It can be overwhelming to decide which places to visit in California on your upcoming trip. There are hundreds of great locations and attractions to visit in the state and you don’t want to miss the best ones.
I’ve lived in California my whole life and want to help you choose the absolute best places to go in California. From top beaches to redwood forests and national parks, I’ll share all of my top picks for the 41 best places to visit in California.
Let’s get down to the best destinations the Golden State has to offer.
Table of Contents
- 27 Best Places to Visit in California
- Yosemite National Park
- San Diego
- Lake Tahoe
- San Francisco
- June Lake
- Big Sur
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Sierra Nevada Mountains
- Death Valley National Park
- Napa Valley
- Santa Monica Pier
- Palm Springs
- Sequoia National Park
- Balboa Park
- Downtown Los Angeles
- Catalina Island
- Santa Cruz
- Morro Bay
- Santa Barbara
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Old Town San Diego
- Redwood National Park
- San Diego Zoo
- Griffith Park
- FAQs About California Destinations
27 Best Places to Visit in California
📺 Prefer watching a video? Click to play a 5-minute video by Jericha (another one of Travel Lemming’s California locals!) rounding up her 25 favorite places to visit 👇:
Yosemite National Park
Located in the Sierra mountains with thousands of redwood trees and hundreds of hiking trails.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular places to visit in California. Tourists flock to the park in all four seasons of the year to witness the great beauty and abundant wildlife Yosemite has to offer.
Choose from hundreds of hiking trails in Yosemite like the Half Dome Cables or the Nevada Falls trail. You may also want to snag a multi-day backpacking permit and get lost in the woods for a few days.
The Yosemite Valley is a must-see if it’s your first time in the national park. You can see rock climbers ascending El Capitan and Half Dome from the valley floor. Bring binoculars and watch the athletes do the impossible.
👉 Pro Tip: If you are backpacking anywhere in the park, you must have a bear canister to store your food in. Yosemite National Park has black bears that aren’t afraid to confront you if they smell food.
Surf the pacific ocean waves or shop from adorable boutiques in this Spanish city by the sea.
Los Angeles and San Diego are the most visited Southern California places. San Diego is one of the best places to visit in California for authentic Mexican food because it is so close to the Mexican Border.
The Gaslamp district has everything you could want to do in San Diego on a Saturday night. Choose from hookah lounges, wine bars, and dance clubs to make your night in San Diego one to remember.
A perfect Sierra Nevada mountain town for paddle boarding and other water activities.
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in California. The bustling Lake Tahoe mountain town is complete with bike rental shops, hiking trails, and wood cabin businesses. Most tourists stay in a high-rated mountain resort or one of many Tahoe RV parks.
There are activities for the whole family at Lake Tahoe. You can go to a local brewery, go kayaking, and play beach volleyball.
The Tahoe Rim Trail is a top hiking trail in the area that is 165 miles long. It takes most people 10-14 days to complete but many visitors who don’t have that much time opt to hike small sections of the trail at a time.
Another great day hike is Mount Tallac. It is 9.5 miles roundtrip and only takes 4-6 hours to complete.
The “happiest place on earth” with nostalgic parades and rides for guests of all ages.
Located in Anaheim, California, Disneyland Park is the main amusement park in the United States. The park is suited for guests of all ages and has rides and games for everyone.
Besides thrilling rides like California Screamin’ and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission-Breakout!, guests can also enjoy delicious food and deserts throughout the park. Try the dole whip pineapple ice cream at the Adventureland Tiki Room or a satisfying churro from a street trolley.
A trip to Disneyland usually means spending all day at the park. To make the most out of your trip, stay at the nearby Disneyland Resort or other close hotel and enter the park as soon as it opens. You will also bypass long wait times this way. It’s one of my best Disneyland tips!
Bike along the Golden Gate Bridge or ride a trolley car in this famous California city.
San Francisco is also one of the most expensive places to live in the United States, just behind New York City. The charming houses in San Francisco are iconic and make for great photos.
👉 Here are some popular tourist attractions in San Francisco:
- Biking over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge
- Getting a delicious chocolate ice cream cone from Ghirardelli
- Riding throughout the city in a trolley car
- Taking a boat cruise to Alcatraz Island
- Eating a yummy sourdough bread bowl from the pier
- Visiting Fisherman’s Wharf
- Driving down the steep Lombardi Street
- Having a picnic in Mission Dolores Park
Lounge lakeside, kayak, or drive the scenic June Lake Loop in this Mono County town.
Only 20 minutes from Mammoth Lakes, June Lake is a popular destination for fishing and lakeside lounging among the Sierra Mountains.
