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21 Of The Best Places To Visit In California, From Someone Who Actually Lives There

Sun-soaked beaches, snowcapped mountains, and everything in between.

Beaches, mountains, forests, lakes, deserts, vineyards, and Disneyland — it's not hard to see why nearly 12% of the US population calls the Golden State home. Here are 20 of the best places California has to offer, straight from a local. (Me!)

Beaches in Malibu
Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

1. Capitola

Colorful houses lining the shore at Capitola
Yuval Helfman / Getty Images/EyeEm

Less than 5 miles away from Santa Cruz, this little European-esque town is known as the oldest beach town on the West Coast. Whether hanging by the water or exploring the small local shops, it's ideal for a laid-back getaway. 

2. Big Sur

Photo of Bixby Bridge at Big Sur
Kathy Dee / Getty Images/EyeEm

Take in the natural beauty of this mountainous coastal area by hiking or camping, or pamper yourself at some of the area's more romantic hotels

3. San Diego

Downtown San Diego
Daniel Knighton / Getty Images

Just before you exit California and head into Mexico is San Diego. The coast at La Jolla is absolutely stunning, and La Jolla Village is filled with shops and restaurants. San Diego is also home to a naval base, and you can climb aboard the USS Midway, which has been converted into a museum. There are also plenty of family-friendly attractions like the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.

4. Channel Islands

Snorkelers and fish swim in the water
Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

You'll feel like you're in a totally different world when visiting this string of islands off the coast. They're accessible by boat, and they're perfect for a day of hiking and bird-watching, and you might even see a whale! Most of the islands have next to nothing (like, not even cell service), so be prepared with everything you need if you want to visit. If you're not ready to be totally self-reliant, Catalina is the only island with residents, stores, hotels, and even a casino. 

5. Carmel-by-the-Sea

China Cove in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Michael Marfell / Getty Images

This famous coastal town has beautiful beaches and is a perfect place to go to escape the heat in summer. Visit the historic Carmel Mission, check out some wineries, or pack a lunch and hike to catch a peek at seals in China Cove or Gibson Beach. 

6. Mammoth Mountain

View of trees and Mammoth Mountain
Oliver Helbig / Getty Images

While the snow slopes aren't there, Mammoth Mountain still is a great place to visit in summer for backpacking, hiking, fly fishing, and biking. The Mammoth Adventure Center organizes some great outdoor activities, and if some time indoors is your thing, check out the Mammoth Rock 'N' Bowl

7. Los Angeles

View of Downtown Los Angeles
Peter Stark / Getty Images/fStop

Where do we even start? The Lakers. The Rose Bowl. The Getty. The Hollywood sign. Venice Beach. Griffith Observatory. Los Angeles has it all, and we've talked about it here, here, and here

8. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

View from the rim of Kings Canyon, a canyon located at the western end of the George Gill Range in the Northern Territory
Christopher Groenhout / Getty Images

While the Redwoods are the tallest, the Sequoias are BIG (we're talking up to 600 tons). And believe it or not, at 8,200 feet down, Kings Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon. 

9. Santa Barbara

Garden in front of Santa Barbara Old Mission
Ron And Patty Thomas / Getty Images

Naturally, this coastal town attracts beach-goers. However, Santa Barbara offers even more. Visit the historic Old Mission, take a stroll through the 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, or get out on the water with a kayak tour. 

10. San Francisco

Fog flowing across the Golden Gate Bridge as seen from the Marin Headlands in San Francisco, California.
Dan Kurtzman / Getty Images

San Francisco is only 49 square miles, but there is a LOT to cover in a visit here. Get some culture by checking out the city's many museums and art galleries. The Exploratorium, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Legion of Honor are all highly recommended. And maybe it's the most obvious, but you've got to lace up your sneakers and walk across the 1.7-mile, world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. 

11. Lake Tahoe

A Young Couple Parked Van at a Viewpoint of Lake Tahoe
Adamkaz / Getty Images

Lake Tahoe is beautiful year-round, but in summer visitors take full advantage of the warm waters with jet skiing, boating, swimming, and hiking. Heavenly Gondola is the best way to get a breathtaking view of the lake. 

12. Redwood National and State Parks

Photo taken in Redwoods, United States
Jessica Carpenter / Getty Images/EyeEm

These aren't just *any* trees, y'all. These are the tallest trees in the world! These things can grow to be over 360 feet! Even if you're not the "outdoorsy" type, this would be worth the trek. 

13. Big Bear Lake

View of mountains and rock formations along Big Bear Lake
Ali Majdfar / Getty Images

Big Bear a great place for summer water sports and is especially popular among fishers. This man-made lake is filled with bass, trout, catfish, and more. 

14. Yosemite National and State Park

Photo taken in Yosemite Valley, United States
Sabine Schmuck / Getty Images/EyeEm

Take in these breathtaking views of famous mountains like the Half Dome and El Capitan this summer. Camping is probably the most popular thing to do, but if that's not your vibe, then enjoy a hike, and head to Yosemite Village for shops, restaurants, and indoor dwellings. 

15. Joshua Tree National Park

Evening view of the Milky Way in Joshua Tree National Park
Schroptschop / Getty Images

Now, look. Going to the desert in the dead of summer might not be the *best* idea ever, but if you really want to do it, Joshua Tree is where to go (please don't go to Death Valley). Make sure to stay hydrated, and don't attempt long hikes in the desert heat. At night, your breath will be taken away by the Milky Way. 

16. Palm Springs

The Morse Home designed by architect Hal Levitt and featuring an Avanti Studebaker in Palm Springs, California on February 12, 2020.
Jim Steinfeldt / Getty Images

A desert alternative to Joshua Tree would be Palm Springs. Here you'll find plenty of golf courses, fancy hotels, luxurious spas, and art galleries. Go on and get your shopping in at Palm Canyon Drive, or check out what's called The Rodeo Drive of the Desert

17. Napa Valley

Red wine in front of vineyards
Edsel Querini / Getty Images

I don't have to go into detail because we already know what Napa is all about. Hop on that Napa Valley Wine Train, and enjoy being on a 36-mile trip where you only stop for wineries and food. 

18. Paso Robles

Pelletiere Estate Winery at Twilight, Paso Robles, California, United States.
Don Smith / Getty Images

Paso Robles is a beautiful Napa alternative. Besides wineries, there are a number of olive farms, and you NEED to sign up for olive oil tasting. Trust me, the stuff you get at the store is not the same. Also unleash your inner equestrian with horseback riding, and then relax in outdoor mineral tubs at River Oaks Hot Springs

19. Laguna Beach

Person surfs waves at Laguna Beach
Mitch Diamond / Getty Images

Come to this Orange County city for beautiful coastal walks, coves, and beaches (duh! look at that water!), and also take time to check out the Laguna Art Museum

20. Long Beach

Two people on a jetski are seen in the water, while a runner passes by along Shoreline Aquatic Park, with the Queen Mary ship in the distance, docked in Long Beach, CA,
Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Home to the Queen Mary, Acura Grand Prix, Snoop Dogg, and myself, Long Beach is a down-to-earth beach city, and every neighborhood feels like its own little town. Long Beach also has a great art culture, and In Various Forms is one of the latest galleries to open. Can't wait to check it out! 

21. Disneyland, Anaheim

Mickey Mouse poses in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Park
Handout / Walt Disney Resorts via Getty Images

Yes, Disneyland is on the list. Of course. 

Did we leave anything out? What are your favorite places in California?

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