California’s Best Places (The Ones the Locals Love!)

Kimberly Miles Avatar

biking at the Golden Gate
The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic San Francisco landmark. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist.

Home to Disneyland, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, pristine beaches, gorgeous ocean views and some of the best wineries in the United States, California is a state that everyone should visit at least once. Whether visiting for the day, during a road trip or for a long-term vacation, the Golden State packs plenty for all ages to do, see and explore. Whether you’re planning on spending time in the north, south, east or west, here are 23 of the best places to visit California.

Best Cities to Visit in California

Disneyland in California
Anaheim is home to Disney World, one of the biggest attractions in the city. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist

Anaheim

The city of Anaheim is the best place to visit in California for those who have Disney on the mind. If Disneyland is on your list of things to do, you’ll certainly want to plan for at least two days. Here are several SheBuysTravel-recommended hotels to consider. However, the iconic theme parks is certainly not the only thing to do!

Located in Southern California right outside of Los Angeles, Anaheim is a mecca for sports enthusiasts. Catch a game of hockey at the Honda Center to see the Anaheim Ducks play, or head to Angel Stadium to see the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. If you’re a beach bum, you’ll have several pristine beaches to choose from where you can swim, surf, fish or watch for whales. There’s also the downtown area where you’ll find live music, mouthwatering restaurants and plenty of unique shops and vendors.

Surf & Sand Laguna Beach Hotel
Photo credit: Surf & Sand Laguna Beach Hotel

Laguna Beach

For those looking to enjoy the west coast beach life, Laguna Beach is definitely one of the best places to visit in California. Although a small town, Laguna Beach has more than 30 scenic coves and beaches. It is also famous for its art galleries and its 20,000 acres of protected wilderness.

Rocky bluffs, canyons and cove beaches define posh Laguna Beach. Though the coastal city has 36 beaches, many are closed off by gated communities or are difficult to reach. However, Main Beach and Crystal Cove State Park are easily reachable and great choices for a fun beach day. You can spend the day in the water, playing beach volleyball, basketball, strolling the boardwalk, shopping or dining. Thousand Steps Beach is another popular (and more low key) choice among locals. Although there aren’t 1,000 steps, there are many to navigate. That discourages many people, but it’s worth visiting this wide beach with tide pools and caves.

If you’re staying overnight, we recommend the Montage Laguna Beach or Surf & Sand Laguna Beach Hotel.

Los Angeles Zoo
The Los Angeles zoo in Griffith Park is a must-do activity when in Los Angeles. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Los Angeles

Located in central California, Los Angeles is a sprawling city with beaches, mountains and valleys. It is no doubt one of the best places to visit in California if you want to keep busy and have something to do that all ages can enjoy.

Whether you’re visiting for one or several days, you’ll definitely need a plan to make the most of your visit. Some of the popular things to do in the city include visiting Universal Studios Hollywood, the Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park and the beach. There’s also Hollywood, Little Tokyo and Dodger Stadium. If you’re short on time and looking for a fun way to see all of the major sites in one trip, you may want to hop on a half-day best of LA city bus tour.

But if you’re staying a little longer, you’ll want to check out this list of the best hotels in southern California.

Read More: Things to do in Pasadena, the southern California home of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

pier at Monterey California
Lover’s Point Park in Monterey, California. Photo credit: Julie Bigboy

Monterey

Monterey is one of the best places to visit in California that offers a little bit of everything for everyone. In a single day, travelers can visit the beach, mountains and farmlands!

Located on the state’s rugged central coast, Monterey is within a few hours driving distance south of San Francisco. The county includes cities such as Seaside, Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Carmel, Pacific Grove and Salinas Valley. Each town offers its own diverse activities. Walkable areas like Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf make it easy for visitors to explore at their own pace. The Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur is a popular attraction and can be seen with a half-day guided tour.

With such a vast number of tourist attractions and hidden gems, it can be a challenge to know where to start! However, some of the must-visit attractions include the Monterey Aquarium and dog-friendly Carmel Beach. If visiting with the family, take a whale watching tour. Or, if planning for the adults only, you can never go wrong with a tour of wine country. Check out our full list of the best things to do in Monterey.

