There are countless options for things to do in California. It’s a state that offers so much in terms of varied landscapes – from the desert to the beach, mountains, and redwood forests.
Having lived in California for 24 of my 29 years, there’s a lot I love about this place I most recently moved back to and now call home.
And I’m not alone.
In the US, California has been the place to move to, a state of transfers and outsiders who come here for the high standard of living, the beautiful coastline, or maybe to make it big, either in Hollywood or the tech industry in Silicon Valley.
California is a place for laid back vibes, dreamers, and outdoorsy folk.
Although there are a lot of stereotypes when it comes to California (and Californians), you can’t put the people or the landscape in a box, it’s much too varied.
And when you look at the facts, it’s easy to see why.
The state is 163,696 square miles and has a population of almost 40 million. California has the 5th largest economy in the world, just beating out the UK for that spot in 2018.
When people think of California, they mostly think of Hollywood and good beaches.
That is definitely a part of this state, but there is also SO much more to discover here than just famous people and sunshine.
I hope you’ll get to experience both the best local aspects and tourist attractions around California through these 101 recommendations, because it’s a state that needs to be seen from a variety of perspectives in order to understand and appreciate it fully.
From northern California, to central and southern, these are the must-have experiences to enjoy with a visit (or long term stay) in California.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Recommended Experience: 3-Day California Coast Tour: San Francisco to Los Angeles
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 on the most quintessential places to visit in Northern California.
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.
Recommended Experience: San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito Bike Tour
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).
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 amount 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.
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!
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
Go 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.
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.
Go on a 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.
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.
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.
Recommended Experience: San Diego Microbrewery Tour
Eat a Whole 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.
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.
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 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!
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.
Interested in seeing Yosemite, but short on time? Hop on this 1-day tour to Yosemite from San Francisco.
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.
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.
You can also do a long day trip from San Francisco if you want to see one of the most beautiful parts of the California coast but you’re short on time. This is a good option.
Things to do in Northern California
See Where they Filmed Jurassic Park at Fern Canyon
Tucked away in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, about 50 miles north of Eureka, lies Fern Canyon.
The emerald-colored gorge served as the setting of Steven Spielberg’s 1997 dinosaur blockbuster, Jurassic Park.
Today, you can imagine yourself (safely) in the movie, as you’re enveloped by 30-foot-tall cliffs rich with lush five-fingered ferns.
Witness the Colorful Sand of Glass Beach
Prior to 1967, everything, including cars, batteries and bottles were unceremoniously pushed over the cliffs into the ocean as common practice to discard trash in this area of the northern California coastline.
Mother Nature responded to this abuse with a nice surprise in the form of smooth, colored sea glass treasure in a rainbow of colors.
Search for rare ruby reds (from auto tail lights) or sapphire gems from apothecary bottles.
Snap a photo with scintillating bits of human history.
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.
Visit the Grandest Victorian Home in America at Carson Mansion
At the top of Eureka, lies California’s grandest Victorian home, Carson Mansion.
The exquisite architecture of this famous Victorian is arguably the most photographed in the nation.
The vastly ornate, over-the-top Carson Mansion a visual jaw-dropper, from the balusters, balustrades, cornices and even the filigree!
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.
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.
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”.
You can grab your snowboard rental here for Squaw Valley ahead of time.
Or if skiing is more your thing, you can get your ski rental here.
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.
You can grab your SUP rental ahead of time here.
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.
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.
Ride the Skunk Train in Fort Bragg
A favorite pastime and childhood memory for many Northern Californians is riding the Skunk Train in Fort Bragg.
The historic train has been in operation for over 130 years and takes you through 40 miles of Mendocino County’s classic Northern California landscape – redwood forests, meadows, and canyons.
They also have a fun family-friendly holiday-themed train in December that includes free cookies, hot cocoa, and Santa appearances.
Related: The Perfect Weekend in Mendocino
Get Tipsy in Sonoma Wine Country
Overshadowed for years by Napa, Sonoma has been gaining popularity for awhile now and offers a comparable experience to Napa in terms of quality wine.
