If you are looking for a unique vacation experience, California is one of the best places to visit—known for its gorgeous weather, beautiful beaches, great wine, and carefree people, this state has it all. California is home to wide variety of tourist destinations, from amusement parks and seaside attractions, to stunning natural landscapes and iconic American landmarks. There is literally something for everybody. We’ve put together a list of the 15 places you absolutely have to visit and some tips to help make your trip fun and memorable. Let’s dive right in!
No childhood is complete without a trip to Disneyland. This iconic wonderland, located in Anaheim, is the only one of Disney’s theme parks to be designed and built by the big man himself. Inspired by a family tothe merry-go-round in Griffith Park, Walt wanted to create a special place where families could enjoy the day together. And though the park has grown considerably since Walt’s day, boasting attractions like Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Matterhorn Bobsleds, it still lives up Walt’s original vision. If you want to experience the classic magic of America’s most beloved animation studio, Disneyland is an absolute must.
- While there is no bad time to go to Disneyland, if you want to avoid the crowds, it’s best to visit in the middle of the week, especially during the off-season. Try visiting from mid-September through mid-November, mid-January through mid-March, or mid-April through mid-May.
- Disneyland is a big place with lots of nooks and crannies to explore, so do your research and make a list of all the things you want to do and see before you get there.
- As with most amusement parks, food prices at Disneyland can get painfully high. Save your money and bring your own snacks with you.
- There are a ton of hidden jokes and secret details concealed throughout the park, like the thousands of Mickey Mouse heads hidden in architectural details and interior decorations. Look online for a list of them all!
2. Hollywood Sign
This iconic Hollywood landmark has long been a symbol of the entertainment industry. Though it was originally built in 1923 as part of an advertising campaign for a local suburban housing development, it has come to represent all the possibilities for stardom and celebrity that Tinsel Town can offer for those with talent and determination. Comprised of nine 45-foot tall letters, the Hollywood Sign is a must-have photo-op for your vacation.
- For a long time, the Hollywood Sign was the regular victim of vandalism. Now it is surrounded by a tall fence and is monitored by security cameras and park rangers. It is illegal to hop the fence, so don’t get any ideas!
- While there are many places to get a good picture of the sign, the best spots aren’t always up close. Try snapping a shot from the Griffith Park Observatory, Hollywood Lake, Hollywood and Highland, or the Hollywood Bowl Overlook on Mulholland Drive. And if you don’t want to drive yourself, there is a shuttle offered on the weekends that will take you to some of these spots.
- To see the sign up close, it is best to hike some of the trails that wind through the Santa Monica Mountains. Some will take you behind the sign, where you can get an amazing view of the valley below. The three most popular routes are the Mt. Hollywood Trail, the Canyon Blvd Trail, and the Cahuenga Peak Trail.
- When the weather is dry, there can be some danger of wildfires, so if you are hiking, please do not smoke in the area. Seriously, don’t.
3. The San Diego Zoo
Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is one of the most visited zoos in North America. With more than 3,700 animals (of 660 species) and 700,000 plant species housed in large, naturalistic habitats, it is easy to see why! You’ll need at least 3 to 4 hours to wander around and see all the incredible animals, from the Galapagos tortoises to the famous pandas. And to continue your animal adventures, make sure to visit the San Diego Safari Park, located only 35 miles away from the zoo.
- It’s best to visit the zoo earlier in the day as many of the animals are more active in the morning and you will be able to beat the crowds.
- To help you get the lay of the land, take the guided bus tour so you can get an overview of all that the zoo has to offer.
- The zoo features an incredible ride called Skyfari, where visitors can take a gondola ride above the park and see everything from the sky. This is an opportunity that is not to be missed!
- The San Diego Zoo is huge and it may not be possible to see everything before your kid gets sleepy. So make sure to take a moment when you arrive to grab a map and plan your visit so that you see all your favorite animals first.
