If you are planning to visit the Golden State, this post on the 25+ unmissable things to do in California is what you need to read. Packed with detailed and useful information, including a California map, it will help you plan your California itinerary.
There are so many amazing things to do in California a marvelous region that has made many dreams come true over the years and it has been the birthplace of the beat generation and home of iconic authors such as Steinbeck, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Henry Miller, to name a few.
And who hasn’t read Kerouac On the Road and dreamed of a California road trip, once in a lifetime?
A journey in California must be planned around the famous Pacific Coast Highway that stretches from Oregon to the Mexican Border and runs across the most amazing landscapes, dramatic coastlines, and spectacular beaches.
Oh! and did I mention California glamping? It is also quite popular if you wish to try a different way of lodging in connection with nature but in style. If you are an Airbnb frequent traveler like me you are going to like this amazing choice of Airbnb Glamping in California.
You can even make it a literary trip walking the paths of the most remarkable authors or you can just enjoy the views, the countless hikes, gorgeous beaches, and finest hotels and world-class food, a surfing class or you can chase the most iconic places in California. It’s really up to you.
California has it all. And most of all, keep in mind that California it’s one of the best places that you can visit in December in the US for a warm winter escape in USA.
And in this guide, I will present to you all the memorable things to do in California.
I dreamt about a California road trip and did it. Many years ago, with 2 friends of mine, we flew all the way from Italy, rented a car, and drove from San Francisco to San Diego, passing through Utah and Nevada as well, a memorable journey in my youngest years.
However, I have put together this post with contributions from different travel writers who are sharing their unique experiences in California. That’s to make it more authentic and detailed for you. I am sure you will love it.
So, without further ado, please find here below a thoughtful list of the best things to do in California right now.
Spend some time in the elegant Orange County
by Isabella Biava @ Boundless Roads
Orange County is one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated areas in California. Located in the Southern region between San Diego and Los Angeles, Orange County boasts spectacular beaches, soaring mountains, picturesque coastlines home to luxurious mansions, palm-tree-lined private streets, and perfectly manicured city centers.
There are endless incredible things to do in Orange County, from visiting historical missions, and interesting museums to amazing hikes and breathtaking beaches, shopping, splurging in luxury hotels, or cool glamping spots. Among the 34 different cities, you cannot miss Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, and Costa Mesa.
The weather is perfect all year round although if you don’t like crowded places, you should probably choose to travel between November through April while if you love beaches and swimming, you should travel to Orange County in the summer.
Among all the amazing activities in Orange County, make sure you don’t miss wine tasting, Hiking through Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, surfing in Huntington Beach, catching a sunset at San Clemente Pier, enjoy the views at 1000 steps beach and splurge in the stunning Montage resort at Laguna Beach.
If you rather rent a home for a long or short-term stay, there are so many amazing Airbnb in Orange County to choose from, in the most popular areas.
Whatever you chose to do in Orange County, you won’t get disappointed.
Check out our guide to the 25 fun things to do in Orange County California
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway: An Itinerary
by Kariss @ Shy Strange Manic
As soon as I began planning my trip to California I knew that taking a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco had to be included, and it’s one of the greatest travel choices I have made!
The Pacific Coast Highway starts at San Diego, however I picked it up from its next location, LA. Stopping at the fabulously colourful and kitschy Santa Monica is a must, and make sure you stop at Malibu Pier for a bite to eat with amazing sea views. Next, you will head through Santa Barbara, taking in the amazing nature of California, with its awe-inspiring mountains, wildlife and crystal blue sea!
Pismo Beach was the next stop, dinner overlooking the sea is a must here in this stunning sleepy surf town. Heading just down the road to Morro Bay to watch the sunset is also a must-do on this trip!
Cambria marks the start of the awe-worthy Big Sur part of this road trip, and almost right away you will pass through San Simion where you will see hundreds of elephant seals on the beaches.
I highly recommend stopping at Lucia Lodge for breakfast or lunch, the views out over the ocean while you eat from here make for an incredible experience.
Don’t rush driving along the winding roads of the Big Surr, this stunning views around each corner of this meandering road need to be really soaked in!
There’s a whole host of campgrounds, restaurants, and hotels along this stretch of road if you really want to take your time with the drive.
The Big Sur ends at Carmel on Sea, a gorgeous, quaint, and American-filled seaside town that is a great place to have dinner, drinks, or a walk along the beach.
If you’ve got the time why not also do the 17-mile drive, a private stretch of road just north of Carmel where you can see such famous stops as the Lone Cypress, Point Joe, and Seal Rock. If you are lucky you might even catch the sight of some whales that often frequent the area.
From here it’s just a short drive up to San Francisco where you can spend more time exploring this wonderful city.
A glimpse of the Bay Area
What to see in San Francisco as a first timer
by Chrysoula @ Travel passionate
The city of San Francisco has long been a favorite among travelers and when you consider the sheer array of things to see and do there, it’s not hard to see why.
San Francisco is a colorful, cultural, eclectic city that offers something for everyone. Whether you’re into art galleries, museums, vintage shops, cafes, historical sites, parks, and gardens or simply love a bit of people watching, San Francisco has you covered!
When it’s your first time visiting the city, you’ll want to make sure you spend time exploring some of the top sights including the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz and Lombard Street (aka the “Most Zigzagged Street in the World”). Then, once you’ve ticked off the main sights you can start discovering what lies under the surface to find new favorite areas and attractions.
A great way to see the city when you first visit San Francisco is to enjoy a Cruise in the Bay that takes you under the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz Island, and along the waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf. These cruises usually include an audio guide recounting the city’s history and sights, and some allow you to enjoy drinks or dinner while onboard. This is a unique way to see the city and is a wonderful opportunity to take some bridge and skyline photographs.
