65 Things to Do in California (From a Local) | Ultimate Bucket List

101 Things to do in California

There are countless options for things to do in California but these are my favorites as someone who was born in the state (and who has lived here for 25+ years). 

Having lived in California for 25 of my 30 years, there’s a lot I love about this place I call home.

Although there are a lot of stereotypes about California (and Californians), you really can’t put the people or the landscape in a box – it’s much too varied.

There is SO much more to discover here than just famous people, sunshine, Hollywood, and Disneyland. 

I hope you’ll get to experience both the local aspects and tourist attractions around California through these recommendations. 

From the north to the south, these are the must-have experiences and best things to do in California no matter what time of year you’re visiting. 

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips. 

Places to go in California - Russian Gulch State Park
I have a ton of favorite places to go in California because it’s such a diverse and amazing state.

 

Table of Contents

Top 10 Things to Do in California

Let’s start with the most popular things to do in California that both tourists and locals love alike.

These are the California sights and experiences you absolutely can’t miss in the state.

 


Get Your FREE California Travel Planner + printable checklists for 101 things to do in California!


 

Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

Highway 1, also called the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), is well known as one of the most scenic routes in the world.

Starting at California’s northern border and stretching down to San Diego, the Pacific Coast Highway takes over 10 hours to complete without stops.

Over 620 miles, you’ll see stunning coastal views, seaside villages, and blanketed forests.

The most popular part of the PCH is from San Francisco to Los Angeles or San Diego.

It’s the part that most people drive if they don’t have a ton of time and just want to see the highlights.

pacific coast highway - top 10 things to do in California
High up there on the top 10 things to do in California is driving the PCH. The views are unforgettable.

You can drive this shortened version in one day, although it will be a packed one that involves being in the car for most of the day.

Otherwise, I usually recommend at least 2-3 days to properly road trip the PCH and take in all its beauty and attractions off the side of the highway.

 

Walk or Cycle Across the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge provides an unforgettable walk or bike ride, with the most surreal experience of all: top-of-the-world views and a gentle sway from the suspension cables.

It’s by far one of the most quintessential places to visit in Northern California. 

Golden Gate Bridge | California sights - places to visit in Northern California
One of the most quintessential places to visit in Northern California – the Golden Gate Bridge.

Climb to the top of the South Tower.

When you look down, a grated catwalk makes you feel as if you are floating on air, gazing straight down 750 feet to the water.

 

Go to Disneyland & California Adventure

One of the most fun things to do in California – visiting Disneyland and California Adventure!

There’s no wrong way to experience Anaheim’s Disney parks.

Whether you excitedly jog from ride to ride or slow down to stroll through the neon lights of Cars Land or Pixar Pier at night, you’ll want your day to last forever (especially if you know how to use the FastPass correctly).

Southern California attractions | Disneyland & California Adventure - fun things to do in california
If you’re looking to experience the most fun things to do in California, the Anaheim amusement parks are a good place to start.

Most people recommend California Adventure for those who aren’t traveling with kids because it’s slightly more geared for adults in terms of the number of thrill rides and the fact that they sell alcohol.

However, if you can fit in both parks over a couple of days, do it!

Disneyland still has some classic favorites that shouldn’t be missed – I’m looking at you Space Mountain. 

Grab your Disneyland tickets ahead of time here.

 

Visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame in LA

Posing with a sidewalk star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame is practically a rite of passage for a California vacation – and it’s also one of LA’s most beloved free attractions!

Hollywood, Los Angeles | Things to Do in California

The world’s most famous sidewalk boasts 2,500 stars (and counting).

If you are looking for a particular one, there’s an online tool available called “Star Searcher”.

Note: if you plan on being in Los Angeles for at least a few days, I’d recommend grabbing an LA Go Card to get discounts on a bunch of attractions. 

Recommended Experience: Hollywood Behind the Scenes Walking Tour

 

Wine Tasting in Napa

Napa Valley is not only one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, but a favorite weekend getaway for locals and visitors alike in California.

Napa is home to incredible restaurants, shopping, and outdoorsy activities.

But let’s get right to the point: people come here to experience the wine.

Top things to do in California | Wine Tasting in Napa

Napa Valley has over 450 vineyards in 14 different appellations (regions), with a wide range of offerings.

The best time to visit is in the fall during “crush” season when you have the unique opportunity to see a winery in action!

If you’re looking for a good tour to take you around to the different wineries so you don’t have to drive, I’d recommend this one

 

Beer Tour of San Diego Breweries

No beer lover’s visit to California is complete without a tour of one (or more) of the famous San Diego breweries.

San Diego has had one of the best microbrewery scenes in California for years.

It’s a city of trailblazing beer culture and techniques that will take you through a journey of unique flavors and styles.

