The 25 Best Places to Visit in California: From Beaches to Mountains

The sheer variety of the most beautiful sites to visit in California is mind-boggling. 

The north has redwood forests, and the south has vast deserts. The west offers a stunning coastline; the east has alpine lakes and craggy mountain peaks. 

California offers travelers an extensive range of cultural and geographic experiences, lively cities, and highly regarded culinary scenes.  

The bear flag state is a sight to behold, whether you’re exploring the terrain in one of the state’s scenic national parks, sipping champagne in the northern valleys, relaxing on sunny beaches, or tracing the paths of Hollywood celebrities. 

We chose the top destinations in California based on personal experiences, expert advice, and tourist feedback, so read on and find out which places you could visit or hike. 

Places to Visit in Southern California 

San Diego

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San Diego is one of California’s best places or towns to visit with your family

It is a cultural mecca with over ninety museums covering every imaginable subject and nine unique art districts. You’ll find fantastic beaches, aquatic activities, and endless family-friendly entertainment. 

You may also get a feel for San Diego’s past in the Old Town State Park and Gaslamp Quarter.

Visit the San Diego Zoo/Safari Park, Sea World San Diego, LEGOLAND, Disneyland, and Disneyland Park for the family vacation of a lifetime. 

You can gather your bearings with a Segway, bicycling, or walking tour, or take an Old Town Trolley Tour if you’re a first-time visitor. 

Go swimming, sunbathing, scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and more along the 75 miles of beautiful coastline. 

Sequoia National Park 

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The southern Sierra Nevada is home to Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, known for their breathtaking scenery, canyon, and cliffs. The two parks combine to feature some of the world’s tallest trees but also towering mountains, deep gorges, and vast caves.

The best part of every California road trip is discovering one of the many vast groves of massive sequoias that still stand. The Giant Forest Museum is a fantastic place to get acquainted with the area before venturing out on foot, by vehicle, or via shuttle bus. 

There are wheelchair-friendly routes, dozens of paths for hikers of all skill levels, and other fun activities like rock climbing, driving along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, cave touring, and ranger-led programs.

Santa Catalina Island

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Santa Catalina Island is part of the California Channel Islands. It is a perfect destination for an exciting island vacation due to its proximity to Los Angeles. 

This island is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a spot to visit in California that provides a wide range of exciting adventure activities, such as the Ocean Runner Ribcraft Dolphin Tour, an intense off-road Cape Canyon Expedition, or the Catalina Island Zip Line Eco Tour.

A skyline tour around the island is a safe option if you’d prefer a slower tempo. Kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and Catalina Island Undersea Expedition are also popular. 

Other options include sunbathing, snorkeling, horseback riding, swimming, camping, boating, and watching the sunset. If you need a break from the sand, the Catalina Art Gallery and Catalina Island Museum are also excellent options.

Santa Barbara

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Santa Barbara is one of Southern California’s most well-rounded tourist destinations, offering the following:

  • Beautiful beaches and coves.
  • Perfect weather.
  • Thriving arts and cultural scenes.
  • Rich historical sites.
  • A wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities.

Cultural activities in Santa Barbara include visiting the Museum of Modern Art Santa Barbara, seeing a Lobero Theatre show, and appreciating the city’s stunning heritage of Spanish architecture at the Granada Theatre, the Old Mission Santa Barbara, and Casa Del Herrero. 

Butterfly Bay is a great place to try stand-up paddleboarding, and the countless miles of beaches beckon swimmers and surfers. The vast wine-production region also offers excellent hiking, rock climbing, cycling, kayaking, fishing, and sightseeing opportunities.

Long Beach

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The Southern California city of Long Beach is a popular vacation destination. It offers access to the ocean and various exciting recreational opportunities. One cultural hotspot, the Long Beach Museum of Art, houses world-class artwork and boasts breathtaking vistas of the Pacific.

