Best Things to Do in California (Top Places to Visit)
Last Updated on 13/10/2021
You would have heard this quite a bit; The United States is a destination worth visiting at least once in your lifetime. With over 50 states scattered all across the lands, there is plenty and more to experience. But if your focus is on endless sunshine, beautiful beaches, an incredible range of local tastes (influenced by diverse groups of ethnicities), cultural events, breathtaking national parks, and canyons, then quite frankly you are looking at the West Coast, California! So here’s a list of all the best places you should visit in California. The Golden State!
Table of Contents
- 1 Visit the Venice Beach
- 2 Explore Fisherman’s Warf
- 3 Enjoy the view at Lake Tahoe
- 4 Hike in Joshua Tree National Park
- 5 Go waterfall hopping at the Yosemite Valley National Park
- 6 Stroll along at the Glass Beach
- 7 Drive to Death Valley National Park
- 8 Explore the Mojave Desert
- 9 Experience nature at Channel Islands National Park
- 10 Surf at San Luis Obispo
- 11 Navigate through nature trails at Kings Canyon National Park
- 12 Visit the Balboa Park
- 13 Backpack across the Sierra Nevada Mountains
- 14 Indulge in the finer things of life at Napa Valley
- 15 Explore Big Bear Lake
- 16 Visit La Jolla
- 17 Relax at Newport Beach
- 18 Observe the Tide Pools in Orange County
- 19 Explore Monterey Bay
- 20 Witness the Golden Gate Bridge
- 21 Have fun at the Disneyland Park
Visit the Venice Beach
One of the best beaches the US has to offer is in Venice, Los Angeles. This fun and vibrant beachfront has a lot more to offer than just beautiful beaches, street vendors. So what else awaits there? Stroll along the iconic Boardwalk – mingle with the locals and enjoy the local street flavours and performances. Take a walk along the Venice Canals. Which offers incredibly charming sceneries, arching bridges to walk on, and lovely beach houses to look at while taking a leisurely stroll.
If you want to change things up take a motorboat ride along the canal waters. Try skating at the famous Venice Skate Park or watch the pros go! It’s still an experience. For all you art lovers, there is the Mosaic Tile House. A simple Drab house converted to a one-of-a-kind Mosaic marvel – that can only be viewed in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. And the food! An array of cuisine that is ready to make your brain explode with deliciousness! Visiting Venice Beach should definitely be one of the things to do in California.
Explore Fisherman’s Warf
It is one of the busiest tourist destinations in San Francisco. A picture-perfect fishing town. Start with a simple tour through the iconic landscapes on the San Francisco cable car rides – a celebrated landmark in the California Coast that has been around for more than a century. Shopping at Ghirardelli Square is another great place to start your explorations. Museums are the best way to take a quick jog through the fascinating past and parts of town. The Maritime Museum – designed like a ship, is the ideal spot to learn about the start of the town.
In the Cartoon Art Museum, you can explore the history of cartoons and modern animation – perfect for families. Museé Mécanique – the artefact museum, is an excellent place to explore the surviving ships and other artefacts left from WWII like the SS Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito. Finally, no day trip or stay at the Wharf is complete without indulging in some incredibly fresh seafood dishes, like the sumptuous Dungeness crab dish and some local beer!
Enjoy the view at Lake Tahoe
This breathtaking Lake is found in the mountainside of Sierra Nevada. And it is super famous for its scenic lake coast and ski resorts. So here’s a list of things you can indulge in to create some unforgettable memories at Lake Tahoe! Visit the Emerald Bay State Park – located along the South-West shore of Lake Tahoe. Hike the colourful mountain cliffs and immerse in the breathtaking views of the Lake. Magical sunsets are real here! Take a boat ride to Fannett Island – to learn about its glacial activities and even visit the famous Vikingsholm, a beautiful summer home that sits quaintly in the view of the Lake.
You can visit, or even have your accommodation for the night arranged at the Squaw Valley – the world-famous Ski Resort that offers its ski-loving guests approx. 4000 acres of stunning snow-coated terrain. A real Ski Paradise! Make sure to drop by the Donner Memorial State Park and Immigrant Trail Museum, not just to witness the beautiful parks and gardens but also to learn about the heavy history of the pioneers that fell victim to a harsh winter. It’s definitely worth listing in your California Bucket list of travels.
Hike in Joshua Tree National Park
Huddled amid Colorado and the Mojave – the Joshua Tree National Park offers nature lovers, hiking and camping enthusiasts an incredibly unique landscape, wilderness and wildlife to explore and enjoy. If you are hiking, you can witness your fair share of Joshua Tress – this celebrated tree is as spikey as they come. But that’s not the only unique plant you will come across. Venture into the Ocotillo cactus and the Cholla Cactus Garden maybe even meet with a park ranger to learn all about the unique native history of this gorgeous park.
