12 Must-Visit Places in California

California's Must-Visit Places

Famously known as The Golden State, California is set along the West Coast in the United States. Some of the most charming U.S. cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego are located in California. With a mix of natural and man-made wonders, the must-visit places in California deliver plenty of delights.

It boasts magnificent coastlines, beaches, national parks, and theme parks. There are so many amazingly epic places in California, and it can be overwhelming to try and see everything. Thinking about which places to visit when you are here? Read on for our list of California’s top 12 must-visit places.

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A Quick Glance Through

Some Facts About California

  • California became the 31st state of the United States on September 9, 1850.
  • It shares its border with Oregon to the north, Nevada and Arizona to the east and Mexico to the south.
  • Sacramento is the capital city of California state. It has been the state capital twice in history.
  • Home to more than 39.5 million people, California is the most populous U.S. state.
  • It is the third largest state (by area), after Alaska and Texas.
  • In 1968, The state legislative body made “The Golden State” an official nickname of California.
  • With nine national parks, California is the state with the highest number of national parks.

List of The 12 Must-Visit Places in California

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge - One of the must-visit places in California
Standing Tall in All of Its Glory

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in California. It is a suspension bridge, constructed back in 1937 to link the city of San Francisco to Marin County.

After its completion, it became the longest suspension bridge in the world. It held this coveted title until 1964 when the Verrazzano Bridge was built in New York City.

You can walk, cycle or drive across the bridge. From the south-side welcome center to the north-side vista point, it is 1.7-mile long end-to-end.

Besides the roadway, you can explore the bay on a ferry tour. Ferries run between the Golden Gate Ferry Terminal in San Francisco to Sausalito in Marin County.

The bridge is popular amongst locals as well as tourists. You can see awe-inspiring views of the bay from the bridge. This reddish-orange color bridge is said to be the most photographed bridge on earth.

There are several vantage points on both sides of the bridge. On the San Francisco side, the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, Fort Point, and Baker Beach are excellent lookout points.

Marin County is located on the north side of the bridge. You will find the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point on the Marin side. It offers spectacular views of the bridge with the backdrop of the San Francisco skyline.

You can drive further to Hawk Hill if you want to explore more.

This bridge is definitely one of the must-visit places in California and should find a place in your San Francisco itinerary.

Where To Stay: Hotels in San Francisco.

2. Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur Coastline
California’s Ruggedly Scenic Coastline

Straddling California’s Central Coast, Big Sur is a 90-mile stretch of coastline between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon.

It is located roughly 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles. The area was inaccessible to tourists until 1937 when the construction of Highway 1 was completed.

Driving the Big Sur Coastline is an amazing road trip that you shouldn’t miss. The coastline offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged mountain cliffs. It is also well-known for its copious hiking trails.

Some of the popular stops on this route are Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, and McWay Falls. Standing 260 ft above the creek, Bixby Bridge boasts amazing architecture and is truly an engineering marvel.

Pfeiffer Beach is well worth a visit as it is famous for its purple-hued sand. McWay Falls is a splendid waterfall located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Where To Stay: Hotels in Big Sur.

3. Disneyland Park

Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland Park
Straight Out of A Fairytale – The Sleeping Beauty Castle

Disneyland Park is the original Disney theme park opened in 1955 by Walt Disney. It is located in Anaheim within the Disneyland Resort.

Packed full of themed lands, rides, and shows, the park is as fun for grown-ups as for children. Some of the popular themed lands are Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.

You will find Jungle Cruise and Indiana Jones Adventure rides in Adventureland. Frontierland is located next to Adventureland and offers exciting rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

In Fantasyland, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan’s Flight, and Pinocchio’s Daring Journey are a few amazing rides. You can also take a walk-through of the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Tomorrowland hosts attractions like Space Mountain, Star Tours – The Adventures Continue, and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. There are several other lands and each one has a distinct theme. 

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is the most recent addition to the park which opened in 2019. In this section, you can experience two of the most exciting rides, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

Disneyland Park is hands down one of the must-visit places in California. 

In the nighttime, you can watch Disneyland’s spectacular fireworks show. Check the show schedule on Disneyland Park’s website before you visit.

Where To Stay: Hotels in Anaheim.

4. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Landscape

Nestled at the convergence of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is a standout amongst the best national parks in Southern California.

UNESCO has designated the park as a biosphere reserve. It is located approximately 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 175 miles northeast of San Diego.

The park is known for its unique desert flora, Joshua trees, its gigantic boulders, and rocks. Joshua tree forests are found mainly in the western part of the park which is occupied by the higher Mojave Desert.

