17 BEST Places to Visit in California [December 2019]

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California is the third-largest state in the U.S. It sits on the western edge of the country with an impressive  840 miles of running coastline! From boundless oceans to snow-capped mountains, expansive deserts and idyllic vineyards, California has a little bit of everything.

Nature lovers will delight in the lush redwood forests, pristine lakes, and sandy coastline. City-goes will be enchanted by sprawling shopping malls, endless entertainment options, and world-class restaurants.

California is full of vibrant multicultural cities, each beckoning visitors with unique and exciting attractions. If you’re trying to decide where to go in California, here are the 17 best places to visit in the Golden State!

Staying Safe in California

Safety is an important thing to keep in mind when visiting California. Generally speaking, this U.S. state is very safe to travel to and you should have nothing to worry about.

If you’re visiting one of California’s national parks, like Yosemite or the redwood forests, remember to be prepared when out exploring. Always bring proper supplies with you, like water, snacks, and a map or some form of GPS.

Some of the larger cities in California, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego have higher crime rates compared to other cities. Stay in populated/tourist areas and follow the rules of common sense and you should have nothing to worry about!

 

#1 – San Diego

One of the most amazing places in California!

San Diego

San Diego (Photo credit – travelandleisure.com)

  • San Diego is often called “the birthplace of California”
  • It’s located next to the border of Mexico and has a strong Mexican influence

San Diego is So Cal at it’s finest! This is the city you think of when you picture California. It’s supplied with endless coastlines, sandy beaches, and warm weather year-round. The city has a lively yet laid-back vibe that makes it one of the best places to visit in California!

Best Attractions
  • Balboa Park is San Diego’s top attraction. This 1,200-acre area has something for everyone; from museums to shopping areas to lush gardens and plenty of walking trails. It also housed the world-famous San Diego Zoo!

Our Favorite Places to Stay in San Diego, California

Not yet booked? Take a look at our favorite hotels in Downtown San Diego!

#2 – Disneyland Park

Awesome place to visit in California with kids!

Disneyland Park

Disneyland Park (Photo credit – disneyparks.disney.go.com )

  • Theme park located in the southern California city of Anaheim
  • Designed and built under the direct supervision of Walt Disney himself

Disneyland is the happiest place on earth! This beloved theme park is filled with fun and exciting attractions both kids and adults will enjoy. From Disney themed rides to heart-pumping roller coasters, there’s something for everyone.

The park also has a wide range of themed eateries, shopping, and entertainment options.

Best Attractions
  • Sleeping Beauty Castle is a large fairy tale castle in the center of the park. It’s Disneyland’s most iconic structure and a must-see when you visit. You can walk through the center of the castle and up a side passage that has rooms portraying the story of Sleeping Beauty.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Disneyland, California

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#3 – Paso Robles

One of the most underrated places to see in California

Paso Robles

Paso Robles (Photo credit – robbreport.com )

  • The Paso Robles wine region is home to more than 200 wineries!
  • The most popular varietals of wine in Paso Robles are cabernet, merlot, syrah, zinfandel, and grenache.

When most people think of California wine, they think of Napa. However, Paso Robles is just as nice but far less expensive and touristy. Not to mention, it’s only about a half-hour drive from the ocean!

The area is teeming with picturesque wineries that won’t break your budget.

Best Attractions
  • Eberly Winery is your quinquennial California winery. The wines are of high quality and tastings are free. The raised outside patio is spacious and offers sweeping views of the vineyard down below. This is the perfect place to spend an afternoon sipping good wine and admiring the stunning California scenery.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Paso Robles, California

#4 – San Simeon

One of the most underrated places to see in California

San Simeon

San Simeon (Photo credit – hearstranchwinery.com )

  • Located on the central California coast
  • Perfect for ocean lovers and seafood eaters

If you’re looking for places to go in California off the beaten path, San Simeon is your answer! This small California town has a very relaxed vibe and a somewhat mysterious allure. It’s the kind of town you’d see in an Alfred Hitchcock movie from the 1950s.

Best Attractions
  • The elephant seals are one of the coolest things about San Simeon. There is a popular spot where you can observe elephant seals in their natural habitat. Visit the Friends Of The Elephant Seal Visitor Center and you’re guaranteed to see hundreds of elephant seals resting on the shoreline any time of year! 

Our Favorite Places to Stay in San Simeon, California

#5 – San Francisco

Easily one of the most fun places to check out in California

San Francisco

San Francisco (Photo credit – fodors.com )

  • An exciting northern California city that has a little bit of everything
  • Houses some of the most important landmarks in California

San Francisco is one of the top places to visit in California, and for good reason! The districts that make up the city are totally unique and give it an eclectic character. From Chinatown to fisherman’s wharf to the financial district, no two areas of San Francisco are the same.

Best Attractions
  • Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to go to get a true feel of San Francisco. From seafood stands to souvenir stores it’s a busy area of the city that caters to tourists. Make sure to grab a clam chowder bread bowl served inside the famous San Francisco sourdough bread!