If you are camping you will get first row seats to the most magical sunrises and sunsets, and even come across the most incredibly diverse wildlife like the roadrunner, jackrabbits and bighorn sheep. You will also have to keep an eye out for tarantulas, snakes, scorpions and more! But don’t let that stop you from immersing in the magic of the Joshua Tree National Park!
Go waterfall hopping at the Yosemite Valley National Park
The Yosemite Valley National Park has a reputation for being one of the most breathtaking parks found on the west side of Sierra Nevada, California. While it is a globally known national park, this panoramic glacial valley always tops every nature-loving hikers and campers list of things to do in California. You can choose to go waterfall hopping during springtime, starting with the Yosemite Falls, the breathtaking Bridalveil Falls, and the beautiful Horsetail Falls – which glows orange as the sun sets.
If you are a climber yourself, then Yosemite offers some of the best climbing trails. The Glacier Point Road, the Yosemite Valley and for the seasoned climbers – 3000 feet El Capitan, a sheer rock of magnificence. Hiking will allow you to venture deep into this verdant park, and Yosemite offers some of the choicest hiking trails across the globe. If you have more than a day, then camping is highly recommended. It is the best way to immerse in the diverse wilderness and the wildlife of the park.
Stroll along at the Glass Beach
You will find this famed southern beach near Fort Bragg, in Northern California – Just 3 hours away from San Francisco. While it was not always a tourist attraction, it was once a dumping ground for industrial glass. With time as the dumped glass depleted, and blended in with the beach sand, it resulted in creating a very unique pebble surface. It then began to attract crowds for its uniqueness. While the beach itself is beautiful, swimming is not recommended as the sea can get quite rough. But it is perfect for a lovely long stroll, as the features might be different from the other beautiful beaches along the California coast. If you are a beach fanatic, we would recommend visiting the famous Glass Beach.
Drive to Death Valley National Park
Disturbing or enthralling, whatever your final sentiments are – this devilish National Park should be part of your list of things to do in California. Nestled near the borders of Eastern California, this breathtaking (no pun intended) valley comes with an almost desolate canyon landscape, yellow and orange shaded cliffs, and even a ghost town! Fascinatingly enough, it is the hottest place in the USA. Its landscape is so vast and otherworldly, it was used to shoot the universally loved Star Wars Saga.
Witness the incredible scenic views from Dante’s Views. The ever-stretching landscape of desert wonder. Drive along the narrow road to the Badwater Basin – the lowest & driest point in all of the United States. Right near the Basin, you can walk towards the Devil’s Gold Course, where the earth is coated with bumpy salt flats. These salt formations can be sharp, so be careful, and of course, explore the Golden Canyon. Finally, if you do a 2-mile trek across the oasis and you can come across a divine wonderment; Dante’s Fall!
Explore the Mojave Desert
This incredibly vast landscape is more recognized as a National Preserve and the 3rd largest park site. Just 230 miles away from Los Angeles, this desert land is super spread out. To explore (at least) a considerable part of it, you will need to do an entire weekend hike across it. There are few things you need to know before setting off. There’s no place to fill gas or to get food – so plan accordingly to ensure you don’t get into a situation that ruins your whole experience. Hiking and camping will be the top activities to engage in this dry yet striking desert.
You can visit historic sites like the Kelso Depot – the lovely railroad depot (now a museum) that is located in the centre of the preserve. See the largest Joshua Tree Forest and hike the Teutonia Peak. This 4-mile trail will lead you to phenomenal views of the park and a unique view of the famous Cima Dome. So many things to explore, so much beauty to immerse in. If you are a nature lover, visiting the Mojave Desert needs to be included in your list of things to do in California.
Experience nature at Channel Islands National Park
Out of the eight famous Channel Islands, five are covered by the Channel Islands National Park. A majority of it is untamed and untouched. Santa Cruz Island being the largest of them offers significant cultural and natural resources. Small island archipelagos such as Santa Barbara Island were recognized as national monuments and all five islands, including Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, became UNESCO sites. Surrounded by the beautiful blue and diverse ranges of island wilderness and wildlife, each island offers ideal hiking and camping grounds – especially Santa Barbara islands where the camping grounds are nestled in the grassy hills overlooking the stunning ocean.
Approximately 89 miles from the Channel Islands National park and 47 miles from Los Angeles, you will find Catalina Island – where the fun never stops. While it is one of the Channel Islands, it is more developed. Here you can do more than just hiking and camping. Go on a zip line tour, explore the marine world by joining a diving tour. Catalina has some incredibly fun water sports to engage in, and for all you town explorers, there are art boutiques, cafes and botanical gardens to explore! A MUST include to your list of things to do in California.
