The Mount San Jacinto from afar during sunset, one of the best places to visit in California

27 Best Places to Visit in California in 2022 (By a Local)

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.

27 Best Places to Visit in California

Yosemite National Park

Located in the Sierra mountains with thousands of redwood trees and hundreds of hiking trails

The author at the top of North Dome in Yosemite National Park
Me, posing on top of North Dome with the beautiful Half Dome in the distance

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Yosemite National Park Hotels on Booking

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.

San Diego

Surf the pacific ocean waves or shop from adorable boutiques in this Spanish city by the sea

Waves crashing on the La Jolla Beach in San Diego
A wave crashes on San Diego’s La Jolla Beach

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse San Diego Hotels on Booking

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.

Sunbathe next to sea lions at La Jolla Beach, catch some killer waves in Oceanside, or dine at luxurious restaurants such as Addison Restaurant for a perfect San Diego day trip.

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.

Lake Tahoe

A perfect Sierra Nevada mountain town for paddle boarding and other water activities 

View from Lake Tahoe during sunrise
A quiet sunrise over the mountains of Lake Tahoe

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Lake Tahoe Hotels on Booking

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.

Disneyland

The “happiest place on earth” with nostalgic parades and rides for guests of all ages

Floral Mickey Mouse at the entrance of Disneyland
Mickey Mouse greets guests at Disneyland’s entrance (photo: chingyunsong / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Disneyland Hotels on Booking

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!

San Francisco

Bike along the Golden Gate Bridge or ride a trolley car in this famous California city

View of a neighborhood in Lombard Street, San Francisco
San Francisco’s windy Lombard Street

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse San Francisco Hotels on Booking

San Francisco is one of the oldest cities in California. Founded by the Spanish in 1776, it is now one of the main tourist destinations in the golden state. 

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

June Lake

Lounge lakeside, kayak, or drive the scenic June Lake Loop in this Mono County town

The view while cycling on the June Lake Loop
I cycled the 16-mile June Lake Loop

📍 Google Maps | June Lake Website | 👉 Browse June Lake Hotels on Booking

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. There is enough trout to go around!

Big Sur

An ideal central coast beach with sheer cliffs and perfect wave crests

Overlooking view of the Big Sur's coastline under the clear blue sky
Big Sur’s coastline

📍 Google Maps | Big Sur Website | 👉 Browse Big Sur Hotels on Booking

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. 

Wrightwood

Ski during the winter or hike Mount Baden-Powell in the summer

Van camping at the Wrightwood hill during sunset
Van camping on a backcountry Wrightwood hill to watch the sunset

📍 Google Maps | Wrightwood Website | 👉 Browse Wrightwood Hotels on Booking

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 national park

The author's friends rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park
Rock climbing with my friends in Joshua Tree National Park

📍 Google Maps | 27 Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree | 👉 Browse Joshua Tree Hotels on Booking

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 rock climbing is your forte, 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 

The reflection of Mt. Whitney on Lone Pine Lake
Lone Pine Lake, Mt. Whitney

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Sierra Nevada Mountain Hotels on Booking

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

The author stretching at the Death Valley National Park
I am stretching on the flat Death Valley floor

📍 Google Maps | 21 Best Day Trips from Las Vegas | 👉 Browse Death Valley Hotels on Booking

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.

Napa Valley

Taste some of the finest California wines in Napa Valley

View of a vineyard in Napa Valley
Most people visit Napa Valley for the locally made wine

📍 Google Maps | Napa Valley Website | 👉 Browse Napa Valley Hotels on Booking

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

View of a ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier

📍 Google Maps | 21 Best Things to Do in Santa Monica | 👉 Browse Santa Monica Hotels on Booking

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.

Palm Springs

A popular desert town for shopping and golfing

The author posing for a photo with the octillo plant in Palm Springs
Me, posing with an ocotillo plant just outside of Palm Springs

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Palm Springs Hotels on Booking

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. 

Sequoia National Park

Hike among hundred-foot redwood trees

The author's father during their hike in Sequoia National Park
My dad and I on a hike in Sequoia National Park

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Sequoia National Park Hotels on Booking

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. 

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.

Balboa Park

Where nature meets culture

View of the botanical building in Balboa Park
Balboa Park’s botanical building

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse San Diego Hotels on Booking

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

Never run out of things to do in the heart of LA

Aerial view of Downtown Los Angeles

📍 Google Maps | Best Things to Do in Downtown Los Angeles | 👉 Browse Los Angeles Hotels on Booking

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.

Catalina Island

Discover a unique island off of the Southern California coast

The Catalina Island view from above

📍 Google Maps | 27 Best Things to Do on Catalina Island | 👉 Browse Catalina Island Hotels on Booking

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, jetski, 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.

Santa Cruz

A central coast town with many activities guaranteed to keep you busy

View of a pine trees in Santa Cruz
One of many Santa Cruz pine trees

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Santa Cruz Hotels on Booking

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 state parks make prime locations for camping so bring your tent!

The ocean fog-covered town also has hip cafes, bookstores, and laid-back 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.

Idyllwild

A sleepy California mountain town with great hiking trails and great pizza

The Mount San Jacinto from afar during sunset
I captured this sunset over Mount San Jacinto in Idyllwild during the winter

📍 Google Maps | 15 Best Places to Go Camping Near San Diego | 👉 Browse Idyllwild Hotels on Booking

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.

Morro Bay

A sleepy fisherman village along California’s coast

Boats on the Morro Bay harbor
Morro Bay boats in the harbor

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse Morro Bay Hotels on Booking

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.

Santa Barbara

Surf some of California’s best waves in this college town

Close up view of roses in Santa Barbara
The Santa Barbara mission hides behind roses

📍 Google Maps | 21 Best Beaches in Southern California | 👉 Browse Santa Barbara Hotels on Booking

Home to the University of California, Santa Barbara, this beautiful beach town offers fine art museums, mountain adventures, and classy food and wine experiences.

First-time visitors must check out the local favorite East Beach for surfing and State Street for 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

View during a hike in Kings Canyon National Park
The view from my hike in Kings Canyon

📍 Google Maps | Kings Canyon NP Website | 👉 Browse Kings Canyon National Park Hotels on Booking

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

An old Catholic church in Old Town San Diego
Old Town’s Spanish-style buildings

📍 Google Maps | 41 Free Things to Do in San Diego | 👉 Browse San Diego Hotels on Booking

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 and 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

Northern California’s largest concentration of redwood trees

View when you look up in Redwood National Park
Redwoods tower over bipedal visitors

📍 Google Maps | Redwood NP Website | 👉 Browse Redwood National Park Hotels on Booking

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.

San Diego Zoo

View wildlife from around the world

View of a white rhino in San Diego Zoo
A white rhino at the San Diego Zoo

📍 Google Maps | 👉 Browse San Diego Hotels on Booking

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance focuses on wildlife conservation. Its 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.

Griffith Park

Understand more about the constellations at the park’s observatory

The Griffith Park Observatory building at night
The Griffith Park Observatory overlooking Los Angeles at night

📍 Google Maps | 23 Best Things to Do in Hollywood | 👉 Browse Griffith Park Hotels on Booking

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?

The Sierra Nevada mountains are the prettiest place in California. There are alpine lakes, rocky mountains, and natural hot springs in the area. 

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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