The crystal clear waters of June Lake are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, making the area look surreal. There are several crowded boat ramps in the area but I recommend finding a remote part of the lake and lounging in a lake raft.
If you are an avid fisher, then June Lake should be on your travel list of where to go in California. There is enough trout to go around!
An ideal central coast beach with sheer cliffs and perfect wave crests.
Big Sur is a quintessential California beach. Jagged cliffs tower over ocean vistas along this Pacific Coast Highway oasis.
Most tourists visit famous California beaches like Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach. This leaves Big Sur under the radar and less crowded than Southern California beaches. Big Sur is a magical place where mountains meet the beach and create private coves and perfect waves to surf.
There is no cell service in Big Sur so if you need to work or contact family, you will have to stop at one of the town’s many cafes for wifi.
Ski during the winter or hike Mount Baden-Powell in the summer in this quiet mountain town.
A lesser-known mountain town in California, Wrightwood receives most of its visitors at Mountain High Ski Resort in the winter months. Wrightwood is a less-developed ski town but still offers local attractions and activities for nature lovers.
Hike Wrightwood’s Mount Baden-Powell, one of the highest mountains in the San Gabriel Mountains. There are also great mountain biking trails in the area and various tent campgrounds.
After you’ve explored the great outdoors, stop by the Wrightwood Brewery or the Wrightwood Inn Bar to relax with a cold beer.
Joshua Tree National Park
View desert wildlife, rock climb, camp, or hike in the popular national park.
If you are looking for fun places to visit in California, look no further than Joshua Tree National Park. This park showcases some of the best flora and fauna of all California deserts.
Choose from short hiking trails like the Barker Dam Trail and Ryan Mountain or longer ones such as the Lost Palms Oasis trail. I recommend tent camping inside of the national park to witness an amazing desert sunset and millions of bright stars in the open night sky. It’s one of the best spots for camping in California.
If you are looking for places to rock climb in California, you will love Joshua Tree National Park. Rock climbers from all over California dream of climbing some of the hundreds of routes in the park. Even if you don’t rock climb, you are still guaranteed to see some climbers in action anywhere in the park.
To plan your visit, check out our guide to staying in Joshua Tree.
Sierra Nevada Mountains
Hike some of California’s highest mountains and witness some of the most beautiful spring blooms and winter snowfalls at high elevations.
The Sierra Nevadas are a mountain lover’s sanctuary. The Eastern Sierra Mountains are my absolute favorite place to visit in California in any season.
Lone Pine town is a good base to hike many mountains in the area. From this mountain town, you have access to the Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley trailheads. The Big Pine Lakes and Palisade Glacier trailheads are just a short drive away as well.
Witness some of the most beautiful spring blooms and winter snowfalls at high elevations in the Sierra Nevadas. Lake Sabrina in Bishop is also a great location to see the changing fall colors.
There are many restaurants and cafes in the Eastern Sierra towns along the 395 Highway and plenty of hotel and camping options as well.
👉 Pro Tip: Camp for free in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area in Lone Pine. Be aware of hot summer temperatures.
Death Valley National Park
The lowest point in the United States as well as one of the hottest.
Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest deserts in the world. This area holds the record for the hottest air temperature at 134.1 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s safe to say, summer visits to the national park should be limited.
A fall, spring, or winter visit to Death Valley is exquisite. Bring a sled to slide down the park’s dunes or lace up your hiking boots to climb the highest peak in the park, the 11,043-foot Telescope Peak.
Located only 1 hour and 45 minutes from Lone Pine, the national park’s Badwater Basin salt flat is the lowest point in the United States. You can visit the lowest point and highest point (Mount Whitney) in the contiguous U.S. on the same day.
🚗 How to Get There: Death Valley is pretty far from most major cities. You will want to rent a car from Discover Cars in Los Angeles to get to Death Valley NP.
Taste some of the finest California wines in Napa Valley.
Napa Valley is a wine lover’s paradise. North of San Francisco, there are things to do for the whole family such as hot air balloon rides over vineyards and shopping malls with play areas. The area is more popular among adult tourists who wish to go on a Napa wine tasting tour to visit some of the best wineries and vineyards in Napa.
The perfect day in Napa Valley consists of a spa treatment in the morning, golfing in the afternoon, and live music during dinner and a glass of wine. If you’re on an extended stay, explore the area’s hiking trails and bike tours.
Santa Monica Pier
Stroll along the boardwalk and go for a ride on the Ferris wheel.
The Santa Monica Pier is a great place to visit in California with the family or for date night. After a day of sunbathing on the Santa Monica beach, visit the small amusement park on top of the pier.
