Are you planning a trip to California? Here is a list of the top places to see in California. If you have never been to California, you are in for a real treat! It is so magical. California is such a diverse state and offers so many stunning natural landscapes to visit. When planning a trip to California make sure to visit some of these must-see places in California.
Top Places To See in California
After living in San Diego for several months as part of an exchange semester at university, the city quickly became my most favorite place in California! San Diego is often overlooked by travelers in California since it doesn’t offer any popular sights as LA or San Francisco, but it’s certainly worth a visit. The city is much more relaxed and less busy and overrun by tourists than other places in California, therefore you can enjoy the real Californian lifestyle here.
If you’re into beaches and especially surfing, spend your time in Pacific Beach and Mission Beach – grab a surfboard and enjoy a drink in one of the classic surfer bars. Make sure to visit luxurious La Jolla with its beautiful mansions along the beach and the seals playing in the water. If you’re into nature, go hiking at Torrey Pines State Park or enjoy a stroll around Balboa Park or the world-class San Diego Zoo. For the best view on the city, head over to Coronado island for the skyline panorama. San Diego is especially known for its incredibly beautiful sunsets. My favorite place to watch the sun setting behind the Pacific Ocean is the stunning sunset cliffs. When it comes to accommodation, the downtown area is a nice base to explore the city – but as in most American cities, you will need a car to get around.
Not many people make it down to San Diego when traveling around California – but those who do fall in love with “America’s finest city”! It is one of the top places to see in California.
The Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve is home to the Torrey Pine, the rarest pine species in the United States. This species can only be seen on this reserve or on Santa Rosa Island (part of the Channel Islands National Park).
Other than the unique opportunity to see the pines, the reserve offers 8 miles of trails on a plateau with cliffs that overlook the beach. Many different kinds of wildlife and flora are found within the reserve, including bobcats, foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, rabbits, cacti and coastal chaparral.
On top of that, visitors can spend time on the beach or walk around the lagoon located within the reserve limits. Those in search of adventure can try their luck at paragliding or hang gliding at the Torrey Pines Gildeport.
The Reserve is located about 15 miles north of Downtown San Diego and half a day should be allocated to enjoy the site.
Where to stay close to Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve
Yosemite National Park
If you’re visiting California and love the outdoors, then Yosemite National Park needs to be on your itinerary.
Yosemite is located in Californias Sierra Nevada Mountains. It known for its picturesque views, rugged cliffs and stunning waterfalls, including the largest waterfall in North America; Yosemite Falls. It attracts over 3.5million visitors every year and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
There are plenty of beautiful hiking routes so there will be something suitable for all ages and abilities. If you’re feeling energetic, you can try the most difficult trail up to the Half Dome for the most spectacular views.
When booking far in advance, it is possible to secure a cabin within the park itself, or you can stay in a nearby town like Mariposa as I did and drive into the park.
I’d recommend 3 or 4 days to do the park justice, but if you only have one day it is still possible to see the best of the park with this one-day itinerary.
Jessica of Longest Bus Rides
When you imagine the perfect beach town, San Clemente, California completely fits the bill with whitewashed buildings on green hills overlooking the brilliant blue Pacific Ocean. Near Los Angeles, it’s warm year-round and the surfing is iconic. The various beaches mean surfing is accessible for complete beginners taking their first lesson and pro-surfers alike.
I spent 3 days here in March, and seriously considered how I could relocate and live here full-time. (It hasn’t worked out yet.)
There are plenty of beach activities including surfing, hanging out on the soft sand, visiting the pier for a look at the local fisherman’s catch, and eating lunch with a view of the ocean at Pierside Kitchen & Bar, and sleeping beside the ocean in a historic-style white-washed building.
If you’re looking for the local surfer vibe, check out Nomads Hotel’s colorful, surf-inspired rooms and happening cantina for a beer and meal inspired by international surf spots. The flavorful San Pedro Town Stewed Chicken Over Coconut Rice was my favorite!
In town, there is everything from art galleries and a cupcake shop. Just out of town are great trails for hiking and trail running.
Getting here is easy, as San Clemente has a couple of beach-front train stops for Amtrak and Metrolink. The closest airport is the John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.
