California draws tourists from all over the world thanks to its sparkling beaches, populous cities, and Disney theme park. However, this beautiful state has so much more to offer tourists once they get off the beaten path.
Whether you want to take in the beauty of the state’s National Parks or visit wine country, we’ve put together this comprehensive list of the 17 best things to do in California.
The 17 Best Things to Do in California in 2023
California is known for its movie and music industries, large metropolitan areas, and the plethora of state and national parks.
If you’re planning a trip to California, be sure to visit some of these places to experience everything this idyllic state offers.
1. Get an Up-Close View of the Iconic Hollywood Sign
If you’re visiting California, there’s a good chance you’ll make your way to Los Angeles. The city of angels is the ideal stopping point for many travelers due to its year-round sunny weather, movie and music scene, and theme parks.
However, while you’re in LA, you’ll want to make sure to get a better view of the Hollywood sign at some point.
There are a number of places in the city that offer excellent views of this iconic sign, but the favorite amongst locals is Griffith Park. There are various vantage points around the park and from the observatory, and you can go for a hike while you’re there.
Read Next: Best Things to Do in Los Angeles
2. Go Wine Tasting in Napa
Napa Valley is known as one of the premier wine destinations in the world. This sunny portion of the state features numerous wineries and gorgeous landscapes and is relatively close to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Visiting Napa is well worth your time, and if you’re a wine enthusiast, you may enjoy staying in the region for a few nights and visiting multiple wineries.
While Napa is world-renowned, California has spectacular wineries scattered throughout the state. Feel free to dabble in wineries at nearby Sonoma County and Healdsburg as well.
Read Next: Best Time to Visit Napa Valley
3. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most famous aquariums in the country, and this non-profit is the perfect stop, especially if you’re traveling with young children.
Perched along the gorgeous coastline of Monterey, the aquarium features the perfect mix of underwater and above-ground exhibits. Home to jellyfish, otters, and sharks, the aquarium has massive tanks filled with habitats that perfectly emulate the sea life’s ocean habitat.
In addition to being a great place to stop on your trip, the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers many educational opportunities for young kids. It even features children’s sleepovers inside the aquarium.
4. Admire the Trees in the Redwood National and State Parks
Visitors to California should be sure to stop by the Redwood National and State Parks to view these magnificent trees, which have been around for millions of years.
These coastal parks are managed both by the National Parks system as well as California State Parks and are a web of parks that encompass some of the most impressive old-growth forests in the world.
There are hundreds of hiking trails throughout the park system, and there are even opportunities for camping and backpacking.
Not only will you be able to see some of the largest trees you could imagine, but you can immerse yourself in the fragile ecosystem that exists in this area of the world.
5. Enjoy the Sunshine in Palm Springs
Palm Springs is an extremely popular tourist destination amongst California residents and national and international tourists. People often visit Palm Springs in the winter to get a reprieve from traditional winter weather.
This small city is studded with luxury hotels, golf courses, and small vacation homes with private pools.
However, outdoor enthusiasts often find themselves in Palm Springs, thanks to its proximity to Joshua Tree National Park and the Santa Rosa and the San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
Palm Springs is the perfect place to stop if you want to relax and unwind in the California heat, but be aware that temperatures get well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, so make sure you’re taking necessary safety precautions to stay cool and hydrated.
Read Next: Best Hotels in Palm Springs in 2023
6. Grab Some Dim Sum in San Francisco’s Chinatown
San Francisco Chinatown is an absolute must when visiting the Bay Area, as it’s both the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America. In fact, it’s the largest Chinatown anywhere in the world outside of Asia.
While you’ll enjoy walking the bustling streets of Chinatown, conveniently located near San Francisco’s financial district, the food is what really makes the visit worthwhile.
There are hundreds of restaurants scattered throughout Chinatown, and if you’ve never had Dim Sum, this is the place to try it.
Dim Sum covers a wide range of small Chinese dishes, but most restaurants feature employees walking carts around with different dishes that you can choose from.
Read Next: Best Places to Visit in San Francisco
7. Go Camping at Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is some of California’s most spectacular landscapes, and it’s no surprise that this incredible park attracts millions of visitors per year.
The park is the meeting place of the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert and features a uniquely desolate landscape filled with rock formations, palm trees, and Joshua trees.
Popular activities include hiking, camping, rock climbing, and biking, and visitors to the park appreciate the sprawling desert and spectacular sunsets. Suppose you’re looking for more of a feeling of remoteness.
In that case, Joshua Tree National Park is perfect because you can have the opportunity to feel utterly alone in the vast deserts underneath a starry sky.
8. Take the Ferry to Alcatraz Island
Just over a mile off the shore of San Francisco is Alcatraz Island. This small island is visible from the California shores and is now a national park.
