20 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in California
When you're ready for a scenic retreat that inspires awe, there's no place quite like California. The Sierra Nevada Mountains jut straight out of the landscape, in parts reaching heights of more than 12,000 feet. They're painted from one end to the other in spectacular and often kaleidoscopic hues, by painter after painter in summer sunshine. Beyond the mountains stretch a desert of vineyards, oranges, and almonds, punctuated by oases that offer a living scene of date palms, rambling fountains, and gorgeous landscapes.
Most people know about California's major cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento. But even the most traveled tourist has probably never been to the mountains, deserts, beaches, and towns that make the Golden State famous. These are the places to see: Yosemite National Park; the remote towns of Santa Barbara, Mendocino, and San Luis Obispo; the laid-back communities of Monterey, Big Sur, and Carmel.
Don't miss the ever-expanding network of state parks, country retreats, and lakes for every kind of boater, fisherman, and outdoor enthusiast. And for our money, there's no better way to explore all the beauty and wonder of California than from a road trip, whether we're making a day trip out of it or road-tripping it. This is our road trip through California, from Top 10 Lake Tahoe Beaches to Fun Towns You Can't Miss, and more.
Grand Canyon South Rim, AZ
Grand Canyon National Park is part of the largest system of protected areas in the United States, and covers 3 million acres in the Southwest region of the United States, located in Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The breathtaking canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, with two of the three connected regions having spectacular landscapes, including the famed North Rim and the more peaceful South Rim. With around 3 million visitors per year, it is the most-visited national park in the United States, and a number of sightseeing bus tours to the South Rim are available to tourists. Though numerous tours are offered for visitors to make their way to the Grand Canyon South Rim, the most popular is the Hop-on Hop-off Grand Canyon River Safari Tour, which takes visitors along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to see sights such as Hoover Dam, the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. When ready, visitors can hop-on or hop-off the tour to select from a variety of adventure tours. Along the way, there are over 20 stops for visitors to take pictures, feed birds, have a sip of water, and visit other historic sights.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium is a terrific place to learn about the marine life of the Pacific Ocean. A bit like visiting the ocean's aquarium, the aquarium occupies a harbor front site in the historic fishing community of Monterey. The aquarium's "ocean tanks" house a variety of marine life including sharks, kelp forests, jellyfish and fish in various states of health and distress. Extensive underwater tunnel views and a huge blue whale exhibit are also featured. You can spend all day in the aquarium or use it as a day trip; the family fun included activities and exhibits also make the aquarium a great place for children. A trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium makes a great family outing and a fun day trip from San Francisco.
Inland Big Sur, one of California's best-kept secrets, is rich in natural beauty. This region of the state abounds with old-growth redwoods and sparkling coastal views. In addition to ocean beaches like the long stretch in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it has mountains of various sizes, from imposing to small and quiet. Big Sur's main attraction is the rugged coastline and the many camping and hiking opportunities. Keep an eye out for giant rock slabs that fall from the cliffs, known as the "sunsets," a sequence of rolling waves and the sun setting over the Pacific. The main mode of transportation between the towns is the bus, which departs regularly from Monterey and San Francisco. A scenic alternative is to take the Coastal Highway from the Big Sur Station on Highway 101 north to Pfeiffer State Beach and the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, a narrow, rocky outcropping used as a parking lot.
Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica Pier is a delightful collection of shops, restaurants, arcades, and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and Los Angeles. This grand 1920's relic was once a bustling center of entertainment and an escape from the city. Today, the Pier offers a diverse variety of entertainment ranging from acrobatic shows to concerts by well-known artists. Some of the shops and restaurants serve wonderful seafood and Italian specialties, the Pier itself is popular with families and the pier is filled with life on the weekends. Even though the Pier is officially closed to the public at night, many people decide to explore the pier by strolling through it at night and walking through the darkened pier amusement areas.
Travelers enjoy a quintessential American experience at Santa Cruz. The road along the Pacific Coast Highway meanders up the sun-drenched mountainsides and offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean and breathtaking sunsets. Among the attractions you can visit are the famous lighthouse, the Madonna Inn, the Cliff House, Capitola, the Bicycle Museum and the Beach Chalet. There is also a variety of fun and cultural activities to enjoy. Santa Cruz is home to the UCSC campus, and to take advantage of all of the educational opportunities you'll have to know the address is Santa Cruz, California, USA.
Santa Monica is home to a large group of independent stores. The neighborhood, referred to locally as "The Main Street," is also home to the world's first medical marijuana dispensary, a Harley-Davidson Museum and arguably the most beautiful airport in the United States. Although its numbers are increasing, the Latino community still makes up about 90% of the population. The area is a mix of old downtown buildings and waterfront mansions along Pacific Coast Highway. The area is most famous for Ocean Park, a model of an old-fashioned amusement park. In addition, it is home to a Botanical Garden and a Museum of Natural History, the outdoor mall Santa Monica Place, a National Marine Sanctuary, and Palisades Park, a seaside jaunt along the Pacific coast. Most visitors to Santa Monica will spend their time here on the coast. Ocean Park Beach, adjacent to Ocean Park, is also a popular place for swimming and surfing.
