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 80% of my life.
Although there are a lot of stereotypes about California (and Californians), you really can’t put the people or the landscape into 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.
These are my favorite must-have experiences and the best things to do in California, as someone who has spent 80% of her life living in three different regions of the Golden State.
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.
Let’s start with the most popular things to do in California that everyone should do at least once to fully embrace everything the Golden State has to offer.
If you’re wondering what to do in California, these are the top 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.
Officially starting from Leggett in Northern California and stretching down to Dana Point in Orange County, the Pacific Coast Highway takes 15-20 hours to complete without stops or much traffic.
But believe me, the trip is worth it. Along the way, you’ll experience stunning coastal views, seaside towns, hushed redwood forests, and more.
Disneyland & California Adventure
Whether you excitedly jog from ride to ride, grab a treat from a themed land, or watch the fireworks show at night, you’ll want your day to last forever (especially if you know how to use the FastPass correctly).
If you only have time to visit one, definitely head to Disneyland. It’s a classic and worth a visit if you’ve never been. However, if you can fit in both parks over a couple of days, do it!
Read my full guide to the best things to do in Orange County.
Hollywood Walk of Fame – Los Angeles
Posing with a sidewalk star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame is practically a rite of passage for a California vacation. It’s also one of LA’s most beloved free attractions and one of the most popular things to do in California!
The world’s most famous sidewalk boasts 2,500 stars (and counting) and is one of the first places to visit if you’re new to LA and want to soak up the most popular sights.
If you are looking for a particular star, there’s an online tool available called “Star Searcher”.
Recommended Experience: Hollywood Behind the Scenes Walking Tour
Universal Studios Hollywood – Los Angeles
Universal Studios Hollywood is part amusement park part studio tour, with plenty of attractions to keep the whole family entertained for a day.
Take a tour of some of Hollywood’s most popular movie and TV sets, ride Revenge of the Mummy and the Jurassic World ride, and head over to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a pint of butterbeer.
After you’re done with the rides, shows, and tours at Universal Studios, grab dinner and go shopping at Universal CityWalk Hollywood.
You can grab your tickets for Universal Studios Hollywood ahead of time here.
Urban Light & LACMA – Los Angeles
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.
People flock to Santa Monica in droves for a chance to show off their swimsuit bods and take in its sandy beach and the historic Santa Monica Pier.
After shopping at 3rd Street Promenade and riding bikes along the beach, head to the Santa Monica Pier to explore Pacific Park, full of carnival games and rides.
It’s the perfect spot from which to watch the sun go down over one of the most iconic spots in California.
Hollywood Sign & Griffith Observatory – Los Angeles
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, from the Griffith Observatory, visitors are treated to free admission, stunning Greek-inspired architecture, and world-class views of the Los Angeles Basin and the Pacific Ocean.
In the distance and a short hike away from Griffith Observatory, you can make out another iconic Los Angeles landmark in the distance, the Hollywood Sign.
Venice Canals – Los Angeles
A taste of Italy can be found near Venice Beach at the Venice Canals. This picturesque residential district has been a unique attraction in Los Angeles since 1905.
It’s a fun place to simply walk around and admire the man-made canals and postcard-worthy views.
Sprinkles Cupcake ATM – Los Angeles
Ever since Sprinkles Cupcakes first launched in Los Angeles, this dessert chain has amassed a cult following that can’t get enough of their mouth-watering treats.
Get your fix of delicious frosting and cake from the pink Sprinkles ATM in Beverly Hills to see what all the fuss is about (you won’t be disappointed).
Read my full bucket list of the best things to do in LA.
Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco
One of the most popular places to visit in California, San Francisco is an eclectic and condensed city known for its fog, tech scene, classic landmarks, and layered history.
This is the spot to see a completely different side to the Golden State compared to cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. And, of course, the top sight to see in the city is 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.
Climb to the top of the South Tower. When you look down, a grated catwalk makes you feel as if you’re floating on air, gazing straight down 750 feet to the water.