Surf at San Luis Obispo
This ancient city is found on the southern part of California’s central coast – nestled near the Mountain range of Santa Lucia. Founded in 1772 by Junipero Serra – this little city is one of the most ancient European-found cities in the USA. So why come here? If you are not interested in the city’s history then there is plenty of reason to still visit. Nicknamed the Happiest City in America – this all-year-round sunny city has fascinating places like the beautiful Pismo Beach. Take a dip in its clear blue waters and do some surfing. Who knows, you might even be able to witness one of the many cultural events that take place here – like the Kite Expo.
Be a part of the Thursday night Farmer’s Market, the best place to enjoy some incredible local flavours and entertainment. Explore the many streets in the historic downtown area – which includes the Bubblegum Alley. Take a dip in the stunning turquoise waters of Avilla beach too! Where many cultural events are held all year. There are incredible nature trails around this coastal area, as well as refreshing hot springs. The city is small, but the activities are endless. Visiting this city is has to be a part of your list of things to do in California.
You will find this national park in southern Sierra Nevada, Central California. Going on a hike in this park is going to be a whole other experience. This ever-stretching landscape of pure beauty – which includes giant canyons, enormous soaring hills, remarkable caverns, and the world’s largest sequoia trees has earned the nickname – the Land of Giants! Like all national parks in California, there is much to do here. From short day strolls down the easy trails to weeklong hikes, following the most incredible nature trails, where you will get front-row views of the insanely diverse wildlife there.
Experience some of the most novel adventures offered at this stunning National Park. Venture through the legendary Kings Canyon, explore soundscapes, visit the Crystal Caves, and summit the large rock dome that rewards you with the most divine views of the entire national park. One would even describe it as an otherworldly experience.
Visit the Balboa Park
A destination that should be included in every traveller’s California Bucket List. This 1200 acre park in San Diego, California, needs at least two-day trips to truly explore it. Exciting recreational areas to eclectic museums, parks, and art venues – there’s a lot. Begin with the California Tower, climb 125 steps to view the scenic park from a height of 200 feet before exploring it. Enjoy international performances held at the International Cottages. You will find yourself entertained with dances and different ethnic food- it is indeed a party!
Enjoy the Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe. Explore the ethereal-looking Botanical Building and the Timken Museum- an architectural gem that houses incredible masterpieces of Art. How about stepping into another realm of prehistoric jungle surroundings? That’s what the Palm Canyon Offers. Get away from the San Diego hustle and bustle and enjoy the lush natural surroundings! Exploring Balboa Park in San Diego should be on the list of things to do in California!
Backpack across the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Nestled in Central California approx. 200 miles from San Francisco – if nature adventure and solitude are your main aims, then this should be on your list of things to do in California. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range stretches on for 400 miles, and it homes three national parks and approx. 20 wildlife landscapes. You can hike/backpack through the panoramic mountain trails to explore the waterfalls and the glaciers that belong to the national parks, like Yosemite.
Maybe camp near the stunning Lake Tahoe or visit the largest, single-stem Sequoia Tree discovered on the planet. Of course, there is much to enjoy. Learn about the protected areas of the mountain range, its native history, and even be a part of the year-round festivals that take place there. – It is truly one incredible California Bucket List destination for any nature or adventure lover.
Indulge in the finer things of life at Napa Valley
When you think of worldly wine and food experiences, you immediately think of Napa Valley. With approx. 400 wineries – Napa Valley has earned a global reputation for creating premium flavours and nurturing a rich wine and food culture that has the world yearning to be a part of the lavish experience.
Just 60 miles away from San Francisco, you can visit Napa to indulge in the finer things of life. Start with a grand wine tour to sample some of the most exquisite wine produced in its wineries, and fall in love with the art of wine making. Then explore the famous Napa Valley museums, the art galleries, to immerse in the more artistical world. Don’t forget to take a stroll around the gardens, and if you have the time – take a trekking trip to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park to enjoy the untamed beauty of the wilderness and the diverse wildlife that calls this park their home.
Explore Big Bear Lake
Found in the San Bernardino Mountains, 2-hours away from Los Angeles and San Diego – this is recognized as the first mountain recreation area in Southern California, West Coast. The looming alpine mountains, the pine tree landscapes, the famous blue water lake creates an ideal place to beat the hot temperatures of California. Mountains hikes are a huge thing here. The hills and the dry green landscape create a beautiful sunny environment. It is perfect for enjoying camping/outings near the lake. But there are other things you can do here too.
Explore the Big Bear Lake Village – which looks remarkably quaint. Here, you can check out the cafes, restaurants – get a taste of the local dining flavours. Visit an art gallery and even try some local sweets at the still-existing, old-styled confectionery stores, and maybe even do a picnic day-out at the Boulder Bay Park, where you can surround yourself with breathtaking natural sceneries.