In fact, there are more styles of wine on offer as a whole in Sonoma than what you’ll find at Napa.
Whereas Napa has a bit of a pretentious feel at times and high wine tasting fees and accommodation prices, Sonoma is slightly less expensive and offers a more laid back ‘country’ feel.
If that sounds like more your style of wine tasting, Sonoma is a good option to take in the world-renowned California wine scene.
If you’re looking for a good day tour of Sonoma and Napa wineries from San Francisco, this is a great option.
Dance & Drink Wine at BottleRock Music Festival in Napa
Speaking of wine, did you know that there’s actually a music festival that happens in California’s most popular wine region, usually around May every year?
Even with the drawbacks of Napa in terms of price and its touristic feel, BottleRock Music Festival is an experience you can’t pass up.
California prides itself on the amount (and quality) of festivals that are put on throughout the state year around, so you would be amiss to not go to at least one while you’re here (luckily, there are a few mentioned on this list).
BottleRock is a much more laid back festival than most big music festivals in California (i.e. Coachella), and attracts a slightly older crowd.
In fact, some people claim that it’s the ‘fancy Coachella’.
However, it still hosts A-list acts every year.
For instance, last year’s headliners included Bruno Mars, The Killers, Muse, The Chainsmokers, Snoop Dog, and Halsey.
Grab a Pint at One of California’s Most Beloved Breweries – Lagunitas
Lagunitas is synonymous with good beer in California (as well as their recent controversial foray into cannabis-infused drinks), so it’s only fair to have their brewery on this list as a place to visit.
Their brewery in Petaluma is a local hot spot for live music and simply a friendly and welcoming environment to hang out in while enjoying quality beer and food.
It’s also a dog friendly brewery if you happen to be traveling with a pup.
Make sure to try their classic Lagunitas IPA while you’re at the brewery, as well as their non-alcoholic THC-infused hoppy sparkling water if you want a cannabis kick.
Recommended Experience: Sonoma County Brewery Tour
Get Your Thrills at California’s Great America
Trying to get your fill of thrills in NorCal?
California’s Great America in Santa Clara is home to some of the state’s most adrenaline-rushing roller coasters and not to be missed if you’re in the area.
Gold Strike is an excellent wooden roller coaster, and Demon is sure to have you screaming your head off!
A must-ride is the Railblazer, which is one of the world’s two monorail tracks. AKA it’s pretty wild.
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 briney goodness.
Recommended Experience: Best of Marin County Food Tour
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.
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.
Ogle the Stunning Coastal Views at the Marin Headlands
Full of rolling green hills and wildflowers, the Marin Headlands are a sight to behold during the spring and fall.
Hundreds of visitors make the half-mile hike to the Point Bonita Lighthouse at the “world’s end.”
If hiking doesn’t sound like your jam, you can take in the sights of the Golden Gate Bridge from Kirby Cove or visit the Marine Mammal Center and the Headlands Center for the Arts.
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.
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!
Cheer on the Golden State Warriors at the Chase Center
The Golden State Warriors have been an NBA powerhouse phenomenon for the past few years, and Bay Area natives are all about the hype.
If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket or two, catch a Golden State Warriors game and spot Steph Curry shooting a three at the brand new Chase Center.
The Chase Center is located near the waterfront in San Francisco, so you can enjoy a leisurely stroll on the Embarcadero after the game.
Drive Down Lombard Street
Supremely confident in your driving skills?
Put your pedal to the metal on Lombard Street and see how well you can navigate its eight hairpin turns.
Even if you’re not comfortable with the thought of driving down the street, it’s still lovely to climb to the top for a spectacular view of the flowers that bloom in the spring and summer and a great view looking out towards Coit Tower.
Once you get to the top, you can hop onto the Powell-Hyde cable car and head either to Fisherman’s Wharf or Market Street!
