California is one of the largest, most varied and most beautiful states in the US. What many visitors to the state miss out on is the variety of fantastic urban destinations in offers. Californian cities, large and small, should definitely be included in any itinerary covering the Golden State. With that in mind, I created this Bucket List that’s based on our experience visiting California during numerous trips.
If you’ve never been to California before – then yes, the state is a Bucket List item in its own right and as a whole. Most people know of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and maybe Sacramento and San Diego but otherwise, ignore the state’s urban gems. And it’s hard to blame them, really. After all, it’s hard to compete with the fantastic coastline, the Sierra Nevada mountains and national parks, the Redwoods, and Death Valley.
But let’s give it a try here. I’m going to offer you my own choice of 19 cities in California which I think make fantastic destinations. Let’s dig right in!
1. San Francisco
People may not be traveling to San Francisco with “flowers in their hair” anymore, but that countercultural 60s spirit still pervades this northern CA metropolis. The roughly 885,000 people that call this city home and are well known to be welcoming of tourists from all walks of life.
Often considered the free-spirited sibling to SoCal’s LA, San Francisco is an ideal vacation destination for travelers interested in all things cutting edge. Not only does San Francisco serve as the unofficial capital of the Bay Area’s tech industry, but it’s also home to many fantastic contemporary cultural, artistic, and architectural sites.
The modern history of San Francisco began in 1776 when Spanish colonists arrived in the present-day Golden Gate area. You can learn more about those early days on a visit to the 1,500-acre Presidio of San Francisco National Park, which served as the first fortified Spanish settlement in the city. By the way, the Presidio is conveniently located by two of San Francisco’s most iconic attractions: the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
If you’re still interested in learning more about SF’s founding, consider visiting the Mission San Francisco de Asís. Set up by those same Spanish missionaries in the 1770s, this Mission is considered the most historic building in the entire city.
A few other touristy things to do while in SF include dining at the Fisherman’s Wharf, climbing to the top of Twin Peaks, exploring the California Academy of Sciences, and shopping in Union Square. For a more alternative trip, consider visiting the Castro district to get a better sense of the city’s central role in pushing for LGBTQ rights. You could also get a better sense of this city’s ethnic diversity by touring the electrifying Chinatown district.
Oh yeah, and then there are those classic cable cars! Created 150 years ago, these “moving landmarks” are easily one of the city’s most popular attractions. Be sure to read this official guide created by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency so you know exactly what to expect when heading out to these legendary cars.
2. Los Angeles
Undoubtedly one of the world’s media meccas, Los Angeles delights tourists who are interested in the glamorous side of life. With a population of about 4 million, LA is America’s second most populous city after the Big Apple. So, please don’t schedule a trip to LA if you’re not in the mood for a big city adventure! Yeah, there are a few areas where you can find a little zen, but a trip to this city is better suited for people who want exhilaration rather than relaxation on their vacation.
Of course, the best place to take in the mystique of this media hub is in the Hollywood district. Here you’ll find all the iconic sites: the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Universal Studios, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the Hollywood Sign. If you’re near West Hollywood, you could also explore the posh Beverly Hills district to see how the upper crust lives. While it’s tempting to just stay in Hollywood during your LA adventure, try your best to explore the many other wonderful attractions beyond Tinseltown.
Besides media, Los Angeles has also become a major hub for the visual arts in recent years. Probably the most famous artistic attraction in LA is the Getty Center, which can be accessed by a tram in the Brentwood section of the city. At the Getty Center, you’ll get to admire impressive works of European art, striking architecture, and perfect panoramic views of the City of Angels. The best places to appreciate this city’s contemporary artistic talent, however, are in Downtown LA. There you’ll find the celebrated Museum of Contemporary Art and The Broad.
Although so much of Los Angeles is dedicated to the new, this Southern California city does have a few remnants of its past…if you know where to look. For instance, you can find the exact spot of Los Angeles’s founding in the 1780s at El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument near Chinatown. While you’re here, take some time to explore the Old Plaza and Olvera Street to get a sense for what LA must have been like hundreds of years ago. Other historic sites you’ll see around the Pueblo include the Avila Adobe, the Plaza Firehouse Museum, and the Sepulveda House.