You’ll also want to check out Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, the Coit Tower, and Presidio Park if you get the chance.
San Francisco is an easy place to visit as a family, couple or solo traveler, as there are a range of amazing accommodation options to suit any type of traveler, and you can easily combine your trip with a visit to some of California’s incredible National Parks, the coast or even a trip to Disneyland!
Street art Treasure Hunting in The Mission Neighborhood, San Francisco
by Maya & Sari @ Chasing Lenscapes
San Francisco is probably one of the most famous cities in California, so when you plan your California itinerary, make sure to include at least a few days in San Fran.
There are so many landmarks to see in San Francisco. Other than the most famous attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco is also known for its fantastic architecture and culinary scene.
However, there are some hidden gems you have to include in your itinerary, and the street art scene should be at the top of the list.
When I started planning my San Francisco weekend getaway, I read a lot about the local street art scene, and it was clear that the Mission neighborhood had some of the most beautiful murals in the city. The Mission, the oldest neighborhood in San Francisco, has gone through many changes over the years. Nowadays, the Mission is a hub for culture and art that attracts the young hip and artistic crowd.
What I really love about the Mission is the mix of old and new, trendy bars next to traditional taquerias, the perfect blend of hip boutiques and second-hand stores, and how the multicultural history of the area is still preserved to this day.
The street art scene in the Mission is simply amazing. You can go on a street art tour or do a DIY graffiti tour. If you choose to go street art treasure hunting by yourself, make sure to check out the works at Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley, and you must visit the gorgeous Women’s Building (at 3543 18th Street).
If you’d like to deepen your knowledge about the street art scene in San Francisco, taking a street art tour (about $ 20) might be beneficial. No matter if you choose to go on a guided tour or by yourself, you must include the Mission’s street art scene in your San Francisco itinerary!
Find the best car rental deals and explore around freely, at your own pace. My favorite way to enjoy a destination!
Hidden Gems in San Francisco: the Japanese Tea Garden
by Manpreet @ Hello Manpreet
Among the hidden gems in San Francisco, the Japanese Tea Garden is a beautiful exhibit located in the heart of Golden Gate Park that you cannot miss.
But, we will come on to that in a moment.
Before, making your way to the park, you must make a short stop at the famous 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.
Though it is only a 15minute walk, this part of San Francisco is known for its very steep hills, so a taxi is your best bet here.
The steps are located in a residential area of the city and are a collaboration of seas and stars, created by the community in 2013. Once you have snapped up some amazing Instagram-worthy pictures, it’s time to head over to Golden Gate Park and visit the Tea Garden.
As you enter the park, you will be calmed by the sound of the waterfall and mesmerized by the sense of Japanese culture built into the garden. The garden has become popular for locals, as it is home to a lovely chic tea house café, where you can expect to get some peace and quiet amongst the bustling city.
The park is free to enter before 10 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with a $9 fee outside of those timings for tourists. Daily from 1 pm, there is a free guided tour of the gardens’ plants and history by a local community voluntary organization.
When you enter the garden, you will pass the intricate entry gate, which you will come to learn is made with no nuts and bolts.
Pure Japanese workmanship and origami techniques hold the structure together.
As you walk around the garden, you will feel the amount of love and care that has gone into maintaining the plants and structures throughout. Plants dating back almost 100 years are still on display in the garden.
If you have not yet visited Japan, then a few hours spent in this garden will make you want to plan your next trip!
Find the perfect accommodation in San Francisco
Hiking Mount Konocti
by Mike Holland @ The Hollapinos
Have you ever wanted to hike an extinct volcano that is listed as “High Threat Potential”?
Well, come to Lake County in Northern California and you can! But do not fear the “High Threat Potential”, Mt. Konocti is said to have last erupted 11,000 years ago and has been dormant ever since I have lived here.
Mt. Konocti is sacred to Native Americans and is the subject of many local legends. It consists of five distinguished peaks, with the highest peak topping 4,305 feet. From three of the peaks, you can experience a splendid, breathtaking view of Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake in California.
Mt. Konocti County Park can be accessed via Konocti Rd in Kelseyville, CA. Drive one-mile past Kelseyville High School to where the paved road turns to a dirt road.
You will reach the first parking lot after a short 2-mile drive up the mountain road and just 400 feet further up the road, you will reach the next and last parking lot.
Before you begin your hike, pre-plan to determine which hiking trail you wish to venture on, as there are multiple trails. Wear comfortable clothes and hiking shoes and bring necessities like water, snacks, sunscreen, and insect repellant.
Spring months, especially in April when daytime temperatures are between 70-80 degrees, is the ideal time to hike to the summit of the mountain.
I have hiked to the summit of Mt. Konocti three times. All three times I have traversed the Wrights Peak Summit Trail. The length roundtrip is listed as a 6-7.5 miles roundtrip on the park’s website and 3-5 hours for completion.
I found this timeframe to complete to be accurate on the average of my hikes combined. There is no need to rush and it is best to pace yourself and enjoy the view of your surroundings.
Drive to the Avenue of the Giants
by Zack Litchfield @ Florida Man on the Run
If you love road trips and nature, California features one of the coolest places to experience both.
The Avenue of the Giants in Northern California is a redwood paradise. This amazing scenic drive follows the old layout of US 101, winding through some of the best redwood groves in all of California. You’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a relaxing day under the trees.
The Avenue of the Giants is perfect for solo travelers, couples, and families. Many of the groves include short, easy hikes that can be completed by anyone. The loop trails at Lane Grove and Founders Grove are fantastic hikes that everyone should enjoy.
If you are up for a challenge, longer hikes like Bull Creek Trail are just off the Avenue and will take you through breathtaking scenery.
