Best Places to Visit in California
The Golden State gets its name for a reason. California's diverse cultural and geographical offerings, vibrant cities and critically acclaimed culinary scenes are truly the gold standard for travelers. Whether you're hiking the trails in one of the state's many scenic parks, sampling some bubbly in the northern valleys, kicking back on sunny, southern shorelines or walking where stars once stood, California is truly a sight to behold. U.S. News took into account expert opinion and traveler sentiment to determine the best places to visit in California. Have a favorite? Vote below to help influence next year's list.
Best Places to Visit in California
- San Francisco
- San Diego
- Lake Tahoe
- Big Sur
- Napa Valley
- Sequoia National Park
- Santa Monica
- Los Angeles
- Palm Springs
- Laguna Beach
- Huntington Beach
- Santa Barbara
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Venice Beach
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Mammoth Lakes
- Kings Canyon National Park
- San Luis Obispo
- Newport Beach
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One of the country's most popular national parks can be found about 165 miles east of San Francisco. Yosemite offers every adventure activity you can possibly think of, from low-impact activities like fishing and bird-watching to daredevil pursuits, such as rock climbing and rafting. Whatever you choose to do, don't leave without exploring can't-miss sites like Glacier Point, Half Dome and Vernal Fall. Stick around until nighttime to gaze at the clear, starry sky.
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San Francisco brims with life everywhere you go. Whether you're zipping around on a cable car, exploring one of the city's many culturally eclectic neighborhoods, admiring towering redwoods near the iconic Golden Gate Bridge or diving fork first into its world-renowned food scene (you'll find more than 30 Michelin-starred restaurants here), San Francisco's energy is always downright electric. After a busy day of exploring, head to the beautiful and tranquil Golden Gate Park to relax.
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San Diego is Southern California at its finest (think: warm weather year-round, endless stretches of surf-friendly shorelines and some of the best Mexican food in the USA). During the day, attractions like Balboa Park (where many of the city's museums reside), the USS Midway Museum (which is housed in an aircraft carrier) and the San Diego Zoo (widely considered to be one of the best zoos in the country) tend to be popular among visitors. Meanwhile, the bustling, restaurant- and bar-filled Gaslamp Quarter is the place to be at night.
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Regardless of when you visit Lake Tahoe, you'll find ample ways to enjoy the outdoors. In winter, Tahoe becomes a popular ski spot, and when summer hits, locals rent boats in droves as a way to unwind on the lake. Even if your goal is to simply relax, don't leave without a light stroll or hike through Emerald Bay State Park or D.L. Bliss State Park for some of the best views of the lake.
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Monterey's stunning natural beauty and small-town soul are what keep travelers coming back again and again. Located in central California, Monterey is awash with picture-perfect beaches and charming seaside neighborhoods. It's also home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the best aquariums in the country. But no visit would be complete without exploring the surrounding area. Head to Carmel to peruse its boutiques and art galleries, or visit Pebble Beach to hit the links at its world-renowned golf courses.
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Make the trek to this destination at the edge of the ocean to see scenery so spellbindingly beautiful, it has the habit of putting travelers into a trance. This 90-mile stretch of rugged coastline offers numerous hiking trails that weave in and out of the area's mountains and valleys, as well as pathways that lead to wild, seemingly untouched beaches. Don't know where to start? Turn to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a go-to for many first-time travelers.
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Napa Valley reigns supreme as one of the best wine destinations in the world. It is also a major luxury hot spot. Not only is the valley filled to the brim with impressive hotels, but you'll also find a number of Michelin-starred dining establishments. There are even a few kid-friendly wineries, including Castello di Amorosa, a 13th-century Tuscan castle that serves young ones grape juice instead of wine. When you're ready to walk off all of that food andwine, venture to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park for a light yet very scenic hike.
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If you want an eyeful of the state's iconic, towering sequoias during your California vacation, there's no better place to visit than Sequoia National Park. These magnificent trees are native to the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California. The Giant Forest, the park's main attraction, features 8,000-plus sequoias, which stand as tall as the average height of a 26-story building. You'll also stumble upon the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume.
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Situated about 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica easily stands alone as its own destination. This beachfront city is equipped with ample hotels, restaurants and shops in addition to its star attractions: Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier and the beach. After a day of fun in the sand or at the popular Third Street Promenade, visit Palisades Park for an unforgettable Southern Californian sunset.
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La-La Land is really as dreamy as they say. While you'll no doubt contend with the city's infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic during your stay, knowing you have world-renowned hot spots like Hollywood and Beverly Hills at your fingertips will leave you exhilarated. If you love film and TV, save time for touring Paramount Pictures Studios and Warner Bros. Studio, then snap pics of the TCL Chinese Theatre as you stroll along the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also, plan to visit lesser-known, locally loved gems like Grand Central Market and Griffith Park.
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For decades, Palm Springs was a celebrity playground. Today, this desert paradise still attracts vacationers looking to lounge by the pool or hit up the nightlife scene. Nature lovers will also find plenty to do thanks to flora- and fauna-filled attractions like the Coachella Valley Preserve and The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Visit earlier in the year to take advantage of comfortable weather and attend an array of events and festivals, including the Palm Springs International Film Festival (in January) and Coachella (in April).
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Laguna Beach is the perfect destination if you're looking for a small town, Southern California experience. Situated between LA and San Diego, Laguna Beach offers an array of scenic beaches both big and small, remote and central that'll keep visitors occupied for days. Main Beach and Crescent Bay are a couple of local favorites, though travelers also highly recommend taking a trip to the wild shores of Crystal Cove State Park. For a break from the sun, pop into one of downtown's art galleries or boutiques.