One thing’s for sure: no matter where you go in this fast-paced city, you’re bound to be entertained. Just be sure to read through this previous blog post beforehand to help you choose the perfect hotel destination for your travel needs.
3. San Diego
Located on Southern California’s coast near the Mexican border, San Diego is now home to about 1.4 million people. Although this figure makes San Diego the eighth largest in the USA, this city has a remarkably laid-back vibe. Indeed, San Diego has almost become synonymous with surfer culture. These features make San Diego a perfect vacation spot for people who want the best of both worlds: big city attractions and beautiful beaches.
Once you see one of San Diego’s gorgeous beaches for yourself, don’t be surprised if you suddenly get the urge to try out surfing for yourself. Of all San Diego’s beaches, Pacific and Mission beaches are the most popular (and the most crowded). Here you’ll find San Diego’s most famous Boardwalk as well as one of the Golden State’s best-known theme parks: Sea World. Definitely expect to deal with crowds of people if you’re visiting these beaches during summer or spring break.
For a more relaxed beach-going experience in San Diego, check out the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area. Not only will you find great views of the San Diego Bay on this peninsula, but you’ll also get to see some of San Diego’s most historic attractions here. Please don’t miss out on a tour of the Cabrillo National Monument, which marks the exact spot explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in 1542. You’ll also find a remarkably well-preserved 1850s lighthouse, called the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, close by this national monument.
To explore more of San Diego’s rich history, definitely visit the city’s wonderful Old Town State Historic Park. A few of the famed Old Town attractions include the Whaley House, La Casa de Estudillo, and the Robinson-Rose House. The most famous historic building in San Diego, however, is the Mission San Diego de Alcala. Built in 1769, this church and garden complex holds the title for the oldest mission in California. After visiting all these storied sites, be sure to take a historic nighttime stroll through San Diego’s romantic Gaslamp Quarter.
Besides its beaches and historical attractions, San Diego is also renowned for its many zoological centers. The most impressive of these zoos is the 100-acre San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. Even if you spend the entire day in the San Diego Zoo, you’ll most likely feel like you missed something. There are over 3,500 animals housed here and special live shows are constantly going on. Definitely take a long look at this zoo’s website to better plan your trip.
Not only is Sacramento California’s capital, but it’s also the oldest incorporated city in the Golden State. Located in northern California by the Sacramento and American rivers, Sacramento grew in stature thanks to the Gold Rush. Luckily for tourists, Sacramento’s 501,000 current residents take great pride in preserving this city’s Wild West heritage.
Anyone interested in the mythos of the great western migration will absolutely love a tour of Sacramento’s Old Town. As you’d expect, the Old Sacramento area full of horse-drawn carriages and authentic architecture to help bring you back to those golden glory days.
The best place in the Old Town to learn about this city’s past is at the Sacramento History Museum. Here you’ll find the greatest collection of Gold Rush-era artifacts as well as artistry from indigenous Native American tribes. Don’t miss out on an underground tour of Sacramento while at this premier museum.
Old Sacramento also has the California State Railroad Museum, which shows off Sacramento’s distinguished place as the end point of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad. To learn more about Sacramento’s important location on the Pony Express, take a trip to the B. F. Hastings Building.
Outside of Old Sacramento, another historic gem is Sutter’s Fort. Founded in the 1840s, this former trading colony is now a living museum where guests can learn the day-to-day activities with many live demonstrations. After touring Sutter’s Fort, take a trip to the nearby State Indian Museum to discover more about Sacramento’s native tribes.
A prominent city in the fight for civil rights, Oakland has long been an intellectual and cultural hub that’s now becoming a must-see Bay Area destination. Although often overshadowed by nearby San Francisco, Oakland has a growing population (now roughly 425,000) and many fascinating attractions to explore. If you’re looking for a lively nightlife scene, exciting sports venues, dozens of museums, and gorgeous green areas, you’ll find it all in Oakland.