The island features what was at first a military fort turned military prison and eventually converted into a maximum-security federal prison off of California’s shores.
As a result, Alcatraz’s history is complex, and this now non-operational facility has become a major tourist destination.
You can enjoy the short ferry ride from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island and purchase guided tours and audio tours that take you all the way inside Alcatraz into former prison cells. History buffs won’t want the chance to miss stopping by this infamous island on their vacation to California.
9. Enjoy the People Watching Along Venice Beach Boardwalk
Another famous destination when you’re in Los Angeles is Venice Beach. The neighborhood of Venice features everything from art galleries to coffee shops, and you can walk along the Venice Canals for an idyllic stroll.
However, you’ll want to make sure to spend a day hanging out on the Venice boardwalk and getting a feel for what this part of southern California is all about.
The boardwalk stretches along the beautiful coastline, and pedestrians, roller bladers, and bikers all make their way along the bike path, which runs 22 miles parallel to the beach.
You can pop into shops, eat local fare, play arcade games on the boardwalk, and enjoy a view of the Pacific Wheel, the iconic solar-powered Ferris wheel located on the Santa Monica Pier.
If you’ve come to California hoping to catch a glimpse of areas you’ve seen in movies and TV shows, then a trip to Venice Beach and the Venice Boardwalk is essential.
10. Take a Trip to Disneyland
If you’re visiting Southern California, a trip to Disneyland is an absolute must. While visitors from other areas of the United States might be tempted to skip the opportunity to visit Disneyland if they’ve already been to Disney World, that would be a huge mistake!
Disneyland and California Adventure are well worth a stop. There are ample hotels in Anaheim if you plan to visit the park multiple days, or you can make the short drive from Los Angeles, which typically takes less than an hour.
There’s a fireworks show at the end of every night, and Disneyland and California Adventure feature attractions not available in the Orlando theme park, like Pixar Pier and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
Read Next: Best Time to Visit Disneyland
11. Get Spooked at the Winchester Mystery House
If you haven’t already heard of the Winchester Mystery House, it’s likely because you’re not from California. This spooky local favorite is located in San Jose, just a short drive from San Francisco’s city center.
This historic landmark is known for its storied past and unique construction, which will have architects visiting the site confounded.
Once the home of Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester, the woman had the home built, and it’s perhaps the strangest standing personal residence today.
Spanning more than 20,000 square feet, the house has nearly 2,000 doors, more than 150 rooms, 10,000 windows, and 47 stairways. Consider stopping by the Winchester Mystery House on your trip to the Bay Area to take a guided tour.
Read Next: Best Things to Do in San Francisco
12. Walk the Trails in Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is centrally located in San Francisco and is some of the best that the city has to offer. No matter where you’re staying in the city, you should make sure to visit the park on your trip.
The park spans roughly 1,000 acres of the city and has walking trails and gorgeous foliage, including towering eucalyptus trees. Whether you walk through dense forest or come out for bay views, Golden Gate Park will not disappoint.
13. Go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood
Universal Studios is a must for theme park lovers visiting the area. Although it’s not as big as Disneyland, Universal Studios has fantastic rides, and depending on the day and time you go, you may have better luck beating the crowds.
Universal Studios added the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the park in 2016, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the magical world and have experiences they’ve only read about.
Enjoy a hot or cold butterbeer, buy a wand from Ollivanders, and go for a ride on the Flight of the Hippogriff.
14. Take a Dip in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a truly spectacular sight to see, and a top tourist destination for visitors to the Golden State. This enormous lake spans nearly 200 miles, making you forget that it is a lake when you’re standing on its shores.
Lake Tahoe spans the border between California and Nevada, and each state calls part of the lake home. Lake Tahoe is an ideal tourist destination because it’s just as fun to visit in the winter as it is in the summer.
There are ample skiing and snowboarding opportunities in the area during the winter months, while summer promises hiking opportunities with views of the sparkling turquoise lake.
You can also enjoy the nightlife around Lake Tahoe, which is known for its lively food, live shows, and casino scene.
Read Next: The Best Time to Visit Lake Tahoe
15. View El Capitan in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of California’s most popular tourist destinations, and the park attracts millions of visitors per year.
However, while many people venture outside the park’s central valley to go on hiking and backpacking excursions, you don’t need to venture far to appreciate some of the park’s most dramatic views.
El Capitan is known amongst rock climbers as one of the most coveted climbing destinations in the United States, and it towers above the park’s valley floor.
If you’re not big on hiking or rock climbing, you can still appreciate the beauty of Yosemite as you wander around the valley near the park’s entrance, taking in views of the lush forests and water features, El Capitan, and Half Dome.
