:
Smith River upstream of Crescent City (nice clean mountain stream);
Jedediah Smith Redwood SP;
Rt. 96 from Arkata to I-5;
Trinidad (nice beach and tidal pools) at low tide, fantastic sunsets;
Eureka marshes (in bird migration season only);
Ferndale (Victorian houses);
Humboldt Redwood SP + Eel river;
Shelter Cove at low tide;
Standish-Hickey SRA (summer only if you want to swim);
McKericher SP at low tide (one of the best tidal pools in California);
Fort Bragg Glass Beach;
Jackson SF if you have a good 4WD;
Mendocino NF has a lot of trails, your choice;
Salt Point SP (good mushroom hunting in season);
Fort Ross (must see, carefully check when they are open);
Bodega Bay (eat at Tides Wharf, nice view to the harbor);
Point Reyes Peninsula (bring binoculars to enjoy watching harbor seals and other marine life, lots of trails, prime mushroom picking area for sanfranciscians);
Bolinas Bay waterfowl;
Muir Woods NM (arrive early before tourist buses to have the place for yourself);
Russian River, Napa, Sonoma and Alexander Valley (the last one is often overlooked, and vastly underestimated) are all worth to drive through and visit all (or some) of the breweries. Wine testing here is legendary/ If you are up for a sour beer, don’t miss Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa.
Eastern California from Oregon to Sacramento River Valley:
Mills Creek Falls in Modoc NF;
Honn Creek in Lassen NF;
Subway Cave (lava tube cave) in Lassen NF;
Lassen NP and vicinity, really nice campground at Manzanita Lake, trails start just from the camping area, you can rent a boat to explore the small lake;
Hike to Lassen Peak (crowdy, but nice), short hikes to any of alpine lakes in the park;
Sacramento Valley is really interesting if you like to see all the varieties of agriculture methods;
Lake Tahoe vicinity is very picturesque (most of the nice hikes, including Eagle Falls, are at the south end of the lake);
Each road crossing Sierra Nevada from Lake Tahoe to SF is interesting to drive at (and hike from, options are unlimited), you gradually getting from alpine landscape to small hill vineries, then to super-fertile Sacramento valley. Some mountain roads may be closed in winter, the more you are to the south (toward Yosemite), the more chances are that the roads might not be opened (roughly from December to March);
SF to San Diego along the coast:
I would stay at least two weeks in SF, I love this city and its vicinity. The closer you stay to Market Place, the more interesting it is (this part of the town never get asleep). Choices of lodging are fantastic, but prices are outrageous;
Follow Rt. 1 all the way (except at small suggested deviation near bleaky area of Santa Maria, where Rt.101 presents a little nicer options, like nearby wineries);
Keep an eye on sea lions – they can be spotted anywhere (particularly good places are north of San Luis Obispo and near San Simeon SP);
Monterrey aquarium is overestimated, in my opinion, but childrens may like it anyway;
Carmel is one of the best small towns on the west coast, 17 miles drive is must to do, sea otter spotting is almost guaranteed;
Point Lobos SNR is my favorite ocean-side area in California. Arrive early (or late), as parking is a huge problem on the entrance;
Explore both west and east entrances to Pinnacles National Park. Don’t forget a flashlights, some passages are so narrow, that you literally walk through the cave;
The stretch of Rt.1 from Carmel to Morro Bay is probably the best coastal drive in USA (well, some Oregonians will not agree with me);
Don’t miss waterfall from a creek to the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer SP (famous place for those loving Henry Miller or John Stainbeck). Nice campground is nearby at Big Sur;
You may book a tour at Hearst San Simeon palace (do that well in advance), it is a quintessential realization of an average XX century American’s dream of “what I will do if I get really rich”;
Can drive your regular car at Pismo beach (4WD is advisable, though);
Islay Creek campground is usually not full, good choice for a one-two nights stay in the area (tidal pools, good wineries near San Luis Obispo, surfing);
Solvang is funny Dutch village, very touristy, but nice;
Santa Barbara is overrated, in my opinion;
If you have time to dive (or fish) somewhere near Channel Islands, don’t miss it, it is quite an experience (however, ocean fishing is better from San Diego, in my opinion);