Alcatraz Island – San Francisco
If you want to visit Alcatraz Island, a pro tip is to buy tickets early! Tickets to Alcatraz Island are wildly popular and sell like hotcakes, sometimes selling out two months in advance in the summer.
Once you get off the ferry at Alcatraz Island, you’ll soon discover why tourists flock to this now-abandoned maximum-security prison that once held the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and other notorious criminals.
Its unique and layered history, stellar audio tour, and views of the San Francisco skyline are hard to beat.
If you’re feeling brave, you could even sign up for a night tour of one of California’s most famous islands.
Read my full guide to the best things to do in San Francisco at night.
Golden Gate Park – San Francisco
The equivalent of New York’s Central Park (but much bigger), Golden Gate Park is a hotspot for outdoor and cultural activities in San Francisco.
Not only can you visit the De Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, and San Francisco Botanical Garden within its leafy boundaries, you can also check out the Buffalo Paddock and see American bison grazing on the wild grasses!
Chinatown – San Francisco
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, grab a Mai Tai from Li Po, or enjoy dim sum during your time in Chinatown.
Boudin Bakery – San Francisco
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 its sourdough bread bowls, and, if you didn’t know already, San Francisco sourdough is kind of a thing.
You really can’t beat a piping hot bread bowl of clam chowder after a brisk afternoon outside.
Not feeling sourdough? There are a number of other classic San Francisco treats to try around the city, like Cioppino, fresh Dungeness crab, Mai Tais, Irish coffee, fortune cookies, and Mission burritos.
Ride a Cable Car – San Francisco
You’ll notice San Francisco’s iconic cable cars gliding up and down steep streets in the busiest parts of the city. In operation since 1873, the cable car was one of the city’s first forms of public transportation.
Today, more tourists than locals use cable cars to get around but it’s still one of those quintessential things to do in San Francisco with a first-time visit.
Lands End & Sutro Baths – San Francisco
Located in the northwest corner of San Francisco in the Presidio neighborhood, the Lands End trail is where you’ll find some of the best bayside views featuring the Golden Gate Bridge.
Start from the historic ruins of the Sutro Baths and make your way toward the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are unbeatable on a sunny, clear day.
Read my full guide to the best urban hikes in San Francisco.
Angel Island – San Francisco
Angel Island is the second-largest island in the San Francisco Bay Area, offering amazing views looking out at the San Francisco skyline.
Once an immigration station, Angel Island is now a national historic landmark and state park located right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
Spend an afternoon hiking around the island, visiting its many historic buildings, and walking up to its highest peak for stunning views of Karl the Fog rolling into the city before the ferry comes to take you back.
Read my full guide to the best things to do in San Francisco.
Napa Valley Wineries (And Beyond)
California wine predates California statehood, with Spanish Missionaries planting the first grapes in the 1700s.
From there, it steadily grew into becoming the wine region it is today, which is known as one of the best in the world.
With 138 American Viticultural Areas (or AVAs) and over 4,000 wineries that produce over 80% of the wine made in the US, California is serious about wine and its winemaking culture.
Napa Valley wine country tends to get most of the attention. It’s the most popular wine region in California with beautiful scenery and castle-like wineries and it’s conveniently located an hour north of San Francisco, making it perfect for a weekend getaway.
With that said, there are plenty of other wine countries to explore besides Napa wine country, such as Sonoma, Paso Robles, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Auburn, Anderson Valley, and Temecula, among many others.
If you can only pick a few places to go in California, Big Sur should be on your bucket list. Doing a road trip down the Big Sur coastline is easily one of the most beautiful things to do in California.
This roughly 87-mile-long stretch of relatively undeveloped waterfront and scenic nature between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle is one of the prettiest parts of California.
Whether you drive it entirely or stop in for just a hint of Central Coast beauty, Big Sur is where you come to see it all: bluffs, sea, and endless sky.
Explore the Beaches & Beach Towns
With 840 miles of sparkling coastline and hundreds of sandy beaches, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to exploring the beach culture in California.
In the north, especially around the Mendocino coastline and above, you’ll find a more rugged and undeveloped coast that beckons you to get away from it all.