A good way to begin a tour of this city is to visit the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). Ever since the late 1960s, OMCA has been dedicated to giving guests a complete picture of the Golden State’s history. In addition to historical and artistic exhibits, this museum features many interactive areas that help explain California’s unique ecology. We visited it a few years ago and absolutely loved it! Prepare to spend at least two hours here – and possibly much longer.
After a tour of this premier museum, take a trip to the nearby Lake Merritt for a leisurely stroll. Now beloved by joggers and bikers, Lake Merritt Park holds the impressive title of the first protected wildlife refuge in America.
Another nice museum in Oakland is the Chabot Space and Science Center. Completed in 2000, this 13-acre complex features dozens of interactive exhibits, a planetarium, and a space simulator that help guests understand exactly what it takes to be an astronaut.
Of course, we can’t mention Oakland without mentioning the basketball. While you’re in the city, check out what’s going on at Oakland’s main athletic center: the Oracle Arena. Official home of Oakland’s Golden State Warriors, this arena can hold just over 19,500 basketball fanatics on game day.
If you’re not into sports, then consider visiting Oakland’s equally popular Fox Theatre for some great live entertainment. First opened in the 1920s, this beloved theatre has undergone major renovations in recent years and continues to bring in some of the biggest names in entertainment. Even if you’re not going to take in a performance, it’s a treat to see this historic theatre glittering at nighttime.
Interested in even more things to do in Oakland? Check out our post about 11 fun things to do in Oakland, CA.
Situated in East Bay, Berkeley remains one of America’s most politically influential university towns. Forever the home of “Flower Power,” Berkeley now has about 122,300 permanent residents and many fascinating artistic, culinary, and intellectual attractions. With such a prestigious campus, Berkeley is ideal for travelers in the mood for some serious brain food on their vacation.
The most obvious place to begin your exploration of Berkeley is on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Take a ride up to the top of the university’s 307-foot Campanile clock tower for a great view of the Bay Area. Once you return to ground level, there are many museums to explore. A few must-see museums include the Berkeley Art Museum, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and the Museum of Paleontology.
Slightly outside of UC Berkeley’s main campus is the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Dating back to the 1890s, this almost 35-acre garden has about 10,000 plants and a few exotic animals. Be sure to ask employees to point out the many endangered plants that are preserved in this exquisite botanical garden.
Many tourists who visit the Berkeley area enjoy a walk through the city’s Monterey Market. This is the ultimate produce shop for UC students trying to healthy on a shoestring budget. If you don’t end up buying anything, visiting Monterey Market is a lovely place for people-watching.
Anyone who wants to add a bit of nature on their Berkeley vacation should take a walk through these lovely areas: César Chávez Park and Tilden Park. For a splendid view of Bay Area during sunset, however, you won’t find a better destination than the Berkeley Rose Garden.
7. San Jose
In recent years, Silicon Valley’s San Jose has become one of the most powerful tech cities on the planet. Located about 50 miles south of San Francisco, San Jose is also one of California’s largest cities with about 1.03 million inhabitants. Although San Jose is often viewed as a worker’s city, it’s slowly becoming a fashionable CA vacation spot. Tourists who take the time to explore this megalopolis will discover beautiful green spaces, exciting ethnic enclaves, and world-class museums.
Like so many other cities in California, the beginnings of modern San Jose began with Spanish colonists in the 1700s. In San Jose’s case, José Joaquín Moraga founded El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe on the banks of the Guadalupe River in 1777. Eventually, this location moved to what’s now the 2-acre Plaza de César Chávez, and from this area, the rest of San Jose grew.
The Plaza de César Chávez in Downtown San Jose is a great place to begin your tour of the city. Throughout the year San Jose’s government supports dozens of fun festivals in this urban park, so don’t be surprised if you find something going on here during your visit. From this park, you can conveniently walk to most of San Jose’s most important tourist draws.
One such tourist draw is the ultra-modern Tech Museum of Innovation. Founded in 1998, this popular three-floor museum has an impressive IMAX theater and dozens of interactive exhibits exploring fields ranging from robotics to biology. No matter what age you are, you’re sure to learn something new and exciting on a visit to the Tech Museum.
Other attractions worth exploring near the Plaza de César Chávez include the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. If you’re interested in the fine arts, you could also take a walk to San Jose State University and tour the magnificent Beethoven Center and the Center for John Steinbeck Studies.