Channel Islands National Park
Located in southern California, Channel Islands National Park is a sparsely populated park with rolling hills covered in various types of grass and dotted with cliffs, caves, and islands. The islands themselves are treeless and home to unique plant and animal life, as well as the unique human history of those living on the islands. Access to the islands is best from February through May, as the weather in the park is frequently rainy, foggy, and blustery. The best time to visit is between May and September, when temperatures are more pleasant. Also make sure to visit the park during the autumn or winter to see the view of the red tule trees and the flamingos flying overhead. There are over 100 islands in the park, the largest of which are Santa Cruz and San Miguel. Pico Peak, the tallest mountain on the park's main island of Santa Cruz, measures nearly 4,500 feet, making it one of the tallest mountains in California. Also of interest is the Channel Islands Lighthouse, built in the 19th century and now a National Park landmark.
Harmony, serenity, and endless recreation are all you need to know to enjoy a Lake Tahoe vacation. Lake Tahoe stretches across the state of California, into Nevada, and has become one of America's premier summer getaways. This placid, clear blue lake, located along the California-Nevada border, has 22 miles of shoreline and glistens as the sun goes down on clear evenings. One of the main attractions of the lake are its varied resorts, with some of the most expensive resorts in the world on the shores of the lake. Many of them are connected by the golf course which runs right along the shoreline. Lake Tahoe is best known for its summer recreation, with the annual Lake Tahoe Festival in late July bringing out many of the more than 30,000 attendees who will be entertained by famous artists, live music, and free events. The other main attraction is the summer's famous fireworks, staged on the lakeshore between August and September.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Constructed in 1926, Santa Cruz's Boardwalk (aka Laguna Beach's Funtown) is the nation's first Boardwalk Beach. With a distinctive Moorish influence in design, its wood supports (from Pacific redwood, not Spanish cedar), colorful shingles, and ornate carved figures make the Boardwalk one of the most distinctive historic attractions in the country. And while the city of Santa Cruz officially frowns upon the practice of businesses adding gambling, Santa Cruz's beach also has several "temple poker" casinos that rival Las Vegas' glamour. Other things to do in Santa Cruz include touring the Aptos and Soquel Ridge wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, visiting the old Santa Cruz Jail, or relaxing on the nearby beaches.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite, located in the heart of California, is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. The park, created in 1890, is made up of three different sections -- the Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and the Merced River Canyon. This mountain park's magnificent scenery is set in a magnificent natural state -- visitors can see magnificent redwoods, huge granite formations, majestic waterfalls, and many other geological features.
Smithsonian Center for American Art
The Smithsonian Center for American Art houses the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and a number of other collections and educational offerings. Its exhibits emphasize art created by Native Americans, the ethnic makeup of the United States, and the history and future of the visual arts in the United States. A highlight is the award-winning World Showcase, which displays art from different countries around the world. The National Gallery of Art contains more than 30 galleries covering the arts from the beginning of the United States to contemporary times. Highlights include Rembrandt's "The Jewish Bride," the magnificent "Venus of Milo" sculpture, which dates back to the 3rd century BC, and the series of Egyptian galleries.
The family-friendly amusement park is a place where you can spend hours playing in a whimsical fantasy world with incredible parades and rides. Family members with young kids might want to visit Animal Kingdom, which features a variety of rides and shows, but keep an eye out for the zany Donald Duck meet-and-greet. Disneyland's most famous character, Mickey Mouse, is everywhere, and the fun park is packed with unique Disney-branded merchandise.
Santa Barbara is located in Santa Barbara County, California, and is the capital of the state, as well as a major university center. Surrounded by the verdant Santa Ynez Mountains and an elegant harbor on the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara has been renowned for its scenery since the early 19th century. The famous mission in Santa Barbara is the Mission Santa Barbara. Designed by Spanish missionary, Father Junipero Serra, the mission is situated in the heart of Santa Barbara. Visitors are attracted to the mission primarily because of its unusual origins. The mission's foundation is attributed to the flight of St. James and his followers to the New World. If you are looking for things to do in Santa Barbara, just wander around the streets and visit the shops. However, Santa Barbara has numerous restaurants serving authentic Californian cuisine. On the west side of the Santa Barbara Street is the famous State Capitol building and the campus of the Santa Barbara University. Santa Barbara offers a wide range of exciting and informative museums, such as the Natural History Museum and Museum of Art, and the Institute of the Arts, which is known for its two museums, the Science Center and the Light and Space Center.
On the Pacific coast, California's beautiful southern shoreline begins in Malibu at the Santa Monica Mountains. Just south of Los Angeles lies another beachside enclave that features Malibu's best surfing, an unspoiled coastline and a surprising variety of wildlife such as exotic birds and white-tailed deer. The best thing to do in Malibu is to drive the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, which takes you through the canyon-walled Santa Monica Mountains and opens up to glorious views of Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.
