I had so much fun with my Los Angeles Top 20 that I decided to do one for the entire state! California has so much to offer, it’s crazy! It would take years to do everything, but this list is a good place to start. This is part of my How to do Los Angeles: The Bigger Picture. I’ll also do a United States Top 20 (coming soon!), because this is fun! Without further ado, the top 20 things to do in California:
More Danish than Denmark, this small town off the 101 in Santa Barbara county is a unique subculture right in the middle of California. Mostly authentic (the city was founded by Danes over 100 years ago) with great pastries and numerous tributes to Danish culture (clothing, architecture, Hans Christian Anderson), this isn’t something you’d expect when visiting California, but it is great!
19. Death Valley National Park
Even though it’s a desert, the Mojave/Sonoran/Colorado desert is beautiful! Death Valley is California’s best desert experience, and it contains: Furnace Creek, which holds the record for highest reliably reported air temperature in the world (134°F); Badwater Basin, a massive salt flat that, at 282ft below sea level, is the lowest elevation in North America (it is also less than 90mi from Mt Whitney, the highest elevation in the continental US); Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (pictured), a popular film location (Star Wars was filmed here); and Racetrack Playa, home to the famous Sailing Stones. There are also lots of hiking opportunities throughout the park.
18. Lake Tahoe
At an altitude of 6,225ft, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake and the sixth largest lake in North America (after the five Great Lakes). For visiting, Tahoe offers two unique experiences: the northern side (in California) offers beautiful scenery, hiking and outdoor activities, skiing in the winter season, and lots of peacefulness and relaxation, while the southern side (on the California/Nevada border), offers skiing, casinos, nightclubs, and lots of fun and partying.
17. Hearst Castle
Located mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco (43 miles north of San Luis Obispo) is the former residence of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. More an estate or ranch than castle, whatever you call it, Hearst Castle is bold and grand and beautiful. Containing 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 127 acres of gardens, the world’s largest private zoo (no longer in commission but exotic animals still roam the grounds), an airfield, a movie theater, and two of the most beautiful pools you’ll ever see, touring Hearst Castle is amazing!
16. The Mission System
Built by the Spaniards between 1769 and 1833, these buildings represent the first efforts by Europeans to colonize North America’s Pacific Coast. There are twenty-one in total, each located one days journey on horseback (three days walk) from its nearest neighbor. Used as both military outposts to fight Native Americas and religious outposts to convert the natives to Christianity, these are the oldest buildings in California and represent a controversial but important period in California’s pre-US history.
The food in California is great! Most notable is Santa Maria BBQ, also known as California BBQ, mainly consisting of tri-tip in a light sauce or none at all to maximize the flavor of the meat. Southern California is known for Mexican food and its avocado based cuisine, while Northern California is where seafood starts getting really good. Sourdough bread in San Francisco is a must and Asian food is great throughout the state. And finally there is In-N-Out, located almost solely in California and serving the best fast food hamburgers in the world.
Inside San Francisco bay, 1.25 miles from the shore, lies Alcatraz island, home to the most famous prison in the US. Built as a military prison in 1868, Alcatraz served as a maximum security federal prison from 1933 to 1963, when it was closed due to its high maintenance and operational costs. During its heyday, Alcatraz held the country’s most infamous criminals, including: Machine Gun Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Robert Stoud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), Whitey Bulger, and Al Capone. No one ever successfully escaped Alcatraz, although there were attempts: three escapees are presumed drowned in the bay, another actually made it to shore, where he was immediately caught, both exhausted and hypothermic, and in 1946 the inmates actually overtook the prison but failed to escape before US Marines arrived and retook the island.
13. Olvera Street
The birthplace of Los Angeles, this block long open-air Mexican marketplace is tons of fun and one of the most authentic Mexican experiences you find outside Mexico. There’s great food and tons of goods for incredibly cheap, numerous museums and other tributes to the founders of Los Angeles, and lots of musicians and entertainers. Centrally located within the city, Olvera Street is next to Union Station, Chinatown, City Hall, and an assistant mission that was added to the California Mission System when Los Angeles’s population crew too large for the nearest mission located ten miles away.
12. Gaslamp Quarter
While it isn’t as famous as Hollywood or the Sunset Strip, Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego has the best nightlife in the state. Fun, hip, walkable, and without the holier-than-thou SF vibe or the too-cool-for-school LA vibe, everyone here is simply out to have a good time. This is a great place to party through the night.
The US loves sports and California offers tons of them. Like the rest of the country, baseball, basketball, and football are the most popular (although baseball moreso and football not as much as the rest of the country), with hockey and soccer the next biggest. Professional teams include the Padres, Angels, Dodgers, Athletics, and Giants (baseball); Chargers, Rams, 49ers, and Raiders (football); Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, and Kings (basketball); Ducks, Kings, and Sharks (hockey); and Galaxy and Earthquakes (soccer). The most significant teams are the Lakers, due to their historical dominance and international appeal; the 49ers, who had one of the greatest football dynasties of all time in the 1980s and 1990s; and the Dodgers and Giants, whom many believe have the best and most intense sports rivalry in the US.
This one may sound lackluster, until you realize that California has some of the most spectacular trees in the world. First off, there’s Southern California’s iconic palm trees, Mojave’s imagination-inspiring Joshua trees, Pebble Beach’s Lone Cyprus, and Santa Barbara’s Moreton Bay Fig Tree. Even more grand are the Sequoia and Redwood forests, which contain the oldest, largest, and tallest trees on earth. The Giant Sequoias (pictured) in Sequoia National Park are the largest, the Coast Redwoods in Redwood National Park are the tallest, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains are the oldest (and not just the oldest trees, at as much as 5600 years old these trees are oldest of any living organism on earth). Avenue of the Giants, located near Redwood National Park, features trees so wide that tunnels large enough to drive through have been carved into their trunks.