- Start your journey at the panda exhibit, as it is incredibly popular and will be pretty crowded later in the day.
4. The Golden Gate Bridge
Located in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic landmark that everyone should recognize. This famous suspension bridge is one of the most photographed bridges on Earth and is considered one of the Wonders of the Modern Word. You can see it up close and personal through one of the many walking tours available or view it from afar at various scenic locations. And if you want to make a day of it, be sure to visit the Golden Gate National Parks, located at either end of the bridge.
- If you want a good picture, make sure to visit the bridge on a clear day.
- There are two ways to make it across the bridge, besides driving. You can walk or ride a bike, but don’t try anything else – skateboards, roller skates, and rollerblades are all banned from the bridge. And if you don’t want to make the return trip on foot, there are ferries available that will take you back to the city.
- If you’re a looking for some impressive vacation pictures, skip the crowded Vista Point and head for Marin Headlands instead. On a clear day, you can get a beautiful shot of the bridge and the city to remember your trip, so make sure to check the weather before you go! For an extra special picture, try to go around sunset – you’ll avoid the early morning fog and be able to capture a really stunning image.
- Though you are not allowed to walk your pet across the bridge, there are plenty of lovely parks in the area that boast gorgeous views of the iconic landmark, so you can still see the sights while spending time with your buddy!
5. Fisherman’s Warf
This historicneighborhoodwas originally home to San Francisco’s fishing fleet, and while many fishing boats still dock there, it has grown into a popular tourist attraction. It is easy to spend a whole day at the Warf, doing everything from taking a fishing tour out on the water, to visiting Madame Tussauds Wax Museum or Ripley’s Believe It or Not, to exploring the historical San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where you can see a number of decommissioned military vessels. Pier 39 and the Cannery Shopping Center offer many shops and restaurants for those simply wishing to enjoy a day in the sun, where you can sample the area’s famous Dungeness crab and clam chowder. And of course, don’t miss the beautiful San Francisco carousel!
- If you want to avoid the crowds, visit earlier in the day. And if you want to see the Warf at its most exiting, try to visit during Fleet Week or on the Fourth of July, when the Warf hosts special celebrations and firework displays.
- Fisherman’s Warf offers a wide variety of tours of the area, including walking tours, bike tours, bus tours, and sailing tours, so take your pick. There is even one company that offers a tour by seaplane!
- A sea lion colony has taken up residence near Fisherman’s Warf, so make sure to stop by the pier and have a look!
- Make an effort to visit the unusual Exploratorium, a museum featuring over 600 interactive art and science exhibits. It’s sure to be a blast!
- Bewarethe World Famous Bushman! Thisinfamous street performer has a penchant for hiding behind bushes and unexpectedly jumping out at tourists, so be on the lookout!
6. Yosemite National Park
California is home to some of America’s most breath-taking scenery and Yosemite National Park does not disappoint. Located in Northern California, Yosemite is home to stunning cliffs, gorgeous waterfalls, and stately sequoia groves, as well as a large number of plants and animals. Some of the popular attractions include Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America; the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees; Glacier Point, where you can see commanding views of the whole park; and the Half Dome, an enormous granite rock formation that you can climb using conveniently placed cables. If you are an outdoorsy kind of person, this is your playground! There is plenty to do, including, hiking, rock climbing, camping, biking, rafting, stargazing, bird-watching, and fishing.This park is an absolute must-see!
- Most people visit in the summer, with the high season being from Memorial day to Labor Day, so go in the fall or winter if you want to avoid the crowds. However, the best time for you to visit really depends on what you want to do. Check out the National Park Service website to see what the optimal time is for various activities.
- Unlike most places on this list, it’s best to get a late start at Yosemite. A lot of the photographers and serious hikers get to the park early, so you let them get a head start and sleep in.
- Yosemite is very popular, so if you are planning on staying in the park overnight, you need to make reservations for the campgrounds pretty far in advance.
