Can't visit all of our 101 best California experiences? Don't miss the top 10 (2023)

This is part of “California 101,” our guide to the best experiences across the state.

What separates our favorite travel destinations from the rest? The way memories linger.

I hope you’ll get out to every spot on the 101 best California experiences list, which celebrates just how much there is to see and do here. (Print out our checklist in color or in black and white.) But if you’re looking for a short list — maybe you want to give visitors a taste of this state without involving the Hollywood sign — I’ve picked 10 places that resonate most deeply for me. This is the list that, after having covered California travel, nature and culture for more than 30 years, I find myself reciting most often.

Can't visit all of our 101 best California experiences? Don't miss the top 10 (1)

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I feel a certain depth in these places, and usually ease too, perhaps because nobody needs to sell them. You show up, take a deep breath, listen a little, have a look around, and you are reminded of your good luck — our good luck — in calling California home.

1. Emerald Bay State Park, Lake Tahoe

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A sunrise over Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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I’ve been here three or four times and it’s always been gorgeous, but never the same way twice. On the most recent visit, last fall, I got up early to shoot sunrise photos, steered through bursts of rain to Inspiration Point above the bay, then watched the clouds part. The sunbeams came flooding in, the bay began to glow and a rainbow arched above. The scent of wet forest hung in the air. At that moment, besides me, there were two families at the point and some of the kids were dancing around in the tiny parking lot. I looked at the parents and they looked back in silent triumph. Nobody wants to get up early in the rain, but sometimes it pays off big.

2. Ferry Building and waterfront, San Francisco

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San Francisco’s Ferry Building sits along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been eating in the Ferry Building since its redevelopment in 2003 as a food-focused retail-and-restaurant complex — oysters from Hog Island, comfort food from Gott’s Roadside, neo-Vietnamese at the Slanted Door (which is supposed to reopen late this year).

Elsewhere along the waterfront, I’ve nodded along to live jazz at Pier 23, pedaled a bike out to Fort Point, savored the Golden Gate view from Torpedo Wharf and bought many snacks at the Warming Hut along the San Francisco Bay Trail bike path. And just about every walk by the water takes me back to an uneasy memory: One May day in 1987, some buddies and I walked out onto the Golden Gate Bridge to join its 50th-anniversary celebration. Way too many other people had the same idea. About 300,000 of us were stuck in pedestrian gridlock for hours and the bridge actually sagged under the weight. Even when it’s not cold, seeing that bridge makes me shiver a little at first. Then I perk up. I think that’s the upbeat orange paint job at work. (Thank you, Sherwin Williams.)

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3. Yosemite Valley

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Half Dome is reflected in the water in Yosemite Valley in winter.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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The valley’s Swinging Bridge Area (whose bridge doesn’t swing at all) is one of my favorite spots for pictures of Yosemite Falls. But I am also a big fan of the Wawona Swinging Bridge, 27 miles south and still inside park boundaries. And this one actually does swing, over a swimming hole. That’s where our friends Ed and Mona brought me, my wife, Mary Frances, our daughter, Grace, and a gaggle of my college buddies several years ago for an afternoon of snacking and soaking in the south fork of the Merced River. No tourist masses, just a bunch of old friends and their kids, flopping on the sun-dappled rocks.

4. Big Sur

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McWay Falls drops over an 80-foot cliff onto the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along California Highway 1 in Big Sur.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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I don’t believe I’ve ever visited Big Sur without dropping by Nepenthe restaurant. Not because of the food, which is fine. And not exactly because of the view, which is more than fine. Because of the way its neo-Bohemian, global-nomad vibe brings those elements together.

5. Badwater, Death Valley National Park

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Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.

(Andia / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I’ve caught sunrise from Zabriskie Point and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes — both great, golden memories. But neither matches the end-of-the-world feeling you get standing on the crusty salt floor of Badwater Basin as the sun drops, the sky darkens and awed tourists whisper in half a dozen languages. I listened to pianist Keith Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert” in my car on the way to one of my first sunsets there. Now every time I hear that album, I can close my eyes and see long shadows at Badwater.

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In and near Hidden Valley Campground, Joshua Tree National Park.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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In May 2020, when the first round of pandemic closures eased and several national parks abruptly reopened, thousands of Californians went rushing to camp somewhere, anywhere. I came to Hidden Valley. Pretty soon every campsite was full. I hopped from campfire to campfire with my notebook, mask and camera, listening to city people and their kids tell how they dropped everything so they could take a few free breaths among these big boulders and beseeching trees.

7. South Fork, American River, near Placerville

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River guide Kyle Brazil in the South Fork of the American River, near Coloma.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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When I was 10, my family and I joined an outfitter’s two-day rafting-camping trip on this stretch of river. I remember loving the tumult of the rapids, the idea that right around here, someone saw something shiny, started the Gold Rush, changed the world. I also remember being awed by the worldly wit of two older TV writers (in their 20s) who were part of our group. Almost 50 years later, I joined another outfitter on the same route. No witty TV writers. But between bouts of white water, the young woman behind me (in her 20s) told me how she’d just kicked heroin and rejoined her family. As the saying goes, you never step into the same river twice. Maybe that’s why these waters call to me the way they do. And even though the rapids look a lot smaller now, they’re still a thrill.

