Northern California is one of the most popular vacation destinations due to its diverse landscape, unique attractions, and stylish cities. Although planning a vacation in this busy state may seem overwhelming, a few places should be on anyone’s bucket list.
The 16 Best Places to Visit in Northern California
Families, couples, friends, and solo adventure-seekers can all find a new favorite vacation spot in Northern California. Praised for its rugged coastlines, breathtaking national parks, and stunning redwood trees, this destination is a nature lover’s dream.
But Northern California is also known for its delicious clam chowder and modern landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are many great locations to explore, but save time for these familiar favorites and uncommon stops. Continue reading to learn about 16 of the best places to visit in Northern California.
Yosemite National Park is a massive, 1,200-square-mile display of nature at its finest. Visitors explore its famous waterfalls, deep valleys, meadows, sequoias, and wilderness.
You can hike, take a biking excursion, or listen to a guided tour to get the most out of your visit. Throughout the year, there are several events held in Yosemite. Depending on the time of your visit, you can attend the Yosemite Music Festival or join the Sierra Art Trails.
2. Big Sur
Take a drive through Big Sur, a 90-mile-long trip through redwood forests and waterfront areas. You can admire these breathtaking scenes by driving along Highway 1, where there are several designated spots to pull off the road and take a closer look.
While there, you cannot miss Bixby Bridge or the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. If you look closely along your trip, you may find whales, sea otters, and California condors, endangered large birds.
3. Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks protect more than the tallest trees in the world. Prairies, oak woodlands, rivers, and coastlines also run through these parks. Spend the night camping in Redwood Parks to make the most of your visit.
You can choose between campgrounds or backcountry camping. If you cannot stay all night, consider taking a scenic drive, hiking, biking, or walking your dog through the vast, beautiful area.
4. San Francisco
You cannot leave California without watching the sunset over San Francisco. Sunset flights provide priceless views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the skyline.
Families must stop at the Bay Area Discovery Museum while visiting San Francisco. Interactive exhibits will spark curiosity and learning.
5. Santa Cruz
While in Santa Cruz, visit the Natural Bridges state beach, where you can find seals, sea otters, starfish, sea slugs, and anemones in crystal clear water.
Make time to walk along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of very few remaining original boardwalks in California. This amusement park offers games, rides, delicious food, and alcoholic beverages.
Finally, you must stop at Monarch Grove. Thousands of monarch butterflies flutter among eucalyptus trees, and you can enjoy a quiet hike among this magnificent stretch.
6. Mendocino National Forest and Village
Mendocino National Forest is part of the California Coastal Mountain Range, and it is so massive that it is impossible to see everything in one trip.
It is a lovely area to hike, but avoid it during July and August, when temperatures can reach 100 degrees. May is the best time to visit because you will see more flowers and wildlife than in the winter.
Mendocino village is a gorgeous area between Mendocino Headlands State Park, Big River, and Redwoods. Stop into the Gallery Bookshop, Highlights Gallery, and the Village Toy Store.
7. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is famous thanks to its clear water and spectacular views of the mountains. Visitors are amazed by this 22-mile-long lake resting more than 6,000 feet above sea level.
Stop at famous restaurants, local art galleries, and shops on a trip to the second-deepest lake in the United States. During the winter, spend your time skiing and snowboarding. Summer visitors can go kayaking, whitewater rafting, or backpacking.
8. Gilroy Premium Outlets
Take a trip to the Gilroy Premium Outlets for the shopping spree of your life. This massive shopping mall is in Gilroy, a city belonging to the San Francisco Bay Area.
It is one of the largest outlet centers in Northern California, including over 145 factory outlet stores. Popular stores such as Banana Republic, Coach, and Polo Ralph Lauren sell top-of-the-line clothing at significant price reductions.
Dunsmuir is a picturesque, quiet town surrounded by snow-capped mountains. From here, you can see the highest free-standing volcano on the continent, a river, and simple shops.
This railroad town has a population of fewer than 2,000 people, and even first-time visitors feel at home. Here, you can relax, browse unique shops, and fish for granddaddy trout.
Sonoma, California, is just outside of San Francisco. The city center boasts several historic buildings that represent the city’s colonial past and the National Historic Monument, Sonoma Plaza.
While exploring the city’s history, dine at famous restaurants, explore local shops, and visit tasting rooms. Join the Wine Country Bike Tours to fill your day with wine tastings.
