California is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, and not just for its family-friendly theme parks that can keep you entertained for days on end. Like other states along the West Coast, California has gorgeous coastlines, national parks, waterfronts, and even deserts.
There are also iconic pieces of architecture worth a view and the chance to see a celebrity in Hollywood. Whether you are looking for nature, mainstream entertainment, or cultural and educational activities, California has something to offer everyone.
So you don't have to try to pick which of the hundreds of places to visit because here we have listed the top 20 attractions in California to add to your bucket list.
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This gorgeous wilderness rests along the Sierra Nevada mountains. Its granite cliffs and waterfalls are the kind of beauty that only exists along America's West Coast: immense, majestic, and breathtaking.
The land was so stunning that John Muir, the famous naturalist, worked tirelessly to preserve the Yosemite Valley and the surrounding land as a national park before national parks even existed.
With one visit to any spot in the park, it's easy to see what was so worth preserving. Now every generation can experience this pristine and magnificent land just as Muir did a century ago.
Address: Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
As one of the most iconic sights to grace the world of sitcom… the Golden Gate Bridge is one stop you just can’t miss! It is a massive, towering red suspension bridge that links the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.
It is also a California landmark. Tourists come from far and wide to ride on its smooth streets, and to look upon the bay from the bridge. As an actual, functional roadway, it may seem like there isn’t much to do here, but the bridge is just the beginning!
On either side of the Golden Gate Bridge lie two stops. Both are optimal picture and lookout vantage points to get great views of not just the bridge but the iconic, golden city as well.
There are typically several tourists and locals walking, biking, running, jogging, vlogging, and everything in between at these stops because of how great the view is from up there.
Be sure to make the most of your memories and stop at a landmark for some iconic shots in front of such an iconic stop.
Address: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA 94129
Of all the Disney theme parks in the World, this is the only one to have been directly supervised by Walt Disney himself during its construction. He envisioned it after visiting various theme parks around the world with his daughters.
Wanting to create something for parents and children alike, he designed this park, with such attractions as Adventureland, New Orleans Square, Frontier Land, and Fantasyland. Each area is meant to capture the imagination of all who visit it, by giving it that magical Disney touch.
Address: 1313 Disneyland Dr, Anaheim, CA 92802
The cliffs and ridges of Big Sur, draped with redwoods and rising right out of the ocean, are an unparalleled beauty to behold. The population here is sparse, but the hiking trails and vistas keep people moving through on a regular basis.
The construction of Highway 1, which weaves along the edge of the mountains, opened up the previously inaccessible region to arts and tourism, attracting the likes of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson to its rustic locale.
The views from the highway are stunning, with many scenic viewpoints along the way for you to stop off and enjoy the twinkling blue ocean below.
Address: Big Sur, CA 93920
This film studio and theme park is one of the oldest film studios still in operation. What started as a guided tour through the Universal film studios has become a theme park with a host of rides and attractions that have evolved over time.
The Simpsons, Shrek, and Despicable Me are some of the most popular franchises on display here. There are also water shows and stunt shows that are performed live. Characters that wander the grounds greeting guests include Beetlejuice, the Blues Brothers, and Marilyn Monroe.
Address: 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608
Also Read: Los Angeles, California Top 10 Attractions
This park is the driest, hottest part of the United States. Located near the Sierra Nevada mountains, it hosts a wide range of geological features such as valleys, canyons, salt flats, sand dunes, and more.
Hiking is a popular draw, though it is only permissible outside of the hot summer months. Sights can also be taken in by car or motorcycle. Overnight campers often discover that Death Valley's stargazing is second to none, due to its remote location and dark night skies.
Address: Death Valley National Park, CA
This original SeaWorld location was so popular in its heyday that it went on to open many other parks in many other locations across the country.
Tourists have been coming here since 1964 to learn about marine life and ocean ecosystems, and get a sense of the vast and varied types of life that can be found in the world's oceans.
They also come to see Shamu, the name of the park's first resident orca and the name under which all the current orcas still perform.
Address: 500 Sea World Dr, San Diego, CA 92109
Nestled in between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the largest freshwater lake in the United States after the Great Lakes. The natural beauty of the lake nestled in the pinecovered mountains is awe-inspiring.
Its high altitude makes it an alpine paradise for skiers, snowmobilers, and other winter outdoor enthusiasts. In the summer months, hiking, biking, and water sports are the main attraction.
No matter how you choose to enjoy this mountain paradise, the vistas that surround you will make it a trip to remember.
Address: Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
Also Read: Top 10 Things To Do In and Around Lake Tahoe
One of the first things you might notice about this island is its resident herd of American bison. Fourteen animals were brought to the island to film a movie in 1924. Due to budget constraints, the buffalo were left behind once shooting was completed, and now the herd is generally comprised of 150 animals.
Visitors to Santa Catalina Island can enjoy a glass bottom tour boat that takes them around the shipwrecks and coral reefs that lie offshore. Parasailing and surfing are also popular choices.
