Oh, California. The Golden State, and my favorite state in the USA (tied with Washington because it’s home!) I’ve been enough times to count the trips on my two hands, and have seen many miles of the state. From theme parks to beaches and from the world’s largest trees to huge lakes, California really does have it all.
With so many things to see and lots of square footage to cover (163,696 mi²!) it can be hard to narrow down the top places to visit in California; especially if it’s your first visit. So let me help!
Unable to travel at the moment? Check out my West Coast Virtual Guide!
Many of these places have really special meanings to me: San Diego is where my adventures in California began over half a decade ago, Lake Tahoe is where I got engaged and Laguna Beach is not only a beautiful beach town, it’s where I get to blast the theme song to the hit show of the same name from the 2000’s (yes, I am THAT person).
Wherever you choose to go, I promise that California will steal a piece of your heart!
Top Places to Visit in California: San Diego
The Southernmost city in California, bordering Tijuana in Mexico, San Diego has so much to offer. There are beaches, a beautiful island, and vast parks to walk around.
There are countless ocean views and beaches, including my favorite: La Jolla Shores. Although not a typical beach La Jolla Shores has impressive views. It is home to The Children’s Pool, which was in fact once a sheltered cove that served as a pool for children. Over time it was taken over by the resident seals and sea lions. It is the perfect place to view them up close from the boardwalk that looks onto the beach!
For an island experience you can take a quick drive over to Coronado Island. The main attraction is the Hotel Del Coronado, which is the filming location for “Some Like It Hot”, a 1958 film starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. My favorite part of the island was watching the sunsets and eating the chili cheese fries at the Beach Shack, open to non-residents of the hotel!
If you want a chance to see some animals that are not in the wild, the San Diego Zoo is my favorite zoo in the world. It is located in world-famous Balboa Park. The enclosures are expansive, the animals seem well taken care of, and there is a beautiful aerial tram that you can take over the park. There is a sister Safari Park located in Escondido, and there are some pretty cool shows there. You can watch a cheetah get up to top speeds, and meet the dog companions of the cheetahs that help them with their social anxiety!
Truthful Travel Tip:
This list just scratches the surface of what San Diego has to offer. To get a feel for the city take an Old Town Trolley Tour. It starts in Old Town, where you can find America’s most haunted house: the Whaley House.
For more spooky West Coast destinations check out my post!
There are ten stops all throughout the downtown area, including ones in Balboa Park and on Coronado Island. Taking the old-style trolley is one of my fondest memories of San Diego!
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Note: Anza-Borrego is a desert, and therefore almost impossible to visit in the Summer months. We visited in May, and the campground is open from October 1- May 31 each year.
Located just under 2 hours from San Diego sits a desert park that arguably could be a National Park, due to its diversity and sheer size. At 916 square miles, there are countless days of adventures waiting for you! Anza-Borrego is one of the top places to visit in California; especially for those who want an introduction to the vast wilderness that is the California desert.
One of the most rewarding experiences is to camp at Anza-Borrego. Borrego Palm Canyon has campsites that all have mountain views, and one of the most amazing experiences is watching the stars at night (it is a designated Dark Sky Park!). Much of the park is wilderness, and the different landscapes are truly unique. For a out-of-this-world view, visit Font’s Point which overlooks the Borrego Badlands. Although a 4WD vehicle would be a plus here, the road to the overlook is navigable with a regular sedan, although the sand can be soft in places.
If you’re into offroading, there are tons of trails throughout the park. And no matter where you are driving, you are bound to see some of the plants and animals that makes Anza-Borrego so unique. There are natural California fan palms, jackrabbits, and even roadrunners. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep along trails, and rattlesnakes wherever you walk!
Truthful Travel Tip:
If you are traveling with young kids, the Visitor Center is a perfect place to either start or end the trip. From the campground, there is an almost mile long interpretive trail that will take you to the Center, where you can get information about some of the trails in the area as well as learn about the park. There are taxidermied animals within the Center of creatures as big as mountain lions and as small as mice, and there is a historical exhibit that shows replicas of animals that once roamed the land!
