California bucket list: 27 of the best places to visit in California that will make your California dreams come true.
California has been at the forefront of my travel dreams since I was a child.
I don’t know if it was because of the movies, the music videos or excessive exposure to Beach Boys albums but one thing is sure: as the years passed, my dream of traveling to California only grew bigger until one day it couldn’t stay a dream any longer and I went!
California turned out to be as dreamy as I thought it would be except much better.
It has the stunning landscapes you have seen in the movies, but in real life, you also have the feeling of the California sun and breeze on your skin, the perfumes and sounds of the California nature, all coming together to envelop you in the perfect travel experience.
Since that first time, I found myself in California over and over again, both in the North and the South.
This is my selection of the best places to see in California, including some that I loved and to like to see again and some that are still on my California bucket list.
Happy travel dreaming!
The best places to see in California
In no particular order, these are my top places to see in California.
Yosemite National Park for its stunning scenery of UNESCO fame
Yosemite is a national park in the North East of California and one of the most beautiful places not just in the Golden State but I dare sare in the whole of the US.
The park has fantastic mountain scenery.
Here, a green Valley meanders between massive granite peaks that tower above you and the Merced river, quietly running along the valley floor.
This is a land of bears, sequoias and waterfalls and hikes and one of the best places to visit in California if you love the outdoors.
Highlights not to be missed are: Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Mariposa Grove, Mono Leke, Tioga Pass (this last one, only if you are not afraid of heights!
Many hikes in Yosemite are kids friendly which means this is one of the best places in the US for a hiking vacation with kids.
You can find out travel guides to Yosemite here:
San Francisco for its wonderful natural position and melting pot of cultures
Beautiful San Francisco needs no introduction.
Blessed with a scenic position on the Bay by the same name, the city is one of the most distinctive in California for its steep streets, its now iconic cable cars, beautiful architecture and views.
There is so much to see and do in San Francisco, it would deserve its own bucket list.
Some of the places I feel need a mention are the incredible Golden Gate Bridge (you can walk across it and the views are breathtaking), Lombard streets, aka the ‘most crooked street in the world’, the Golden Gate Park, the Painted Ladies and famous pier 39 with its sea lions and views over Alcatraz.
San Francisco is a magical place at any age and you can enjoy it as a student, a couple, a mature traveler and even as a family – it is actually one of our favorite cities in the world to visit with kids!
Berkeley for it wonderful and important university campus
Berkeley is a wonderful university town in Northern California, just in front of San Franciso and a must-see place in California.
Famous for its liberal views, it is beautiful to visit (it has pretty houses and lovely gardens everywhere), but has an interesting university campus worth seeing and a dynamic atmosphere worth experiencing.
Highlights: Berkeley University Campus, Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley Rose Garden and Berkeley Marina
Muir Woods, home of the tallest living things on the planet
Outside of San Francisco lies a wondrous place, where tall sequoias grow forming a forest so thick and beautiful, it feels like a cathedral of trees.
Muir Woods is a National Monument and an important place both for nature and history.
Muir Woods is a place where to admire beautiful coastal redwoods.
This is a type of sequoia that thrives in the peculiar climatic conditions of this part of California and that grows incredibly tall: so tall in fact to be the tallest living thing in the world!
The place has a magical, mystical aura and it was chosen in 1947 by the UN to celebrate the memory of F.D Roosevelt to whom a plaque is still devoted here.
You can read how to visit Muir Woods here
Napa and Sonoma – unmissable California destination for wine lovers
Napa and Sonoma are names associated with wine and good food, both of which can be tasted in a generous amount in what is known as ‘Wine country’.
Napa and Sonoma are close to one and another and to San Francisco and must-see places to visit in California if you love wine (this area is the largest California wine producer and that with the highest quality bottles) but also if you want to enjoy the sleepy atmospheres of a wine region.
Napa is maybe the better known of the two and is famous for being a playground for the rich, who come here to taste its excellent yet often overly expensive wines.