Classical music fans can enjoy performances by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and the 

Long Beach Opera at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. 

Family-friendly activities include:

  • Going to the beach.
  • Visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific.
  • Exploring the legendary Queen Mary.
  • Going to the adjacent San Pedro location of the USS Battleship Iowa. 

About an hour away, families can enjoy the magic of Disneyland, LEGOLAND, Disneyland Parks, and more.

Santa Monica

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Santa Monica, a major tourist attraction, is located west of downtown Los Angeles. It is a convenient home base to see the city and its surrounding areas, mainly due to its proximity to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and Pacific Park amusement park. 

It has many eateries with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the Looff Hippodrome Carousel.

There are nearly twenty galleries in Bergamot Station, Edgemar Center for the Arts, and 18th Street Art Complex. The Marvin Braude Bike Path is ideal for cyclists, and at Bay St., you may go surfing or paddleboarding. 

You will also find a great selection of restaurants and nightlife venues.

Places to Visit in Northern California 

Big Sur

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Big Sur, between San Simeon and Carmel, is a breathtakingly scenic section of the central California coast between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. 

Most visitors to this area go along State Road 1, a narrow, winding road that bends and curves along the coastline, affording occasional lookout places.

This largely uninhabited forested and misty region is ideal for outdoor pursuits, including beachcombing, hiking, whale watching, camping, and exploration. 

Artists and authors discovered the area in the 50s and 60s. They found the region’s natural beauty and wild atmosphere to be inspiring. 

Henry Miller’s former home (now a memorial library) is a must-see, as are Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls and Cove, a slew of charming bed-and-breakfasts and cafes, a few hidden but beautiful beaches, and an abundance of rare flora and fauna.

Yosemite National Park 

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Yosemite National Park in northern California is the world’s oldest and most well-known national park. 

Its 1,200 square miles contain some of nature’s most breathtaking sights, including wildflower-covered meadows, cliffs, deep valleys, 3,000-year-old giant sequoias, thundering seasonal waterfalls, and the vast wilderness of the High Sierra Mountains. 

It is recommended to begin your expedition at the valley, a canyon seven miles in length and one mile in width that was carved by a river and the ensuing glaciers.

El Capitan, the largest exposed granite monolith in the world, rises above the valley and is ringed by massive walls of soaring pinnacles and domes. 

The state park has 800 miles of defined paths, ranging from short strolls through the woods to grueling week-long backpacking treks to the summit of the High Sierras. 

You might see a mule deer, a chipmunk, a marmot, a rabbit, or a warbler on your travels. Hike past magnificent waterfalls and refreshing brooks as you wind through majestic pine and red fir forests, blossoming dwarf and dogwood willows, and giant ancient sequoias.

And once you get out of the valley, you’re free to spend as much time alone with nature as you’d want without having to contend with the four million visitors the park receives annually.

Santa Cruz

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Santa Cruz, California, is the archetypal tiny coastal town with its lovely sandy beaches, breathtaking mountains draped in magnificent redwood forests, serene organic farms, world-famous waves, and growing beer and wine sector. It is located on Monterey Bay’s northern end, approximately 32 miles from San Jose.

Tourists flock to Santa Cruz for its natural beauty and old-town appeal. It also has wonderful recreational opportunities at the seaside amusement park and the magnificent Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

Tourists go to enjoy the city’s vibrant student population, thanks to the University of California. Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz are excellent spots to observe and surf, whether you’re just starting or an old pro.

San Jose

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San Jose is the main technological core of the Bay Area. It is located in the center of Silicon Valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains and South Bay. 

San Jose is the headquarters for several major technology companies. It is also a lovely, modern city with a bustling downtown home to nine theaters, over two hundred and fifty restaurants, and several museums and art galleries.

The city’s stunning buildings are a testament to its illustrious history. The most visited attractions are the Winchester Mystery House and the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum. 