Our Favorite Places to Stay in San Francisco, California

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#6 – Yosemite National Park

A beautiful outdoor place to visit in California

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park (Photo credit – sunset.com )

  • Located in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central California
  • The best times to visit the park is between May and September

Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places in California. The valley floor is surrounded by sheer granite cliffs, domes, waterfalls, and over 800 miles of scenic hiking trails. In Yosemite Village, there are shops, restaurants, and lodging. This area of the state is an outdoor oasis and one of the best places in California for nature lovers.

Best Attractions
  • The Mirror Lake Trail is 2 miles round trip to the lake and back or 5 miles to loop around the lake. It’s an easy hiking trail sheltered by granite walls. Begin the hike at the Mirror Lake Trailhead (shuttle stop #17).

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Yosemite National park, California

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#7 – Pismo Beach

One of the nicer places in California to sightsee!

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach (Photo credit – nationalgeographic.com )

  • A vintage California city with a laid-back vibe
  • A great place to camp on the beach in California

If you’re looking for a small, easy-going coastal town, Pismo is your answer. From surf-friendly shorelines to scenic hiking trails to a buzzing downtown, this city epitomizes old-school California. Pismo is also the clam chowder capital of the world. When you visit, make sure to pick up some award-winning chowder from Splash Cafe.

Best Attractions
  • Monarch Butterfly Grove is an area of Pismo filled with eucalyptus trees and thousands of monarch butteries from late October to February. It’s a place of extreme natural beauty. If you’re visiting outside of the monarch season, it’s still a nice area to visit and close to the ocean and hiking trails.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Pismo Beach, California

#8 – Santa Catalina Island

A very cool place in California to go for a day

Santa Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island (Photo credit – fineartamerica.com )

  • A fairly small island measuring only 22 miles long and 8 miles wide
  • There are two communities you can visit on Cataline Island, Avalon and Two Harbors

If you’re visiting southern California, Santa Catalina Island is a great place to go for a day trip. The ferry ride to the island departs from the southern California cities of Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, and Newport Beach and takes one hour. Make sure to book your tickets in advance!

Best Attractions
  • Avalon is a resort community in Catalina with a beachfront dominated by touristy friendly attractions. The best way to explore Avalon is by golf cart; you’ll be able to see more of the island and surrounding hills. Rental companies can be found close to the ferry arrival port.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Santa Catalina Island, California

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#9 – Carmel-by-the-Sea

A great place in California if you love to shop!

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea (Photo credit – carmelcalifornia.com )

  • A small beachfront city on California’s Monterey Peninsula
  • Check out Ocean Avenue for the best shopping spots

Caramel-by-the-Sea is a town known for its quaint ambiance and whimsical cottage homes. This chic California city is filled with boutiques, art galleries, cozy cafes, fine dining eateries, and much more! It’s one of the more lavish California vacation spots but offers plenty of local charm and a social small-town feel.

Best Attractions
  • Caramel Plaza is located in the heart of downtown Caramel. This shopping area offers a nice selection of fashion stores, restaurants, gourmet shops, and wine tasting rooms. You can shop from both regional and local retailers.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

#10 – Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Los Angeles (Photo credit – wired.com )

  • Los Angles is a diverse city filled with unique and exciting neighborhoods
  • Perfect for every type of traveler and every type of budget

Los Angeles is a sprawling urban city in southern California. It has high-energy and endless attractions that make it one of the most popular places to visit. From world-class museums to pulsating nightclubs to an endless coastline, this is a city that will keep you busy.

Best Attractions
  • Hollywood is one of the most exciting places to visit in Los Angeles. This larger-than-life district is teeming with attractions. When you visit, make sure to walk around Hollywood Boulevard and check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For nightlife options, see a show at the Hollywood Bowl or experience the nightlife scene.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Los Angeles, California

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#11 – Monterey

Great place to visit in California for couples!

17 BEST Places to Visit in California [[date]]

Monterey (Photo credit – addictionresource.net )

  • Located in central California on the southern edge of Monterey Bay
  • Monterey Bay is one of the best places in the country for whale watching

Monterey is a city on California’s picturesque rugged coastline. If you’re traveling with your significant other, the city offers plenty of romantic activities. There are miles of scenic hiking trails, a gorgeous stretch of coastline, local wineries, and an abundance of shopping and dining options. This sea-side city has a small-town charm that makes it very appealing.

Best Attractions
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most popular aquariums in the world! It contains a vast variety of marine life. It’s an engaging facility that offers lots of hands-on exhibits and fact-filled presentations. Visiting the aquarium provides a fun and educational experience.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Monterey, California

#12 – Lake Tahoe

A beautiful and scenic place to check out in California

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe (Photo credit – weekendsherpa.com )

  • The city of Lake Tahoe sits on the border of California and Nevada
  • One of the most outdoor-friendly California destinations

Lake Tahoe is a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This northern California city is geared towards nature lovers and is known for its year-round outdoor attractions. In the winter, the ski resorts open for business. In the summer after the snow melts, outdoor activities such as hiking and watersports are popular.

