The Golden State of California is the most populous state in the United States and the third most extensive by area. Often associated with the American Dream and general wealth, California boasts a coastline of over 840 miles and is home to some of the world’s most interesting attractions. From natural wonders to man-made marvels, there is an endless list of things to see and do in California.
In this post, I’ll highlight the 14 Top Tourist Attractions in California that I think you’ll enjoy the most. No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s sure to be something on this list that will pique your interest.
1. Disneyland Resort
Of course, California’s top tourist destination is the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. The massive theme park and resort complex comprises two theme parks (Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure), three hotels, and the Downtown Disney shopping, dining, and entertainment district.
Disneyland Park is the original theme park at the Disneyland Resort, opening in 1955. The park’s top attractions include Sleeping Beauty Castle, Main Street U.S.A., Adventureland, Frontierland, New Orleans Square, Critter Country, Mickey’s Toontown, Fantasyland (home of It’s A Small World and many other classic Disney attractions), Tomorrowland, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
At 72 acres, Disney California Adventure is the second theme park at the Disneyland Resort. Top attractions here include Buena Vista Street (modeled after Los Angeles in the 1920s), Cars Land (with the Radiator Springs Racers attraction), Grizzly Peak, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Pixar Pier.
The Disneyland Resort is also home to Downtown Disney, a shopping, dining, and entertainment district with more than 30 stores, eateries, and entertainment venues.
There’s so much to see and do at the Disneyland Resort that you could easily spend a week here and not get bored. But because there are so many other top tourist attractions in California, I suggest you plan to visit other destinations as well.
2. San Francisco
San Francisco is another one of California’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s easy to see why. The “City by the Bay” has something for everyone, from world-class museums and top-notch restaurants to beautiful parks and interesting neighborhoods.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular places in San Francisco. This historic waterfront area is home to the Ferry Building, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square. Visitors can enjoy seafood restaurants, street performers, and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Other top attractions in San Francisco include Muir Woods National Monument, where you can see giant redwoods; the Golden Gate Park, a large urban park with museums, gardens, and playgrounds; and the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum with an aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest.
Of course, no visit to San Francisco is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. This suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate Strait is one of the most iconic landmarks in California. Visitors can walk or bike across the bridge or take a tour to learn more about its history and construction.
San Francisco is a great place to start if you’re looking for things to do in California. There’s so much to see and do in this vibrant city, and you could easily spend a week here and not get bored.
3. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is one of the top tourist attractions in California, especially if you enjoy unspoiled desert landscapes. It is the largest national park in the contiguous United States and one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on Earth.
The main attractions in Death Valley are the Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. Zabriskie Point, with its otherworldly views of eroding hills. Dante’s View, which offers panoramas of the valley from 5,000 feet. Artists Drive, a scenic route past colorful cliffs and mountains. Mosaic Canyon, with its smooth marble walls. And Ubehebe Crater, a 600-foot-deep volcanic crater.
In addition to these top sights, Death Valley National Park has many hiking trails through different ecosystems, including mountains, deserts, and canyons. There are also opportunities to go camping, backpacking, horseback riding, and ranger-led programs.
When visiting Death Valley National Park, be sure to bring plenty of water and food, as there are few services inside the park.
4. Venice Beach
A top California tourist attraction not to be missed is Venice Beach, located in Los Angeles. This world-famous beach draws huge crowds year-round.
Venice Beach is an eclectic place with a little something for everyone. The wide, sandy beach is great for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, and people-watching. A paved path called the Ocean Front Walk runs parallel to the beach for strolling, rollerblading, and biking.
Loads of fascinating people hang out at Venice Beach, especially around the famous Muscle Beach outdoor gym, which has been featured in many movies and TV shows. Street performers and artists display their talents along the Boardwalk. You’ll see everything from fire-eaters to break-dancers to fortune-tellers.
If you get hungry, there are plenty of places to buy food and drinks, including fast-food outlets, pizzerias, ice cream parlors, and cafes. When you need a break from the sun, check out the Venice Beach Recreation Center, which houses an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gymnasium, lighted tennis courts, and a basketball court.
Other top attractions in the area include the Venice Canals, trendy Abbott Kinney Boulevard, and Santa Monica Pier with its Ferris wheel and other amusement park rides.
5. Universal Studios Hollywood
As one of the top tourist attractions in California, Universal Studios Hollywood has something for everyone. The movie studio and theme park first opened its doors to the public in 1964. And since then, it has become a top destination for movie fans and thrill-seekers alike.
The theme park is home to some of the most popular rides and attractions based on Universal Studios’ blockbuster films, such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, The Simpsons Ride, and more. There are also live shows, street entertainment, and a variety of dining options.
