25 Best Things to Do in California

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
Our travel recommendations are based on our personal experiences and research, written by locals and travel experts with deep familiarity with the destination. When you book a hotel or tour that we link to, we may earn a commission.

From sunny surf beaches to foggy forests, the Golden State has plenty to offer the adventurous tourist. Just driving along some of California’s highways can prove to be a life changing experience. The roads, stretching from Mexico to Oregon, seem to get more dramatic and spectacular with every mile marker passed. The state is as diverse in terms of culture as it is with its landscape. Everybody knows that California produces some of the world’s best entertainment by way of Hollywood but many may not know that it is also a world leader in technology and art.

California is a state where you can shake hands with Mickey Mouse and touch an Orca whale in the same day. You can admire the beauty of gigantic redwoods before witnessing one of the most hostile natural landscapes in the world. The Golden state is certainly not short of memorable experiences, here is our list of the best things to do in California:

1. Redwood National Park

Redwood National ParkSource: Curioso / shutterstock
Redwood National Park

The Redwood National Park is a vast expanse of beautiful woodland, rivers and coastline where visitors can partake in a wide range of outdoor activates. The Redwood trees are some of the oldest and tallest trees in the United States. The wildlife within the woodland and along the coast is extremely varied and consists of a number of rare and protected species. If you have only one day in the forest simply take a relaxed walk and allow yourself to stare up at the tallest trees on the planet. If you have longer, lengthy hike routes are available as well as five informative visitor centers and an 8 mile scenic drive known as the Coastal Drive.

Recommended tour: Muir Woods Redwoods and Wine Country Tour

2. General Sherman

General ShermanSource: Margaret.W / shutterstock
General Sherman

General Sherman is the name given to a Giant Sequoia found in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California. This tree, like many of the others found in this forest, is amongst the largest in the world. The forest is home to five out of ten of the largest trees on the planet. General Sherman is around 275 feet tall and is suspected to have been around for between 2,300 – 2,700 years.

3. Venice Beach

Venice Beach, Los AngelesSource: telesniuk / shutterstock
Venice Beach, Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles is renowned for its beautiful beaches and Venice beach is a stunning example. During the summer months, the beach accommodates many street performers as well as cyclists, roller-skaters, swimmers and, of course, sunbathers. Also found here is the famous Muscle Beach, an area where bodybuilders flex their muscles and show off their bodies in a open air, beach-side gym.

Related tour: Santa Monica & Venice Beach Bike Adventure

4. Death Valley

Death Valley National ParkSource: BrunitaGio / shutterstock
Death Valley National Park

Although it is one of the most hostile natural environments on the planet, Death Valley is oddly beautiful. The unique valley is one of the hottest and driest areas in North America. The aptly named Furnace Creek once recorded temperatures of 134 degrees Fahrenheit, which, according to some, is the hottest air temperature ever, recorded on earth. Because of the extreme heat, travelers are advised to visit Death Valley in the early hours of the day. Dante’s View is a great place to see the valley and offers tremendous views on a clear day.

5. Disneyland

Disneyland CaliforniaSource: Konstantin Yolshin / shutterstock
Disneyland California

Arguably the most famous amusement park in the world, Disneyland is where all of Walt Disney’s most popular characters come to life. The park offers white-knuckle thrill rides, lively shops and restaurants as well as spectacular live shows featuring favorites such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. Visitors will also find many themed areas such as Main Street, where they can step back in time to the early 1900’s.

6. The Big Sur Coastline

Big SurSource: Jon Bilous / shutterstock
Big Sur

Spanning 90 miles of California’s Central Coast, the Big Sur is widely regarded as one of the most scenic driving routes in the world. Around 3 millions drivers travel the route, which stretches from Carmel to the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, every year. Along the way, drivers will find points of interest such as the Bixby Bridge, the tallest single-span bridge in the world, Point Sur lighthouse and the McWay Falls which cascade 80 feet into the ocean below.

7. Lake Tahoe

Lake TahoeSource: topseller / shutterstock
Lake Tahoe

This gigantic lake, which is one of the largest in the world, was created during an ice around 2 million years ago. Located along the border between Nevada and California, the lake is a great place for activities in both summer and winter. Snowmobile driving and skiing are popular in the winter. In summer, tourists have the opportunity to sail, kayak or jet ski on the lake.