San Diego Breweries | Mission Brewery

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can hop on a “Social Cycle” and pedal your way through San Diego streets while sipping crafted pints of awesome.

A few local favorite breweries include Stone, Ballast Point, Mission, and Green Flash.

If you want a full list of recommended beer spots in California (including my San Diego recommendations), check out my post on the 30 Best California Breweries.  

 

Eat a Lot of Mexican Food

One of the best things in California is the abundance of amazing Mexican Food. 

As Mexico’s northern neighbor, California has picked up a thing or two from the culinary king next door, although be forewarned that California Mexican is a completely different experience from what you’ll find down south.

What to Eat in California - Mexican Food - best things in California
One of the best things in California is definitely the AMAZING Mexican food.

Really, you can’t not eat Mexican food in California!

Crawl up and down State Route 99 to seek out the region’s finest taco stands, mulita specialists, enchilada masters, pan dulce shops, and more.

San Diego, especially, is famous for its fish tacos, which can be found for as little as $1 on Tuesdays.

Bless #tacotuesday.

And you can’t leave the state without trying the fusion ‘California Burrito’ that sounds disgusting to anyone who isn’t from here, but believe me when I say it’s DELICIOUS.

 

Stop at In-N-Out Burger on a California Road Trip

I love hearing arguments between New Yorkers in LA about how much better Shake Shack is than In-N-Out Burger.

Anyone who grew up in California knows the real reason why In-N-Out is the best burger: it’s everywhere…and um, animal style!! 

In N Out Burger | California foodie spots

In-N-Out is ubiquitous on road trips up and down the state and in almost every major California city.

A California vacation, road trip, or work trip isn’t complete without a stop at this native staple.

Insider tip: look up the secret menu on Google before ordering so you can make the most out of the simple menu on offer and enjoy burgers and fries the way locals do.

 

Hike Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is easily the most popular national park in California.

Over the years it has become a bit overcrowded in the summer months, but one of the best ways to avoid the bulk of the crowds is to visit during the shoulder seasons of spring or fall and to actually get out onto the trails!

Northern California vacations | Yosemite National Park - california sights
One of the most impressive California sights? Yosemite National Park. It’s worth it to spend a couple of days camping and hiking here to experience the full beauty of the park.

If you’re up for the challenge (and you plan in advance in terms of booking permits) you can tackle the Half Dome hike.

Otherwise, there are plenty of other attractions around the park, including Merced River, Yosemite Falls, Tuolumne Meadows, Tunnel View, and Glacier Point.

And you really can’t go wrong with any of the hiking trails in Yosemite (just make sure to bring a GPS device if you plan to go hiking in the backcountry).

 

Visit Big Sur

If you can only pick between a few places to go in California, Big Sur should be one of them.

This roughly 87-mile-long stretch of redwood and fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle draws you in with a magic allure that is almost palpable: welcome to the most unforgettable coastline in the world, Big Sur.

Whether you drive the entirety of the area along the Pacific Coast Highway or stop in just for a hint of the beauty, Big Sur is where you come to see it all: bluffs, sea, and sky.

In fact, it’s my favorite spot on the whole California coast. 

Big Sur - best places to stay in California
The beauty of Big Sur is one of those must things to see in California to truly appreciate the natural beauty of this state.

If you’re camping, I recommend staying at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground for affordable campsites and cabins and adding in some time for hiking around this beautiful area of California.

And if you’re looking to purchase a tent, make sure to check out my recommendations for the best four-person tents or larger camping tents

 

Things to do in Northern California

Explore the Lake Shasta Caverns

Hundreds of feet inside the McCloud Limestone Mountain Range are the alluring and mysterious Lake Shasta Caverns.

They are located on private property, and accessible by a ten-minute boat ride and shuttle before the mouth of the cave.

Upon entering a 300-foot man-made tunnel into the mountainside, you will find yourself immersed in a subterranean wonderland, sure to impress even the most skeptical visitors.

Not only are the caverns recognized for their incredible speleothem (stalactite and stalagmite formations), but for the care in conservation and the surrounding environment.

 

Drive the Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile road in Northern California is one of the best stretches of highway in all of California, rivaling Big Sur in terms of beauty and eco-diversity.

Avenue of the Giants | Northern California vacations
A Northern California road trip should include a visit to the Coastal Redwoods.

The pops of green, brown, and yellow colors will blow you away as you wind around the curvy State Route 254 in search of your favorite grove.

 

Discover the Hydrothermal Sites at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Home to all four types of volcanoes (shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome), Lassen Volcanic National Park literally bubbles, steams, and roars.

Easily the best part of the park, the area of Sulphur Works gives you a glimpse of the roaring steam vents known as fumaroles.

 

Soak in the Eastern Sierra Natural Hot Springs

There are so many hot springs in eastern California and western Nevada that they can fill an entire book.

