If you come to the Golden State and get bored, you’re doing it wrong.
California is the most diverse state in the nation, home to nearly 40 million people, and is geographically bigger than England. It might surprise tourists, but the state’s capital is actually Sacramento, which is only the sixth-largest city after California’s top cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco.
Read: it’s really, really big.
The state can also be seen as a microcosm for the entire country. There are sprawling mountains, endless beaches, bone-dry deserts, lush farmland, bustling metropolises, and charming small towns. You can ski, surf, hike, sunbathe, ride a rollercoaster, or sail with whales on any given day. So, what is California famous for? As you can glean from this opening, basically everything. But what are the must-see places to visit and top things to do in California? Read on to find out.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT CALIFORNIA?Basically, any time except the few weeks when it rains in January or February. That being said, Southern California can be oppressively hot in August and September. And the Bay Area can be annoyingly cold in the summer. April and May are typically good months throughout most of the state. Remember: California is huge, so make sure to check the local regional weather before you visit.
Different regions throughout California may be handling COVID differently, so read the information here to get the latest on restrictions and guidelines.
Top Picks for You
Dive Into History in Chinatown
WHERE: San Francisco
If you want to experience real California history, head over to Chinatown in San Francisco. Not only is it the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, but it’s also the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. Some highlights include the Chinatown Dragon Gate and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Make it a point of coming on Chinese New Year for epic parades and fireworks.
See the Oldest Surviving Part of Los Angeles on Olvera Street
WHERE: Los Angeles
Originally called Wine Street, Olvera is the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles and home to the Avila Adobe house that was constructed in 1818. Walking the street today, you’ll discover a 44-acre park with a Mexican marketplace, refurbished historic buildings, restaurants, shops, and weekend dance performances.
Wander Through Old Town San Diego
WHERE: San Diego
Known as the birthplace of California, Old Town San Diego was the first established European settlement in the state, dating back to 1769. The original settlement was a Christian Mission and changed hands between Mexican and Spanish rule over the years. Today, Old Town is home to a historic state park with museums, restored buildings, and classic (possibly haunted) Victorian mansions.
Stride With Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
WHERE: Los Angeles
Along Hollywood Boulevard, the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the most indelible icons of Tinseltown. The walk consists of brass stars embedded into the pavement and features the biggest celebrities, producers, writers, and directors of film, stage, and screen. The first stars were officially revealed in the early 1960s, and today there are more than 2,600 dotting Hollywood Blvd.
Experience Opulence at the Hearst Castle
WHERE: San Simeon
In its heyday, the Hearst Castle in San Simeon was a hotspot for celebrities with roaring ’20s parties that catered to everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable to Jean Harlow and the Marx Brothers. Built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947, the castle was fictionalized and lampooned in the classic film Citizen Kane. Today, visitors can tour the opulent palace, which features a zoo, a gold leaf Roman pool, and a priceless art collection.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
WHERE: San Francisco
Opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic symbols of San Francisco and California at large. The mile-long suspension bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County and is a stunning display of an engineering marvel. Visitors can cross the bridge on foot, by bicycle, or drive across. Contrary to popular belief, the bridge is not re-painted red every year.
Commune With Nature at Yosemite National Park
Part of a sprawling park network in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees, epic waterfalls, and abundance of wildlife. The park is filled with activities like rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and more. Remember, reservations are required to enter the park, so plan ahead.
Crane Your Neck at Redwood National Park
Traveling toward the northernmost part of the state, you’ll encounter one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. Redwood National and State Parks is home to the tallest trees on Earth (300-400 feet tall!) and hugs 40 miles of California coastline. There are countless things to see and do, including camping, hiking, fishing, and kayaking. But staring at these colossal living monuments will occupy a good amount of your time.
Find Jaw-Dropping Vistas at Big Sur
One of the most spectacular drives in the world is along Highway 1, which ambles up the coastline between the Pacific Ocean and the jagged mountains and redwood trees en route to Big Sur. The scenery isn’t the only highlight of this drive; if you head down to the beach, you might find herds of barking elephant seals or fluffy sea otters hanging in the kelp beds.
Experience the Bottom of the World in Death Valley
Known as the hottest place on Earth, Death Valley sits on the eastern edge of California along the border with Nevada. Covering 3.4 million acres, this desert wasteland holds the claim to the lowest elevation on the planet and is filled with jaw-dropping vistas, rolling dunes, rocky peaks, and scorching temperatures.
Camp in Joshua Tree
Just east of Palm Springs is Joshua Tree National Park, named for the Yucca brevifolia trees, which a group of Mormons coined to remember the biblical Joshua raising his hands into the sky. Today, the park is a popular site for hiking and camping, with hundreds of certified campgrounds strewn across hundreds of thousands of acres.