To the south, you’ll find pristine, picture-perfect beaches filled with people, great weather, and popular resorts.
The Los Angeles and Orange County beaches and beach towns are usually what you think of when you think of “beach culture” in California, with that endless summer vibe and long, sandy stretches to lay out on.
Grab a bike and ride the 21-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail that cuts through some of LA’s most popular beaches.
Or rent a car and check out the best beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway all the way down to Dana Point.
Whichever beaches and beach towns you decide to add to your California to-do list, there are fantastic options up and down the state, it just depends on what you’re looking for.
Eat a lot of Mexican Food
One of the best things about California is the abundance of amazing Mexican food.
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.
Grab fresh churros and champurrado from one of the many food trucks around LA. Head to San Diego to taste its famous fish tacos, which can be found for as little as $2 on Taco Tuesdays.
And you can’t leave the state without trying the fusion “California Burrito” that sounds disgusting to anyone who isn’t from here (who puts french fries in a burrito?), but believe me when I say it’s delicious.
Lastly, in San Francisco, you won’t want to miss out on the rice-heavy, huge Mission-style burritos that are so unique to the city.
Go Surfing (Or Learn How to Surf)
The Beach Boys said it best in their song, “Surfin’ USA” when they talked about California being the best place to surf in the country.
For those who already know how to catch a wave, head to popular spots like San Onofre State Beach, Trestles, Huntington Beach, Mavericks Beach, or Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz.
For beginner surfers, there are plenty of spots up and down the coast that provide perfect conditions for those just getting their feet wet.
If you want to learn how to surf or you’re just getting started, head to Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, Mondo’s Beach in Ventura, Surfrider Beach in Malibu, or La Jolla Shores in San Diego.
Throughout the year, various types of whales make their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico and back, which means the whole coast of California is a prime whale watching area.
From Mendocino to the Monterey Bay and down to San Diego, you’ll find whale watching opportunities and tours on offer at most times of the year.
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 (although it helps if you have binoculars).
The most common whales that migrate along the West Coast are gray, blue, and humpback whales.
You’ll most likely spot gray whales and orcas from December to May, humpback whales from May to November, and blue whales from July to October. Dolphins can be spotted year-round from the coast as well.
Soak in Natural Hot Springs
If you’re looking for fun things to do with friends in California, there’s nothing better than soaking in a natural hot spring with an incredible view in front of you.
With California’s geothermal nature, it’s not surprising that there are a number of great hot springs to be discovered around the state, both free and at resorts and spas.
Most of the best hot springs are in Northern and Eastern California, especially around the Eastern Sierra region, although there are a few that can be found in Southern California as well.
Read my full guide to the best California hot springs to learn more.
Straddling the state line of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a stunning alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In fact, Lake Tahoe is one of the clearest, largest, and deepest alpine lakes in the entire world.
The deep cerulean blue of Lake Tahoe combined with the pine tree-rimmed shoreline and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains sets it apart as one of the most unique destinations in the world.
A trip to Lake Tahoe can be anything you want it to be. In the summer, take advantage of the many state parks and hiking trails around the lake, do some adventure water activities, or discover hidden beaches.
In the winter, hit the slopes at one of the 15 ski resorts, go snowshoeing, or enjoy après-ski happy hour drinks around the fire.
If all else fails, there’s always testing your luck at the casinos on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe.
Visit the National Parks
California has the most national parks out of any other US state with nine in total.
Visiting them is not only one of the best things to do in California, it also allows you to see the diversity of the landscape and just how impressive it can be.
Yosemite National Park
If there’s one park to visit in California, it’s Yosemite National Park. At Yosemite National Park, take in the incredible views at Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Valley View, and Olmsted Point.
Hike to the top of Yosemite Falls or snag a permit to tackle the famous Half Dome hike.
Or if you’re feeling adventurous, witness the awesome beauty of Yosemite National Park in winter when most of the crowds are gone and the park becomes a hushed winter wonderland.
Whenever you decide to visit, spending the weekend at Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular and iconic things to do in California.