If you are willing to make the trek to the Eastern Sierras, the number of amazing hot spring options increases.

The mountain setting makes these springs some of Northern California’s most beautiful to soak in.

 

Snowboard or Ski up at Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley Ski Resort is the crown jewel of Lake Tahoe.

What sets Squaw apart is the hard-charging, fun-loving attitude of its locals.

It’s one of the most local places to go skiing or snowboarding for people who live in Northern California.

places to visit in northern California | Northern California

On powder days, Tahoe’s most hardcore skiers and riders queue up for the famous KT-22 lift before the sun rises.

Don’t be surprised to hear cheering (or heckling) skiers from KT-22 as they launch over “the fingers.”

 

Go SUPing on Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is one of the clearest, largest, and deepest alpine lakes in the entire world.

The cold winters and cool water temperatures keep the lake’s clarity extremely high.

The deep cerulean blue of the lake combined with the pine tree-rimmed shoreline and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains sets Lake Tahoe apart as one of the most unique destinations in the world.

And, there’s really no better way to take in its grandeur than through SUPing around the lake.

If you have time to SUP over at Emerald Bay, it’s home to Lake Tahoe’s only island, Fannette Island, as well as Vikingsholm, an authentic replica of a Viking castle.

This area is surrounded by trailheads, so you have your pick of activities, land or water.

Related: Best Things to do in Lake Tahoe (During Any Season)

 

Explore the State Capitol Building in Sacramento

With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, the California State Capitol has a familiar aura that’s sure to captivate – it’s modeled after the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C.

State Capitol Building - Sacramento, California

Inside the ornate building, you’re free to walk the historic rooms, which have been restored to period-era decor to highlight the trends and politics of the time.

You can find more information about touring the capitol building here.

Related: Sacramento, More than Just a State Capital

 

Try the Oysters at Tomales Bay

If you automatically start drooling at the thought of eating some delicious shellfish, oyster-shucking at Tomales Bay is a must-do just north of San Francisco.

The two kings of the North Bay, Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Hog Island Oyster Company are the perfect size to host you and your friends for a chill outing of eating oysters and drinking cold beers.

Tomales Bay Oyster Company provides grills and ice on top of your oysters, depending on if you like your shellfish raw or cooked.

Since this spot is BYO other than the oysters, make sure to bring a couple of six-packs, wine bottles, some hot sauce, lemons, and any other accompaniments you enjoy pairing with these bivalves.

You can also shuck and cook your own oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company.

Or, if you don’t want to do the hard work, Hog Island has a waitstaff on hand to serve you your oysters just the way you like them.

Make reservations, bring cash, and enjoy all that briny goodness.

Related: The Perfect Weekend in Mendocino

 

Hike to the Lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore boasts some of the most gorgeous coastal views in the Bay Area, which isn’t something I say lightly.

You have 100 square acres of beach, wildlife, and hiking at your disposal, so it only makes sense to go to the pink-capped lighthouse for the best vantage point.

Point Reyes Lighthouse | places to go in California
Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Note: The lighthouse is currently undergoing restoration so the immediate area around the lighthouse is not accessible. However, the first phase of restoration is estimated to be completed around March 2019. Perfect timing for you to enjoy a spring hike!

Related: Postcard from Point Reyes

 

Explore Ancient Redwoods at Muir Woods

Muir Woods is a hiker’s dream, blessed with beautiful redwoods and teeming with trails of varying difficulty.

Not only is it open every day of the year, but the temperatures rarely hit extreme colds or highs, making it easy to prep what you’re going to bring on your hike.

Parking can get quite tricky, so Muir Woods now requires you to make reservations ($10) beforehand to use their parking lots or the shuttle system.

While reservations are worth it so you don’t have to worry about beating out the crowds for free parking, you can also park along the side of the road if you don’t want to foot the bill.

Otherwise, this is a great group tour to go on if you don’t want to drive yourself. 

 

Grab a Bowl of Clam Chowder at Boudin Bakery

The weather in San Francisco is best described as “perpetually chilly,” which means that it’s always soup weather!

San Francisco bakery chain, Boudin Bakery, is world-famous for their sourdough bread bowls.

You can’t beat a piping hot bread bowl of clam chowder after a brisk afternoon outside.

Not feeling the clam chowder?

Boudin Bakery also has beef chili, tomato bisque, and broccoli cheddar in their rotation.

 

Get Spooked at the Winchester Mystery House

See a haunted house come to real life on the Winchester Mystery House tour in San Jose.

This Victorian mansion is the result of decades of architectural oddities, no master building plan, and the whimsical tastes of heiress Sarah Winchester.

Sarah Winchester added spirit-warding touches such as decoy bathrooms, the number 13, and spider-web motifs throughout the manor.

Related: How to Spend One Day in San Jose

 

Take in the View from Land’s End Labyrinth

Don’t feel like braving the winds in the North Bay for some of that stunning coastal goodness? No problem.

