California is a diverse and exciting state, and there’s always something to see and do. Whether you’re interested in museums, the outdoors, family fun or just some adventure, the Golden State is for you. While on your trip, make sure to stop at these top attractions.
Nestled in between Eastern California and Nevada is Death Valley. You can explore the magnificent Titus Canyon, colorful desert rocks and sand dunes or wander around the nearby eerie ghost town of Rhyolite. Once you reach the salt flats in Badwater Basin, you’ll be standing on North America’s lowest point. Due to the extreme temperatures, it’s best to visit in the cooler seasons – Death Valley recently reached a scorching 130F (54C).
Hearst Castle in San Simeon is a National Historic Landmark and a fascinating must-see. The land started out as a ranch, owned by George Hearst in 1865. His son, William Randolph Hearst, inherited the property and built the estate to showcase his immaculate art collection. The castle and grounds comprise 165 rooms, and 127 acres (51ha) of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. It’s technically still unfinished, despite its size, as William Hearst was forced to leave the castle due to ill health.
Don’t miss this world-famous landmark. Although you can’t hike directly to the Hollywood Sign when you’re in Los Angeles, there is a legal trail that allows you to look out over the sign, which dates back to the 1920s when it was used as an advertisement for a real-estate venture. The sign originally read Hollywoodland, but when the Great Depression hit, maintenance on the sign stopped, and eventually, the ‘land’ part was taken down. These days, it’s one of the most popular selfie spots in the world.
Balboa Park is where culture, science and nature come together in a 1,200-acre (486-ha) space. There are gardens, walking paths, museums and several theaters to explore and discover. It’s even home to the San Diego Zoo. Whether you’re a nature lover, animal fan or simply looking to have some fun, the vast number of entertainment options at Balboa Park will see you right. When you head to the zoo, don’t miss the elephants and the polar bears – they’re a must-see.
Monterey is a gorgeous town on the coast of California, and its dramatic coastline is some of the most spectacular in the world. All of that ocean means that their aquarium is a sight for sore eyes. Here, you can see otters, countless species of fish, octopus, jellyfish and much more. Learn about the many wonders of the ocean through various exhibits, which will appeal to people of all ages. The aquarium even has a restaurant and, of course, a gift shop with all the fluffy, stuffed sea creatures your heart desires.
Here, the Ice Age comes to life. La Brea Tar Pits, located in LA next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), were formed over thousands of years as the natural asphalt seeped up to the surface. There is also a museum that takes visitors through the whole story of what exactly is happening to the earth in this spot. If you time your visit right, you can even watch active digs. As you stroll by, you can imagine the huge creatures that walked the earth walking beside you.
Located in Northern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to acres of bubbling mud pots, spectacular views and lava rocks. Wander the numerous sulfur mines, mountain streams and lakes, along with over 150mi (241km) of hiking trails. Of course, you can’t miss stopping at the Devastated Area, which is laden with lava rocks from the volcano’s last eruption. You can even stay in the park in a cute wooden lodge or on a campsite – all the better to see some of the wildlife in the area. If you’re lucky, you can see otters playing in the water.
Sites throughout this Marin County coastline park include the beautiful cliffside Alamere Falls at Wildcat Beach, the Point Reyes Lighthouse and extensive walking and hiking trails. And depending on when you visit, you might catch some of the most awe-inspiring glimpses of migrating gray whales. Hike up to nearby Mount Wittenberg for the most picturesque coastal views and photo ops. The coastline here is some of the most beautiful in the world – the best time to visit is around sunset, so you can watch the red sun sink over the dramatic horizon.
Enjoy the mile-long beach and boardwalk rides and games at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Adults will feel like kids again, and kids will have the time of their life, so if you’re visiting California with your family, make sure it is on your to-do list. There are a number of events that take place at the boardwalk, including movie nights on the beach, chili cook-offs and concerts, to name a few. The boardwalk has all the traditional beach activities that everyone loves – fairground rides, mini golf, shopping and, of course, plenty of delicious food.
No trip to California would be complete without a stop at the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Constructed in 1933, the one-mile-wide Golden Gate is an international emblem. Drive across the bridge, or even walk or bike the almost 9,000ft (2,743m) to take in the landmark and surrounding beauty. Culture Trip’s tip for getting the perfect view? There’s a hidden rope swing at nearby Kirby Cove that will give you an incredible, unobstructed view of the internationally recognized bridge. You don’t get a better photo op than that.
General Sherman is the name given to the largest known single-stem tree on the planet. At 275ft (83.8m) tall, General Sherman stands in none other than the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park in Tulare County. It’s a bit of a hike but nothing too strenuous; just lace up your shoes and leave your car in the designated parking lot. General Sherman’s sheer magnitude will leave anyone speechless – so huge that you can’t quite comprehend its size until you’re up close and personal.
Not only was your favorite blockbuster probably filmed at Universal Studios Hollywood, but it’s an amusement park too! You can discover worlds that you’ve only been able to observe on a screen. Rollercoasters, ride simulators and an impressive amount of dining options flood this park. Culture Trip’s pick for the best attraction here is the studio tour. Board an open-sided, tour guide-operated bus, and you’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio backlot. What you’ll see is dependent on what’s being filmed currently, but there are always a few unexpected surprises – and you’ll learn a few secrets of the trade.