In case you were wondering, a few San Jose tech companies do allow visitors to tour their corporate offices. For instance, eBay has a new welcome center where visitors can learn more about the day-to-day operations of the company. Just be sure to check online before visiting a CA corporate office because not all Silicon Valley companies open their doors to visitors.
Situated on California’s northern Monterey Bay, the city of Monterey has one of the Golden State’s most awe-inspiring coastlines. While this city is superb for beach lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, it also has a surprising history to tell. Monterey once served as California’s capital and most significant port city for many years, and remnants from those years can still be found throughout the city.
Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno is credited founding what we now know as Monterey in 1602 near present-day Artillery and Pacific Streets. You can still find traces of Monterey’s past in this area with its many historical landmarks like the Vasquez Adobe and Casa de la Torre. There’s also a museum here called the Colton Hall Museum that once served as a central government building and now houses artifacts from Monterey’s past.
A more famous historic area of this city, however, is known as Cannery Row. This street used to be the center for Monterey’s sardines tinning business, but now it’s a (far less smelly) touristy attraction full of old buildings, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Definitely schedule some time to stroll around this area on a Monterey vacation.
For those up for an adventure, one of the most popular activities in Monterey is going on a whale-watching tour. From December till May you’ll have a chance to see gray, orca, and sperm whales. From May to November, on the other hand, you could catch a glimpse of humpback or blue whales. No matter what time of year you visit, however, you’ll have a good chance of seeing a few dolphins, otters, seals, or porpoises. By the way, don’t forget to walk by the Old Whaling Station Adobe if you’re curious about Monterey’s whaling past.
Last, but certainly not least, anyone who visits Monterey must visit the city’s gigantic aquarium. This 322,000 square foot complex is often cited as one of the best aquariums in the nation…if not the world! There are over 35,000 sea creatures you could greet (and pet!) in this must-see aquarium.
We’ve visited Monterey several times and I have a selection of blog posts based on our own experience there. Check them out here –
9. Santa Cruz
Situated in Northern Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz has some of central California’s most beloved beaches. Main Beach and Cowell Beach remain the star attractions of this city thanks to the historic rides on the boardwalk area. If you travel north, however, you’ll come across Steamer Lane. This area is particularly popular in the wintertime with surfers on the hunt for gnarly waves. Near Steamer Lane you’ll also have the opportunity to visit scenic Lighthouse Field State Beach and the fascinating Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
Anyone interested in Santa Cruz’s history should stop by the Mission Santa Cruz, which Spanish Jesuits established in 1791. The Mission Santa Cruz has undergone extensive restoration work, but visitors can still get a sense of the rich Spanish Catholic heritage on a tour of this mission. Since Mission Santa Cruz sits atop a hill, be sure to spend plenty of time admiring the views of the city below.
Today, Santa Cruz has a population of about 64,000, many of whom either work or study at USC Santa Cruz. While most tourists who come to Santa Cruz are interested in the beaches, it’s well worth your time to explore this USC campus while in town. If possible, schedule at least an hour to explore the college’s gorgeous arboretum.
In the 1800s, a group of industrious German wine producers created the Anaheim district in Orange County. Today, this city is synonymous with just one attraction: Disneyland. Although Anaheim only has about 327,000 residents, 18 million people flock to this city every year just to shake hands with Mickey Mouse.
Opened in 1955, Disneyland remains one of the world’s most beloved theme parks. Inside the main Disneyland Park, you’ll find eight themed areas to explore: Main Street, USA, Adventureland, New Orleans Square, Critter Country, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown, and Tomorrowland. There’s a bewildering array of classic rides, live shows, parades, shopping & dining, and character greetings to check out in this park, so definitely plan a few days here to get the full Disneyland experience.
But wait; there’s more! Next to Disneyland Park is Disney’s California Adventure theme park. Founded in 2001, California Adventure has become very popular in recent years thanks to the plethora of rides and experiences based on Disney/Pixar movies. A few of the hot rides in California Adventure right now include the Incredibles-themed Incredicoaster, the Cars-themed Radiator Springs Racers, and Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout.
