From towering redwood forests in foggy Northern California to perfectly sun-kissed surf beaches in the south, this Golden State on the Pacific simply begs to be explored.
Tip back top vintages and tuck into world-class cooking. Blow your mind exploring active volcanoes, soaring mountains and grand redwood groves. Roam free at the world’s most iconic surfing beaches, craggy coves and austere bluffs. Get your wheels in gear for incredible road trips from desert to dunes. Hoist your pack and delve into truly remote wilderness.
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Follow in the footsteps of Hollywood’s great stars. Dine, dance and play your way through beautiful, unique cities. Immerse in the creativity of one of the world’s most iconoclastic lands. Here are just a few of California’s must-visit spots.
San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering marvel © Getty Images
1. San Francisco
Best for variety, iconic sights and LGBTIQ+ travel
Pushing boundaries with trendsetting food, social movements, art and technology, San Francisco is as far out as you can get without winding up in the Pacific.
This town is defined by bold moves: the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering marvel in a color chosen over the Navy’s objections. Nature lovers elbowed aside speculators to establish Golden Gate Park. And Alcatraz was occupied by Native American protestors and turned into a museum.
Discover the weirdest tech in the west at the Exploratorium, and find inspiration in new-media installations at supersized SFMOMA. Or get moved to poetry by San Francisco’s literary landmarks, starting with City Lights Books.
You don’t need to stay up late to be out and proud in SF. Flag-flying crowds are an absolute joy throughout June Pride month, at Sunday afternoon Castro “tea dances” (a WWII euphemism for LGBTIQ+ parties) and any sunny day at Dolores Park’s “Gay Beach.”
Local tip: Don’t forget to sample widely some of the state’s most interesting cuisine, from Asian-fusion creations at Benu that look like minimalist sculptures to some of the world’s best burritos at Mission District classics like Taqueria El Farolito, to East Bay treats like Chez Panisse.
Find massive stands of old-growth groves at Redwood National Park © Getty Images / iStockphoto
2. Redwood National and State Parks – Far North Redwood Forests
Best for magnificent trees and family travel
Hugging a tree never came so naturally as it does in California’s sun-dappled groves of ancient redwoods, the world’s tallest trees. The roots of these giants may be shallow, but they hold each other up and reach dizzying heights, some surviving since Roman times. Even a short stroll on the soft forest floor beneath them puts the rest of the world into perspective.
Redwoods thrive along the coast from Big Sur north to the Oregon border, and you’ll find massive stands of old-growth groves at Redwood National and State Parks. Also, don’t miss the magical drive through Avenue of the Giants and California’s largest redwood park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which covers 53,000 acres – 17,000 of which are old growth.
Local tip: Stop for a pizza at Eureka’s Brick & Fire and soak away any hiking aches at the Finnish Country Sauna and Tubs in the eclectic town of Arcata.
Sonoma County’s sun-dappled vineyards are surrounded by pastoral ranchlands © Getty Images / iStockphoto
3. Sonoma Wine Country
Best for wine, food & offbeat living
As winemaking in neighboring Napa Valley grows ever more upscale, here in Sonoma County sun-dappled vineyards are still surrounded by pastoral ranchlands. Wineries range from the Sonoma Valley to the coastal Russian River Valley, and tasting rooms abound in buzzy Healdsburg.
The uniqueness of the terroir is valued in this down-to-earth wine country, where you taste new vintages straight from the barrel inside a tin-roofed shed while playing with the winemaker’s pet dog (at Porter Creek, just one of many excellent wineries). In addition to wine tasting, wallow in volcanic bubbling mud in Calistoga or float the river around super–LGBTIQ+ friendly Guerneville.
Local tip: Follow your bliss down the Bohemian Hwy to Occidental and its epic Friday night farmers market, alight with live music.
4. Highway 1
Best for road tripping, ocean views & couples
Though it’s known by its more famous name, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), in the south, Northern Californians have a more succinct label for the 400-mile stretch from San Francisco to Crescent City: Hwy 1. The edges of the highway hug the coast and cradle small communities as it alternates between hairpin switchbacks and straight stretches through the bucolic countryside.
Start on the PCH at Santa Monica, and cruise north through Malibu, Big Sur, Monterey Bay and San Francisco, up along Sonoma Coast State Park. In Fort Bragg, stop and admire the “glass beach” and dip into its artistic community.
Everything is monumental at Yosemite National Park © Getty Images
5. Yosemite National Park
Best for waterfalls, outdoors & family trips
Feeling so small has never felt this grand. Everything is monumental at Yosemite National Park: thunderous waterfalls tumble over sheer cliffs, granite domes tower overhead and the world’s biggest trees cluster in mighty groves of giant sequoias.
