USA & Canada | Destination Guides

12 best things to do in California

California is a state as diverse as it is captivating. From the glitz and glamor of Hollywood to the rugged wilderness of Yosemite National Park, to the sun-kissed beaches of the south, the Golden State really does have it all. 

Picture yourself driving down the famous 17-Mile Drive, past dramatic coastal cliffs. Then walk under majestic Redwoods, standing tall as guardians of nature. Admire the azure waters of Lake Tahoe, and taste the world-renowned wines of Sonoma Valley.

We’ve crossed the state, looking far and wide to uncover the 12 best things to do in California.

FIND INSPIRATION: California Destination Guide

Cruise along 17-Mile Drive

Lone cypress tree standing on a rocky outcrop at sunset with the ocean in the background is a must-see when planning what to do in Northern California.
Lone cypress tree standing on a rocky outcrop at sunset with the ocean in the background is a must-see when planning what to do in Northern California.

Northern California’s 17-Mile Drive is a bucket-list stretch of road that weaves along the most beautiful part of Monterey Bay. This scenic route follows the rugged coastline between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach, taking in stunning coastal panoramas, top beaches, and incredible cliffs.

There’s no need to rush the drive, so take your time stopping along the way at various lookouts, including the famous Lone Cypress. There is a solitary cypress tree that’s perched precariously on a granite outcrop. It represents resilience – and makes for a great photo!

You’ll find more Monterey Cypress trees in the nearby Del Monte Forest, and you can admire seabirds and marine life at Bird Rock. Overall, cruising along the 17-Mile Drive is one of the best things to do in California as it really captures the essence of the Golden State’s coastal charm.

Go hiking in Yosemite National Park

El Capitain in Yosemite National Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California

Towering granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, lush valleys, and hiking trails define the naturally beautiful Yosemite National Park. This protected beauty is famous for its groves of giant sequoia trees, including the famous Mariposa Grove, which includes some of the largest and oldest trees on our planet. It’s also home to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America. It’s always a sight to behold, but after the spring snowmelt you’ll see the falls at their finest!

Within Yosemite Valley – the park’s centerpiece – you’ll find landmarks including El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. These attract keen hikers, climbers and photographers from across the globe, and each year some 3 million visitors enter the park. This UNESCO World Heritage site has also inspired many artists, writers, and leaders, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who helped preserve the national treasure.

TAKE A TRIP: Northern California

Visit San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at golden hour

From the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island, San Francisco offers up many of the best things to do in California. That iconic red bridge is a symbol of San Francisco, and walking across it you’ll enjoy great views of the city skyline and the Pacific Ocean. 

Ride one of the city’s historic cable cars that travel up and down the city’s steep hills. Visit the Painted Ladies, a series of Victorian and Edwardian houses that line Alamo Square, to capture that postcard photo. Enter one of the largest Chinatown’s in the USA to eat delicious dumplings, or pass through Fisherman’s Wharf to find seafood restaurants and street performers.

Alcatraz Island is also worth the detour, where the former federal maximum-security prison has been turned into a historic site and museum. You can tour the site to hear tales of its infamous inmates. 

Explore Los Angeles

Aerial view of Griffith Observatory with downtown Los Angeles, one of the highest cost of living cities, in the background during sunset.

Visiting the sprawling City of Angels is one of the best things to do in Southern California, hands down. In Los Angeles you can follow in the footsteps of the famous at the Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard, and discover the film industry up close with a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, a film studio and theme park. 

Drive by the Hollywood Sign, an iconic symbol of the city, and visit the nearby Griffith Observatory, where you’ll find hiking trails in Griffith Park nearby. Movie magic aside, venture to the coast where Venice Beach is a must-see eclectic beachfront neighborhood famous for muscle beach gym and people-watching on the boardwalk. Nearby, Santa Monica Pier is a charming historic spot with an amusement park, arcade and restaurants.

RELATED BLOG: Everything you need to know about California’s iconic Hollywood sign

Holiday at Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a beautiful alpine lake

Swap the big cities of California for a lakeside holiday at Lake Tahoe. This alpine lake is one of the must-see things to do in Northern California, and the lake is so large it actually spills into Nevada state. Here you’ll find cool clear waters, mountainous landscapes, and even skiing in the winter. Yes, you can ski in California!

During the winter snow sports are on the agenda, while in summer you can soak in sunshine and take a dip in the cool waters. Lake Tahoe is popular year-round destination and nearby you’ll find many hiking trails, hot springs, and activities, making it one of the best things to do in California as a family.

RELATED BLOG: 9 epic things to do in Northern California

Survive a visit to Death Valley National Park

Explore Death Valley National Park in California, part of your USA travel itinerary. This beautiful destination is a must-see when traveling between states.

Despite the terrifying name, a visit to Death Valley National Park isn’t lethal. This barren national park is infamous for its breaking records as one of the hottest places on earth – and being the driest spot in North America. Learn about the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s unique geological features, history and intriguing weather patterns. It’s a land of extremes where only the toughest survive.

Just two hours from Las Vegas, the national park is a key stop on any route from Sin City to Los Angeles. 