Palm Springs
Palm Springs with its signature trees and the San Jacinto Mountains. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Palm Springs

Palm Springs is a scenic desert town in Southern California. Stylish hotels, swimming pools and a range of activities make Palm Springs one of the best places to visit in California for residents and visitors alike.

About a two-hour drive from Los Angeles and San Diego, Palm Springs is an ideal weekend getaway. Especially during the winter months when temperatures are mild. Although, the best deals are offered in summer when temperatures are sizzling. Offering a wide range of accommodations and activities, Palm Springs attracts families, couples, friends and celebrities.

Although it’s famous for an abundance of swimming pools and golf courses, Palm Springs offers much more than that. Outdoor enthusiasts will find hiking, off-road adventures, golf courses and tennis. SheBuysTravel contributor Mimi Slawoff is a Los Angeles native and says the guided jeep tour is among her favorite things to do. In addition, there are many indoor and outdoor family-friendly attractions. Museums, shopping and dining round out things to do in Palm Springs.

Try one of these Palm Springs resorts for your stay.

San Diego

With 70 miles of beautiful beaches, near-perfect weather and a variety of summer street fairs, concerts and arts and cultural events, it’s no surprise that San Diego makes the list of the best places to visit in California.

San Diego is known for having some of the best beaches in the world, so there’s always fun to be had along the waterfront. There you can dive into water sports such as body surfing, boogie boarding or do something more relaxing such as building sandcastles, collecting seashells and basking in the sun. There’s also a ton of free things to do in Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the United States. Balboa Park is also home to the San Diego Zoo.

SheBuysTravel contributor Julie Bigboy is a San Diego native and recommends Old Town San Diego for a historical location that even the kids will enjoy! Unlike stuffy museums, Old Town is open-air, with historical buildings, small free-entry museums and areas for kids to play. At the end of the day, catch a magnificent Pacific sunset at one of the many glorious beachfront locations. The appropriately named Sunset Cliffs is a popular spot. Watch sea lions play along the shoreline at La Jolla Cove, one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world.

Street car in California
Streetcars are a popular way to get around San Francisco. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist

San Francisco

Located in Northern California, San Francisco offers plenty to do and see. With its iconic steep hills, beautiful architecture and endless places to sightsee and explore, it is definitely one the best places to visit in California for all ages.

Attractions like the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens and Aquarium of the Bay are perfect for visitors who are eager to see and interact with wildlife. Other popular and must-see attractions include the legendary Golden Gate Bridge, historic Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island and the huge and historic Chinatown. For foodies, San Francisco is said to have some of the best Mexican food in the state! If you’re down for some exercise, a self-guided bike tour will show you all the best parts of the city.

San Francisco is also known for having some of the best public transportation. An intricate network of trains, buses, street cars, bikes and those world-famous cable cars will get you almost anywhere you want to go in the Bay Area. SheBuysTravel contributor Gwen Kleist and her teen stayed at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco and had easy access to all of the transportation just steps away: the cable cars, F-line street cars, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and ferry!

Read More: Where to Eat in Concord CA, an East Bay Gem

Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara
Stearns Wharf is one of the oldest working wharfs in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Santa Barbara

A posh California beach city along the central coast, Santa Barbara is one of the best places to visit in California for wine lovers, history buffs and those who love to shop.

The city is known for its pristine beaches, upscale boutiques, wineries and unique Spanish colonial architecture. Its downtown area and popular State Street is lined with restaurants serving up local fare. Stearns Wharf is an iconic Santa Barbara landmark with restaurants and shops. It’s a great place for a stroll, snacks and ocean views. Sailing is a popular activity.

SheBuysTravel contributor Mimi Slawoff recommends visiting the South Coast Railroad Museum, which features the Goleta Depot. This country railroad station house was built by the Southern Pacific in 1901. On the weekends, you can even ride a miniature train!

carousel at Santa Cruz
The Santa Cruz boardwalk is packed with fun for all ages. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

Santa Cruz

Located on the central coast of California, Santa Cruz is famous for its high-stoke surf culture. With expansive beaches and some of the world’s best off-shore breaks, it is one of the best places to visit in California for surfers and water lovers.