LA can be lightly explored in a week or two. Don’t miss Huntington Library, Norton Symon Museum, Getti Museum, Broad Museum, Marina del Rey, Beverly Hills + West Hollywood, and Santa Monica promenade – everything else may not be that pretty;
La Jolla is my favorite place near San Diego. Try to stay as close to the cove, as possible (Pantai Inn is expensive but is absolutely the best lodging in the area). Snorkel, kayak to the coastal coves, or just stroll along the coast here;
Torrey Pines SNR is very nice beach strolling area (keep in mind that part of the beach is a nude zone, it is pretty common in California). The park is one of the easiest places in USA where you may do paragliding (with instructor);
San Diego Zoo is the best in USA (can tell that for sure, I checked everything). I can easily spend couple days there;
San Diego Zoo safari park in Escondido is not that good as it was a decade ago. The train that circled the park is broken for years now, and they use the bus service on safari instead – it is much more crowded, not personalized and not very intriguing. However, if you are willing to walk few miles a day or pay for a personal guide, you can still see a lot here;
Gaslamp district is fine, but not spectacular, ocean promenade (especially at Seaport village) is better in my view;
Midway carrier is a must to see;
Seaword (must visit) is on pair with the one in Orlando;
Everyone used to eat at Old Town San Diego, maybe it is still OK, at least most of the restaurants are pretty “Mexican” there;
SF to Mexico via Sierra Nevada:
Yosemite NP. Spend as much time here, as you can. You can stay in campground (in hard-shell tents, yurts or cabins). Try to avoid getting here in summer, it is insanely crowded time. Shoulder seasons are the best, winter is not that bad too, unless you got into rare snow storm. Do hikes to any and all waterfalls, they are all different. Drive to old sequoia groves (two of them are nearby), do that in early morning to avoid crowds;
Drive Rt. 120 to Mono lake. Calcite (?) formations on the lake looks eerie and are easy to access;
Side trip to Mammoth Mountain is an interesting proposition just for a purpose of checking how they do business there. I am pretty active alpine skier myself, but had to admit that most of California ski resorts disappoint me. Not because of the scenery – they are pretty, open, well prepared (usually). But the hordes of skiers on the slopes, questionable infrastructure, unstable weather and somewhat outdated ski lifts can ruin even the best sceneries available. So, most times I am starting to plan my ski vacation in California, I am ending up skiing in Europe;
Chose any of hundreds of hikes from Lake Shore. You can get to really high alpine places from here. Beware of black bears in a peak of tourist season (both here and in Yosemite), bears can easily leave you without your lunch (it is more an annoyance, than a danger);
King Canyon and Sequoia NPs are both wonderful and must see, however choice of hotels and campgrounds are limited here. Plan you camping in advance;
Joshua Tree NP is one of my favorite places in USA, however, it is at its best when the weather is not scorching hot (means, winter or spring). You can stay at Palm Springs, of course, it is a nice resort city with an easy gondola access to Mt. San Jacinto, however, most of the Joshua Tree campgrounds are really nice to stay at, especially for children (a lot of boulders to climb to);
Santa Rosa and san Jacinto Mountains displays wonderful spring wildflower colors sometime in or around April (wild poppies are fantastic);
Salton Lake is pretty interesting to drive around. Nice places to walk are on the southern end of the Sea, it is a wintering grounds for thousands of birds (near Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR);
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area not far from Brawley is really interesting to visit, the area is very rewarding for photo enthusiast at dusk and dawn;
Anza-Borrego Desert SP offers surprisingly interesting wildlife and cactus life, better to have a good 4WD (or, better, ATV) if you plan to drive away from main roads;
Drive from desert to San Diego via Cleveland National Forest may surprise everyone: on couple occasions we got from a snow at vicinity of Pine Valley to a swimmable ocean at San Diego in just 40 minutes.