Once you tire of the parks, be sure to visit the Downtown Disneyland area for even more dining, shopping, and entertainment. The Disneyland Resort also has three official hotels that make it convenient to walk (or take a monorail) to and from the parks.
Definitely do your homework before you book a trip to Disneyland so you won’t spend the entire trip waiting in line. These parks frequently get jam-packed with tourists, especially when school isn’t in session. Check on Disneyland’s official website to learn more about features like Fastpasses that make the guest experience extra magical.
When people hear the world Napa, they instantly think of wine. And, indeed, that’s the main draw to this city on the southern edge of the Napa Valley region.
A trip to Napa is ideal for tourists interested in fine dining, fine art, and, of course, fine wine. Most of your time touring this city will be dedicated to exploring the many wineries and tasting their fabulous concoctions. A few of the Napa wineries that currently have the rave reviews include the O’Brien Estate Winery, the Darioush Winery, the Domaine Carneros, and the Hess Collection Winery and Art Museum.
If you’re not sure where to go while in Napa, no worries! There are plenty of professional tour guides that lead winery excursions, hikes, horseback rides, food tastings, and even hot air balloon rides in Napa. You could also go on a scenic ride of the Napa Valley region by hopping aboard Napa’s iconic Napa Valley Wine Train.
To see Napa’s artistic side, be sure to pop into the Quent Cordair Fine Art studio. Here you’ll find many impressive sculptures created by international artists.
Before you leave, take a trip to the landmark First Presbyterian Church of Napa to get a better sense of this city’s history. Completed in 1857, this striking Gothic church continues to serve as the spiritual center for Napa’s roughly 77,000 residents.
12. Palo Alto
The Bay Area’s Palo Alto is now one of California’s top tech cities. This major suburb in Santa Clara County is just south of San Francisco and now has a population of about 67,000. Tourists tend to ignore Palo Alto for much the same reason they shun San Jose: they both seem too business-centric. While Palo Alto isn’t the most touristy city in California, there’s a great deal to experience here if you’re interested in education and technology.
Any tour of Palo Alto should begin at the campus of Stanford University. Founded in 1885, Stanford has become one of America’s most elite universities and is especially well-known for its engineering and technology programs. Not only is Stanford strong academically, but it’s also an architectural feast for the eyes. Exploring Stanford’s beautiful Spanish-inspired architecture is an unforgettable experience.
The best place to get a view of Stanford’s campus is to climb to the top of the 285-foot tall Hoover Tower. If the weather’s good, you’ll enjoy fine views of the San Francisco Bay Area from atop this 50-plus-year-old landmark. After descending from the tower, be sure to take advantage of the many museums and sculpture gardens around campus. Whatever you do, don’t miss Rodin’s many famous sculptures in the Cantor Arts Center.
Another popular draw to the Palo Alto region is the Computer History Museum in nearby Mountain View. Created in 1996, this massive museum houses the most comprehensive collection of artifacts from the early days of computing right up till the present. In addition to exploring the technological breakthroughs of the computer and the Internet, this museum explores how these technologies continue to change our society and culture… for better or worse. We visited the museum in 2017 and it was pure delight. We spent 4-5 hours there and had a blast.
Are you still interested in exploring technology in Palo Alto? If so, then consider visiting Hewlett-Packard’s Palo Alto headquarters. At the HP Welcome Center, visitors are encouraged to explore the company’s latest innovations by testing new products and watching demos with HP employees. You can find out more info on visiting this headquarters on this official webpage.
13. Palm Springs
Situated in Southern California’s desert region, Palm Springs has been a favorite resort area for LA’s rich and famous since at least the 1950s. Nowadays, most of Palm Springs’s 48,000 residents are retirees who are enjoying the city’s gorgeous scenery and refreshing hot springs. The pace of life moves a whole lot slower in Palm Springs, and the city’s residents like to keep it that way. This city is a perfect destination for tourists who just want to relax on their California vacation.