However, there’s so much more to this laid-back strip of shoreline than wetsuits and short boards. The Natural Bridges State Beach is known for its bridge-shaped rock formation. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a hot spot for thrill-seekers with theme park featuring a vintage carousel and roller coaster. Its long wharf is lined with many eateries and shops that stretch into Monterey Bay. The downtown area has even more vintage shops, galleries and cafes.

Santa Monica State Beach and pier
One of L.A.’s most visited beaches, Santa Monica State Beach has wide beaches, a boardwalk and historic pier with restaurants, shops, an amusement park, and aquarium. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Santa Monica

Just a few minutes from Venice Beach, Santa Monica is well known for its historic pier, which marks the official finish line for Route 66. It is one of the best places to visit in California for family fun and pristine beaches.

The Santa Monica pier anchors a carousel, aquarium and Pacific Park, a classic boardwalk amusement park. There you’ll find the  nine-story Pacific Wheel (a solar-powered Ferris wheel), food for all budgets and great views. The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium is located at beach level under the carousel. The nearby Third Street Promenade is pedestrian-only with big chain stores, restaurants and street performers. You may even find a festive farmers market. Want a fun way to get around and explore? Give an electric bike tour a try!

Planning to stay overnight? Check out the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and Shutters on the Beach.

Best Attractions to Visit in California:

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island is a must-visit for all ages. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist

Alcatraz Island

Arguably one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks, Alcatraz Island can be reached only via Alcatraz Cruises. It’s a very popular tour and tickets sometimes sell out weeks in advance, so make sure to reserve your tickets as soon as you have a date!

The infamous prison once housed Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz. Today, it is run by the National Park Service and you can tour the old prison and the island’s grounds. There is an excellent audio guide that includes memories of former prisoners and guards. The night tour is especially spooky, and offers extras like the slamming of the cell block and access to the prison’s hospital.

Catalina Island Harbor
Santa Catalina Island is situated 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Catalina Island

Catalina Island is one of the best places to visit in California for a tropical and relaxing day trip. Just 22 miles off of the coast of Los Angeles, it is often overlooked by tourists and forgotten by residents. Getting to Catalina is a breeze via the Catalina Express, which sails from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point.

SheBuysTravel contributor Mimi Slawoff has been to Catalina Island numerous times since childhood and with her own three kids and never tires of visiting. Colorful cottages, waterfront cafes and shops dot the quaint harbor town. With the exception of a handful of shuttles and tour vehicles, Catalina is car-free. Residents and tourists get around Avalon by walking, biking and driving golf carts, adding to its charm.

For a small island, Catalina has many land and water activities. These include swimming, fishing, kayaking, mini golf, bicycling, zip lining, snorkeling and scuba diving. Among the fun things are boat tours, including a unique flying fish excursion in summer.

Artists Way in Death Valley National Park
Artist’s Drive creates a colorful landscape in Death Valley. Photo credit: Eric Jay Toll

Death Valley National Park

Located about 274 miles from Los Angeles, Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska and home to the lowest point in the United States. Although it is among the best places to visit in California, it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. At 282 feet below sea level, it has some of the harshest, hottest and driest conditions in Northern America.

Because of he harsh conditions, the time of year that you visit should be chosen wisely; avoid summer months at all costs. The park is surrounded by the Amargosa and the Panamint mountain ranges. Sand dunes, salt-flats, badlands, canyons, valleys and mountains all make this park home. Explore Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette and Mesquite Flat Dunes with the family to get a taste of the landscape. Several hiking opportunities are also available.

If you’re into Star Wars, you may be interested to know that Death Valley was one of the filming locations as the planet Tatooine in Star Wars. Campgrounds, cabins and lodging are offered in Death Valley.

biking at the Golden Gate
The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic San Francisco landmark. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist.

