The Golden State gets its name for a reason. California’s diverse cultural and geographical offerings, vibrant cities and critically acclaimed culinary scenes are truly the gold standard for travelers. Whether you’re hiking the trails in one of the state’s many scenic parks, sampling some bubbly in the northern valleys, kicking back on sunny, southern shorelines or walking where stars once stood, California is truly a sight to behold. U.S. News took into account expert opinion and traveler sentiment to determine the best places to visit in California. Have a favorite? Vote below to help influence next year’s list.
One of California’s most formidable natural landscapes, Yosemite National Park features nearly 1,200 square miles of sheer awe: towering waterfalls, millennia-old Sequoia trees, striking, daunting cliff faces and some of the most unique rock formations in the United States. But despite its enormous size, most of the tourist activity takes place within the 8-square-mile area of Yosemite Valley. Here you’ll find the park’s most famous landmarks – Half Dome and El Capitan – as well as excellent hiking trails through the natural monuments. Even inexperienced hikers can enjoy Yosemite: Guided tours and climbing lessons are available from local adventure outfitters. Just don’t expect to experience it by yourself. Like so many other American tourist destinations, crowds are the biggest obstacles to an enjoyable Yosemite vacation – approximately 4 million people visit each year. But if you go at the right time (and start your day a little earlier than usual), Mother Nature’s wonders will reveal themselves to you in a miraculous and serene way.
A jumbled collage of colorful neighborhoods and beautiful views, San Francisco draws those free-spirited types who have an eye for edgy art, a taste for imaginative cuisine and a zeal for adventure. It’s really not surprising that songwriter Tony Bennett left his heart here: The city boasts jaw-dropping sights, world-class cuisine, cozy cafes and plenty of booming nightlife venues – there’s no shortage of ways to stay busy here. Spend an hour or two sunning yourself alongside sea lions on the bay, admiring the views of the city from Twin Peaks, or strolling along the Marina. And for the quintessential San Franciscan experience, enjoy a ride on a cable car or hop on a boat tour for a cruise beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
Often described as Los Angeles’ more refined northern cousin, cool and compact San Francisco takes the big-city buzz exuded by its southern counterpart and melds it with a sense of small-town charm. Here, you’ll discover a patchwork of culture flourishing throughout San Francisco’s many vibrant quarters. Follow the crowds to the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area (which offers spectacular views of Alcatraz) before heading along the bay to the Presidio for a glimpse of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. But don’t forget to save time for the Mission District, the Haight and the Castro for exposure to all of the different varieties of the San Francisco lifestyle. And when you’re ready for a break from the city, join one of San Francisco’s best wine tours for a relaxing day trip.
Consistently sunny weather and 70 miles of magnificent coastline are what draw active types and sun-seekers alike to San Diego throughout the year: that and the mouthwatering Mexican cuisine, thriving nightlife and one of the country’s favorite zoos. And then there are the beaches: Retreat to Mission Beach to catch a wave, to La Jolla to soak up the sun and to Coronado for a leisurely seaside stroll. When you’re ready to ditch your flip-flops and board shorts for more formal attire, you’ll find pockets of vivacious nightlife throughout, especially near the historical Gaslamp Quarter.
Incredible, extraordinary, mind-boggling … try as you might, you’ll have difficulty finding words that do justice to the sheer beauty of Lake Tahoe. Resting on the California-Nevada border, Lake Tahoe has long been a favorite vacation spot, welcoming upward of 2.7 million people a year. Visitors are drawn here by the steep granite cliff sides and towering mountaintops, as well as the crystal-clear waters that have earned Lake Tahoe the reputation of being one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the United States. While the stunning blue lake alone is worth a trip, the surrounding area, also known as Lake Tahoe, boasts miles of hiking trails, dozens of picture-perfect vistas and some of the best skiing in North America.
But wait – there’s more. Lake Tahoe seems to have adopted the major traits of its neighbors. You’ll find San Francisco-style high-end shopping and dining along the lake’s north shore, while opportunities to test your luck reside in the south shore’s Reno-Esque casinos. You’ll also find plenty of activities that Lake Tahoe is proud to take credit for, including mountain gondola rides, hot air balloon adventures and scenic cruises across the mirror-like water.
The Monterey Peninsula is different than any other part of California. Here, time slows, the architecture is humble (with the exception of the homes in Pebble Beach), and the lifestyle is the perfect synthesis of SoCal laid back and NorCal sophisticated. On the northern side of the peninsula, the town of Monterey draws most of the tourists, while farther south, Carmel-by-the-Sea lures the easygoing wealthy set. Tremendous price tags on real estate help maintain the small-community atmosphere along Monterey’s jaw-dropping coastline.