Located on Colorado Avenue, the Santa Monica Pier is one of the best places to visit in California. There’s great shopping and restaurants nearby, or you can pick up a hot dog and ice cream at the concession stand on the pier.
If you like to fish, make sure to bring your rod because fishing off of the pier is allowed and encouraged. There are also benches on the pier so you can relax and watch the surfers below.
A popular desert town for shopping and golfing that’s a favored escape for Hollywood celebrities.
Welcome to perhaps the most popular desert town in California. Palm Springs is a favored escape for Hollywood celebrities so keep an eye out while you’re there.
Palm Springs visitors love to golf and shop ‘til they drop at stores like Birkenstock and Lush Couture. Stay at one of many Palm Springs resorts and get a nice poolside tan while you wait for a delicious cocktail.
Summertime often brings temperatures of over 100 degrees, so visit during the other seasons for the most enjoyable experience.
See my guide to more than 30 unique things to do in Palm Springs to get planning.
Sequoia National Park
Hike among hundred-foot redwood trees and visit the world’s largest tree.
Explore hundreds of national park trails after the winter snow has thawed out. Bring your binoculars because Sequoia NP is a good place to spot black bears, bobcats, foxes, and other wildlife.
The park’s ancient skyscraper trees are exclusive only to Sequoia NP, which makes this park high on many travelers’ lists of places in California.
Visit the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree at 275 feet tall and 36 feet wide. There are plenty of other things to do in the park as well like the Moro Rock hike and the Amphitheater Point viewpoint.
A National Historic Landmark where nature meets culture with gardens, playgrounds, and surrounding Spanish architecture.
Balboa Park is a National Historic Landmark in San Diego. Explore the park’s gardens, playgrounds, and surrounding Spanish architecture on a fun-filled day in the city.
The park also has over 17 museums that will keep your family entertained for hours. Plan a multi-day trip to the park to visit the dinosaur, space, photography, and science museums.
The park can be overwhelming to explore on your own without a guide. Take the free guided walking tour around Balboa Park’s IMAX Theater, gardens, cafes, and shops to get the full experience.
Downtown Los Angeles
You’ll never run out of things to do in the heart of LA.
Explore all downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) has to offer including restaurants, entertainment, and shopping. A trip to LA wouldn’t be complete without visiting this world-famous area.
Treat yourself to drinks on one of many rooftop bars or go ice skating at LA Live during the wintertime. If shopping is more your thing, DTLA is one of the main shopping centers in the world. From street casual to couture, Downtown LA will satisfy all your shopping needs.
There are also weekly events in DTLA like the Tuesday Farmers Markets and pop-up events like samba night at the music center. For more ideas on what to do, check out our guide to attractions in Los Angeles.
Discover a unique island off of the Southern California coast where you can scuba dive, paraglide, jet ski, kayak, and hike.
Escape busy city life with a trip to Catalina Island. The small island’s many activities attract thousands of visitors each year.
Catalina is the perfect place to celebrate a birthday or to have a quiet, work-free coastal getaway. Take a short ferry ride to the island port and get ready for a day of fun, good food, and relaxation.
You can scuba dive, paraglide, jet ski, kayak, and hike on Catalina Island. Avid backpackers also love the Trans-Catalina Trail, a 38.5-mile hike along the coast of the whole island. Check out this Trans-Catalina Trail guided tour if you don’t want to go alone.
A central coast town with everything from state parks and beaches to museums and shopping guaranteed to keep you busy.
It’s almost impossible to run out of things to do in Santa Cruz. The town has 14 state parks, wineries, museums, shopping, world-class surfing, farmer’s markets, and so much more.
Santa Cruz is known as a Pacific Ocean beach town but also has incredible forests with unique moss and plenty of banana slugs. The many California state parks make prime locations for camping so bring your tent!
The ocean fog-covered town also has hip cafes, bookstores, and laid-back Californian breweries. Buy some kettle corn and play carnival games on the Santa Cruz boardwalk or rent a bike and cruise down the beach walkway for the perfect trip to Santa Cruz.
A sleepy California mountain town with great hiking trails and great pizza.
Nestled in the San Jacinto mountains, Idyllwild is a quaint mountain town in Southern California that has some of the best California hikes. The most popular attraction is Mount San Jacinto via Marion Mountain but visitors also love the cute downtown village.
Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking, camping, and rock climbing in San Jacinto State Park. Other things to do include eating delicious pizza in town, shopping at the Idyllwild record store, and grabbing a drink at the town brewery.
Keep your eye out for the deer and owls that frequent this small mountain town.