Golden Gate Bridge

One of the best places to visit in California if you’re in the San Francisco area is the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the tallest, longest and most iconic suspension bridges in the world. Upon its completion in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge set the precedent for suspension-bridge design worldwide.

If you’re looking for a free activity to do while visiting the area, walking the bridge should be at the top of your list. It is also popular among bikers who wish to bike across the bridge instead. However, if your plan is to take photos, walking is the best bet. Just watch out for the cyclists!

The famous Hollywood sign
The famous Hollywood sign that can be seen from several places in Los Angeles. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Hollywood

What’s a trip to California without a trip to the famed Hollywood? Just a short drive from Universal Studios, Hollywood is one of the best places to visit in California whether you’re just passing through or staying for a few days.

Some of the popular things to do in Hollywood include taking a walk on Hollywood Boulevard. There you’ll see the Dolby Theatre where the Academy Awards take place. Thirty-minute guided tours take place daily for those who are interested. Get up close and personal with the iconic Hollywood sign with a guided hike, or head to the world-famous Walk of Fame, which consists of 2,000-plus terrazzo and brass stars bearing celebrity names.

Take photos in front of the extravagant TCL Chinese Theatre (Grauman’s Chinese Theatre), which debuted in 1927 and still shows movie premieres. Across from the theater is Disney’s El Capitan Theatre, showing first-run Disney movies (a favorite attraction among children and adults!)

Joshua Tree National Park landscape
Joshua Tree National Park is filled with cactus-like trees. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinksi

Joshua Tree National Park

Located less than two hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to visit in California for hiking, biking and rock-climbing. The park is full of unique rock formations, cacti and yucca that make beautiful backdrops for photos or for simply enjoying all of the natural beauty it has to offer.

While some visitors stay at the park over a weekend or more, Joshua Tree National Park can also be seen if taking a road trip through the area. To make the most of your stay, stop by one of the four Joshua Tree visitor centers for maps and information. Among the popular activities are Skull Rock and a 1.7-mile nature trail. An 18-mile motor tour with 16 scenic stops provides a leisurely way to see the park. Ranger programs offer guided tours, hikes and a children’s story time. At night, the sky is dark enough to stargaze and see the Milky Way.

Sequoia National Park
A young boy is sdwarfed by the giant trees at Sequoia National Park, California. Photo courtesy of Jakub Jasinski

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park

Known for their huge sequoia trees, the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National parks are among the best places to visit in California for nature lovers of all ages. The two parks are connected and are home to some of the largest trees in the world.

A visit to the park can be spent on the winding hiking trails through the tall redwoods or climbing through the trunk of a fallen giant. If you’re up for it, you can explore the park and the Sierra Nevada mountains on horseback or stay overnight for an unforgettable camping trip. While there, don’t forget to visit the General Sherman Tree, the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth that is estimated to be around 2,200-2,700 years old.

Lake Tahoe Landscape
Lake Tahoe is a stunning spot for a California family vacation. Photo credit: Margot Black

Lake Tahoe

Located two hours inland from Sacramento, Lake Tahoe is one of the best places in California for premier skiing in the winter and lakeside fun and water sports in the summer. As the largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe boasts crystal clear blue and pure waters.

In addition to its dozens of ski resorts nearby, Lake Tahoe is a beautiful and picturesque destination for the warmer months. After the snow melts, colorful wildflowers can be seen on the mountain slopes surrounding the lake. Popular outdoor activities during the summer months include kayaking, jet skiing, hiking and ziplining.

A short drive away from the north shore is the authentic Old West town of Truckee. History buffs probably know that Truckee is also where the Donner Party was snowbound in 1846–1847. Only half survived, including eight-year-old Patty Reed, who carried a small doll with her. Visitors can see that doll today at Sutter’s Fort.

These are our favorite Lake Tahoe resorts.

balooning over Napa Valley
If you get up early in Napa Valley, you’re likely to see hot air balloons floating in the sky. Photo credit: Visit Napa Valley/Bob McClenahan

Napa Valley

North of San Francisco sits the famous Napa Valley, known for its hundreds of hillside vineyards. It is one of the best places to visit in California if you love good wine and good food.