This area makes for a tremendous road-trip stop or romantic weekend stay. And did we mention the golf courses? This stretch of the California coastline boasts some of the most coveted fairways in the world. Add to that an abundance of natural wonders, luxury resorts, and seafood restaurants, and Monterey might just be the ideal destination for your next getaway.
Big Sur is not just a destination, it’s a state of mind. Stretching 90 miles between Monterey Bay and San Simeon on the west coast of central California, Big Sur’s remote location, peaceful nature, and incomparable beauty entice visitors to change gears, both figuratively and literally. Pacific Coast Highway, which was built less than 100 years ago, is the main road that runs through the region and becomes the most scenic in Big Sur. Sitting high above the surf, the highway clings to the edge of the area’s cliffs, providing spectacular views as it weaves in and out of the seemingly endless coastline. Driving conditions aside, Big Sur’s calming culture is contagious and has been known to attract minds of all kinds seeking inspiration, refuge or transformation. It was Jack Kerouac who took off to Big Sur in search of inner peace, as recounted in his novel “Big Sur.” Fellow writer Henry Miller called Big Sur the first place he felt at home in America, later penning the memoir “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.” Since then, countless musicians, artists, writers, and photographers have chronicled Big Sur’s powerful presence in their work, yet travelers say its grandeur remains indescribable.
Today, Big Sur draws millions of visitors every year, but it still hasn’t lost its sense of place. Independent art galleries dot the highway, sharing space with wellness retreats and cliffside eateries. But the diverse landscape trumps all of the area’s amenities by a landslide, with state parks and beaches reigning supreme as the main attractions. Mountains, beaches, rivers, valleys, creeks, coves, wildflowers and wildlife linger at every turn. That is if you can find them. Some of Big Sur’s natural attractions are intentionally unmarked to preserve the sense of seclusion that the region is so famous for. Some areas, believe it or not, still don’t have electricity. Big Sur, however, is meant to be an experience rather than just a typical vacation. So kick back, unwind, and open your eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of Big Sur.
After a visit to Napa Valley in the 1880s, writer Robert Louis Stevenson pronounced, “Wine is bottled poetry.” You’ll see this quote as you pass the area’s landmark sign on Highway 29. Unfortunately, Stevenson was referring to French wine — what Napa vintners should aspire to. But as the film “Bottle Shock” documents, California wineries have since risen to the level of their European predecessors. Now, both connoisseurs and amateurs savor the respected vintages from Napa. Whatever your level of expertise, a guided tour can help you make the most of your time here.
With its rise in the wine industry, Napa Valley has also become a vacation hot spot. The tiered hillsides, wine caverns, and illustrious estates make for stellar scenery, and top-class hotels are taking note. Scattered between the vineyards, sumptuous resorts cater to every indulgence — golfing, spa pampering, gourmet dining, you name it. A trip to California wine country is made unforgettable by not only the life-changing cabernet but also the intoxicating natural setting. And if you can afford it, you’ll be back for more.
Sequoia National Park
Home to some of the tallest trees in the world, Sequoia National Park is a humbling place to visit. With the magnificent trees towering hundreds of feet above you, it’s easy to feel small in comparison. Located about 80 miles east of Fresno, California, in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range, the park was established in 1890 as a measure to protect the giant trees from being logged, making it America’s second national park. The adjacent Kings Canyon National Park was formed in 1940 and eventually, both parks became linked together.
Highlights of the park are, of course, the trees, including the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree, standing 275 feet tall with a base more than 36 feet in diameter. But there is plenty to see and do, from exploring caves to hiking to snowshoeing. What’s more, the park is open every day of the year and each season holds its own charms.
Situated about 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica easily stands alone as its own destination. This beachfront city is equipped with ample hotels, restaurants, and shops in addition to its star attractions: Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier and the beach. After a day of fun in the sand or at the popular Third Street Promenade, visit Palisades Park for an unforgettable Southern Californian sunset.
Los Angeles both confirms and dismantles all of its stereotypes. Sure, it’s a sprawling metropolis with eternally congested freeways, but it also contains one of the most diverse and unique sets of neighborhoods in the United States. La-La Land is filled to the brim with the glamour of chic Hollywood name brands and movie set backdrops, yet it’s also home to renowned art galleries like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and architectural masterpieces like the Getty Center. The world’s visual entertainment empire, LA offers tourists behind-the-scenes looks into the world of filmmaking and television broadcasting at studios like Paramount Pictures Studios and Warner Bros. Studio. What’s more, the City of Angels features some of the country’s most eclectic cuisine and dozens of highly acclaimed restaurants. Away from the revitalized downtown area, the Malibu and Santa Monica beaches provide sun, sand, and surfing, while Venice Beach offers close-ups of the city’s most unique residents. Additional outdoor pursuits like hiking can be found at Griffith Park and Angeles National Forest.
At more than 500 square miles, Los Angeles is massive and touring it can be exhausting – but that doesn’t deter visitors. The area is one of the most visited in the country, especially between June and October when thousands of travelers use their summer vacations to experience as many LA attractions as possible. But the key to a successful LA vacation is simple: Plan ahead. Pick a few areas that best suit your interests and needs, or take a guided tour if you want a little more assistance. Then all that’s left to do is explore, explore, explore.
Palm Springs, centered in the Southern California desert, is far from being a dried-up destination. This city once lured the likes of heartthrob crooner Frank Sinatra and rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley. In fact, the King even took up residence here in the late 1960s, honeymooning with Priscilla and later having their daughter, Lisa Marie. In the ’60s, glamorous piano bars and retro storefronts lined the vibrant streets of the desert town, which is beautifully bookended by the San Jacinto Mountains.
When Elvis and Sinatra left, the city lost some of its spirits. But today, Palm Springs is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. After all, its desert scenery and colorful sunsets are the same as they were 50 years ago. And its pools, spas, and nightclubs are attracting a wide swath of travelers, from seniors to hipsters to LGBT couples. Plus, the surrounding Coachella Valley has blossomed with interesting things to do, from The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens to the Coachella Valley Preserve. But if you want a true Palm Springs experience, you should take it easy, whether by the pool or in a trendy bar. In short, you won’t regret a visit to this California city. If Palm Springs passed muster for the King and Ol’ Blue Eyes, then it should be a great mix of fun and relaxation for everyday travelers as well.
Laguna Beach is the perfect destination if you’re looking for a small town, Southern California experience. Situated between LA and San Diego, Laguna Beach offers an array of scenic beaches both big and small, remote and central that’ll keep visitors occupied for days. Main Beach and Crescent Bay are a couple of local favorites, though travelers also highly recommend taking a trip to the wild shores of Crystal Cove State Park. For a break from the sun, pop into one of downtown’s art galleries or boutiques.
Many vacationers come to Anaheim for Disneyland Resort. A plaque at the entrance of the park reads: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy,” and for more than 50 years, this complex of amusement parks and hotels has remained a fun fantasy world. Even if you’ve been to other Disney resorts, nothing beats the original’s unique place as a vintage landmark in the heart of Southern California. This vibrant park is still a great place for families – in fact, your kids will most likely have so much fun with Mickey and friends that they’ll never want to leave. And with plenty of thrilling rides and a bustling entertainment district, you might not want to leave either. Plus, the park’s newest themed land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, brings a whole new dimension to the park.
But Disneyland isn’t the only thing luring visitors to this Southern California city. There are other (more affordable) theme parks like Knott’s Berry Farm and Adventure City, the picturesque Yorba Regional Park, and even an “angelic” baseball stadium. When you need a break from the crowds, simply hop in your car and drive west to the coast: the shorelines of Long Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach are all within about 25 miles of Anaheim.
Sonoma, a county in Northern California known for its bucolic charms and array of wineries, could also be described as Napa’s rustic, less-refined and more-relaxed sister. Its rolling hills, which rise into the Sonoma Mountains and descend to the Pacific shore, also contain a cache of small cities that are worth a visit: Try Santa Rosa for an urban escape, complete with museums and buzzy restaurants, but pop by Glen Ellen for a slice of small-town Americana. In short, if you want a laid-back introduction to stellar vintages and gorgeous properties, Sonoma – rather than Napa – should be your California wine country destination.
Nicknamed Surf City USA, this Orange County beach offers some of the country’s best waves. It is home to the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing (the world’s largest surfing competition) and has a rich surfing history and culture. After visitors learn more about the sport at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, they can enjoy views of the water as they walk along the Huntington Beach Pier or sip cocktails at an oceanfront lounge. Families should save time for shopping and playing at the weekly Surf City Nights Street Fair.