Related tour: South Lake Tahoe: Sightseeing Cruise of Emerald Bay

9. Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate BridgeSource: Lucky-photographer / shutterstock
Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States. Every year the bridge is photographed countless times and visited by huge amounts of tourists from around the US and the world. The bridge spans the San Francisco bay for over a mile. Its red tone was purposely chosen to make the bridge more visible in the foggy conditions that frequently engulf the area. Drive, walk or cycle across the bridge. Alternatively, if the history of the landmark interests you, there are a number of guided tours available.

10. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National ParkSource: shaferaphoto / shutterstock
Yosemite National Park

The iconic Yosemite National Park is located within the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. The park is home to three of the worlds ten tallest waterfalls and the largest single piece of exposed granite. Hiking within the park is a very poplar activity and it is also one of the world’s top rock climbing destinations. As well as spectacular nature, the park also has many quality restaurants and hotels, which allow travelers to dine and stay in this breath-taking setting.

Recommended tour: Yosemite National Park & Giant Sequoias Hike

11. San Diego Zoo

San Diego ZooSource: Chris Gotz / shutterstock
San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, is home to over 3,700 animals of 650 species. The not-for-profit zoo sits on around 100 acres of San Diego parkland and is the largest zoological membership association in the world. Home to tigers, bears, monkeys, apes and elephants to name only a few the zoo has something to offer any animal lover. Over the years, the zoo has won several awards for its conservation programs and educational exhibits.

Book online: San Diego Zoo 1-Day Ticket

12. Alcatraz Island

AlcatrazSource: f11photo / shutterstock

Alcatraz Island is the site of the first US built fort and lighthouse on the United States’ west coast. The island is also home to the infamous federal penitentiary, which operated between 1934 and 1963. Although the prison was off limits to the public for many years, it is now open for tours and can even be visited at night time. Access to the island is by ferry and visitors are advised that the weather on the island can be unpredictable.

Suggested tour: Waterfront Guided Tour and Alcatraz Ticket

13. Griffith Observatory

Griffith ObservatorySource: f11photo / shutterstock
Griffith Observatory

This facility, located in Los Angeles and facing Mount Hollywood, is a self-proclaimed gateway to the cosmos. The Observatory offers visitors the opportunity to look through telescopes, watch live shows in the planetarium and admire stunning views of Mount Hollywood and LA.

Book online: Los Angeles: Griffith Observatory Hike

14. Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood Walk of FameSource: Andrew Zarivny / shutterstock
Hollywood Walk Of Fame

This iconic sidewalk in Hollywood, comprises of more than 2,500 embedded stars with the names of various Hollywood legends contained within. Spanning 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, the Walk of Fame was introduced in 1953 and is one of the most recognizable sights in Los Angeles. Walking along the sidewalk is a great way to spend a few hours whilst trying to locate your favorite actors or directors.

15. Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf, San FranciscoSource: photo.ua / shutterstock
Fisherman’s Wharf

The Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is one of the cities most popular landmarks and is often very busy. Pier 39 is a great place for shopping and admiring seals basking in the California sunshine. The wharf is also home to the peculiar Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, a collection of bizarre and unusual objects from around the globe.

16. Getty Centre

Getty CentreSource: Tinseltown / shutterstock
Getty Centre

Sitting on the olive green hills to the west of Hollywood, the Getty Centre is home to the Getty Museum and its fine collection of European and American art from various periods throughout history. The centre is also well known for its beautifully landscaped gardens, sculptures and panoramic views of Downtown LA and the ocean. Whilst entry to the centre is free, parking costs $15 for each vehicle.

17. San Francisco Cable Car System

San Francisco Cable CarSource: Tono Balaguer / shutterstock
San Francisco Cable Car

This manually operated cable car system is the last of its kind in the world and offers the best way to see the city of San Francisco. Billed as the cities only moving historical landmark, the cable cars are set on three different routes with two ending in Fisherman’s Wharf. The Cable Car Museum can be found on Nob Hill and offers a wealth of information on the cable cars from construction to present day.