Joshua Tree National Park
One of my favorite places to travel in California is Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park is the complete opposite of Yosemite National Park. Instead of sheer cliff faces, pine trees, and high altitudes, you’ll find a dry desert full of funky-looking Joshua Trees, palm trees, and old mines.
At Joshua Tree National Park, tackle a desert hike or go rock climbing, take in the sunset from Keys View, walk around a cholla cactus garden, enjoy the stellar stargazing while camping (or glamping), and tour a piece of California’s pioneer past at Keys Ranch.
Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park
Located at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are often grouped together because they’re right next to each other.
At Sequoia National Park, take in the view from Moro Rock, see General Sherman (the largest tree in the world), and tour the dark cavern that is Crystal Cave.
At Kings Canyon National Park, drive the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, visit General Grant Grove, and have a picnic at the scenic Zumwalt Meadow.
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.
This is where you can really see California’s volcanic past and geothermal nature come to life. Walk through the burping Bumpass Hell, take in the reflections at Manzanita Lake, and climb up a volcano called Cinder Cone.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a place of extremes. Really, the best way to describe its atmosphere is post-apocalyptic.
Don’t let its intense nature scare you away though, Death Valley National Park is one of the most distinctive parks in the world that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Head to Badwater Basin to visit the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level), take in Zabriskie Point at sunrise or sunset, and enjoy the colorful hues at Artist’s Palette.
Read our guide to the best things to do in Death Valley.
Channel Islands National Park
The most remote and hardest to get to of the national parks in California, Channel Islands National Park takes some advanced planning to visit but it’s well worth the journey.
Choose from one of five islands that make up the national park and plan to spend a night or two camping to get the full experience. There aren’t any restaurants, hotels, or other conveniences on the islands, so you’ll want to be prepared.
Santa Cruz Island is the best for first-time visitors. Don’t miss out on signing up for a kayaking tour to explore its unique sea caves.
Pinnacles National Park
Established in 2013, Pinnacles National Park is California’s youngest national park. An easy day trip from San Francisco, come here to witness majestic California Condors in the wild, see unique rock formations, and explore dark and musty caves.
Read our guide to visiting Pinnacles National Park.
Looking to see all of California’s national parks in one trip? Read our itinerary for an epic California national parks road trip.
Balboa Park – San Diego
San Diego might not have quite as many iconic tourist attractions as SF and LA, but there’s still a lot to love about “America’s Finest City.”
From family-friendly points of interest to those pristine beaches you can only get in Southern California, there are a ton of bucket list activities to enjoy in San Diego.
San Diego also has some of the best free things to do in California (and on the West Coast as a whole) with its variety of outdoor activities, nearby nature spots, and hiking trails.
And one of my favorite free things to do in the city is visiting Balboa 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 El Prado, the Botanical Building, and the Old Globe Theatre (a replica of the Globe Theatre in London).
San Diego Zoo & Safari Park – San Diego
San Diego Zoo & Safari Park are so huge that it’s easy to spend the whole day admiring the many animals that live in each park.
The panda and gorilla exhibits are always a hit at the San Diego Zoo and you can easily get your steps in wandering from the Australia exhibit to the Tiger Trail and Africa Rocks.
If you want to observe exotic animals up close, the Safari Park is a great option to see your favorite giraffes, lions, and zebras out in the open.
USS Midway Museum – San Diego
The USS Midway Museum is a hotspot for maritime lovers and an opportunity to step onto the Midway aircraft carrier itself.
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.
Otherwise, you can join the 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.
La Jolla – San Diego
I might be biased since I went to school at UC San Diego, but I think La Jolla is one of the prettiest neighborhoods in San Diego and a tourist attraction in its own right.
Head over to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to hike amongst golden-hued cliffs and coastal views, grab brunch in downtown La Jolla, and snorkel the 6,000-acre Underwater Park.
Coronado Island – San Diego
With panoramic views of the San Diego skyline, the historic Hotel del Coronado, and plenty of sandy beach areas, Coronado Island is the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon.