Conservationist John Muir considered Yosemite a great temple, and awe is a natural reaction to the vast wildflower-strewn meadows and steep valleys carved over millennia by glaciers, avalanches and earthquakes. To achieve maximum wonder, stop at Glacier Point under a full moon, or drive the high country’s Tioga Rd on a cloudless summer day. Unsurprisingly, Yosemite has some of the best hikes in California.
Detour: You can enjoy an extravaganza of incredible parks by combining your visit to Yosemite with stops in Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park.
Join the parade at Venice Beach, where there’s a tribe for everyone © Getty Images
6. Los Angeles
Best for celebrity sizzle & California history
Bordered by sandy beaches, winding canyons and the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles is a sprawling cityscape of distinct neighborhoods, endless entertainment options and year-round outdoor recreation. Bask in the undulating stainless steel curves of Walt Disney Concert Hall, commune with world-beating contemporary art at the Broad or check out modern music history at the Grammy Museum.
Stop for a meal at the century-old but gourmet-led Grand Central Market before browsing the galleries and shops of the Arts District, Olvera Street and Chinatown.
When you’re ready for your close-up, there’s only one place to go. The stars come out at night for red-carpet premieres at restored movie palaces, and you too can have your Hollywood moment on the pink-starred Walk of Fame. Snap a selfie outside TCL Chinese Theatre (better known as Grauman’s) or duck into Hollywood & Highland’s Babylon Court for a photo op with the iconic Hollywood sign, and revel in your 15 minutes of social-media fame. Then visit the fascinating new Academy Museum.
Local tip: How do you beat LA traffic? Hit the beach instead. Sunny Santa Monica bestows joy upon even the weariest traveler: learn to surf, get a bird’s-eye view from your seat in a solar-powered Ferris wheel, learn more about the secrets of the ocean at the aquarium’s tidal touch pools or paddle in the Pacific and let your troubles float away. Or join the parade of New Agers, muscled bodybuilders and goth punks at nearby Venice Beach, where there’s a tribe for everyone.
Hop aboard a whale-watching cruise in Monterey © Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images
7. Monterey Bay
Best for wildlife & family fun
Get up close and personal with California marine life in the fishing village of Monterey, where John Steinbeck brought colorful local wharf characters to life – and the seals are pretty outrageous too. Hop aboard a whale-watching cruise to explore a national marine sanctuary, or walk right into the bay at the aquarium to spot golden sea dragons, shy pink Pacific octopuses and scene-stealing rescued otters at play.
Soak up the authentic maritime atmosphere at the West Coast’s oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Pacific Grove. Range north to quirky Santa Cruz, stopping off on broad stretches of cream-colored beach to spot gray whales, sea otters, sea lions and seals. Indulge in some playtime on the beach boardwalk with its historic roller coaster and watch surfers shred at Steamer Lane.
Local tip: In the winter, don’t miss local Dungeness crab on menus.
8. Death Valley National Park
Best for desert drama & spring trips
The daunting name brings to mind Wild West ghost towns, broken-down pioneer wagon trains and tumbleweed blowing past skulls on desert sand dunes – but Death Valley is actually full of life.
Spring wildflowers daub the dunes with a painter’s palette of colors, adrenaline-seekers zoom across crackled salt flats, and shy desert wildlife lives by starlight. Twist your way up narrow canyons, zoom across crackled salt flats and past geological oddities, and descend into volcanic craters formed by a massive eruption 2100 years ago.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a California favorite © Getty Images
9. Lake Tahoe
Best for mountains, adventure & skiing
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this California favorite is centered around the second-deepest lake in the USA. In summer, startlingly clear blue waters lead to splashing, kayaking or even scuba diving. Meanwhile, mountain bikers careen down epic single-track runs and hikers stride along trails threading through thick forests.
After dark, retreat to a cozy lakefront cottage and toast s’mores in the firepit. When the lake turns into a winter wonderland, gold-medal ski resorts keep downhill fanatics, snowboarders and Nordic traditionalists more than satisfied. You’ll never be short of things to do here.
Detour: Head to Truckee for the burgeoning local food scene and the area’s best restaurants.
A string of gorgeous experiences await you in Big Sur © Getty Images
10. Big Sur
Best for brilliant coastal variety
Following your bliss inevitably leads to Big Sur. Waterfalls splash down sandy bluffs in rainbow mists, and yurt retreats perch at the edge of redwood forests. Beyond purple-sand beaches and coves lined with California jade, pods of migrating whales dot the sparkling Pacific.
But don’t forget to turn around: hiding behind these coastal bluffs are hot springs and Beat literary retreats, with California condors circling over the cliffs. A string of gorgeous experiences awaits you.
Local tip: Time your visit for peak waterfall season in May, or after the summer vacation period for maximum meditation.