Hit up Land’s End in San Francisco for an up-close look at the waves and the iconic Labyrinth.

You can access the Labyrinth by parking at the Land’s End parking lot and walking east on the Coastal Trail towards Mile Rock Beach.

Once you head down the stairs, you can’t miss the visitors twisting and turning in the Labyrinth itself.

 

Catch a Giant’s Game & Eat Garlic Fries at Oracle Park (Formerly AT&T Park)

Regardless of whether the SF Giants are having a great season or not, it’s always a great idea to catch a game and nosh on those delicious garlic fries at Oracle Park.

San Francisco Giant's Game | Things to Do in California

The food & drinks scene at the park was revamped recently, so you can also treat yourself to lobster rolls, bratwursts, and nachos.

Sticking to something vegetarian? Try out the Impossible burgers on the menu!

If baseball isn’t your thing, cheering on the Golden State Warriors NBA team at the Chase Center is one of the best ways to spend an evening in San Francisco. 

Related: The Best Things to do in San Francisco at Night

 

Visit California’s Most Famous Prison on Alcatraz Island

Pro-tip if you want to visit this historical landmark: buy tickets early!

Tickets to Alcatraz Island are wildly popular and sell out like hotcakes, so people buy tickets as far in advance as two months.

Once you get onto the ferry required to access Alcatraz Island, you’ll soon discover why tourists flock to this now-abandoned maximum security prison.

best things in California | Alcatraz Island

Originally built to hold prisoners causing trouble at other prisons, Alcatraz held some of the United States’ most notorious criminals (Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, etc.) at one point.

Since it closed as a prison, it has become a national landmark and home to history exhibits and art installations by world-famous artists such as Ai Weiwei.

Grab your Alcatraz tickets here + a San Francisco City Tour

 

Explore the Largest Chinatown Outside of Asia

San Francisco’s Chinatown is truly a sight to behold, with the gilded Dragon’s Gate and glowing red lanterns looming over you at its entrance.

This place has been the bedrock of the Chinese-American community since the days of the Gold Rush, so it makes sense that its alleys and buildings are rife with history.

You can easily get a bag of fortune cookies for a steal at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, help yourself to some egg tarts, or enjoy dim sum during your time in Chinatown!

If you’re a foodie, it’s worth it to go on this food tour to really capture the essence of this beloved San Francisco neighborhood. 

 

Say Hello to the Bison at Golden Gate Park

The equivalent of New York’s Central Park (but much bigger), Golden Gate Park is a hotspot for outdoor and cultural activities.

Not only can you visit the De Young Museum and admire the nearby botanical gardens, but you can also check out the Buffalo Paddock and see American bison grazing on the wild grasses!

The Buffalo Paddock is near the Anglers Lodge in the park just off of John F. Kennedy Drive.

Related: 14 Best Hikes in San Francisco

 

Camp on Angel Island & Watch the Fog Roll in Over San Francisco

Angel Island is the second-largest island in the San Francisco Bay Area and offers 360 panoramic views of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands, and Mt. Tamalpais.

Although it used to be an immigration station that screened Asian immigrants before they could set foot on the American coast, the Chinese-American community successfully lobbied for the island to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Angel Island Camping | best things in California

Now, you can hike and camp at 11 accredited campsites on the Island. Spend a night on the island and watch Karl the Fog greet the city in the evening.

Just make sure to book your campsite well in advance if you plan on staying overnight on the island. 

 

Visit the Most Famous Ghost Town in California at Bodie State Historic Park

Previously home to almost 10,000 people, the gold-mining ghost town of Bodie has been abandoned for over 50 years.

You can choose to embark on a Ghost Walk Tour, where you’ll hear tales of what haunts Bodie and explore the creaky Standard Mill at night.

Bodie State Historic Park | California

To preserve the “arrested decay” of the town, there are no commercial vendors in Bodie.

However, you can take a quick peek at the museum and bookstore if you want to learn more about the town’s history.

 

Hike to the Unusual Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes

What exactly makes a Devil’s Postpile National Monument unusual?

These basalt formations are incredibly rare and create strikingly symmetric hexagonal and columnar shapes.

Only accessible in the summer, you have to pay a mandatory admissions fee to take the shuttle bus from Mammoth Mountain Lodge Gondola Building to the start of the trail.

You only have to walk half a mile before reaching the formations.

From that point, you can choose to make your way further to Rainbow Falls or the John Muir Trail!

 

Things to do in Central California

See the Thousands of Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

This windswept point in Central California is not only a scenic spot to while away an afternoon, but also home to a large elephant seal colony that breeds here for a few weeks every winter.

Witness the circle of life with males fighting over mates, babies being born, and the unique mating call of a whole lot of seals.