8. Grand Central Market, Los Angeles

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Activity and foot traffic peaks during lunchtime at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Since the Los Angeles Times building was a few blocks from here for about 25 years, I’ve seen this food hall from every angle in bad times and good. Now the market is livelier and more prosperous than ever before — but since I no longer work downtown, I only get the occasional glimpse and taste. I do love the weighty combination plates from Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, but I miss the steady relationship.

9. Torrey Pines Gliderport, La Jolla

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Torrey Pines Beach in La Jolla is a dramatic landscape.

(Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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As a teenager down on the beach below, I used to throw Frisbees and body-surf for hours. Nowadays, visiting from out of town, I head for the bluffs, admire the stark design of the Salk Institute on the way in, grab a picnic table and treat my family to $7 sandwiches from the Cliffhanger Cafe. While we chew, the hang-glider pilots run and leap into the wind, 350 feet above the waves. This place always makes me happy.

10. Chicano Park, San Diego

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Chicano Park, known as the geographic and emotional heart of Barrio Logan, is in Logan Heights in San Diego.

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(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For years, I zoomed over Chicano Park on the bridge to Coronado, even though I knew there were supposed to be cool murals down below. This was partly because Barrio Logan had a reputation as a tough neighborhood, but mostly I was just lazy. Still, I did get there eventually, and loved all that infrastructural concrete filled with bright colors and Chicano imagery. Now the neighborhood has sprouted so many cafes, galleries and restaurants that some people are nervous about gentrification, and all sorts of visitors come. A few years ago, I joined a few dozen tourists, almost all seniors, who had come straight from a Princess cruise ship, bypassing the rest of San Diego’s visitor attractions, to eye the murals and eat tacos. Here’s to destinations that never stand still. Neither should we.

FAQs

What should you not miss when visiting California? ›

Top Attractions in California
  • The Getty Center. 14,636. Speciality Museums. ...
  • Alcatraz Island. 55,840. Historic Sites • Islands. ...
  • USS Midway Museum. 25,310. ...
  • Pacific Coast Highway. 1,670. ...
  • Disney California Adventure Park. 15,660. ...
  • Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. 9,390. ...
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium. 14,347. ...
  • Santa Barbara County Courthouse. 2,988.

What is the number one place to visit in California? ›

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the top must-see places in all of America, not just California! Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it boasts a wide range of attractions, including five cascading 1,000-foot waterfalls, imposing sequoia trees, and 13 spacious campgrounds. What is this?

What part of California should I visit for the first time? ›

Where should you go when visiting California for the first time? Our advice to first time visitors to California is to start your trip in one of the big cities with major airports—San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego.

How many days is enough for California? ›

How Many Days You Should Spend in California? Five days in California is enough to see major attractions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. We recommend spending at least ten days in the state, as you can visit additional places like Big Sur and Lake Tahoe, as well as major national parks like Yosemite.

What can you get in California that you can't get anywhere else? ›

Along the way, you will journey through some of the most magnificent scenery you could stumble upon.
...
Did You Know? Things In California You Won't Find Elsewhere
  1. Golden Gate Bridge.
  2. Griffith Observatory. ...
  3. Hollywood. ...
  4. Humboldt County's bewildering redwood forests. ...
  5. Napa Valley, Sonoma County. ...
19 May 2017

What is the most popular beach in California? ›

Santa Monica Beach and Pier

Arguably California's most famous beach, Santa Monica features 3.5 miles of sand, stunning sunsets, and mountain views.

Whats the most beautiful city in California? ›

Santa Barbara is tucked away on the Pacific Coast, ninety minutes north of Los Angeles. Known as the Queen of Missions, it just might be the most beautiful city in California. The picturesque city was flatted after a major earthquake in 1925.

What is the cheapest month to visit California? ›

High season is considered to be June and July. The cheapest month to fly to California is January.

What's the cheapest city in California to visit? ›

Sacramento

Sacramento, the capital of California is a great place to visit for a cheap vacation. The city has plenty of affordable hotels and restaurants, and there are also lots of things to do in the area. One of the best ways to enjoy Sacramento is by taking a walk or bike ride through the city.

What is the best month to go to California? ›

The best time to visit California is summertime from June to August. This is the peak tourism season for the state for good reason. Every part of the state is accessible, making hikes and outdoor adventures in the northern regions possible with mild, comfortable temperatures.

How much money do you need to have a good time in California? ›

In total, expect your average California trip cost to be about $95-155 per person per day if you want to visit on a budget. While there are certainly ways that you can cut down on costs and not spend that much, this is the budget to stick to if you want to cut costs in some ways and splurge in others.

How much money do you need a month to live in California? ›

According to BEA statistics, you'll need an income with at least $46,636 per year of take-home pay just to meet the average cost of living in California. That works out to about $3,886 per month.