For more, see our list of the best things to do in Idyllwild.
A sleepy fisherman village along California’s coast where you can go kayaking, hiking, shopping, bird watching, and more.
Visit the idyllic Morro Bay beach town on California’s central coast. This fishing village has over 6 miles of shoreline for visitors to relax on with a good book.
Morro Bay is less than 4 hours from Los Angeles and is the perfect quiet getaway from the big bustling city. This preserved seaside town offers activities year-round such as kayaking, hiking, shopping, bird watching, and more.
Relax on the beach during the day then catch a movie at the Bay Movie Theater after dinner and drinks. Morro Bay has good weather all year, so anytime you choose to visit is a good time. To get planning, see McKenna’s guide to the best things to do in Morro Bay.
Surf some of California’s best waves or experience the foodie scene in this college town.
Home to the University of California, Santa Barbara, this beautiful beach town offers fine art museums, mountain adventures, and classy food and wine experiences.
Want to experience the famous California surfing culture? Head to the local favorite East Beach for some of the best surfing around.
More of a foodie? State Street has the best restaurants in the area. A trip to Santa Barbara is also not complete without visiting Stearns Wharf, the oldest pier in California.
👉 Love History? Visit the old Santa Barbara Mission, founded in 1820, and enjoy the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
Kings Canyon National Park
Enjoy tall peaks, waterfalls, and thousands of trees in Kings Canyon.
Kings Canyon National Park is home to the largest remaining grove of sequoias in the world. This protected area sees thousands of tree-loving visitors each year.
Kings Canyon’s glaciated valley also hosts hundreds of hiking trails, great camping, and horseback riding tours. The horseback riding tours are only offered in the summer but are a unique way to experience the remote beauty of the national park.
Check the weather conditions before your visit to ensure park roads are still open.
Old Town San Diego
Take photos of the alluring Spanish architecture of Old Town.
Old Town San Diego is the oldest settlement in San Diego. All of the restaurants, shops, and hotels are conveniently within walking distance of each other.
The authentic Mexican restaurants in this area have fresh homemade tortillas which are loved by both locals and tourists.
Besides great food and architecture, Old Town San Diego also has special annual events such as the Fiesta de Reyes Mariachi festival every February and the Cinco de Mayo celebrations each May.
Redwood National Park
Visit Northern California’s largest concentration of redwood trees.
Redwood National Park has the tallest trees in the world, some of which are taller than 370 feet. With over 200 miles of trails in the park, many visitors choose to camp for multiple days to experience as much of the park as possible.
You may be lucky enough to spot some elk, whales, seals, and seasonal wildflowers while on a scenic drive throughout the park.
You will also want to fill your itinerary with exceptional hikes like the 3-mile Prairie Creek, Big Tree, and Cathedral Tree Loop trail or the 10.4-mile James Irvine Trail.
See our guide to where to stay near Redwood National Park to get planning.
San Diego Zoo
View wildlife from around the world this non-profit sanctuary is located in Balboa Park.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance focuses on wildlife conservation. It’s 100 acres house 660 wildlife species and over 700,000 plants from around the world.
There are plenty of fun activities to do for the whole family. Watch an animal movie in the zoo’s 4D theater, take a botanical or guided bus tour, attend a wildlife presentation talk, or go for a ride on the aerial tram.
This non-profit sanctuary is located in Balboa Park, just north of downtown San Diego and is open from 9 am-9 pm every day.
Learn everything you want to know about the constellations at the park’s observatory.
Griffith Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the United States with over 4,210 acres. Many Los Angeles residents spend their free time at the park.
The attractions at Griffith Park include the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood sign, the LA Zoo, the Greek Theater, pony rides, and more.
Other park activities include camping, biking, hiking, swimming, tennis, and soccer. Griffith Park is the perfect lunchtime break for those working in Los Angeles and the ideal leisure spot for visitors.
👉 Read Next: 55 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles (By a Local)
FAQs About California Destinations
What is the number 1 tourist attraction in California?
Disneyland is the number 1 tourist attraction in California. The amusement park receives 18 million visitors per year.
What is the prettiest place in California?
What is the most famous thing in California?
The Hollywood sign is the most famous thing in California. Many visitors hike to the sign from Griffith Park to take an iconic photo of the sign.
What city is most visited in California?
Los Angeles is the most visited city in California. Tourists visit the city to see Hollywood and explore the downtown Los Angeles attractions and world-famous restaurants.
Now you’re ready to pack your bags and explore the best places to visit in California! You can also check out my guide on the best time to visit California to plan the perfect trip.
Have a blast exploring all the best destinations in California!
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