Witness Greatness in Sport
California’s weather makes it a prime location for outdoor activities of all kinds, but some of the best sporting action takes place in the massive stadiums in the state’s major cities. Sports fans have their pick of the litter, whether seeing the Lakers, Clippers, Chargers, Rams or Dodgers in Los Angeles; the Giants, 49ers, or Warriors in San Francisco; or the Kings in Sacramento. California is also home to major golf and tennis tournaments, in addition to surf championships, soccer matches, auto, and horse racing.
Explore Your Wild Side at the San Diego Safari Park
Whether or not you’re a fan of zoos, the San Diego Safari Park is a great way to learn about wildlife without the typical claustrophobic animal cages. The park prides itself on expansive containment areas, allowing its wide range of wildlife to roam (mostly) free. Hopping on the Africa tram will expose you to an array of African animals like giraffes, antelopes, and even rhinoceroses.
Remember Your Childhood at Disneyland
It all started here in 1955 when Walt Disney himself decided to build a theme park around his Disney animated empire. With constant renovations and updates, Disneyland promises always to have something new–Marvel Land is the latest addition. Other attractions include classics like Tomorrowland, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and newer areas like Star Wars: Galaxy Edge.
Eat Around the World in Los Angeles
If you’re looking for the most unique, exciting dining scene in the country, L.A. is your home base. The cuisines from around the world are scattered across the city in neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Little Ethiopia, and others that highlight the culinary traditions of their respective cultures. Some particular highlights include n/naka for fine dining Japanese kaiseki cuisine; Jitlada for the spiciest Thai around; Park’s for unbelievably good Korean barbecue; get the best dim sum of your life in the San Gabriel Valley at Sea Harbour; there’s Guelaguetza for Oaxacan cooking; dozens of mind-blowing taquerias like Sonoratown, Tacos 1986, or Sky’s Gourmet Tacos; and for Ethiopian delights, head over to Meals by Genet or Merkato.
And Eat Some More in the San Francisco Bay Area
The Bay Area has long been a culinary standout, with California’s first Michelin guide originating here in 2006. Heavy hitters dot the map, like three-starred giants Atelier Crenn, Manresa, Benu, The French Laundry, SingleThread, and Quince. But there are dozens of other standouts like the one-starred Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, the Moroccan gem Mourad, or the California cuisine favorite Saison.
Drink All the Wine
Don’t tell the French, but the best wine in the world is made in California (they know). Up and down the California coast are some of the world’s finest winemakers, and the crown jewels reside in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Of course, the rest of the state is also littered with world-class wines. Check out the McBride Sisters, the largest Black-owned wine company in the country, Freeman Vineyard & Winery, founded and run by Akiko Freeman (the only Japanese winemaker in the U.S.), or Sandhi by Indian-born sommelier Rajat Parr.
Catch Waves in Malibu
It’s not necessarily the best surfing spot in California, but it might be the most beautiful. Appropriately named, Surfrider Beach is part of a stretch of Malibu that includes the Malibu Pier and is a popular point for surfing buffs and beach bums alike. Also, part of Malibu, Zuma Beach, is next to the popular Point Dume State Beach, where surfers and swimmers share the water with sea lions.
Ski in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth
Straddling California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a summer and winter wonderland for adventure enthusiasts. When the snow is blowing, the surrounding ski resorts offer snowboarders and skiers endless untracked powder. (And when the sun is shining, water sports abound for kayakers, sailors, and volleyball enthusiasts.)
Nearby Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Mountain is the largest ski resort in California and just so happens to be built on a volcano. There are 3,500 acres of skiable area, which normally hosts millions of skiers and snowboarders each year. Keep in mind, lift-tickets can run upwards of $200, so check online for discounts and off-days.
Hike the Canyons of Los Angeles
WHERE: Los Angeles
If you want some celebrity spotting while you work out, head to L.A.’s famous Runyon Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Multiple trails are packed with the city’s bold and beautiful as they search for fresh air with their four-legged friends in tow.
Hiking to the Hollywood Sign is a great option if you’d like to see another L.A. icon. The sign itself was originally erected in 1923 and read Hollywoodland. Today, there are multiple paths to reach the landmark. The easiest is a path that starts from the Griffith Park Observatory, so you can get two landmarks in one visit. The others are slightly more strenuous and can be navigated using the sign’s official site.