11. Muir Woods
Although there are many places to view redwood trees in Northern California, Muir Woods is set apart from the rest. This park is the most visited redwood park in California due to its old-growth redwoods.
Nearly one million travelers visit the Muir Woods National Monument yearly. There are several trail options, all varying in length.
Even those with little time can take a quick stroll around this beautiful park. Easily view other popular locations such as Mount Tamalpais State Park and San Francisco from these woods.
12. Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium should be on your bucket list of the best places to visit in Northern California, regardless of age. There are countless, awe-inspiring exhibits, such as:
- Into the Deep
- Giant Pacific Octopus
- Life on the Bay
The website keeps you up-to-date on upcoming events and schedules. Check it out before you visit Northern California to ensure you stop here at the perfect time.
13. Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle is a one-of-a-kind museum in San Simeon, California. Once a mystical estate full of guesthouses, terraced gardens, fountains, and pools, this 100-year-old establishment is the place to be.
You can choose from several tours, some of which bring you back in time while others focus on specific areas of the estate. Stop at the world-famous outdoor swimming pool, where you can snap perfect pictures of your trip.
14. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to Lassen Peak, a volcano that erupted in 1914 and became dormant three years later. Surrounding this peak are wonders of nature, such as sulfur vents, mud pots, and boiling springs.
While you walk along the trails, you will feel strangely at ease due to the quiet woods and peaceful lakes. However, looking closely at the volcano from overlook areas still unsettles visitors to this day.
15. National Steinbeck Center
All bookworms should take a trip to the National Steinbeck Center at least once. It is a masterful establishment devoted to the creativity of Steinbeck’s works. The founders designed it in the hopes that it would spark educational improvements.
Steinbeck’s depictions of common people found their way into hearts across America. Whether you relate to the free spirits of Tortilla Flat or the compassion of George in Of Mice and Men, you feel the timelessness of his works.
16. Winchester Mystery House
Located in San Jose, the Winchester Mystery House has a tragic history. The family that once owned the house was torn apart when an infant and her father died within years of each other. The widow moved from Connecticut to San Jose and renovated an eight-room farmhouse.
Many believe this widow built the house under the direction of a psychic or ghosts. Today, you can tour this massive estate, find souvenirs, experience an escape room, and test your aim at the shooting gallery.
Things to Consider
Before you plan a trip to Northern California, you must consider:
- The weather
- Your budget
- The location
The weather in Northern California is volatile and fluctuates based on the season. The best times to visit are between April and July or August and November because the chance of significant precipitation and humidity is relatively low.
Your budget will also play a role in your decision. Hotels in popular areas tend to be more expensive, and certain attractions charge high admission fees. If you want to plan a cheap vacation, read about free options in the FAQs section below.
Many Northern California visitors want to visit every attraction in one trip. Unfortunately, most attractions are not close enough to walk or even drive between them without wasting much of the day traveling. Check the distances between your destinations before your trip.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learn a few more crucial details about vacations in Northern California below:
What are the best things to do in Northern California?
Couples enjoy picnics on the beach, while adventure-seekers should test their skills by surfing the Pacific Ocean. Visiting unique shops is another fun option.
What are some vacation ideas in Northern California?
If you plan to stay in Northern California overnight, try camping in a National or State Park, such as Redwoods Parks. Alternatively, take a road trip along the coast, stopping at hotels in famous cities like Santa Cruz.
What are the best towns to visit in Northern California?
California is most well-known for its bustling cities, state parks, and national forests, but there are also several notable towns. Bolinas is home to the beautiful Bolinas Lagoon and delicious Coast Cafe. Jenner, populated by fewer than 200 people, offers amazing hikes, such as the Vista Trail.
What are some unique places to visit in Northern California?
Some unique places to visit include the Albany Bulb city park, Rock City, and The World’s Largest Monopoly Board. The Winchester Mystery House is also a unique attraction for thrill-seekers.
What can I do for free in Northern California?
There are several locations you can visit in Northern California for free. Spend some time in the Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, take a walk on the Sundial Bridge in Redding, or visit the Trees of Mystery Museum in the Redwoods. You can also do hikes to see the stunning natural surroundings.
So, What’s the Best Place to Visit in Northern California?
The best place to visit in Northern California depends on your passion. Nature lovers can enjoy countless national parks, while those interested in history should visit historic towns and museums. Those searching for relaxation can find solace in quaint, quiet towns.
Regardless of your vacation style, you will find a new favorite vacation location when you travel to Northern California. So what are you waiting for — book your trip today!