Big Sur is the most remarkable stretch of the Californian coast, with countless places to hike, camp and picnic. Multiple overlooks will make you feel like you’ve just stepped into a postcard. This area is a low-populated part of the state, leaving more room for exploring and getting back to nature. There’s a lot of traditional American history in this area – if you’re a fan of Jack Kerouac, this was where the literary hero ended his great American road trip.
This national park comprises five individual islands off the coast of Southern California. These protected islands feature truly undisturbed nature and wildlife. You can only get to the Channel Islands by private boat or guided park boats, which can be arranged at the mainland visitor centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara. The isolation these islands have experienced for so many years means that the flora and fauna here is found nowhere else on earth.
You’ll find South Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay high in the mountains. Mark Twain himself dubbed Emerald Bay “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Once you see this national landmark for yourself, you’ll see why. The water here is truly a tantalizing blue-green, just as the name suggests. Make your way to one of the clifftops for a picturesque scene of Fannette Island popping out of the water. The shimmering greens, turquoise and blues of the lake make it one that you don’t want to miss.
Also a South Lake Tahoe treasure, Vikingsholm is a castle-like architectural marvel. This lakeside ‘castle’ has a history that goes all the way back to the late 1800s and is considered to be one of North America’s finest examples of Scandinavian architecture. It was one of the first vacation homes on the lake – and what a vacation home it is. Tours are available from spring to late summer, but the beautiful landscape is worth seeing all year round.
Bring your inner child back at Disneyland, complete with themed areas, rides and shows, all based on the inspirations of Walt Disney. It’s certainly not just for kids, and the park also offers some pretty amazing fine dining and shopping. Whether you’re here to meet some of your favorite Disney characters, to enjoy scary, thrilling and cute rides or simply want to eat as many sweet treats as your stomach can manage, Disney’s claim to be the Happiest Place on Earth isn’t far from the truth.
Jump into San Francisco’s crime history by taking a tour of Alcatraz Island. The Alcatraz prison opened in 1934 and housed some of the country’s most dangerous criminals of the time. The prison closed in 1963 due to its expensive maintenance. Today, tours of the prison take place daily. Get locked up in a real Alcatraz prison cell and catch some unique scenes of San Francisco. You’ll learn about the history of the island, why it was considered escape-proof and what happened to it after it was no longer a prison.
Experience remarkable views of Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory. Explore its exhibits and discover the stars at the planetarium before heading for a bite to eat in the on-site cafe – you can easily enjoy a full day out here. As well as the unparalleled views across the city (get here at sunset to watch the LA sky become painted pink, purple and red) the planetarium is one of the best and most romantic spots in the city. Get there early to beat the crowds.
Take a moment, or a few, to appreciate the inspiring collection of modern and contemporary art at the SFMOMA. The wonderfully curated collection here is highly regarded on a global scale. With pieces by Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol, you’ll find your new inspiration. Tours are available, or visitors can wander about on their own and try to make sense of the pieces and exhibits for themselves. The temporary exhibits mean that the museum never feels stale. Make sure to pop to the cafe when your feet get sore.
One of the most famous beaches in the world, Malibu is a world apart from nearby LA. Golden sand, dramatic mountains, million-dollar houses and incredible attractions combine to make this an amazing destination in which to spend some time. You can learn to surf, complete some hikes with spectacular scenery, get some shopping done and eat some of the best seafood you’ll ever taste at Malibu Seafood. And don’t forget to head to the pier for some old-school fun.
The landscape in Joshua Tree National Park is like nowhere else in the world. Almost otherworldly, it takes its name from the Joshua trees – distinctive spiny trees that are found nowhere else on earth and make the horizon unique. The truly incredible landscape here is one thing, but it’s also a fun place to hang out. Joshua Tree has attracted hippies and artsy folk for decades, and you’re sure to have fun when you hang out in one of the old-timey bars, vegan cafés or atmospheric markets.
One of the most famous streets on earth, you can’t truly say you’ve lived until you’ve driven down Sunset Boulevard – preferably with your sunroof open or top down. Sure, it’s touristy, but some places just have a certain magic about them. There’s every kind of entertainment you could wish for here – cinemas, theaters, comedy clubs, nightclubs, fancy hotel bars and dive bars – so as long as you can find some parking (good luck!) you’re all set.
Venice Beach and boardwalk is one of the hotspots of LA. Famous for its countercultural, slightly wacky sensibilities, you’ll find everything from tarot readers and tie-dye t-shirts, to weightlifters and skateboarders. In recent years, the area has become more chi-chi. There are plenty of cute boutiques, adorable vintage shops, renowned restaurants and markets galore; but the area has never lost its misfit charm. You’ll fall in love – guaranteed.
Found in San Simeon, the Piedras Blancas rookery is the only elephant seal rookery in the world that is accessible and free to access. Home to a huge number of elephant seals, you won’t believe your eyes when you look out across the sand. The best time to visit is in November, when the male seals arrive for mating season. You can watch them fight for their preferred female, which looks almost like a dance or a martial art. Make sure to bring your camera for this one – you’ll want to remember it.