California is a popular vacation destination in the United States for both domestic and international visitors. California is an intriguing land of travel possibilities, with vibrant cities, beaches, amusement parks, and natural wonders found nowhere else on the planet.
Some of the state’s most well-known landmarks, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Hollywood and Disneyland, can be found in the gateway cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many of the top cultural attractions can also be found here.
However, the national parks, which include mountains, forests, deserts, coastal areas, and islands, provide their own unique experiences. The tallest and largest trees on the planet, North America’s largest alpine lake, and the world-famous Yosemite Valley provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Whether you’re planning a road trip, a family vacation, a city escape, or simply looking to do some sightseeing, start with our list of the top attractions in California.
San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in America, should be on everyone’s bucket list. The ocean and hills provide a stunning natural backdrop, but it is the quaint neighbourhoods, historic sites, green spaces, inspiring cultural institutions, and laid-back attitude that truly distinguish this city.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, and it’s what many people think of when they think of San Francisco, and even California.
The orange frame against the blue water of San Francisco Bay, or rising out of the fog that frequently blankets the area, is a memorable sight. You can admire the bridge from afar or, for a more intimate experience, drive over it, walk across it, or even bike across it.
Fisherman’s Wharf and the infamous Alcatraz Island are also popular tourist attractions. This former prison has been turned into a national park and is well worth a visit. Ferries to the island depart from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf.
Yosemite National Park in Northern California is one of the most scenic and visited national parks in the United States. For decades, tourists, artists, and athletes have been drawn here by the mountains, valleys, rivers, and spectacular waterfalls.
The majority of the highlights and activities in Yosemite National Park take place in Yosemite Valley. The granite walls and massive waterfalls, carved by glaciers during the last ice age, are some of the park’s most impressive features. The big name attractions, such as Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan, can be found here.
Beyond the Valley, the Tioga Road and the Glacier Point Road provide access to alpine areas, lookout points, and breathtaking views. The giant sequoias are often overlooked by tourists, but they are well worth seeing. The largest stand is in Mariposa Grove, which is located in the park’s southern section.
One of the best ways to experience Yosemite is to hike some of the incredible hiking trails. These range from easy walks along streams and lakes to life-changing trails that take you to the tops of mountain peaks and famous landmarks. If you’re staying a few nights and want to stay for a while, Yosemite and the surrounding area have a number of excellent campgrounds.
Disneyland, located in Anaheim, is and has been California’s premier family destination for decades. This massive amusement park features a variety of rides, games, shows, and entertainment, as well as restaurants and hotels.
The park consists of theme rides as well as recreated worlds and cultures. There are shows and other forms of entertainment available for both children and adults.
The invention of FastPass+, which allows you to book specific ride times, a hug with a character, and entertainment events, has helped to reduce long lines and wait times. When kids are out of school, whether for the summer, Christmas, spring break, or any other holiday, the park is bound to be crowded.
Keep in mind that Disneyland is more than just the parks. The Disneyland Resort includes hotels, dining, shopping in the Downtown Disney District, and the Disney Adventure Park. Although the parks are undoubtedly what your children are here to see, there is something for everyone in the family to enjoy.
Death Valley National Park contains some of the most inhospitable terrain in California, with extreme heat that has left this desert area strangely beautiful. Salt fields, parched land, sand dunes, mountains, unusual rock formations, and a lake below sea level combine to create a one-of-a-kind landscape in this remote valley.
The sand dunes near Stove Pipe Wells, Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, and Dantes View are some of the most accessible highlights in Death Valley. These and other locations are all easily accessible by car. If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can go to more remote locations such as The Race Track.
Death Valley is a day trip from Las Vegas, Nevada, but there is so much to do here that you may want to stay longer. You can drive through the park, stopping at lookouts along the way, hike short trails, see the ruins of the valley’s former industry, and even paddle in the shallow Badwater Lake if there is any water in the lake at the time.
This beautiful stretch of California’s Central Coast provides an opportunity to reconnect with nature. Camping and hiking are popular activities in Garrapata State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Big Sur begins in Yankee Point, about four miles south of Carmel, and extends along Highway 1 to Salmon Cove, about 17 miles north of San Simeon. This scenic road provides breathtaking views of the picturesque coastline. The Santa Lucia Mountains and Ventana Forests, with more than 220 miles of trails, stretch to the east.
Big Sur’s Garrapata State Park is another popular destination. Garrapata Beach, a long, wide, crescent-shaped stretch of golden sand, is the main draw here. The waves here can be large, and it’s not ideal for swimming, but it’s ideal for strolling and soaking up the sun.