If you grew up in the 2000s you probably watched (or knew someone that watched), the hit show Laguna Beach. It is exactly as the show depicts: ritzy with a whole lot of beach. It was not until I first visited that I realized the town is named Laguna Beach, but there are many beaches throughout it. Laguna Beach is one of the top places to visit in California for many reasons: the beaches, the vibe and the food!
My personal favorite is Crescent Bay Beach. The water is clear (my favorite kind of water when you’re swimming in shark territory!) and walking along the rocks you can catch some pretty impressive views looking back over the beach. The water this far South remains moderately warm late in the year, and I have gone swimming in late October at this beach.
If you get tired of the beach you can stroll down Ocean Ave, which is full of art galleries, ice cream shops and restaurants. One of the best dining experiences we had here was at The Cliff Restaurant. There was great food, and a full doggie menu. Mason got to have his own beef patty with white rice!
Truthful Travel Tip:
If you’re looking for a really unique place to visit in California, go to the Pirate’s Tower in Laguna Beach. While I personally have never been, it is on my list. An old tower on the beach that resembles Rapunzel’s, it looks magical!
This list would not be complete without adding in the original Disney theme park, opened in 1955. There are two parks located next to one another: the more traditional Disneyland and California Adventure, which covers more recent Pixar movies.
Check out my guide to 1 Day In Disneyland
There are three main things to do at Disneyland and California Adventure: rides, character meets and shows. The most magical part of it all in my opinion is the fireworks put on at night. The fireworks are the backdrop to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and it is all set to music. The fireworks shows change with the seasons, and each one is magical in its own way. Keep your eyes on the skies during these performances and you may see a special someone!
If you crave nostalgia Disneyland is your park. You can try out the oldest rides in the park: Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and Jungle Cruise to name a few. Meet Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Disneyland will make you feel like a kid again. If you’re a huge PIXAR fan then California Adventure will suit your style. Cars Land is a big attraction there, and you can meet characters from newer movies such as Frozen!
Truthful Travel Tip:
This is one of the top places to visit in California for good reason, but the price also reflects that. You can save money by going during the “Value” days, in which the price is almost 40 USD cheaper! To make the most of your money, plan to visit early and stay late. It can be a long day but it goes by quickly while you’re enjoying the magic.
Sequoia National Park
I had no idea what I was in for when visiting Sequoia National Park! I remember how hot it was just outside of the park; we stopped in Three Rivers and it was classic California landscape: mountains that were dusty and barren. That all changed when we entered the park.
We followed the (extreme winding!!!) park road to our first stop through the Tunnel Log. Located on Crescent Meadow Road, it is a downed Redwood that you can drive through. Stopping here to take pictures was just a glimpse at how big the trees are in these forests. Just a bit further into the park we climbed the short trail to Moro Rock. The overlook looks deep down into valleys and far out to the surrounding mountains. I’ve done a lot of hikes through the USA, and there isn’t quite anything like Moro Rock. Our visit was before Instagram (well, before it was as popular as it is) and so we had no idea what to expect. What a surprise!
The star of our visit to Sequoia though, was visiting General Sherman. There are really no words to describe how big the tree is, and even in pictures you still don’t quite get a sense of what a 275 ft tall tree looks like. While it is the largest tree, there are so many other huge ones surrounding it. If you’re looking for a unique slice of the world, this is one of the top places to visit in California!
Truthful Travel Tip:
Sequoia is only half of the park. King’s Canyon is worth a visit during the same day. We didn’t budget for it and so missed out on seeing it, but there are so many amazing views and hikes within the North part of the connected parks.
Have you seen Big Little Lies? Here’s a fun fact: during one of my visits to Big Sur we stumbled upon the set, where the hit series was being filmed! The show is filmed in the Big Sur area, and features places I know and love.