Sonoma, who started off as the little cousin of Napa and is now very popular in its own merit, has a different, more shabby chic vibe and is worth visiting for its wines as well as its historical gown center and mission.
Both are worth seeing.
We spent most of our rime in Sonoma and you can find out guide to a day in Sonoma here.
Family Tip! If you have kids and are worried you may not enjoy Sonoma’s winery, you’ll be happy to know Sonoma has some of the best family-friendly wineries in the world!
California Missions for their unique history
California is dotted by 21 missions, a series of historical missions built between 1769 and 1833 along what is known as Camino Real.
The missions are very different from each other and range from very small and frugal to massive and surprisingly elegant and are a great place to visit in California both for beauty and historical interest.
Among the many worth seeing there are Mission San Francisco Solano, Mission San Lous Rey and the Mission in Carmel.
If you have kids, California missions make for a great educational vacation
Santa Cruz for its incredible boardwalk and surfing scene
Located on the California coast south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a fun university and surf town known for its alternative vibe and great surfing opportunities.
This is a California place worth seeing: not to be missed is its boardwalk and its fair, one of the most distinctive thanks to its vintage attractions and lift chairs, and the town center and of course the ocean.
Just make sure you are geared up properly if you are hoping to surf here though: the water in this part of California is really cold!
Despite the cold water, Santa Cruz is wonderful if you love beach towns and we believe it is one of the best US beach vacation destinations for families as well as surfers.
Pacific Coast Highway, CA Highway 1 – experience one of the best road trips in the world
Pacific coast highway is the most famous drive in California and one of the most beautiful road trips you can ever take.
It is the one you see in the movies, the one that makes you dream of getting a convertible, turn the music on and just drive.
We drove Highway 1 twice, north to south and south to north and it is as beautiful as the photos suggest: the pacific surprises you behind every turn and the nature is luscious and inviting.
If you are looking for a dream road trip, this is one but you cannot tackle highway one just getting a good car and stepping on the acceleration: to learn why and how to make the most of the drive, find our highway 1 drive guide here.
Among the several highlights, not to be missed are Bixby Bridge, Cambria, Big Sur, Hearst Castle, Piedras Blancas,
Monterey for its world famous aquarium
Monterey is a pretty town South of San Francisco famous for one of the best aquariums in the world and for being the setting of Cannery Road, by John Steinbeck.
The town is pretty and pleasant and indeed the aquarium worth its fame.
Huge, well organized and in a wonderful position over the ocean, it has over 550 species of animals including some of the cutest mammals you can see in this part of the world or anywhere: sea otters!
Worth mentioning are also the stunning jellyfish tanks and the incredible sardines, which abound in the ocean here and originally made Monterey famous.
Now, you can see the in their massive tank where they move in unison like a vision of marine perfection.
17 mile drive for its dead drop gorgeous scenery
Between Monterey and Carmel there is 17 miles drive which is just what the name suggests it is and is one of the most beautiful places in California for marine views and rugged coastlines.
A slow and scenic drive, this is where you have the lone cypress and famous Pebble beach, a place where natural beauty and elegant homes will make you feel like you stepped into one of those movies that made you dream of California in the first place.
Carmel-by-the-sea for its arty feel
Carmel by the sea is a small, elegant, pretty town with a perfectly maintained city center dotted with art galleries and restaurants.
Often mentioned as one of the prettiest towns in California, this is a relaxed and upscale town worth a stop.
Big Sur – California bucket list item for lovers of wild coastlines
Big Sur is one of the areas you pass driving highway one but merits a special mention.
This is a remote area with a high coastline and luscious nature that hides waterfall hiking trails and hidden camping opportunities.
A well-known guide book says that big sure is not a place but a ‘state of mind’ and, in way, it is easy to see why.
Temperamental weather, stunning coastline and less than reliable cell service make this a place that makes you want to hide and be one with nature for a while although still maintaining that ‘effortlessly elegant’ atmosphere California does so well.