You can visit Japantown, one of the few still operating in the United States, the artistic SoFA District, the Convention and Cultural District home to numerous theaters and galleries, or the vibrant San Pedro Square.

Oakland

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Oakland, a huge port city across the bay bridge from San Francisco, is a unique community with the country’s most diverse ethnic makeup. It is well-known for its cultural offerings, including festivals, theaters, and political activism. 

Oakland is a beautiful destination close to numerous state parks and breathtaking views of San Francisco and the Bay.

Visit the Oakland Zoo to witness over 450 animal species, stargaze at the Chabot Space & Science Center, stand-up paddleboarding at Lake Merritt, stroll through magnificent redwood trees at Redwood Regional Park, and watch the kids run rampant at Children’s Fairyland. 

Stroll to Jack London Square on the bustling waterfront to dine, people-watch, or take the ferry to San Francisco.

Mendocino National Forest

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The Mendocino National Forest is about three hours north of San Francisco in the coastal mountain range: it is a haven for nature lovers and those seeking peace. 

South Yolla Bolly Mountain rises to 8,092 feet, while Grindstone Creek Canyon in the Sacramento Valley’s foothills sits about 750 feet. This tremendous elevation shift profoundly affects the local flora and fauna.

The Red Bluff Recreation Area features a variety of ecosystems, including grasslands draped in wildflowers, the Sacramento River, and wetlands. It is a habitat for 125 bird species and numerous wild animals.

Unique Places to Visit in California

Lake Tahoe 

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Lake Tahoe is the jewel of Northern California. It is located on the Nevada side of the state line, some 40 miles from outside Reno, with many outdoor activities available year-round. 

Skiers flock to Lake Tahoe in the winter to enjoy the scenic snow-capped mountains. In the summer, locals hire boats by the hundreds to enjoy the lake. 

If you want to kick back and relax, you can take a short walk or hike around D.L. Bliss State Park or Emerald Bay State Park to take in some of the lake’s most breathtaking vistas.

Mammoth Lakes 

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Mammoth Lakes may change your perspective about California as a ski destination if this is your first time considering it. The highest ski destination in California is near Mammoth Lakes, at the base of the majestic Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra. 

Over 150 trails in the area attract ice skaters, snowboarders, and skiers every winter. As the weather warms and the snow melts, visitors to the site can enjoy additional outdoor pursuits. These include rock climbing, hiking, paddle boarding, and soaking in the hot springs.

Monterey 

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Monterey’s small-town charm and breathtaking scenery draw visitors back year after year. 

Monterey, central California, has beautiful beaches and quaint seaside villages. In addition, it is home to the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Yet a California road trip is only complete with taking in the sights outside. 

San Francisco 

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Every corner of San Francisco is bustling with activity. You can feel the electric vibes of San Francisco anywhere: on a cable car zipping through the streets, in one of the city’s numerous culturally diverse neighborhoods, among the gigantic redwoods close to the legendary Golden Gate Bridge, or while diving headfirst into the city’s world-famous food scene (home to numerous Michelin-starred restaurants). 

Explore the scenic and peaceful Golden Gate Park after a day of sightseeing at major attractions, including Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Big Bear Lake 

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Located roughly 80 miles from Palm Springs, this rocky alpine town offers year-round mountain views and exciting outdoor activities. 

Big Bear Lake is one of the best lakes in California, located in the San Bernardino National Forest, and is a favorite destination for fishermen and boaters. 

Big Bear Mountain Resort is a great place to go skiing or snowboarding in the winter. You can also go mountain biking, kayaking, and hiking in the summer. 

Get away and relax at one of the many restaurants or stores in The Village.

Malibu

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Several famous people have lived in this classic California beach town, from Miley Cyrus and Leonardo DiCaprio to cultural icons like Barbie, and it’s simple to understand why. 

Malibu is located less than 20 miles from Santa Monica and is known for its beautiful lengths of sandy beaches, popular with surfers and sunbathers alike. 