Address: Santa Catalina Island, CA 90704
You cannot understand the magnitude of a redwood until you see it. Trees that stand wide enough to be carved out in the middle to let cars drive through are a common occurrence. Highway 101 runs through a large portion of the park, close to the coast.
Motels and attractions dating back to the dawn of American automobile tourism can still be found, like Trees of Mystery featuring a giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.
The theme parks pale in comparison to the stately elegance of the surrounding forests, the natural beauty of which needs no augmentation.
Address: 1111 2nd St, Crescent City, CA 95531
Also Read: 10 Best State Parks in the United States
The iconic Joshua Tree is the centerpiece of the Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most popular parks in California. The park encompasses an area split between the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, established in 1994 for the preservation of the natural landscape and the native trees.
Joshua Tree National Park is among the top places to visit in California, attracting millions of people every year to the park grounds. Visitors can enjoy the beautiful scenery of the park filled with forests of Joshua Trees, unique rock formations, and untouched wilderness landscape.
Some of the favorite things to do in the park include hiking, rock climbing, stargazing, and camping. There are lots of trails set up around the park ranging in length and hiking difficulty, leading to points of interest such as the Hidden Valley, Arch Rock, the Giant Marbles, and the Barker Dam.
Head up to Key View by either hiking or driving for the best viewpoint in the park. You’ll have views of the San Andreas Fault and Coachella Valley – perfect for watching the sunrise or sunset.
Joshua Tree National Park has several visitor facilities - nine campgrounds with plumbing or the option for backcountry camping.
Address: 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
Also Read: What to Pack When Going to a National Park
Heart Castle is an excellent example of the extravagant American lifestyle during the golden age of the early 20th-Century. The castle belonged to William Randolph Hearst, a media tycoon, and built by a famed woman architect, Julia Morgan.
The Hearst Corporation donated the house and all of its content to the State of California after his death. It was opened to the public in 1958 for a glimpse into his opulent lifestyle.
Hearst Castle was a home dwelling, developed to exhibit the vast art and furniture collections of Hearst, ultimately becoming a social venue for big parties. The castle includes original furnishing and art, seen throughout the main house, Casa Grande, and the cottages: Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte, and Casa del Sol.
Bus rides take visitors up the Enchanted Hill to the site of the castle for touring around the rooms and suites of the house or throughout the grounds. It features two large pools, a garden, and sits atop a hill for sights of the surrounding area. Visitors can take different tours for discovering the complex’s art, interiors, and more.
Hearst Castle is located near San Simeon, California, and visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually.
Address: 750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon, CA 93452
The Channel Islands is an archipelago located just off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean. Five of the eight islands make up the Channel Islands National Park, established in 1980 to preserve the natural scenery of the undeveloped islands.
The central hub of the national park is Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands. The park includes land and sea area, also designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for the abundant marine life and flora.
Visitors must take a ferry from the mainland to arrive at the islands (and travel between islands) to regulate tourism and maintain the island ecosystem. The main visitor center showcases exhibitions with information about the island and cultural history.
The Channel Islands National Park is popular for recreational activities and sightseeing. Some of the top things to do include diving, kayaking to explore the unique sea caves, hiking trails to scenic viewpoints, or relaxing on one of the many beaches. The park allows overnight camping.
The national park is open all year round, with autumn being the best time to catch whale sightings during migration. Other exciting marine life to see include dolphins and sea lions.
Address: Ventura, CA 93001
In 1943, two parks, the Sequoia National Park and the Kings Canyon National Park, merged to create one large park, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The parks are open all year round and make for a perfect attraction for day trips or overnight stays in nature.
The diverse landscape of the parks includes a large area of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, among valleys, canyons, marble caves, and lots of glacial lakes. Some of the natural landmarks worth checking out include Mt. Whitney, one of the highest peaks in the US, San Joaquin Valley, Zumwalt Meadow, and the Roaring River Falls.
The park is well known for the giant sequoia trees located throughout the park.
Tourism is accessible for visitors coming to experience the scenic beauty of the park. Many people come for scenic drives through the mountains, the variety of hiking trails leading to the top destinations of the park or camping at the designated campsites. The park also includes a visitor center.
The area included within the park was initially occupied by Native Americans. Tour around the park, and you may discover archaeological sites serving as evidence of early human habitation.
Address: 47050 Generals Hwy, Three Rivers, CA 93271
Whenever you’re in LA, be sure to look up – you might be able to see the iconic Hollywood Sign. Whether you’re viewing the sign from afar or take the hike up to see the letters up close in person, the Hollywood Sign is a must-see when visiting LA.
The Hollywood sign was created in 1923. Initially, the purpose of the sign was as an advertisement, but due to its popularity, the sign is now a mainstay landmark and pop culture icon for Hollywood. The Hollywood Sign Trust was established for the protection and maintenance of the letters.
The sign sits atop Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills. The white letters measure at 45-ft tall and 350-ft long for all the letters combined. Throughout the years, the letters have gone lots of restoration efforts to maintain the current appearance.
Hiking up to the Hollywood sign is a frequent activity for visitors. Various hiking trails lead up to the top of the mountain – the most frequented route runs through Griffith Park, where you’ll have a great view overlooking LA.
