This will be a long list – with as many pictures as we manage to tuck in -, because California is huge and full of special places! We were lucky to spend a year in this most beautiful state of the USA (very biased opinion, we know, and we can’t help it), and this list of the best places to visit is based on our personal experience.
We won’t write about any place in detail here, but we’ve already written about a lot of them, and we’ll link to those. Rather than a preference order (it would be impossible, anyway), we grouped them by type.
I also went through the post after writing it, and deleted all “beautiful”, “fabulous”, “wonderful” and such before the name of every place. Because they’re all wonderful, beautiful, stunning, breathtaking, fabulous – or whichever attributive you prefer. 🙂
Cities & towns
Golden Gate, oceanfront promenades, Pier 39 loud with sea lions, those steep streets with pastel houses and cable cars, Ocean Beach, Baker Beach and Golden Gate Park. Colorful places and even more colorful vibe.
One of the best urban parks we’ve ever seen (that’s Balboa Park), beaches (where you can even swim), Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park for scenic coastal walks.
One of the prettiest coastal towns in California, located on the Monterey Peninsula. Artistic vibes. Carmel Beach. And did you know that wearing high-heel shoes without a permit in this town is prohibited? (Yes, to prevent lawsuits.)
Whale-watching tours. Tons of seafood restaurants. Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Santa Monica State Beach and its pier with a waterfront amusement park, marking the end of famous Road 66.
No, Los Angeles, sorry, we don’t have a place for you here.
Yosemite National Park
A unique landscape formed by glaciation and Yosemite Valley, home to eight enormous waterfalls. (But you have to visit them when they have water: late spring or early summer.)
Death Valley National Park
The hottest and driest place in America. Varied, vivid desert landscapes.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Home to the largest tree in the world, by volume. Also home to one of the deepest canyons in the country, carved out by glaciers (that’s Kings Canyon). Countless wild, backcountry trails.
Redwood National & State Parks
Home of the tallest trees on Earth – and to fern-covered canyons, waterfalls and tranquil beaches.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Features all four types of volcanoes. Sights of active volcanism: hydrothermal areas with hot springs, boiling mud pots and steaming fumaroles.
Pinnacles National Park
Filled with volcanic rocks, craggy spires, wildflowers and cool caves. A park for hikers and rock climbers. Best to visit from mid-fall to mid-spring, otherwise it gets really hot.
A quick note first: most beaches in California are not swimming beaches, mainly because of the cold sea temperatures. Currents can be dangerous, too. What can you do on a beach if not swimming? Surfing. (No, we didn’t learn it. You’re right, we’re not true Californians.) Bonfires. Walks. Wildlife-watching – harbor seals love deserted beaches!
And on some beaches you can – and probably want to – swim. We only did it south of LA though, and mainly in September and October when the ocean was the warmest.
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Rock arch in the water. One of the best places in California to examine tide pools.
Pescadero State Beach
One of the most tranquil beaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Keep your eyes open for harbor seals and seabirds. Marsh trail behind the beach.
El Matador Beach, Malibu
A memorable beach because of the rock formations. Photographers and couples longing for a romantic walk will love it, but it’s not the best for swimming.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
Quirky oceanfront promenade. Really quirky.
Coronado Beach, San Diego
A swimming beach! Huge, sandy, sunny.
Avenue Of The Giants
A 32-miles long scenic drive in Northern California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The most picturesque section of the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
Route CA 190 through Death Valley
Because this park is best to be explored by driving and stopping at viewpoints (possibly adding some light, short hikes).
State parks, wilderness areas, nature reserves and other protected landscapes
Point Reyes National Seashore
Wildlife and views at Tomales Point. A Tule Elk Preserve in the park. A waterfall flowing onto a beach at low tide, into the ocean at hide tide (that’s Alamere Falls). Tranquil beaches, countless trails, coastal views.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Rodeo Beach. Coastal trails just north of San Francisco.
D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks
One of the prettiest areas around Lake Tahoe, the second deepest lake in the United States. Rubicon Trail runs through both parks.
Wilderness areas are what their name suggests: undeveloped landscapes, just nature and you. This one is west of Lake Tahoe and impresses with pine forests, granite peaks, glacially-formed valleys and alpine lakes. Permit is required.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Catch a glimpse of the rich wildlife of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from the shore.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
A highlight of the Pacific Coast Highway. Home to postcard perfect MyWay Falls.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
A small park in Southern California with high broken cliffs, deep ravines, ocean views, unique flora and, of course, a beach.
Indian Canyons near Palm Springs
Located in Agua Caliente, the land of Cahuilla Indians and home to the largest palm canyons of California.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Movie themed rides, shows and games. Studio tour.
Disneyland in Anaheim
A giant land of everything Disney. Some attractions are mainly for kids, but adults can find some fun stuff, as well.
Six Flags Magic Mountain
A park to pump some adrenaline into your blood. Famous for its extreme, record-breaking roller coasters. (The only attraction in the list that we’ve only heard stories of but never actually visited. It’s for a reason. We vomit even at the thought of such roller coasters. 😀 However, if it’s your thing, you’ll love this park.)
Now tell us about your favorite California attractions!
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