Are you looking for the best cities in California for your big trip to the Golden State? We have you covered with the top cities that are sure to make your California adventure one to remember for a lifetime.
15 Best Cities in California You Must Visit
Included are the top attractions and what makes each city worth a visit. Now dig in and start selecting the perfect spots you should include for your getaway to sunny California.
We included everything you will need to know, whether you are planning on renting a car for a drive down the coast or are planning to pick out cities for a best-of-California experience.
San Francisco usually ranks #1 on lists of popular cities in California for its incredible combination of unique attractions and coastal location.
This California city is situated on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, which embraces the summertime fog which keeps the city cool while most of California is hot.
If you haven’t explored much of California, San Francisco’s varied attractions, culture, and incredible food scene make this city a dream for any traveler.
For first-time visitors, Union Square is one of the best places to stay in San Francisco for its central location and easy access to transportation that can get you almost anywhere in the city.
No trip to SF is complete without a stop to get a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, but that is just a start of what you can expect to experience in the city by the bay.
You can relax at the Japanese Tea garden in Golden Gate Park or try out the best bakeries for take-out dumplings in Chinatown.
For epic city views, grab a blanket and head up to Twin Peaks, where you can see the entire skyline lit up at night.
For some touristy fun, head to Fishermans Wharf for a chance to taste some freshly caught Dungeness crab right from the fisherman, or you can buy a loaf of the legendary San Francisco sourdough from Boudin Bakery.
South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe is located on the shores of a pristine alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just on the border between Nevada and California.
During the winter, South Lake Tahoe transforms into a hub for skiers and snowboarders who come to the area to take on the slopes at the 15 ski resorts surrounding the lake.
For adventurous types, South Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for those who want to hike some trails.
Top hikes include the Bay View Trail to Maggies Peak for incredible lake views and the Rubicon Trail, which snakes along the shore to hidden coves.
Top attractions at the lake include Emerald Bay for its stunning blue water and Glen Alpine Falls for a chance to relax by the water as it makes its way to Fallen Leaf Lake.
For those that just want to catch some rays or swim in the lake, South Lake Tahoe is home to some of the best places to enjoy a day by the water, including Nevada, Pope, and Baldwin beaches.
When visitors are done exploring for the day, South Lake Tahoe offers plenty of fun ranging from craft breweries to the massive casinos, which offer great restaurants and gambling fun.
South Lake Tahoe is one of the best cities in California to visit in both the winter for snowy fun and during the summer when it warms up for enjoying the outdoors.
Located in Northern California, Sacramento is the state capital of California and is a centrally located base for exploring Northern California.
It is found in the heart of Sacramento Valley, about 90 miles northeast of San Francisco and 142 miles from Lake Tahoe.
While Sacramento is close to many fun destinations, the city offers plenty to do and will easily keep you busy for a few days to a week.
One of the highlights is the downtown and midtown areas that feature great restaurants and opportunities for spirited nightlife.
This area is the best option for accommodations in Sacramento, as there is plenty to do within walking distance of the hotels with easy access to transportation.
For some family fun, visitors can head to Old Sacramento, where they can explore the unique shops, walk the historic wooden boardwalks, or stay on the Sacramento River in a room on the Delta King paddle boat.
Sacramento is also home to several museums, including the Crocker Art Museum and the California State Railroad Museum, which are both worthy of a visit.
You can also explore the American River Parkway, a massive link of parks and trails stretching 23 miles along the American River and a perfect option for cyclists and distance runners.
The best time to visit Sacramento is during the early fall for great weather or during the summer for those planning on visiting the California State Fair.
Santa Cruz is one of the best places to stop along Highway 1 and is most famous for its boardwalk amusement park with great rides and carnival-style games.
This coastal city is also one of the top cities in California for surfing at its epic breaks.
If you’re here for surfing, head to Pleasure Point and Cowell Beach for beginner waves and a lively surf scene, or head to Steamer Lane for bigger waves or to watch the pros.
The areas surrounding the city are home to the Santa Cruz Mountains wine region, which makes for a fun day trip to taste their latest releases.
Make sure to check out the jaw-dropping beauty of the redwood trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods Park for a chance to see these majestic giants.
The best time to visit Santa Cruz is during the shoulder seasons: April to May in the spring or September to November in the fall.
These months have the least crowds, but with weather mild enough to enjoy hiking, the beach, and other outdoor activities.
Napa Valley is home to the top wine-growing region in America and is famous for its amazing Cabernet Sauvignon and thoughtful hospitality.
This wine region is home to over 450 wineries, and the majority are open to visitors who offer a chance to explore the grounds and taste their incredible estate wines.
Napa is also home to some incredible restaurants, which range from roadside burger joints to fine dining at Michelin-starred restaurants.