Courtesy of Henry and Andrew’s Guide
We love Mendocino because there’s a little bit of everything for everyone – the coast, the mountains, wineries, breweries, shopping, coastal inns, farmland, and amazing restaurants. Most people visiting or living in San Francisco may easily overlook this destination, but it’s so different from the rest of the state – it’s a must to visit! The coastline is a little more rugged and diverse than all the Southern parts of the state, and the towns in Mendocino County have the simple and charming vibe that you can’t find anywhere else in California.
When you go, you must go hiking in many of the State Parks along the coastline, go on the Skunk Train where you will ride on a steam train through the redwoods on tracks that were originally laid by the California Western Railroad, go to famous beaches like the Bowling Ball Beach or Glass Beach, go on farm tours, and go taste amazing wine and beer. Downtown Fort Bragg and Mendocino both have great restaurants to choose from.
When in Mendocino, stay at a coastal inn – our favorite is the Andiron Seaside Inn and Cabins – their cabins are spacious, they have homemade goodies and fresh eggs from their chicken, and their 3 pet goats – peanut butter, sugar, and cocoa, are the friendliest goats and it’s so fun to hang out with them. S’more kits by the fire and weekend happy hour with local beer, wine, and cheese is also a perk. They were voted one of the most romantic places to stay by Travel + Leisure!
For more ideas on what to do in Mendocino, check out Henry and Andrew’s Guide’s post on places to eat, play, and stay in Fort Bragg and Mendocino here.
Bella of Whisper Wanderlust
In my opinion, a visit to the state of California would not be complete without going on a road trip on the famous highway that stretches across the West Coast, Pacific Coast Highway. Moreover, a road trip on Highway 1 wouldn’t be enough without visiting a gorgeous 24-meter tall waterfall, located in Big Sur, more exactly in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Its name is McWay Falls.
Although it is not visible directly from the highway, the road to it is extremely simple and short. In addition to the road sign, you will see many cars parked on the side. That is a clear indication that the path to the wonderful view starts right there. Therefore, is time to park your car and follow the signs. The road takes only a few minutes, but you will want to spend some hours admiring the beautiful surroundings. So, you don’t need to find accommodation in the area, rather just allocate a few hours of your itinerary.
The waterfall is special for both the paradise landscape but also for its fall, directly into the Pacific Ocean. Next to it, you can also find a mini beach, accessible only by water. A towering palm tree and some wild pink lilies complete the enchanting view. I recommend you visit the waterfall when road tripping Highway 1 from North to South, from San Francisco to Los Angeles or San Diego, so that you can fully enjoy the scenery.
Jill of Let’s Travel Family
If you are looking for a beautiful beach destination in California that is not overly busy, look no further than Avila Beach. It is located on the central coast of the state and away from the hustle and bustle of major cities. Our full time traveling family of 6 stayed at the conveniently located KOA campground just 3 miles from the beach. We could hop on the bike trail and ride right to the beautiful beach each day!
When you arrive, I recommend spending as much time at the beach as possible whale watching, sunbathing, swimming, and possibly get a glimpse of some dolphins. There is a great coffee shop called Kraken Coffee on Front Street just in front of the pier. Oh, and if you are in the mood for a full meal you will find that most of what you need will be within walking distance to the beach.
From dolphin sightings and swimming, to bike riding and visiting with locals, our family made some fantastic memories at Avila Beach. We recommend it to anyone planning a beach vacation in California.
When visiting Los Angeles, there is one thing you better not visit: Venice Beach. This stretch is a mix of beach, sporting ground and, above all, a place to see and to be seen. What started with Arnold Schwarzenegger pushing weights up and down, while his muscles were shining in the heating sun, now became a hotspot for basically everyone who thinks his or her talent is one of a special kind. Come here, for a proper freakshow and watch Elvis Presley sing, watch Michael Jackson and watch the kids go crazy in the basketball court or right in the skate bowl. Also, you might want to take your bicycle for a ride as Venice Beach is a perfect starting point for a ride to Santa Monica. The beach walk is long, wide and easy to ride. For a sunny day of not doing anything, you can simply stroll through the hippie shops, enjoy a read in the bookshop “Small World Books” or taste yourself through the different flavors of beer at the Venice Beach Beer Company. There are a bunch of hostels right at Venice Beach, but you might want to stay elsewhere and simply take your car down to Venice Beach for a day in the sun, on the bike, skateboard or simply at the pub.
