This is your fool-proof guide to the best of the Golden State.
California is a big state. It’s bigger than Italy. It’s around the same size as Japan. It’s big. Within the 163,696 square miles, there are sprawling metropolises, epic mountain ranges, stunning seaside bluffs, perfect waves, pristine deserts, and endless things to see and do. With nearly 40 million people and growing, the state also makes up roughly 15 percent of the entire population of the United States.
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Dive Into History in Chinatown
If you want to experience real California history, head over to Chinatown in San Francisco. Not only is it the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, but it’s also the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. Some highlights include the Chinatown Dragon Gate and theGolden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Make it a point of coming on Chinese New Year for epic parades and fireworks.
Remember Your Childhood at Disneyland
It all started here in 1955 when Walt Disney himself decided to build a theme park around his Disney animated empire. With constant renovations and updates, Disneyland promises to always have something new–Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the latest addition to the park. Classic attractions still include Tomorrowland, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, Space Mountain, and many more.
Suspend Disbelief at Universal Studios
Universal Studios is home to countless movies and TV shows, but it’s also one of the best attractions in all of California. Tours of the studio include a tram through famous sets like Jaws and Back to the Future, but the real highlights are in the theme park that includes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Jurassic World–The Ride, Springfield U.S.A., and much more.
Find the Weird at Venice Beach
All the weird, wild, and wacky of California counterculture can be found at Venice Beach on the westside of Los Angeles. Along the Venice Boardwalk, you’ll encounter body-builders getting jacked at Muscle Beach while weed wanderers try out the latest kush from local headshops. Stepping away from the water, the Venice Canals transport pedestrians to Venice Italy as multi-million-dollar homes reside casually along the manmade waterways. Venice Beach has something for everyone–surfing, volleyball, art, and some of the best people-watching in the world.
Crane Your Neck at Redwood National and State Parks
Traveling towards the northernmost part of the state, you’ll encounter one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. Redwood National and State Parks is home to the tallest trees on Earth (300-400 feet tall) and hugs 40-miles of California coastline. There are countless things to see and do including camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and more. But staring at these colossal living monuments will occupy a good amount of your time.
Commune With Nature at Yosemite National Park
Part of a sprawling park network in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees, epic waterfalls, and abundance of wildlife. The park is filled with activities like rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking. Remember, reservations are required to enter the park, so plan ahead.
Experience the Bottom of the World in Death Valley
One of the hottest places on Earth, Death Valley sits on the eastern edge of California along the border with Nevada. Covering 3.4 million acres, this desert wasteland holds the claim to lowest elevation on the planet and is filled with stunning vistas, rolling sand dunes, rocky peaks, and, it cannot be said enough, scorching temperatures.
Find Jaw-Dropping Vistas at Big Sur
One of the most spectacular drives in the world is Highway 1, which runs winds up the Pacific Ocean and through jagged mountains and redwood trees. The scenery isn’t the only highlight of this drive, if you head down to the beach, you might find herds of barking elephant seals or fluffy sea otters hanging in the kelp beds.
Get an Adrenaline Rush at Lake Tahoe
Straddling California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a summer and winter wonderland for adventure enthusiasts. When the snow is blowing, the surrounding ski resorts offer snowboarders and skiers endless untracked powder. When the sun is shining, water sports abound for kayakers, sailors, and volleyball enthusiasts.
Stride With Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Running along the sidewalks of Hollywood Blvd., the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the most indelible icons of Tinseltown. The walk consists of brass stars embedded into the pavement and features the biggest celebrities, producers, writers, and directors from film, stage, and screen. The first stars were officially revealed in the early 1960s and today there are more than 2,600 dotting the pavement.
Experience Opulence at the Hearst Castle
In its heyday, the Hearst Castle in San Simeon was a hotspot for celebrities with roaring ‘20s parties that catered to everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable to Jean Harlow and the Marx Brothers. Built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947, the castle was fictionalized and lampooned in the classic film Citizen Kane. Today, visitors can tour the opulent palace, which features a zoo, gold-leaf Roman pool, and a priceless art collection.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
Opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic symbols of San Francisco and California at large. The mile-long suspension bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County and is a stunning display of engineering. Visitors can cross the bridge on foot, by bicycle, or drive across. Contrary to popular belief, the bridge is not re-painted every year.
Drink All the Wine at a Wine Tasting
Don’t tell the French, but the best wine in the world is actually made in California (actually they know). Up and down the California coast are some of the best wine makers on the planet and the crown jewels reside in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Only a couple hours away from each other, each region is littered with world-class vintners and tasting rooms.