The first thing to do once you arrive in Palm Springs is to take a ride on the city’s aerial tramway along the Chino Canyon. No matter what time of year you’re visiting, you’ll be awe-struck by the scenic views of the desert landscape. The entire ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway measures 2.5 miles and lasts about 10 minutes. At the station, you’ll start at an elevation of over 2,600 feet and end at an elevation of 8,500 feet. So, yeah, this isn’t a great attraction for those with a fear of heights!
In addition to Palm Springs’ natural wonders, this city has also gained a reputation for its art and architecture. The Palm Springs Art Museum boasts a collection of over 11,000 artworks mostly focusing on the Modernist and Contemporary eras. The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, on the other hand, is an excellent place to learn about the art created by Palm Springs’ indigenous tribes.
As mentioned above, Palm Springs was once a famous haunt of Hollywood celebrities, and you can find a few cool locations celebrating this part of Palm Springs’s past. For instance, take a trip to the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway and see where “The King” and Priscilla lived as a newly married couple. You can also take a picture with a massive statue of Marilyn Monroe by the city’s Walk of Stars.
Visiting Palm Springs and looking to do something else in the area? Check out my post about day trips around Palm Springs.
Close to Palm Springs in SoCal, the city of Coachella is best known its namesake live music festival. Roughly 45,000 people call Coachella home full-time, but this city gets packed with over 100,000 visitors every April during the Coachella Music Festival. Although Coachella has a lot of lovely desert scenery, people usually only visit here for the festival. So, if you’re into live music, a trip to Coachella should be high on your CA itinerary.
Interestingly, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival actually takes place in Indio, which is right next to Coachella proper. Founded in 1999 as a one-night festival, Coachella has grown over the years to become one of the world’s most popular live music fests. In addition to hosting established and up-in-coming musicians from genres ranging from rock to electronic, the Coachella Festival has many fantastic art installations located throughout the festival grounds. Today, the Coachella Festival runs for two three-day weekends in mid-April.
While the Coachella Festival gets all the media hype, there are also a few other major live music fests hosted around Coachella every year. For instance, country music fans should consider booking their vacation to Coachella during the Stagecoach Festival, which usually takes place in late April.
As you could see, Coachella is the ultimate vacation destination for people who live and breath live music. No matter what genre you’re into, you could find a fest that speaks to your soul in this region of California.
15. South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. Whatever sport you’re into, there’s a way to get pumped at South Lake Tahoe.
Situated just south of Carson City on the California-Nevada border, this gorgeous resort area is the largest city on Lake Tahoe and offers the greatest views of the surrounding mountains. In the wintertime, you’ll find thousands of snowboarders, skiers, and snowshoers exploring the trails surrounding this beautiful blue lake. People visiting in the warmer season, on the other hand, will get to enjoy biking, hiking, and sunbathing on the beach. Just a few other activities you could take part in while in South Lake Tahoe include golfing, fishing, camping, and, yes, gondola riding!
For those who aren’t so outdoorsy, there are plenty of entertainment venues, eateries, and historic sites to keep you entertained in South Lake Tahoe. Indeed, there many casinos in South Lake Tahoe with plenty of spas, theaters, shops, and restaurants to satisfy your cravings.
One popular historic site to explore while in South Lake Tahoe is the Vikingsholm mansion on Emerald Bay. Dating back to the 1860s, this massive home is considered to be the first summer home built in South Lake Tahoe and has a very intriguing history. Tour guides will explain how and why this sensational Scandinavian residence was built here all those years ago.
Although South Lake Tahoe only has about 22,000 permanent residents, the number of people here doubles during the wintertime. This is especially true if you’re visiting during the Christmas and New Year’s season. Book your hotel ASAP if you want to experience South Lake Tahoe during the holidays.
Also located in the Lake Tahoe area, Truckee is another lovely scenic spot that’s ideal for winter sports enthusiasts who want to avoid the crowds at South Lake Tahoe. With a population of about 16,500, Truckee is noticeably smaller and less developed than other cities in the Lake Tahoe region. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get bored on a vacation here.
The main attraction in Truckee is the Donner Memorial State Park, which is located by the bright blue Donner Lake. One feature that makes this park unique is the Emigrant Trail Museum, which teaches guests about the Donner Party’s infamous journey from Missouri to California. Besides touring the museum, there are plenty of well-maintained trails in this park as well as a few fishing areas.
