19 Best Cities in California in 2023 (By a Local)
People often stay in Los Angeles or San Diego when they visit the West Coast, but there are so many other great cities in California.
The state of California is so diverse and the landscapes vary greatly from north to south. As a California local, I’m here to help you choose the best cities to visit for cliffside beaches, jagged mountain peaks, open deserts, and quality shopping.
Table of Contents
- 19 Best California Cities
- FAQs About the Best Cities in California
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19 Best California Cities
The largest city in California with thousands of things to do
🏠 Population: 3.973 million | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Los Angeles on Booking
With thousands of fun things to do in Los Angeles, you will never grow tired of the busy city. Also known as the “City of Angels,” Los Angeles attracts tourists from around the world to its famous restaurants, beaches, events, and attractions.
My favorite thing to do in downtown Los Angeles is to visit Olvera Street, the “birthplace of Los Angeles.” Today, Olvera Street is a miniature version of Mexico with the best authentic Mexican food, annual events, and handicraft stalls.
Foodies also flock to the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. Located on Hill Street, you don’t want to miss the famous Egg Slut and Sarita’s Pupusaria restaurants.
A Northern California city that combines culture, food, and fun attractions
🏠 Population: 842,754 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | SF Travel Guides | Best Places to Stay in San Francisco | 👉 Browse Hotels in San Francisco on Booking
Similar to Los Angeles, you will never run out of things to do in San Francisco. The city rose to fame during the 1800s Gold Rush and is now one of the biggest cosmopolitan cities in the United States.
Take a boat ride to Alcatraz Island and enjoy the San Francisco Bay ocean breeze as you get up close and personal to the Golden Gate Bridge. Ferries depart back to the mainland every half hour, so visit the island’s historic inmate cells at your own pace.
After a full day of exploring the iconic San Francisco sites, relax with a delicious hand-made ice cream cone from Girridelhi.
👉 Pro Tip: The easiest and most informative way to plan a trip to Alcatraz is to take a tour. Check out this Alcatraz Island tour for the most in-depth exploration of the island.
A city in Los Angeles County with Victorian-style downtown buildings
🏠 Population: 142,017 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Pasadena on Booking
You must put Pasadena on your California itinerary if you love shopping.
Lined with elegant residential homes and neatly-trimmed trees, Pasadena offers all of the cleanliness and security you hoped you would find in downtown LA. Here, you can get lost among the brick buildings and boutique stores in Historic Old Pasadena on Colorado Street.
If you’re looking for events to attend in Pasadena, the Rose Bowl is a great entertainment pastime. This 90,000-seat stadium hosts college football games, concerts, and a flea market on the second Sunday of every month.
Known for its Disneyland theme parks and sports stadiums
🏠 Population: 353,085 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | Where to Stay at Disneyland | 👉 Browse Hotels in Anaheim on Booking
Known as the Disneyland city, Anaheim is a heavily populated city in Orange County. Besides world-famous theme parks, Anaheim is also home to live music venues and delicious eateries.
Stop by the House of Blues Anaheim to see your favorite live performers and try the delicious Cajun-inspired dishes at the venue.
Sports fans must head to the Los Angeles Angels stadium to catch a professional baseball game (and maybe even a flyball).
👉 Pro Tip: For the best baseball experience, look for tickets to an Angels versus Dodgers game to see passionate Los Angeles residents torn between their city’s two baseball teams.
California’s oldest and second largest city that offers incredible surfing and nightlife
🏠 Population: 1.415 million | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in San Diego on Booking
Considered the oldest city in California, San Diego is the perfect blend of city and beach life. Visitors can surf in the pacific ocean in the morning and put on their best dress in the evening for a 5-star dinner.
San Diego is also a prime place to see whales as they migrate to and from Mexico. Here are some top whale-watching tours in San Diego.
While in the area, you must also visit San Diego’s north county. This area is full of bustling beach towns like Oceanside, Carlsbad, and Encinitas, which are all great spots for surfing.
A romantic storybook village by the sea
🏠 Population: 3,789 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Carmel-by-the-Sea on Booking
You won’t believe a sleepy fairytale town like Carmel-by-the-Sea exists in California. This beach town is on the Monterey Peninsula and is famous for the historic Carmel Mission and the picturesque village area.
If you’re feeling adventurous, Carmel-by-the-Sea offers great scuba diving at the Carmel River State Beach. Make sure to catch the stunning sunset on the white sandy Carmel Beach afterward.
If the storybook ambiance isn’t enough to make you want to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea, the romantic hotels and fine restaurants will.