Stop by the Malibu Pier for food and people-watching when you’re there. Visitors can also go on a wine trail or a bus trip to sample local vintages, watch the sunset, or view artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria at the Getty Villa.

Half Moon Bay

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Half Moon Bay is about 30 miles from San Francisco. It is a charming seaside village perfect for anyone seeking a tranquil escape from the bustle of the metropolis. 

When you’re not lazing on the sands of the town’s eponymous beach, which stretches over four miles, you can enjoy breathtaking oceanic views and the surrounding landscape by hiking along the scenic Coastside Trail. 

Indulge in a bottle of wine at one of Half Moon Bay’s wineries or excellent cuisine at one of the town’s many restaurants after working up an appetite.

Most Beautiful Places to Visit in California

Laguna Beach 

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If you’re searching for a taste of Southern California’s little towns, go no further than Laguna Beach. Located between Los Angeles and San Diego, it offers tourists many beautiful beaches. 

Local favorites include Crescent Bay and Main Beach, but visitors often rave about the untamed beaches at Crystal Cove State Park. Get out of the heat by visiting one of downtown’s museums, galleries, and boutiques.

Death Valley National Park 

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Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest area in the United States. It should be on the itinerary of every tourist to the country.

You can take a self-guided excursion of this one-of-a-kind location spanning the California-Nevada border by driving down Artists Drive or Badwater Road or hiking the well-known Dante’s View route. 

In addition to seeing the displays at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and the dawn at Zabriskie Point, visitors to Death Valley should also check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the night sky. 

Summertime highs in the state park often exceed 120 degrees, so visiting from November to March is best.

Point Reyes National Seashore

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The more than 70,000 acres of Point Reyes National Seashore entice those who enjoy wildlife and the outdoors. 

There are opportunities to witness numerous animal species, like gray whales, elephant seals, and almost 490 bird species, in this protected region, located about 40 miles from San Francisco. 

Also, visitors can stroll along the Point Reyes Lighthouse, visit several beaches, and climb some trails, such as the Earthquake Trail, which follows the San Andreas Fault.

Anaheim-Disneyland

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This list would be incomplete without adding Anaheim, home of “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Visitors worldwide come to Disneyland Resort, just 30 miles from Los Angeles, to enjoy the park’s famed attractions. Knott’s Berry Farm, a local favorite, and Adventure City are two other must-see amusement parks nearby. 

Visitors can dine in the food court in Anaheim Packing District or attend a pro baseball game at Angel Stadium, away from the tourist parks.

Palm Springs

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Palm Springs served as a celebrity hangout for many years. Today, this desert oasis draws tourists who want to relax by the pool or visit one of the bustling restaurants or bars in the area.  

The Coachella Valley Preserve and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens are two of the city’s many natural attractions that impress nature lovers. Joshua Tree National Park is only about 40 miles to the city’s west. 

Come earlier in the year to benefit from pleasant weather and participate in various festivals and events, such as Coachella and the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Joshua Tree National Park

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The roughly 800,000 acres of Joshua Tree National Park, located around 130 miles from Los Angeles, are perfect for embracing outdoor activities. 

Visitors can test their skills on some of the park’s numerous rock-climbing routes. They can also go along one of the park’s many trails, although they should be aware of the weather because only some trails are recommended on particularly hot days. 

Other must-do pastimes include horseback riding, stargazing, and biking. The International Dark Sky Park has no light pollution, which makes it an ideal location to view the Milky Way.

Places to Live 

San Jose

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San Jose, Silicon Valley’s capital, is a multicultural community with a creative spirit. San Jose is a vast metro area that, despite having a different core, is defined by its outlying communities and significant-tech campuses as well as by the business sector high-rises. 

San Jose’s position as a major tech center is bolstered by its closeness to other Silicon Valley innovation hubs like Apple in Cupertino and Google in Mountain View. 