Recommended Experience: Drive down Lombard Street in a 1960s VW Van
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Party Next to the Golden Gate Bridge at Outside Lands Music Festival
The Bay Area boasts a star-studded music scene, so it’s no surprise that it’s able to attract some of the world’s most popular artists to perform at Outside Lands!
Previous headliners have included Radiohead, Lorde, Gorillaz, Zedd, Chance the Rapper, and more.
Set in ‘fogust’, Outside Lands is the perfect time to enjoy SF’s natural beauty, classic Bay Area weather, laid-back vibes, and some major talent over the span of three days.
Ride Cruiser Bikes around Treasure Island
If you’re looking for a change of pace from bustling San Francisco, hop on a car or a bus and take it to Treasure Island.
Treasure Island is home to some cool abandoned buildings and wineries, so explore the place with a beach cruiser.
You can easily rent a beach cruiser from A Tran’s Bay Bike Shop.
Even better, try scheduling your cruiser ride on the first weekend of every month so you can also enjoy Treasure Fest, an excellent flea market with food trucks and live music.
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.
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.
Go Cross Country Skiing at Mammoth Lakes
Plenty of Bay Area natives head up to Lake Tahoe to enjoy the pow-pow, but Mammoth Lakes is an equally excellent alternative if you want to experience some stellar scenery and snow.
If you don’t want to hit the slopes with skis or a snowboard, cross-country skiing allows you to take in the views at the Mammoth Lakes Basin.
Day and season passes are available, as well as lessons, competitions, and tours.
See the Geysers at Hot Creek Geological Site
Nearby Mammoth Lakes are natural hot springs at the Hot Creek Geological Site, nestled at the base of the Eastern Sierras.
While I suggest you don’t take a dip in the waters (temperatures rapidly fluctuate), bring a sturdy pair of hiking shoes so you can admire the geothermal springs and small geysers in the area.
Hike to the Unusual Devil’s Postpile National Monument
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!
Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state.
Go Bird Watching at the Hauntingly Beautiful Mono Lake
A vast expanse of aqua waters, Mono Lake is home to one of the finest bird populations in California.
In fact, if you’ve been to a California beach and seen a gull there recently, chances are that it hatched at Mono Lake.
Millions of birds make their way through Mono Lake every year as they migrate for warmer weathers.
If you’re a bird-watching enthusiast, Mono Lake is nothing short of heaven for you.
Things to do in Central California
See the Thousands of Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park
A favorite school field trip while growing up in Santa Cruz – going to see the thousands of elephant seals that come to Año Nuevo State Park each year.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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 salt water 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.
November is usually the best month to see the butterflies.
Natural Bridges is also a great point to look out for shore birds, migrating whales off the coast, and seals and otters.
Try Garlic Ice Cream at the Gilroy Garlic Festival
One of the more unique foodie experiences to have on the Central Coast is trying garlic ice cream for the first time.
The city of Gilroy is known as the Garlic Capital of California, and they stay true to their name by hosting the Gilroy Garlic Festival each year.
It happens the last full weekend in July and it’s one of the largest food festivals in the United States, and where you can taste test garlic ice cream.
If you’re not in the area during the time of the festival, never fear!
There are a few spots off the highway that offer garlic ice cream year around to delight (or disgust) your tastebuds.
Go Whale Watching in the Monterey Bay
The Central Coast of California is one of the premiere 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.
Note that there are whales that come through the Monterey Bay year around, 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.
Recommended Experience: Half-Day Whale Watching Tour from Monterey
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 doesn’t skimp on the good views in the 17-Mile Drive that goes through the gated community of Pebble Beach.
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.
Recommended Experience: Monterey, Carmel, and 17-Mile Drive Day Trip from San Francisco
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.
Hike the Tallest Peak in California at Mt. Whitney
One of the few tall peaks in the world that you can hike up without mountaineering experience (although you should still be in relatively good shape), Mt. Whitney has attracted outdoor adventure enthusiasts to climb its 14,505 foot peak for centuries.
If you want to climb up to the peak and back down, it’s 22 miles and takes around 12-16 hours.