If you are interested in details, just E-mail me with questions.
Love your “5 cents” worth of tips Ivan. Incredible. Looks like we’ll be in California for 6 months now, lol, so much to see and do, love the diversity of the state. You’ve certainly been around California and have given us lots to think about. Cheers!!
These below locations are off beat locations with less crowd
1. Glass Beach at Fort Bragg
2. Hidden Staircases at Franceschi Park
3. Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills
4. Sea Cave at Avila Beach
5. Coronado Shores Shipwreck
6. College Cove at Trinidad State Beach
7. Badwater in Death Valley
8. Sunken City in San Pedro
Enjoy and have fun exploring California
Cheers TripsNirvana. Will definitely have fun exploring California, appreciate you sharing your insights!
Very excited for you. We are full-time travelers and before that residents of California for 16 years. Here are some of our faves as residents and as road warriors. (We travel around the western US in an Airstream trailer).
San Diego is awesome – for camping Mission Bay is our favorite RV park for being super central, if you want old town beachy feel then San Elijo state beach in Encinitas is great. I’m not a fan of Orange County, but for a drop dead amazing campground try Crystal Cove State Beach – well worth a few days for killer SoCal views. State beaches can be tricky to get into – some need to be booked well in advance. LMK if you want some tips to score them.
As some others said don’t rush through the Central California Coast – Pismo Beach North Beach campground is a great base to explore the area – highlights in this area are Avila Beach, Montano d’Oro State Park, Morro Bay, Paso Robles wine country, Hearst Castle, Cambria.
Carmel, Monterey, Capitola and Santa Cruz are great too before you get to the SF Bay Area. Our favorite campsite is New Brighton State Beach. One in SF Bay Area good camping can be hard to come by, we stay in the East Bay near Berkeley at Anthony Chabot Regional Park. You can get BART (the light rail) into downtown SF from here.
I agree with the person who said to explore the coast and then the inland rather than criss crossing the state. Avoid inland in the summer though – it gets super hot. There are lots of other inland places but I would definitely add Lake Tahoe. Awesome hiking, killer views, lots to do.
I could go on all day, but those are my main picks. For great campgrounds I strongly recommend checking out Campendium. The reviews there are from all kinds of travelers and lots of families who travel with kids review there, so it should be right up your street.
I’ll keep following along with your blog and who knows maybe we’ll bump into you on the road.
Excellent tips Kate, thanks for sharing your local knowledge. Yeah hopefully we’ll bump into you on the road, that would be cool. Not sure when we’ll be in California yet but appreciate you following along and we’ll be sharing lots of content and providing updates on our movements. Happy travels 🙂
Don’t miss Santa Barbara! Our beaches are often rated in the top 10 and we are home to the “Queen of the Missions.” We have a great Summer Solstice parade (Google it, it’s outrageous). After Santa Barbara head over to the Santa Ynez valley. Solvang is an cute little DANISH town that’s fun to see, but we love to get out in the country to taste wine, see mini horses, visit the lavender farm, pick apples or visit the ostrich farm. The kids will love it!
Love the tips Melinda thanks so much! We’re definitely fans of beaches, and wine, and nature 🙂
We live in California and LOVE exploring our state. California has some amazing agriculture and I would highly suggest visitors check out Food Festivals in whatever area you are visiting: http://www.foodreference.com/html/california-food-festivals.html
Yosemite is amazing and worth seeing… We love the north coast too, specifically Dillon Beach and Point Reyes area. The Giant Redwoods are fun to explore too.. The Oakland Zoo in the bay area is an amazing zoo and the town of Capitola near Santa Cruz is great.
Great tips Ellen much appreciated! We love eating, so food festivals sound like fun! And can’t wait to walk amongst those Redwoods!!