This picturesque valley ranks amongst the best cities in California for couples looking for a romantic getaway.
From charming bed and breakfast accommodations to resorts with hot springs in Calistoga, the Napa Valley offers rooms perfect for any occasion.
The top tourist attractions in the Napa Valley include the Oxbow market, where visitors can shop at gourmet shops and dine at the many restaurants, and downtown Napa for its great restaurants and wine bars.
Make sure to take a tour while in Napa for an opportunity to visit the castle grounds at Castello di Amorosa, or for a different perspective of Napa Valley, you can also ride a hot air balloon and view the gorgeous valley from above. Dine on gourmet food with an excellent selection of local wines aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train.
The best time to visit Napa Valley is anytime during the grape harvest season between August and October when most wine festivals and grape-stomping events occur.
The charming bayfront town of Monterey offers a chance to get up close to sea life and explore the central coast of California.
The top attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is home to stunning displays of marine life ranging from giant tuna to adorable rescued sea otters.
This attraction is not only for entertainment but also for instructional tours designed to educate visitors about the sustainability of our oceans.
Monterey also offers plenty of touristy fun at Cannery Row with its kitschy shops and restaurants and the Old Fishermans Wharf for dining on seafood.
For a memorable experience, book a whale-watching tour where you may get lucky and see the majestic Grey Whales get airborne next to the boat.
Monterey is also neighbors with the scenic 17-Mile drive, which passes by breathtaking coastal scenery and snakes its way by the legendary Pebble Beach golf course and nearby cities like Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The best place to stay in Monterey is near the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, where visitors will be within walking distance of the beach and other top attractions.
San Jose is the largest city in the bay area and is known as the tech capital of the world.
It is also known as the center of Silicon Valley and is home to tech companies, including Google and Facebook, which offers tours of their campuses.
For a fun night out in San Jose, visit Santana Row, where you can check out the shops, dine at one of the countless restaurants, or head out for drinks at one of the fun bars.
For those visiting with kids, a stop at Tech Interactive offers a chance for youngsters to get hands-on with lab activities and demonstrations that will help them learn about STEAM.
Another great stop for San Jose visitors is the Winchester Mystery House, where guests can tour the 160-room mansion with its secret passageways.
The best time to visit San Jose is spring (March to May) or fall (September to November) to avoid crowds and high hotel prices.
Fresno is located in central California in the San Joaquin Valley and is halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It is best known as a gateway city to destinations in popular national parks such as Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.
One of the top attractions is the Forestiere Underground Gardens which is several subterranean structures, including a chapel, a tiny house, a fish pond, and a luscious garden.
If you are in Fresno during March, visit the Fresno County Blossom Trail, where you will see the fruit trees in all of the early spring glory.
The best place to stay in Fresno is any vacation rental or hotel within the Tower District, the heart of downtown Fresno with eclectic buildings and various local restaurants.
Palm Springs is located about 110 miles east of Los Angeles and is an oasis of elegance in the southern California desert.
Palm Springs is one of the cool cities in California for its artsy community and proximity to the world-renowned Coachella Music and Arts Festival.
This city in the desert has a good mix of natural attractions, including Desert Hot Springs and Joshua Tree National Park.
A must-do adventure for first-time visitors is to take the tramway up to the top of Mount San Jacinto for an epic view of the desert below.
Once at the top, there are some amazing options for a hike, including the San Jacinto Trail and the shorter Desert View Trail.
The downtown area offers shopping, great dining options, and tourist-friendly attractions like the Walk of the Stars.
Palm Springs is a top stay-and-play destination where you can enjoy luxury resort amenities like a full-service spa and championship golf courses.
Pick this desert getaway if you’re a sun-seeker wanting to escape your city’s dreary winters, as this southern California city enjoys warm weather year-round.
Be warned that it does get super hot in the summer months. The best time to visit Palm Springs is in the winter months when temperatures are milder for adventuring outdoors.
Los Angeles is a top tourist destination in California, drawing 50 million visitors annually. This could easily be the best city in California for anyone that wants to experience a large mix of attractions ranging from the Venice Beach Boardwalk to Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
There is so much to do in Los Angeles that visitors will have a tough time choosing whether to visit the Getty Museum or the touristy Walk of Fame.
Los Angeles is a melting pot of cultures, meaning the city is home to an incredible selection of restaurants ranging from Korean Taco trucks to Michelin-starred sushi restaurants.
For first-time visitors, make sure to head out to Universal Studios, especially for Potter heads who are bound to get wowed by fireworks at the Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle.
When done with all the touristy attractions, you can go to West Hollywood and watch a show at the Comedy Store, where some of the world’s top comics got their start.
For an incredible view of Los Angeles, go to Griffith Observatory and be mesmerized by the stars above and below the valley.