The only way to see the elephant seals during the mating season is through a 2.5 guided tour.

Reservations are a must and can be made here. The earlier you book, the better because spots fill up fast.

The tours run from December through March, but the best time to see the seals in action is January and February.

Related: How to Spend Winter in Santa Cruz

 

Step Inside a Redwood Tree at Henry Cowell State Park

A very ‘California thing’ to do is stepping inside (or driving through) a redwood tree.

There’s not much you can feel besides amazement the first time you see the California coastal redwoods.

These trees are some of the oldest in the world and grow to enormous heights (and widths).

places to visit in northern california | Henry Cowell State Park

At Henry Cowell State Park, just north of Santa Cruz, there are multiple redwood trees that you can literally step inside of along one of the many hiking trails at the park. Do it.

And if you’re looking for more California redwoods don’t miss out on my full guide to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which is the oldest state park in California and right next to Henry Cowell. 

Recommended Experience: Ride a Steam Train through the Santa Cruz Redwoods

 

Surf the Waves at Steamer Lane or Pleasure Point

Santa Cruz is known as ‘Surf City’ for a reason (don’t listen to people from Huntington Beach who tell you otherwise), and the two most famous spots for surfing in the city have to be Steamer Lane and The Hook in Pleasure Point.

Steamer Lane, especially, is only for experienced surfers and locals can sometimes be a bit possessive of the spot and waves here, so make sure you know what you’re doing.

Santa-Cruz, California Surfer Vibes

The Hook is a little more low key, and a better place to go surfing if you’re still a beginner surfer, but keep in mind that it’s still a coveted local spot.

If you’re not much into surfing, it’s worth it to spend an hour at either of these spots watching the talented surfers below.

It’s a favorite pastime of Santa Cruzans.

Related: 101 Things to do in Santa Cruz (From a Local)

 

Ride the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a historic coastal amusement park in California, and not just because it’s where I had my first job at 15.

It’s actually the oldest surviving amusement park in California and one of the few oceanside amusement parks on the West Coast.

The Giant Dipper is the park’s star attraction.

You can’t go to the Boardwalk and not ride the Giant Dipper, it’s really that simple – the roller coaster has been providing thrills to riders since 1924.

The Boardwalk also has a great arcade (including laser tag) next door, and a bowling alley across the street.

Make sure to stop at Marini’s for a bag of saltwater taffy or a caramel apple to make your visit complete.

 

Witness Thousands of Monarch Butterflies a Natural Bridges

One of the most magical things to see in California is walking through the eucalyptus trees that are filled with thousands of Monarch Butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. 

The butterflies usually start coming in mid-October and stay around Natural Bridges until mid-February.

However, in recent years (most likely due to climate change) they’ve left by January.

Free stuff to do in Santa Cruz | Natural Bridges Monarch butterflies

November is usually the best month to see the butterflies.

Natural Bridges is also a great point to look out for shorebirds, migrating whales off the coast, and seals and otters.

 

Go Whale Watching in the Monterey Bay

The Central Coast of California is one of the premier places to see migrating whales.

Sometimes you don’t even have to go on a whale watching tour, you can just see them at a distance from the beach because they come in so close to the shore. 

However, if you’d rather get up close and personal, there are plenty of whale watching tour options that leave from the Monterey Bay.

Monterey-bay-whale-watching-california

Note that there are whales that come through the Monterey Bay year-round, it just depends on what kind of whale you’re hoping to see.

From mid-December through Mid-April is when you might see gray whales, dolphins, and killer whales migrating.

Mid-April through mid-December is when humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins, or killer whales come through.

 

Visit One of the Best Aquariums in the World at the Monterey Bay

Another favorite school field trip option when I was in elementary school, I’ve been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium more times than I can count, but it never gets old.

This expansive aquarium is all kinds of cool, educational, and inspiring.

It’s seen as one of the best aquariums in the world, and it’s not hard to see why with how diverse our marine life is in the Monterey Bay.

Visit the aquarium to see a living kelp forest, cute sea otters, penguins, and more!

You can find tickets and prices here.

 

Explore the Scenic 17-Mile Drive

There are a lot of scenic coastal drives in California, it’s kind of our thing.

However, one of the most popular coastal routes that don’t skimp on the good views in the 17-Mile Drive that goes through the gated community of Pebble Beach.

Things to do in Cali | 17 Mile Drive

Famous sights on the route include the Lone Cypress Tree, Bird Rock, and Del Monte Forest. 

Non-residents have to pay a $10.25 toll to drive the road but it’s worth it for the beautiful route and stunning views.

 

Visit the Elaborate Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is one of the more quirky places you can visit on a California road trip.

The Castle (really, more of a mansion) is a National Historic Landmark and was lived in and owned by the newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, from 1919 to 1947.

