With sun, sand, surf, and mountains, the West Coast state of California is known for its many attractions that lure travelers year-round. From famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood sign, to the Golden State’s rich outdoor opportunities, this eclectic state makes for a well-rounded vacation.
California’s diverse landscape of the Pacific Ocean, impressive mountain ranges, and desert offers an exciting backdrop for all sorts of thrilling adventures, big and small. Take it slow with a bike ride along a famous seaside boardwalk, gaze at famous city skylines, or get your adrenaline pumping on the water while exploring sea caves along the rugged coast.
What is California famous for? Read on to find out some of the top things that make the state a dream getaway, and how to experience it all for yourself.
Stretching along the Pacific Coast, California’s shores are lined with beautiful beaches. Whether your interest is piqued by riding waves with your surfboard, exploring tidepools, or simply lounging in the sun, the Golden State has a stretch of sand for you.
Visit Venice Beach, one of North America’s most famous, while in glamorous Los Angeles, located just south of the Santa Monica neighborhood. Venice Beach is known for its active atmosphere.
A boardwalk with street performers, a waterfront skatepark, basketball courts, an outdoor gym, daily drum circles, and murals are just some of the interesting highlights in addition to the sun and sand.
San Diego’s Mission Beach is another stretch of sand that captures the laid-back essence of southern California. Although it has a relaxed atmosphere, there’s a plethora of things to do both on and adjacent to the wide swath of beach.
Whether you’re looking to play beach volleyball, try some watersports, indulge in a good book, or jump in the Pacific for an invigorating swim, Mission Beach has it all. It’s also one of the best family beaches in California
Enjoy the rides at Belmont Park, a classic seaside amusement area with mini-golf and rides such as a thrilling roller coaster and an arcade. Or, cycle along the famous boardwalk, stopping for some ice cream or a cold drink while absorbing the coastal scenery.
One of the best beaches in Santa Barbara, East Beach draws visitors with its palm-lined sands, abundant recreation areas, and accessibility.
Situated near the popular Stearns Wharf Pier, this shoreside destination is a hub of activity with picnic areas, a playground, beach restaurant, bike path, arts pavilion, and volleyball.
When you tire of the beach, bird-watchers can head across the street to the 42-acre Andree Clark Bird Refuge Lagoon to spot migratory bird species such as double-crested cormorant and the great blue heron.
Film and television production is one of the top industries that California is known for, with many famous movies and shows made in Hollywood.
Numerous production studios are located in this classic Los Angeles neighborhood, where you can even go behind the scenes for a tour, viewing prop rooms, soundstages, and working lots.
Stroll the famous Hollywood Boulevard, where you can also experience legendary sites such as the Walk of Fame with its brass stars, and the elegant Kodak Theater, among other 1920s-era cinemas.
To get a great shot of the iconic Hollywood sign on the hillside, head for the green oasis of Griffith Park and hike up to the Griffith Observatory. There are multiple viewpoints along the way.
The Golden Gate Bridge
The graceful Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. Connecting downtown San Francisco to Marin County, the bridge spans the bay’s one-mile-wide Golden Gate Strait, making it an unmissable sight.
The architectural wonder was built in 1937 with an art deco design and was the world’s tallest and longest suspension bridge upon completion until the 1960s.
It’s possible to explore and enjoy this marvel landmark in a variety of ways; walk or bike across it, take photographs from different viewpoints on the north and south sides while exploring some of the best beaches in San Francisco, or embark on a boat cruise in the San Francisco Bay where you’ll have the opportunity for a completely new perspective by venturing underneath the structure.
The bridge appears in many shades of vermillion, depending on the light, but its official color, which requires constant painting to maintain, is called “international orange”.
Read: One Day in San Francisco
Known as the “Jewel of San Diego,” the seaside village of La Jolla is admired for its rugged coastline, stunning beaches, and large population of sea lions.
The waters are a kayaker’s paradise, with areas suited for beginners as well as more experienced and adventurous paddlers. Some of the more challenging spots, such as the caves, are best attempted on a guided tour.
Areas of the ocean waters in La Jolla are an ecological reserve and underwater park, home to marine life such as sea lions, dolphins, and leopard sharks, some of which you might be able to spot.
At low tide, the famous La Jolla tide pools are a great place to discover the wide array of smaller creatures, from colorful anemones to crabs. Surfing enthusiasts can catch a wave at the well-loved Windansea Beach, an area staple.
Out of the water, La Jolla shines as well, with Scripps Park, a charming village downtown area with restaurants and shops, and an aquarium. Stop by and wave to the seals at the Children’s Pool, a section of coastline frequented by a big and often noisy colony.
Explore Sunny Jim’s Cave by taking almost 150 steps down to a man-made cavern looking out to the Pacific.
Read: One Day in San Diego
With its diverse terrain and beautiful vistas, it’s no surprise that California is also famous for its hiking opportunities. Exploring on foot is one of the best ways to experience a destination while getting some exercise and taking photographs.
The Santa Ynez Valley, located just outside of Santa Barbara, is a hiker’s haven, with myriad trails catering to different skill levels. Head up Gaviota Peak, a three-and-a-half-mile trek along trails lined with wildflowers and offering rewarding views.