Camp in Joshua Tree
Just east of Palm Springs is this National Park, named for the Yucca brevifolia trees which a group of Mormons dubbed as Joshuas after the biblical Joshua, who raised his hands into the sky. Today, the park is a popular site for hiking and camping with hundreds of certified campgrounds strewn across hundreds of thousands of acres.
Hike the Hollywood Sign
The iconic Hollywood sign hangs over the city of Los Angeles with the promise of fame and fortune. The sign itself was originally erected in 1923 and read Hollywoodland. Today, there are multiple paths to reach the landmark. The easiest is a path that starts from the Griffith Park Observatory, so you can get two landmarks in one visit. The others are slightly more strenuous and can be navigated using the sign’s official site.
Go to a Show Taping in L.A.
If you really want to see how the sausage is made in Hollywood, there’s no better way than witnessing a live show taping. Dozens of sitcoms, talk shows, and game shows film every day in Los Angeles, and you can get tickets to be an audience member. The official Visit California Tourism Board has a helpful guide with multiple sites for where you can buy tickets. Just remember, go early, plan ahead, and try to keep quiet on the set.
Ski at Mammoth
Nearby Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Mountain is the largest ski resort in California and just so happens to be built on a volcano. 3,500 acres of skiable area hosts millions of skiers and snowboarders each year. Keep in mind, lift-tickets can run upwards of $200, so check online for discounts and off-days.
See a Concert at the Hollywood Bowl
The Hollywood Bowl is a live music amphitheater built into the side of the Hollywood Hills. The venue is known for its incredible acoustics, which is why everyone from Kings of Leon to Kanye West to Lady Gaga has performed here. The summer season has a mix of contemporary artists, philharmonic nights, and incredible fireworks displays for special events.
Explore your Wild Side at the San Diego Safari Park
Whether or not you’re a fan of zoos, the San Diego Safari Park is a great way to learn about wildlife without the typical claustrophobic animal cages. The park prides itself on expansive containment areas, allowing their wide range of animalia to roam (mostly) free. Hopping on the Africa tram will expose you to an array of African animals like giraffes, antelopes, and rhinoceroses.
Catch Waves in Malibu
It’s not necessarily the best surfing spot in California, but it might be the most beautiful. Appropriately named, Surfrider Beach is part of a stretch of Malibu that includes the Malibu Pier and is a popular point for surfing buffs and beach bums alike. Also, part of Malibu, Zuma Beach is next to the popular Point Dume State Beach where surfers and swimmers share the water with sealions.
Spot Whales in Monterey
Monterey, California isn’t just the most expensive place to live in California, it’s also the best place to whale watch. Depending on the season, you can charter boats to witness gray, humpback, and blue whales spyhopping, breaching, and shooting water out of their spouts. The waters of Monterey are also prime locations for killer whales (actually dolphins), bottlenose dolphins, and more.
Witness Greatness in Sport
California’s weather makes it a prime location for outdoor activities of all kinds, but some of the best sporting action takes place in the massive stadiums in the state’s major cities. Sports fans have their pick of the litter, whether it’s seeing the Lakers or Dodgers in Los Angeles, the Giants or 49ers in San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, or the Kings in Sacramento. California is also home to major golf and tennis tournaments, in addition to surf championships, auto, and horse racing.
Get a Bird’s Eye View of Palm Springs
If you want to get the lay of the land in Palm Springs, there’s no better way then hitching a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway–the largest rotating tramway in the world. While on high, you’ll pass over the cliffs of Chino Canyon and the wild wilderness of Mt. San Jacinto State Park. When you reach the top (8,516 feet), you’ll find restaurants and access to dozens of great hiking trails.
Meet a Ghost at the Winchester Mystery House
If you’re looking for something spooky to do in San Jose, check out the Winchester Mystery House for a fright. The Victorian mansion was built in 1884 (though continuously under construction for nearly 40 years) and is said to be haunted by the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles. Inside, you’ll find loads of weird additions like trap doors, stairs that go nowhere, and other ghost-busting elements that may or may not work.
Spend the Night at the Madonna Inn
San Luis Obispo is more or less in the middle of the state and is home to one of the most eccentric hotels in the country. The Madonna Inn was first opened in 1958, and contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t named for the pop-star or the Virgin Mary. Construction magnate Alex Madonna built the property which includes wholly unique themed rooms. There are rooms designed after countries like Italy and China, rooms for lovers like the Love Nest and Bridal Falls. There are rooms for Cavemen (literally) and golfers, antique car lovers, and more. No two are the same, making every stay at this loveably whacky hotel different.