Big Sur was probably my favorite unexpected part of my first California road trip. We knew we loved the coast, and heard there was a really high road along it with cliffs dropping into the ocean. I love it so much I have been back at least four times since, and each time is a different experience. You drive over tight bridges, right in between daring cliffs and mountains that seemingly rise from the sea. There are hairpin turns and views that keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time!
One of my favorite places is McWay Falls, a waterfall that drops into the ocean. It is a stunning scene, and the beach is off-limits to people. You see it from high above and the scene down below is so pristine and calming. Pfeiffer Beach is also a gem. If you visit at the right time the sand has a purple hue! Camping in Big Sur is an amazing experience. We stayed at Kirk Creek campground and literally slept next to the cliff, waking up to sea fog and ocean waves. It was an experience I would recommend to everyone!
Truthful Travel Tip:
The weather can make or break this experience. The first time we visited we were extremely lucky, in that it was sunny and clear. When we visited a second time it was foggy in Carmel, the town before Big Sur. We encountered such an eerie (but cool!) trip to our campground that evening. We were driving through mist, and the view over the cliffs was into foggy nothingness. In our experience the sea fog tends to roll inland in the morning, clear midday and roll back in during the evening. It is also said to be worse during the Summer. Planning around these conditions can make the difference between an okay experience and an unforgettable one.
Carmel is just North of Big Sur. Overshadowed by its neighbor Monterey (also of Big Little Lies fame!) it is quieter but also has way more charm. If you have dreams of stepping into a storybook, this is your chance. The streets of Carmel are filled with shops and buildings that resemble gingerbread houses.
This storybook town has fairytale cottages and also some pretty great beach front. You can head down to Carmel City Beach, a long beach with white sand and clear water. You can take the 17 Mile Drive around Carmel’s gated neighborhoods (there is a cost: 10.50 USD/ vehicle) to visit The Lone Cypress, a single tree on a rock face that is shaped by the elements.
The best beaches of all are the ones that you cannot access: the beaches in Point Lobos State Marine Reserve. With countless trails and ample opportunities to view wildlife, Point Lobos gives you a glimpse into what untouched life on the California coast looks like. There are trails that hug the coast throughout the park. We traveled the Bird Island Trail to get to China Cove, which glitters emerald in the light and is filled with lounging seals. Apart from the seals and birds, we also saw otters relaxing in the waters.
Truthful Travel Tip:
Carmel is a beautiful place, but there is also a lot to offer in nearby Monterey. If you are traveling with children the Monterey Aquarium is a world class aquarium, and a loose basis for Finding Dory’s Marine Life Institute. It is located on a National Marine Reserve and has cool exhibits such as a kelp forest and Life On The Bay, an open deck exhibit.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a gem of the famous national park system in the US. There are so many things to see: overlooks, famous rock faces, forests, streams and too many waterfalls to count.
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We visited in the Spring, the perfect time to go chasing waterfalls. We took a hike to Vernal Falls, which takes you past rushing rapids and through mist up the very top of the waterfall. It is amazing climbing up and looking right over the falls. You can trace the path that you took to get to the top by the water flowing down.
There are also waterfalls that are accessible by shorter and easier hikes. The Lower Yosemite Falls Loop is a short mile with a beautiful cascade at the end. The trail to Bridal Veil Trail is even shorter, at only half a mile round trip. There is something for everyone looking to enjoy the outdoors at Yosemite National Park.
Truthful Travel Tip:
One thing we didn’t get a good view of were the two famous rock faces: Half Dome and El Capitan. The National Park is huge (1,169 sq miles) so you should plan what you want to see ahead of time. Consider visiting for more than one day to visit differing landscapes!
San Francisco is a city that is defined by its famous bridge, but has so much more than just that to offer. It is a big city, and to get to the different sights requires a bit of driving (and usually some traffic; it is the Bay Area after all!)