Visit La Jolla
Another day in paradise. If you are in San Diego, a visit to La Jolla should be scheduled in and here’s why. La Jolla reflects everything incredible about San Diego and the West Coast as a whole! The Shores Beach – perfect waters to take a nice dip and even go surfing. Walk a little towards the north to the Scripps Pier – one of the largest working piers in the world. Being next to the Pacific Ocean, you can expect a lot of water-related activities to enjoy. Go on a kayaking or snorkelling trip at the La Jolla Underwater Park to observe some fascinatingly diverse marine life that calls these waters their home. La Jolla Cove is another beautiful spot travellers should visit.
If you want a break from the ocean, you can always take a walk around the beautiful Ellen Browning Scripps Park, check out the fascinating exhibits at the Map and Atlas Museum. For some extra action, you can always visit Torrey Pines Gliderpost to do some paragliding or hang gliding, and maybe Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – a state park with breathtaking natural trails overlooking the beautiful blue.
Relax at Newport Beach
This beautiful coastal town in southern California exists just approx. 44 miles from Los Angeles. It is where you will find the surfers, yachters, sailors making use of the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. The famous Newport Harbour is where the boats dock. What can you do here? Whale Watching Tours are a major part of holidaying here. Being a coastal town, there are many beach-related activities and places to see. Beautiful beaches like Corona del Mar State Park, the Crystal Cove State Park – where families can immerse and explore the bright coastal scapes, maybe even have a lovely beach day picnic.
If you are a seasoned surfer, then visit The Wedge, where surfers go to catch the BIG waves, and the city has an abundance of shops, restaurants and museums to keep you entertained for days!
Observe the Tide Pools in Orange County
Located along the metropolitan coast of Los Angeles, California, Orange County is the second-most densely populated state after San Francisco. Lining up along the other famous beautiful beaches along the California coast, there is something rather unique to enjoy here –Tide Pools! They are pockets of seawater that you can find in between the areas where the ocean meets land. The beauty of these is that if they are big enough they can create a nice nature-made bathing area. If it is deep enough, you can even do some snorkelling during the low tides. It’s fun and fascinating. In Orange County, there are several places you can enjoy this incredible feature. The Little Corona Del Mar Beach found in Newport Beach, Treasure Island Beach, Crescent Beach and many more along the coastal line of the West Coast.
Explore Monterey Bay
Situated more towards the south of cities like San Francisco. On the North End, there is Santa Cruz. The locals refer to this stretch of the central coast of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties as part of the Monterey Bay. And that would mean that Monterey Bay offers some incredible coastal terrains and natural reserves for you to explore and make your holiday all the more memorable. The best place to start would be to take the famed 17-mile drive. Begin from Monterey and end in Carmel-by-the-street. Pass incredibly scenic views of the Pacific Ocean and the coastal areas that harmoniously blend with the Del Monte Forest. It will make you want to stop the vehicle and take a stroll.
The Spanish Bay will have a similar effect. Visit the Old Fisherman’s Wharf (not to be confused with the one in San Francisco) for whale watching and kayaking activities. Take a day to explore the Point Lobos Natural State Reserve – there are 13 trails to venture on – From breathtaking coastal views from the cliffs to the cascading waterfalls, the coves! Here you can even watch adorable pocket gophers and southern sea otters, enjoy life in paradise!
Witness the Golden Gate Bridge
This one-and-a-half-mile suspension bridge is one of the most globally recognized landmarks in San Francisco, California. The famed bridge connects the northern part of San Francisco to the Marine County across the Pacific Ocean. It has 6 lanes along with a pedestrian and bicycle lane. The alluring Art Deco-influenced structure was created by Irving Morrow. You can take a walk and gradually absorb the beauty of the bridge and the scenic views around – especially the cityscapes. There’s also the option of visiting the Golden Gate Recreational Area right next to the bridge.
This park homes and protects a varied range of plants and endangered wildlife. It offers an ideal landscape for day hikes and picnic outings – with the Golden Gate Bridge in view adding to the scenic surroundings. You can learn about the history of this magnificent bridge or spend more time learning about the Biosphere Reserve! So much to see and enjoy! Definitely should be included in the list of things to do in California.
Have fun at the Disneyland Park
Disneyland Park is a place is filled with ultimate thrills for all ages. It’s a place you can visit many times in your life and still have a fantastic time! (except when your favourite ride is shut down for maintenance). But still! There’s plenty of other rides and recreational experiences waiting to distract you. Located in Anaheim, California – just approx. 26 miles from Los Angeles, Disney Park is a must-visit, especially if you have kids. Start on a fun ride like the Indiana Jones Adventure Rides, Jungle Cruises, or tour the Haunted Mansions. Eat at a character-themed restaurant. Enjoy the recreational areas with your family, like the Disney pools, or even be a part of the many events and entertainment made available throughout your time in Disney Park!
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