Hearst had very interesting interior decorating tastes that I would personally call a bit gaudy, but it’s an impressive property that’s worth touring.

The sculptures, furniture, and decor around the mansion come from all over the world, and there are rare priceless pieces of art that you can see in various rooms.

 

See General Sherman at Sequoia National Park

Interested in seeing the largest tree in the world?

By volume, General Sherman is the largest known living tree on Earth.

General Sherman stands at 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter. You truly have to see it to believe it.

Besides General Sherman, Sequoia National Park is one of the nine national parks in California that is well worth visiting for its natural beauty and good hiking trails.

 

Kayak the Channel Island Sea Caves

One of the best places to go sea kayaking is right off the coast of Santa Barbara, around Channel Islands National Park

There are numerous companies to choose from that leave from Santa Barbara and Ventura to take you on a half or full-day adventure out on the water, and to explore the diverse marine life that exists on this part of the California coast.

things to do in Cali | Channel Islands

What makes this sea kayaking trip especially unique?

The number of sea caves you’re able to paddle through.

 

Stay at the Iconic Madonna Inn

One of the most iconic accommodations in California, most people notice the Madonna Inn on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip when they’re driving through San Luis Obispo.

Each of the Inn’s 110 rooms is uniquely decorated and themed, and the property, built in 1958, has a whole lot of character. 

Even if you decide not to stay here, make sure to take a step inside to look at the quirky decor and the famous rock waterfall urinal.

You can find current rates and availability at the hotel here.

 

Explore the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes on an ATV

The Pismo Beach Sand Dunes, also known as the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, are probably the most famous on the California Coast and the perfect spot for an afternoon dune buggy adventure.

Rent an ATV or dune buggy from one of the local companies set up on the beach, or in town, and go wild.

 

Visit the Danish-Themed Town of Solvang

We like our quirks in California, so it’s really not surprising that we have a whole Danish-themed town in Central California by the name of Solvang.

Solvang is known for its Danish-inspired architecture (complete with windmills) and wineries, as well as Danish bakeries and the ridiculous amount of Danish flags within city limits.  

So where did all this Danish inspiration come from?

The city was founded by a group of Danes in 1911 who were trying to escape the intensely cold Midwestern winters.

The city has never forgotten its roots nor its love for all things Danish since then.

Related: Postcard from Santa Barbara

 

Visit the Lowest Point in North America at Badwater Basin

Located in Death Valley National Park, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, with a depth of 282 feet below sea level. 

Badwater Basin is a special kind of scenic that allows you to experience the beauty of extreme and otherworldly landscapes.

Best things to see in California | Badwater Basin

While you’re there, don’t miss the salt flats that are 5 miles long and Badwater Pool, which has such a high concentration of salt that nothing can live there.

It also usually doesn’t exist in the summer months having dried up with the intensely hot weather.

 

Things to do in Southern California

Hike to the Hollywood Sign

When you think of the City of Angels, you think of palm trees, movie stars, and the Hollywood Sign beaming from the Santa Monica Mountains.

Lucky for you, you can experience this iconic Los Angeles landmark in person!

There are three hiking trails that take you up to the famous sign.

Depending on the level of difficulty, you can either opt for the family-friendly Mt. Hollywood Trail or the more strenuous Brush Canyon Trail. 

Or, if you’re really looking for a workout, you can get in a great cardio sesh on the Cahuenga Peak Hike.

Regardless of which trail you decide to take, each route will treat you to breathtaking views of chaparral, wildflowers, and the L.A. skyline.

 

Take in the View from Griffith Observatory

You might remember your heart fluttering when La La Land’s Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone danced with the stars, but it was Rebel Without a Cause that cemented Griffith Observatory’s reputation as a must-visit in L.A.

Griffith Observatory | Southern California attractions

Perched on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood, Griffith Observatory is an astronomer’s dream with its own planetarium, the Tesla Coil, and public telescopes.

As if those weren’t enough, visitors are treated to free admission, stunning Greek-inspired architecture, and world-class views of the Los Angeles Basin and the Pacific Ocean.

 

Watch the Sunset from Santa Monica Pier

The weather can heat up in Los Angeles, so expect droves of people to flock to Santa Monica for a chance to show off their swimsuit bods. 

Cap off your day of shopping at the 3rd Street Promenade and biking along the beach by watching the sunset from Santa Monica Pier.

Better yet, treat yourself to some funnel cake or a scoop of Soda Jerks’ ice cream while watching the sun disappear into the horizon.

 

Go to a Live Taping of Your Favorite TV Show in LA

You might think it’s a dream to see your favorite actors in the flesh, but I assure you, it can be a reality.

Just go to a live taping in LA! 

The best part? Tickets to most live tapings are free.

All you have to do is bring yourself and your best audience behavior.