There are also some wonderful places to stop for lunch. Bolling Grove is one of the more wide-open areas, allowing you to pick out your favorite giant tree and enjoy a picnic.
A little further down the road is the majestic Rockefeller Forest. Find some peace and quiet on the trail for that perfect couple’s lunch.
It also happens to be one of the most well preserved old-growth redwood forests in California. Rockefeller Forest is truly a marvelous place.
The Avenue of the Giants is a great place to spend an entire day, especially if you’re on a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a completely free way to spend some time in nature and take in the awe-inspiring trees. Without a doubt, the Avenue of the Giants will stick with you long after you’ve left. Fortunately, if you’ve fallen in love and want to spend more time among the redwoods, just keep driving north and there will be plenty for you to find.
Explore the Bay Area: San Josè
by Valerie Hansen @ Maple Leopard
I’ve been to San Jose, California for many spring breaks and summer vacations. Our cousins lived there for many years, and we would visit whenever we got the chance! I fell in love with this Bay Area city that has many amazing adventures to offer travelers. The best time to visit is in spring and summer. If you don’t like heat, do go in the spring.
Top Things to Do in San Josè
- Berryessa Flea Market: A landmark since 1940, a place where family and friends can spend a fun-packed and inexpensive day. Admission is always FREE. Everyone is welcomed. There is a charge to park. Parking is $3 on Fridays, $7 on Saturdays, and $15 on Sundays.
- The Winchester House: take a ghoulish tour & learn about Sarah Winchester and all the spooky details about the building of this world famous mystery mansion. It’s quite the experience! Tickets start at $24.00 for adults.
- Santana Row: Free and open to the public. An outdoor mall located in a beautiful setting in the heart of San Jose Enjoy a mix of world-class brands, cutting edge boutiques & excellent culinary craft
- Excite Ball Park: Home of the San Jose Giants: Minor League Baseball- ticket price unavailable as the park is currently closed.
Best Eateries in San Josè
- Casa Vicki Authentic Mexican eats. Price range 1.25 and up. Excellent place for delicious food on a budget
- Konjoe Burger: Best fries and burgers in downtown San Jose. Medium price level, top burger joint in the city.
Find the perfect place to stay in San Jose
Visit Pinnacles National Park
by Katie @ Just Chasing Sunsets
Two hours south of San Francisco, CA is the lesser-known Pinnacles National Park.
Although it’s not as well known as other California National parks, it’s still incredibly popular so arrive as the park opens to secure a parking spot close to the trailheads.
When you arrive, stop into the ranger station to purchase your ticket, get a map of the park, and insight into the park’s hikes.
It costs $30 for 7 days per car or you can purchase America the Beautiful Annual Park Pass for $80 if you plan on visiting at least 3 National Parks in one year.
The best time of year to visit Pinnacles National Park is in the spring, as flowers begin to bloom and temperatures are still cool. If you visit the park in the summer, be prepared for 100* temperatures, so start your hikes early and bring plenty of water.
There are two hikes you should do in Pinnacles National Park. The first is the Bear Gulch Cave Trail which will have you scrambling through talus caves which are home to a unique species of bats. These caves are pitch black in parts so bring a flashlight.
After about ¾ of a mile, you’ll climb a staircase to views of the Bear Gulch Reservoir. You could loop back to your car after this or continue on to the High Peaks Trail.
The High Peaks Trail is a challenging 5-mile climb up switchbacks with very little shade. You’ll climb up steep and narrow stairs carved into the rocks until you reach the rocky spires for which this park is known.
At the top, you’ll have a chance to see the rare California Condor and take a break overlooking the valley below. To return to your car you’ll connect with the Condor Gulch Trail making this loop about 7 miles in total.
A visit to Pinnacles National Park makes a great escape from the city, make sure to add it to your California bucket list!
By Ann Marks @ The Unorthodox Traveler
Folsom is a fantastic place with something for families and outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy year-round. The city of Folsom is east of Sacramento and offers a wide variety of things to do. You might have heard of Folsom and its prison, where Johnny Cash sang the blues. The Folsom Prison Museum is a unique activity that showcases exhibitions on the prison’s history and Johnny Cash memorabilia. There is also a gift shop with items for sale made by inmates.
The real must-see gem of this city is Folsom Lake! The lake offers beautiful panoramic views of the foothills of the Sierra-Nevada and is a nature lovers paradise.
The lake and shoreline offer miles of trails to explore wildlife, hiking, biking, running, camping, fishing, picnicking, horseback riding, water-skiing, and boating.
Access to parking at the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area is open year-round at multiple locations and ranges in price from $5.00-$12.00 per day. Want more trails to explore? Folsom boasts an exceptional recreational trail system with more than 50 miles of paved trails for cyclists and pedestrians. Access to the path is free and located throughout Folsom.
Folsom is home to fantastic local eateries. If you are looking for a dining option that showcases organic and local ingredients, Bacchus House Wine Bar & Bistro is the place for you. Visconti’s is a family-run local favorite authentic Italian restaurant that is an excellent choice. The price per person for each restaurant ranges from $10.00-$30.00.
If you are looking for a more casual eatery, then I recommend going to the Red Bus Brewing Company for a pint and a pizza. Check out their ever-changing list of beers on tap, and the pizzas go for $10.00-$12.00.
Next time you are in California, stop in Folsom to see what’s it all about!
Explore the Monterey bay Area
Things to do in Monterey
by Constance @ The adventures of Panda Bear
Located just off of the Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey is the perfect weekend destination from San Francisco, or a great stop if you’re road tripping along the coast.
The best time to visit Monterey is in the spring and the fall. During these times of the year, the weather is moderate with sunny skies and a lower chance of coastal fog.
Be sure to explore downtown Monterey for some of the best eats in the area. Alvarado Street Brewery and Grill for unique brews and delicious gastropub dining.