- If you want to make your visit extra special, try going on a moonlight hike—with limited air and light pollution, Yosemite is one of the best places around for star-gazing.
- There is a weird phenomenon at Yosemite called frazil ice, where the mists around the rivers freeze and float downstream, making it appear like the waterways are full of slush instead of water, almost like a cold lava flow. This spring-timespectacle usually occurs near Yosemite Creek in the early morning (before 9 am). However, it is difficult to predict, so talk to the park rangers to see if conditions are favorable.
- Cell service can be pretty spotty in Yosemite, so always have another way to communicate with your family and keep a paper map on you as an alternativeto your GPS.
- There are many animals that call Yosemite home, so be respectful of their habitat. Don’t feed the wildlife and keep an eye out for bears.
7. TCL Chinese Theatre
Formerly the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, this Hollywood landmark first opened in 1927. It became famous for its incredible design, featuring soaring 40-foot high walls and stylized Chinese décor, as well as for its reputation as a popular spot for movie premieres. You can take a 20-minute walking tour of the building to learn more about its history and to see the pagodas, temple bells, and other artifacts that were imported to decorate the theatre. A particularly popular part of this landmark is the forecourt, which features cement blocks in which various celebrities like Judy Garland and Clint Eastwood have left handprints and footprints.
- There is no bad time to visit the theatre, though it may be less crowded in the morning.
- The popular forecourt is fairly large, so take a look at the forecourt map to find the specific footprints you want to see.
- You can actually go see a movie at the TLC Chinese Theatre, including Imax screenings. Just check their website for movie times.
- Don’t miss the iconic heaven dog statues out front that protect the entrance!
8. Monterey Bay Aquarium
Located in in the seaside town of Monterey, this aquarium is one the coolest places you can visit. You can expect to spend at least 2 or 3 hours learning about the 600+ species that call the aquarium home. Some of the more popular exhibits feature penguins, octopi, and sea turtles. Don’t forget to check out the famous Kelp Forest exhibit, where you can see the giant plants and the creatures that live among them from a diver’s perspective. The aquarium offers a number of specials tours that will give you a behind-the-scenes-look at some of your favorite animals, including the sea otters, the sharks, and the jellyfish. You can also take a Feeding Frenzy tour, where you can explore the aquarium before it opens and help the staff feed the animals their breakfast! And don’t forget to visit the tide pool exhibit, where you can actually touch sea cucumbers, starfish, decorator crabs, and bat rays.
- To avoid the crowds, try visiting in the fall or winter (except during the holidays) when there will be less traffic. If you prefer to visit in the summer, try going in the middle of the week, between 2pm and 6pm.
- Once you get to the aquarium, take a moment to check the feeding schedule, so you can plan your visit accordingly.
- Buy your tickets online and pick them up at Will Call, so you can avoid the long lines.
- It is possible to book a sleep over tour of the aquarium where you can explore the exhibits at night and sleep next to your favorite sea-creatures.
9. The Getty Center
Located in Los Angeles, the Getty Center is the perfect place to spend the day. Featuring unique architecture, lush gardens, and commanding views of the city, this Californian institution is also home to the J. Paul Getty Museum, where you can spend hours looking at their extensive art collection. After you watch the orientation film, you can take a guided audio tour of the galleries. Some of the must-see pieces include Van Gogh’s Irises, Monet’s The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, André-Charles Doulle’s Cabinet on Stand, and Marino Marini’s Angel of the Citadel.
- You can visit the Getty Center anytime, but for a special treat, go on a clear day and stay to watch the sunset.
- Pack a lunch and have a picnic near the beautiful gardens. There are plenty of public seating areas to accommodate you and your family.
- The Getty center is a huge place and there is a lot to see, so have a game-plan going in. If you don’t know where to start, get some advicefrom the information desk and make sure to grab a map.
- It is important to note that while the museum is free, parking is not, so have some cash on you.
