If you're looking for sunny weather, bustling cities, beautiful beaches and incredible landscapes, California is the place to be!
Whether you're going for a quick vacation or taking a long road trip throughout the beautiful countryside, America’s most populous state will not leave you disappointed.
It certainly didn't for us!
We spent almost 3 weeks exploring this beautiful state from top to bottom.
But with so much to see and do, you're probably wondering what the absolute must-do things in California are ...
So let's get into it!
California is a huge state so there are a few ways to start your visit...
California has some epic road trips and it's all easily accessible by road.
The surrounding states, as well as Mexico, all have direct roads into California including bus services such as Greyhound.
Note: you'll need an international driver's license to drive in California so make sure you secure one before leaving your country of origin.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), San Diego International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and several others are among the state's many major international airports.
In addition, all other major US airports have direct flights to California, and there are also international flights from across the globe. This includes the UK, France, South Korea and Japan.
Skyscanner is a great way of discovering the best offers and most suitable flights for your needs so make sure to check them out!
There are Amtrak stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego making it easy to get to California by train from several major cities within the US.
Los Angeles is reachable by train from Chicago in 61 hours, Dallas in 39, and New York in 80.
Cazzy used Amtrak on her first trip to California, and it is convenient, but not as quick or easy as say, trains in Europe or even parts of Asia.
California is a big state with tons of things to do so the easiest way to get around would be to have your own vehicle.
Hiring a car means you don't have to rely on excursions and public transport and you'll have the luxury of going at your own pace.
Luckily a lot of tourists drive around California so you shouldn't struggle to find accommodation with free parking.
California has no shortage of car rentals to choose from but we recommend Hertz as they have high reviews with offices and pickup points all around the state.
You can also find some great deals on Rental Cars!
By far one of the best ways to explore California is by renting a campervan!
This way you can save on accommodation and still have your own transport to explore the cities and national parks.
This is how we explored California and would highly recommend to others.
We travelled around in our converted camper called Helen, and it was fun bringing her around California.
You will struggle a little more with wild camping (boondocking) in the bigger cities.
Apps like Harvest Hosts will help with this, or it may help to book some campsites or hotels ahead of time for the larger cities.
If you’re planning on visiting California without a car then don’t worry, the Golden State has a vast array of public transport options at your disposal.
Public transport is the most affordable way to get around, especially if you take a city’s metro and bus services.
If you have limited time and are just looking to travel to California's main locations, you might opt to fly between cities.
Flights can be quite affordable, reliable, and frequent between places such as LAX and San Francisco. Just make sure to look on Skyscanner for the best deals!
Whilst it's not the most eco-friendly transport method and it will cause you to miss out on a lot of Californian beauty, flying will enable you to get to your next location that much quicker.
Here are some of the best cities to base yourselves in when exploring the beautiful state of California:
Known as the 'City of Angels', Los Angeles is one of the most popular cities in the United States and it's not hard to see why! With plenty of theme parks, gorgeous beaches, attractions, and celeb-spotting opportunities, there's so much to do here!
This is one of the best budget options in Los Angeles due to its great location, fantastic facilities, and variety of accommodation options. Not only are the rooms spacious but they're beautifully decorated.
Hotel Ziggy is located in West Hollywood and it's on the famous strip so you'll have no problems exploring the nearby area! Offering a unique interior design, fantastic rooms, and plenty of amenities, this place has a lot to offer!
Finally, you've got The Beverley Hills Hotel which is one of the most luxurious hotels in Los Angeles! You'll have access to an array of facilities if you stay here including an on-site spa, several dining options, a swimming pool, and there's even a red carpet at the entrance.
San Francisco has to be one of the coolest cities in the U.S and is home to plenty of iconic attractions including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. You'll find lots of awesome accommodation options here, and you won't run out of things to do either.
This hotel is just a 5-minute walk from Union Square and is located in Downtown San Francisco so you'll be staying in a great location. Each room at this hotel features plenty of amenities including a private bathroom, safety deposit box, and a work desk.