For amazing ice cream, check out the locally owned Revival Ice Cream. This spot is known for its amazing flavors including bouquet and bee’s knees.
Among the amazing things to do in Monterey, you must visit Cannery Row and Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a look into Monterey’s history as a fishing and cannery town.
You can easily walk from the wharf to Cannery Row by taking the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, it’s only a 0.9-mile walk and you’ll get a chance to see more of the coastline. Sample the clam chowder at Old Fisherman’s Grotto and at Cannery Row, try some delicious seafood and from Fish Hopper.
Located across from Old Fisherman’s Wharf is also the Old Customs House.
Now a museum, the Custom House was built by the Mexican government in order to collect tax and duties at the Monterey Bay back when California was still a part of Mexico. The museum is free for visitors of all ages.
Continue along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail to Pacific Grove, home to the best Monterey Airbnb homes to rent. Explore Lovers Point Park and see the famous harbor seals of Pacific Grove.
The seals make Pacific Grove their home throughout the year and during the spring, you’ll sometimes spot a baby seal.
Monterey is full of things to do, it is one of the best places to visit in California.
To make your visit even more memorable stay in one of the spectacular romantic cottages available on Airbnb in Monterrey.
Visit the quaint Carmel By The Sea
by Tatiana Sorokina @ Family Road Trip Guru
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small town in the Monterey Bay area of Northern California. It is famous for its unique architecture. If you like fairy tales, you absolutely need to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Roughly 100 years ago Hugh Comstock built 2 small cottages for his wife’s small business (she was making dolls).
That’s how Hansel and Gretel’s cottages came to be. Residents of Carmel loved how they looked and asked Hugh to build more, which he did. And even after his death, people continued building houses in this unique style of architecture.
Nowadays you can see many “storybook cottages in town”. Some of them are private residences, others were turned into stores.
The whole place a fairy tale artsy feel to it.
This is why Carmel-by-the-Sea is favored by artistic people, many of whom reside in town.
When visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea the best thing to do is just walk about town and enjoy the architecture. You can book a guided walking tour if you want or you can walk on your own with my Carmel-by-the-Sea map that highlights the most interesting houses and secret alleys.
Another unique place to visit in Carmel-by-the-Sea is Carmel Mission, which is one of the most beautiful missions out of all twenty-one missions in California. There is a historical museum inside the mission and beautiful gardens around it.
Carmel-by-the-Sea has several good restaurants, among which many are Italian that you cannot go wrong with.
Il Tegamino and Il Grillo are the two Italian restaurants that I would choose because they are a little more affordable than some of the other ones in town but you won’t be compromising in terms of the quality of food. I hope you will enjoy your trip into the fairy tale world of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
For an even more memorable experience, you should stay in one of the Carmel-by-the-sea Airbnb, beautiful cottages either in the center or on the beach to enjoy the pretty town like a local.
Big Sur Glamping and other fun things to do
by Jenn Lloyd @ Sick Girl Travels
Big Sur is a mountainous section of California’s central coast nestled between San Simeon and Carmel. It’s traversed by scenic Highway 1, a winding, 71-mile coastal road surrounded by towering redwoods and rugged coastal views. Big Sur is an ideal location for camping, hiking, and beachcombing.
The best time to visit Big Sur is April to October when the average temperatures are in the 70s.
Best Big Sur Activities
Among the many amazing things to do in Big I share what for me were the most exciting Big Sur activities and places to see
Pfieffer Beach – Take a stroll along the beach and see Keyhole Rock, a natural arch framing the gorgeous sunsets.
Andrew Molera State Park – A hiker’s paradise. Multiple trails wind through meadows, bluffs, beaches and hilltops.
Henry Miller Library – A nonprofit arts center, bookstore, and performance venue. The location also holds concerts, movie nights, and private events.
The Pacific Coast Highway – See the historic Bixby Bridge, stop at one of the many scenic overlooks, and watch whales surface in the Pacific Ocean.
Big Sur Luxury Resorts
Big Sur Glamping is definitely the thing, but there are many resorts that offer a variety of accommodation to choose from. They are all spectacular with the most modern facilities and comfort but surrounded by nature in a magnificent tranquil ambiance. Here are my favorites.
Fernwood Resort – Featuring a general store, restaurant, campground, and cabins. Cabins start at $290/night.
Post Ranch Inn – Luxury property offering a lap pool, spa treatments, upscale restaurant, and courses in falconry. Rooms start at $1,000/night.
Treebones Resort – Features campsites and air-conditioned yurts with ocean views, yoga, massages, and the only sushi bar in Big Sur. Camping starts at $95/night. Yurts start at $320/night.
Ventana Big Sur – A magnificent 5-star resort. Rooms start at $1,200/ night. Ventana Big Sur Glamping is the best place to stay for a world-class retreat in Big Sur.
Also, Read The Best California Glamping
Big Sur cafe and other iconic eateries
Nepenthe/ Cafe Kevah –Serving moderately priced California cuisine, Nepenthe offers a full bar and panoramic Pacific views. Upstairs, Café Kevah is open for breakfast/ brunch.
The Big Sur Bakery – A must-visit breakfast spot serving pastries, gluten-free baked goods, coffee, and teas. Their cozy indoor dining area is open for dinner, serving upscale American cuisine.
The Restaurant at Ventana – An upscale restaurant featuring a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, craft cocktails, and modern American Cuisine with spectacular views.
The Esselen Tribe, one of the state’s smallest and least well-known tribes, inhabited the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur coast for thousands of years, according to their website. Nearly 250 years ago, their land was taken from then by Spanish explorers, according to the tribe’s history. The tribe remained landless until Monday.Read article on the CNN
Visit San Luis Obispo – things to do
Daria @ The Discovery Nut
Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo is one of the most gorgeous spots along the central California Coast.