10. Santa Monica Pier
This famous seaside attraction gives you a taste of classic Americana with its old-fashioned atmosphere. You can visit the Hippodrome and take a ride on the historical carousel, play some of the 200 games at the Playland Arcade, spend a few hours at Pacific Park riding the Ferris wheel and the rollercoasters, or you can learn a new trick at the Trapeze School. You can also hang out at the beach and go fishing, bike along the pier, or spend some time visiting the many shops and restaurants in the area. There are free walking tours that will show you the historical sites or you can hop on one of the famous double-decker bus tours. And for a special treat, make sure to attend one of the many free concerts the Pier hosts in the summer.
- You can go to the pier any time of the year, though it is more crowded on summer weekends.
- Check out the milkshakes at Soda Jerks for an authentic Santa Monica experience, circa 1930.
- For a romantic evening, grab your sweetheart and stick around to see sunset at the pier.
11. Redwood National and State Parks
This incredible group of parks in Northern California feature one of state’s most famous natural treasures—the redwood forests. These are the tallest trees on earth and they are simply stunning to see. Don’t miss the famous Lady Bird Johnson Grove and, of course, Big Tree. Like Yosemite, there are a lot of outdoor activities you can do here, including hiking, camping, biking, kayaking, bird watching, and horseback riding. And if you are an animal lover, you might want to plan your trip accordingly—while much of the local wildlife can be seen year-round, the black bears tend to be more prevalentin the spring and fall and the gray whales pass by in the late winter and autumn as part of their migration.
- While the parks are always open, the campgrounds are seasonal and can get crowded in the summer, so try planning your visit for the spring or fall.
- There a number of scenic drives you can take through the parks. Howland Hill Road is a popular route if you want to drive through the redwoods, while Coastal Drive will give you a commanding view of the ocean and the nesting site of the local seabirds.Crescent Beach Overlook is another great spot to see the water; from there you can check out Enderts Beach and explore the tide pools at low tide.
- With all that scenic driving, you’ll be using up a lot of gas, so fill up before you get to the parks!
- The parks contain a rainforest, so no matter what the weather looks like, bring some rain gear, just in case. If you’re hiking, make sure your boots are waterproof and that you have a couple extra pairs of socks with you.
12. The Griffith Observatory
Located in Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory gets over a million visitors a year, making it the most popular public observatory in the world. You can check out the Sam Oschin Planetarium, where you can view three different live shows, or the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, where you can see a movie on the history of the observatory. There are also a number of science exhibits where you can learn about astronomy, space, and astronomical tools, including the famous Tesla coil. Free public telescopes are made available on clear nights for stargazing and the observatory hosts special events throughout the year when certain celestial bodies come into view, so make sure to check out their calendar if you want to see your favorite planet up close. And of course, don’t forget to spend some time in the nearby Griffith Park, where you can enjoy a picnic lunch before the evening activities.
- The observatory is busiest in the summer and on the weekends, so try to go in the off-season or during the middle of the week to avoid the crowds. For the best views of the city, go in the morning. For some incredible stargazing, swing by at night.
- Admission to the observatory is free, though the planetarium shows cost a small fee.
- If you are looking for a more active visit, take the Sunset Walk and Talk Tour, where a guide will lead you on a hike around the observatory and show you some of the highlights of the park while also pointing out object visible in the night sky.
- The observatory doesn’t open until noon, so you can go earlier in the morning to see the beautiful view of the city, spend the afternoon exploring the science exhibits, and spend the evening looking at the stars. Timing is everything!
- Look closely at the sidewalk in front of the observatory—there are planetary orbits inscribed in the cement for those with a sharp eye.
- If you do stay into the evening, bring a jacket in case it gets chilly.