Santa Barbara for its important and stunning historical center
Santa Barbara is a beautiful town on the central California coast with a pleasant historical city center, an important mission and a stunning coastline.
Often referred to as American Riviera, this is an elegant town with a distinctive Mediterranean atmosphere.
Think white walls, red-tiled roofs, bougainvillea and palm trees, add great wine tasting opportunities and you can easily see why Santa Barbara is a place in California you do not want to miss!
Solvang – experience a Danish town in the middle of California
Solvang is a funny little place that resembles a Danish town because… it is a small Danish town!
The town has a strong Danish heritage that is visible in its typical Norther European, fairytale style architecture complete with a cute windmill!
Not to be missed for pretty photo ops and small village charm.
Malibu – to feel like you are in a California movie
Malibu is a stunning stretch of California coastline immediately to the North of LA, famous for stunning sea views, secluded beaches and celebrity-owned homes.
The place is simply beautiful.
Not to be missed are the elegant Malibu Pier, the many small beaches hidden in this rugged piece of coastline (Matador Beach is now Instagram famous) and the drive across the Malibu Mountains, remote and beautiful especially when it suddenly opens up towards the ocean.
If you love a rugged coastline, you simply must have Malibu on your Southern California bucket list, you will fall head over heels in love with it.
Santa Monica for its endless sandy beach
Santa Monica is a lively coastal town in the LA area blessed with a stunning, long sandy beach, a nice promenade and a pedestrian-friendly town center full of shops, restaurants, cinemas and bars.
Several things make Santa Monica worth seeing.
The beach itself, famous Santa Monica pier, full of rides and carnival attractions as well as famous for being the end of iconic Route 66 and the beautiful Palisade park, which follows the coastline and makes for a lovely promenade with ocean views. Santa
Venice Beach – experience its unique boardwalk
Venice Beach is a bit of a crazy place and a must-see place in California under a few accounts.
First and foremost, Venice is beautiful.
Like the name suggests, the town develops around small canals that are pretty and atmospheric and has a wonderful sandy beach (you can actually cycle from here to Santa Monica).
As well as this, Venice has a distinct alternative and counterculture feel that takes the shape of hipster shops and cafes along Abbot Kinney boulevard and become full out weirdness along the famous/infamous Venice boardwalk. Whatever you make of it, Venice is a place that needs to be seen to be believed.
Must see places are abbot Kinney Boulebads, the Venice Beach canal, the famous boardwalk, Venice skate park and muscle beach.
Los Angeles – experience the city of cinema
Los Angeles is a world and no California bucket list would be complete without a mention of at least some of the many things you can do in the city.
Worth a trip are Downtown LA and Olvera street, Griffiths Park, Hollywood of course, Beverly Hills, Mulholland Drive, sunset boulevard and the city many museums, especially the Getty Center and LACMA which we found incredible.
Movie lovers will of course add to this list a visit to Universal Studios and Warner Bros as well as a pilgrimage to see the famous Hollywood sign.
Hermosa Beach – for a perfect California beach town experience
Hermosa Beach calls itself the best little beach town and this is just what it is.
A wonderful, laidback beach town to the south of LA with a stunning sandy beach, an atmospheric wooden pier and a family-friendly, pleasant vibe that makes you want to move to California and stay forever.
Disneyland – every kid’s California dream destination!
No California bucket list would be complete without a mention of Disneyland, the happiest place on earth and the first of the now many Disney ‘lands’ and ‘worlds’ worldwide.
Whether you love Disney or amusement parks or not, it is hard not to enjoy Disneyland.
The rides, the reconstruction of towns and film locations (from Cinderella to star wars), the perfection of every little detail make it one of the most fun places to visit in California with kids and indeed without!
Laguna Beach – for its unique pirate tower and artsy feel
Laguna Beach is a beautiful, elegant coastal town in Orange County, south of LA, famous for its beautiful coastline but also a lively art scene.