The best place to stay in Los Angeles is downtown LA, where all the action occurs. It is the city’s business hub and does empty out on nights and weekends after the 9-5 office crowds leave. This central location is perfect as you will limit the amount of traffic you have to sit in getting to attractions from your hotel.
If you want to stay near the beach, pick Santa Monica beachside. West Hollywood offers a great central location as well.
Newport Beach is one of the top destinations in Orange County for those craving the sea, sand, and sun.
It is a popular beach destination in Southern California and a hotbed for serious water sports like surfing, paddle boarding, and sailing.
Newport Beach is home to three main beaches: Corona del Mar Beach with its secluded rocky cliff area, Balboa Beach with its lively boardwalk, and Newport Beach with luxury shopping and dining options.
At the southeastern side of Balboa Beach is “The Wedge,” famous for its massive waves. This unique wave offers a perfect chance to see pro surfers and bodyboarders take on this dangerous break.
Newport Bay is also a great place to book a whale-watching tour to get up close to these majestic giants. The best time to visit Newport Beach is during the summer months when it is sunny and warm enough to enjoy water sports.
Santa Barbara is located in Southern California, about 95 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and is one of the top California cities for a getaway from the big city.
This city is in an idyllic setting between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
One of the top draws to Santa Barbara is State Street, which is in the heart of the action, with many nightlife venues, wine-tasting bars, and great restaurants.
For a touch of California history, visitors can stop at the Mission Santa Barbara, which has been around since 1786.
Take a moment to check out the mission’s grand bell towers and take in the views of the San Ynez mountains.
No trip to Santa Barbara is complete without visiting wine country, as this region is well known for producing some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the country.
For an extra treat, visit either Foxen Vineyard & Winery or Sanford Winery & Vineyards to enjoy a taste of wine with a pairing of sunset views.
The best time to visit Santa Barbara is in the spring or the fall when crowds are fewer, and the weather is more temperate.
Huntington Beach is a famous beach town deeply rooted in Southern California’s surf culture and is home to the US Open of surfing.
If you love to surf, there are plenty of breaks for advanced riders, and beginners can head to Corky Carroll’s Surf School. Even if you do not surf, you will be in for a treat as miles of bike trails run along Huntington Beach’s long shoreline.
After going for a ride, you can stop at one of the beachside restaurants for some fish tacos and a cold beverage with epic views.
Visitors can also go for a walk at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and learn about the marine bird species that live or migrate through the park.
Huntington Beach also has a long pier that is a popular spot for fishing and watching the sunset.
Make sure to stop by the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum to learn about the history of surfing in California.
For the best places to stay in Huntington Beach, book a room near the beach, so you will only be steps away from catching some rays.
There are budget-friendly options like the Huntington Beach Inn or Ocean Surf Inn & Suites and more luxurious lodging options like the Hyatt Regency.
Anaheim is located in Orange County and is one of the most famous cities in California for being the home of Disneyland.
Many visitors travel to Anaheim and never leave Disneyland, California Adventure, or the Downtown Disney District, but you miss out on so much.
For lovers of the outdoors, make sure to visit the Oak Canyon Nature Center for a combination of hiking and an educational experience.
A must-stop for gourmands and food lovers is the Anaheim Packing District, a historic warehouse from 1919 formally used to process and package citrus.
Today, the massive space is filled with a gourmet food court featuring everything from fried hot chicken sandwiches to giant bowls of ramen.
Just outside the city limits is Knott’s Berry Farm, another theme park offering fun rides and amazing fried chicken.
The best time to visit Anaheim is during the shoulder seasons between April and May or September and October when there are fewer crowds because kids are in school.
San Diego is the quintessential California beach town, which offers incredible weather year-round and 17 miles of beaches and shoreline to relax by the Pacific Ocean.
It is one of the best cities in California to visit if you’re looking for a family-friendly destination because of its eclectic mix of entertainment and touristy adventures.
One of the top draws to the city is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, a leader in animal welfare and preservation and home to 12,000 rare and endangered animals.
San Diego is also the craft beer brewing capital of the world, with over 150 independent brewers producing some incredible suds that are perfect after a day at the beach.
For a taste of the culture of San Diego, you can head over to Barrio Logan to see the famous street murals before heading over the bridge to visit Coronado Island.
For some fun nightlife, the Gaslamp Quarter offers plenty of bars and restaurants for a great night out on the town.
For some touristy fun, Seaport Village offers a place for a seaside stroll with lots of shops to grab an ice cream or some souvenirs.
The best places to stay in San Diego are Little Italy for awesome food options and Mission Beach for ocean-view rooms.
Wrap-Up: Best Cities in California to Visit
Now that you have had a chance to pick out the best cities in California for your big vacation, all you have to do is book your rooms. Pack your bags and get ready to have so much fun that you will already be planning your next trip back to California before you even leave.
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