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If you haven’t lived or traveled extensively in California, you might have the impression that California is all about beaches, surfers, and movie stars. But since California is the most populous state and the most diverse state in America, there’s more to this west coast destination than meets the eye.
California is one of the few places in the world where you can experience a little bit of everything: ocean drives, lush forests, elegant vineyards, towering mountains, expansive deserts, magical amusement parks, cosmopolitan cuisine, and agricultural heritage. So let’s start in the north and travel down to the southern tip of the state to explore what California is really all about, from underrated destinations to top-rated cities. Whether you’re taking a road trip, riding a train, or hopping on a couple of flights, these are some of the very best cities to visit in California.
San Francisco, California
A few days exploring the top attractions in San Francisco is a must when visiting California to see the steeply-inclined streets, Victoria architecture, Pacific coastline, and Golden Gate Bridge for yourself. Situated in the San Francisco Bay in northern California, this city is known for its liberal atmosphere, LGBTQ+ communities, sourdough bread, seafood, and an occasional earthquake. The most popular areas of the city to visit are Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, and Chinatown, but the quirky neighborhoods are worth a visit as well.
San Diego is a large city at the southern tip of California that’s famous for beaches, tourism, surfing, and naval operations. This is also a major hub for the telecommunications, biotechnology, and defense industries. With a strong Mexican influence and a location so close to the border, San Diego is incredibly diverse and offers lots of delicious cuisine options. However, the main draw to San Diego is the beach, so make time to visit nearby beach towns like Ocean Beach and La Jolla as well.
South Lake Tahoe, California
Plan to stay in South Lake Tahoe to visit one of the largest lakes in the world, nestled between California and Nevada. During the winter months, this is your home base for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. In the summer, visitors can enjoy outdoor adventures like sailing, kayaking, jet-skiing, mountain biking, and swimming at Lake Tahoe. This small city is geared towards tourism, so this is where you can stock up on your souvenirs to take back home.
Napa is best known for its world-class wineries and vineyards, which you can tour and explore on your own or with an organized group. This is also a great city to try out the bed and breakfast lodging and sample exquisite cuisine by renowned chefs. One of the best ways to explore several different wineries of varying degrees of fame is by biking through the winding vineyard roads. Many wine enthusiasts also plan to check out neighboring Sonoma County, which is also known for wine-making, during a stay in the Napa area as well.
Although Monterey isn’t as popular a tourist destination as some other California locations, it is a beautiful example of a coastal town with a rich heritage and rugged landscapes. It’s easy to tie Monterey’s heritage back to Mexican and literary traditions, making it a great stop for history buffs and art lovers. Some of the best things to do in Monterey are kayaking, whale watching, parasailing, hang gliding, and bird watching. Visitors can also visit several art galleries, museums, and the world-famous Laguna Seca Raceway during their visit.
Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest place on earth, so it’s well worth a visit during your time in California. The landscapes are so varied in Death Valley that you can see snow-capped mountains, rolling sand dunes, parched salt flats, and luscious forests all on the same day. Some of the most popular sites to stop by in the valley include Zabriskie Point, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, and the ghost towns along the way. Use the small city of Death Valley Junction as your home base to explore these diverse and awe-inspiring sites.
Los Angeles and Hollywood are the first places that come to mind when many people consider visiting California. Los Angeles enjoys beautiful weather throughout the year, and you’ll probably recognize many sights from movies and TV shows you’ve seen over the years. Downtown L.A. is a thriving business center and arts district, and Beverly Hills is home to the famous shopping district. Other areas to check out include the music clubs of the Sunset Strip, the beachfront promenade in Santa Monica, and the Venice Boardwalk. There are plenty of tours that operate to give you a sneak peek into the lives of Hollywood’s rich and famous.
Sacramento is California’s state capital, but there are more than just government offices in this north-central California city with plenty of things to do for all visitors. It has gotten to be known as one of the state’s top art cities, with museums, architecture, and galleries to satisfy any art lover. Performing arts are also a big deal here, so check out a theater performance or comedy show during your stay. Make sure to spend some time in Midtown, a trendy neighborhood with modern restaurants, bars, and boutique shops.
Located in the San Joaquin Valley in central California, Fresno is the largest city with close access to Yosemite National Park. About three hours from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Fresno provides an excellent home base for travelers wanting to check out Yosemite and also Sequoia National Parks. In these parks, you’ll discover how wild California truly still is today. In and around Fresno, you’ll also get a glimpse at how important agriculture is to the state of California. The central valley is one of the most prominent farming areas in the United States.
The city of Mt. Shasta, California is located at the base of the 14,179-foot Mount Shasta mountain and is surrounded by year-round natural beauty and plenty of outdoor activities. The mountain is a landmark along the historic Siskiyou Trail, which was once used by Native Americans for trade and travel. The city is located halfway between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, making it an excellent road trip destination. Mt. Shasta is a fast-growing vacation destination because of its emerging luxury resorts, wilderness camping, biking, and mountain trekking. The McCloud Hotel is a must-consider place to stay when you’re in the area. This quaint bed and breakfast was built in 1916 and sits on the southern slope of Mt. Shasta. It boasts elegant accommodations with a touch of historic hospitality, including the original registration desk.