This is a wonderful, upscale place to add to your California bucket list and a highly enjoyable one for art lovers thanks to the many galleries and events regularly taking place in the town.
Even if art is not your thing, Laguna is worth seeing.
We loved, in particular, Victoria Beach, with its hypnotic waves and incredible ‘pirate’ tower (it actually isn’t a pirate tower but it sure looks like one)!
La Jolla – for an upscale coastal town experience
La Jolla is an upscale beach community in the San Diego area and one of the best places to visit in California if you are looking for an elegant, stunning and perfectly served town.
La Jolla has a pleasant town center with wonderful restaurants and shops, art galleries and a wonderful location on the coast, which beautiful views even from the center of town.
Something special you have here are the sea lions, which you can see sunbathing on the shores!
This is a special place and if you love Dr Seuss, you will love to learn this is where the inspiration for the truffalo tree came from: you can see the actual truffalo tree in La Jolla town – one for your kids’ California bucket list!
Carlsbad – for a true Southern California beach town vibe
Carlsbad is a small beach town in the San Diego area with a delightful alternative, sleepy vibe.
Famous for the stunning Carlsbad flower fields, that bool every summer, the town develops along a golden sandy beach and has a lovely town center with independent shops and a relaxed vibe.
The perfect beach location to get away from it all and a great place for watersports too thanks to the presence of the Carlsbad lagoon, where you can go paddleboarding and boating.
San Diego – experience one of America’s most family friendly cities
San Diego is a large city with a wonderfully relaxed vibe.
Located along the Southern California coastline, it has some wonderful beaches and several areas worth exploring including Old Town San Diego Historic Park, fabulous Balboa Park and the famous San Diego zoo, which make it one of the best cities in America for a family vacation!
For a real California bucket list experience, make sure you spent at least one afternoon in Coronado Island and enjoy the iconic Hotel del Coronado, an unmissable Southern California landmark.
Palm Springs – experience the largest concentration of mid-century residential modernist architecture… in the middle of the desert
Palm Spring is an incredible town in the middle of the California desert.
Chosen as a playground for Hollywood royalty in the 1930s, it is now famous for modernist architecture from that area and a laid back, upscale atmosphere that still makes it the vacation spot of choice for many Californians when they want to get away from it all in the sun.
The town is worth visiting and truly peculiar.
As you come from LA you are first surrounded by a dusty desert with impressive windmills that seem to go on forever and then you are welcomed by a pleasant town with beautiful resorts, skyscraping palm trees and truly unexpected, wonderful art deco homes.
Fun fact: Palm Spring has the largest concentration of midcentury modern residential architecture and the highest number of pools, per capita, in the USA!
Joshua Tree NP – experience the place where 2 deserts meet
Joshua Tree National park is one of the most beautiful and most peculiar places in the whole of California and one that cannot miss from your California bucket list.
The Nationa park lies where the Colorado and the Mojave deserts meet and it is famous for a barren landscape made of boulders and the peculiar Joshua Tree, agave trees that seem to reach up to the sky with their long arms, a little like the prophet Joshua.
The park is small and stunning and has a distinct otherwordly vibe to it that makes it one of the best places to see in California if you are looking for a truly unique natural experience.
Family tip: Joshua Tree has many easy hikes and very peculiar landscapes that make it one of the best destinations in the US for outdoorsy families.
These are our guides to Joshua Tree National Park:
Death Valley National Park – experience the lowest place in North America
Death Valley is a national park in the South-Eastern part of California, close to Nevada and it is known for being the lowest and driest national park in the country, as well as one of the biggest.
The landscape here is nothing short of incredible and very varied.
Places not to miss are Furnace Creek, where you have the visitors’ center, Badwater Basin, one of the hottest and driest places in the world, the salt flats, Artist drive, where you can see the incredible colors of ‘artist palettes’ badlands, Zabriskie point (with incredible views of the park), Mesquite flats sand dunes.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of the best places to visit in California and you found a few to add to your California travel bucket list. Safe and happy travel planning!