Often idealized as the ultimate paradise, the western U.S. state offers some of the best natural scenery and some of the coolest sun-soaked cities in the world. From epic coastal road trips to state parks filled with towering redwoods, here are the best and most beautiful places to visit in California…
1. Pacific Coast Highway – one of the most beautiful road trips in the world
A road trip to the U.S. is incomplete without this incredible coastal trip. Here you’ll get a chance to explore the enthralling coastal views, rustic villages, pristine forests, and some refreshing wine-making districts.
Extending 1000kms, the route starts Oregon, California’s northern border to the south in San Diego. Some of the unique attractions on this All-American Road include Monterey Bay, Muir Woods, Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country, Glass Beach and many more.
2. Big Sur – a rugged and very beautiful place to explore along the Californian Coast
Magnificent views of the Pacific coast, rocky bluffs, lofty redwoods, and lush green hills, making it to The Big Sur is worth the extra time spent on the road.
About a three-hour drive from San Francisco, this coast is easily the longest and most picturesque stretch of the coastline in the United States.
The serene location has been a constant source of inspiration for many renowned artists and writers. Be sure not to miss the Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls, Ewoldsen Trail, and the Pfeiffer beach.
3. Yosemite National Park – home to some of the most epic and stunning scenery in California
Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1984, the Yosemite National Park is in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Renowned for ancient giant sequoias, breathtaking waterfalls, majestic peaks, and fascinating history, it’s a stunning place to visit in California for nature lovers as well as extreme adventurists.
You’ll never get short of the unique attractions in this historic National Park.
From the tranquillity of the high Sierra to the power of glaciers, the Yosemite experience is going to stay etched in your heart forever.
4. Napa Valley, Wine Country – a stunning place to explore and relax in California
The valley is also known for its world-class food relaxing stays and, of course, the incredible wine! Don’t miss the ride on the vintage Napa Valley Wine Train, while savoring the sparkling wine and countryside views. Pure Bliss!
5. Old Sacramento Waterfront – a scenic and historic place to visit in California
Located along the bubbling Sacramento River, this district is a national historic landmark.
The Old Sacramento Waterfront or Old Sac takes you back to the 19th century with the historical attractions, museums, wooden sidewalks, Transcontinental Railroad, and restored buildings from the Gold Rush era. This Californian adventure is almost time travel!
6. Griffith Park, Los Angeles – an urban oasis home to a very popular scientific attraction
One of the country’s largest city parks after Mission Trails Preserve in San Diego, Griffith Park expands over 4,210 acres of land. Full of with chaparral slopes, rugged mountains, and picnic areas, this park is in the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains.
The park’s flora includes rare species of berberis and manzanita.
7. Joshua Tree National Park – the incredible national park home to many surreally beautiful yucca trees
Best known for its iconic flora, the Joshua Tree National Park is a protected area and one of the most stunning spots to explore in Southern California.
The twisted bristled Joshua tree amid the arid desert and vegetated high desert offers visitors with dozens of hiking trails, nature walks, and rock-climbing activities.
While the spring brings in beautiful wildflowers, the clear desert sky makes it perfect for stargazing.
8. El Matador State Beach – a very beautiful beach located on the Pacific Coast Highway
One of the most romantic beaches along the coast of Malibu, El Matador State beach has been a big attraction for tourists owing to the massive rock formations and arches.
The mesmerizing golden hue during the golden hour takes your breath away with the majestic view of the ocean. A walk towards the north will lead you to La Piedra State Beach and Lechuza Beach if you walk south.
9. Palm Springs – the cool Mecca of Modernism set in the heart of the desert
This cool and fun desert resort city lies within the Coachella Valley of the Colorado Desert. With an area approx. 94 sq. miles, this city is noted for uber architecture, hot springs, posh hotels, golf courses, vintage boutiques, and much more.
The surrounding valley offers excellent hiking and biking trails. Gaze at the dramatic desert from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
10. Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – the world-famous and iconic symbol of Nothern California
Undeniably the most photographed bridge in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is a suspended bridge connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Designated as an international symbol of San Francisco, California held the most coveted title of the longest suspension bridge until 1964. There’s more to do while you’re in San Francisco. Indeed, a great place to spend a weekend along Pacific Coast Highway.
11. Lake Tahoe – one of the most beautiful lakes to visit in California
Known for the gorgeous crystal-clear water and the panoramic mountains, Lake Tahoe formed two million years ago as a part of Lake Tahoe Basin.
On the southwest shore lies the Emerald Bay State Park, featuring the famous Eagle Falls and Vikingsholm, a classic example of a Nordic-style mansion.
Enjoy the winter recreation activities like ski, snowboard, and ice skate in the Tahoe snow and stay in one of the beautiful hotels nestled on its picturesque shores.
12. Santa Barbara – the gorgeous and affluent community set on the Californian Coast
Home to stunning countryside and award-winning wineries, this beautiful city is known for its Mediterranean- style buildings reflecting Spanish colonial heritage.
If you’re looking for a quick break from the bright lights of Los Angeles, this coastal city is a perfect place to catch the magical horizon. Don’t miss the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the Lobero Theatre, and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
13. Morro Bay – a gorgeous coastal city in California known for the striking Morro Rock
Reflecting a vibrant modern-day picture of the fishing town, Morro Bay is full of sea life with dolphins, seals., sea lions, and otters swimming in the bay.
Under the gleaming sun and the extinct volcanic peak, Morro Rock, the bay is alive with family-friendly activities and outdoor adventures. Whale-watching tours and sunset dinner cruises are a must for everyone in Morro Bay.