It was quite early in the morning when I arrived LA from San Francisco, from one beautiful city of America to another. The bus dropped me in the Hollywood Boulevard from where I made my way to the hostel I had booked earlier. As I looked down and stared at the stars and their names drawn on the footpath, I realized I was walking on the famous Walk of Fame!
I stayed at the Walk of Fame Hostel which was located right at the center of the action. The Dolby Theatre where the annual academy awards are hosted was bang opposite to my hostel. Other major attractions that I visited close to my hostel were TCL Chinese Theatre and Madame Tussauds museum.
Over the course of the next two days, I visited Griffith Observatory and the Downtown LA. Griffith Observatory offers spectacular views of the city, as well as a perfect view of the Hollywood sign. In downtown L.A. I checked out the Chinatown and I really loved the contemporary art collection at The Broad museum.
There are several attractions in L.A. both free as well as paid, truly something for everyone. If you are in States, I’d highly recommend you visit Los Angeles; it is one of those American cities where can gaze at the skies, bedazzled by the glamor and soak yourself in art and culture, all at the same time.
Located on California’s Central Coast and immortalized by John Steinbeck, Monterey is one of my top destinations in California. You’ll never get tired or run out of things to do in this city. You can easily spend a week just exploring the Monterey Bay Aquarium and all of its offerings, but you should definitely expand your horizons and check out nearby Cannery Row, the wineries in Carmel, and, even dabble in a bit of California history by visiting a historic mission or two. Of course, my favorite thing to do in Monterey is to just enjoy nature. There are plenty of nature walks and abundant coastlines to explore within the city itself and if, for some reason, you find yourself looking for more, you’re just a stone’s throw from some magnificent shoreline views off the Pacific Coast Highway making it one of the top places to visit in California.
Laguna Beach is a small city in California – to be more precise in Orange County. Laguna Beach is also known for its beautiful beaches which stretches over 7 miles – with more than 30 coves strung together beneath cliffs and hillsides.
You can choose from several beaches – each of them has its own charm and offers different options of things to do.
The Main Beach, Victoria Beach or Crescent Bay Beach – you surely will not get bored with the different beaches.
You can have a bonfire (at Allison Beach), spend your time tide pools (Treasure Island), surf at Rockpile – these are just some beaches and just some activities.
While I did not jump into the water (it was just too chilly) the beaches in Laguna Beach are known for the pristine water which makes it a great place to visit for families as well as any other kind of traveler.
I loved spending time at Main Beach – watching people, sitting in cafes and restaurants with a great view is another fun thing to do.
If you book a hotel directly at the beach it comes with an amazing perk – waking up with such a view must be a dream!
Helena from Through An Aussies Eyes
Joshua Tree National Park is a unique desert ecosystem that really should not be missed. Both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet to create a distinct variety of both flora and fauna. With the distinct Joshua Tree plant scattered over the park and coyotes and jackrabbits hopping around them, this is a National Park that you must add to your ‘must see’ list. You can camp or drive your RV into the park and stay the night in designated camp spots. But if you are going on a weekend you need to be there early to get a spot! Just remember that there is no food available in the park so you will need to be prepared otherwise it is a short drive to the nearest town. Think about falling asleep under the stars and waking up with the sun rising over rock formations. Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled and gives a unique tree and rocky landscape of California making it one of the top places to see in California.
A quiet area just outside the more popular Napa Valley lies in the Sonoma County. If you are wanting a little escape from the crowds but still want to experience wine country in California, this is your place. I love to go here to get away, relax, enjoy the outdoors and great weather.
What a lot of people do not know is that Sonoma County produces the most wine, so there is plenty of wineries to visit with a very wide variety in wines. With being so many wineries, this brings restaurants and shopping too. In the city of Sonoma, there are stores with fine craftsmanship, clothes, books and home decorations. It is also filled with restaurants from dinners to fine dining, ice-cream to candy shops. A little outside of the city is a place which is our absolute favorite place to go. It is the Russian River Winery, located in the Russian River Valley area. This is where you can enjoy an outside tasting on picnic benches surrounded by antique cars, pizza oven, and great conversation. Go inside and enjoy a magnificent lunch or dinner at their award-winning restaurant the food is organic and is farm to table.
There are plenty of places to stay, hotels and Airbnb’s are available. We choose to stay at the Kenwood Inn and Spa, the décor makes you feel like you are in Old California when the wineries were first begun with an Italian flare. Fireplaces in your rooms, gardens and a lovely spa.
Have you been to California?