The Golden State is bursting with bright blue ocean views and Disney attractions, but there is actually a lot more to do in California. From wilderness expeditions to charming little towns and a delectable food scene, the activities are nearly endless if you know where to look.
One of the most visited American tourist destinations and among the coolest things to do in San Francisco is Alcatraz, which was once a fort, a military prison and a maximum-security federal penitentiary. There are a couple ways to take in the spectacle — you can go on a self-guided tour at your own pace, join a tour group or attend any of the free interpretive programs the National Park Service staff and volunteers offer throughout the day. According to the NPS, at least two to three hours should be allotted to fully visit the island and considering the ferries run every half hour, you can return to San Francisco without any fuss.
California’s state flower is the poppy, and there is no better place to spot it than in Antelope Valley’s California Poppy Reserve. Just outside of Los Angeles, this state-protected reserve is covered in dazzling orange, red and yellow flowers. However, keep the bloom status of the poppies in mind to make your visit worthwhile. For the best wildflower viewing, plan a trip around mid-February through May. It’s one of the best spring vacations in America. And there are a couple things to note before heading off for that perfect Instagram shot: stay on the official trail and do not pick the flowers.
Another classic California drive is through Big Sur, with plenty of scenic pullovers at places like the magnificent Bixby Bridge. You can also take in the many endangered California condors, North America’s largest birds, or spot migrating whales in the ocean below. The stunning scenic views, camping sites and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park are perfect for a rejuvenating vacation.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden showcases nearly 9,000 different kinds of plants from around the world, including buds from South Africa, Chile, Southeast Asia and more. The garden offers many smaller thematic gardens as well for an immersive experience. To feel like you’ve been transported around the world, go to the Moon Viewing Garden to see beautiful flowers and stone pagodas from Japan in a zen atmosphere.
The Broad is an incredible free attraction that showcases immersive and experimental art with rotating exhibits. It houses work by Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and more.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs are one of the many roadside attractions across the U.S. you have to see to believe. They are pretty random but are well-known for their appearance in the cult classic Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The long-necked dinosaur also houses stairs and a kitschy toy shop inside its body.
This former California mining town in San Bernardino County has been artfully restored to its former 1880s glory. And it’s a place you didn’t know was haunted — if you believe in that sort of thing. The ghost town is a fully interactive historical landmark where guests can take tours, pan for gold or ride an old train.
An island vacation you don’t need a passport for, there’s way more to hit than just the sand on Catalina Island. Visitors can zip line across the wide-open skies, golf, go on an ocean expedition in search of dolphins, and unwind at the luxurious Island Spa.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the city’s most vibrant communities. Whether you’re on an evening stroll or an expedition to find the perfect dumpling, it’s easy to get lost in the hundreds of shops, grocery stores and restaurants that line the hills of Chinatown. Scope out some of its best spots beforehand and definitely visit the herbal shop and the Hang Ah Tea Room, which is the oldest dim sum house in America.
This spot is a winner for history buffs. Coit Tower is one of the most identifiable parts of San Francisco’s skyline and visitors can climb the stairs to the top for a stunning 360-degree view of the city. Built in 1933 and named for a patron of the city’s firefighters, Coit Tower is part of San Francisco’s iconic history and even features frescoes on its walls from 1934.
“Doers, creators, thinkers, citizens of the world—those who eagerly face the unfamiliar—you are welcome here,” is the unofficial motto of the coolest museum in San Francisco. The de Young is the city’s oldest museum, and it’s filled with thought-provoking art. The permanent collection of paintings and sculptures are spectacular on their own, but the exhibits are the real attraction. Ranging from memorabilia to cultural movements like the Summer of Love in San Francisco and an exploration of artificial intelligence, to the runway fashions of Dior and Oscar de la Renta — the entire place is a work of art.
Perhaps the weirdest fact about the state of California is that it is home to both the highest and lowest point in the contiguous United States. Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth in part because it sits below sea level. The steady drought and record summer heat of California’s Mojave Desert also make it the driest national park in the country. The basin’s tectonics and complex geological formations add to the mystique of Death Valley and visitors can join a ranger-guided tour, nature walk, patio talk or night program to learn more.
California is home to five Major League Baseball teams, so it’s easy to catch a game no matter which corner of the state you’re visiting. But seeing a Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles just might be extra special — and don’t forget to grab an over-the-top ballpark hotdog.
Likewise, catching a Los Angeles Lakers game at the iconic Staples Center is a must if you’re a sports fan, but also if you just enjoy a good time. The NBA regular season runs from October to April so definitely add this to your itinerary if visiting during fall, winter or spring.
The Getty has two locations in California, one in Los Angeles and one in Malibu. Both museums feature an array of artwork from various regions and eras of art history. You’ll find van Gogh’s "Irises" at the Getty Center in LA as well as notable works from Rembrandt.
The Grove is one of LA’s most famous outdoor shopping malls and also a favorite of the rich and famous, so it’s one of the best places to spot celebrities in LA. If you’re out there, also check out the popular and historical Farmers Market, Umami Burger or Sprinkles Cupcakes.
The Ferry Building is a great place to eat if you’re looking to explore a California city like a local. Whether you’re sampling cheese from Cowgirl Creamery or oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company, you’ll likely leave with a full belly and a few bags of freshly baked breads, baked goods or even some cool art.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of San Francisco’s biggest tourist traps, but the waterfront community is worth the hype and one of those rare tourist traps loved by locals too. You can find delicious fresh seafood on this boardwalk, see tons of talented street performers and take in glorious views of the bay.
Muir Woods is known for its towering redwood trees in San Francisco’s northern region. The old-growth redwood forest will make you feel like you’ve been transported to an enchanting fantasy novel. The 6 miles of trails are perfect for hiking and you can head to longer windy routes that lead to Mount Tamalpais State Park.
This is a no-brainer — one of the most iconic landmarks in California, the Golden Gate Bridge. Whether you drive over it, bike across it or even walk, the view is stunning.
Golden Gate Park is home to 10 lakes and plenty to do (like model boat regattas, pedal boat rentals and spotting waterfalls and wildlife) after taking in the scenic coastal views at the bridge.
California is full of stars, but the real ones can be seen from Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. It’s an excellent place to visit if you love the cosmos but also love hiking and city views. Visitors can look through telescopes, explore exhibits, see live shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium and spot the Hollywood sign in all its glory.
Griffith Park is known for hosting concerts, parties and movie screenings. It's a great place to spend time outside riding horses or bikes, having a romantic picnic or just unwinding for a moment.
Nothing says LA quite like a rigorous but glamorous hiking experience. This mountainous hiking trail gives a stunning view of the whole city and provides ample opportunity to run alongside some locals — and by locals we mean celebrities.
This LA cemetery is popular both for those who rest there and the movie screenings they host. Visitors can pay their respects to the gravesite of Judy Garland, but also see movies through a program called Cinespia that lets you watch everything from “Hocus Pocus” to “500 Days of Summer” on the grounds of the cemetery. It’s definitely among the most interesting places in America to catch a film.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is an LA staple and a must-see attraction if you’re into movies and pop culture and famous people. It is bursting with tourists regularly though, so be prepared for large crowds, people in costumes and lots of street performers.
A trip to Joshua Tree is bound to be peaceful and scenic with desert landscapes and pleasant California weather. The Keys View, which is right on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, has panoramic views for an expansive look out into Coachella Valley, the perfect place to spot a gorgeous sunrise.
Located in Mid-Wilshire are the La Brea Tar Pits — a conserved prehistoric site in Los Angeles. The associated museum features over 1 million Ice Age fossils from 650 species, a fossil lab where guests can see paleontology in action and a 3D theatre.
If you’re in Los Angeles, do yourself a favor and head to Kogi Korean BBQ — a fleet of four food trucks famous for their fusion of Korean and Mexican food that are among the best food trucks in the United States. They’re also known for relying on Twitter and YouTube to spread the word about their offerings and locations, and have established a massive and loyal local fanbase. In just under a decade, Kogi has become an LA institution known for its Korean short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas.
People generally want to visit California for its sandy oceanfront beaches, but they might be surprised to know how much the lakes have to offer. Lake Arrowhead near Los Angeles boasts loads of outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, bicycling, and water and snow skiing. There are also resorts and hotels with beautiful mountain views in the surrounding areas.
Lake Tahoe straddles the Nevada border, so not only is it an outdoor escape, but you can also explore Carson City, or even Las Vegas if you’re up for a bit of a drive.
California is a place you might not know has volcanoes, which means you don’t have to go all the way to Hawaii to see one. Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California has hot water areas that steam from volcanic gas vents called fumaroles, boiling pools, mud pots and more. The park is walkable and you can even hike up mountains, but be careful to stay on the designated path.
San Francisco’s Lombard Street has gained fame for a one-block section of the road that has eight hairpin turns, earning it the nickname “the crookedest street in the world.” It is also one of the city’s most scenic streets, where visitors can enjoy the breathtaking view from the top looking out onto the San Francisco Bay. Though the iconic street is free and open daily, do be mindful that people actually reside in homes along the street as well.
The Madonna Inn is a California attraction known for its various themed rooms, of which there are 110. The rooms have whimsical themes like “Love Nest,” “American Beauty” and “Antique Cars.” The inn serves a gorgeous pink cake along with an assortment of other delectable treats.
San Francisco’s Italian community can be found mainly in the city’s North Beach section. Some of the best Italian food you will find on the West Coast is in North Beach. In fact, San Francisco has more 3-star Michelin restaurants than New York City.
A famous landmark that was almost demolished, the Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most photographed places in San Francisco. The gorgeous dome-like structure was built in 1910-1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The structure was never torn down, and now it’s a place people go for wedding and graduation photos or to hang out in the Marina District in a beautiful setting.
Palm Springs is a major hot spot for people in LA who want to get out of the city. Go to experience the heat, the pools, the drinks and the mountains. It really is a desert paradise.
If you’re a fan of the classic romantic comedy “Pretty Woman,” then you’ll definitely want to hop into one of the luxurious, ultra-expensive boutiques on Rodeo Drive. And perhaps even pull off a “big mistake, big, huge” moment. Why not? This right-out-of-the-movies location is a sight to see.
The Old Sacramento Historic District boasts more than 125 boutique shops offering souvenirs, art, gifts, jewelry and home goods. The district is nestled on a boardwalk that will take you back in time featuring Gold Rush-era buildings, several restaurants, clubs, museums and views of the Sacramento River.
The Salvation Mountain is an absolutely weird art installation rising out of the ground in the middle of nowhere. It’s a man-made mountain covered in colorful illustrations with a recurring theme of love, and it’s understandably popular with Instagrammers. You can find it in the lower desert of Southern California in Imperial County, about an hour and a half from Palm Springs.
The perfect day trip for animal lovers, the San Diego Zoo is home to many species of animals you might not expect to see, but also curated experiences that take the animal adventure to a new level. There’s the Animals in Action Experience in which zookeepers bring certain animals out to you for an up-close view, or the Crazy About Cats experience for lovers of lions, tigers and more.
Take the ferry to Sausalito, a charming small town, for an easy day trip. The ferry ride is about 30 minutes long and offers stunning views of the city and the bay. Once you’re in Sausalito, you can walk around the many shops and restaurants or even rent bikes and explore the bay’s natural beauty.
Looking for a place with a little magic and mystery? This exclusive club for magicians has a Harry Houdini séance room and stories of spirits. There are also magic shows at the venue, but to get in, you have to be invited by a member.
If you’re a tabloid enthusiast, this celebrity tour is right up your alley. The TMZ Celebrity Bus Tour gives you an insider look at Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. If you’re on a budget though, you’re probably better off walking the same streets and people-watching without a guide.
This isn’t exactly an attraction, but it is fascinating. The 11 miles of service tunnels under Los Angeles were once passageways to Prohibition-era speakeasies. It’s a little spooky underground, but you’ll be so captivated by LA’s history that you’ll hardly notice.
A nationally registered historic place and California landmark, the Winchester Mystery House is a beautiful Victorian mansion that was once the home of Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, owner of the arms company famed for the Winchester rifle. Reports of paranormal activity date back to the construction of the home, which began in 1884. Sarah Winchester herself was among the many who claimed that the grounds were haunted by multiple spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. Those curious to learn more of the fascinating tale can take day tours of the property, which continues to be one of the most popular Halloween attractions in the state.
There’s a lot you probably forgot about being a kid. Do you remember all of the whimsical childhood breakfasts? Do you remember all of those lessons you learned in school? Even better, do you remember how fun playgrounds were? You might not want to plan your day around this, but try to squeeze it in if you’re in the area. The Winfield Street Slides are a San Francisco institution, and generations of children have slid down them in San Francisco’s Bernal Hills area. Built by local residents in the late ‘70s, these incredibly steep slides add a touch of whimsy to the neighborhood.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the country and an obvious choice for viewing waterfalls. But you’ll also find deep valleys, meadows, Sequoia trees and wide-open wilderness. For an extra special view, head to Taft Point, which sits 7,500 feet above sea level.
If you travel just 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, you’ll end up in a community that is unmistakably Danish. Solvang has such a strong European influence it could fool anyone, with its thatched roofs, horse-drawn carriages and old-timey pubs. The quaint village is home to Danish heritage museums, shops that sell clogs, dolls and traditional costumes, and a plethora of restaurants that serve authentic Danish food. Solvang truly is one of those classic towns that look like they’re stuck in time.
More from The Active Times: