One of my biggest dreams as of late is to visit California, and jump head first into all the great things to do in California. After having seen New York and explored Oregon and Colorado, it is definitely due. After all, California one of the most unique states on the US mainland.
Most people who visit California think Hollywood and go south. But there are a lot more things to do in California, many more places to visit in California than just Hollywood. From beautiful cities to gorgeous countryside, from water sports to historical sites to raw nature at its finest, there is something for everyone in the state Americans affectionately refer to as the ‘Left Coast’.
Most travelers heading to California for an extended holiday will land either in San Diego or Los Angeles. Both destinations are a great place to start and definitely among the coolest places to visit in California. But then I recommend travelers to work their way along the coast as they head into the mountainous northern regions. While there, one of the top things to do in California is to take a trip along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. It is a breath-taking drive one is bound to remember for the rest of his life.
Anyways, there’s many more things to do in California, and it may be worth summing a few of them up. So, here are the 15 things to do in California which I would not want to miss.
15 Unmissable Things To Do In California
Admire the Golden Gate Bridge
I know it is possibly among the most cliché-like tourist attractions in California, but I never said I only travel off the beaten path. After all I continue to claim I am an unsuccessful backpacker. That’s why I have vowed that as soon as I visit California, I will go admire the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the landmarks of San Francisco, this is considered one of the top things to do in California and I won’t miss on it.
Here’s a selection of the best tours that go to the Golden Gate Bridge:
- Golden Gate Bay Cruise
- California sunset cruise in San Francisco
- San Francisco Bay sunset cruise by luxury catamaran
- San Francisco bridge to bridge cruise
- San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge catamaran cruise
Ride San Francisco Street Cable Car
I was only 13 years old when my uncle visited San Francisco and came back with pictures of himself riding the incredible manually operated cable car – the only manually operated one left in the world. It is an icon of San Francisco, and riding it is one of the iconic things to do in California. Apparently during the peak time there were 23 lines running through the city. There now remain only 3 and they are beautiful to look at (and to ride) when in the city.
Visit Alcatraz Island
Just over a mile off the coast of San Francisco, in San Francisco Bay, is the legendary Alcatraz Island – allegedly one of the top places to visit in California. Affectionately known as the Rock, the island is home to one of America’s most notorious federal prisons.
Alcatraz prison operated from 1934 until 1963 and housed infamous criminals like George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, and Rafael Miranda. Today, it is possible to tour the island and the federal prison thanks to the US National Park Service. One thing to be aware of is that the weather on the island can sometimes be unpredictable. Regardless, visiting Alcatraz is one of the most interesting things to do in California.
Here’s some tour that go to Alcatraz Island:
- Golden Gate Bridge bike tour and Alcatraz ticket combo
- Alcatraz ticket with 3-hour bicycle tour at sunset
- Alcatraz ticket with walk-on walk-off San Francisco tour pass
- Alcatraz and big bus premium 1-day hop-on hop-off
- San Francisco city tour with visit to Alcatraz
Walk on Santa Monica Pier
One of the most famous places to visit in California is Santa Monica Pier, a landmark of the state for over 100 years. Walking along the Pier, riding its famous solar powered Ferris wheel, and enjoying its amusement park are among the top things to do in California and I certainly won’t miss on that.
Go to Venice Beach
I am from Sardinia and I love a good urban beach. Having said so, going to the beach wouldn’t be my main reason to visit California. After all, Los Angeles is a city not normally thought of in terms of its beaches. However, there is one gem known as Venice Beach. This beach is quintessential Southern California replete with roller skaters, sunbathers, and those infinite California girls the Beach Boys used to sing about (I wonder if with my pale skin and dark hair I could ever pass for one?). Venice is also home to the world-famous Muscle Beach, where some of the biggest names in bodybuilding got their start.
Here’s some good tours that go to Santa Monica and Venice Beach:
Spend a Day at Disneyland
While Walt Disney World in Florida is the most popular tourist attraction in the US, the Disney brand started in Anaheim, California. Disneyland is one of the biggest tourist attractions in California, and those who visit California should hardly skip it. I owe it to myself to visit Disneyland if I want to truly understand where it all began.
The Disneyland amusement park actually consists of two separate parks and a shopping district all within the same general neighborhood. It’s easy to see why going to Disneyland is one of the coolest things to do in California. There are three local hotels with direct access to the Disney property. Search online to get the best package deals on hotels, flights and even family travel insurance. You can get yours here.
Take a Trip to Death Valley
As alive and vibrant as Venice Beach is, Death Valley is equally dead and foreboding. I love deserts – I have made it a point to visit Atacama in Chile. I was impressed by the beauty of Wadi Rum, in Jordan. Of all the things to do in California, visiting the Death Valley may well be at the top of my list.
To find out more about Wadi Rum, read my post “All the Places to Visit in Jordan.”
The Death Valley is the hottest and driest spot in North America, and one of the top places to visit in California. It consists of mile after mile of mostly barren desert, and scorching heat that can be so depressing in the summer that visitors are warned against traveling through during the heat of the day.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in California, located in the Death Valley is a place known as Dante’s View. From this one spot, it is possible to see almost the entire valley on a clear day. I will have to make sure to go in the early morning hours before the sun gets oppressively hot.
Go Stand Up Paddle Boarding
I regularly see people that go stand up paddle boarding (SUP) here in Sardinia. A friend of mine actually is a SUP instructor, and another one has just bought a board. Apparently, it is the new kid on the block of water sports. It is growing in popularity among Californians for a number of reasons and going SUP is one of the nicest things to do in California, for many reasons.