You can walk around the Coronado peninsula in about two hours, grab a pint at Coronado Pub, or simply relax on the beach while taking in the windswept views.
Order from In-N-Out Burger’s Secret Menu
A must-do on any California road trip and one of the best cheap things to do in California is to grab a meal from In-N-Out Burger.
With 256 locations just in California, it’s usually pretty easy to find an In-N-Out Burger nearby, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and beyond.
If you want to get the most out of your visit to California’s most famous burger joint, look up the secret menu on Google ahead of time. You can thank me later once you try animal style.
Go Skiing or Snowboarding
One of the great things about California is its diverse landscape. You could spend the morning at the beach and later that day be skiing or snowboarding in the mountains.
Most people probably don’t think of winter sports when they think of California, but skiing and snowboarding are some of the best things to do in California during the colder months.
Walk Amongst the California Redwoods
One of the best things to do in California is to hike through a hushed coastal redwood forest, there’s nothing else quite like it in the world.
California’s redwoods, also known as Sequoia sempervirens or Hyperion, are not only the tallest trees in the world, they’re also pretty ancient, with some of them reaching 2,000 years old.
A few popular spots to see California redwoods include Muir Woods National Monument, Avenue of the Giants, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National and State Parks.
Read my detailed guide to the best places to see redwoods near San Francisco.
Monterey Bay Aquarium – Monterey
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is all kinds of cool, educational, and inspiring and one of the top things to do in California that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Located along the coast in Monterey, this is a must-see in California and a great place to visit for anyone who loves the ocean, whether you’re a kid or an adult.
During your visit, explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s diverse marine life, many educational exhibits, and unique sights like its 28-foot kelp forest.
Experience the State Capital – Sacramento
Often overlooked for other California hot spots, Sacramento is an underrated destination and one of the best places to visit in California to get to know the state capital and the state’s pioneering history.
Choose from one of the many top things to do in Sacramento, such as stepping back in time in Old Sacramento, touring the California State Capitol building, or walking around the historic Sutter’s Fort.
If you’re looking for outdoor activities, you can do a float trip on the Sacramento River, bike the American River Bicycle Trail, smell the flowers at McKinley Park, do a self-guided street art walk, or go for a hike at one of the many nearby parks.
Point Reyes National Seashore & Tomales Bay
One of the most impressive parks and top things to do in the Bay Area, Point Reyes National Seashore boasts gorgeous coastal views, bountiful wildlife, and a good dose of history.
Head to the more than 100-year-old Point Reyes Lighthouse, have a picnic at one of the park’s breezy beaches, take a picture in the Cypress Tree Tunnel, go for a coastal hike, or try and spot animals at Tule Elk Preserve and Elephant Seal Overlook.
Nearby, visit the small towns of Point Reyes Station, Tomales Bay, and Marshall to try some of the best and freshest oysters in California from Hog Island and The Marshall Store.
If you’re staying overnight, don’t miss the nighttime kayaking tour to discover the bright green bioluminescence that lights up Tomales Bay.
Local tip: Located only an hour north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is not only a bucket list destination, it’s also one of the foggiest places in the world and the windiest place on the Pacific Coast. Make sure to bring layers and don’t be surprised if you’re met with dense fog at some point during your trip.
Read my guide to the best things to do in Point Reyes.
Whether you’re exploring the beaches, zip-lining with panoramic coastal views, partying it up at Descanso Beach Club, sipping on a buffalo milk cocktail, shopping the local boutiques, camping at Parsons Landing, or going for a hike, there’s something for everyone on Catalina Island.
If you’re looking for more adventure, hike the multi-day Trans-Catalina Trail to see a different side of the island and spot the famous Catalina bison along the way.
This is also a great tour to get you started with seeing the most scenic spots around the island.
Read my guide to the perfect day trip to Catalina Island.
Visiting Palm Springs for a rejuvenating desert getaway has been one of the top things to do in California for decades, whether you’re a famous socialite, tourist, or burnt-out LA local.
Besides its many pools and spas, Palm Springs is known for its mid-century architecture, famous house tours, pool parties, desert hikes, and LGBTQ-friendly nightlife.