👉 Pro Tip: Carmel-by-the-Sea is easily accessible from the major cities of South San Francisco, San Jose, or the San Francisco Bay area.
Visit California’s sixth largest city and the state capital
🏠 Population: 503,482 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Sacramento on Booking
California’s capital city dates back to the Gold Rush era. Sacramento is the political hub of California and a cultural hotspot.
Sacramento is a rapidly growing city that offers affordable housing prices to its residents. It is also one of California’s last urban farming communities. The city’s diversity is reflected in the food, art, and music culture of the California capital, Sacramento.
Downtown Sacramento is also booming with things to do. Adults and children both love the Coin-Op, an 80s-themed arcade, and the California State Capitol Museum.
Home to the San Bernardino National Forest and peaks over 10,000 feet tall
🏠 Population: 216,784 |📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in San Bernardino on Booking
San Bernardino is one of the biggest counties in California, and makes our list of the top places to live in California. The city lies at the foot of the scenic San Bernardino National Forest, only 1 ½ hours outside of downtown LA. You can find some of the best authentic Mexican food and swap meets in the San Bernardino city center.
Besides hiking in the national forest, San Bernardino County is home to the best recreational lakes in Southern California. Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead, and Silverwood Lake are all excellent spots to escape busy city life and enjoy a relaxing day on the water.
San Juan Bautista
Wander throughout the historic 1797 Mission San Juan Bautista
🏠 Population: 20,086 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in San Juan Bautista on Booking
Founded in 1797 by the Spanish, San Juan Bautista is a small CA city with historic roots and appealing Spanish-style architecture. Downtown San Juan Bautista also offers adobe stores and delicious restaurants.
San Juan Bautista overflows with California culture and combines a coastal atmosphere with historic attractions to make the perfectly balanced California town.
Fill up your water bottle and go for a 5-mile scenic walk among blooming wildflowers and views of the valley from the San Juan Bautista De Anza Trail. After you’ve worked up an appetite, stop by Basque Matxain Etxea Restaurant for traditional Spanish Basque food and wine.
If you’re traveling with children, check out the San Juan Bautista public library for a free storytime every Thursday at 10 am.
Take a stroll on the Newport Pier during the day and light a bonfire on the beach at night
🏠 Population: 86,694 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Newport Beach on Booking
Newport Beach is one of the most popular Orange County beaches. From hundreds of eateries to incredible nightlife and beautiful beaches, there are so many fun things to do in Newport.
There are two main piers in Newport Beach, the Newport Pier, and the Balboa Pier. The Ruby’s Diner at the end of the Balboa Pier attracts many visitors each year. Ruby’s is known for their tasty milkshakes and appetizing burgers.
Although dogs aren’t allowed on the beach in Newport, they are allowed on the beach walkway. Don’t forget to bring a volleyball and firewood to enjoy the beach’s free amenities as well.
Explore the Irvine Spectrum’s shops and attractions for a fun day under the sun
🏠 Population: 272,694 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Irvine on Booking
Irvine is a great city to visit in Orange County if you love shopping. This city features the Irvine Spectrum, a shopping mecca with boutiques, restaurants, and many lounge areas.
If you’re looking for a more relaxing day away from the shopping crowds, then the University of California, Irvine Arboretum offers 12 acres of native and international plants. It is one of the best free things to do in Irvine.
A Mediterranean seaside city with upscale restaurants and a historic mission
🏠 Population: 90,911 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Santa Barbara on Booking
Santa Barbara offers a large coastline with some of the best southern California beaches and perfect weather year-round. Enjoy the downtown Mediterranean-style stucco buildings and upscale boutiques of this Southern California beach town.
Often referred to as “Queen of the Missions,” Old Santa Barbara Mission dates back to 1786 and features a historic museum and peaceful chapel. Visit the Old Santa Barbara Mission to learn more about the culture and history of the seaside city.
After a day of sightseeing and swimming, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. awaits. Unwind with an ice-cold beer and take in the beautiful beach scenery.
👉 Pro Tip: Renting a car is the best way to see Santa Barbara, but if you’re up for something a little more active, then this bike tour is also a great option.
Watch the pups play at the Huntington Dog Beach
🏠 Population: 199,778 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Huntington Beach on Booking
This Orange County coastal city is known as “Surf City USA.” One of the world’s largest surf competitions, the U.S. Open, is held at the Huntington Beach Pier every year and is a favorite event for all visitors.