A permit is required, which you can apply for here. The lottery for a permit usually opens in February each year.
If you’re not down for that much strenuous activity, as California’s tallest peak, Mt. Whitney is still a gorgeous sight to enjoy from afar.
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.
See Some of the Oldest Living Trees on Earth at Bristlecone Pine Forest
We clearly have a thing for trees in California, but it’s for good reason with how many impressive varieties there are around the state.
If you’ve already seen the coastal redwoods, and the largest tree in the world, you might be interested in seeing some of the oldest living trees on Earth.
The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains is a high altitude forest (the trees grow around 10,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level) that has some pretty elderly trees – some are over 4000 years old!
The road to the forest is often closed during the winter when it snows, so it’s best to see these trees during the warmer months.
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.
What makes this sea kayaking trip especially unique? The amount of sea caves you’re able to paddle through.
Another popular option to see the Channel Islands when you don’t want to exert the energy required for kayaking, is doing a sailing trip.
Dance the Week Away at Lightning in a Bottle Music Festival
There are a few really good music festivals in California, and Lightning in a Bottle is one of them.
Although, it might eventually become more like Coachella in a few year’s time (especially now that they’ve moved the location of the festival closer to LA), right now LIB is still about the music.
This independent music and arts festivals mostly focuses on electronic music and a bunch of holistic and mindfulness events throughout a 4-5 day length of time.
If you happen to be in the Central Coast in May, this is a festival you shouldn’t miss.
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 are 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.
Grab a Scoop at McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream in Santa Barbara
McConnell’s is a fan favorite ice cream shop and a good reason to stop at one of the most beautiful seaside cities on the California coast – Santa Barbara.
McConnell’s has been serving scoops since 1949 and prides itself on its unique flavors of ice cream made in-house from scratch.
The 70-year ice cream operation has always been family run (now in its third generation) and is a favorite local spot to support in Santa Barbara.
While you’re in town, don’t forget to also check out the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the city’s gorgeous harbor, and admire the Spanish-Colonial style buildings with their iconic red-tile roofs.
Related: Postcard from Santa Barbara
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.
Recommended Experience: Pismo Beach Dune Buggy Tour
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.
Recommended Experience: Self-Guided Solvang Windmill Wine Walk
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.
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.
Hear the Singing Sands at the Highest Dunes in California
Another famous dune spot that is a must-see in California is the Eureka Dunes, the highest dunes in California at 680 feet high.
Similar to when you’re walking across the Sahara Desert, the Eureka Dunes is where you might hear ‘the singing sands’, a noise that resembles a plane passing by when the sand particles fall just right.
The Eureka Dunes are also located in Death Valley National Park, but they’re nowhere near as popular as Badwater Basin. Depending on when you go, you might even have the Dunes to yourself.
See the Colorful Wildflowers at Death Valley National Park
One last sight that you can’t miss if you happen to be at Death Valley National Park in the spring, the amazing wildflowers that pop up.
It doesn’t happen every year, but there is sometimes a ‘spring superbloom’ at the park where a sea of thousands of pink, purple, white, and gold flowers erupt.
But this only happens when it’s perfect conditions, on average about every 5 years.
With that said, there’s always some wildflowers in the spring, but it varies each year on how impressive that display is.
You can find up-to-date information on this year’s superbloom possibilities here.
Recommended Experience: 2-Day Tour of Death Valley, Las Vegas, and the Hoover Dam from Los Angeles
Things to do in Southern California
Surround Yourself with the State Flower at Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
If it’s not superbloom year but you’re still hankering for a field full of beautiful flowers, head over to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve to surround yourself with California’s state flower.
The wildflower season usually goes from mid-February through May, with the reserve visitor center officially opening in March.
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.
Recommended Experience: Hollywood Hills Hike
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.
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.
Recommended Experience: Santa Monica & Venice Beach Bike Tour
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 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.
The skate park is a great start to an afternoon exploring Venice Beach, a counter culture hippie spot that is a unique addition to the usual LA scene.