The Hollywood Sign is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Address: Los Angeles, CA 90068
San Francisco is known for its steep hills – one of the architectural wonders to combat the steepness of the slopes for vehicles in a one-block stretch of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is considered the most crooked street in the world, complete with eight hairpin turns.
The one-way street leads downhill and recommended to drive 5mph. It’s an active street as part of US 101 highway and passes through the Russian Hill neighborhood. Due to popularity and slow driving speed at the block, the area frequently experiences traffic congestion. Current efforts are being made to regulate tourist driving to experience the steep, sharp turns.
Approximately two million people visit Lombard Street every year. The name derives after a street of the same name in Philadelphia. The block includes stairways on either side leading up to the top of the block, providing visitors a picturesque view of the curvy street and San Francisco.
Lombard Street is a stop along the cable car, which is one of the best ways to visit the road. You’ll be dropped off at the top of the block where you can walk down for photos while avoiding significant traffic of driving along the street.
Address: 1070 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94109
Take a break from the upscale shopping and dining in LA to visit Venice Beach, one of the premier beaches LA most famous for its boardwalk. Venice beach stretches for miles, lined with lots of recreational areas and eclectic vibes along the boardwalk.
Millions of people come to Venice Beach every year, with the busiest time being during the Summer. Its nickname, ‘Muscle Beach,’ came from the outdoor gym equipment established along the beach. The beach includes several areas for enjoying sports such as basketball courts, skate parks, handball and tennis courts, and volleyball.
Visitors can rent bikes or electric scooters to ride along the boardwalk or the designated biking trails.
Surfing is very popular at Venice Beach, with the waters having the perfect conditions for all skill levels.
The highlight of Venice Beach is the boardwalk. Vendors line the boardwalk where you can find great souvenirs or check out some of the shops lining one side of it. The boardwalk is a mesh between the hipster culture of the locals and massive tourism. The atmosphere is perfect for people watching or enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach.
Address: Los Angeles, CA 90291
Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most visited attractions in Monterey, California. The aquarium is along the Monterey Bay, primarily exhibiting the marine life and ecosystems of the local bay for conservation efforts.
The aquarium receives more than two million visitors every year. The architecture features broad glass windows and an outdoor deck looking out towards the bay to create a seamless visual transition from the outdoors to the aquarium exhibits.
Monterey Bay Aquarium features a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The aquarium is most known for successfully exhibiting a captured Great White Shark, an exhibit shut down due to resource consumption of maintaining the animal.
The best exhibitions to check out in the aquarium are the Seawater systems, featuring over 35,000 animals of more than 500 species swimming in millions of gallons of water. The Open Sea Wing is also a notable exhibit, featuring one of the biggest aquarium windows in the world. Water conditions of each display are filtered depending on the natural habitats of the animals.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium serves an educational purpose, providing information and daily lectures about the sea creatures exhibited. There are hands-on exhibitions for kids, making it a very family-friendly destination to visit in California.
Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
Before the Griffith Observatory was built, planetariums were thought of the be only accessible by scientists for research purposes. The observatory was built to counter the myth and make astrology available to everyone. It’s now one of the best things to do in LA for free.
The Griffith Observatory was built in 1935, located on Mount Hollywood within Griffith Park. There are hiking trails leading up to the observatory, or accessible via driving. It’s an excellent viewpoint overlooking the LA basin, Downtown Los Angeles, and the nearby Hollywood Sign.
Many people visit to enjoy the observatory grounds, being one of the best viewpoints in LA with beautiful scenery sounding the mountain. Come to take photos before heading inside to discover an entirely different world.
Inside the observatory are a variety of exhibitions and facilities. The exhibits showcase space and science themes – Foucault pendulum, a planetarium theatre, exhibitions of the evolution of telescopes, and the history of the universe. There are lots of interactive and live shows happening daily such as the Centered in the Universe show.
Visitors have a chance to look through the massive Zeiss Telescope, emerging from the observatory’s dome, for views of celestial bodies with clear skies.
Address: 2800 East Observatory Road, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Santa Monica Pier is in Santa Monica, adjacent to Los Angeles. The pier starts off Colorado Avenue, transitioning into a hot spot for tourists and locals alike. The pier is a destination for fun, eating, and enjoying the sights.
One of the highlight features of the Santa Monica Pier is the towering Ferris wheel, located within the Pacific Park amusement park. Visit at nighttime to see the vibrant lights from the Ferris wheel. The amusement park is family-friendly with rides for all ages.
Santa Monica Pier features several other attractions, including the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, a video game arcade, and frequently hosts outdoor concerts and movies during the Summer.
The pier is a popular place to find great restaurants – one of the favorite destinations is Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, thanks to scenes of Forest Gump shot here. In addition to the restaurants, some of the famous pier snacks include hand-dipped ice cream or try a hot dog on a stick.
Sightseeing, fishing, and exercising are a few of the recreational activities to do at the pier. There is seating along the pier or head down to the beach to relax with views of the pier in the background.
Address: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA 90401