Outside of the theme park, visitors can explore the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot, which offers tours of movie sets and soundstages. There is also a working movie studio on-site, where some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters have been filmed.
With so much to see and do, Universal Studios Hollywood is one of the top California tourist attractions and a must-visit for anyone visiting the Los Angeles area.
6. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park, one of the first wilderness parks in the United States, is best known for its waterfalls. But within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find grand meadows, deep valleys, ancient giant sequoias, a wild river, and much more.
One of the top things to do in Yosemite National Park is to hike to the top of Half Dome. This strenuous, 16-mile round-trip hike requires a permit. Even if you don’t get a permit to hike to the top of Half Dome, there are plenty of other Yosemite hikes for all skill levels.
In Yosemite Valley, you can stand beneath giant sequoias that are among the oldest and largest living things on Earth. The Mariposa Grove, the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite, reopened in 2018 after a major restoration project. You can also take a scenic drive along Glacier Point Road to get breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Vernal Falls.
Other top Yosemite attractions include Tunnel View, Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, the Ahwahnee Hotel, and Curry Village. You can also go rafting or fishing in the Merced River, which runs through Yosemite Valley.
No matter what time of year you visit Yosemite National Park, you’re sure to find plenty of things to do. However, many roads and trails close during the winter, so be sure to check conditions before you go. And if you’re planning to visit during the busy summer season, make your reservations well in advance as lodgings and campsites fill up quickly.
7. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Another one of the top tourist attractions in California is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, located on a wide sandy beach in the city of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is California’s oldest surviving seaside amusement park and one of the top things to do in California.
The Boardwalk began life as a simple bathhouse built in 1907. A few years later, the bathhouse was expanded to include a small amusement park with a carousel and other rides. The park grew over the years and now includes more than 30 rides and attractions, including two roller coasters, the Giant Dipper and the Looff Carousel.
Admission to the park is free, but there are charges for some of the rides. The best time to visit is early in the day during the week when it’s not too crowded.
This is a great place to bring your kids if you’re looking for things to do in Santa Cruz. They’ll have a blast riding the rides, playing games, and eating all the Boardwalk’s famous food. And when they’re worn out from all the fun, you can relax on the beach or take a stroll down historic Main Street. Just be sure to bring your sunscreen and swimsuit so you can enjoy the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to the fullest!
8. Joshua Tree National Park
Located in the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the top California tourist attractions. The park, named for the unique Joshua Trees that grow in the area, covers more than 800,000 acres and is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
The desert landscape here is otherworldly, with huge boulders and weird-shaped rocks jutting out of the sand. The park is a top destination for rock climbing and camping. Hiking is also popular, and there are plenty of trails to explore, ranging from easy strolls to more challenging hikes. The park has several interesting features, including the Keys View lookout point, which provides panoramic views of the desert landscape, and the Cholla Cactus Garden, which is home to thousands of cacti.
Because of the park’s remote location, it is important to come prepared. Make sure you have plenty of water and food with you, as there are no services inside the park. And be sure to pack sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses, as the desert sun can be brutal.
So if you’re looking for an otherworldly experience, Joshua Tree National Park is definitely worth a visit. Just be sure to come prepared, and you’re sure to have a great time.
9. The Getty Center Los Angeles
The Getty Center Los Angeles is an art museum that sits atop a hill in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Los Angeles. The center is world-renowned for its architecture, gardens, and art collection.
The Getty Center Los Angeles contains two museums: the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Museum houses European paintings, drawings, sculptures, manuscripts, photographs, and decorative arts from the 13th to the 20th centuries. The Getty Research Institute is a center for the study of the history of art and culture.
The architecture of the Getty Center Los Angeles is stunning, and the views of Los Angeles from the top of the hill are breathtaking. The center is also home to world-famous gardens, including the Central Garden, which was designed by American artist and landscape architect Jennifer Bartlett.
The Getty Center Los Angeles is a top tourist destination in California and should not be missed. If you’re interested in art or architecture, or if you just want to enjoy a day in a beautiful setting, this place should definitely be on your list of top things to do in California.
10. Lake Tahoe
Next on my list of top tourist attractions in California is Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, which sits astride the state line between California and Nevada. The lake is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, with 72% of its area within the state of California.
Popular activities at Lake Tahoe include swimming, sunbathing, boating, fishing, and windsurfing in the summertime; and snow skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and ice-skating in winter. The lake has dozens of public beaches and six state parks along its shores.
There are also many scenic hiking trails in the area, including the Rubicon Trail, which runs along the shoreline for 22 miles. For casino gambling and entertainment, many visitors head to South Lake Tahoe, where they can also enjoy live shows and top-notch restaurants.