Read Next: Best Time to Visit Yosemite in 2023
16. Admire the Botanical Gardens in Balboa Park
Balboa Park is conveniently located in the center of San Diego and is an absolute must if you’re visiting southern California. The park itself is enormous and even encompasses the San Diego Zoo.
Visitors to the park can enjoy the gorgeous landscape, multiple spots to grab a bite to eat and even multiple museums on the park grounds. Balboa Park is the perfect place to spend an afternoon wandering around and enjoying a picnic.
You can also enjoy the botanical gardens at the park, which feature many sub-tropical native plants located in a building in the heart of the park, right beside a lily pond.
17. Take a Road Trip Down the Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 101, is one of the country’s most scenic stretches of road. The highway slowly winds its way down the coast of California and showcases all that California’s coastline has to offer.
If you have the time, taking a road trip on even a portion of the highway is extremely rewarding and promises stunning views, no matter where you enter the roadway.
If you’re planning on visiting Big Sur, the best way to enter the gorgeous area is by driving down the Pacific Highway. If you’re traveling from the Bay Area, consider stopping at Carmel-by-the-Sea on your way down, another one of California’s treasured coastal cities.
Things to Consider
California is a large state with dozens of metropolitan areas sprinkled throughout. In addition, the area has invested a lot in the tourism industry, making it a relatively easy destination to travel to.
However, it’s best to prepare for all eventualities and unforeseen complications at any time you take any trip. Here are some general things to consider while preparing for your upcoming vacation to California:
- Always practice basic safety precautions when traveling to a new destination. For example, travel with a buddy or tell people where you’re going and carry a mobile phone if you get lost or need to contact someone.
- California liquor laws are much stricter than much of the country and world. Always carry a valid photo ID if you wish to drink. Non-U.S. citizens should plan on bringing their passports.
- If you plan to visit more than one National Park on your trip to California, consider purchasing an Annual Parks Pass. The pass costs $80, but it will allow you to enter and re-enter all national parks across the country for the entire year.
- Different parts of California feature very different climates. While Los Angeles is sunny and temperate, San Francisco can be foggy and cool, even during the day, and areas like Palm Springs can be scorching hot. Pack for the weather in the areas you plan to visit.
- Be sure to brush up on appropriate beach safety if you plan to swim in the ocean. Also, be aware that much of the state’s ocean features rough, cooler temperatures and may not be suitable for swimming year-round.
- To reduce the spread of COVID-19, public spaces like restaurants and bars may require you to have proof of vaccination, even while wearing a mask. So be sure to carry your COVID-19 vaccination card or other proof of vaccination to be able to move around freely.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the frequently asked questions people have when planning a trip to California.
Is there anything fun to do in California?
Between the multiple major cities, ample state and national parks, and incredible food scenes, there are activities to everyone’s liking in California.
Whether you visit Disneyland, drive up the Pacific Highway, or go camping in Joshua Tree, there are fun things to do in virtually every area of this huge west coast state.
What is the main attraction in California?
California features many attractions, and people visit the state for various reasons. For visitors interested in urban areas, California is home to three of the country’s major cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
There are also multiple state and national parks and forests, and millions of people visit Yosemite National Park every year.
Others come to California specifically to visit Disneyland or other theme parks like Universal Studios, Legoland, Knott’s Berry Farms, Six Flags, and more.
What part of California should I visit?
California is an enormous state that runs more than half of the entire west coast. The central and northern portion of the state is home to cities like San Francisco and San Jose, as well as attractions like the Redwood Forests and Yosemite National Park.
Southern California has destinations like San Diego, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs, as well as attractions like Disneyland and Joshua Tree National Park. Which portion of the state you should visit depends entirely on what you want to experience while you’re there.
What is the most visited city in California?
Los Angeles is the most visited city in California, and the tourism industry in the city accounts for more than $30 billion in revenue each year.
However, the Bay Area and San Diego also see millions of tourists each year, and Anaheim is a huge tourist destination thanks to Disneyland.
Can I visit California on a budget?
California is known to have some of the most expensive cities in the country to live in. Areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles can also be expensive to visit if you plan to stay in nice hotels, go out to eat, and travel around the state.
However, it’s entirely possible to visit California without overspending.
If you’re concerned with saving, consider taking measures such as finding cheap flights, utilizing public transportation, and spending time doing free or cheap activities like going to the beach or visiting state and national parks.
So, What Are the Best Things to Do in California?
California is the third-largest state in the United States in terms of area, which means there’s plenty to explore. California has something to offer every visitor, whether you come to the Golden State to soak up some sunshine, lie on the sparkling beaches, or explore the bustling cities.
Theme park lovers won’t want to miss a trip to Disneyland or Universal Studios, while outdoor enthusiasts should be sure to stop by one of the state or national parks.
However, no matter your interests, this list is extensive enough that there are opportunities that will appeal to everyone.