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.
Tour the Beverly Hills Mansions
With so many celebrities and business moguls living in Beverly Hills, it’s a no-brainer that they also have some insanely cool homes.
And lucky for us, some of these mansion owners have allowed free tours of their home.
Example? Greystone Mansion, a stunning, 55-room Tudor-style mansion built in 1928 that has since been converted into a public park.
You’re free to roam the grounds, but the interior is reserved for special events only.
Go Window Shopping on Rodeo Drive
Channel some major Cher-vibes and hit the ground shopping at the world-famous Rodeo Drive.
Rodeo Drive is two miles of designer shopping galore, with brands like Chanel, Gucci, and Tiffany & Co. pulling out all the stops to make their window displays as stunning as possible.
It’s worth a stroll through Two Rodeo Drive to enjoy the cobblestone walkways and boutiques.
Recommended Experience: Celebrity Homes & Rodeo Drive Shopping Tour
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.
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!)
Enjoy an Open Air Movie at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
You might think it’s a little creepy to watch a movie while surrounded by gravestones, but you’ve probably never enjoyed a classic film in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on a summer night, courtesy of film organization Cinespia.
My tips? Bring a picnic blanket, a bottle of wine (or two), and arrive before golden hour so you can secure a good viewing spot.
As dusk turns into night, the movie frames flicker to life on the mausoleum walls.
Then you’ll know that this is what Hollywood magic is all about.
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).
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.
Ride Bikes along the Venice Canals
I guarantee you that the best way to explore the wonders of the Venice Canals is by bike.
For just 10 bucks, you can either join a bike tour or go on your own adventure through the canals!
Just be sure to make a pitstop and enjoy some brunch while enjoying the sea breeze.
Road Trip the LA Beaches
Do you know how many beaches are in Los Angeles County? At least 15!
And that’s not even counting the gorgeous beaches in neighboring Orange and Ventura County.
Rent yourself a convertible, put your wayfarers on, and ride with the top down on the sunny PCH.
Recommended Experience: A Tour of Los Angeles Beach Cities
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 afterwards!
Recommended Experience: Malibu Wine Hike
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
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 bumping?
Grab your tickets ahead of time here.
Go Sailing 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.
Visit the Mysterious Pirate Tower of Laguna Beach
It’s easy to pass by the entrance while you’re zooming along the PCH, but it’s definitely worth the effort to check out the Pirate Tower at Victoria Beach.
Yep, you heard me right.
The Pirate Tower is a sixty feet turret surrounded by sandstone cliffs and the constant crush of blue waves.
Although the tower wasn’t actually built by pirates, it’s just as easy to lay down your towel, catch a few rays, and imagine that a pirate’s life is for you.
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.
If you’re looking for fun places to go in California for those desert pool party vibes, this is the place.
Party Like a Millennial at Coachella Music Festival
Every April, approximately 125,000 music fans embark on their yearly pilgrimage to the promised land, also known as one of the top things to do in California if you’re a millennial.
The end destination? Indio Valley.
What for? Coachella.
After all, where else do you get to party day-and-night and watch your favorite artists perform in the middle of a desert surrounded by celebs and your best friends? (HINT: It’s not Burning Man).
Go 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.
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 some beautiful star trail photos!
Recommended Experience: Joshua Tree Guided Hiking Tour
Visit the Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland that is the Salton Sea
California is a huge state, which means that its largest lake is bound to be jaw-dropping in size.
The Salton Sea is over 300 miles in surface area and used to once attract more visitors than Yosemite.
However, in recent decades, its rising salinity levels has transformed this once-famous resort into a wasteland of fish bones and silt.
Go no further than the Salton Sea if you’re looking to experience Mad Max vibes.
Get Religiously Psychedelic at Salvation Mountain
One of the more unique things to do in Southern California, A few miles away from Salton Sea, visionary Leonard Knight took it upon himself to create an actual mountain out of adobe, straw, and non-toxic paint.
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.
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.
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.