Although the town’s not big, it offers enough to keep you busy for at least a couple of days.
Check out the Bubblegum Alley, a funky art project in the heart of the city, learn about the history of the area at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of the city’s top historic landmarks, and grab delicious fresh produce at the local farmer’s market.
San Luis Obispo is away from the coast, however, it is located close to some of the best beaches in Central California.
And the good news is that you can reach many of them via public transportation from downtown San Luis Obispo. After soaking in some local culture and history, head to Pismo Beach or Shell Beach for a relaxed day along the sandy shores!
And if you are looking for a nice workout, the area boasts some incredible hikes.
San Luis Obispo is surrounded by the Nine Sisters, a chain of dormant volcanic cones that present a great opportunity for hiking and mountain biking.
These craggy mountains include the popular Bishop Peak, Cerro San Luis, Cerro Cabrillo Peak, Hollister Peak, Black Hill, Islay Hill, and Cerro Romualdo among others.
One of the most iconic nine sisters is the Morro Rock, a spectacular rock formation located along the Pacific Coast in the town called Morro Bay. While climbing Morro Rock is prohibited, you can admire it from the shores of Morro Bay.
The good news is that the weather here is mild here most of the year, with temperatures typically hovering between 65 to 75 so even if you come here in the dead of winter, you will be treated with plenty of sunshine and great weather perfect for an early morning hike.
Rent an ATV and Ride the Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve in San Luis Obispo
Mary Chong @ Calculated Traveller
California is well known for sun-filled days at the beach, relaxing in the sand.
But, for an exhilarating sandy adventure that is way beyond sunbathing with a cold drink in hand, I suggest you get geared up for an ATV adventure at Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve in San Luis Obispo! This is the only state park in California that offers this type of high energy adventure.
Although the preserve encompasses 570 acres, some areas of the preserve are closed to vehicles for the safety of the environment, and you! That being said, with miles upon miles of terrain open for you to explore, it’s a great active adventure any time of the year – all for under $100 each person.
Most ATV or off-roading outfitters in the area will provide all the required gear with your vehicle rental such as helmets, as well as provide safety instructions and a map. They also have staff out on the trail in case your vehicle gets stuck in the sand (which in fact is quite easy to do).
Depending on the outfitter, you’ll have the option of driving solo or as a couple. Don’t worry if you want to go out as a couple; you are welcome to stop the ATV at any time and switch drivers.
Safety first – wear closed-toe shoes, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Most importantly, make sure you secure your belongings (especially your cell phone) because if you lose something in the sand, it’s likely gone forever!
If you wish to extend the adventure, there is onsite camping, a beach, a boardwalk, restrooms, and a visitor centre should you want to learn more about the cultural and environmental significance of the dunes.
Things to do in Southern California
Visit Solvang a Danish town in California
By Trijit Mallick @ Budget Travel Buff
How will it be if you can get the flavor of Europe in a small town in California? Locating in the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is one of the cheapest places to visit in California where you can see Danish-inspired beautiful architectures and picturesque wineries.
Solvang is a small quaint town but it has an array of cool things to offer its visitors. Being a small town, it’s quite easy to explore Solvang with a bicycle. At first, visit the downtown and explore the Danish architectures such as the Little Mermaid Fountain, the giant wooden windmills, and the red Clog & Round Tower.
You will be amazed to see the Danish lifestyle and gorgeous views of the city.
Next, pay a visit to a Danish bakery that you don’t want to miss. You will find plenty of small restaurants and bakeries at the central point. I will recommend to stop at Mortenson’s Danish Bakery and enjoy the Danish Waffle. However, pretty much all of their items are mouthwatering.
When you are in Solvang, you must try horseback riding at Vino Vaqueros. A 90-minute ride costs around $110 pp and offers you a jaw-dropping view of Santa Ynez Valley from the hilltop.
On a bright sunny day, it can be truly a rewarding experience.
Visiting Hans Christian Anderson Park will be ideal if you travel with kids. There is a wooden playground, a climbing wall, and a music-making station that creates chimes just like in fairytales. Solvang trip is incomplete without visiting the wineries.
There are some magnificent wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. Head over to the Buttonwood Farm Winery and taste their award-winning wines produced on their farm.
There is no shortage of hotels in Solvang. I will recommend staying in Hotel Corque that has a European charm and features an outdoor pool and all the modern facilities at a reasonable price.
Diving around the Channel Islands
James Ian at Park Collecting
One of the coolest things to do in California is to go diving around the Channel Islands. There are eight islands in the archipelago and the five most northern islands make up the Channel Islands National Park. They are most famous for the forests of giant kelp.
Diving through the tight strands of kelp, which stretch from the seabed to the surface, is an eerie and magical feeling. There are also bright orange garibaldi fish and the occasional sea lion or seal, darting between the kelp, to distract you. This is a truly unique diving experience.
Dive boats leave from Santa Catalina Island or from several ports along the coast. Ferries to Santa Catalina leave from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point.
On Santa Catalina, you can do shore dives from Two Harbors and Avalon and boat dive from Avalon.
You can also dive sites around Santa Catalina Island on day trips leaving from San Pedro just south of Los Angeles.
Day trips also leave from Ventura Harbor just north of L.A. for dives to Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, and from Santa Barbara for dives around the northern-most Channel Islands.
The northern islands are further out, so trips from Santa Barbara typically involve boarding the boat the night before and leaving in the early hours of the morning while you are asleep. Trips cost on average between $135 and $165 for three dives, plus equipment rental.
Diving is possible year-round, but visibility is best between July and January, with September to November being the clearest months. These are cold-water dives, so make sure you have a thick wetsuit.