18. Chinatown

Chinatown San FranciscoSource: Michael Urmann / shutterstock
Chinatown San Francisco

Located on Stockton Street and Grant Avenue in San Francisco, the Chinatown is the oldest in North America and largest outside of Asia. Chinatown hosts many events throughout the year and is home to significant buildings such as the Bank of Canton and Sing Chong building. The area is also a great place to sample authentic Chinese cuisine and explore exciting oriental shops.

19. Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica PierSource: ProDesign studio / shutterstock
Santa Monica Pier

This 100 year old land mark is Santa Monica’s most popular attraction. On the pier you will find the Pacific Park amusement park, the iconic red and yellow Ferris wheel and a vast amount of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. The pier is open all year for a leisurely stroll and offers plenty of events such as live music throughout the year.

20. La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar PitsSource: Ken Wolter / shutterstock
La Brea Tar Pits

Located in the heart of Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits are the world’s most famous ice age excavation site. Despite a huge collection of 3.5 million fossils, the digging and excavations are not over and there are many projects on-going. The museum shows many of the fossils found on the site as well as providing visitors with more information on the forming of the tar pits and the excavation works.

Book online: La Brea Tar Pits Museum Ticket

21. RMS Queen Mary

RMS Queen MarySource: GagliardiImages / shutterstock
RMS Queen Mary

The RMS Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that sailed from 1936 to 1967. The ship is now docked in Long Beach and offers a unique experience of dining on the liner or even staying here in one of its many hotel rooms. The ship is also available for guided tours offering an in depth look into the ships past and seasonal events such as Dark Harbour, a Halloween themed event playing into the ships reputation as a haunted vessel.

22. Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National MonumentSource: Scott A . Burns / shutterstock
Cabrillo National Monument

The Cabrillo National Monument can be found at San Diego’s most southerly tip on the Loma Peninsula. The monument commemorates the landing of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on, what is today, the West Coast of the United States of America. The Cabrillo Park is also home to wealth of information about 16th Century exploration.

23. California State Railroad Museum

California State Railroad MuseumSource: Steve Heap / shutterstock
California State Railroad Museum

The California State Railroad Museum was first opened to the public in 1976 and is one of Sacramento’s largest and most popular visitor destinations. The complex consists of six buildings completed at a cost of $30 million. The primary exhibit building, the Railroad History Museum, totals 100,000 square feet and was opened in May 1981. Twenty-one meticulously restored locomotives and numerous exhibits are located within the main Railroad History Museum building. These exhibits illustrate how railroads have shaped people’s lives and the unique culture of California.

24. Universal Studios

Universal StudiosSource: Kamira / shutterstock
Universal Studios

Universal Studios, set in Universal City, is a film studio and theme park. The studio is responsible for a large number of Hollywood blockbusters and has various rides themed on its many box office successes. If you are a film fan or theme park aficionado, Universal Studios will have plenty to keep you entertained and to warrant the entry fee. The theme park is also home to CityWalk, a three-block dining, shopping and live entertainment promenade. The area is home to 5 nightclubs and over 30 restaurants and guests will find a huge choice of food, live music and souvenir shopping as well as a state of the art Imax cinema.

Get tickets: Universal Studios Hollywood

25. Montery Bay Aquarium

Monteery Bay AquariumSource: photocritical / shutterstock
Monteery Bay Aquarium

Montery Bay’s public aquarium was founded in 1984 and is located on the site of a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row. The aquarium offers an impressive selection of marine mammals, fish, invertebrates and birds and is also a prominent campaigner for ocean health undertaking various conservation research projects. The aquarium also offers sleepovers for children in its “Kelp Forest”.

25 Best Things to Do in California:

  • Redwood National Park
  • General Sherman
  • Venice Beach
  • Death Valley
  • Disneyland
  • The Big Sur Coastline
  • Lake Tahoe
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Yosemite National Park
  • San Diego Zoo
  • Alcatraz Island
  • Griffith Observatory
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Getty Centre
  • San Francisco Cable Car System
  • Chinatown
  • Santa Monica Pier
  • La Brea Tar Pits
  • RMS Queen Mary
  • Cabrillo National Monument
  • California State Railroad Museum
  • Universal Studios
  • Montery Bay Aquarium