Spot Whales in Monterey
Monterey isn’t just the most expensive place to live in the state; it’s also the best place to whale watch. Depending on the season, you can charter boats to witness gray, humpback, and blue whales spy hopping, breaching, and shooting water out of their spouts. The waters of Monterey are also prime locations for orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and more.
Spend the Night at the Madonna Inn
WHERE: San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is more or less in the middle of the state and is home to one of the most eccentric hotels in the country. The Madonna Inn was first opened in 1958, and contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t named for the pop star or Jesus’s mother. Construction magnate Alex Madonna built the property, including wholly unique themed rooms. There are rooms designed after countries like Italy and China and rooms for lovers like the Love Nest and Bridal Falls. There are rooms for Cavemen (literally), golfers, antique car lovers, and more.
Check Into One of Hollywood's Most Famous Hotels
WHERE: Los Angeles
This famous Hollywood hotspot was erected in 1927 and laid claim to being the first-ever host of the Academy Awards in 1929. Classic golden-era guests included Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and Montgomery Clift (all rumored to haunt the hallways at night). Now, the hotel features classic bars, restaurants curated by famed chef Nancy Silverton, and an always fun weekend pool scene.
Visit a Landmark at the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
The Inn is a National Historic Landmark first erected in Riverside in 1876 and is just as much a living museum as a hotel. Visited by families and tourists from around the world, the Inn has hosted everyone from presidents and movie stars to famous athletes and astronauts. If you want to see one of the most insane spectacles, come to the Inn for the annual Festival of Lights during the winter months. The hotel is draped in over five million lights and includes hundreds of animated figures and fun holiday offerings.
Book a Room at the Hotel del Coronado
WHERE: San Diego
This uber-famous hotel has had starring roles in the movies Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe and My Blue Heaven with Steve Martin. Built in 1888, the hotel sits right on the water south of downtown San Diego and has hosted everyone from dignitaries and presidents to celebrities and famous athletes. The Victorian-style behemoth is one of San Diego’s quintessential landmarks and the perfect place to stay for families looking for fun in the sun.
Window Shop on Rodeo Drive
WHERE: Beverly Hills
The mecca of the fashion world, Rodeo Drive is the dream shopping destination for the rich and famous. The chicest brands from Balenciaga and Ferragamo to Cartier and Fendi can be found along the tree-lined street as tourists gawk at prices and chauffeurs wait patiently for their employers. On the south end of the drive lies the famous Beverly Wilshire Hotel (featured in Pretty Woman), and on the northern end is Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura, the ultimate Italian dining destination for fans of the Michelin-starred chef.
Spend Your Money at Outlets
If you’re headed to Palm Spring from Los Angeles (or vice versa), make sure to stop off here (most of the locals do). If you’re looking for deals, the Desert Hills Premium Outlets in Cabazon is your spot. High-end brands with amazing deals abound, and you’ll find stores like Balmain, Celine, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Valentino, and so much more for bargain rate prices.
Stroll Union Square
WHERE: San Francisco
Be Hip in Highland Park
WHERE: Los Angeles
L.A.’s most interesting neighborhood at the moment is Highland Park. In-the-know locals have moved here in droves and spurred an uptick in new restaurants and shops. One of the mainstays is the Highland Park Bowl, a hip bowling alley with great beers and pizzas. Restaurant standouts include Belle’s Bagels, Taiwanese favorite Joy, Hippo for Italian authenticity, and Otoño for perfect Spanish cuisine. There’s no shortage of record stores and vintage clothing shops as well. Head over to Gimme Gimme Records for your vinyl needs, the Pop-Hop Books & Print for indie authors, and Dotter for a mix of housewares, toys, jewelry, and clothes.
Celebrate Pride in WeHo
Home to L.A.’s LGBTQ+ scene, West Hollywood is a thriving neighborhood of tony restaurants, bumping bars, and eclectic shopping. Fans of the show Vanderpump Rules will find the flagship restaurant Sur propped up the street from one of the most famous gay bars in the world, The Abbey. The plant-based crowd huddles in the outdoor oasis at Gracias Madre, while the see and be seen flock to the patio perch at Catch LA. L.A.’s Gay Pride parade is one of the biggest events in the city and runs right through the middle of the neighborhood, while the West Hollywood Halloween Parade is a close second for an incredible street party.
Explore Counterculture in Haight Ashbury
San Francisco’s counterculture hub, the Haight- Ashbury neighborhood is still filled with avant-garde shops, tattoo parlors, alt-bars, and record stores. Check out the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, an annual event with concerts and street food, or indy store The Booksmith for unique reads, or get your jazz fix at Club Deluxe. Buena Vista Park is in the heart of the hood and the perfect escape when you’re all hipped out.