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29 Incredible Places to Visit in California

Fun fact – if California was a country, it would be the 59th largest country in the world – almost twice the size of the United Kingdom! From epic forests to picturesque beaches, there are so many places to visit in California, you could visit every year for your whole life and still find more hidden gems. There’s a reason we keep going back for “Places to Love”

Whether you’re planning a shorter scenic drive or giant road trip, want to follow in the footsteps of your favorite stars, or explore any one of the incredible national parks, below is a giant list of destinations from north to south to help you plan.

All the Best Places to Visit in California from North to South

1. Redwood National Park

“From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters…” Woody Guthrie had the right idea naming these forests in his famous song! Home to some of the tallest trees on earth, a visit to this area is sure to leave you absolutely gobsmacked. Hike around either the main national park or one of the three state parks (Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, or Praire Creek). This protected area is so special, it’s not just one of America’s greatest forests but one of the world’s, as seen by its UNESCO World Heritage designation.

redding ca - sunshine destinations

2. Redding

Did you know Redding is considered the sunniest city in the state? With 300+ days of sunshine each year, it’s a highly underrated place to base yourself for some NorCal adventures. Take advantage of all the kayaking and fishing opportunities when you come.

3. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park has to be one of the liveliest national parks in the country – literally! This geological wonderland is home to all four types of volcanoes – cinder cone, plug dome, composite, and shield. If you plan a visit here, prepare for some serious hydrothermal activity. The most popular way to explore is via the three-mile loop called the Bumpass Hell Trail which brings you to the largest hydrothermal area in Lassen. Just use the name as a warning – those who wander off trail may suffer the same fate as Kendall Bumpass who lost a leg when he broke through the surface of a scalding mudpot.

4. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is worth a visit no matter what time of year. Visiting in summer? Plan to get out on the lake at one of its many beaches. Spring or fall? Enjoy the cooler temperatures and quieter atmosphere to go hiking. Winter? Plan to get out on the slopes and ski! Just know that if you plan to go on any big holiday like Memorial Day or Labor Day, you’ll be joined by a lot of fellow visitors looking for a nature break.

5. Sonoma

Sonoma County is one of two incredible wine counties in northern California. What makes it unique is that it wants visitors to experience new things just much as it wants you to enjoy its many wineries. While you’re here, be sure to check out the charming small town of Healdsburg, explore the coastline, find out why this area is known for having the largest collection of carnivorous plants in the world, and even go on safari!

6. Sacramento

Although it’s the capital of California, Sacramento is often overlooked as a destination for the state’s more famous cities and parks. However there’s a ton to do in America’s Farm-to-Fork capital from gorgeous mural hopping to dining at all sorts of innovative restaurants and breweries. The best has to be the California State Fair, one of the coolest state fairs in the country.

7. Napa Valley

When it comes to wine regions in the United State, Napa Valley is easily the most well-known for both its award-winning wines and postcard-worthy landscapes. With over 400 wineries, 95% of them family-owned, this region is perfect for a day visit from San Francisco, a romantic getaway, or even a longer vacation. One of my favorite non-drinking things to do is to pick up some picnic supplies at Oakville Grocery and head to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park for a relaxing lunch. 

8. San Francisco

San Francisco hardly needs an introduction. Easily one of the most famous places to visit in California, this city is so full of iconic sites, you’ll need plenty of time just to see them all. From the Painted Ladies to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to historic Chinatown, be sure to wear your walking shoes! Plus, this city is a great base for exploring all sorts of nearby parks.

9. Oakland

On the other side of the bay, Oakland often gets overlooked for San Francisco. However, it’s well worth spending a day or so uncovering all the fun things to do here. From the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), which has a range of exhibits about the state, to the whimsical Fairyland theme park, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

shoulder season travel - yosemite

10. Yosemite National Park

As one of the most visited national parks in the country, the key to enjoying Yosemite is to plan accordingly. Summer is, of course, the most popular time of year, so if you want to do anything here, start early and be patient with potential traffic jams. If you really want to have the park to yourself, visit sometime during fall, winter, and early spring. 

11. Santa Cruz

Located on the northern end of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is the ultimate surfer destination. Filled with laid back vibes and plenty of opportunity to hit the water, if you’re planning a road trip down the Pacific Highway, make sure to spend at least a night here. It’s also home to one of the oldest boardwalks in the country. Prepare for old school rides, deliciously fried snacks, and all sorts of colorful design.  

Monterey Bay Aquarium - Places to Love

12. Monterey

On the southern side of Monterey Bay, Monterey is an absolute must-visit if you’re in the area. The aquarium is world class and the coastline views are exactly what you imagine when visiting Northern California. Be sure to check out the historic Cannery Row as well.

13. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is easily one of the most charming places in the U.S. With storybook-worthy cottages and whimsical small town touches, it’s the perfect spot to come for a quiet weekend getaway. And as a bonus for dog owners – this town goes out of its way to be dog-friendly!

14. Pinnacles National Park

One of the more underrated national parks, Pinnacles sees a mere fraction of what Yosemite sees in a year. You don’t have to stress about avoiding the crowds here no matter what time of year you come. It’ll just be you and miles of giant boulders, caves, and wildlife. 

15. Big Sur

Further along Highway 1, Big Sur is home to another iconic view of the California coast – that of Bixby Bridge. Spend the perfect weekend staying in either a yurt at Treebones Resort or a treehouse at Post Ranch Inn. Hike around Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, ride a fat bike along the coast, and then soak away at Eslan Hot Springs.

16. Paso Robles

One of the lesser known wine regions in the country, Paso Robles is located smack dab between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Stop in to sample their wines – they grow 40 different grape varieties – and then opt for a delicious dinner at Il Cortile Ristorante or Fish Gaucho. 