RIU Plaza Fisherman's Wharf is just a short walk from Pier 39 and it has lots of excellent facilities on offer. This includes an on-site swimming pool, a fitness center, a restaurant, and a bar.
This 5* hotel offers gorgeous bay views from many of its apartments which are spacious and kitted out with all you'll need for the perfect stay. You'll also have access to excellent facilities.
San Diego is another great place to base yourself as it's located along the Pacific Coast Highway, and is a beautiful city. This city is known for being one of the best tourist destinations in the world with its pristine beaches, lush parks, and world-famous attractions!
This budget-friendly property is one of the best options if you're looking to cut costs whilst in San Diego. Not only will you be close to a variety of attractions but you'll benefit from the use of a heated pool or a hot tub!
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego is another hotel that's located in Downtown Diego and many of the rooms offer striking bay views. You'll have access to plenty of facilities if you stay here too including a lounge and bar, two swimming pools, and eight dining options.
This hotel is located in Downtown San Diego and is known for its gorgeous suites, excellent facilities, and fantastic location. So, if you're looking to splash the cash then I recommend checking this place out!
Santa Barbara was one of our favorite stops in California with its sandy beaches, fun activities, and great food scene. Often referred to as the 'The American Riviera', you won't find many city's in the United States that are this beautiful.
Sunset Motel is one of the best budget options in Santa Barbara and it's just a 15-minute drive from the beach. The rooms are air-conditioned, and offer free WiFi and coffee making facilities.
Orange Tree Inn is located in the heart of Santa Barbara along State Street so it's in a great spot for exploring the local area. With an outdoor pool and sun deck, free WiFi, and cable service, this place has so much to offer.
This has to be one of the best hotel's we've ever stayed in during our six years of travel so that says it all really! Aside from the balcony and epic ocean views, the suites have plenty of other amenities too including a large bath, a seating area, and air conditioning.
If you're looking for a road trip along the California coast and want to experience some of the best coastal scenery on the planet, the Pacific Coast Highway should be your first stop.
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the world (just ahead of Route 66). The drive itself takes around 10 hours without stopping, but we suggest you make a few scheduled stops to enjoy it that little bit extra!
The common route for a lot of road trippers is to start in San Francisco and make your way through Southern California to San Diego.
That way you can visit all of the famous landmarks along the trip - most of which are mentioned on this list!
Make stops at Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles before arriving in the epic city that is San Diego.
You can easily do this road trip in a day or two, or you can extend it and spend two weeks cruising along and having mini breaks at each destination.
This road trip is a perfect option if you're looking for things to do in California and you have your own vehicle.
But fear not, if you aren't renting a car or an RV you can book a day tour from San Francisco to ride 17 miles of the highway on a day trip!
One of the most iconic landmarks in California is the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge spans the Golden Gate between San Francisco and Marin County.
If you're wanting a stroll in San Francisco, look no further than this Bridge! The orange coloured bridge is 1.7 miles long and has a pedestrian walkway on the east side, making it a beautiful walk in all seasons!
The bridge’s welcome center offers free walking tours on Thursdays and Sundays if you want to learn a bit more about the interesting history of the bridge itself and its significance to the city.
To capture the best shots, you need to be far away from it. Some of the best photo ops include Vista Point or from on a boat. Book a Golden Gate Bay Cruise to sail to some of the city’s highlights and under the bridge itself.
Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the top things to do in California so don't leave it off your itinerary!
This was a real bucketlist moment for us both, seeing the bridge in person at sunset!
PS, if you're in a campervan, there's a great boondocking (wild camping) spot on the opposite side of the bridge called Dana Bowers Memorial Vista Point.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is the most famous sidewalk in the world and is an iconic thing to do while in California.
While some might consider it just a classic touristy activity that is overcrowded and dare I say a bit gimmicky? If you can stomach it, it's definitely worth a visit!
If you have an interest in old Hollywood and the glitz and glam of it all, the iconic street still holds much of that.
Each of the thousands of pink stars is made from brass and terrazzo and actually takes six weeks to create.
There's no denying that the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the most popular California tourist attractions so I'd definitely recommend paying it a visit!