First, it is an inexpensive sport to indulge in. Second, California’s abundant coastline gives paddle boarders plenty of options. And third, there’s rental shops everywhere, and wherever they are, there also are experienced instructors who are eager to teach SUP to beginners. Looks like, if I visit California, I won’t have to miss on this.
Of all the places to visit in California, Los Angeles and San Diego are probably the best bet for SUP given that they are the major population centers in California. Besides, due to the Pacific currents the water gets colder up north.
Visit the Big Sur Region
Big Sur is an area along California’s central coast covering roughly 90 miles and one of the coolest places to visit in California. The previously mentioned Pacific Coast Highway runs right through it. Big Sur is home to Bixby Bridge (the tallest single-span bridge in the world), numerous lighthouses, and some of the most impressive cliffs on the US West Coast. I have no doubt that going to Big Sur is one of the things to do in California. Perhaps renting an RV through San Francisco RV rental is a good idea, so that I don’t have to worry about finding accommodation along the way.
One thing to be aware of if planning to drive to Big Sur is that the Pacific Coast Highway can be very congested during the peak summer months. I was advised that I should visit California in late autumn or early spring if I want to have the highway to myself. I was also told that I should definitely stay away during the winter as this is the rainy season along the coast. And I’d better make sure I have roadside assistance if I decide to drive.
At the time of writing, part of the Pacific Coast Highway around Big Sur is out due to a landslide, and there is no final date as to when the reparation work will be complete: do double check before taking the trip there.
Visit Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is thought to be one of the best tourist attractions in California. It is located in the northern part of the state on the border with Nevada. The best part of Lake Tahoe is that there are plenty of things to do year-round. During the summer months, the region is perfect for sunbathing, hiking, water sports, and other outdoor activities. During the winter, Lake Tahoe comes alive with skiing and snowmobiling. As an interesting side note, Lake Tahoe is one of the largest natural lakes in the world. Looks like I need to add this to the list of things to do in California.
Here’s a few tours that go to Lake Tahoe:
- Lake Tahoe half day photographic scenic tour
- Lake Tahoe full day narrated bus tour
- Lake Tahoe scenic driving tour
Drink all the wine in Napa Valley
If there is one thing I would never want to miss if I visit California, that’s going on a wine tour in Napa Valley. I come from a wine region myself, and I love driving around hills covered in gorgeous vineyards and then couple it together with some wine tasting. I know that this is among the best places to visit in California for wine, so I am quite set on it.
Here’s some great tours that go to Napa Valley:
- Redwoods and Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma full day tour
- Napa and Sonoma Valley wine tour from San Francisco
- Small group boutique wine tour with tasting
- Full day Napa Valley wine tour from San Francisco
- Napa and Sonoma full day wine tasting experience
Visit Redwood National Park
Some Europeans have said that visiting one national park in America is like visiting them all. I don’t think so! Such an assessment is far from the truth. The Redwood National Park in the northern part of the California is home to old-growth forests featuring the tallest and most massive trees on the planet. Redwood National Park is certainly one of the most amazing places to visit in California.
The national park is densely populated by coastal redwoods, also known as sequoia trees. The sequoias here are the only surviving species of the sequoia genus. The tallest among them approach 400 feet in height and nearly 30 feet in diameter. Some of these trees are so massive that engineers simply bored through them, rather than cutting them down, in order to complete a road through the forest. It’s easy to see why going to Redwood National Park is one of the greatest things to do in California.
Hike around Yosemite National Park
I love hiking, I enjoy multi-day hikes, and never miss an opportunity to do so. I have even walked parts of the Jordan Trail and the entire Jesus Trail in Israel. Plus, I am currently reading Wild, the book by Cheryl Strayed and I have a mild obsession for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – arguably one of the coolest things to do in California (and beyond). I doubt I will ever have enough time to walk it all, but I won’t ever forgive myself if I visit California and don’t at least walk parts of it.
To read more about my experience on the Jordan Trail, check my post “Why I hiked the Jordan Trail.”
The PCT goes right through Yosemite National Park, which arguably is one of the nicest places to visit in California. Sure enough, I will make sure to go on a multi-day hike when I go.
Here’s some good tours that go to Yosemite National Park:
- San Francisco: 1-day Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite Valley 3-day camping adventure
- San Francisco to Yosemite Park full day tour
Admire McWay falls
The power of social media is such that through it I have discovered the existence of McWay falls, an 80 foot waterfall located in Julia Pfeiferr Burns State Park. Picture after picture, I have made up my mind that this is one of the places to visit in California that I absolutely must go to.
Considered to be a tide fall because of its close proximity to the ocean, it used to fall directly into the Pacific, but then a landslide in 1985 altered the terrain and it now flows to a beach that is not accessible. Admiring the splendid beach and the waterfalls is definitely one of the things to do in California.
Go to Pfeiffer beach
Again, I had not even heard about Pfeiffer beach until a blogger friend of mine went there and mentioned in his blog about a beach that is apparently very quiet, beautiful and unusual, because the sand is of a purple color due to manganese garnet particles washed down from the hillside close by. I am all about discovering new places and looks like going to Pfeiffer beach is one of the things to do in California I should not miss.
California is known as the Golden State due to the amount of sunshine it receives every year. I like to think of it as golden because of all it offers tourists. There are so many things to do in California that I shall never be bored. Those planning to visit California in the future should prepare for the trip of a lifetime. There are so many places to visit in California that I’ll never get it all in on a single holiday.
Have you ever been to California? What did you like the most about it?
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