Palm Springs is the perfect destination to visit year-round for anyone who’s looking to get away from it all in the California desert.
Read my guide to the best things to do in Palm Springs.
California has a lot of Instagram spots but some of the most famous revolve around wildflower season in the spring and summer.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying that frolicking through flower fields is one of the top things to do in California.
Head to the flower fields in Carlsbad to walk amongst 50 acres of every shade of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers from March to May.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Anza-Borrego State Park are all popular places to see California’s state flower up close and in the thousands from mid-February to May.
If sunflowers are more your thing, there are a number of bright yellow fields that can be found in full bloom off the side of the road in Yolo County in June and July.
And finally, lavender farms are also a popular thing in California, especially around Napa and Sonoma.
Head to spots like Lavender Bee Farm, Bees n Blooms Sonoma, and Monte Bellaria di California in mid-May to mid-July to make all of your purple-infused lavender-smelling dreams come true.
Winchester Mystery House – San Jose
One of the top things to do in the Bay Area, see a haunted house come to real life on a 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’s spirit-warding touches such as decoy bathrooms, the number 13, and spider-web motifs throughout the manor only add to its mysterious and spooky nature.
Read our guide to the best things to do in San Jose.
There are a lot of beautiful spots along the Central California Coast, but one of the prettiest is Santa Barbara.
Located between Big Sur and Santa Monica, Santa Barbara is all about Spanish colonial architecture, fresh seafood, and multi-hued sunsets.
It has fantastic beaches with resident seals, stellar shopping along State Street, and impressive coastal scenery dotted with palm trees that can only be found in California.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in California for couples, Santa Barbara is an ideal getaway with its scenic nature, perfect weather, and a plethora of romantic activities.
17-Mile Drive – Monterey
There are a lot of scenic coastal drives in California, but one of the most popular routes that doesn’t skimp on good views is the 17-Mile Drive.
Starting from Monterey and traveling through the gated community of Pebble Beach on the way down to Carmel-by-the-Sea, the 17-Mile Drive is a good introduction to Central California scenery at its finest.
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 17-Mile Drive but it’s worth it for the beautiful route and gorgeous seaside views.
California Amusement Parks
If you’re looking to partake in fun California activities, checking out one of the state’s many amusement parks is a good option.
There’s a lot more to California’s theme park scene than just Disneyland and Universal Studios.
Head to California’s Great America, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Hurricane Kingdom, Knott’s Berry Farm, Knott’s Soak City, or Raging Waters for theme parks full of rollercoasters, waterslides, and plenty of thrill rides.
If you’re looking for more of a classic theme park vibe and more than just rollercoasters, make a visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the oldest surviving amusement park in the state and one of the few oceanside amusement parks in California and the West Coast as a whole.
In Southern California, get your thrills at Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Knott’s Soak City. Or, head to the all-ages family-friendly theme parks like Balboa Island’s Fun Zone, Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, Legoland, or Belmont Park in San Diego.
Explore Hidden Caves
Looking for adventurous things to do in California? The Golden State is home to a number of hidden caverns that are open to the public.
Some of the most popular caves in California can be found at the Lake Shasta Caverns.
Accessible by guided tour, you’ll find a 300-foot man-made tunnel into the mountainside where you’ll be immersed in a subterranean wonderland, sure to impress even the most skeptical visitors.
Otherwise, a trip to Moaning Caverns and Mercer Caverns in the Sierra Foothills is another good option to make your spelunking dreams come true.
If you don’t want to do a guided tour, you can always explore the caves of Pinnacles National Park on your own.
Or, for a truly impressive experience, make the trek to Lava Beds National Monument, a spot that features over 700 caves, a look into California’s volcanic past, and Indigenous American art in Tulelake.
Visit the Monarch Butterflies
Although marine life usually gets most of the attention on the West Coast, one of the most magical things to see in California is a eucalyptus forest that’s filled with thousands of monarch butterflies.
There are two spots in California that are known as migration hot spots for monarch butterflies – Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz and the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach (south of Big Sur).
