California is one of the top vacation destinations in the United States, both for Americans and international travelers. Vibrant cities, beaches, amusement parks, and natural wonders like nowhere else on Earth make California an intriguing land of possibilities for travel.
The gateway cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles are home to some of the state’s most well-known sites, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Hollywood and Disneyland. This is also where many of the top cultural attractions can be found.
But the national parks, encompassing mountains, forests, desert, coastal areas, and islands, offer their own outstanding experiences. The tallest and largest trees on Earth, the largest alpine lake in North America, and the famous sites of Yosemite, offer once in a lifetime opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Whether you are interested in doing a road trip, taking a family vacation, enjoying a city escape, or just looking to do some sightseeing, begin with our list of the top attractions in California.
San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most beautiful cities in America, San Francisco should be on everyone’s must-see list. The ocean and hills provide a stunning natural setting, but the quaint neighborhoods, historic sites, green spaces, inspiring cultural institutions, and relaxed attitude are what truly make this city special.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is one of the key sights and what many people call to mind when they think of the San Francisco, and even California. The orange frame against the blue water of San Francisco Bay, or rising out of the fog that often covers the area is an unforgettable sight. You can appreciate the bridge from afar or, for a more personal experience, drive over it, walk on it, or even bike across it.
Other popular tourist attractions include Fisherman’s Wharf and the infamous Alcatraz Island. This former jail is now a national park and well worth a visit. Ferries leave for the island from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you have time to explore the city and are up for a little exercise, see some of the sights on foot. Families traveling with children will find a world of activities to entertain youngsters and even older children with our article on things to do with kids in San Francisco.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park in Northern California is one of the United States’ most scenic and most visited national parks. The mountains, valleys, rivers, and spectacular waterfalls have drawn tourists, artists, and athletes here for decades. For nature lovers, a visit here is one of the best things to do in California.
Most of the key sights and things to do in Yosemite National Park are in Yosemite Valley. Carved by glaciers during the last ice age, the granite walls and huge waterfalls are some of the most outstanding features in the park. This is where you’ll find the big name attractions, like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan.
Beyond the Valley are the Tioga Road and the Glacier Point Road, both of which offer access to alpine areas, lookout points, and incredible views. Sometimes overlooked by tourists but also definitely worth seeing are the giant sequoias. The largest stand is located in Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of the park.
One of the best ways to explore Yosemite is to get out into the landscape on some of the incredible hiking trails. These range from easy walks along streams and lakes to life-altering trails that will take you to the tops of mountain peaks and to famous landmark sites. If you are spending a few nights and want to set up here for a while, you’ll also find a number of outstanding campgrounds in Yosemite and the surrounding area.
Stunning Lake Tahoe lies high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and is a popular year-round vacation destination in California. Lake Tahoe is about more than just the lake, it’s the forests and mountains, small towns, and multitude of activities the area offers.
The blue lake, with its turquoise coves and surrounding mountains, is a summer playground for boaters, beach goers, campers, and nature lovers. The beautiful beaches and shallow coves are some of the main draws for families visiting the area in summer. Places like D.H. Bliss State Park and Kings Beach State Recreation Area are popular beaching destinations around Lake Tahoe.
You’ll find outstanding hiking trails for all abilities in the mountains and along the shoreline. Campgrounds in the area are also excellent, with many in beachfront locations or wooded areas. Much of the summertime action is centered around the beaches. In winter, the focus shifts to the ski resorts.
Lake Tahoe is also California’s premiere skiing destination, with several popular ski resorts. During the winter, skiers from across the United States descend on the area to take advantage of the incredible terrain and great snow conditions.