They are most suitable for experienced divers. Snorkeling is also possible, though you won’t have quite the same 3-D experience in the kelp forests that diving gives you.
Santa Monica Pier
by Maria Stadler @ A world of Destinations
The coastal city Santa Monica, located west of downtown Los Angeles, is home to the famous Santa Monica Pier. It’s considered to be one of the most popular sights in California as it attracts numerous tourists from all over the world.
The pier contains a small amusement park (Pacific Park), some shops, and food stands. It also marks the end of the iconic Route 66. There’s no entrance fee to the Pier, but if you want to take a ride in the amusement park you need to pay 5-8$ per ride.
On the farthest point of the pier, you can find local fishermen trying to make a catch.
Next to Santa Monica Pier, there’s a long strip of beach that invites to relax in the sand and watch the pier from a distance. If you’re more adventurous you might want to rent a SUP and enjoy the views from the ocean.
The coastal zone around the pier is equipped with bike lanes that connect Venice with Santa Monica. Rent a bike to explore the area and stop in one of the various bars for a coffee or a drink along the way.
While the pier is open 24/7, the amusement park’s operating hours vary by season. During the summer months, the parking lot in front of the pier is often used for concerts.
Check the website santamonicapier.org for operating hours and events before you go, to make sure it’s open when you visit. On weekends you can participate in a free guided tour that teaches you the historical background of the pier.
The best time to visit Santa Monica Pier is right before sunset. Stroll along the pier and enjoy the bustling atmosphere while the setting sun paints the sky in vibrant shades of orange and pink.
If you are traveling to California, Los Angeles needs to be on your travel itinerary.
City of Angels, movie stars, walk of fame with incredible places to explore.
If you plan to visit LA, make sure to schedule at least 4 full days to see the absolute top highlights of this gorgeous city.
Hike to the Hollywood sign at Sunset and other favorites things to do in Los Angeles
by Gigi and Nico @ Beach Addicted
One of my favorite things to do in Los Angeles is to see the Hollywood sign during the sunset. If you don’t want to feel in a rush, make sure to come here at least 2 hours before the sunset. It also allows you to take photos with the Hollywood sign during daylight. The full hike takes about 1 hour. The view of the city is breathtaking.
However, be aware that you need to stick to a specific path, and you are only allowed to go behind the Hollywood sign.
Another awesome thing to do in LA is to walk around downtown LA, where you can visit many iconic places such as the Walt Disney concert hall, The Broad featuring Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons. I highly recommend having a quick coffee at a quirky coffee bar called the Bookstore.
My favorite part of LA is Venice beach. You can walk around the Venice beach boulevard, stop at the Venice canals, and take a photo of the famous Venice beach sign.
I would highly suggest renting a car and drive around the Hollywood area stopping for a photo at the Hollywood hotel or have a little shopping tour at the Rhodeo drive and feel like Julia Roberts.
Of course, there are many other spots that you need to check out, for instance, Observatory, beaches of Santa Monica, Arts District, the Getty Center, or Los Angeles County Museum of Arts.
There are so many incredible places in Los Angeles, and I am sure you will enjoy your time exploring this fantastic city like me.
The Queen Mary
by Michelle @ That Texas Couple
If you are making a list of cool places to see in California, then you should definitely include the historic ship, The Queen Mary. Created to be one of the most luxurious vessels on the water, the Queen Mary now calls beautiful Long Beach, California home.
The Queen Mary offers visitors an opportunity to experience a lost era when they come aboard this exciting vessel.
Today, The Queen Mary is a working hotel with over 300 original first-class staterooms and suites. Spending a night here truly is like stepping back in time as the vessel has worked hard to keep the original furnishings and décor intact in order to preserve the grand history of this ship.
Don’t worry though, the modern luxuries are available as well as the Queen Mary boasts a full-service spa, charming boutiques and shops, a fitness center, comfy beds, and even wifi.
However, you don’t have to spend the night on The Queen Mary to see this cool place in California. Visitors are welcome to come on board to enjoy the restaurants, tours, and attractions offered without booking a hotel room.
The Queen Mary offers ghost tours (which are popular, as the boat has been proven haunted), a 4-D theatre experience, a steam and steel tour, numerous dining experiences, and many other attractions.
A popular time of year to visit is during the Queen Mary Christmas celebration. During the Christmas season, The Queen Mary goes all out, with her beautiful decorations and Christmas themed entertainment. Not only that, but the ship is full of special Christmas events for people of all ages to enjoy, including an ice rink!
Overall, The Queen Mary is a fun and unique experience in California.
Drive around the iconic Coronado Island
By Valentina @ Valentina’s Destinations
Coronado Island is one of the most legendary locations along California’s coastline. This tiny island is accessible by car. Even driving along the bridge to Coronado Island is a breathtaking experience because you’ll get to enjoy panoramic ocean views.
Coronado Island is best known for Coronado Beach & The Hotel de Coronado. Coronado Beach is a free public beach that’s open to everyone. It’s been ranked as one of the best beaches in America. It’s also one of the most romantic places in San Diego!
What makes Coronado Beach so special? The secret is in the sand! The sand at Coronado Beach contains special mineral deposits that give it an incredible glimmering characteristic. It sparkles in the sun.
Coronado Beach also overlooks the famous Hotel de Coronado. This place first opened its doors in 1888, so it’s a piece of American history! It’s also been given the title of ‘National Historic Landmark.’ The Hotel de Coronado is a Victorian-style beach resort with wooden construction and a distinctly pink roof.
Over the years, the Hotel de Coronado has hosted movie stars and US presidents. It’s been the topic of discussion, and it’s been written about in books as well as featured in movies.
For the ultimate experience, you can book a room at this 5-star hotel to see how it’s maintained it’s luxury even after all these years. A night at the Hotel de Coronado will cost between $300-400.