I have to be honest and say this was probably Brad's least favourite place in LA. It's definitely got a lot more "dirtier", and I mean the streets in general, since the last time I visited. I hope they put stuff in place to change that in the future!
This behind-the-scenes Hollywood Tour takes you to several lesser-known Hollywood locations as well as iconic spots such as the walk of fame and TCL Chinese Theaters. Here you can learn about the art of filmmaking and the Hollywood renaissance.
Alcatraz is the most famous prison in the world! Located on an island in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was once a high-security federal prison and is now a popular tourist attraction.
Take a bay cruise over to Alcatraz Island and learn the dark history of this notorious prison which was once home to some of the country's most dangerous criminals.
The audio-guided tour is narrated by some ex-inhabitants of the prison including inmates and guards and takes you all around the site. Tour the cell blocks and recreation yard and hear the haunting stories of escapees and prison riots.
If you're feeling particularly brave you can buy a ticket for the famous Alcatraz Island night tour!
Alcatraz is one of the most iconic California attractions and should be right at the top of your itinerary.
The ex-prison isn't the only draw to the island though, as it's home to a large collection of rock pools and some nesting birds. Moreover, the island's lighthouse is free to explore but make sure to not miss your boat back!
I suggest you get there as early as possible, especially if you are visiting in peak summer.
Not only because of the crowds, but because of the heat too.
Also, if you miss your slot for the boat over, don't panic, they will put you on the next one. We missed ours simply because the queues were so long, but they were very accommodating!
Universal Studios is by far the biggest and best thing to do in California for families. There are a few Universal Studios in the world but Hollywood is where most of the movies are made, making it a must-visit!
All the attractions at Universal are based around your favorite movie and TV shows including Harry Potter, King Kong, and Transformers.
The park has some epic roller coasters and rides making it a thrill-seeker's paradise!
If adrenaline isn't your thing though the studio tour alone is a great reason to visit.
Ride along in a tram and get behind the scenes and look at the makings of the studio's greatest productions.
Come face to face with the star of Jaws and witness the largest street movie set ever created.
This is a hugely popular attraction in California so book your tickets in advance here to skip the queue!
During your visit, check out CityWalk Hollywood for some themed restaurants, and great shopping and if you aren't all movie’d out, you can visit the Universal IMAX Cinema.
My favourite thing about Universal (as you can probably tell from the photo) was all things Harry Potter.
Don't forget to get yourself a butter beer and if you want a recommendation on food, I enjoyed Moe's Diner!
One thing I will let you know in advance, that in terms of rides, Universal Studios is a theme park with less physicals rides, and more virtual reality style rides. These are extremely good, and still give you a thrill, but there are LESS "real" roller-coasters as you would expect in say, Disney.
It's a different type of theme park experience, but if you know that going in, then you'll have a fantastic time.
One of the most breathtaking views in the whole of California is Big Sur. With one side being the stunning mountains and the other being the crystal clear waters, you might recognize it from your Macbook background - yes it's that picturesque!
Big Sur can be a spot on your road trip through California as it's located along the Pacific Coast Highway - around a 2.5 hour drive away from San Francisco.
Bixby Creek Bridge is the main attraction of Big Sur as the viewpoints along it makes for the most amazing photo opportunities, especially at sunset. There's a small area before the bridge where you can get out and see the bridge itself and it's one of the tallest concrete bridges in the world!
Why not also take a coastal walk around Big Sur to see the mesmerizing waves crashing against the cliffs and have a paddle in the sea? If you're lucky you might even spot the family of otters that are sometimes sighted in the area.
If you don't have your own vehicle, you can book this Big Sur tour from Monterey!
Erected in 1923, the famous sign used to read “Hollywoodland” and was supposed to only be a temporary advertisement for real estate. Thanks to the golden age of Hollywood and the rise in popularity of LA, the sign dropped the ‘Land’ in 1949.
If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, there are a few hiking trails up to the Hollywood sign ranging in difficulty.
There are three main recommended trails with the most popular being the Mt Hollywood Trail. This trail takes around three hours and whilst it doesn't go to the top of the peak, it circles around the eastern side, showing the most incredible views of the city.