You have already recieved so many great travel tips, so I will just give you one that I recieved on my first trip to California. First of all you NEED to drive down the Highway 1/Pacific Coast Highway, AMAZING! Locacted on Highway 1 there is this truly unique restaurant with the best view I have ever had while eating my lunch. It´s called Nepenthe and is located near Big Sur. The food is average, but nothing can beat the view.
Wish you a great trip, I´m sure you will love it.
Cheers Rejser. Definitely doing Highway 1 and exploring everything around that drive as much as possible. Like the sound of that restaurant near Big Sur!!
I was born and raised in San Francisco till 18, and although I live in the Black Forest in Germany now, I still consider myself a California Girl. There are so many great things to do there – on the MUST do list is Lake Tahoe – nestled north of Yosemite off Highway 80 and split by California and Nevada – you can conquer two states in one! It’s absolutely breathtaking – and go in the winter if you want to ski – there are SO many great resorts. Summer is all about hiking and water sports. There’s an endless amount of things to do for families.
Just south of San Francisco is Santa Cruz and Boulder Creek. Here you have Big Basin – home of the giant redwoods, a steam engine train day excursion for the family through the redwoods (can’t miss) and in Santa Cruz a fun Boardwalk, beach and so much more.
North of San Francisco, you have Muir Woods on your way out to Stinson Beach – you’ll all LOVE that. There are wildlife parks and tons to do here too.
While in San Francisco, there are two beaches you’ll want to check out – Baker’s Beach – breathtaking views of the Golden Gate from here, and on the Western side – Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach stretches out from the Cliff House (seal rock)/at the most western part of Golden Gate Park – all the way to Pacifica – miles and miles. Along the way – hit the San Francisco Zoo! Golden Gate Park has more than you can imagine – Aquarium, Museums, gorgeous parks, lots for the kids, Planetarium, and don’t miss the Japanese Tea Garden! And the best authentic mexican restaurant is a tiny little place in West Portal called El Toreador.
Definitely cross the GG bridge – you can bike or walk it too! All the touristy stuff is fun, the piers, Alcatraz,etc….but if there in warmer weather – there are great events in all the parks around the city – concerts and more than you can imagine.
On the way to Yosemite, a few hours outside check out Columbia outside of Sonora for a real live throw back to the Gold Rush days. It’s a park set up just like it was back then – pan for gold, get a feel for the wild west – it’s a great day for the family. We did it a lot when I was a kid eons ago.
You can also check out the O’Shaunnesy dam (Hetch Hetchy) outside of Yosemite. Known as Little Yosemite. Great hikes and waterfalls.
Yosemite – spend some time there – breathtaking does not cover it. If you can, get a permit and not just hike to the top of Half Dome (depends on your fear of heights going up the ropes with the kids) on the side – but spend the night up there. Waking up on top of half dome is unbelievable. I’m deathly afraid of heights and I still did it – was unbelievable – I just kept looking at the granite under my feet. The hike will take you past Vernal Falls – just gorgeous.
South of San Francisco (a few hours) is the coastal town of Monterey. Gorgeous beaches and of course the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Plus there are a lot of Cavern type adventures throughout California too. So much to do! Have fun!!
Wow, our friend Belinda from Australia has lived in the Black Forest in Germany and I believe is heading back there to live again soon. She’s behind the popular website “The Modern Mystic”, you should check her out: http://belindadavidson.com/
Love the look and sound of Lake Tahoe. We’ve only ever been skiing once before so looking forward to doing more of that in the US. But summer sounds incredible too!
Fantastic tips on San Francisco and surrounds too. Much appreciated. Seems like California pretty much has it all. We’ll be busy!!