For even more history, don’t forget to take a walk around Historic Downtown Truckee. Here you’ll find many museums, shops, and restaurants with great views of the mountain scenery behind you. If you only have time for one museum in downtown, then be sure to prioritize the Truckee Railroad Museum.
All in all, Truckee is a pleasant town to visit if you’re looking for outdoor fun and intriguing historical finds with fewer crowds than South Lake Tahoe.
17. Pismo Beach
Home to 8,300 residents, Pismo Beach is a relatively secluded shoreline getaway in Central California. Tourists in the mood for some serious R&R will love a stroll along the Pismo Pier and on the main golden sand beach. Adrenaline-junkies, however, can easily get their aggressions out by riding a few ATVs over Pismo Beach’s spectacular dunes.
On top of its lovely shoreline and natural scenery, Pismo Beach is also home to one of California’s most popular butterfly gardens. Called the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, this facility houses around 20,000 Monarch butterflies that migrate to Pismo Beach in the winter. Visitors can take a peek at these beautiful critters at the grove if they’re visiting between October and February.
Before you leave, you’ve got to taste a few of Pismo Beach’s world-famous clams. The best way to experience this city’s proud clamming heritage first-hand is to visit during the annual Clam Festival. For one weekend every October locals organize dozens of fun clam-related activities culminating in the intense clam chowder competition.
Looking for a quick trip to Copenhagen while in California? If so, look no further than Solvang in Southern CA. Located about 40 miles north of Santa Barbara, Solvang is a small town with an authentic Danish atmosphere. It’s a perfect stop along Highway 1 – which is exactly how we got to visit Solvang.
As you walk through the storybook streets you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported into a small replica of the Nyhavn…just without the flowing water of the canal! Many of Solvang’s 5,900 current residents are direct descendants of those first Danish settlers and work hard to preserve the unique culture of their town.
The best way to fully experience this town’s magnificent architecture is to hop aboard a horse-drawn trolley. Not only will you get to see all of Solvang’s iconic sites, but you’ll also learn about the city’s heritage from an expert local guide. A few landmarks to keep your eyes peeled for on your tour of the city include five windmills, the Red Tower, and a replica of the Little Mermaid statue also found in Copenhagen.
After your initial tour of the city, take a trip through Solvang’s many museums to gain a greater appreciation for Danish culture. A few of the more popular museums in town include the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, the Amber Museum & Hall of the Danes, and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. Although not Danish, you should also visit the Old Mission Santa Ines while in Solvang. Founded in 1804, the Old Mission Santa Ines continues to serve the faithful throughout the Santa Ynez River Valley.
Besides sightseeing, Solvang is a great shopping and dining destination. There are well over 150 shops in Solvang offering Old World antiques and Danish specialties you won’t find anywhere else in the USA. There are also dozens of restaurants and bakeries in town offering tasty Danish fare.
Tuolumne County’s Sonora is perpetually stuck in the California Gold Rush. About 100 miles southeast of Sacramento, Sonora was once a busy gold mining town between the 1840s and the 1860s. Today, this sleepy city is only home to about 5,000 people, but you can find remnants of its Gold Rush glory days all around.
Start your tour through Sonora at the Tuolumne County Museum. Long before serving as a museum, this building was a real sheriff’s office and jail. Take some time to admire the museum’s authentic architecture as you marvel over its equally fascinating Gold Rush artifacts. Other major historic buildings to check out in Sonora include the Tuolumne County Courthouse, the Opera Hall, and the Red Church.
For a little entertainment, while you’re in the city, there’s no better place to visit than the Sierra Repertory Theatre. Founded back in the 1850s, the Sierra Rep was originally called the Fallon House. Throughout the Gold Rush years, this local hotel/bar transformed into the center for live entertainment in the region. You can still see evidence of the historic architecture in and outside of the original Fallon House Theatre. Today, the Sierra Rep mostly stages contemporary and classic Broadway musicals.
Any other suggestions?
I’d love to get your feedback on my list! Have you visited any of these California cities? Did you enjoy that? Any that you would take off the list – or maybe ones that you think should be included? Leave me a comment to let me know!