13. Alcatraz Island
This small island in the middle of the San Francisco bay has a long and creepy history. Featuring a lighthouse, military fortifications, and the infamous prison, Alcatraz is one of the more unusual tourist attractions in California. After taking the ferry over to the island, you can take an audio tour of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, once home to famous criminals like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Birdman. The tour is unique because it features the voices of real Alcatraz prisoners and guards. Besides the prison, the island has a lot to offer for nature-lovers—there are many tide pools and gardens to be explored and its position in the bay provides incredible views of the city, so don’t forget your camera. Alcatraz Island is also home to many seabirds, so if you want to do some bird watching, you should factor them into your plans. The birds nest from February to August, with their chicks hatching in mid-June.
- If you want to avoid the crowds, it is best to visit during the off-season (January through March), though you should be prepared for the cold weather. If you prefer a warmer visit, try between April and May or between September and October.
- Alcatraz is fairly popular and the ferries can fill up very quickly, so you must make reservations online in advance. The person purchasing the tickets is required to bring a photo-ID.
- If you want to make your trip extra special, take the Night Tour and explore the island in the evening.
- The weather can be unpredictable, so bring layers and rain gear, just in case.
Chinatown is one of the most famous neighborhoods of San Francisco and it is definitely worth a visit. Hoping to experience the unique culture in the surrounding architecture, art, music, and food, visitors come from all over to participate in the hustle and bustle of the oldest Chinatown in America. You can plan your trip around one of the many events that take place there, including the Chinese New Year celebrations and the Autumn Moon Festival, where you can see martial art exhibitions, Chinese opera, calligraphy demonstrations, and much more. On normal days, you can visit the many shops and restaurants to get a taste of the amazing food this area is famous for. Start your journey at the iconic Chinatown Gate, which marks the entrance to Grant Avenue. Then make your way to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley, where they still make fortune cookies by hand. Visit Waverly Place to see many of the picturesque temples, especially the famous Tien Hau Temple. And for an afternoon treat, stop by the Golden Gate Bakery for some classic Chinese pastries.
- You can go anytime and enjoy yourself in Chinatown! If you want to attend a special event, the Autumn Moon Festival takes place in September, while the Chinese New Year celebrations last for two weeks sometime between January and February.
- Unlike most of the places on this list, it is best to visit Chinatown without a plan, so you can wander around and explore whatever catches your fancy.
- If you find Chinatown a little overwhelming to navigate by yourself, there are walking tours available that will take you to the major sites.
- For a truly unique experience, make sure to catch the live markets on Stockton Street on Saturday afternoons, where you can people-watch as local residents shop for live turtles, chickens, and other usual items.
15. Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle is possible one of the most unusual attractions that California has to offer.Built in 1947 by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, this castle is actually a group of mansions, with three enormousguesthouses in addition to the main house. Christened La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”) by Hearst, the buildings and grounds were designed by Julia Morgan and feature 165 rooms and 127 acres of lush gardens, terraces, pools, and walkways. Guests can choose from a number of tours focusing on different aspects of the opulent architecture and design, including the grand socials rooms, the private rooms, and the kitchens. Hearst had his castle specifically designed to show off his extensive art collection, so make sure to look around you and enjoy the numerous ancient artifacts, sculptures, pieces of furniture, and paintings. This will be one of the most unique museums you will ever visit.
- Tours are often sold out in the summer, so buy your tickets in advance or visit during the off-season.
- There are no strollers allowed at the Hearst Castle and there are a lot of stairs to climb, so you might not want to bring young children.
- The temperature at the top of the hill can be as much as 30 degree higher than the temperature at the bottom, so make sure you bring plenty of water.
- For a special experience, treat yourself to one of the evening tours offered in the fall and spring. Guests and staff create a unique atmosphere by dressing in 1930s garb and visitors are able to wander around the gardens and pools in between tour sessions.
That concludes our list of the 15 places you must visit in California. Whether you chose to hike through the many national parks, visit the numerous museums, or spend your time at one of the iconic landmarks, we know your are going to have a blast. California has many things to offer its visitors, so don’t be surprised if you end up having to go back!