Only a 5-minute drive from downtown Huntington, Huntington Dog Beach is well worth the drive. It’s one of the only nearby beaches that allows pets!
This Southern California beach is perfect for beachgoers who love to surf or get a good suntan.
Visit the Santa Ana Zoo or one of many museums for prime entertainment
🏠 Population: 332,610 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Santa Ana on Booking
Santa Ana is a densely populated major city in California. It is home to the Santa Ana Zoo, one of the best zoos in the region.
If you’re a live music connoisseur, then you must check out The Observatory, situated in the heart of downtown. There are two performing stages inside, a small one for up-and-coming artists and a larger one for established performers.
The Discovery Cube Orange County is a great museum to bring your kids to. There are hands-on science exhibits suited for children that will entertain them for hours. The Discovery Cube is open from 10 am-5 pm every day.
The most popular California desert city
🏠 Population: 48,390 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | Best Places to Stay in Palm Springs | 👉 Browse Hotels in Palm Springs on Booking
Palm Springs is not the largest city in California but it is one of the most popular. Many celebrities opt for an under-the-radar escape to Palm Springs from the hectic Los Angeles atmosphere.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the San Jacinto visitor center is one of the main attractions in Palm Springs. Visitors also wait until the summer heat cools down to browse between local art booths at the Thursday night farmers market.
Living up to its name, Palm Springs offers beautiful views of towering palm trees and gorgeous SoCal mountains from everywhere in the city. It’s also one of the best places to stay in Joshua Tree.
Visit the Mission Inn during winter to see the famous festival of lights
🏠 Population: 327,569 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Riverside on Booking
Home to some of the top things to do in the Inland Empire, Riverside is only 60 miles east of Los Angeles. There is an assortment of activities, fine dining, and entertainment venues to keep you occupied during your trip to Riverside.
Riverside receives most of its visitors in the winter during the Mission Inn Festival of Lights. The hotel’s display of lights is the best in the Inland Empire and offers great Christmas photo opportunities.
This principal city in Riverside County also hosts the Mount Rubidoux hike, the best hike in town! The 3.2-mile loop is a Riverside, California landmark with views of the whole city from the top.
⛰️ Read Next: 15 Best California Mountain Towns
One of the largest cities in California near Yosemite National Park
🏠 Population: 526,147 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Fresno on Booking
Although Los Angeles is the largest city in California, Fresno follows closely behind. While you are on a tour of Northern California, make sure to stop by Fresno on your way to Yosemite National Park.
Fresno is the biggest agricultural center in central California and many restaurant dishes are sourced locally. Besides delicious fresh produce, Fresno also offers activities and events for the whole family.
Visit the 300-acre Woodward Regional Park to have a picnic or play a family-friendly game of soccer on a nice afternoon.
There are plenty of accommodation options in Fresno that are less than 2 hours from Yosemite. Many visitors choose to stay here instead of the national park for the inexpensive hotel rates.
Browse the best guided Yosemite tours here.
One of the most populated beaches in California
🏠 Population: 462,081 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in Long Beach on Booking
Located in Los Angeles County, Long Beach is one of the most popular tourist destinations in California. It is famous for being close to Hollywood, a port for Catalina Island, and having great downtown nightlife.
Visit 2nd Street for the best bars and restaurants in Long Beach. Only one block from the beachfront, this is where you can find most Long Beach locals on the weekends. 4th Street has adorable vintage and roller skate shops and shouldn’t be missed if you like shopping.
Long Beach also hosts annual events like the One Love Cali Reggae Fest every summer and the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor horror festival every Halloween season.
🏠 Population: 94,833 | 📍 Google Maps | Website | 👉 Browse Hotels in San Marcos on Booking
San Marcos is in the North County region of San Diego. The city is a small residential town that is known for its great weather year-round and its many outdoor activities.
Double Peak Park offers great exercise while on vacation. You can walk, run, or bike the trails of the park. More adventurous visitors can even hike to the 1,700-foot summit of Double Peak.
In the evening, meet local San Marcos residents at Rip Current Brewing, one of the most popular breweries in town.
📚 Related Reading: 17 Best San Diego Breweries
FAQs About the Best Cities in California
What are California’s 10 major cities?
Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, Bakersfield, and Anaheim are California’s 10 major cities.
How many cities are in California?
There are almost 500 cities in the state of California.
What are the top 3 largest cities in California?
Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose are the top 3 largest California cities.
Thanks for reading this list of the best cities in California. If you’re looking for specific things to do, check out this list of the best things to do in California.
Enjoy California’s cities!
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