This is the route I did on my first visit to LA, on my second, I decided to just catch a view of it from a different angle.
For a more advanced hike, the Cahuenga Peak trail takes you to the highest point in Griffith Park as well as Burbank Peak, and Mount Lee. This three-mile climb gives one of the best views of the Hollywood sign and offers a panoramic view of Los Angeles.
If you're looking for a hipster cafe, a quirky bar, or a vintage shop, head straight to Venice Beach!
Venice Beach Boardwalk spans 2 miles and is always bustling with street performers, roller skaters, surfers, and cyclists.
There really isn't a dull moment along this beach walk which makes it a perfect spot for people-watching.
There is something for everyone in this area so you'll undoubtedly be torn on what to do!
Muscle beach is well worth a walk past to check out the impressive bodybuilders, and why not stroll past the skatepark to be amazed by the stunts and maybe even hear your fate from the fortune tellers?
Sound a bit too chaotic? Take a more peaceful walk along the nearby Venice Canals to see the beautiful colored houses and the maze of bridges around the area.
Here's some more information on the best things to do in Venice Beach...
PSSST, we found these awesome "vegan" fish & chips from "The Wee Chippy" and I highly recommend it!
As you can probably imagine from the name, Death Valley National Park is the driest and lowest point on Earth making it the most extreme landscape on the continent.
Its extreme climate makes it an incredibly dangerous location which is how it originally got its name in the 1800s when a large number of people, unfortunately, died while pioneering through the canyons.
There are endless things to do in Death Valley from hiking, mountain biking, and nature tours and you can even visit locations where some of the Star Wars movies were filmed (if that's your thing)!
Stay on one of the campgrounds within the national park to sleep beneath the stars and witness darkness like you've never seen before. If you're traveling to California with kids, Death Valley's junior ranger program is a great way for the younger ones to learn the history of the park.
Death Valley is located on the border of California and Nevada meaning a lot of the day trips leave from Las Vegas.
However, if you're not short on time you can take this epic six day excursion which starts in San Francisco, takes you through Yosemite, down across Death Valley National Park, a stop off in Vegas, onto Zion National Park, and then finishing back in Los Angeles, California!
Like a glass of wine? Then you're going to love California!
California accounts for nearly 90 percent of all the wine production in the United States so it would be crazy not to visit a winery during your visit.
I LOVE wine and I love visiting wine regions in all of the countries I visit (if they have one), so I was most excited to make my way to the world famous Napa Valley.
Napa Valley is world-famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and hosts fantastic wine tours. The valley itself is well worth a visit and you could easily spend a couple of days here, visiting museums, relaxing in spas, and embracing the countryside.
After your stay in Napa Valley, book a hot air balloon ride over to the neighboring Sonoma Valley, the historic city in northern California known for its fabulous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
This half day Sonoma Valley wine country tour is a hugely popular way to experience Sonoma, traveling to different wineries, learning from the expert guides, and of course, sampling the goods!
If you're looking for things to do in California for couples then this is one of the most romantic activities that you can do.
California is home to three main desert areas: the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Desert, and the Great Basin Desert.
Each desert is quite distinctive and if you're road-tripping California, at least one should be on your to-do list!
The Mojave Desert primarily covers the southeast of California and the southwest of Nevada spanning nearly 50,000 square miles.
Despite its name, the Colorado Desert is actually in California and starts at the Mexico border spanning 7 million acres!
The famous festival Coachella is held in this desert in the Coachella Valley so you might recognize the location! A must-do activity in this area has to be the Living Desert Zoo which aims to preserve desert wildlife and its habitats!
Finally, we have the biggest of the three, The Great Basin Desert - it's actually the largest desert in the whole of the US!
It has extreme weather conditions and due to its size, vast areas of nothingness! Don't let that put you off though as there are some awesome trails in this desert including the Alpine Lakes Loop and the Bristlecone Pine trail.
Beverly Hills is a shopaholic's dream!
Featured in the famous film Pretty Woman, Rodeo Drive is where Julia Roberts did her shopping. This street is lined with designer stores, jewelry shops, and high-end fashion boutiques.