Recommended Experience: Mountain & Desert Tour from San Diego
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.
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
Strike a Lion King Pose at Potato Chip Rock
If you’re near San Diego and happen to be in the mood for a hike, check out Potato Chip Rock at Mt Woodson.
Aptly named for its fragile appearance, Potato Chip Rock is great for enjoying stunning views of the city.
Once you get to the top, you might find a line of people waiting to take a picture on top of the rock, so make your pose count.
Another favorite hike that you can’t miss in San Diego if you’re an outdoorsy person, is the Torrey Pines Hike at Torrey Pines State Reserve.
Get Wild at the San Diego Zoo & 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.
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).
Recommended Experience: Best of Balboa Park Tour (with Coffee)
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.
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 price of admission) with one of the museum’s experienced docents.
Get your skip-the-line ticket here for the USS Midway Museum.
Go Paragliding at Black’s Cliffs in San Diego
Just north of downtown La Jolla, Black’s Cliffs are famous for 1) its “clothing-optional” beach and 2) paragliding.
There are plenty of paragliding services available, but I recommend going with Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Enjoy the sea breeze in your hair while the expert instructor makes sure you land to safety.
Watch the Sunrise at Mount Soledad Lookout
Sunsets are magnificent to witness from Mount Soledad, but sunrises are equally as beautiful (and less crowded).
The Mount Soledad Lookout is both a war memorial and a stunning 360-degree view of San Diego, La Jolla, and the ocean.
Be sure to pack an extra layer or two, since it can get quite windy at the top of the mountain.
Enjoy the Views of the San Diego Skyline from Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego might be most famous for its laid back lifestyle and plentiful beaches, but don’t miss out a chance to experience an important moment in history.
Cabrillo National Monument marks the spot — the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, to be specific — where a European expedition landed on the West Coast for the very first time.
From the monument, you can see the San Diego Skyline, Coronado Island, and Tijuana all in one view.
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.
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.
Where to Stay in California
Calling all city-slicking backpackers: HI Downtown Hostel is the vibe for you.
There’s a cinema room and a chilled common room that’s so nice it’s hard to tear yourself away from the comfort and head out into the city.
It’s the perfect refuge for tired feet after a long day of exploration in the city.
Both classic and modern, Nineteen 06 is the perfect getaway for a mid-range budget.
It also offers something rare in San Francisco…the sunniest weather in town.
Because of the three hills surrounding the neighborhood, Nineteen 06 is located in the best weather spot in all of San Francisco.
If you love design-friendly modern hotels, Hotel Zeppelin has a lot to offer.
Chic, Respectful, Clean and Romantic: it checks all the boxes for a great stay in the San Francisco area.
Located in one of the best-rated neighborhoods in the SF Bay, the Fairmont is an ideal spot for those looking for a luxury stay.
The Fairmont, has everything you could want and more, including plush robes, marble baths, and a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
This hidden gem staffs a full-time event coordinator to make your stay far from ordinary.
The Walk of Fame hostel is tucked into the center of Hollywood, directly on Hollywood Boulevard.
If you like people watching, this is the spot for you.
El Royale hotel in Studio City is a great find.
Affordable, yet within walking distance to Universal Studios, the hotel is situated in a neighborhood that features all kinds of cafes, restaurants, and art studios.
For all my television buffs: El Royale makes cameos in a number of films and shows, including: Fool for Love, Bed Time Stories, CSI, and The O.C.
Without a doubt, Freehand has the most hip and easygoing vibe at a LA hotel.
The rooftop pool is eloquently landscaped and the drinks are to-die-for.
It’s a hostel-hotel hybrid that’s a true hub for Hollywood creatives.
Hotel Casa del Mar sits right on the Pacific, with a fabulous boardwalk directly in front of the hotel.
Nature and adventure beckon just beyond the comforts of Casa Del Mar.
When the sun gently sets just beyond the panoramic windows, allowing the colors to set the mood of the waning day, you’ll see what make this spot so special.