The butterflies start nesting around late October and stay until mid-February (they can leave as early as January though so it’s good to check ahead of time). November is usually the best month to see the most butterflies.
Although not as popular as the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the best things to do in California to see a different side of the state is a road trip through the Sierra Nevada, along Highway 395.
A Highway 395 road trip is one of those bucket list experiences, full of panoramic views featuring mountainous landscapes, pioneering history, ghost towns, and hot springs.
Top attractions include Travertine Hot Springs, Bodie Ghost Town, Mono Lake, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Devil’s Postpile Monument and Rainbow Falls, Hot Creek Geological Area, Wild Willy’s Hot Springs, Bishop Creek, Ancient Bristlecone Forest, and Alabama Hills.
One of the best bucket list things to do in California, Hearst Castle, also known as Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, is located along the coast just south of Big Sur.
Attracting around 750,000 annual visitors, Hearst Castle (really, more of a mansion museum) is a National Historic Landmark.
It was built by the famous California architect, Julia Morgan, and owned and lived in by newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, from 1919 to 1947.
Hearst had very interesting interior decorating tastes that would best be described as “eclectic gaudiness,” but a guided tour is worthwhile to explore the historic, sprawling property, and the hundreds of rooms within it.
40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara you’ll find Solvang, a unique danish-themed town and a top attraction on the Central Coast.
Solvang is known for its Danish-inspired architecture complete with windmills and wineries, as well as Danish bakeries and the bountiful 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. It’s one of those bucket list destinations that’s fun to visit on a California road trip.
Read our guide to the best things to do in Solvang.
Embrace the Diversity
California is a place of diversity and not just in terms of its landscape. The Golden State is a melting pot of different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives. It’s one of the reasons why it’s such a welcoming and progressive place.
This is why embracing California’s diversity is something you should definitely experience while visiting California.
One of the most fun ways to do this as a tourist is to find cultural neighborhoods within major cities. These neighborhoods tend to be historic and feature fantastic food, distinctive architecture, regular cultural events, and unique museums.
A few of the best cultural neighborhoods in California include the following:
- Chinatown and Japantown in San Francisco
- Little Portugal and Japantown in San Jose
- Chinatown in Sacramento
- Little Manila in Stockton
- Cambodia Town in Long Beach
- Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, Little Italy, Thai Town, Chinatown, and Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles.
- Little Saigon in Orange County
- Little Italy, Old Town, and Little Saigon in San Diego
Salvation Mountain & Slab City
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.
Today, 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.
Nearby Slab City is an unincorporated community in the middle of nowhere, a place that can only be found in the California desert.
Queen Mary – Long Beach
Note: The Queen Mary is currently closed while it goes through a change in ownership. There’s no definite reopening date yet, although some people speculate it could be sometime in 2022 or 2023.
One of the more unusual things to do in California, it’s not every day you get to explore a supposedly haunted ship turned hotel in the Long Beach Harbor.
The RMS Queen Mary operated from 1934 to 1967 as a transatlantic liner, cruise ship, and military transport.
This 1,019-foot boat is now permanently docked in Long Beach as an interactive museum, featuring three restaurants, 346 hotel rooms, and guided tours to explore the layered history of this famous ship.
Read our detailed guide to the best things to do in Long Beach.
Explore the Best Literary Spots
California has been home to plenty of famous authors throughout the years, from Jack London to John Steinback, Joan Didion, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), and Charles Bukowski, to name a few.
If you’re a fan of books and literature, one of the best things to do in California is to pay homage to these great writers by visiting the places they lived, worked, and adored the most.
A few literary attractions in California include Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma, Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Napa Valley, Jack Kerouac Alley and the Beat Museum in San Francisco, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur.
See the Barking Elephant Seals
If you’re looking for unique wildlife things to do in California besides whale watching, seeing elephant seals in their natural habitat is another bucket list experience to enjoy in the Golden State.
Two of the best places to see California elephant seals are Año Nuevo State Park near Santa Cruz and Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery near Hearst Castle.
