California is a state blessed with sunshine all year round, making it a perfect place for outdoor activities. If indoor activities are more your style, northern and southern California offer unparalleled world-class theater, art, and shopping experiences.
From the north to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the eastern border, with an average of 284 sunny California days, there are countless exciting things to do throughout the state.
Having lived in California for more than 40 years, I am eager to share my favorite places here, divided into three regions — northern, central, and southern California.
The Geography Of Sunny California
California stretches almost 900 miles from north to south, boasting 840 miles of coastline. The narrowest section of the state spans 350 miles. California encompasses an area of 25,000 square miles of desert, as well as giant redwood trees in the temperate rainforest to the north, one of the world’s largest alpine lakes (Lake Tahoe), and the highest mountain (Mount Whitney) in the contiguous United States, standing at 14,505 feet.
International airports serve all three regions of California in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Best Things To Do In Northern California
Coastal Mendocino County
Coastal Mendocino County is renowned for its rugged coastline, breathtaking views, and charming small towns. The area has several state parks, including Mendocino Headlands State Park and Van Damme State Park.
One of the most famous towns in the area is Mendocino, a quaint and picturesque community designated as a National Historic Landmark. Murder She Wrote, the television series with Angela Lansbury, was filmed there.
2. Fort Bragg
North of Mendocino, Fort Bragg is home to the historic Skunk Train and Glass Beach. We had an exciting time riding the railbikes round-trip from the train station to Pudding Creek.
3. Point Arena
South of Mendocino, Point Arena Lighthouse, which has been guiding ships along the coast since 1908, offers guests lodging in the Keeper’s Quarters. Our two-night stay included climbing the top of the lighthouse for stunning coastline views and a museum exploration to learn more about the area’s maritime history.
4. The Presidio
The Presidio is a national park in San Francisco. It was initially founded as a military fort by Spanish settlers in 1776 and then acted as a U.S. Army post for over 2 centuries.
The Presidio covers over 1,500 acres and includes a mix of forests, meadows, beaches, and historic buildings. There are miles of hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, and scenic overlooks that provide an incredible view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
I enjoyed staying at the Lodge at the Presidio, recognized as a Historic Hotel of America and part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was terrific to be situated on the Presidio grounds and immerse myself in the area’s rich history. The Walt Disney Family Museum next door and the San Francisco National Cemetery, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, are two memorable experiences on site.
5. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge that spans over the Golden Gate Strait — the Pacific Ocean entrance to San Francisco Bay. It is one of the most iconic symbols of San Francisco and one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world.
6. Pier 39
Pier 39 is a fun and exciting tourist attraction in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Its main draw is its sea lion population. Dozens of sea lions bask in the sun on the docks year-round. As our tour boat passed by the sea lions, they barely raised their heads to acknowledge our presence.
In addition to the sea lions, Pier 39 offers other activities and attractions. I took a bay cruise with the Blue & Gold Fleet, visited the Aquarium of the Bay, and enjoyed some of the best seafood on the West Coast.
Siskiyou County is a beautiful and diverse region located in the northeastern part of California. It is home to towering mountain peaks, pristine rivers and lakes, vast forests of pine and fir trees, and several Native American tribes.
Dunsmuir is a small city in Siskiyou County near Mount Shasta. The Sacramento River runs through Dunsmuir and the surrounding mountains. The town is a popular destination for camping, fishing, hiking, and skiing.
The Railroad Park Resort in Dunsmuir offers guests the opportunity to stay in a renovated train caboose, complete with all the amenities you would expect from a cozy hotel room. We enjoyed dinner at the resort in train cars.
We made the caboose our base location and explored Dunsmuir for dining, history, hiking under the waterfall at Hedge Creek Falls, and the Vista Point Trail in Castle Crag State Park, which offers a stunning view of Mount Shasta.
One of the most famous waterfalls in Siskiyou County is McCloud Falls, a three-tiered waterfall cascading down a 50-foot drop. We walked along the McCloud River Trail to view all three waterfalls.
Pro Tip: There is plenty of parking at the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls. All are handicap-accessible.
9. Mount Shasta
Mount Shasta is the fifth-highest peak in California and one of the largest U.S. volcanic peaks.
The mountain attracts spiritual seekers for its healing energy. While my husband and I didn’t experience anything unusual, being surrounded by the breathtaking natural beauty was unforgettable.
10. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a deep, freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains spanning the California and Nevada border. It is the largest alpine lake in North America and one of the deepest in the world. You’ll be amazed at the clear blue water in the lake, fed by snowmelt and natural springs.
Best Things To Do In Central California
Yosemite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It covers an area of over 1,200 square miles and is recognized for its towering granite cliffs, massive waterfalls, ancient giant sequoia trees, and diverse wildlife. Rock climbing, hiking, camping, fishing, and skiing are popular in the park.
Half Dome is a granite formation over 8,800 feet tall and is the most famous landmark in the park. Yosemite Falls, another attraction, is one of the tallest waterfalls in North America, with a total height of 2,425 feet.
Pro Tip: Be cautious of bears in Yosemite. I’ve seen the bear problem as they have become accustomed to foraging for food in the dumpsters and from visitors’ vehicles.
12. Death Valley
Death Valley National Park in eastern California offers a unique experience. This beautiful park provides a variety of activities, from hiking to sand-dune sledding.
I stood in the lowest and driest area in North America at Badwater Basin. The elevation is 282 feet below sea level, with an average of 2 inches of rainfall yearly. Summer temps often exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rise early in the morning to enjoy the dawn on the sand dunes. The stark light and shadow play on the dunes as you hike on the slippery sand. Death Valley’s spring wildflowers after heavy winter rains are a stunning sight.
Pro Tip: The sand will get into everything when the wind blows. Be prepared with protection for your face and devices.
13. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is an unbelievable natural wonder. Home to some of the largest trees on the planet, the giant sequoias grow over 300 feet tall and are over 2,000 years old.
Don’t miss the General Sherman tree, Earth’s largest known living single-stem tree. There is a fence around General Sherman, but it is the perfect place for a selfie.
14. Pismo Beach
The Butterfly Grove is a magical place in Pismo Beach. It’s open from late October to February, when thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate to the grove as part of their winter migration. The grove is a protected habitat for these butterflies and serves as a sanctuary for them to rest and feed in the eucalyptus trees.
Pro Tip: The migration population has decreased yearly since I started visiting, due to environmental and man-made factors.
15. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara County is known as the “American Riviera” because of its Mediterranean climate, stunning beaches, and scenic mountains.
Excellent dining, shopping, entertainment, wineries, and cultural heritage blend with surfing, hiking, and biking.
Santa Barbara was one of my honeymoon destinations and is perfect for romance.
Best Things To Do In Southern California
You may have heard that it’s possible to visit the beach, desert, and mountains all in one day in southern California. I’ve done it, but it makes for a very long day.
16. Universal Studios
Universal Studios Hollywood is a popular Los Angeles theme park and entertainment complex. It’s famous for exciting rides, immersive attractions, and behind-the-scenes tours of working movie sets.
Pro Tip: Allow plenty of time to get to Universal Studios. Freeway traffic through Los Angeles is challenging.
17. Griffith Park Observatory
Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles offers a panoramic view of the city.
When you are on the observation deck of Griffith Park Observatory, use the coin-operated telescopes. You’ll get a close-up view of the iconic Hollywood sign and more.
Pro Tip: Parking can be a challenge in the area. You might consider ridesharing to the observatory and the hiking trail.
18. Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills is known for luxury, high-end shopping, and celebrity sightings. It’s always a great place to people watch.
19. Theater, Arts, And Culture In Los Angeles
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is your destination for art. This world-famous museum is home to a variety of artwork, from ancient artifacts to contemporary masterpieces.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a sensational architectural masterpiece in downtown Los Angeles. Its striking stainless-steel exterior reflects the surrounding cityscape.
Olvera Street is the perfect place for a taste of Mexican culture. This historic street is home to a variety of shops and restaurants. The Mexican food always seems more authentic on Olvera Street.
No trip to sunny California would be complete without a visit to Disneyland. This world-famous amusement park offers both thrilling roller coasters and family-friendly rides. Stay for the nightly fireworks show and meet your favorite Disney characters.
21. Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm is a popular amusement park in Buena Park. It was initially a small berry farm opened by Walter Knott and his family in the 1920s. In the 1930s, they began serving their famous fried chicken dinners.
Knott’s Berry Farm features thrilling rides and family-friendly attractions with live stage shows and musical performances.
22. Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach in Orange County exudes a laid-back vibe. This surf town is known for its long, wide, and sandy beach stretch. You can rent a bike and spin along the boardwalk or check out the local shops and restaurants. Every year, Huntington Beach hosts the week-long International U.S. Open of Surfing contest in the summer.
23. Newport Beach
Newport Beach is one of the most affluent and popular cities in Orange County and boasts stunning beaches, a luxurious lifestyle, and a vibrant social scene.
My favorite destination in Newport Beach is the Fun Zone next to the Auto Ferry. The Ferris wheel offers unparalleled views over Orange County. The Auto Ferry carries pedestrians and vehicles between Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula. The 900-foot crossing takes about 5 minutes. That’s long enough to capture a selfie with the Harbor Pavilion in the background.
24. Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is an art enclave between Los Angeles and San Diego. Host to the world-famous annual Pageant of the Masters, Art-A-Faire, and the Sawdust Festival during the summer, the weather and scenery throughout the year make this an ideal destination.
25. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a stunning desert park in southern California. It covers over 790,000 acres of land and is known for its unique rock formations, rugged landscapes, and iconic Joshua trees.
When I visit Joshua Tree National Park, I car camp, picnic, watch wildlife, photograph the Milky Way, and create star trails in the night sky.
26. San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is a world-renowned animal park. The zoo has over 3 million visitors annually and is a leader in wildlife conservation.
27. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
My first experience with a park that allowed animals to roam free was the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, just outside San Diego.
The safari ride takes visitors through the savannah to see herds of giraffes, rhinos, and antelopes grazing. Large enclosures for predators like lions, tigers, and cheetahs allow them to hunt as they would in the wild.
28. Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego is a historic neighborhood in San Diego. It was the site of the first Spanish settlement in the region in 1769 and the birthplace of California. The area boasts numerous well-maintained adobe structures reflecting Spanish and Mexican architectural styles.
29. Coronado Island
Coronado Island is across the bay from downtown San Diego. The island is accessible by car, ferry, or bridge.
One of the most popular attractions on Coronado Island is the historic Hotel del Coronado, which has been a beloved landmark since it opened in 1888. The hotel is known for its stunning Victorian architecture.
The Del, as the Hotel del Coronado is fondly known, was one of my honeymoon destinations. This historic luxury hotel has ghost stories to keep you entertained if bike riding, sunbathing, tennis, and fine-dining aren’t enough.