Apart from soaking up the natural landscapes, you can indulge in activities like hiking, bouldering, and rock climbing. A few of the notable attractions in the park are Arch Rock, Skull Rock, Hidden Valley, and Cholla Cactus Garden.

Also Read: 10 Unmissable Attractions in Joshua Tree National Park.

Where To Stay: You will find several lodging options in the nearby towns of Twentynine Palms (close to North Entrance), and Joshua Tree (close to West Entrance). Check prices and availability of Twentynine Palms hotels; Joshua Tree hotels.

5. Griffith Observatory – One of The Must-Visit Places in California

Griffith Observatory - One of The Must-Visit Places in California

Tucked in Mount Hollywood at 1,134 feet above sea level, Griffith Observatory is acclaimed as one of the finest public observatories in the world. It is located within Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

The observatory is named after Griffith J. Griffith, an American industrialist, and philanthropist. He donated funds and land for the construction of the observatory building. It was opened for visitors in 1935.

From the observatory grounds, you can see splendid views of the city of Los Angeles and the iconic Hollywood Sign.

Admission to the observatory is free, however, there is a fee for the planetarium shows.

Inside the observatory, you can explore exhibits to learn more about the sky, the planets, and other celestial bodies.

There are high-quality telescopes installed on the rooftop which are available for free to visitors. Enjoy observing night skies through these powerful telescopes.

Furthermore, you can watch live shows in the planetarium for an immersive experience of the universe.

The observatory is accessible by car, but the parking space is limited. So, you can park down the hill and hike up.

6. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island - One of The Must-Visit Places in California
Tiny Island, Fascinating History

Situated in San Francisco Bay, about 1.5 miles offshore, Alcatraz Island is largely known for being the former high-security prison. 

It housed some notorious convicts such as Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Today, it is one of the must-visit places in California.

After the closure of the Federal Prison in 1963, the Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island for a few years.

The island became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and since then, it is managed by the National Park Service.

Given the island’s historic significance, it is listed as a National Historic Landmark. To get to the island, you can take a ferry from San Francisco. Alcatraz ferries leave from Pier 33.

A quick orientation is given by the NPS staff upon arrival. Thereafter, you can explore the place in your own good time. The NPS offers audio tours as well as guided tours to visitors.

Besides the prison, a few other attractions on the island are an old lighthouse, the remnants of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club, and the seabirds of Alcatraz.

7. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park - Counted Amongst The Must-Visit Places in California
A Majestic Rock Formation – El Capitan

“Yosemite Park… None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.” ― John Muir

It was due to John Muir’s endeavors to protect the wilderness of the High Sierra, Yosemite National Park was created in 1890 by an Act of Congress.

Tucked in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is a place of unparalleled natural beauty. It lies 167 miles east of San Francisco.

The park is a treasure trove of natural marvels and features amongst the must-visit places in California. It attracts millions of national park lovers and nature enthusiasts each year. 

This place is famed for its dramatic landscapes adorned with towering granite cliffs, mighty waterfalls, and sequoia groves. El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Mariposa Grove are a few of the top Yosemite attractions.

Standing about 3,000 ft high, El Capitan is an imposing granite cliff in Yosemite Valley. It is a popular rock climbing spot in the park. Half Dome is a granite rock formation, known for its distinct shape.

Yosemite Falls is another magnificent sight in the park. It plunges down from a massive 2,425 feet.

In the southern part of Yosemite, you will find the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. There are about 500 mature giant sequoias in the grove.

Also Read: Top 10 National Parks in The USA For Nature Lovers.

8. Santa Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island - Gorgeous Landscape
Catalina Island – Counted Amongst The Must-Visit Places in California

Santa Catalina Island is located just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California. Popularly known as Catalina, the island is a part of Los Angeles County. It is known for its picture-perfect beaches, elusive wildlife, and outdoor adventures.

Avalon is the only incorporated town on the island. It is roughly 3 sq miles in size but is home to some of California’s prettiest beaches.

Of all the beaches in Catalina, Descanso Beach is the most popular. It is a private beach that features Avalon’s only beachside restaurant.

There is an entry fee to access Descanso Beach Club. You can enjoy a lot of activities here including kayaking, paddle boarding, and Snorkeling.

Aside from beaches, you can explore the rugged wilderness of the island on a guided eco tour. Bison, island fox, and mule deer are some of the animals that you can spot here.

The island is accessible by ferry from the mainland. You can board the Catalina Express ferry at any of the three ports – San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point.

Where To Stay: Hotels in Avalon.

9. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe
Breathtakingly Beautiful!

Set amidst the Sierra Nevada Mountain range at 6,225 ft, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America.

It lies on the California-Nevada border with about two-thirds of its shoreline on the California side. This natural freshwater lake is about 2 million years old.

The lake is widely known for its awe-inspiring landscapes filled with beautiful vistas of mountains and alpine forests. The natural beauty of the lake casts a spell over the beholder.

There are two sides of Lake Tahoe – North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe.

The north side is tranquil and less crowded whereas the south side is mostly buzzing with tourists. South Lake Tahoe is also referred to as Las Vegas of Lake Tahoe. Both sides offer great outdoors.

A wealth of ski areas in North Lake Tahoe makes it an ultimate winter destination. South Lake Tahoe is a perfect summertime destination to enjoy outdoor activities like kayaking, jet skiing, and parasailing.

Lake Tahoe is undoubtedly one of the must-visit places in California for adventure seekers.

Where To Stay: The town of South Lake Tahoe (on the south shore), and Kings Beach and Tahoe City (on the north shore) are some of the best places to stay in Lake Tahoe. Check prices and availability of Lake Tahoe Hotels.

10. Death Valley National Park

Fascinating Landscape of Death Valley
Replete with Jaw-dropping Sights – Death Valley National Park

A land of extremes, Death Valley National Park is considered the hottest and driest place in all of North America. The park is situated in Southern California Desert along the border of California and Nevada.

Sprawling roughly 3.4 million acres (13,650 sq km), Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the contiguous United States.

It hosts some of the earth’s most surreal landscapes featuring vast salt flats, badlands, sand dunes, and sublime mountain peaks.

A few of the main attractions of Death Valley include Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, and Artists Palette.

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. Zabriskie Point is a famous viewpoint for watching sunrise and sunset. The scenic backdrop provided by the panoramic badlands adds to its charm.

An incredible vista in the park, Artists Palette is a popular stop along the scenic Artist’s Drive. True to its name, the hills are painted in varying hues of orange, red, yellow, blue, and green.

Also Read: 14 Amazing Facts About Death Valley National Park.

11. Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica Beach

No list of the must-visit places in California can ever be complete without a mention of the awesomely charming Santa Monica Beach. It is found just 16 miles west of Downtown Los Angeles.

The beach is well-known for its 3.5-mile-long stretch of soft sand and unmatched beach vibes.

Additionally, it is an excellent spot to learn surfing. There are several surfing schools that offer lessons to beginners.

A star attraction of the beach is the Santa Monica Pier that hosts the Pacific Park amusement park. There are a whole lot of fun rides including the most popular Ferris wheel. You’ll love the carnival-like atmosphere of this place.

It is also famous as a sunset viewing spot. Tourists and locals alike flock here to watch a gorgeous Santa Monica Sunset.

Where To Stay: Hotels in Santa Monica.

12. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia National Park - Features amongst the must-visit places in California
Truly A Land of Giants!

Two majestic national parks, located adjacent to each other, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are administered as one. Sequoia National Park sits just south of Kings Canyon National Park.

These parks are blessed with diversified landscapes encompassing lofty mountains, alpine lakes, deep canyons, and giant sequoia trees. Needless to say, it is one of the must-visit places in California for nature lovers.

Some of the notable attractions in Sequoia National Park include the General Sherman Tree, Moro Rock, and Tunnel Log.

The General Sherman Tree is world-famous for being the largest and the most massive tree on earth. It rises 275 ft above base and measures more than 102 ft in circumference.

Moro Rock is a fantastic vantage point in the park. However, the journey to the top involves a steep climb through 400 stairs.

A cherished landmark of Sequoia National Park, Tunnel Log was created sometime in the 1930s after a giant sequoia fell across the Crescent Meadow Road. The tunnel is 8 ft tall and 17 ft wide; Cars can easily pass through it.

A few major highlights of Kings Canyon National Park are Grant Grove, the General Grant Tree, and Zumwalt Meadow. The Grant Grove is populated with huge sequoia trees.

The most eye-catching sight in the grove is the General Grant Tree, the world’s second-largest giant sequoia tree.

Zumwalt Meadow is an easy 1.5-mile round trip hike that rewards you with blissful views of natural sceneries.

Where To Stay: If you are looking for accommodation closer to the park, the town of Three Rivers is one of the best options. You will find mainly B&Bs and budget hotels in Three Rivers.

Over To You Now…

So, this was our list of the 12 must-visit places in California. We hope this post inspired you to explore the enchanting land of California.

Tell us in the comments below if your list would have been different!

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