The metro area does, however, preserve some of its quirkiness thanks to oddball attractions such as the 160-room labyrinth Winchester Mystery House, a large Monopoly board, and a 120-acre flea market with ponies.

San Francisco

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San Francisco is well known as a stunning location with historic landmarks, privately run businesses, and trendsetting inhabitants. The California metro region, altered and shaped by its communities, has served as the centerpiece of the LGBT rights campaign, the beginning of the technology era, and the core of the bohemian lifestyle. 

The metro area’s diverse personality appeals to many people, including creative business owners, students, and retirees. However, due to a housing shortage, the San Francisco metro area needs help accommodating its growing population. 

The housing shortage has dramatically driven up home prices and rental costs while raising the cost of living. Metro areas like Brisbane and Oakland have absorbed some excesses, but the ongoing stream of new technology professionals has kept the pressure on the housing market.

San Diego

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San Diego residents know how lucky they are to inhabit a region known for its beautiful beaches and warm climate. But, there is much more to this seaside community in Southern California than first appears.

Different lifestyles are based on whether you want an urban, beach, or suburban neighborhood. Nonetheless, there is plenty of leisure options for locals, including museums, amusement parks, and outdoor activities.

San Diego provides the top-notch dining, entertainment, and professional sports opportunities one would expect from a major city, but the city’s diverse neighborhoods also help to strengthen community relationships. 

Locals socialize at fairs and farmer’s markets and friends at parks, beaches, pubs, and eateries in the area.

Sacramento

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Many people consider Sacramento’s proximity to fascinating places like Lake Tahoe and San Francisco its best feature. Although cosmopolitan locales within its state frequently eclipse it, the Californian capital is thriving thanks to technical and cultural advancements.

Families and young professionals have driven population growth in recent years; they are attracted to the region’s plentiful sunshine, culture, and beautiful sunsets. The development of the economy offers both residents and newcomers exciting options.

Sacramento is also appealing to foodies. Fresh, regional food is readily available to residents from nearby wineries, breweries, and farms. The metro area, located in the Central Valley, is at the vanguard of the farm-to-fork movement.

Santa Barbara

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Santa Barbara, California, boasts a virtually perfect climate year-round due to its location between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. As a result, it attracts visitors worldwide and is suitable for outdoor activities.

While much smaller than the neighboring city of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara has all the cultural facilities of a larger metro area. Spanish colonial architecture may be seen in the downtown area of Santa Barbara, characterized by stucco houses with red tile roofs. The entire city displays this design, particularly the red tile roofs. 

Many tourists flock to the region for annual events, including the Old Spanish Days Fiesta, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the Summer Solstice Celebration.

Ready to Explore California? Plan Your Next Adventure Now!

So would you love to travel to California? 

Fortunately, there are several options for making your trip economical and fun. You won’t get bored because there are so many things around. Also, the area is served by a few small airports, making it simple to get a low-cost trip.

I advise flying through Long Beach Airport if traveling from outside California. It is centrally positioned and makes traveling without a car easy. 

You can walk or take public transportation to explore the neighborhood from there. Also, there are lots of scenic routes that will let you experience everything California has to offer.

We hope this article on the top California vacation sites has helped you pick from the many possible California holiday destinations!

FAQs 

What Is the Number 1 Tourist Spot in California?

Disneyland in Anaheim is California’s most prominent family attraction and an excellent family vacation spot in the US. This enormous amusement park features various games, rides, entertainment, shows, restaurants, and hotels.

How to Travel in California?

The bus is the most straightforward, affordable, and swiftest mode of public transportation to travel between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Any alternative involving a train will require transfers, necessitate bus use, and result in a longer commute; so the bus is the better option.

Author: Christopher Alarcon

Title: Journalist

Expertise: personal finance, side hustles, time management

Bio:

Christopher Alarcon is a journalist with a deep passion for personal finance. He has contributed to major online publications, including MSN, Wealth of Geeks, and Business Insider.