San Francisco is known for its sea fog. Getting a great view of the Golden Gate bridge is usually based mostly on luck. The best viewpoint I’ve found for pictures is Battery Spencer. Parking can be a hassle and it may require a long walk, but the views are worth the effort. Apart from the bridge and the famous prison Alcatraz, there are chocolate stores, famous street views, piers, and nearby beaches to enjoy.
If you’re looking for a scenic beach outside of the busy city, head to Half Moon Bay. Located about 45 minutes South of the city, this quiet beach is a beautiful refuge from the busy city. The cliffs leading on to the beach are usually covered in flowers and grasses and the sunsets here can be beautiful under the right conditions.
Truthful Travel Tip:
Silicon Valley is located close to San Francisco (but it can take awhile to get there, especially with traffic!) It almost deserves its own spot as one of the top places to visit in California.You can visit Googleplex’s campus and visit the Computer History Museum. You can take a picture with the Facebook logo at the front of their campus and tour Stanford Campus. If you’re experiencing soggy, foggy weather on the coast heading here is usually warmer and drier!
Top Places to Visit in California: Lake Tahoe
Like Crater Lake in Oregon (America’s deepest lake), Lake Tahoe is a beauty. Although I am biased because it was where my engagement took place, I will say the lake has some of the clearest waters I have had the privilege of swimming in.
Lake Tahoe is big, located between the two states of California and Nevada. While South Lake Tahoe is known as the area with the big rocks and transparent waters, there are beautiful spots all around the lake. King’s Beach on the North Shore is dog friendly and has water that glimmers in the sunshine. My personal favorite is Skunk Harbor, which requires a hike down to pristine water.
Beaches are not the only attraction at Lake Tahoe. There are beautiful overlooks like Emerald Bay, and amazing winter sports as the temperatures drop. The Winter Olympic took place in nearby Squaw Valley in 1960, and the Village is still intact. In Winter it is a ski retreat, and in Summer the Wanderlust yoga festival takes place here! Lake Tahoe has the feel of a forest retreat, which is rare in a state full of beaches.
Truthful Travel Tip:
Lake Tahoe is one of the top places to visit in California, which means it can get quite expensive and can be hard to find accomodation. Traveling in a larger group and booking a cabin/ stay ahead of time can save you a lot of money and ensure you have a nice place to call home. A cabin I have had bookmarked on my Airbnb forever is an affordable option!
*If you sign up for Airbnb using my referral link you will get $55 USD off your first trip—and once you complete the reservation, I’ll get up to $30, at no extra cost to you!
It is no secret that California is a beautiful destination to visit. There are so many places I have not included here, simply because I haven’t explored them. There is Joshua Tree National Park, the desert, and many more beach areas. This is just a starting point. Once you visit, you will be hooked and will want to visit again and again and again. I hope this next year brings you opportunities to visit some of the top places in California!
Interested in planning your own trip? Check out my Adventure Planner to guide you through planning ideas, a budget, an itinerary and a packing list!
A Truthful Traveler
4 Comments on “Top Places To Visit in California”
You have visited so many awesome places in California. I have lived in the state over 15 years and still have a long list of places to go. Getting engaged on Lake Tahoe must have been great!
Ah I love visiting California! Some spots on your list that are still on my to-do! One of my last trips out there was to Laguna Beach – did you know there’s a “secret” salt water pool right by the Pirate’s Tower? Unfortunately I was there during low-tide and it wasn’t filled. If you look it up on Pinterest it’s the picture of a round looking pool in the edge of the shore that looks unreal. The pirate tower is really cool to see, too! Hope you get to check it out soon.
I explored a bit of California but there is so much to see! I want to do my next trip to Lake Tahoe, love the great tip about booking a cabin for a group to have more affordable accommodation.
California has so much to offer, I can understand why you love it so much. Me too. In fact you started off with probably my favourite US city, San Diego. Such a great place. Living in Vancouver, BC, California is the easy place to visit so I’ll have to check out some of the places on this list I haven’t yet been