There are also day hiking trails in the park that provide spectacular views of the coastline, mountains, and redwoods for those looking to get some exercise.
Stunning Lake Tahoe is a popular year-round vacation destination in California, located high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Lake Tahoe is about more than just the lake; it’s about the surrounding forests and mountains, small towns, and a plethora of activities.
With its turquoise coves and surrounding mountains, the blue lake is a summer playground for boaters, beachgoers, campers, and nature lovers. Beautiful beaches and shallow coves are among the main attractions for families visiting the area during the summer.
Popular beach destinations near Lake Tahoe include D.H. Bliss State Park and Kings Beach State Recreation Area.
Excellent hiking trails for all abilities can be found in the mountains and along the coast. The area’s campgrounds are also excellent, with many located on the beach or in wooded areas. The beaches are the focal point of much of the summertime activity. In the winter, the emphasis shifts to the ski resorts.
Lake Tahoe is also the premier skiing destination in California, with several popular ski resorts. During the winter, skiers from all over the country flock to the area to take advantage of the incredible terrain and excellent snow conditions.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are must-see destinations because they contain the world’s largest trees. The sequoias here are the world’s largest living things, and many of them are more than 2,000 years old, with some even more than 3,000.
These two parks share a mountain range with majestic granite peaks, deep gorges, lakes, rivers, and forests, but they are very different. If you want to visit both parks, you’ll need at least a couple of days.
Despite the fact that both parks have giant sequoias, Sequoia National Park is arguably the best place to see these ancient wonders. Easy walking trails meander through the trees, many of which are paved, and provide easy access to the major sites. This park is also home to Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the United States at 14,495 feet (apart from Alaska).
In Sequoia National Park, there are some beautiful campgrounds, many of which are well located for visiting the trees and other attractions, such as Moro Rock and the famous General Sherman Tree.
Kings Canyon National Park is more rugged and wild, with jagged peaks, raging rivers, and remote areas where you can get away from the crowds and enjoy nature. Hiking is popular in this park.
There are also some incredible campgrounds in Kings Canyon, both close to the trees, in the Grant Grove area, and at the far end of the 26-mile Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, in the Cedar Grove area.
Walking through a forest of giant redwoods, which tower more than 300 feet above you, feels like stepping back in time. These are the tallest trees on the planet, descended from trees from the Jurassic Period, and they are truly one of California’s greatest treasures.
These parks, which include Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, stretch along a spectacular stretch of the Northern California Coast. Each one has something unique to offer, but they all have beautiful hiking trails and campgrounds.
Joshua trees add a magical touch to this otherwise lunar landscape, where giant boulders and rock formations create wild shapes that captivate the imagination. The park encompasses 800,000 acres and features a diverse range of sites that include much more than just Joshua trees.
Some of the highlights include the Cholla Cactus Garden, where chollas stretch out endlessly along the hillside to the mountains beyond, the ruins of the historic Keys Ranch, the giant palms of the Lost Palms Oasis, and the vista from over 5,000 feet at Keys View. Don’t miss Skull Rock, a massive rock shaped like an alien skull.
If you plan on staying for a while, you might want to consider spending a night under the stars and trees at one of Joshua Tree National Park’s fantastic campgrounds.
This amusement park and movie studio is one of California’s most popular attractions, and it’s ideal for families with older children and teens. Rides and sets are themed after popular movies, and include everything from terrifyingly realistic simulator rides to roller coasters and much more.
On studio tours, you can take a look at large sets. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Fast and Furious – Supercharged, Jurassic World, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, and The Walking Dead Attraction are among the most popular attractions in the park. You’ll also find dining, shows, shopping, and a variety of events held throughout the year.
Hearst Castle, officially known as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, was begun in 1919 and completed over a 28-year period, resulting in a quirky and stately mix of architectural styles. The 165-room castle, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was never finished.
It is located on a hill at an elevation of 1,600 feet and provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Range. The vast collection of art is one of the main draws here. The castle once housed the world’s largest private zoo, and zebras and other exotic wildlife can still be seen roaming the grounds.
The castle is roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The drive from either city takes about four hours.
Santa Catalina is a Channel Islands island located about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. Boaters and day trippers visit the island in large numbers. Avalon is the main population centre and the focal point of most of the action. Two Harbours, on the other end of the island, is a much smaller village.
While most visitors come to Santa Catalina Island to walk around and relax, other popular activities include glass bottom boat tours, scuba diving, kayaking, and parasailing. The island is accessible by ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.