This hotel is quintessential LA, with it pink Spanish Mission–style architecture that embodies the Hollywood’s 1930s and 1940s golden era with a mix of custom-made furnishings and high-tech gadgetry.
Hotel Bel-Air has old school charm, yet modern amenities, making for a magical and historical place to stay in LA.
There’s even a retracting roof over the restaurant.
For a full list of recommendations for where to stay in Los Angeles, check out this post.
Easily one of the top hostels in California, Lucky D’s is a short stumble home from the Gaslamp party district.
The hostel itself can be a party if you want it to be, but there are also side rooms to chill in and read a book if you need alone time.
Everything about Kings screams “throwback.”
From the moment you walk into their lobby, you’ll notice a subtle retro vibe in every aspect of their decor.
Kings Inn has mastered its nostalgic atmosphere, and is conveniently located at the Hotel Circle South in Mission Valley.
It’s a quaint cozy place to sleep, with a cute pool to refresh after a hot day.
As downtown San Diego’s latest hotel, the space is brand new but still has an air of an inviting and luxurious establishment.
With its many restaurants, bars, lounge areas, pool, fitness area, and spa, you might just never want to leave when you stay at the Pendry.
With its signature red-roofed turrets, the Hotel del Coronado — or “The Del” as locals call it — tops the list as San Diego’s most famous hotel.
Treat yourself to a luxurious stay, choosing between a resort and ocean view, and spend an evening pampering yourself at the spa.
Coronado has it all: a fitness center, three pools, activities, spas, and two different types of suites, located in either the Victorian or Ocean towers.
Hotel del Coronado pulls out all the stops for summer and winter alike, offering an ice skating rink during winter holidays and mermaid fitness classes during the summer.
There’s a reason why it’s considered one of the best places to stay in California.
What to Pack for California
- Light jacket
- Flip Flops
- Bathing Suit
- Good walking shoes
- Beach bag
- Waterproof camera
- Reusable water bottle
- Portable charger
- Travel insurance for California
Best Time to Visit California
There’s a reason why California is a fan-favorite when it comes to booking vacations.
The temperate climate of most of the state means that you get to enjoy the sun and temperatures in the mild 50s-70s the entire year, but you’re never too far away from experiencing the seasons if you really want to.
You can enjoy the snow in the mountains during winter time, swim in the ocean during the summer, experience orange and red leaves in the fall, and admire gorgeous floral blooms in the spring.
This state is so vast that whatever you’re looking for in terms of weather, chances are you’ll probably find it (except for maybe a hurricane).
Northern California’s closest twin in terms of climate is probably the Pacific Northwest, albeit less rainy.
It can get quite windy in some parts of the north, especially around the Bay Area.
Layers will be your best friend in the Bay, since it can go from cold to warm back to cold in the blink of an eye.
That being said, when the weather is beautiful, NorCal can’t be beat.
In Southern California, it can get HOT in the summer. Maybe not as scorching as Arizona or as humid as Washington D.C., but the desert heat can crank temperatures up to as high as the 100s.
If you’re not tolerant of the heat, try visiting SoCal in the spring or fall when the weather makes it much more pleasant to be outside. Unlike NorCal, you can wear sundresses and shorts for the majority of the year.
Central California can vary dramatically in terms of temperature, since you can easily go from the beachside weather of Santa Cruz to the soaring temperatures of Death Valley.
Because activities in Central California are geared more for the outdoors, it’s a good idea to bring clothes like a light down jacket or sweater so you can bundle up or shed some layers at a moment’s notice.
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.
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.
Expect the most traffic in California around the Los Angeles area and plan your road trip accordingly.
During the worst of rush hour traffic, it can take over two hours just to cross through the LA region, so stay patient, bring snacks, and try to avoid rush hour at all costs.
Get your FREE California Travel Planner + a printable checklists to help you plan your trip!
PRACTICAL INFO FOR CALIFORNIA
Book a vacation rental on AirBnB (and get $40 off your first booking).
Buy your California Travel Guide here.
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