 

Watch the Skateboarders at Venice Beach Boardwalk

A visit to the Venice Beach Boardwalk isn’t complete without watching the talented skateboarders at the skate park along the beach.

Venice Skate Park is 16,000 sq. feet of pure skate heaven with no shortage of skaters effortlessly pulling off ollies, grinds, and grabs.

things to see in California | Venice Beach

The skate park is a great start to an afternoon exploring Venice Beach, a counterculture hippie spot that is a unique addition to the usual LA scene.

Rent a bike and ride over to the Venice Canals for a taste of Italy, California-style. 

There are also quite a few good foodie spots and cafes in the neighborhood (especially for vegans and vegetarians), so make sure to research a place or two to eat and drink via Yelp or Foursquare while you’re in town. 

 

Buy a Cupcake from an ATM

Ever since Sprinkles Cupcakes first launched in L.A., this dessert chain has amassed a cult following that can’t get enough of these mouth-watering treats.

Southern California attractions | Sprinkles Cupcakes ATM

If you aren’t near an actual store location, get your fix of delicious frosting and cake from the Sprinkles ATM.

If you happen to swing by this cute, pink ATM in Beverly Hills, grab a cupcake for you and your pup (yes, Sprinkles makes dog-friendly cupcakes as well!).

 

Get Lit at LA’s Urban Light

Did you even visit L.A. unless you made a stop at Urban Light?

This Insta-worthy art installation is one of the hallmarks of the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA).

LACMA Urban Light Installation | unique things to do in Southern California

Besides Urban Light and Levitated Mass (be prepared to feel very, very small), LACMA is home to some incredible exhibits such as Miracle Mile by Robert Irwin.

 

Go Hiking in Malibu then Spend the Day on the Beach

If you’re wondering why everyone in Malibu looks so cute with their gym outfits and dogs, it’s because hiking is a major part of the lifestyle in this city.

There are plenty of hiking trails to choose from, but I recommend Escondido Falls for the waterfall or Sycamore Canyon for the ocean views.

Make sure to reward yourself with a trip to the beach afterward!

 

Visit Hogwarts at Universal Studios Hollywood

If you’re a diehard J.K. Rowling fan, you’ve probably already made plans to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Hogwarts, Universal Studios Hollywood, California

After all, what’s not to love about buying your own wand at Ollivander’s Wand Shop, enjoying a sip of butterbeer, and seeing Hogwarts with your very own eyes, adding in a thrill ride or two to keep the adrenaline pumping?

Grab your tickets ahead of time here. 

Related: The Ultimate List of Things to Do in LA

 

Sail Around Catalina Island

If you’re looking for an island adventure, Catalina Island is the way to go.

With its unique wildlife and clear waters, people love to visit Catalina by boat.

If you can snag a glass-bottom boat, do it. This will allow you to check out the reefs, colorful fish, and shipwrecks that make Catalina so special.

Catalina is excellent for scuba diving and snorkeling as well if you’re wanting to get in the water. 

If sailing, isn’t your thing, simply spending a day or two exploring Catalina Island is well worth it.

This is a great tour to get you started with seeing the most scenic spots around the island. 

 

Go to a Pool Party in Palm Springs

Picture-perfect mid-century homes. Swan and donut floaties. Cacti and crystal swimming pools.

Mix all of those up, and you have yourself a Palm Springs pool party.

A literal oasis in the desert, Palm Springs boasts some of the world’s best pool parties hosted by up-and-coming DJs all summer long. 

When you’re tired of all the dust in your desert road trip, take a breather and party at the Ace Hotel or Saguaro pool.

If you’re looking for fun places to go in California for those desert pool party vibes, this is the place. 

 

Stargazing at Joshua Tree National Park

One of my favorite places to travel in California is Joshua Tree.

While most people visit national parks to be surrounded by forest, people go to Joshua Tree National Park to be surrounded by stunning rock formations and the stars.

top things to do in California | Joshua Tree
The national parks should definitely be at the top of your list of places to travel in California – they’re part of what makes this state so special.

Joshua Tree is just far away enough from any major cities to avoid light pollution, which makes it ideal for gazing at the cosmos at night. 

Bonus points if you’re a photographer — Joshua Tree is a great opportunity to shoot some beautiful star trail photos!

Related: Best Joshua Tree Hotels and Campgrounds

 

Get Religiously Psychedelic at Salvation Mountain

One of the more unique things to do in Southern California, A few miles away from the Salton Sea, visionary Leonard Knight took it upon himself to create an actual mountain out of adobe, straw, and non-toxic paint.

unique things to do in southern California | Salvation Mountain
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Southern California – Salvation Mountain is it.

Now, Salvation Mountain attracts thousands of visitors every year with its candy-bright colors and Biblical murals.

Even if you’re not religious, Salvation Mountain is worth visiting due to its sheer creativity.