Or take it easy on a portion of the Aniso Trail, which spans five and a half miles in total, from El Capitan Beach to Refugio State Beach, along the shore. Since it’s out and back, you can choose to do whatever length you’d like.
In northern California, Muir Woods National Monument, north of San Francisco, shouldn’t be missed. Named after the famous conservationist John Muir, the more than 550-acre preserve is home to some of the last redwood forests in the Bay area, as well as 380 different species of plants and animals, that make it one of the most unique places to visit in California.
Walk the trails in the dappled shade of the towering trees, some of them 1,000 years old and more than 250 feet tall; you’ll have to crane your neck to look up at them.
Embark on the three-mile Fern Creek, Lost, and Canopy loop trails, one of the most popular routes in the park, taking you through serene forests and past rushing streams, like something from a fairytale.
Alternatively, the four-mile Ben Johnson trail will take you further off the beaten track into the redwood forest.
In southern California, put on your hiking shoes in Torrey Pines State Reserve, where views abound. Located in San Diego, this park features trails that weave along the coastal cliffside and Pinus Torreyana, the country’s most rare pine tree.
The two-mile Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop is a favorite, with a portion of the walk atop the cliffs with several overlooks, and a venture down to the beach where you can cool off in the ocean if you’d like. If you’re short on time, try the Guy Fleming trail, which extends less than a mile.
From coastal paddling to drifting through the state’s rivers and lakes, kayaking is one of the most enjoyable ways to explore California’s many waterways.
Uncover why Monterey Bay is referred to as the “Serengeti of the Sea”, as you paddle along the coast where kelp forests and canyons are host to rich marine life.
Keep an eye out for otters, loons, dolphins, leopard sharks, and sea lions as you make your way around the sheltered bay, which is home to some of the best beaches in Monterey. Get your waterproof camera ready to capture shots of the famous Cannery Row as well, a symbol of Monterey in the scenic harbor.
Venture to the picturesque Channel Islands where you can paddle through protected waters on the southeastern coast of Catalina Island.
The California state fish, the orange Garibaldi, as well as spiny lobsters and sea urchins are just a few of the aquatic creatures that can be seen darting in and out of the undersea gardens in Lover’s Cove.
In Monterey, the Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve offers kayaking in a wildlife-rich area along the seven-mile main channel with tributaries. Kayak rentals are available nearby with a launching spot at Moss Landing, where you can make your way through the ancient river valley.
Keep an eye out for sea otters, harbor seals, pelicans, and more than 100 types of birds such as herons and egrets.
From fresh seafood to Mexican fare, California dishes up some fantastic food, a highlight to any vacation in the Golden State.
Whether you tuck into California pizza, a home-grown avocado, a giant mission burrito in San Francisco, or order up the famous Cobb Salad in Hollywood, where it originated, you won’t go hungry here.
In San Francisco, experience the culinary scene at Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the city’s most popular waterfront neighborhoods.
Sample chowder in sourdough bread bowls, fish and chips, or oysters to get your seafood fix. Satisfy your dim sum craving at Palette Tea House & Dim Sum; try the xiao long bao (soup dumplings).
In southern California, San Diego’s Little Italy presents the perfect place for a food tour in a walkable neighborhood. Led by a local guide, you’ll learn about the neighborhood’s history and flavors while enjoying northern and southern Italian cuisine, coffee, and wine.
Fill up on pastas, wood-fired pizzas, and local wine varieties. Make sure to stop into the Little Italy Food Hall where you can purchase some Italian specialties to bring home as well.
California’s northern Bay area is known as “wine country” for its fertile landscape and multitude of vineyards. The dreamily beautiful Napa and Sonoma valleys are a haven for wine lovers and couples on a California honeymoon.
In both, you can tour vineyards, learn about production, and sample varieties in the idyllic California countryside. Try the cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and pinot noirs that the region is celebrated for.
Although Napa and Sonoma are perhaps the best-known California wine regions, the state’s central coast produces quality wines as well. Santa Barbara is one of the best places to sample the local wine varieties, with both the urban and Santa Ynez Valley wine trails easily accessible.
In the valley, the Foxen Canyon wine trail is a great choice, with 16 wineries to choose from. Pinot noir is a high-quality varietal produced in this region and shouldn’t be missed when visiting.
California’s history is fascinating. Learn about the storied past of Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay, tantalizingly close (for its one-time prisoners) to the city. The island once held some of the most infamous criminals, until the prison was closed in 1963.
While visiting, tour the old federal prison site, warden’s house, and recreation yard, and view the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast.
Step back in time at the Old Mission in Santa Barbara, founded in the 18th century and the only one in the state that still houses Franciscan friars. Marvel at the architecture that set the tone for building design in the city.
Tour the grounds, where highlights include the Spanish colonial church, a lush garden, and a museum with living-quarter replicas and artwork.
From the gorgeous coast and lively cities to wine country and breathtaking mountains, the Golden State is a joy to explore. Browse our luxury cruises to California and book your vacation today.