These windswept points in California are not only scenic spots to while away an afternoon, but also home to large elephant seal colonies where you can watch seals fight over mates, welcome pups into the world, and molt.
The best time to see elephant seals at their most active are the months of January (breeding and birthing), April (molting), and October (juvenile haul-out).
Local tip: Guided tours are required from mid-December through the end of March at Año Nuevo State Park.
Road Trip the Rugged Northern California Coast
Although most people stick to seeing the sights between San Francisco and Los Angeles, one of the more unique things to do in California is to take a road trip up the Northern California Coast.
From San Francisco to the start of the Oregon Coast, the Northern California coastline is the best place in North America to immerse yourself in giant redwood forests.
It’s also a great place to explore historic lighthouses, unique beaches, and small, welcoming coastal towns along the way.
It’s the perfect bucket list trip for anyone who’s looking for more rugged landscapes and remote wilderness.
Don’t miss stops in Bodega Bay, Jenner, Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Ferndale, Eureka, and Crescent City.
Top sights along the way include Bodega Head, Fort Ross, Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena and Point Cabrillo Lighthouses, Russian Gulch State Park, the colorful Glass Beach, the Skunk Train, Railbiking, Avenue of the Giants, Fern Canyon, and driving through the Klamath Tour Thru Tree.
Read my guide to the best things to do in Mendocino.
Other Things to do in California
And finally, a few other places and things to do in California that I couldn’t fit into this already massive post but deserve a mention.
- Admire the majestic Burney Falls
- Take a tour of the Jelly Belly Factory
- Try garlic ice cream in Gilroy
- Catch a sports game, take your pick from MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS, or NHL
- Dance the weekend away at a music festival – a few to choose from include Coachella, Outside Lands, Stagecoach, BottleRock Napa Valley, and Lightning in a Bottle
- Go whitewater rafting
- Eat at the nicest Taco Bell in the World in Pacifica
- Birdwatching at Elkhorn Slough
- Go for a hike in Calaveras Big Trees State Park
- Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Explore the Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno
- Drive the scenic Fresno County Blossom Trail
- Do a self-guided tour of the local breweries, especially in craft beer hotspots like San Diego (read my guide to the best California breweries)
- Make a stop at the iconic Madonna Inn (and sneak a peek at the bathrooms)
- See the oldest tree in the world at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
- Visit apple orchards in the fall in places like Julian or Apple Hill (read my guide to the best things to do in Julian)
- Get into the fall spirit at a Half Moon Bay pumpkin patch (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of the world)
- Hear the whistling sand dunes at Mojave Preserve
- Watch the sunrise at Fonts Point at Anza Borrego Desert State Park
- Snap a picture with the metal sculptures near Anza Borrego Desert State Park at Galleta Meadows
- See the fall foliage in June Lake and Bishop Creek
- Ride an ATV over the Oceano Sand Dunes
- Road trip the 21 California Missions (from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and all the way down to San Diego)
- Take a day trip to Mexico
Best Time to Visit California
As you can probably gather from this massive list of things to do in California, there’s really no bad time to visit California.
The majority of the state has nice weather for year-round outdoor activities like surfing, hiking, and road trips.
You can also find winter wonderlands in the colder months, colorful fall foliage in autumn, and vibrant wildflowers in the spring and summer.
With that said, there are a couple of things to note if you’re planning a visit to California.
First off is fire season. August through October is peak fire season and you can expect at least a handful of wildfires happening in different parts of the state during this time of the year.
The second thing to note is the landslides in the spring, especially around the Big Sur coastline. These aren’t as common as wildfires, but after a day or two of heavy rain in the spring, it’s not uncommon to hear about parts of the coastline succumbing to erosion.
Lastly, although summer is a popular time to visit, we get “June Gloom” on many parts of the coast and “Fogust” in the Bay Area, with overcast skies most days.
Spring or fall is usually when you’ll find the overall best weather throughout the state.
If you’re looking for a full guide on more things to do in California and how to road trip the Golden State, I wrote a whole book on it. You can check it out here.
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