Related: 4 Days in the Desert: From the Salton Sea to Joshua Tree

 

Eat the Best Apple Pie in California in Julian

Few things are as American as apple pie is, so it’s no wonder that every city wants bragging rights to the best apple pie in the States.

So what exactly makes apple pie from Julian so special?

Ever since its humble beginnings during the Gold Rush, Julian has made apple pie making into an art with its many apple trees.

If you’re in Julian, you can’t go wrong with pie a la mode at the Julian Pie Company.

Related: Exploring My Own Backyard in Julian, California

 

Witness the Beauty of the Desert at Anza-Borrego State Park

The crown of California’s largest state park belongs to Anza-Borrego State Park, located within the Colorado Desert just north of San Diego.

Famous for its native bighorn sheep (that’s where “borrego” comes from!) and colorful badlands, Anza-Borrego provides plenty of sights for visitors who are looking to experience the desert in all its glory.

 

Walk through the Colorful Flower Fields in Carlsbad

On my list of breathtaking sights and best southern California attractions, walking through fifty acres of dazzling blooms in Carlsbad definitely ranks near the top.

To celebrate spring in style, Carlsbad opens their flower fields to the public every March to May.

Flower Fields in Carlsbad, San Diego | southern California attractions
One of my favorite Southern California attractions – the Flower Fields in Carlsbad!

Pictures fail to capture the astonishing beauty of the ranunculuses in full bloom, so make sure to visit when you get the chance.

Visitors can also enjoy a sweet-pea maze, themed gardens, and plenty of photo ops.

Related: Postcard from the Flower Fields

 

Get Wild at the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park

San Diego Zoo & Safari Park are so huge that it’s easy to spend the whole day admiring the many animals that live at the parks.

San Diego Safari Park

The panda and gorilla exhibits are always a hit at the zoo, and you can easily get your steps in wandering from the Australia exhibit to the Tiger Trail and the Africa Rocks.

If you want to observe the animals up close, the Safari Park is a great option to see your favorites out in the open range.

Grab your skip-the-line tickets for the San Diego Zoo here and for the Safari Park here

Related: 101 Things to Do in San Diego | The Ultimate Bucket List

 

Admire the Architecture at Balboa Park

Balboa Park is not just any ordinary park.

Home to multiple museums, performing arts venues, and gardens, the 1,200-acre Balboa Park is a stunning monument to Spanish Renaissance architecture and the pride of San Diego.

Must-sees are the El Prado, the Botanical Building, and the Old Globe Theatre (a replica of the Globe Theatre in London).

 

Tour a Decommissioned Aircraft Carrier at the USS Midway Museum

The USS Midway Museum is a hotspot for maritime lovers and an opportunity to step onto the aircraft carrier Midway itself.

USS Midway Museum | San Diego, California

While you can explore the Midway and the other exhibits (including flight simulators and the Battle of Midway Theater) on your own with the self-guided audio tour.

You can also join a guided Island Tour (included with the price of admission) with one of the museum’s experienced docents.

Get your skip-the-line ticket here for the USS Midway Museum. 

 

Take a Walking Tour of Coronado Island

When it’s sunny enough to wear shorts in San Diego, there’s nothing better than spending the whole day outside soaking in the rays.

Things to Do in Southern California | Coronado Island

Touring Coronado Island is a perfect daytime activity on a nice day since you can walk around the peninsula in about two hours.

Opt for a free self-guided public art tour, or fork up $12 for a 90-minute guided walking tour.

Related: My Favorite Hike in San Diego – Torrey Pines

 

What to Pack for California

 

Tips for Road Tripping California

If you want to explore California by road trip, you’re doing it the right way.

California is the third-largest state in the nation and will take you through a variety of temperatures and environments.

It’s good to have a vehicle that can carry your supplies and protect you from the elements.

I-5 is the way to go if you want to hightail it from one large metropolis (San Francisco) to another (Los Angeles), but there isn’t much to see in terms of scenery since you’re going to be driving through six hours worth of farmland.

California Road Trip | Girls Mendocino Weekend - How to Get Around

If you have time to embark on a longer trip, the Pacific Coast Highway is world-renowned for its ocean views and popular pit stops, such as Big Sur and San Luis Obispo.

You can easily plan to spend a couple of days on the trip up or down the PCH, so it’s the perfect opportunity to explore B&Bs and cute beachside towns.

Also – if you’re looking for a full guide to road tripping California, I wrote a whole book on it. You can check it out here. 

 


Get your FREE California Travel Planner + a printable checklist to help you plan your trip!


 

PRACTICAL INFO FOR CALIFORNIA

Find accommodationbook your rental car, or sign up for a local tour.

Book a vacation rental on AirBnB (and get $40 off your first booking).

Buy your California Travel Guide here.

 

101 Things to do in California (from a local) | The Ultimate Bucket List

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Mimi McFadden
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