Unfortunately, purchasing a handbag in every designer shop along the strip might eat into more than just your holiday budget, but window shopping is always a great option!
Some of the area's shopping highlights include Bloomingdales, Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue so you won't be short of department stores.
Once you're all shopped-out, head to one of Beverly Hills' amazing cafes and restaurants. Our favorite area is Rodeo Drive 2 where the cobbled streets and al fresco dining has a European feel in the middle of California!
To walk off your lunch, Beverly Gardens Park is the perfect urban green space. The well manicured gardens have signature water features, a beautiful lily pond and are home to the iconic Beverly Hills sign.
The museum pays homage to the life and legacy of Walt Disney himself, from his early years as a cartoonist to his life as one of the most important figures in the history of entertainment.
The attraction includes artifacts and memorabilia from his life and career, as well as interactive experiences that show what it was like to grow up in the 1920s and 30s.
Kept running by the Disney family themselves, the museum is a non-profit organization purely run to keep the spirit of Walt alive and to help inspire future generations to use their imaginations and explore their creative side.
To complete your Disney itinerary while in California, a day trip to Disneyland is an obvious must-do for anyone visiting the state whether you're traveling with kids or not.
You would not believe that Huntington beach is only 35 miles away from Los Angeles.
Huntington has a vastly different vibe from LA and if you're looking for a place to enjoy some sun and waves, Huntington Beach is the perfect spot.
Known for its surfing, Huntington beach is the ideal place to book a lesson and try to catch some waves! Don't worry if you've never tried it before there are tons of beginners as well as pros that can serve as your entertainment for the day.
If you're exploring California on a road trip, the city of Huntington beach can make an ideal break for a few days as there are plenty of campsites and you won't run out of things to do!
Fishing, whale watching, volleyball, surfing, and sampling some of the city’s fresh seafood should all be top of your to-do list during your stay.
There's also 10 miles of coastline so if soaking up the sun while reading a book on the beach is your vibe, Huntington Beach might just be your favorite place in California!
If you're wondering what to do in California then why not check out this famous spot? To convince you, here's some more information on things to do in Huntington Beach...
The city of Santa Barbara is sometimes forgotten by people on Californian trips and they would be missing out!
Santa Barbara is full of charm, Spanish influence, stunning beaches, tasty food, and has some of the best weather in California.
If you're road tripping California you can extend your trip along Route 1 to include Santa Barbara and you won't regret it.
The main draw to Santa Barbara is its landscapes and beaches. It's situated on a stretch of beaches called the American Riviera and the location of the city gives it a Mediterranean climate and feel.
While laying on the beach all day might be enough entertainment for some, you won't struggle to find things to do while in Santa Barbara! From parasailing over the Californian waves to taking a downtown food tour the city has so much to offer!
Getting out on the water is the best way to see the beauty of Santa Barbara, their whale-watching boat tours are very popular but a sunset kayak tour will leave you with memories that last a lifetime.
Located in Long Beach, California is the RMS Queen Mary. Whether you're into history or not you'll be amazed by the luxurious (and potentially haunted) 85 year old cruise ship.
The Queen Mary was once a working ship and after its 30 year career has been settled in Long Beach as a popular tourist attraction.
There are several tours on offer and they change regularly but if you have the chance to visit when they're running the Ghosts and Legends of the Queen Mary tour during Halloween, you're in for a treat!
The ship is not just there for tours as it also contains a few restaurants and a hotel - if you're brave enough.
Visiting the RMS Queen Mary is one of the most unique things to do in California so don't miss out on this place!
Two of the main deserts in California, the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert meet at Joshua Tree National Park.
The park offers unique wildlife, fascinating boulder formations, and the famous Joshua trees!
The trees were named by Morman settlers in the 1800s who thought that the trees' unusual shape reminded them of a biblical figure named Joshua who reaches up to the sky in prayer.
There are a few hiking trails in the park which are suitable for different abilities and even a few that include some rock climbing.
