Discover the Top 20 Must-See Destinations in California

2023-05-20 00:31:15 - Drany Macley Drany Macley, the senior editor of, brings extensive journalism background and over eight years of experience in travel writing and editing to the site, offering practical insights and first-hand knowledge through articles on innovative hotels, backed by a BA in Journalism from Ithaca College.

When people hear "California," they often think of celebrity culture and Hollywood. And while it's true that this state boasts some of the world's largest film studios and amusement parks, there's so much more to discover. Found in the Golden State is also Silicon Valley, where many big tech companies call home, and, of course, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

But the state's natural beauty is also a major draw. With towering redwoods, deserts, rock formations, and gorgeous coastal beaches, California offers a wealth of breathtaking landscapes. Additionally, California is home to vibrant cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, bursting with cultural attractions and delicious food.

One must-visit destination in California is Santa Cruz. Located on the northern shore of Monterey Bay and surrounded by stunning vistas, it's a haven for anyone who loves the beach and outdoors. This city boasts a lively boardwalk, attracting families, students, surfers, and street performers alike. Its downtown area is a hub of great restaurants, shops, and bars. Nearby, state parks like Natural Bridges State Beach and Big Basin Redwoods State Park offer hiking trails, incredible natural wonders, and a chance to escape from it all.

Sonoma Valley is another gem in California's crown, with lovely rural landscapes and abundant vineyards that mark the birthplace of the state's wine industry. Visitors can indulge in a more laidback experience compared to the glitz of Napa Valley and Sonoma's neighboring tasting rooms offer plenty of opportunities to sample the region's famous wines, while quaint wineries and sprawling estates dot the countryside. For those looking for more outdoor activities, hiking and cycling are popular pastimes, while views of the valley from up high are especially breathtaking on a hot air balloon ride.

18. Discover Santa Monica[EXPLORE MAP]

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Nestled amidst three sides of Los Angeles, Santa Monica is an idyllic seaside city that presents a perfect haven for tourists looking for a break from sightseeing around Hollywood. With its origin tracing back to the early 20th century as a resort town, SaMo has been a prominent vacation spot where sun, sand, and sea meet.

The Santa Monica Pier is an attraction that provides a fun-filled experience to families, with a massive Ferris wheel and an amusement park that will make you feel nostalgic. If you love outdoor activities, the city's extensive beachfront offers spaces for swimming, surfing, and volleyball.

Apart from its magnificent sandy beaches, Santa Monica offers a thriving alternative scene that includes browsing through the little art galleries and mural-laden streets at the Bergamot Station Arts Center. There are numerous options for bars, restaurants, shops, and hotels scattered around the city, catering to all budgets and clienteles.

17. Discover Palm Springs[EXPLORE MAP]

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Located on Interstate 10, connecting the Los Angeles area with Arizona, Palm Springs is a desert playground that provides year-round entertainment. With a history of attracting famous people, Palm Springs is an excellent destination for winter golfing when the temperatures are milder.

The city boasts of mid-20th century modern architecture in most of its homes and business buildings, celebrated annually with the Modernism Week. Sonny Bono, half of the well-known Sonny and Cher duo served as the mayor of this southern California city.

Although the city was once popular with college students, Palm Springs now attracts all kinds of tourists and travelers and is home to numerous retirees. Visitors can enjoy hiking in the desert and nearby San Jacinto Mountains or indulge in a range of museums.

16. Explore Joshua Tree National Park[EXPLORE MAP]

Photo Credit: Joshua Tree National Park / Flickr

Situated on the meeting point of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is home to breathtaking wilderness and spectacular scenery. The park is named after the unique tree-like yuccas that are dotted across its diverse desert landscapes and has been the go-to place for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers for a long time.

Visitors can explore the park's canyons, mountains, and rock formations, with multiple scenic trails and climbing routes that lead through some of the most rugged landscapes you will ever see. With two different desert ecosystems within the park, you can enjoy various flora and fauna, including coyotes, rattlesnakes, and golden eagles, that you may encounter during your visit.

The Mojave Desert is home to a plethora of popular outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, and camping. However, what truly sets it apart is its unique geography and the peculiar Joshua Trees that create a breathtaking backdrop for photography. Its awe-inspiring majesty and enigmatic allure inspired U2 to name one of their bestselling albums after it: The Joshua Tree.

Laguna Beach is a picturesque Mediterranean-style city located on the stunning southern California coastline. Renowned for its luxurious resorts and stunning beaches, it boasts a thriving artistic community with elaborate public sculptures, impressive art galleries, and artistic-looking homes. Summer is a vibrant time in Laguna Beach, as it hosts several fantastic events like the Festival of Arts, Sawdust Festival, and Pageant of the Masters, where artists exhibit their latest creations.

Anaheim, part of Los Angeles's metropolitan area, is famous for Disneyland, but it's much more than just an amuseument park. As the largest city in Orange County, Anaheim has its fair share of great bars, restaurants, and shops clustered around downtown. Additionally, sports enthusiasts can catch baseball or hockey games and attend many events and competitions throughout the year at its massive convention center. Nonetheless, Disneyland remains Anaheim's main attraction, luring millions of visitors annually with its exhilarating rides, entertainment opportunities, shopping, restaurants, and hotels.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, located to the south of Monterey Bay, is a quaint oceanside town frequented by artists, writers, and poets due to its mesmerizing coastal location surrounded by verdant hills and dramatic cliffs. The town boasts old-world charm characterized by charming cottages, atmospheric houses, and art galleries and studios that showcase its profound artistic heritage. Fine dining restaurants, cozy cafes, and boutique shops abound, with an array of lovely inns and B&Bs offering accommodation for visitors. At the heart of the town lies the Carmel Beach, with its white sands and breathtaking sunsets that have inspired countless artworks.

The Channel Islands, located off the southern California coast, offer a wild getaway for nature and adventure enthusiasts. The rocky islands are shrouded by mist and surrounded by the Pacific's azure waters, making them perfect for sailing, kayaking, and other water sports. The island's desolate coastlines and protected wildernesses support unique wildlife habitats and species, making it an ideal spot for hiking and camping. Its remote setting makes it a perfect spot for stargazing under the night sky, away from city lights and noise.

The Channel Islands lie scattered along the stunning southern California coastline, forming a picturesque archipelago of eight small islands surrounded by the glimmering Pacific Ocean. Five of the islands are housed within an eponymous national park dedicated to the protection and conservation of their delicate ecosystems, boasting scenic canyons, jagged cliffs, and pristine beaches that make for an unforgettable exploration experience.

Although two of these islands are inaccessible to the public and reserved for use by the US Navy, fishing, scuba diving, and sailing are permitted in the surrounding waters. The only inhabited island, Santa Catalina, is home to the charming towns of Avalon and Two Harbors, and has been a popular tourist destination since chewing gum magnate William Wrigley sparked the tourism movement in the 1920s. Today, this island is a go-to day-trip destination since it is a mere 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.

You can choose a glass-bottom boat to ride through reefs and explore old shipwrecks, or opt for popular activities like snorkeling and scuba diving. Native Americans who have lived on the island for 8,000 years have contributed immensely to the richness of its culture. You can learn about their history and the island's past at the Catalina Island Museum. Unexpectedly, the island also houses a small population of American bison that were brought here during the filming of a movie.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two neighboring national parks situated in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, both renowned for their majestic giant sequoia trees. These towering trees can surpass 300 feet (90 meters) in height, with trunks as wide as 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter.

Sequoia National Park, established in 1890, is home to Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the contiguous United States. On the other hand, Kings Canyon boasts the deepest canyon in America. Both parks teem with numerous wildlife species, including bears, bobcats, gray foxes, and mule deer. If you're lucky, you may even spot bighorn sheep or mountain lions. The parks are popular with hikers and backpackers, with 14 campgrounds available for visitors to stay.

Redwood National Park stands on the Pacific Coast of California's northwestern region and is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees worldwide. Established in 1968, it conserves the old-growth forests and the diverse ecosystems they support. The mountains, rivers, and gorges create delightful sights, but it's the colossal redwoods that steal the limelight. These magnificent trees tower over a hundred meters, with some being more than two thousand years old. It's a surreal feeling to hike, bike, or ride beneath these natural wonders.

Redwood National Park's rugged coast offers mesmerizing views. Kayaking and whale watching can be done while admiring the redwoods, forming a perfect backdrop to the secluded coves and beaches on the park's shores.

Santa Barbara is the final Californian destination on this list. Situated on the central coast, this sensational city has a Mediterranean feel that's idyllic for a romantic getaway. Its picturesque setting offers stunning panoramas of the Santa Ynez Mountains, while the Riviera provides breathtaking views of the sea. You can partake in various activities such as tanning at the sandy beaches or dining in upscale restaurants while enjoying the laid-back coastal vibes.

Santa Barbara, situated amid the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean is an idyllic city in California, with its natural beauty earning it the nickname the ‘American Riviera’. The city’s stunning location is complemented by Spanish-style architecture and lush parks along its palm tree-lined streets. A must-visit attraction is the Old Mission, renowned for its beautiful architecture, vibrant garden, and stunning artworks. Additionally, the destination is home to top-quality restaurants, art galleries, and boutique shops, making it an upscale retreat for travelers.

A mere 160 kilometers away from LA, Santa Barbara is an excellent destination for a weekend getaway or day trip, as it gives tourists the perfect opportunity to explore the scenic coastline by hiking, surfing, or visiting nearby wineries. The city also hosts a plethora of festivals and cultural events throughout the year.

Located in the Bay Area, Napa Valley has become a favorite spot for tourists who visit the region for its exceptional wineries and scenic landscapes. Touring the area involves driving along the region’s rolling hills and fertile vineyards to discover its breathtaking beauty, but note that roads tend to become busy in peak season. Napa Valley's gourmet restaurants, classy bistros, and award-winning spas make for an excellent destination to relax and unwind, with numerous boutique hotels and luxury resorts to choose from. The valley also provides excellent opportunities for hiking, golfing, and horseback riding, while hot air balloon rides offer an unforgettable experience above the idyllic environment.

Wine-tasting tours are the most popular activity in Napa Valley, with over 200 wineries to visit among the beautiful estates. The perfect way to savor the area's exquisite wines is to sample them among the grapevines under the California sunshine.

Big Sur is a large, rocky coastal stretch located between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon. A renowned tourist hot-spot, Big Sur has epic scenery along its coastline of around 70 miles, with towering redwood trees, jagged rocks, and breathtaking beaches. Numerous hikes throughout the state parks in Big Sur, including the iconic Bixby Bridge and rock towers at Pfeiffer Beach, offer perfect outings for travelers. Millions of visitors are attracted to the epic wilderness and stunning views provided by Big Sur's towering seaside cliffs and ocean views.

Lake Tahoe, known for its crystal-clear waters and surrounded by mountains, is a stunning destination located in Nevada and California. Travelers come to the area for an unforgettable outdoor holiday experience, making it a prime spot for hiking, mountain biking, and skiing. Lake Tahoe offers watersports such as kayaking, fishing, and boating, while snow-based activities include snowboarding, skiing, and snowmobiling. Its awe-inspiring landscape and abundance of recreation opportunities make Lake Tahoe a highly popular tourist destination.

Accommodation in the area is impressive and diverse, from luxurious resorts and hotels to camping sites, B&Bs, and cabin rentals.

North America’s largest alpine lake can be found in the Sierra Nevada mountain range where California and Nevada intersect, known as Lake Tahoe. The lake, which exquisitely glimmers in the sun, is surrounded by majestic mountains and edifying forests. The 1960s Winter Olympics held in Squaw Valley on the North Shore made the lake attractive to winter sports enthusiasts while summertime offers hiking in the mountains or boat trips, lazing, swimming, and barbecues on the shore. Relaxation, a sense of calm, and immersing oneself in nature can be enjoyed at Lake Tahoe without sacrificing the opportunity to explore intriguing cities along the shoreline such as South Lake Tahoe, with its lovely beaches, and the Nevada side, which attracts gambling admirers as a result of its many casinos. If you fancy visiting a larger city at some point, worry not, because Reno is not far away.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe

San Diego, also known as America’s Finest City, is dotted with miles of golden sand, laidback surfer culture, and various world-class attractions. As the second-largest city in California, San Diego rests on Southern California's picturesque coastline, which is located just north of the Mexican border. Besides lazing on the beautiful beaches such as Mission Beach and La Jolla Shores, San Diego boasts fantastic museums and historical sights, many of which are found in Balboa Park, such as the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Furthermore, Downtown is home to an array of remarkable old buildings that highlight the city's rich Spanish heritage, as well as plenty of bars, restaurants, and shops.

