Where to Go in California: A Cheat Sheet to the Top Destinations

More than one-and-a-half times bigger than the entire United Kingdom, California is the U.S. state with the highest population, the most national parks, the tallest trees, and some of the coolest, most vibrant cities. A state of mountains, deserts, lakes, and beaches, California has some of the most incredible landscapes in the country, too. Plus, it’s home to Hollywood and the birthplace of McDonald’s. What all of this means is that California has it going on, which makes choosing where to go and what to see a tough decision. To help you find the perfect spot to visit, we’ve compiled this cheat sheet to the top destinations in California.   

Los Angeles

Hollywood, Los Angeles/Oyster

Arguably the most famous city in the state -- and one of the most iconic destinations in the world -- Los Angeles is the obvious place to start a tour of Californian cities. A sprawling metropolis, the City of Angels offers a diverse mixture of tasty food, beautiful scenery, and legendary attractions. Some highlights include the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame, the Griffith Observatory (to see the real stars), and the Getty Center for great art. More to do: A Mulholland Drive trip to take in the views of the city from above, a cultural marathon at The Huntingdon Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and a foodie tour that includes everything from iconic patties at In-N-Out Burger to tacos at Tire Shop Taqueria. In town for Pride, or want to hit up the city’s famous gay clubs? Head to West Hollywood, also known as WeHo. And don’t forget the coast, with a trip to buzzing Venice Beach or nearby Santa Monica -- the latter features a sandy beach as well as a pier with an arcade and food shacks.

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San Francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco/Oyster

A beautiful city with a romantic nature, San Francisco remains a California cultural gem -- and one that can have at least three different types of weather occurring at once in side-by-side neighborhoods. Walking tours are a great way to see the sights and get a glimpse into the city’s past, including the Gold Rush, hippy revolution, and various fashion, food, and tech trends. No guide worth their comfy shoes and happy disposition will let you leave without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog after and Golden Gate Park. Famous neighborhoods are part of San Francisco’s allure, too. Haight-Ashbury is among the most iconic, thanks to its Summer of Love connotations and perennial Swinging Sixties attitude. But history of another kind can be found in the city’s historically queer district, The Castro, as well as at major events like the Folsom Street Fair (which isn’t for the faint of heart). Other must-visit areas include the waterside Fisherman’s Wharf (for its sublime views of the bay, sea lions, and clam chowder joints), Nob Hill (home to the world’s last manually-operated cable car), and Chinatown (for the sensory overload, and of course, delicious food). If you’re a literary fiend, make sure to check out the City Lights bookstore, and for culture, hit up the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

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Palm Springs

Miramonte Resort & Spa, Palm Springs/Oyster

A mid-century modern mecca in Southern California, Palm Springs in the heart of the Sonoran Desert is an architectural dream. Here, palm trees sway alongside angular modernist houses with classic cars parked out front. Aside from the stylish residences that characterize the town, Palm Springs has plenty to attract visitors who are not enamored by seminal architectural movements. If the desert heat gets to be too much, then take to the sky, with a trip up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Or, embrace the weather with hikes through the rocky trails of the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons. If you’re in town on a Thursday, visit VillageFest, a weekly flea market-slash-street fair with an array of vendors selling everything from food to art. The city is also one of the most welcoming for LGBTQ travelers in California and the United States, and hosts events throughout the year, including the White Party, The Dinah, and queer film and arts festivals. 

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Carmel-by-the-Sea

Kunal Mukherjee/Flickr

Sure, the sheer scale of things -- trees, cities, national parks -- in California is off the charts, but that doesn’t mean the state doesn’t celebrate the quaint and cute. Enter: Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small town of storybook cottages, independent art galleries, wine tasting and coffee shops, plus a pretty beach with a coastal path that offers excellent bird-spotting opportunities. Carmel is a fine example of a slower pace of life, California style.  

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Santa Cruz

Beach at Sea and Sand Inn, Santa Cruz/Oyster

Santa Cruz may look familiar as it was used as the location for the fictional town of Santa Clara in “The Lost Boys.” In the film, it’s the murder capital of the country, thanks to a gang of stylish vampires. But in reality, Santa Cruz is known for its laid-back coastal style, iconic pier, and wooden roller-coaster -- dubbed the Giant Dipper -- on Santa Cruz boardwalk. Aside from having the world’s oldest beachfront theme park (worth the trip alone), Santa Cruz is home to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the Roaring Camp Railroads that takes you on a steam-powered trip out of the city and into redwood forests, and plenty of great restaurants and craft breweries.

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Monterey

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa/Oyster

Come for the John Steinbeck references and famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and stay for the whale watching, scenic coastal drive, craft breweries, Cannery Row and its beach, and the Old Monterey Jail tour. A city that takes it slow, Monterey is the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of L.A., the peacocking of Palm Springs, and the swankier Carmel-by-the-Sea. 

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Santa Barbara

Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara/Oyster

While there are plenty of outstanding beach towns along California’s coast, Santa Barbara is one that stands out. Larger than Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey, Santa Barbara is often described as the “American Riviera,” thanks to its charming coastal community, warm climate, top-notch beaches, and Mediterranean-inspired houses. Besides the beaches and architecture, the city’s food (it has a Taco Trail) and wine scenes are highly rated. Plus, the galleries, as well as restaurants and bars of the Funk Zone, offer a lively side to an otherwise relaxed pace of life. 