Lake Tahoe is a top destination for vacationers from all over the world. The area around the lake has numerous lodgings, ranging from camping sites and budget motels to luxury resorts and casinos. So if you’re looking for things to do in California, a visit to Lake Tahoe should definitely be on your list.
11. Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks, located along the coast of Northern California, are home to some of the world’s tallest trees. The Sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwoods, can grow to more than 380 feet (115 meters) tall and live for more than 2,000 years. The parks, which span more than 133,000 acres (54,000 hectares), also contain old-growth forests of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock.
The parks were established in 1968 to protect the redwoods from logging and other development. Today, they are a World Heritage Site and part of the California Coast Ranges International Biosphere Reserve. In addition to the towering trees, the parks are also home to a variety of other plant and animal life, including wildflowers, mushrooms, ferns, eagles, otters, and seals.
There are several ways to experience the majesty of the redwoods. You can drive through the parks on the Redwood Highway (Highway 101), which winds its way through the towering trees. Or you can explore one of the many hiking trails, which range from easy strolls to more challenging hikes. The parks also offer horseback riding, camping, and picnicking opportunities.
If you’re visiting California’s redwood forests, I recommend staying in one of the nearby towns, such as Eureka, Arcata, or Crescent City. These towns offer a variety of lodging and dining options, as well as easy access to the parks.
12. Big Sur
The next California attraction on my list is the magnificent Big Sur coastline. Stretching for 90 miles along Highway One between Carmel and San Simeon, this is one of the most scenic drives in the world. The route offers dizzying ocean views from high cliffs and passes through remote, forested areas where few people live.
I recommend taking your time to enjoy this drive and make plenty of stops along the way. There are numerous pull-offs with excellent photo ops. Some of my favorite spots include Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Pfeiffer Beach. However, I would caution that this drive can be very dangerous. The roads are narrow and winding with few guardrails. If you’re not used to driving in such conditions, I recommend taking a guided tour instead.
If you’re looking for something more active, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails in Big Sur. The Pfeiffer Falls Trail is a popular option, as it takes visitors to a beautiful waterfall. The best time to visit Big Sur is from September to November when the weather is mild and there are fewer crowds.
13. Hearst Castle
Located on the Central Coast, Hearst Castle is one of California’s top tourist attractions. The massive estate was the brainchild of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He commissioned architect Julia Morgan to build the main house, pools, guest houses, and other structures on the property in the early 1900s.
Hearst Castle is a fascinating blend of art, architecture, and history. The main house, Casa Grande, features a grand staircase, an outdoor pool, and extensive gardens. The Neptune Pool is an iconic Roman-style pool with beautiful mosaic tiles. Other highlights include the Gothic Room, filled with medieval antiques, and the Library, lined with rare books.
The estate grounds are also home to a number of buildings designed in a variety of architectural styles, from Spanish Mission to Egyptian. Hearst Castle is open for tours, which must be booked in advance. The estate is located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, making it a convenient stop on a road trip.
If you’re interested in California history, Hearst Castle is a must-see. The estate is a fascinating example of early 20th-century architecture and design, and the story of its construction is fascinating. William Randolph Hearst was an immensely wealthy man, and he spared no expense in creating his dream home. Hearst Castle is a truly unique place, and one of the top tourist attractions in California not to miss.
14. SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is a world-renowned marine life park and one of the top tourist attractions in California. The park is home to more than 13,000 animals, including dolphins, whales, sea lions, penguins, and other aquatic creatures.
One of the most popular SeaWorld San Diego attractions is the Shamu Adventure, which is a killer whale experience. You can watch these majestic animals perform tricks or even swim with them. Other top things to do at SeaWorld include meeting the friendly dolphins up close, touching stingrays in a pool, and riding roller coasters.
SeaWorld also offers educational shows, such as the popular dolphin presentation, in addition to fun shows like the pirate show featuring live actors, acrobats, and puppets. The park is huge, so you’ll need at least a full day to see all the top things located within SeaWorld San Diego.
In addition to the live shows and animal encounters, SeaWorld San Diego has rides, including roller coasters, for the whole family to enjoy. You can also learn about ocean conservation at the park’s educational exhibits.
Overall, if you’re visiting California with kids, SeaWorld San Diego is a great place to take them. They’re sure to have a blast. Just be prepared for large crowds during peak season.
These are only 14 of the top tourist attractions in California, but there are literally hundreds of other great places to visit in this amazing state. I hope this list inspires you to visit some of these amazing places. California has something for everyone, so come and explore all that this beautiful state has to offer. Thanks for reading!