San Diego’s weather is warm and sunny, making outdoor activities like swimming, surfing, and water sports extremely popular. Hiking and biking along the stunning coastline is an added delight, and Tijuana is only a short drive away if you are looking for a Mexican day trip.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Diego

Death Valley's host’s a harsh and unforgiving environment and is found in the arid Mojave Desert. In the national park of the same name, Death Valley, breathtaking sceneries and awe-inspiring landscapes await you. From snow-capped mountains to colorful sand dunes, Death Valley's unique desert landscapes are unlike any other place in California. Popular places of interest include the magnificent vista of Zabriskie Point, along with historic landmarks like Scotty's Castle, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, and ghost towns' ruins.

Furthermore, the park hosts the barren Badwater Basin, North America's lowest point, and the blazing Furnace Creek, one of the hottest places on Earth. There are towering mountain ranges, epic dunes, steep gorges, and life-giving oases to explore.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Death Valley

The park boasts of numerous trails for hiking and mountain biking that meander around its diverse desert landscapes. As Death Valley covers a vast area, it is recommended to stock up on water and gas before entering the national park.

3. Los Angeles[LOCATE HERE]

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Located in southern California surrounded by the Pacific Coast, mountains and valleys, Los Angeles is the USA's second-largest city. Known as the City of Angels, it offers a broad range of attractions and beaches, including the lively Venice Beach and Malibu, the sandy playground favored by movie stars.

Tourists to L.A. can find some of the best-known amusement parks globally, including Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. Los Angeles is also one of the best places in the United States to go on a celebrity hunt. Visitors can look for celebrity homes or shop at the designer stores in Beverly Hills that cater to the stars. And in L.A., travelers can also dine at the same famous restaurants that the celebs and the rich and famous dine at.

Accommodation: Check Here for Where to Stay in Los Angeles

2. Yosemite National Park[LOCATE HERE]

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Yosemite is one of the famous and popular national parks in the US, visited by millions of nature enthusiasts yearly. The park is located in the western part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, known for its impressive and recognizable vistas.

The park houses some incredible sights and attractions such as Glacier Point with perfect views of Yosemite Valley, the nature center and Yosemite Museum, and those with historical significance like the LeConte Memorial Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel.

The park features countless lakes and streams, as well as numerous scenic trails and paths. Hiking and rock climbing around the remote wilderness of Yosemite is delightful. The gigantic granite domes and cliffs of the park are iconic and truly dramatic sights, with the hulking El Capitan and vast Half Dome standing out. The park can also boast of groves of giant sequoia and breathtaking waterfalls, with Yosemite Falls being the most spectacular, plunging 739 meters down the steep rock face.

1. San Francisco[LOCATE HERE]

San Francisco is one of the famous and photogenic cities globally, renowned for its scenic beauty, iconic sights, and open, accepting culture. With the beautiful San Francisco Bay on one side and the stunning Pacific Ocean on the other, it is one of the States’ most popular tourist destinations.

San Francisco's diverse neighborhoods can be found on its many hills, with gorgeous streetscapes showcasing lovely old Victorian architecture. Union Square is home to some superb theaters and museums, while Fisherman's Wharf is the tourist center of the city. Pier 39 is home to great shopping, dining, and entertainment options, as well as sunbathing seals and views of the bay. From here, tourists can take trips to Alcatraz Island and its famous federal prison (now a museum).

San Francisco is a vibrant yet sophisticated place, and taking a ride on one of its cable cars is a must-do activity. The Cable cars climb steep hills, where visitors can bask in breathtaking views of the city and the bay below and see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge stretching away into the distance.

Accommodation: Check Here for Where to Stay in San Francisco

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