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Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park at Spin and Margie's Desert Hideaway/Oyster

Joshua Tree National Park is home to -- you guessed it -- the Joshua tree, a plant (yes, plant) species in the agave family. A massive desert park filled with hikes that take in stunning sights like the Cholla Cactus Garden and waves of Joshua trees against rocky boulders, this is a spiritual place (and so it should be, since the Joshua Tree was named for its likeness to Joshua holding his hands to the sky in prayer). After visiting the park, hit the town of Joshua Tree, where artists and musicians display their talents and you can find a $5 movie every Friday at Smith’s Ranch drive-in theater.

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Yosemite National Park

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel/Oyster

Joshua Tree may be bigger, but Yosemite National Park is undoubtedly home to a more diverse landscape. A trip to the home of El Capitan, Half Dome, dramatic waterfalls, and the odd native brown bear could take as long as you’re willing to dedicate to it. The park has over 400 animal species and multiple impressive varieties of plants and trees to discover. Having recently reopened in June 2018, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias once again offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with some of the biggest trees on earth. Editor’s Note: Parts of Yosemite National Park are currently closed, due to wildfires. Check the National Park Service website for updates.

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Sequoia National Park

m01229/Flickr

While you can find sequoias in Yosemite, why not head to the park named after the mammoth trees and see the biggest of them all? Only at Sequoia National Park can you see a tree that grows to heights of approximately 250 feet in the California climate. The tallest is named General Sherman and is possibly the most photographed tree in the country. Visitors can hike, camp, and get their picture taken with the General at the national park.

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Lake Tahoe

Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe/Oyster

With skiing in the winter and lakeside fun in the summer, Lake Tahoe offers visitors with exciting activities all year round. Surrounded by sugar pines and firs, the alpine beauty extends from the mountains to the edges of the epic lake. North Tahoe is best visited in the winter, thanks to its array of mountain peaks that are perfect for skiing. You’ll also experience fewer crowds this time of year. If your idea of a fun vacation includes beach time and water sports, then we recommend heading to the south of Lake Tahoe in the summer -- just keep in mind that you’ll be met with lots of crowds. An array of resorts provide the perfect base for enjoying winter sports on the mountains and summers on the lakes. 

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Big Sur

Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur/Oyster

Whether you’re a fan of Kerouac, keen on connecting with the area’s famous spirituality, or just love visiting places with immense beauty, Big Sur will check every box. A place that’s all about nature, Big Sur remains a must-see in California, even if only for a short stop-off at Point Sur State Historic Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and Partington Cove. One of the best ways to experience the destination is by driving along the coastal highway, which presents beautiful views of the craggy coastline battered by the Pacific Ocean.  

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Disneyland Resort

Ayleen Dority/Flickr

Built in 1955 in Anaheim, Disneyland opened 16 years before its counterpart in Orlando, Florida. It also has the benefit of that great California heat, which makes queuing up for rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and Matterhorn Bobsleds a less humid affair than Florida’s Disney World. There are also plenty of hotels with top-notch amenities in the area, meaning the fun can continue long after you’ve left the park.

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Salvation Mountain

Kevin Dooley/Flickr

California is filled with curiosities (and some of the country’s most eccentric roadside architecture). One of the state’s most famous examples of outsider art is the impressive Salvation Mountain, located in the outsider community of Slab City. A makeshift town in the Sonoran Desert, Slab City is home to a temporary array of dwellers who appreciate the lack of rules and outside interference that comes with the territory. While there might be little to see aside from the awesome installation created by local resident Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain captures a certain American spirit, making it a worthwhile stop in California. 

San Diego

Mission Beach in Mission Bay, San Diego/Oyster

San Diego is geographically diverse, with Mexico to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Anza-Borrego Desert to the east, and the Laguna Mountains to the north. The result? Quaint, upscale seaside communities, miles of rugged coastal bluffs and white-sand beaches, picturesque rolling hills, golf courses, a dry climate, and a vibrant mix of California culture with Latino flair. Attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Petco Park (where the San Diego Padres play), Sea World, and numerous beautiful beaches make this a popular vacation spot for families, but there’s also excellent nightlife for the party-minded, and charming seaside retreats like La Jolla and Del Mar for those in search of romance.

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St. Helena

Inn St. Helena/Oyster

In the heart of Napa Valley, St. Helena is the place to leave your car behind and let someone else do the driving, so you can enjoy the local wineries and vineyards throughout the picturesque city. Have your camera ready at all times, as St. Helena is super photogenic, thanks to its prim landscaped gardens, classic architecture, and quaint old town and main street. Many nearby wineries await, from the iconic Ballentine Vineyards to the historic V. Sattui Winery. Alternatively, just stay in town and make do with the amazing Charles Krug Winery, Napa’s oldest winery and a National Historic Landmark.   

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Sonoma

Garden at the El Pueblo Inn, Sonoma/Oyster

If Napa’s not for you, then perhaps the city of Sonoma will be more suited to your taste. Located in Sonoma County, this California wine destination is as pretty as St. Helena, with rolling hills dotted with vineyards. The main thing to do here is enjoy the local produce, whether that’s cheese from the Vella Cheese Company or wine from the likes of Bartholomew Park Winery. 

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Bodie

Jayson/Flickr

Those interested in the Gold Rush-era of the Wild West will get a kick out of visiting the old mining ghost town of Bodie. Originally populated in the late 1800s by an array of townsfolk who came for the work, Bodie went bust when the jobs dried up. It lay unused and abandoned, until the California State Parks system took over and made it a State Historic Park. Bodie makes for a great day trip for anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of California and the West in general.

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