However, by far the best activity to do within the park would have to be to stay in one of the campsites and sleep under the stars. Due to the park's location, the darkness at night is like no other and the starry night sky is mesmerizing!
Looking to visit this wonderful national park? Then here are the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park...
If you're a fan of Joshua Tree then I recommend heading up to Utah and saying in the city of Moab which is the gateway to the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks!
If you're a movie buff, or just have a fascination with all things show business, then you'll love a tour of the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood.
Warner Brothers Studios has been a working studio for nearly 100 years now and the studio tour showcases the main highlights. The tour takes you from the creation of movies and TV shows, through to the sets used in movies.
The tour takes about two hours, and you can visit for about $50 per person. Be sure to book your studio tour in advance to skip the crowds!
It's also a great activity for a rainy day in Los Angeles as the majority of the tour is inside.
If you're looking for attractions in California then don't miss out on this studio tour!
Obviously if you're a friends fan, it would be a crime against yourself to not visit the Friends set on a universal tour, and of course get a coffee at Central Perk.
The bustling cities in California are fun but sometimes they can be a bit much and you'll want to escape to some wide open space.
Fortunately, only 140 miles east of San Francisco in Mariposa County is Yosemite National Park. It's one of the best things to see in California, especially if you're a nature lover.
The park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984 and millions of people flock there every year to see the incredible views.
The park is home to some of the tallest waterfalls in the world including the famous Yosemite Falls.
There are so many ways to explore the national park including this day tour from San Francisco. Alternatively, if you have the ability to spend some time in Yosemite, there is nothing better to do than to explore on foot and hike around some of the park's 1000 square miles.
The half-dome cable hike is by far the most popular, taking you past Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls and the iconic rock face.
If you're looking for things to do in California with kids, head straight to Knott’s Berry Farm.
Located in the heart of Orange County, this theme park is split into four sections all based on different periods in California’s history; Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk and Camp Snoopy.
Each section has themed rides, shows and attractions all suitable for a range of ages. Little ones will love meeting Snoopy and Peanuts gang at Camp Snoopy.
It does get busy in high season so book your ticket in advance to skip the line and ensure your entrance!
There's also the Knott's Berry Farm Hotel next door if you're wanting to stay overnight!
Visiting this place is a must if you're after fun things to do in California so what are you waiting for?
A lot of people flock to California for their summer vacation but that unfortunately leads to large crowds and inflated prices!
The best time to visit California is in Spring and Autumn!
Luckily California has good weather pretty much all year round so visiting in the lower seasons will allow you to travel around and see the main attractions without the queues that come in the summer months.
California is a big state so obviously there are going to be safer places within California than others.
Cities such as San Francisco and San Diego are said to be some of the safest big cities within the US but you should always be cautious while traveling.
Some of the most dangerous things to do in California will be exploring and road tripping so be sure to be as safe as possible when hiking and make sure that someone always knows where you are.
You can easily spend two weeks exploring California, this will give you enough time to see the main cities and some of the other things on this list such as Big Sur and Napa Valley.
However, if you have a little more time you could easily spend a few weeks to a month road tripping around the state.
According to current travel trends, between $100-150 a day is a good budget for California.
That being said, you can easily spend way more or way less depending on your desires and travel style.
To save money while traveling California, opt to rent a RV so you don't have to fork out on expensive hotels within the cities!
There are a few group multi-day tours of California that will take you around some of the highlights of the state. These are a great option if you want to meet new people and have limited time to spend in California.
However, if you're not limited on time we would recommend booking an assortment of different day trips while you're in California so you have a bit of flexibility on your trip!
Here are some of the most popular tours in California:
California really is one of the best states in the US to travel around, as it has something for everyone!
This list is just a taster of the countless epic things to do so I'm sure we've missed a few. Let us know in the comments what your favorite California activities are!
If you're looking to carry on exploring after your California trip there are a few places you can go to next.
The bordering states of Nevada and Arizona are great to road trip through and are well connected to California, or you can head to Oregon or Utah! If you're wanting to continue your adventure in the US, the options are endless!
For those wishing to explore more of the United States, we've got some other travel guides that might help you: