California has it all. There are mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, oceans and celebrities. If the only things you can think of to do are go to Disneyland or the beach, you’re not thinking hard enough. California is the third largest state in the U.S., and every part of it has something to do.
You could always start from the bottom of the state and work your way to the top. That way you’d cover it all: the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park; Los Angeles and its many celebrity and shopping activities; the gorgeous sights of Solvang and Carmel in the middle of the state; the jewel of California — the Bay Area — and the newly cool Sacramento; plus every gorgeous national and state park in between.
No, you won’t see Cinderella’s Castle or get bothered by shopkeepers on Venice Beach, but you’ll hike mountains, get some great photo opps in front of eye-catching places like Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge, or learn about the history of some pretty haunted houses. It was easy racking up 50 things to do in California, because there is just so much going on in the Golden State.
So grab your family, your friends, or whoever you’re traveling with and show them this list. You don’t have to be stuck in a two-hour line for the Haunted Mansion! There are 50 other things to do in California that aren’t Disney or the beach.
One of the coolest things to do in San Francisco is tour Alcatraz. Your journey begins to the former federal prison by way of boat. The ride offers stunning views of San Francisco and the Bay. Once inside “The Rock,” as it’s known, you’ll experience Alcatraz’s history and its famous inhabitants — and maybe even encounter some spooky spirits.
California’s state flower is the poppy, and there is no better place to spot them 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 that make for quite the photo opp.
Big Sur is just so pretty. People love to take the 17-mile drive along its coastline to take in stunning scenic views, go camping, walk through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and even stay in the area’s expensive boutique hotels that offer cool things like natural healing spa packages and rejuvenating nature-related activities.
It’s easy to surround yourself with nature in California, but if you’re looking for a curated experience in an urban setting, head to the San Francisco Botanical Garden. According to its website, it grows more than 8,000 varieties of plants on the 55-acre grounds. You can walk or bike through the grounds, but you should definitely rent a paddleboat and chill out on one of its little lakes.
The Broad houses LA’s most experimental art. Pronounced “the brode,” Angelenos come from all over the city to take photos inside the museum’s coolest exhibits like their rain room, color-changing light room, and a room that looks like an infinity of stars. Plus, it houses work by Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and more.
In the middle of nowhere, California, stand the Cabazon Dinosaurs. There are two dinosaurs, and they are glorious — not to mention highly photographed by tourists on their way to vacation in Palm Springs. These dinosaurs are also known for their appearance in 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 has been artfully restored to look just as it did in the 1880s. It’s a California Historical Landmark, and it’s fully interactive. Guests can take tours, pan for gold, take an old train, and even look for ghosts!
Carmel-by-the-Sea — often just referred to as Carmel — is a small yet popular destination on Monterey Bay. It would only take you five minutes to walk across the entire town, but those five minutes would present plenty of art galleries, cafés, inns, and restaurants to explore, including Chef Justin Cogley’s Aubergine. You’ll take much longer than five minutes just walking down, though, as the architecture is beautiful in this tiny town known for its numberless houses. Carmel Beach itself is gorgeous, and beaches are often populated with admirers at sunset. It’s also leash-free, so your dog can enjoy running through the white sand with you, after joining you at one of the town’s many canine-friendly restaurants and hotels. You can also enjoy the view by car, as the aptly-named Scenic Drive runs along the beach. Another scenic drive, the 17-Mile Drive, winds through one of California’s most prestigious neighborhoods, and non-residents have to pay $9.50 just to go through the gate.
Commonly referred to as simply Catalina Island, this group of islands is 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, technically a part of Los Angeles County. Both snorkeling and scuba diving are popular endeavors on Catalina Island, and Sea Trek is a diving experience in which even beginner swimmers can wear high-tech diving helmets for an underwater guided walking tour. If that’s too daunting, there are plenty of glass-bottom boat and semi-submarine rides as well. If you’re interested in a tour of the wildlife and history on land, there’s also a zip line eco tour available.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the city’s most vibrant communities. The area is just as pretty to walk through as it is delicious to grab a bite to eat in. It’s easy to get lost in the hundreds of shops, grocery stores, and restaurants that line the hills of Chinatown, so we recommend scoping out some of its best restaurants beforehand, and planning to spend at least a few hours visiting shops, the fortune cookie museum, or the oldest dim sum restaurant in America.
Coit Tower is one of the most identifiable parts of San Francisco’s skyline. It’s not very tall, which means you 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.
The coolest museum in San Francisco is the de Young. It’s San Francisco’s oldest museum, but after a few recent renovations, it seems anything but old. This museum’s permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, and more are thought-provoking and interesting but what really draws crowds are their exhibits which have ranged from memorabilia from cultural movements like the Summer of Love in San Francisco to the runway and ready-to-wear fashions of Dior and Oscar de la Renta.
Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in America. It’s also super beautiful and home to many different micro-climates and animals. It’s an excellent place to go if you love adventure and hiking, but plan ahead to avoid the summer’s extreme and life-endangering heat!
where you sit or what part of the 5 freeway you’re from, this is the one place all of LA comes together. Plus, Dodger Stadium has some seriously good eats.
Located in Brentwood, this museum attracts nearly 2 million annual visitors to its aesthetically impressive campus. Overlooking a stunning view of Los Angeles, the museum features an array of artwork from various regions and eras of art history. You’ll find both Van Gogh’s "Irises" and an extensive photography collection among the cavernous halls.
The Grove is one of LA’s most famous outdoor shopping malls and also a major favorite of former One Direction member Niall Horan, fashion designer Nicole Richie, actress Bella Thorne, and Australian band 5 Seconds of Summer. When they’re not frequenting the shops, they’re usually spotted dining at the Farmer’s Market, Umami Burger, or Sprinkles Cupcakes.
The Ferry Building is a great place to go eat, especially if you’re looking for local vendors. Whether you’re sampling cheese from Cowgirl Creamery or oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company, you’re guaranteed to 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 it’s totally worth the hype. You can find the best clam chowder in the city on this boardwalk, see tons of talented street performers, and take in views of the bay and the occasional seal! If you get bored, Fisherman’s Wharf is within walking distance of less-trafficked but still cool locations.
If you find yourself in San Francisco, consider going to a Giants game (no matter how you feel about the team). AT&T Park is fairly new and totally state of the art. Watch the game or lose yourself in a sweeping view of the Bay Area. Plus, AT&T Park sells really, really good caramel corn.
It’s one of the most iconic landmarks in California. This poppy-toned bridge really can’t be missed. You can drive across it, bike over it, or even walk (which we recommend). The view is picturesque and the accomplishment you will feel after walking the roughly 3 miles (there and back) will leave you feeling invigorated.
Golden Gate Park is home to gardens, playgrounds, lakes, trails, places to picnic, and tons of events and activities. Whether you’re cycling through it or going to a few choice spots, you’ll have a great time soaking up the sun with family and friends in the Bay Area’s answer to Central Park.
The Griffith Observatory is an excellent place to visit if you love hiking, city views, or stars. Yes, there is a ton of science inside, like a Tesla Coil, a view of the sun from a telescope that won’t harm your eyes, and a pretty stellar light show that teaches you about the cosmos. But it’s located on top of a mountain which is excellent for hiking, and day or night you will achieve the perfect view of Los Angeles from the top. Parking is always a nightmare, so expect to hike a little bit no matter what.
Lots of events happen in Griffith Park, from concerts to parties, to even movie screenings. We love Griffith Park because it’s a great place to spend time outside riding horses, riding bikes, having a picnic, or just chilling out.
Nothing says LA quite like a rigorous but glamorous hiking experience. Located right above the Hollywood Walk of Fame, this mountainous hiking trail gives a stunning view of the whole city and provides ample opportunity to run alongside a sweaty and shirtless Pete Wentz and Josh Duhamel. Many celebs have been known to bring their dogs along as well. Always remember to ask before you pet!
This LA cemetery is popular not only because of who rests there but because of the movie screenings they host. Yes, you can visit the gravesite of Marilyn Monroe, but you can also see movies through a program called Cinespia that lets you watch everything from “Hocus Pocus” to “500 Days of Summer” surrounded by the dead. It’s not that spooky. Promise.
It’s tragically touristy, but you really should see the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s an LA staple. Be prepared for large crowds, people in costumes, and street performers. The main part of it takes about 10 minutes to see. We recommend staying even less than that if you can.
Joshua Tree is not just a place in movies people go to smoke peyote and realize things. It’s actually a national park, and it’s an eerily beautiful one. You can spend the day hiking or even camp out in Joshua Tree surrounded by prickly looking trees for which the park is named. It’s only a few hours outside of LA, so it makes for a wonderful day trip.
It’s strange to think that there is a visit-able prehistoric site in Los Angeles, but there is. Located in Mid-Wilshire are the La Brea Tar Pits. Every kid who has attended school in LA has been to the tar pits on a field trip to learn about dinosaurs and early man. The 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.
People want to visit California for its beaches, but really, they should be checking out its lakes and their surrounding areas. Lake Arrowhead offers so many outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, bicycling, water and snow skiing, as well as five-star resorts and hotels with mountain views.
Lake Tahoe straddles the border with Nevada, so not only is it an outdoor escape, there are also a ton of opportunities to gamble. Go kayaking or parasailing, or slip into the Silver State to play the slots!
Have fun in downtown LA at a Lakers game with your whole family! As Los Angeles welcomes LeBron James to its basketball team, another Lakers legend might also be making a homecoming, but in a slightly different way. Iconic Lakers great Shaquille O’Neal may just be opening a restaurant near the Staples Center area at L.A. Live, where the Lakers play. So keep your eyes peeled for that when you stop by.
Turns out you don’t have to go all the way to Hawaii to see a volcano. Lassen Volcanic National Park has 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 paths. People have been injured while traveling off-trail in hydrothermal areas and received serious burns.
San Francisco’s Lombard Street has gained fame for a one-block section of the road which has eight hairpin turns, earning it the nickname “the crookedest street in the world.” Over 2 million people visit the famous street every year, with up to 17,000 a day at the height of summer tourism season. Locals, particularly those living on the street itself, have become fed up with the intense tourism, however. Proposals have been made for a reservation system which includes a toll that visitors have to pay in order to drive on the street in hopes that traffic can be cut down somewhat.
The Madonna Inn is a California attraction for its various themed rooms, of which there are 110. The rooms have wacky themes like “Caveman,” “Pioneer America” and “Antique Cars.” The hotel’s restaurant is all pink and Christmas-themed. They serve gorgeous pink cake and offer water and other beverages in massive pink goblets that you can even take home!
Just outside of San Francisco is an impressive forest full of redwood trees. Muir Woods protects some of the few surviving stands of primordial redwoods in the area. The trees are over 1,000 years old and grow about 260 feet high!
San Francisco’s Italian community can be found mainly in the city’s North Beach section. The best Italian food you will find on the West Coast is in North Beach. Did you know that the city has more 3-star Michelin restaurants than New York City?
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most photographed places in San Francisco, and for good reason. The gorgeous dome-like structure was built in 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. You should go to experience the heat, the pools, the drinks, and the mountains. It really is a desert paradise.
Visitors to LA will quickly recognize this strip of expensive clothing and jewelry stores from the film “Pretty Woman.” It’s become a hot spot for tourists to take photos shopping on one of the most expensive streets in the world, but it’s totally worth it if you’re looking for some luxury shopping that’s not in a mall.
Sacramento is one of America’s overlooked food cities. It’s California’s state capital, but only in the past few years has it become a destination thanks to rising costs in San Francisco and Oakland. People love to walk through the Old Sacramento Historic District, take tours of the California State Capitol Museum, and eat and hang out in downtown Sacramento.
It seems like a weird art installation rising out of the ground in the middle of nowhere, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is. It’s a man-made mountain covered in art. It’s a huge draw for Instagrammers and lovers of weird California spots.
Take the ferry to Sausalito for an easy day trip. The ferry ride is short (about 30 minutes) 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 ride through this part of the Bay Area’s natural beauty!
If you travel just 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, you’ll be in Denmark. OK, not really, but you’ll be in Solvang, California, which is just as good. This town has such a strong Danish influence that it could fool anyone, from its thatched roofs to its horse-drawn carriage. Except for the weather. It’s almost always warm and sunny there, hence the town’s name, which translates to “sunny fields” in Danish. The best way to sum up Solvang is “quaint.” This town is home to Danish heritage museums, shops that sell clogs and dolls and traditional costumes, and a plethora of restaurants that serve authentic Danish food.
Home to piano-playing resident ghost “Invisible Irma”, this club for magicians has a Harry Houdini séance room and stories of spirits other than the ones you can find at the five bars. A blackout darkened the city one night, but it didn’t stop Irma’s “playing” — something owner Milt Larsen knew couldn’t happen. Milt is also happy to get compliments about Loren, the bartender at the Hat & Hare — even though Loren died several years ago. There are also, almost incidentally, magic shows here, but to get in you have to be invited by a member.
Trust us on this one, if you have any interest in celebrities at all (even a little bit) you will love TMZ’s celebrity tour. If you can’t afford their tickets, there are plenty of knock-off rides you can take around the city to view spots of famous celebrity car crashes (Lindsay Lohan) and old and new Hollywood homes, as well as celebrity haunts.
Tour the maze of 11 miles of service tunnels under Los Angeles that 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 Queen Anne-style 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.
These chutes are a San Francisco institution. Generations of children have slid down the Winfield Street slides 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. You’ll go down the metal slides a lot faster if you use one of the scraps of cardboard left by kids in the area to race down.
California’s Yosemite National Park has over 761,000 acres of land and over a dozen designated picnic areas near the famous Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls — North America’s tallest waterfall. You can also grab some shade under a giant sequoia in one of three groves. Almost every picnic area has tables and restrooms, and half of them have grills. All are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and are open from dawn to dusk. Looking to picnic elsewhere, these are the best places to picnic in every state.
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