With an impressive variety of scenery, theme parks, and countless leisure activities, it’s not easy to make a list of 10 must-see places in California, probably the most complex state in the United States.
The Golden State occupies a large part of the West Coast, so almost all the places listed in this article are located near the Pacific Ocean, which can only translate into gorgeous views.
California will impress any traveler with its sensational landscapes, picturesque roads, metropolises, and small but chic towns, forests with giant trees, and vineyards on the hills that will remind you of Tuscany.
The leading state in the entertainment segment, but also on business and technology, offers positive temperatures throughout the year so that you can enjoy any possible activity, no matter when you choose to visit California.
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10 must-see places in California
1. San Francisco
One of the most expensive cities in the US, but also one of the most charming ones, is San Francisco, the financial and economic center of California.
Developed on hills, right next to the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco offers some of the most incredible landscapes.
Although much smaller than Los Angeles, there are plenty of things to do during your trip to San Francisco. I can’t continue without mentioning the famous Golden Gate Bridge, a symbol of the city.
You can’t leave San Francisco without dining in one of the best restaurants in the city. SF is famous for its culinary success and a large number of Michelin restaurants.
You can also have some great gastronomy experiences in Little Italy or China Town, where you can find a completely different face of San Francisco.
- cross the Golden Gate Bridge
- visit one of the most famous prisons in the world, Alcatraz
- walk the Lombard street, the most crooked street in the world
- get on the famous tram
- visit The Painted Ladies
- visit the waterfront Fisherman’s Warf
- relax in the Golden Gate Park
- stay at a terrace in the Union Square
- go shopping in China Town
- admire the skyline from the Twin Peaks hills
- go for a walk in the Japanese Garden
Where to stay in San Francisco:
- budget: Hotel 32One – private parking, Wifi, good location
- mid-range: Club Donatello – fitness center, private parking, bar, good breakfast, central location
- luxury: Hotel Triton– fitness center, room service, Wifi, excellent location
2. Yosemite National Park
To have a clue about how beautiful Yosemite National Park is and understand why is a must-see place in California, the best thing to do is to check the statistics. And, of course, to spend at least one day in Yosemite.
Approximately 4 million people visit the park yearly. An impressive number, isn’t it?
What are they looking for in Yosemite? Well, the offer is unlimited. Nature didn’t set any boundaries here and did a fantastic job.
You can admire large meadows, forests and rivers, waterfalls, and gigantic trees.
Yosemite National Park is part of UNESCO since the year 1984. The most popular attractions inside the park are Half Dome, Glacier Point, Tunnel View, and Mariposa Grove.
Best things to do in Yosemite National Park:
- enjoy the beautiful flora and fauna; you can even see bears here
- walk through the forests
- visit the most beautiful waterfalls: Verna Falls, Yosemite Falls, and Bridalveil Falls
- zip-lining at the Yosemite Ziplines & Adventure Ranch
- rafting on river Merced
Where to stay nearby Yosemite National Park:
- budget: River Rock Inn – Wifi, free parking, pet friendly
- mid-range: Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite – pool, free parking, bar
- luxury: The Village Lodge – pool, fitness center, free Wifi, free parking, bar, restaurant
3. Santa Barbara
Known as the American Riviera, the city situated between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Coast, is home to the most beautiful Spanish villas, huge wineries, and restaurants with delicious dishes based on sea fruits.
Santa Barbara is one of the must-see places in California, and a large number of celebrities can’t agree more.
Ellen, Oprah, and even Brad Pitt are some of the famous names that chose to buy properties in this piece of heaven.
Best things to do in Santa Barbara
- walk on the Stearns Wharf pier
- visit the botanical garden
- go on a wine tasting tour
- go for a walk in Shoreline Park
- visit the most beautiful beaches
Where to stay in Santa Barbara:
- budget: Castillo Inn at the Beach – free Wifi, free parking, spacious rooms
- mid-range: Harbor House Inn – free Wifi, free parking, good location, beautiful rooms
- luxury: Harbor View Inn– two pools, fitness center, excellent location, nearby beach, bar
4. Death Valley
A fun fact about Death Valley is that it holds the record for the largest National Park in the United States if we don’t count Alaska.
But the records don’t stop here. Death Valley is, at the same time, the hottest, lowest, and driest place in America.
To remove any doubt, I will give you some examples and data. Well, temperatures in Death Valley often go beyond 49 Celsius degrees in the summer. The highest temperature ever registered in history was 134 Fahrenheit degrees.
Let’s talk about the lowest point in Death Valley. Badwater Basin is situated 855 meters under sea level.
One of the most interesting places in Death Valley is the rainbow hills. The soil here has such a large palette of colors, that it looks like a rainbow. The place it’s called Artist’s Palette.
Where to stay nearby the Death Valley:
- mid-range: Death Valley Inn & RV Park– pool, free Wifi, free parking, pet friendly
- luxury: The Inn at Death Valley– pool, bar, gorgeous rooms, beautiful garden
5. San Diego
It’s hard not to associate San Diego with Mexic. Traveling here will give you some real Mexican vibes, especially thanks to the delicious Mexican dishes that you can find everywhere in San Diego and also the large number of Mexicans who live here.
San Diego is the second-largest city in California, after Los Angeles. In San Diego, you will enjoy gorgeous views, art, and delicious food. Here I had the best tacos!
Best things to do in San Diego:
- get some tan on some of the most beautiful beaches: La Jolla, Mission Beach
- visit the USS Midway Museum, a naval museum dedicated to the naval life
- try Mexican food: tacos, guacamole, burritos
- take some surfing lessons
- go to the old neighborhood of the city, and discover the first place where Europeans have settled in California
- go on a short cruise
- visit Coronado Island
Where to stay in San Francisco:
- budget: Gaslamp Plaza Suites– restaurant, Wifi, parking, bar
- mid-range: Hotel Indigo San Diego – Gaslamp Quarter– fitness center, very good breakfast, private parking, bar
- luxury: Pendry San Diego– pool, fitness center, exceptional breakfast, room service, private parking
READ ALSO: San Diego, California in one day
6. McWay waterfall
I wouldn’t be able to do this “10 must-see places in California” article without including McWay Falls, the waterfall that flows directly into the ocean.
Although it’s still a secret for many people who are crossing the Pacific Coast Highway, McWay Falls shouldn’t be missing on any California itinerary.
The drop is 24 meters long and is located in Big Sur, one of the most stunning areas of the Pacific Coast.
Although you can’t get to the base of the waterfall and the beach unless you take a boat, you can admire the heavenly landscape from the viewpoint.
Where to stay nearby McWay Falls:
- mid-range: Big Sur River Inn– pool, restaurant, private parking, bar, Wifi
- luxury: Ventana Big Sur, An Alila Resort – Adult Only– 2 pools, spa, fitness center, free Wifi, free parking, pet friendly
7. Redwood National Park
Only 6 hours driving from San Francisco, you will find a place that will make you feel as if you are Gulliver in the Land of Giants.
The trees inside the Redwood National Park are so big that they even surpass the Statue of Liberty.
The tallest one is 379 feet (almost 116 meters). Redwood National Park is famous for the large variety of flora and fauna, and mainly for the stars of the park: the giant Sequoias (the trees with the largest diameter in the world) and Sequoia sempervirens (the tallest trees in the world).
Given the location, in the north of California, close to the border with Oregon, the temperatures here are lower than in the rest of the state.
Therefore, to avoid the cold weather and heavy rain, it would be better to visit the park between May and September.
The best things to do in Redwood State Park
- walk through the forest, in search of the tallest trees
- go to the Fern Canyon
- pick a hiking route. Among the favorite ones are James Irvine Trail and Ossagon Trail
- observe the animals. You can see many species, the most common are the elks
8. Los Angeles
I’m pretty sure the capital of entertainment doesn’t need any introduction to make you want to visit it. However, it’s a real pleasure to include LA on this list of 10 must-see places in California.
The Californian metropolis, situated next to the Pacific Ocean, is waiting for you with positive temperatures throughout the year, sunny days, Instagrammable places, large boulevards, framed by tall palm trees, amusement parks, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and Beverly Hills, and the list can go on with many other wonderful places to visit in California.
Best things to do in Los Angeles:
- go to Griffith Observatory
- hike to the Hollywood Sign
- walk through the most luxurious neighborhood, Beverly Hills
- have fun at Universal Studios
- walk on the legendary pier in Santa Monica
- go to the beach in Venice Beach
- Search for the stars on the Walk of Fame boulevard
- admire the stores and the expensive cars on Rodeo Drive
Where to stay in Los Angeles:
- budget: Freehand Los Angeles– pool, fitness center, restaurant, room service
- mid-range: The Hoxton, Downtown LA – pool, restaurant, free Wifi, bar
- luxury: The Peninsula Beverly Hills– pool, fitness center, bar, room service, restaurant
READ ALSO: TOP 10 FUN things to do in LOS ANGELES
9. Bixby Bridge
This is one of the most photographed places on the Pacific Coast Highway, and this is because it makes a fabulous contrast with the blue of the ocean and the dramatic cliffs.
It has a length of 218 meters and a height of 85, and it decorates the Californian landscape for about 100 years now.
Except for the periods when the weather becomes so unpredictable that the traffic on the bridge has to be stopped so that there won’t be any incidents happening.
I’ve added Bixby Bridge to this “10 must-see places in California” because it’s a symbol of the state and an unmissable stop on the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway.
Where to stay nearby Bixby Bridge:
- budget: Carmel Garden Inn– free parking, free Wifi, fabulous breakfast
- mid-range: Candle Light Inn– Wifi, free parking, spacious rooms
- luxury: Wayside Inn – free parking, free Wifi
READ ALSO: 5 towns to visit on the West Coast, USA
10. Napa Valley
You will find a small piece of Italy not only in San Francisco but also on the vineyards spread on the hills in Napa Valley. They will make you think about la dolce vita and Toscana.
Over 500 wineries and many Michelin restaurants are part of Napa Valley, o place that you should add to the list of the must-see places in California.
It is relatively close to San Francisco, and it would be ideal to come here in September or October when you can participate in picking grapes and turning them into the much-loved liqueur, Napa Valley sparkling wine.
The best way to visit the area is to hop on the Napa Valley Wine Train and take part in the Quattro Vino Legacy Tour that will take you, for about 6 hours, on Napa’s Highway 29.
Best things to do in Napa Valley:
- walk along the vineyards
- visit some wineries
- go on a tasting tour
- visit the towns: Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga
- dine in a famous restaurant: The Charter Oak, Charlie Palmer’s Harvest Table
Where to stay in Napa Valley:
- budget: Hotel Napa Valley, Ascend Hotel Collection– free parking, free Wifi, pet friendly
- mid-range: Vineyard Country Inn– pool, free Wifi, free parking
- luxury: Vintage House– pool, fabulous breakfast