9. San Francisco’s Chinatown
I’ve already mentioned Solvang and Olvera Street, but San Francisco’s Chinatown is the best ethnic enclave in the state (maybe even the entire country). Many cities have Chinatowns (California alone has eight), but San Francisco’s is the oldest in North America and is home to the largest Chinese community outside China. Super dense, with impeccable theming, authentic businesses, delicious restaurants, and lots to see and do, Chinatown is a must for anyone visiting San Francisco.
8. Wine Country
California has the best wine in the world (even the French admitted it). The three major wine producing regions are: Napa, Santa Barbara, and Temecula, although Temecula isn’t as renowned as the other two. The wineries themselves are beautiful, most having an upscale Mediterranean feel, resulting in not just the best wine, but also the best wine tasting experiences in the world.
7. Hollywood and the Sunset Strip
The most famous landmark in California and one of the top reasons people visit, Hollywood can be a difficult place. It is touristy, in-your-face, and has lots of cheesy gimmicks, all designed to take money out of your wallet but not really to satisfy your cultural/travel needs. That being said, if you do Hollywood right, it is amazing! The Sunset Strip offers the best music and comedy scenes in the state (country?), Hollywood offers a plethora of movie, music, and television culture and history, and the Hollywood Bowl is one draw that never disappoints. Consider my Hollywood walk to learn how to do this area right!
6. Pacific Coast Highway / Big Sur
Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with the most beautiful portion (Big Sur) lying between San Simeon and Monterey in north-central California. Here the road whips along cliffs overlooking the shore, it is windy and beautiful and breathtaking. Numerous secluded beaches line the route, and local ordinances prevent any land ownership (other than what was grandfathered in), billboards, or buildings to disrupt the views and scenery. Many artists and writers have been inspired by the beauty of Big Sur, one drive down the coast and you’ll immediately see why.
5. The Las Vegas Strip
Technically this is in Nevada, but since it originated as Los Angeles’s backyard playground (and is still used that way by many today), I am including it here. Flashy, glitzy, and glamorous, the Las Vegas Strip features the grandest hotels, buffets, casinos, nightlife, and live entertainment in the US, maybe even the world. It’s all fake and over-indulgent and ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter, it’s tons of fun. Many people are disappointed that LA doesn’t treat everyone like a celebrity, but Vegas, just a weekend trip away, does.
4. The Disneyland Resort
There are currently six Disney resorts across the globe, but this was the first. Billed as “the happiest place on earth” and while I haven’t been everywhere on earth, it’s hard to imagine a place more enjoyable than this. Filled with fun and nostalgia, each Disneyland attraction is based on a famous childhood story, and while California Adventures doesn’t have the charm and history that Disneyland has, its rides are more thrilling and are super-fun. Both places are great for kids (of course) but they are wonderful for adults too, allowing us to tap into the kid inside and also enjoy some romance with our loved ones.
3. Southern California Beaches
Southern California is known for its beaches and it has great ones: beaches that stretch on forever, as wide as you’ve ever seen, with sand that massages your feet and tons of opportunities to play in the surf and the shore. And the beach culture here is fantastic: surfing, volleyball, boardwalks, piers, dining, drinks, hiking, dog-walking, shopping, relaxation, you name it, Southern California has it all. My favorite So-Cal beaches are Venice and Santa Monica in Los Angeles, Coronado in San Diego, and Pismo near San Luis Obispo.
2. Yosemite Valley
The US’s third oldest national park, Yosemite is one of the most beautiful nature destinations in the world. Yosemite Valley alone contains magnificent rock formations (including the majestic half dome), the serene Merced river, the 100+ year old Ahwahnee hotel, numerous waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the world), and much more. The hiking is excellent, the wildlife abundant, the viewpoints amazing, and the whole experience is awesome and unforgettable.
1. The Golden Gate Bridge
As an LA native, it is painful to place a SF landmark as the number one California attraction, but there’s no denying it, number one is where the Golden Gate Bridge belongs. It’s not the longest bridge (although it was when it was built), nor the tallest or highest, but there’s something about the Golden Gate Bridge that just makes it special. Maybe it’s the location, along PCH where the San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean, maybe it’s the low-lying clouds that the bridge is constantly reaching into, maybe its the shape or the iconic reddish orange color, maybe it’s the fact that so many thought the bridge couldn’t be built (due to the extreme weather and geographical conditions along its path), maybe its that the bridge is so much older than the bridges that have passed it superlative-wise, or maybe it’s a combination of all of these things. Whatever it is, this bridge is iconic, awe-inspiring, and quite simply amazing.
And that’s it, my California top twenty! But there’s so much more! Beyond this twenty are multiple national parks (Pinnacles, King’s Canyon, Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic), the 2nd and 4th most prominent mountains in the continental United States (Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta, Mt. Whitney also being the tallest mountain in the continental US), many more theme parks (Sea World, Legoland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, California’s Great America), water parks (Hurricane Harbor, Raging Waters, there are lots more), winter sports in the Sierra Nevadas, much more in Los Angeles/San Francisco (I limited myself to three items from each city)/San Diego, Lake Havasu and the London Bridge, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Winchester Mystery House, and more!