In the early 20th century when Flying “A” Studios opened its doors, Santa Barbara was slated to become the epicenter of America’s movie-making industry. But the movie stars moved south to Los Angeles, and today’s Santa Barbarans wouldn’t want it any other way. On the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara aspires for casual yet fashionable elegance. Just take a look at the well-dressed pedestrians on state Street to comprehend the city’s understated indulgence. And although some of America’s budget-friendly favorites – like Motel 6 and the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin – have their origins here, Santa Barbara’s boutique shops and world-class resorts have a reputation for making a dent in your vacation savings. If you can afford the price tag, this quiet, seaside paradise might just be the ideal California retreat for you.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park established as a national monument in 1936 and then later as a national park in 1994, sprawls across approximately 800,000 acres. Joshua Tree is a deserted wilderness, with few facilities or services, however, those very reasons draw nearly 3 million yearly visitors. Located just outside Palm Springs, California, and about 140 miles east of Los Angeles, the desert park is actually made up of two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado.
The stark and sometimes surreal landscape, shaped by fierce winds and rains, is famous for its Joshua trees. Still, a wide variety of other plants and animals call the park home, including bighorn sheep, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Joshua Tree is also a magnet for rock climbers, as there are more than 8,000 established climbing routes scattered throughout the park. In the springtime, large swaths of wildflowers become a big draw for many visitors. Plus, the incredibly clear night sky, unpolluted by artificial lights, make the park a great place to stargaze.
Eclectic Venice Beach, one of LA’s most popular neighborhoods, is packed with things to do and see. The area features a vibrant local art scene, which you can get a taste of while checking out the Venice Art Walls. Plus, the beach offers top-notch conditions for surfing. But the highlight of any trip to Venice Beach is its boardwalk. Here, you can watch everyone from musicians and street performers honing their crafts to fitness buffs breaking a sweat at the outdoor workout facilities.
Travel north across the Golden Gate Bridge and you’ll discover Sausalito, a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. This small town is best known for its laid-back atmosphere and colorful houseboats, some of which were built during World War II. The Bridgeway Promenade is where you’ll find the bulk of Sausalito’s shops, restaurants, and art galleries. And just south of the town center is where educational attractions like the Bay Area Discovery Museum and Fort Baker reside.
Everyone from celebrities like Tom Hanks and Barbra Streisand to cultural icons (think: Barbie) has called this quintessential California beach townhome – and it’s easy to see why. Malibu’s gorgeous stretches of sand, such as Zuma Beach and Surfrider Beach, appeal to both sunbathers and surfers. The Malibu Pier is a great place to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the view. Away from the shore, visitors can see ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities at the Getty Villa or sample wines during a wine hike or a wine safari.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore’s 70,000-plus acres beckon to wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers. This protected area off of Northern California’s coast offers ample opportunities to see hundreds of animal species, including elephant seals, gray whales and nearly 490 kinds of birds. Visitors can also explore various beaches, wander down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse and hike some of the area’s miles of trails, including the Earthquake Trail, which travels along the San Andreas Fault.
If you’ve never thought of California as a ski destination, Mammoth Lakes might change your mind. Nestled in the Eastern Sierra region, Mammoth Lakes is home to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the highest ski resort in the state. In winter, the region’s dozens of trails welcome skiers and snowboarders in droves. When the temperatures rise and the snow melts, vacationers can try other outdoor activities, such as hiking, rock climbing, and paddleboarding.
Kings Canyon National Park
Head to Kings Canyon National Park if you want to see more of California’s famous sequoias after visiting Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. The park’s most famous tree is the General Grant Tree, the second-largest tree in the world by volume. Named after former President Ulysses S. Grant in 1867, the tree has been lovingly called “the Nation’s Christmas Tree” since 1926. Aside from admiring Kings Canyon’s sequoias, outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing, among other activities
San Luis Obispo
Located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo often serves as a stopping point during road trips between the two cities. But this small town is worth a longer stay. With art galleries, museums, parks and a central district filled with shops, SLO offers plenty to see and do. Looking to satisfy your taste buds? SLO is packed with highly regarded wineries, breweries, and restaurants and even hosts a popular farmers market every Thursday night.
Newport Beach tends to conjure up images of glamour and sophistication (think: massive mansions, mega-yachts, and high-end shops). Places like Fashion Island – Newport Beach’s lavish open-air mall – and the lush Sherman Library & Gardens give you a taste of some of this luxury. But there is also a more laid-back side to this Southern California city. Quaint Balboa Island is the place to go for Newport Beach’s famous frozen bananas and offers family-friendly fun at the Balboa Fun Zone. And at the Wedge on the Balboa Peninsula, surfers and boogie boarders can catch gnarly waves.