The Perfect weekend in San Luis Obispo

17. San Luis Obispo

The whole idea of spending a weekend in San Luis Obispo is to SLO down (see what I did there?). This tiny town is home to a bubblegum alley, over the top hotel, and a grand castle. Fun fact – the rooms of the Madonna Inn partly inspired the White Lotus in Hawaii.The key to enjoying SLO is to just come with a plan to wander and enjoy a slower pace of life.


18. Solvang

Right before you get to Santa Barbara, there’s a delightful Danish-inspired town called Solvang. It was founded by Danish-Americans escaping Midwestern winters and they recreated architecture found in Denmark. Don’t miss a visit around Christmas! From Thanksgiving to the New Year, locals celebrate Julefest Christmas. Keep an eye out for those nisse

19. Santa Barbara

You know a place has to be great when the one and only Oprah chooses to settle down there! Santa Barbara more than lives up to its reputation and truly is somewhere I think most of us would want to live. Just big enough to have plenty to do and see and just small enough to get around on bikes; it also has some of the best, sunniest weather year round. Find all the restaurants Julia Childs loved when she lived here; visit the iconic zoo, stroll around the incredible Lotusland, and be sure to catch the sunset from the beautiful Mission Santa Barbara.  

20. Los Angeles

I mean… Los Angeles! The city of angels, La La Land, Tinseltown… There’s so much to do and see that you probably spend a lifetime living here and still find more things to uncover. Off the top of my head, The Last Bookstore in downtown, Santa Monica Pier and its epic Ferris wheel, anywhere in Malibu, the Venice Canals, the Getty Museum, the Getty Villa, Griffth’s Observatory, Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden… the list is truly unending. And that’s not even to mention all the best places to eat in LA like tacos at Guisados or Guerrilla Tacos. 

21. Big Bear Lake

For a complete change of pace, spend some time in Big Bear Lake. In the summer, get out on the lake and dine at the Pines Tavern. In the winter, hit the slopes! I also highly recommend renting an eco-friendly dune buggy with Betty’s Buggies and driving around San Bernardino National Forest.

22. Orange County

Between “The O.C.” and “Laguna Beach,” Orange County has spent the better part of the 2000s on many a television, whether you were the target audience or not. And while it’s fun to take a peek into the lives of SoCal’s richest with a backdrop of sunshine and beaches – I think it’s safe to say the shows didn’t quite showcase all there is to this county. With multiple beaches besides Laguna – think Newport, Huntington, and Long -, the county is also home to a slew of cultural centers and innovative businesses. I met many of them when we filmed “Places to Love” here. 

23. Anaheim

Calling all Disney lovers! You’ll want to head to Anaheim to get your Disneyland fix. For those that have also been to the one in Florida; I’m curious – which do you prefer? 

palm springs, california

24. Palm Springs

Whether it’s a babymoon, family trip, or a girls’ trip, Palms Spring is such a fun desert destination. Check out the mid-century modern architecture that populates the town with The Modern Tour and visit all the quirky shops around town. Whether you’re with kids or not, the Cabazon Dinosaur Museum is a must just for those kitschy giant dino statues alone. Be sure to also explore the greater Palm Springs like Coachella Valley (not just for the mega music festival) or Palm Desert.

joshua tree - gifts that give back

25. Joshua Tree National Park

Spread across the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree has become known as a haven for creatives and those just wanting to get back into nature. Stay in any of its unique accommodations and just spend time exploring the desert landscapes. Don’t miss the unique looking yucca brevifolia plant, aka the Joshua tree! 

26. Temecula Valley

Another fantastic wine region, Temecula Valley Wine Country is reminiscent of Tuscany and just feels like the perfect place to relax. Stay at the Carter Estate Winery and book a wine tour with Sidecar Tours to taste test in style. Don’t miss the blended wines at Robert Renzoni Vineyards or the incredible Persian fusion food at Fazeli Cellar Winery. In town, be sure to pick-up some tea at Old Town Spice & Tea Merchants.

27. Borrego Springs

Escape to toe desert at Borrego Springs. Make like the Rat Pack and stay at La Casa del Zorro Resort & Spa for some rest and relaxation. Take advantage of the dark skies for some stargazing and during the day drive over to see the many fantastical sky art sculptures spread across 1,500 acres of land.  

28. Carlsbad

If you plan on visiting SoCal in the spring, be sure to include Carlsbad into your itinerary. Come March, all 55-acres of Carlsbad Ranch transform into a floral fantasyland. It’s truly one of the most beautiful flower fields in the United States.

29. San Diego

Who could visit San Diego and dislike it? As our southernmost place to visit in California, this city is the perfect mix of beautiful location, architecture, and culture all in one. Fun fact: it’s also very prolific in the beer community with nearly 140 breweries to choose from. Besides spending time at the iconic Balboa Park, be sure to shop around Barrio Logan, pretend you’re Marilyn Monroe at Hotel del Coronado, and take advantage of the city’s take on Mexican cuisine.

And there you have it – the best places to visit in California from north to south. Anywhere I’m missing? Sound off below!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I think no trip in CA is complete without visiting at least one of the 21 historic missions. Each is unique and if you are going to a coastal city, you’ll be sure to find one within a 45 min drive. Personally I love Mission San Juan Capistrano which has a beautiful garden. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo have beautiful detailed painting on the interior of the churches. And all share the common history of the Spanish colonial period.

    1. What an excellent suggestion! My husband and I also visited San Juan Capistrano and were very pleased with its preservation and history. Showing my age here, but I remember the story of the swallows returning and hearing the song about them on Saturday morning cartoons – I was bowled over to see the piano that song was composed on at the mission!

  2. Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s estate in San Simeon. It’s a unit of the California State Parks.

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