The beautiful Californian Bay has three distinct aquatics to explore – the harbor, beach, and the bay. Each one of them gives you a different set of atmosphere and experience to uncover under their own set of activities. If you visit this place in the morning then you might find a bit of fog.
14. Death Valley National Park – the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park
A historical monument since 1933, the Death Valley National Park is the lowest and driest national park with historic mining operations.
The raw natural beauty, wildlife, and snow-capped mountains in this arid landscape capture the attention of adventure seekers. From the magical bloom of wildflowers to the ghost towns, the Desert Valley is a land of stark contrasts.
There’s something for everyone – art and culture, entertainment, outdoor adventure, gardens, and many more things to do in this incredible and very unique place. It is a below-sea-level basin and is famous for its extremes such as heat and dryness.
15. Laguna Beach – a pretty coastal resort with scenic coves and an artist community
A small coastal city in Orange County, California, Laguna Beach is best known for scenic coves, beaches, tide pools, art galleries, and environment preservation.
The long eight miles of coastline offers Aliso Beach Park and a beautiful underwater park namely Crystal Cove State Park. Full of water activities, you’ll love this popular surf spot.
Being a center of artists and organizes several events and festivals for them, such as the Festival of Arts or Pageant of the Masters, The Sawdust Art Festival, Art-A-Flair, and Plein Air Painting Invitational. This city has an Art Museum to visit named Laguna Art Museums.
16. Redwood National and State Parks – an incredible place to explore with is filled with the tallest trees in the world
A striking network of four National and State Parks, the Redwood National & State Park (RNSP) covers across 139,000 acres of vast land on California’s northern coast.
Designated as a World Heritage site in 1980, the area now serves as an inspiration for backpackers and hikers. Brimming with the oldest and gigantic Redwood trees and temperate rainforests, this place will leave you spellbound!
Visitors indeed get dwarfed after seeing the natural beauty at Redwood National Park. RNSP also boasts vast prairies and about 64 KMs of unspoiled coastline. You will get to see the wildlife diversity and as well as a variety of cultural traditions.
17. Carmel-by-the-Sea – a gorgeous and romantic coastal destination known for its charming scenery and artistic vibe
Situated in California’s Monterey Peninsula, Carmel is known for its charming and romantic seaside spots to visit. You can enjoy the scenic sandy beach, enchanting village ambiance as well as the historic Spanish mission.
Tree-lined streets will give you the peace whereas artisan boutiques will give you the inside vibes of Carmel.
It’s also home to museums and gorgeous folk-tale cottages. The alluring tree-shaded streets and Victorian buildings drift you from the real world. Moreover, the scenic sandy beach is also a spot for scuba diving and many other water sports.
18. Hearst Castle – one of the most visited historic places in California
This is eye-popping and is a palace in every sense of the word. You will find it extravaganza with a 165-room castle, 127 acres of terraced, and many more.
It is the only arm museum operated by California State Park. You should visit this place as it has many other attractive places around.
Also called La Casa Grande, the mansion originally belonged to William Randolph Hearst, the publishing tycoon. Since 1958 the castle has been a part of the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument.
This Mediterranean marvel is open for visitors to explore the art and grounds of the 20th century. Located in San Simeon, this castle gives you a perfect view of the sunny Central Coast.
19. Mendocino Coastline – a beautiful mix of rugged coastline and romantic secluded beaches
This county is a picturesque rarity and you will find the most stunning and mesmerizing natural landscape and relief corners to spend time.
It will take you about 3 hours to reach Mendocino from San Francisco. It is an enchanted place filled with the surreal and unspoiled beauty of California.
It encompasses Redwood forests, pinewoods, secret coves and beautiful seaside towns. Stretching over 90 miles, you’ll marvel at nature when you explore the historic sights, Victorian-era structures while savoring the finest wines of the region. Kayaking, diving, train ride, hiking, or just a lazy stroll, this coast is nature’s little wonder.
20. Cambria – where the pines meet the sea
Along California’s iconic Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you’ll find the most charming town surrounded by pines, rocky shorelines, and bluffs.
Known for the rare moonstones along its beaches, Cambria is a hidden gem of California’s Central Coast. This dramatic landscape brims with downtown art galleries, antiques, and history. Be it fun trails or walk along the shores, each day in Cambria is full of adventures.
Cambria is famous for the indigenous moonstone found on its beaches. It is a seaside village in San Luis Obispo County, California. At this place, you can find peace and relax after leaving behind all the city life worries.
21. Pismo Beach – a gorgeous Californian gem known for its wineries and many beaches
A paradise-like coastal resort located on the stunning Californian Coast, this place is known its incredible ocean views, stunning beach, laid-back surf culture, mineral-rich hot springs, and surrounding wine country.
It makes a fantastic stop on a road trip to relax and just take in the wonderful scenery.
Alternatively, you can step it up a gear and hire a dune buggy instead – Pismo Beach is one of the only places along the coast you can buzz around on the Oceano Dunes, so make the most of it!
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Scott Balaam – writer and photographer
Scott started his travelling life back in 1999, when he headed off on a solo jaunt to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia with just a backpack, a camera and a spirit for adventure. After that, the travel bug bit hard and now he is always seeking to head off somewhere new. Over the years he has lived in Italy, Qatar, Australia, Ireland, UK and the USA but his spiritual home will always be Rome as this is the city which most satisfies his unrelenting thirst for culture, good food and great football. In his spare time Scott loves nothing better than to be behind the camera and also runs his own blog and Instagram page. He also counts Melbourne, the rest of Italy, Amsterdam, USA, Athens, Cape Town and Tel Aviv among his favourite places. Find Scott on Linkedin, Instagram, or Twitter.