An alternative budget experience to enjoy on Coronado Island is biking riding. There’s a wonderful scenic bike path that loops around the island. It will span approximately 6 miles and take under an hour to complete. You can rent a bike in many places near Coronado Beach for about $20.
Hike Mount Whitney
Jackie Szeto & Justin Huynh @ Life Of Doing
If you’re an avid hiker, consider taking the challenge to hike up Mount Whitney. Located along the Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest in Central California, Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. You’ll get the opportunity to reach the summit at a staggering 14,505 feet!
Hiking Mount Whitney in one day is doable yet challenging as you’ll be on the trail for 12-18+ hours. It’s recommended to complete the trail in over two days. You’ll have a better chance to acclimate to the high altitude and not feel as exhausted at the end of the day. Most hikers start the trail early in the morning since the distance is around 22 miles round trip.
What we loved about this place is the beautiful scenery. Everyone follows the “pack in, pack out” mentality so you don’t see much trash. The lower part of the trail is lovely to walk through as there are tall trees and wildflowers.
It’s also gorgeous to see the sunrise along your walk. As you head towards the summit area, you’ll see huge granite mountains with snow and gorgeous turquoise lakes from afar.
Once you’ve reached the summit, feel free to rest by the stone hut and soak in the beauty of the mountain range. It’s such an accomplishment to reach the top of the mountain!
You can hike this mountain at any time. If you want to visit between May to November, then apply for the lottery to get a permit.
The trail accommodates 100 hikers per day. The permit fee is $15 per person. If hiking between November to April, then you can bypass the lottery and get the permit from the Visitor’s Center on arrival.
Since there is deep snow during winter, you’ll need to bring crampons and ice axes. Enjoy your hike!
Visit the multicultural San Diego
by Maria @ San Diego Explorer
San Diego is the perfect California beach city and a must on any travel bucket list. The climate in Southern California makes San Diego a great choice pretty much year-round.
Even in winter, you rarely need a jacket and in the summer, it does not get too hot (at least near the ocean).
Also known as America’s Finest City, San Diego has so much to offer, whether you are in the mood for a beach getaway at one of the many beach resorts in San Diego, a fun time in the city, or a mix of both.
Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego:
There is a lot of stuff to do in Downtown San Diego. From eating delicious food at one of the many great restaurants in San Diego, strolling through the cute Little Italy district, visiting the Midway Museum, strolling through Seaport Village, or having a fun night out in the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego has something for everyone.
San Diego has some of the best beaches in Southern California. Some of the most popular ones are Mission Beach, Coronado, and beaches in La Jolla.
You can relax on the sand, take surfing lessons, or ride your bike along the boardwalk for a fun day on the beach.
Hiking in San Diego
If you are into hiking, I recommend Torrey Pines State Park. You will find some stunning trails overlooking the Pacific, and if you are lucky, you might even spot some whales.
San Diego has so much to offer and is simply a fun city, no matter what you are in the mood for
Explore the parks of Eastern California
Visit the Yosemite National Park
by Andrea Cannon @ BeaUTAHful World
Hands down one of the coolest places to see in California is Yosemite National Park. Depending on your level of adventure, you can see quite a bit of Yosemite from the car or get out and hike as well. Visiting Yosemite National Park requires a $35 entry fee and is part of the America the Beautiful Annual Pass.
Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reservations (cost $2, available online) are required in addition to the regular entry fee. The best time to visit Yosemite is Spring-Fall with many of the roads being closed in the winter.
Like most incredible destinations, you could spend forever in Yosemite. However, in order to see a good deal of the park, you need to spend at least a full day there. For a more challenging day hike, consider the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls.
This trail also continues to Half Dome which you can complete if you secure a permit. Without Half Dome, going to Vernal and Nevada Falls is about 9 miles round trip.
Mist Trail gets its name from how you get wet from the waterfalls when hiking. Be prepared to get wet, especially in the spring.
Whether or not you decide to hike, consider visiting Lower Yosemite Falls, Tunnel View Overlook, and Glacier Point. Each of these viewpoints is wheelchair accessible and incredibly beautiful.
Be prepared as there are not a lot of amenities inside the park – limited restaurants, gas stations, and lodging. In addition to sturdy hiking shoes, be sure to pack sunscreen, insect repellant, snacks, and lots of water.
For more detailed information check out my 2 day Yosemite itinerary.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
by Monica @ This Rare Earth
Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California is one of my favorite destinations in all of California. In fact, I can confidently say it is one of my favorite spots in the entire United States. Why such a bold statement?
For one thing, the landscape in Joshua Tree National Park is unlike anywhere else in the country. The alien-like plants and boulders will quickly transport you to another planet! Both the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert meet inside of park boundaries, which means that you will see two very different landscapes depending on which half of the park you are in at any given time.
The Mojave Desert is home to the famous Joshua Tree itself – a tall and spindly yucca plant – as well as giant boulders popular with climbers and hikers. In fact, the majority of the park’s hiking trails are found in this region, and it is typically the most crowded area of the whole park.
Tip: In the summer months, avoid strenuous hikes or leave early in the morning as temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees.
When planning your Joshua Tree National Park itinerary, it would be a mistake to skip the Colorado Desert region in the southern end of the park. This area is hotter, lower in elevation, and drier, but holds gorgeous landscapes full of cacti and, at the right time of year, colorful wildflowers.
The mountainous backdrop is great for sunsets.
Joshua Tree National Park is a designated Dark Sky Park, perfect for stargazing and well outside the bright light of the city. Camping is allowed by reservation, or walk-in if you are lucky.
Joshua Tree is roughly a 2.5 hour drive outside of Los Angeles. The entry pass is good for 7 days and costs $30.00 per vehicle.
Visit soon, you won’t regret it!