If you want to tour the area from a vintage locomotive, the Napa Valley Wine Train is a popular way to do so. The train is also a traveling restaurant, so you’ll be able to eat well while sipping on the region’s best wines. In the city of Napa, you can find regional gourmet food at the Oxbow Public Market.

SheBuysTravel founder Kim Orlando went wine tasting in Napa Valley with her daughter, her friend and her daughter’s friend and were impressed to see a sommelier pop open a champagne bottle with a saber.

Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway (also known as the PCH) is hands down one of the best places to visit in California if you are looking for an epic west coast road trip. With 1,650 miles that runs almost the entire length of the California coast, it is one of those trips that everyone should do once in their life if they can!

The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic highways in the world, with twisting, turning coastline, and waves from the Pacific Ocean that crash over the rocks in the ocean below. On the opposite side of the highway, fertile farmland gives way to charming seaside villages. During the drive, you’ll have the opportunity to really take in all that California has to offer from pioneer settlements and surf towns to fresh food and wineries. The entire route is gorgeous but the section between Santa Barbara and San Francisco is particularly spectacular.

Redwood National and State Parks

Located in Northern California, the Redwood National State Park is open 24/7/365. Some visitors might call it Redwoods National Park but it’s actually a national park and state park combined.

If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of California’s breathtaking and towering redwood trees, this is the place to be. U.S. Route 101 runs north and south though the Redwood National and State Parks. Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway offers a scenic drive and several unpaved roads offer beach access, though trailers are prohibited.

If visiting the park with kids, the Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Redwood National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. Kids complete the number of activities in the booklet based on their age. A ranger program is not required to earn the Junior Ranger badge though visiting a tide pool or taking a hike in the redwoods is encouraged.

Sonoma Valley

Known as the birthplace of wine in California, Sonoma Valley is one of the best places to visit in California for wine lovers who are looking for something a little more affordable than the famed Napa Valley. The 17-mile long valley right next to Napa doesn’t just have wineries, but also beautiful vistas, amazing landscapes, incredible weather and a mix of art, shopping and fun.

SheBuysTravel contributor Mimi Slawoff loves the town of Healdsburg in particular. It’s a small, rural town with several wineries, boutique hotels and a nearby state park. It’s also a foodie’s haven. The charming downtown has tasting rooms, mom-and-pop shops, restaurants and art galleries.

Popular activities include outdoor activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, boating and kayaking at the nearby parks.

Yosemite National Park in California
osemite Valley and National Park is revered for its spectacular rock formations, majestic waterfalls and lush meadows. Photo Credit: Mimi Slawoff

Yosemite National Park

Nestled within California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is one of the best places to visit for visitors who love hiking and nature. With giant, ancient sequoia trees, granite cliffs and iconic views, it is definitely an unforgettable experience.

Less than five hours away from Los Angeles by car, Yosemite National Park offers majestic granite domes, numerous waterfalls and meadows. The Merced River attracts families, hikers and rock climbers. Vernal Falls is amongst the favorites when it comes to hikes as well as Half Dome, a rock formation that’s popular with experienced hikers. However, visitors should know the importance of staying on trails to avoid accidents! In Yosemite Village, you’ll find shops, restaurants, the Yosemite Museum and the Ansel Adams Gallery.

These are our favorite hotels near Yosemite.

Kimberly Miles Avatar
Kimberly Miles is a mother of one and an experienced solo and single mom traveler. So far, she has traveled to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Dubai, Bahamas, Aruba, Mexico, and several places in the U.S. Kimberly was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, but in 2018 she took a leap of faith and made the beautiful beach town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico her home with her young son. In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Kimberly ghostwrites blogs on a variety of topics. She also provides marketing consulting services and business guidance to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and corporations via her independent business KNM Virtual Solutions. When she’s not traveling or writing, you can find Kimberly working out, eating tacos, dancing the night away, or spending time at the beach with her son. You can read more of her work at Travel Unapologetically.
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