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This ranking would not be complete without mentioning Anaheim, home to "The Happiest Place on Earth." Disneyland Resort is the star attraction and the main reason why travelers make the nearly 30-mile trek here from Los Angeles. Other can't-miss amusement parks in the area include Knott's Berry Farm (a local favorite) and Adventure City (a more budget-friendly option). Outside the theme parks, visitors can enjoy some grub at the Anaheim Packing District food court or watch a professional baseball game at Angel Stadium.
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Sonoma's reputation as the cheaper, chiller version of Napa Valley has garnered enough praise to put it on both the travel and wine map. Situated less than 14 miles west of Napa, Sonoma features wineries galore, as well as other attractions atypical to traditional wine destinations. The kid-friendly Safari West offers actual safari excursions, while Sonoma Coast State Park boasts an array of natural arches, coves and beaches that are simply stunning. Also save time for shopping at Sonoma Plaza and driving sports cars at the Sears Point Racing Experience.
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Nicknamed Surf City USA, this Orange County beach offers some of the country's best waves. It is home to the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing (the world's largest surfing competition) and has a rich surfing history and culture. After visitors learn more about the sport at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, they can enjoy views of the water as they walk along the Huntington Beach Pier or sip cocktails at an oceanfront lounge. Families should save time for shopping and playing at the weekly Surf City Nights Street Fair.
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Known as the "American Riviera," Santa Barbara is a favorite of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe for a reason. The city, which is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, offers mild weather year-round that's perfect for soaking up some sun on its palm tree-lined beaches. It's also known as a haven for creative types and for its food scene – especially its fresh seafood and produce – and top-notch wine. The Funk Zone district is full of art galleries and tasting rooms, many of which are part of Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail.
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This desert oasis' roughly 800,000 acres are excellent for enjoying endless outdoor activities. Visitors can tackle some of the park's thousands of rock climbing routes or explore dozens of hiking trails, though they should be mindful of the weather. Many of the paths should not be attempted on especially hot days. Other must-do activities include biking and horseback riding. Also be sure to stick around until after dark. This International Dark Sky Park offers little light pollution, making it a superb place to stargaze.
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Venice Beach#18 in Best Places to Visit in California
Eclectic Venice Beach, one of LA's most popular neighborhoods, is packed with things to do and see. The area features a vibrant local art scene, which you can get a taste of while checking out the Venice Art Walls. Plus, the beach offers top-notch conditions for surfing. But the highlight of any trip to Venice Beach is its boardwalk. Here, you can watch everyone from musicians and street performers honing their crafts to fitness buffs breaking a sweat at the outdoor workout facilities.
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Sausalito#19 in Best Places to Visit in California
Travel north across the Golden Gate Bridge and you'll discover Sausalito, a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. This small town is best known for its laid-back atmosphere and colorful houseboats, some of which were built during World War II. The Bridgeway Promenade is where you'll find the bulk of Sausalito's shops, restaurants and art galleries. And just south of the town center is where educational attractions like the Bay Area Discovery Museum and Fort Baker reside.
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Malibu#20 in Best Places to Visit in California
Everyone from celebrities like Tom Hanks and Barbra Streisand to cultural icons (think: Barbie) have called this quintessential California beach town home – and it's easy to see why. Malibu's gorgeous stretches of sand, such as Zuma Beach and Surfrider Beach, appeal to both sunbathers and surfers. The Malibu Pier is a great place to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the view. Away from the shore, visitors can see ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities at the Getty Villa or sample wines during a wine hike or a wine safari.
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Point Reyes National Seashore#21 in Best Places to Visit in California
Point Reyes National Seashore's 70,000-plus acres beckon to wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers. This protected area off of Northern California's coast offers ample opportunities to see hundreds of animal species, including elephant seals, gray whales and nearly 490 kinds of birds. Visitors can also explore various beaches, wander down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse and hike some of the area's miles of trails, including the Earthquake Trail, which travels along the San Andreas Fault.
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Mammoth Lakes#22 in Best Places to Visit in California
If you've never thought of California as a ski destination, Mammoth Lakes might change your mind. Nestled in the Eastern Sierra region, Mammoth Lakes is home to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the highest ski resort in the state. In winter, the region's dozens of trails welcome skiers and snowboarders in droves. When the temperatures rise and the snow melts, vacationers can try other outdoor activities, such as hiking, rock climbing and paddleboarding.
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Kings Canyon National Park#23 in Best Places to Visit in California
Head to Kings Canyon National Park if you want to see more of California's famous sequoias after visiting Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. The park's most famous tree is the General Grant Tree, the second-largest tree in the world by volume. Named after former President Ulysses S. Grant in 1867, the tree has been lovingly called "the Nation's Christmas Tree" since 1926. Aside from admiring Kings Canyon's sequoias, outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking, horseback riding and rock climbing, among other activities.
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San Luis Obispo#24 in Best Places to Visit in California
Located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo often serves as a stopping point during road trips between the two cities. But this small town is worth a longer stay. With art galleries, museums, parks and a central district filled with shops, SLO offers plenty to see and do. Looking to satisfy your taste buds? SLO is packed with highly regarded wineries, breweries and restaurants and even hosts a popular farmers market every Thursday night.
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Newport Beach tends to conjure up images of glamour and sophistication (think: massive mansions, mega-yachts and high-end shops). Places like Fashion Island – Newport Beach's lavish open-air mall – and the lush Sherman Library & Gardens give you a taste of some of this luxury. But there is also a more laid-back side to this Southern California city. Quaint Balboa Island is the place to go for Newport Beach's famous frozen bananas and offers family-friendly fun at the Balboa Fun Zone. And at the Wedge on the Balboa Peninsula, surfers and boogie boarders can catch gnarly waves.
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