Drive through the Death Valley
Dhara @ Roadtripping California
With its spectacular desert landscapes, Death Valley is one of the most beautiful places to visit in California. There are many cool things to do in Death Valley National Park, so you may want to budget two or three days for your visit.
Death Valley is a huge park, and doing the drive through the park is the accepted way of getting to all the best spots. Take in the views of the badlands from Zabriskie Point, and drive up to Dante’s View for panoramas over the salt flats. Then come right down to the salt flats and walk on them!
For Star Wars fans, Death Valley represented Tatooine in a few episodes, so you may want to visit some of the places where the episodes were filmed. If you enjoy hiking, you have any number of great hikes from which to pick. Some are short and scenic and others, such as the climb to the top of Telescope Peak, are much more demanding.
If you love landscape photography, you will love all the photo ops in the park. Sunrise and sunset spots allow you to capture all the colors and drama of a desert sunset. And if you enjoy history, there are old mines to visit from the Gold Rush era.
You can also stargaze in Death Valley, which is a Dark Sky park.
With more time, you can explore the northern sections of the park, which are less visited because they take longer to access. The Ubehebe Crater is a vast Maar volcano and you can walk around its rim.
Visit Death Valley National Park in the cooler months of the year to be able to get out and explore. There are three hotels inside the park, and a number of campgrounds.
Visit Lake Tahoe
by Kristel and Gabriel Glasier @ Chef Travel Guide
Known for its crystal clear, cobalt blue waters, Lake Tahoe is a bucket-list essential when visiting California.
Resting on the California-Nevada border, this 22-mile large freshwater lake is the nation’s second deepest lake at 1645 ft and the 10th in the world.
As a haven for outdoor adventure seekers, there are endless activities to enjoy in the area. Whether it’s skiing world-class resorts, traversing miles of hiking trails, kayaking on the crystal blue waters, or basking on the sunny beaches of Lake Tahoe, you can count on having a wonderful adventure.
In order to enjoy an amazing view of this lake, check out Inspiration Point and you will be treated to a dramatic panorama of Emerald Bay and Fannette Island.
From a different perspective, you can hike along the shores of Emerald Bay through the out and back 13-mile Rubicon Trail from Emerald Bay State Park.
This is a moderate scenic trail that goes up and down over high rocky cliffs, waterfalls, and a 100-yr old lighthouse. Another option is to take the one-mile Vikingsholm Trail to the lakeshore and enjoy a tour of the Vikingsholm Castle for only $15.
Visiting Lake Tahoe during the summer opens up a variety of water activities to choose from.
You can go boating, water skiing, diving, parasailing, kayaking as well as stand up paddle boarding at Sand Harbor State Park to get your dreamy Instagram shot.
If you visit during the winter, make sure to enjoy exceptional ski resorts such as Squaw Valley, Heavenly, and Sierra-at-Tahoe. For leisurely snow-related activities, try snow tubing, ice skating, snowshoeing, or taking a scenic gondola ride to get a bird’s eye view of the picture-perfect scenery.
No matter what time of the year you visit Lake Tahoe, you will be guaranteed to have a memorable experience.
Hike the John Muir Trail
by Allison @ She Dreams of Alpine ®
For a cool outdoor adventure in California, nothing can compare to hiking the John Muir Trail. This famous 211-mile trail stretches all the way from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, and thru-hiking the entire trail is an experience that you will never forget.
Backpacking the John Muir Trail will take you through some spectacular natural areas in California, including Ansel Adams Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park.
The gorgeous sights you encounter along the JMT – from mountain peaks to alpine lakes to sequoia forests – make the epic hike worth every challenging step.
The northern end of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park provides perfect views of the soaring granite wall of Half Dome, while the southern terminus of the trail takes you straight to the summit of Mount Whitney, which is the tallest point in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet.
The best time to hike the John Muir Trail is early July through late September, in order to have the best weather and avoid snow.
You can start the JMT thru-hike from either end, heading in a northbound or southbound direction. However, you will need to have John Muir Trail permits whichever way you decide to go. Permits cost about $10-$15, but getting a permit requires serious advanced planning. Backpacking the whole trail will take approximately 3 weeks, so you will also need to plan resupply stops along the way.
Still, while completing the JMT is definitely difficult in many ways, the experiences you have on your thru-hike and the sense of accomplishment you get when you reach the end of the John Muir Trail make it an incredibly rewarding California adventure.
Visit the Columbia State Historic Park
by Teresa @ Brogan Abroad
The discovery of gold in 1848 sparked the famous California Gold Rush, which in turn triggered the largest mass migration in American history. As news of the discovery spread, thousands of people traveled to California and new towns sprouted up everywhere.
This created a very important legacy, and no visit to California is now complete without experiencing the historic Gold Rush era. One of the coolest things to do in Gold Country in Tuolumne County is to visit Columbia State Historic Park.
Columbia has the largest collection of Gold Rush era structures in California, and it’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in authentic California history.
It has shops, hotels, exhibits and all sorts of activities that will transport you back in time. The museum is a great place to start to learn about the history of the town, which once reached a population of 5,000 people. But even though Columbia is a State Historic Park, the town is still very much alive, with over 2,000 people living in it.
Known as the ‘Gem of the Southern Mines’, you can still pan for gold here and enjoy living history demonstrations. If you want to feel like a gold mine pioneer, you can also take a photo in a Gold Rush era costume.
There is a blacksmith shop that still uses equipment and techniques from the era, and the famous Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, that’s been running for five generations, is the perfect spot to indulge in traditional sweets.
Their marshmallows are particularly recommended!
You can go shopping for leather cowboy boots and jackets, take a stagecoach tour around the town and, when it’s hot, treat yourself to refreshing ice cream at Fallon House Ice Cream Parlour.