Best Attractions
  • Emerald Bay is one of the most picturesque areas of Lake Tahoe. It’s characterized by dramatic scenery, with stunning alpine peaks and pristine crystal lakes. Visit the Emerald Bay Beach, explore a hiking trail, or tour the historic Vikingsholm Castle.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Lake Tahoe, California

#13 – Palm Springs

A great place to see in California if you love architecture

Palm Springs

Palm Springs (Photo credit – palmspringslife.com )

  • Well-known for its hot springs, trendy hotels, golf courses, and spas
  • Palm Springs is noted for its midcentury-modern architecture

Palm Springs is a resort town located in the Sonoran Desert of southern California. If you’re looking for the best places to go in California for a relaxing vacation, this is your city. You’ll find museums, art galleries, scenic canyons, shopping centers, and fine-dining restaurants. Palm Springs is all about self-care and pampering!

Best Attractions
  • North Palm Canyon Drive is the main vein of Palm Springs. It’s the shopping and dining district of the city. This area features restaurants, shops, live music, art galleries, and more! It’s a happening area of town that stays busy all day long.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Palm Springs, California

#14 – Big Sur Coast

Big Sur Coast

Big Sur Coast (Photo credit – pinterest.com )

  • Drive the Big Sur Highway and experience one of America’s most beautiful roadways
  • A sparsely populated area with numerous hiking trails and camping sites

Big Sur is a 90 mile stretch of California’s central coast that goes between the cities of Carmel and San Simeon. It’s bordered by the mountains and the ocean, making it one of the most beautiful places to travel in California. Driving along the Big Sur highway route will provide you with picturesque views of the rugged coastline.

Best Attractions
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is right off of the Big Sur Coast Highway (Highway 1). You can take the short trail from the parking lot to a viewing platform for the Mcway Waterfall. Or, opt for a longer hiking trail and explore the landscape of the redwood forests!

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Big Sur Coast, California

#15 – Santa Cruz

Quite the quirky place in California!

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz (Photo credit – visittheusa.com )

  • One of the most unique places to visit in California
  • Santa Cruz County has 14 state parks and beaches and offers a myriad of outdoor activities

Santa Cruz is a beach town that screams classic California, from its lively oceanfront boardwalk to its surfing scene to its vintage clothing stores. It’s surrounded by groves of towering redwoods, coastal hiking trails, and secluded beaches. It offers the best mix of indoor and outdoor attractions. It’s perfect for every type of traveler!

Best Attractions
  • The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the city’s number one attraction. It’s been open since 1907, making it one of America’s oldest seaside amusement parks. From retro rides to arcades to carnival games and carnival food, it’s the kind of place that will keep you entertained all day!

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Santa Cruz, California

#16 – Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara (Photo credit – tripadvisor.ie )

  • Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean
  • Many of Santa Barbara’s tourist attractions are within close proximity to each other

Santa Barbara is located on central California’s idyllic coast. It’s one of the most glamorous places to take a California vacation. From upscale boutiques and restaurants to the palm-lined waterfront, it has an attractive upmarket appeal. The city reflects Santa Barbara’s fascinating, Spanish colonial heritage. The downtown area is characterized by white stucco buildings with red-roofs.

Best Attractions
  • Mission Santa Barbara is a 1786 Spanish Mission. It’s a historical landmark and a great place to go to learn about Santa Barbara’s earliest days. The Mission complex also contains a museum that houses art pieces from the colonial period and many fascinating artifacts.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Santa Barbara, California

#17 – Humboldt County

A nice quiet place to see in California

Humboldt County

Humboldt County (Photo credit – scotialiving.com )

  • The best of California’s rugged and unspoiled natural beauty
  • Located on the far north coast of California

Humboldt County is one of the most scenic places to explore in California. You’ll find plenty of remote forests, secluded beaches, and quiet rivers. It’s a great place to visit if you enjoy hiking, hunting, fishing, and outdoor adventures. This California county is an escape to the great outdoors!

Best Attractions
  • Lady Bird Johnson Grove is a 1.4-mile loop hiking trail in the Redwood National Park. It’s a scenic hike that will take you through the giant redwood clusters. It’s an easy trail that can be enjoyed by all skill levels!

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Humboldt County, California

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed our list of the 17 best places in California to visit. As you can tell, there are so many different areas of the state to explore. Each city offers something totally different and unique to travelers.

This is a place you could visit over and over again and enjoy a new and exciting experience every time. California allures visitors with plenty of sunshine, a running coastline, and metropolitan sophistication.

From towering mountains to towering buildings and scenic landscapes to sprawling shopping malls, there’s something for everyone!

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About the Author Nicola Smart

Gin lover. Coffee addict. Nicola has traveled the world for 7 years and is a staff writer for Hotel Jules. Born in London, Nicola first got the taste of travel studying abroad in Barcelona. Since then she's been hooked - traveling the world non-stop. Passionate about green travel and vegan lifestyle, Nicola spends more of her free time staring at maps wondering where she will head to next!