Orange County is known for its coastal beauty, palm trees, and proximity to Disneyland. It is located just south of Los Angeles, with a population of over 4 million people. The county is named after Orange, California, the original settlement. It is the nation's fastest growing county in percentage terms, and has the largest inland waterway system in the world. Surrounded by an extensive network of inter-connected canals and a vast irrigated agricultural region, there is a great deal to do and see in Orange County. People visit Orange County to enjoy the local scenery and natural attractions. Many people also come for professional reasons, visiting companies such as Disneyland, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., Ford, and Xerox. There are numerous shopping malls throughout the county, each with a great selection of retail stores, department stores, supermarkets, cinemas, and book stores. Top attractions include: Sea World and Aquatica in Anaheim; Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park; the Orange County Museum of Art in Orange; Universal Studios in Universal City; the Los Angeles Zoo; the famous Catalina Island; the Lost Coast Trail in Santa Cruz; and hiking in the rugged mountains, such as Mount San Jacinto State Park.
Monterey Bay is one of the world's premier locations for marine activities. The area is filled with brilliant flora and fauna and a series of ocean preserves make up a vast stretch of California's coast where the Pacific Ocean meets the Pacific's most fertile waters. The Sonoma Coast, which begins about an hour south of San Francisco in the bay itself, is considered one of the best sections. Heading north, Monterey Bay extends to Carmel and the Big Sur Coast. West of the bay is the Gulf of Monterey. Fishing is one of the most popular activities, although there are many wildlife and environmental programs to support this industry. Tourism is an important economic force in Monterey, and visitors can visit the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences, and the famous old California town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The California State Parks, along with local conservation organizations, maintain a variety of beach preserves along the coast. The best-known of these are Monterey Bay and Pebble Beach. The Monterey Bay Area's growing sports tourism industry includes a variety of venues and activities that have become increasingly popular, especially with golfers, beach volleyball players, windsurfers, mountain bikers, fishers, boaters, scuba divers, divers, and kayakers.
Pasadena, 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, is home to over 200 acres of trees, gardens, museums, theaters, libraries, and universities. Many Californians drive through it on their way to Disneyland. The oldest part of Pasadena is the Downtown District, the heart of which is El Camino Real, the main road through the city. The Pasadena Museum of History houses an extensive collection of Native American pottery, pieces that serve to demonstrate how the pre-Columbian inhabitants used a type of clay known as sand clay (kotz). Pasadena also has a collection of Egyptian artifacts, including coffin pieces, found in Egypt during the 1956 Revolution that overthrew the royal regime. Exhibits of Spanish colonial art and items that describe the early development of Pasadena as a settlement are also featured.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park, at about 15 miles by 5 miles, is one of America's largest volcanic areas. Known as the "place of the flaming mountains," the park is actually made up of more than 20 calderas. Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, is the main attraction. Created by a massive volcanic explosion more than 10,000 years ago, it still bubbles, as geologists once suspected it might. To explore the area, take the Lassen Peak Rim Drive, which goes through three national forests, each with stunning vistas. Also included are Mount Crater Lake, with its typical bald-faced peaks and large active geysers; a geological exhibit at the end; and the trails at Observation Peak. The park was closed in August 2012 and may reopen on a limited basis after February 2013. During the last leg of the park's closure, visitors were required to register at the park's information centers. The future of the park will depend on whether it can be designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. A CEC designation may lead to national park status if Congress approves the designation. There is some interest in the area by state and local officials, but legislation is not likely to pass this year.
Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica Beach is situated between downtown Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles. The beach begins at Western Avenue and stretches west to Ocean Avenue. The beach has wide beaches of tan-colored sand on the California shoreline. The urban environment is less intense than the beachfront area on the Pacific Ocean side of the Los Angeles area, and residential buildings have thinned, especially on the north end of the beach. Santa Monica Beach is a favorite for sunbathers, joggers, volleyball players, surfers and fishermen. The California surf culture has permeated the area with quaint clothing shops, great food, and plentiful local surf breaks, making Santa Monica Beach a perfect location for a surfing holiday. Most of the surfing is only beginner to intermediate level, with only a few breaks ranked among the top surfing destinations in the world. To get to the Santa Monica Pier, take the 710 Freeway to Pico Blvd, exit onto Ocean Avenue, then take the 7th Street exit and turn right onto Main Street (Pacific Avenue) to Santa Monica Boulevard, turn right onto 3rd Street (Ocean Avenue), then turn left at Washington Street. To get to the pier, go down Washington Street to the end of the block. Santa Monica is the home of the Venice Boardwalk, located just off Santa Monica Boulevard between Washington and Main Streets, with its many little shops, amusement rides, and entertainment facilities.
Redwood National and State Parks
"God's country" was how John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, described his home state in 1917. It remains the best-known of all California parks as the tallest living things on earth. With towering redwoods standing for 1,500 years or more, Redwood National Park is both huge and sacred. Lying as it does in the "birthplace of California's northern redwood forests," the park is home to some of the largest, tallest trees in the world. A ranger-led tour takes in the largest trees in the park, while tree lovers have a chance to delve deeper into the park's past. One of the very first conservation efforts on American soil, Redwood National Park protected its forestlands from development as a recreational playground in 1909. Today the best way to get a sense of these massive trees is through hiking trails, including the Tree People Hike. Also in the park is North America's first national monument, Giant Sequoia National Monument.