Add: 1. Lake Tahoe 2. Pebble Beach Food and Wine Fest. and Concourse d’elegance car event. 3. Gilroy Garlic Festival(my hometown) 4. Race your family car in the 1/4 mile at Sonoma Raceway. 5. Pinnacles National Monument Park hiking through caves and the country side. 6. Stroll through the Palace of Fine Arts in San Fran, and Golden Gate Park. 7. Geocaching in any city( or leave create a Geocache yourself)
8. Muir Beach overlook of the Pacific Ocean.(He was a Preservationist of the Ca. wilderness) 9. Mammoth Lake 10. Beach volleyball tournament in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach. 11. Hearst Castle tour. 12. Hang gliding off the cliffs near LaJolla. The greatest thing about my home State is that there was always something to do. The list of the things I’ve done would turn into a very long bucket list. Perhaps I should be a tour guide? Living in Michigan is not the same. I must make it back. Sorry for the long response.
Great tips George. Thanks for sharing. By the way, we have been to that beach volleyball tournament before in Manhattan Beach where everyone dresses up in fancy dress – what a blast! And yeah, why not become a tour guide?! 🙂
One thing that I would really like to try is going on whale watching trip from San Diego. And NOT the ones in SeaWorld but the real deal. That is one of the things highest on my bucket list on my next trip to California.
Totally. Whale watching with the kids off the coast of San Diego would be cool.
You will probably drive through these cities to get to Redwood National Park…but Ferndale, Eureka, Arcata, and Trinidad are definitely worth stopping in. They are all in Humboldt County, and along the 101. The entire city of Ferndale is from the victorian era, and a number of movies have been filmed there (like The Majestic and Outbreak). Old Town Eureka is full old victorian-era buildings, music, and artists. If you happen to be driving through on the first Saturday of the month, be sure to stop in Old Town for Arts Alive in the evening. Arcata has some of the areas best local restaurants, and has a victorian-era plaza. Check out the Jacoby Storehouse on the Plaza for a tour of a victorian era store. If you are there on a Saturday morning, check out the farmer’s market on the plaza. It has music and great, local food and goods. Trinidad is a gorgeous fishing village with beautiful beaches and great hikes.
Fantastic tips Kimberlie. Never heard of these places. Thanks for sharing!!
I feel like I owe you a few tips, we’ve gotten so much out of your blog. In fact, we’re in Sydney now and used your advice from your post about Pretty Beach/Pebbly Beach to plan a trip to check off one of my bucket list items – to see kangaroos in the wild.
So, a lot has already been covered but I’ll add some of my “born and raised in CA” tips.
1. DO walk the Golden Gate Bridge but don’t expect San Francisco to be warm, even in summer. In fact, it’s often colder in summer than any other time because the warm East Bay pulls the fog over the city like a blanket. The fog even has a name, it’s Karl. Just plan for any kind of weather, because you’ll probably get it (though I hope you get lucky). Layers, layers, layers.
2. If you love wine, I suggest heading north to the Napa Valley for some wine-tasting. My favorite winery is Hess because there you can also see The Hess Collection – an amazing collection of art. The drive to Hess is utterly stunning, you’ll get the redwoods you’re looking for without having to go too much farther north. Also, do the Silverado Trail drive if you’re in the vicinity. If you had any wonder of how so much wine comes from the Napa Valley, you will no longer wonder where it comes from.
3. If you are driving from Northern to Southern CA, I recommend taking a slight detour to San Simeon and visiting Hearst Castle. There’s really nothing quite like it. If you head back to Highway One near San Simeon, you’ll likely encounter hoards of elephant seals just lounging on the sun on the beach.
4. I’d do Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk over Disneyland any day. It’s right on the beach, and has more of an authentic boardwalk feeling. Waaaaay cheaper too, and less crowded. Also, there’s a charming town next to Santa Cruz called Capitola that is worth a visit for the afternoon.
So glad you found our Sydney tips useful. And we love “born and raised in CA” tips 🙂
Ha, love that the fog has a name. I guess we’ll be meeting Karl at some stage, lol. Greatly appreciate all the tips. Getting more excited by the day!