VISIT DEATH VALLEY: California’s Great National Parks

Taste California’s best wine regions

A woman with red hair wearing sunglasses and a polka dot dress looks out over a vineyard from under a patio umbrella on her romantic European tour.
A woman with red hair wearing sunglasses and a polka dot dress looks out over a vineyard from under a patio umbrella on her romantic European tour.

Most people have heard of Napa Valley, but California has more world-class wine destinations to explore! Each of California’s New World wine regions has a unique terroir, grape varietals, and winemaking traditions. Napa is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, as well as other Bordeaux varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Its sibling Sonoma has a similar terroir profile, but a handful of micro climates. That means it produces everything from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Zinfandel and Syrah.

California’s Central Coast, stretching from Santa Barbara County in the south to Monterey County in the north, is known for its cool-climate vineyards and coastal influence. Here you can taste exceptional Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah wines, as well as Rhône varietals like Grenache and Viognier. 

EXPLORE WINE COUNTRY: Northern California

RELATED BLOG: 8 of the best wineries to visit in California

Take the family to Monterey Bay Aquarium

Take a virtual field trip to see a shark swimming under the water with sunlight shining on it.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium houses more than 200 exhibits and attracts almost 2 million visitors each year. That makes it one of the best things to do in California as a family and one of the top California attractions. From playful otters to glowing jellyfish, coral exhibits to mega kelp forests, the aquarium offers a deep dive into the underwater world. Kids will enjoy interactive, hands-on learning with touch pools and guided tours. 

The aquarium is also dedicated to marine conservation and research efforts. Beyond raising awareness of ocean conservation issues, the aquarium conducts cutting-edge research on marine ecosystems, sustainable fisheries, and endangered species.

Monterey is a coastal destination that was once an active sardine canning port. Visit Cannery Row to explore its history, or board a whale watching tour to spot humpback whales, blue whales, gray whales, and orcas throughout the year.

RELATED BLOG: Why you should visit In-N-Out Burger in California

Turn up the heat in San Diego

Beachfront promenade in San Diego

California’s second-largest city, San Diego, charms with coastal vibes, palm trees, and a more relaxed pace of living. Some 70 miles of coastline include some of the best beaches in Southern California, and San Diego’s Balboa Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States and a cultural oasis in the heart of San Diego. Within the 1,200 acre park you’ll find museums, gardens, theaters, and historic landmarks, including the San Diego Zoo.

Close to the border with Mexico, San Diego has a rich cultural diversity (and great tacos!). Its vibrant neighborhoods, from the historic Gaslamp Quarter to the colorful streets of Old Town to Little Italy, offer a wide range of experiences. There’s also a thriving craft beer scene, with over 150 breweries and tasting rooms pouring hoppy IPAs and smooth stouts.

RELATED BLOG: 6 reasons why your next trip should be a visit to California

Laguna Beach

Blue sea washing onto a blonde beach with palm trees in the foreground

Chase the relaxed vibes of small-town southern California at Laguna Beach. This laid-back coastal town is famous for its natural beauty and artsy vibe. Expect to find plenty of surf, sun, and sand! If you’re driving the route between Los Angeles and San Diego, Laguna Beach is conveniently partway between the two, just off Route 1.

Explore special cove beaches such as Victoria Beach and Crescent Bay Beach. Or soak up sweeping shorelines, such as Crystal Cove State Park. When you’ve tired of the sunshine, take shelter in the seaside town’s many galleries or hop between artist studios. The town has become a magnet for the creative crowd, attracting artists and surfers from across the world.

Stand alongside giant trees at Sequoia National Park

A pathway leading through a grove of towering sequoia trees in one of the largest national parks in the US, with a few patches of snow on the ground.

California is home to giant sequoias and coastal redwoods. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where these trees grow naturally. Seek out these humongous trees when you’re visiting the Golden State. Both require different climates, so you’ll need to explore different areas to find them.  

For towering groves of giant sequoias, venture deep into the Sierra Nevada mountain range where you’ll find the fantastic Sequoia National Park. This national park is home to the world’s largest tree – measured by volume – known as General Sherman.

But beyond the sizable sequoias you’ll find rugged peaks, deep canyons, alpine meadows and roaring rivers. All this and more make Sequoia National Park a nature-lover’s destination. There’s a network of scenic hiking trails, including the famous Congress Trail and the challenging summit climb to Moro Rock. Plus keep your eyes open for black bears, mule deer, and the rare Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

SEEK SEQUOIAS: California High Country Adventure

Visit Palm Springs & Joshua Tree National Park

Plan your trip to the Palm Springs hotel & spa in sunny Palm Springs, California.

Palm Springs is an oasis of mid-century modern architecture piercing the desert landscape. With plenty of fun luxurious resorts and boutique hotels, it has become a firm favorite holiday destination for those seeking sunshine and fun times by a retro pool. But best of all, it’s close to Joshua Tree National Park. This protected reserve is known for its rugged terrain, unique rock formations, and iconic Joshua trees.

During the day you can observe a variety of desert wildlife, including bighorn sheep, coyotes, roadrunners, and numerous bird species, plus plant life that has adapted to the harsh desert environment. By night, Joshua Tree has very little light pollution, making it a premier destination for stargazing and astrophotography. 

PLAN A TRIP: America’s Great Desert National Parks

That’s our list of the 12 best things to do in California. It’s a huge state – is there anywhere else you think we should have included on this list? Let us know in a comment….

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