I’m a little behind the 8-ball on this, but as a native Californian, I wanted to add my 2 cents. If you want hiking, the Monterey bay area has some great trails- Pt. Lobos is beautiful, as is Garland Ranch Regional Park. Cannery Row in Monterey is historic, but also fairly touristy and pretty small. Kayaking on the bay in Monterey is great, and you can go with a group to get a guided tour and if you aren’t comfortable heading out on your own. I have to disagree with Ivan and say the Monterey Bay Aquarium is absolutely a must see. It’s regularly rated as the best Aquarium in the state, the country and sometimes the world by various guides and websites. It is a bit pricey…but I think it’s worth it. You can see animals there you won’t see in any other aquarium in the world. Carmel Valley Village- my hometown!- is small, but has some beautiful wine tasting spots and usually beautiful, sunny weather. When are you guys going to be coming through that part of the state?
Hey Stephanie. Greatly appreciate your 2 cents 🙂 Thanks for sharing, not sure on dates yet for California but can’t wait!
Definitely have to do the big sur drive between san fran and los angeles. Absolutely great scenic drive. Agree with other commenters about sports but that can be done across the whole country.
Yep, can’t wait to see the big Sur area!
Since you’re going to San Diego, you may love traveling a little north and inland from there to see a growing hot spot in Southern California. The Temecula Valley is a burgeoning wine country, and it’s home to the state’s largest resort/casino where you can also learn about Native American history on specialized tours provided by the tribe that also runs the resort. It’s a slice of Las Vegas without the crowds, high prices and offer more understated panache.
Please let me know if this is of interest. I am glad to set you all up for a stay and activities at Pechanga Resort & Casino.
Ooh, we do love a wine region Ciara. Thanks for the recommendation of The Temecula Valley and the offer. And we definitely want to engage and learn about Native American history on our trip.
Also, apart from that – As a native San Franciscan, you really should check out Lake Tahoe. Only about 2 hrs from Yosemite and lake is in both CA and NV. Lots of stuff for families & kids there, too.
Lake Tahoe is definitely on our California bucket list!
Death Vally National Park! It’s where the Tattoine scenes were filmed from the first Star Wars!
Hi, I don’t know if I’m too late, but in San Diego, I would go to Coronado Island. The beach there is really nice, and perfect for the kids. We love to go there and feel the island lifestyle!
Having dinner at Seaport Village in San Diego is really nice.
La Jolla worth the stop and there is a restaurant (also at Seaport Village) named Puesto (mexican modern style)… love it!!
Also, Joshua Tree and Death Valley are a must to me. Just to name them, because we saw some other parks and everyone has something special.
As you want to see it like a locals, talking about island lifestyle, you could go to Balboa Island, Newport Beach!
You can do wine tasting tons of time! Napa of course, but also Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, Temecula, and name it 🙂
If you play golf, or just to relax (we do not play golf and love it there) you can do a little 1 or 2 nights in Palm Springs. The Aerial Tramway can be cool and you can relax in one of the resorts there.
On my website, you can find some activities we did in California (we moved from Québec to South Cali) but it’s in French!! If you ever speak French, look at it!
Never too late Jenny. Appreciate all your southern California tips. But we don’t speak French 🙂
From NY and we did this trip last year.
Los osos, nice little stop on the coastal highway. The elfin forest is there and morro rock. Frankie and Lola’s front street cafe had some great breakfast.
Monterey bay aquarium on your way up to San Fran. Amazing place.
Lands end park in San Fran. Muir Woods north of San Fran is beautiful.
Little late cause the reservations go as soon as they are available but Alcatraz was awesome.
We went inland for a day to California Gold Panning in Jamestown. It was a little operation but well worth the trip, a great guy runs it. We had a blast and found a little bit of gold.
the San Francisco trolley is a nice ride and the bell ringers all come up with some pretty original ways to clang, clang, clang, goes the trolley. Some of the best live theater is also avalable. A walk on the boardwalk will lead to Gerradelies candy house, all kinds of eateries and Ripplies museums, Alcatraz , the marine museum, and Coit Tower, and that squiggly piece of road that says San Francisco all by it’s self. A little to the north is the Winchester house with guided tours, and all those 13 high stairways that go nowhere. The Botanical gardens are also nice and if you happen to catch a Tai Chi class join in . The Pan Handle has allways has something going on and usually free. A skip and a jump away is the San Francisco museum. Enjoy!
Hi Ralph, thanks for the San Francisco suggestions!
Hey Vince. Great tips, thanks!
If you’re in the Long Beach area the Queen Mary is a must see. Their Sunday brunch and tour is spectacular. For the heartier souls the haunted tour is fun as well. A great educational spot for kids and adults in the L. A. area is the La Brea tar pits. It’s an active archeological dig with plenty of hands on activities as well as a live lab where you can watch technicians recover artifacts. Who doesn’t like dinosaurs anyway.
Hey Gary, ooh that haunted tour sounds fun, and never one to knock back a Sunday brunch. Cheers!
Being in Northern coastal California, there are plenty of places to see the Redwoods, but we liked driving the Avenue of the Giants best. Plenty of places to stop and hike around. If your stay in these parts is prolonged more than a few days, you could probably see it all but if just driving through, I think this offers the best experience.
As far as Disneyland goes, Ivan mentioned that you could skip it and go to Disney World in stead. If you plan to do DW, you could probably heed this advise, but Disneyland still has much to offer. It is smaller, yes, but it is cheaper, better weather, and it is where Walt first made his vision…so there is nostalgia.
Also, I know your kids are a little on the younger side for thrill rides, but also check out Six Flags and their many locations across the US. Thrill rides and roller coasters are a BIG part of what people love about America. Worth checking out.
Can’t wait to explore the Redwoods Garrett. The Avenue of the Giants looks incredible. And don’t worry, we’ll be going to both Disneyland AND Disney World, our kids would never forgive us 🙂
And yes, Six Flags looks like a blast!
I’ll let another “5 cents” here too… 🙂
– Bodie Ghost Town
– Death Valley National Park
– Mammoth Lakes
– Lake Tahoe
I have post about them on my blog, if you want you can check it out.
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Hi Renato, thanks for your tips on things to do in California. Tahoe and Death Valley look amazing.
Hi Craig, Caz & Family,
I just came across your blog and saw you’re going to be in California at the end of 2017. You’re going to love it!! I see that you’re planning on going to Universal Studios so I wanted to point out another fun activity to do about 5 min. from Universal. This new company called SunnyDay Scoot offers tours in really fun 3-wheel convertable-cars. You have to go to their website (www.SunnyDayScoot.com) & check it out 🙂 it’s so much fun and it’s the hottest craze in LA right now! Kids can ride as passengers and they go through one of the largest parks in the US (Griffith Park). You also ride right up to Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theatre, see The Hollywood Sign and more on one of their tours. (It was too early for me, but they do have a sunrise tour which is probably really neat & pretty to watch the sun come up over the LA city skyline & Hollywood Sign.) We had so much fun on our scooter ride and the guides were amazing! It was our favorite thing to do on our entire trip to LA! I’m sure your kids would absolutely love it! Hope this tip helps, Safe travels, Danielle
Yeah, can’t wait to explore ALL of California. Thanks for the heads up about SunnyDay Scoot. Sounds like fun!
We just visited Joshua tree national park a few days ago. An absolutely amazing place to add to your bucket list. We are on a 3 month tour of western USA, follow us on Insta if you like sharonstb
(Aussie family from Airlie beach with 2 boys 10 and 8)
All the best
On Thursday evenings the main street of Palm Springs is closed for a market, with food, candy, street musicians, etc. The surrounding shops are open, too. I love the hat shop!
Also, on Sundays, there is another market, but I do not remember the location. It is huge! We went in January.
That sounds amazing. Thanks so much for sharing more things to do in California for us all!!