What salary do you need in California? ›

What is a livable salary for a single person in California? A living wage for a single person in California with no children is $21.82 per hour or $45,385 per year, assuming a 40-hour workweek.

Is there anywhere in California that is affordable? ›

If you're looking for affordable places to live in California, the northern part of the state is your best bet as the cost of living in Northern California is much lower than in SoCal. And some of the cheapest places to live in California, like Eureka also offer some of the best quality of life.

Where in California do you not need a car? ›

Best cities to live without a car in California

San Francisco, 1. Oakland, 7. Los Angeles, 16. Irvine, 17.

Is it illegal to spit on the ground in California? ›

It is unlawful for any person to spit or expectorate any secretion, saliva, or other substance in any place open to the public, upon any street, alleyway, walkway, gully, telephone booth, park or other public way, or in any parking lot to which the public has access, in or upon any premises, public property or vacant ...

What is the most beautiful beach town in California? ›

Mendocino is notably the most beautiful beach town in California. It is famed for its picturesque seaside cottages and charming atmosphere.

What is the safest beach in California? ›

Coronado Beach is also the safest beach in California for swimming. Towards the shore, the waves are very gentle, the waters are usually calm and clear that you can easily see what you're stepping on. It also features numerous lifeguard stations, making the area safer.

What is the prettiest mission in California? ›

Santa Barbara Mission is known as The "Queen of the Missions" for its beautiful architecture and commanding presence on a hill with views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains. Founded in 1786 as the tenth mission, it still functions as the cultural heart of Santa Barbara.

What is the most luxurious place in California? ›

Atherton. Located 45 minutes south of San Francisco and 20 minutes away from Silicon Valley, Atherton is an incorporated town in San Mateo County. Not only is Atherton is the most expensive town in California, but it also holds the title of most expensive in the United States.

What is the cleanest city in California? ›

Only one California city ranked among the list of top 25 cities with the least amount of particle pollution: Salinas in Monterey County. The ten U.S. cities with the cleanest air, free of particle pollution are: Urban Honolulu, Hawaii.

What is the happiest place on earth in California? ›

Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California is where the Disney dream began in 1955 and it's still the 'Happiest Place on Earth', never failing to impress with fun attractions for every member of the family.

What is the happiest place in California? ›

Concord recorded a happiness score of 79.14 out of 100. Data from the study found that 74.41% of people in Concord were smiling in their photos — the highest percentage in the nation.

What is the most scenic drive in California? ›

The Highway 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, road trip that passes through Big Sur on California's Central Coast is perhaps the most famous scenic drive in the Golden State.

Where do the rich stay in California? ›

Los Altos Hills

With a median income of $251,000 at the beginning of 2022, the town just edges out Woodside and Hillsborough. Los Altos Hills has been the wealthiest in California since 2019 (prior, it was in fourth place). Located in Silicon Valley, Los Altos Hills has 8,000 residents, many of whom work in tech.

What is the clearest beach in California? ›

If you want to experience the clearest water in California, where you can snorkel, kayak, swim, and have a crystal clear view of the marine life in the water, then you're going to fall in love La Jolla Cove Beach, the clearest beach in California.

What is the cheapest day of the week to fly to California? ›

So what are the cheapest days to fly? Typically, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday is the cheapest day to fly. If you can structure your travel schedule around these days, these will likely be the best days to fly – both for a lower cost and a less hectic airport experience.

What is the cheapest way to travel around California? ›

Almost all cities and larger towns in California have reliable local bus systems (average $1.50 to $3 per ride). Buses are usually the cheapest and slowest option, but you'll typically find extensive metro-area networks around big cities.

What is the cheapest month to visit Los Angeles? ›

High season is considered to be June and July. The cheapest month to fly from United States is January. Enter your preferred departure airport and travel dates into the search form above to unlock the latest Los Angeles flight deals.

Where is the cheapest but nicest place to live in California? ›

Ventura in Los Angeles is an affordable California beach town to live in if you want to be somewhere with beautiful views and charming weather. Some other inexpensive coastal cities to live in California are Long Beach, San Pedro, and Eureka.

What is the least affordable city in California? ›

Study shows San Diego now the least affordable city for home-buying in California. San Diego bypassed Los Angeles and San Francisco based on people's income and the price of single-family homes.

What is California's rainiest month? ›

December, January and February are typically the wettest months in the Golden State, with 75 percent of the state's annual precipitation falling between November and March.

What is the coolest month in California? ›

Your answer: December is the coldest month in California, closely followed by January and February. Taking averages across the state, December, January and February are the coldest months in California.

What month has the least rain in California? ›

The drier season lasts 8.0 months, from August 26 to April 27. The month with the fewest wet days in California is October, with an average of 7.1 days with at least 0.04 inches of precipitation.

What does Prop 57 mean for inmates? ›

By approving Proposition 57, voters agreed to allow early parole opportunities for certain inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. The parole board isn't required to let them out — it can just consider their cases sooner.

What is the take home salary for $100 000 in California? ›

If you make $100,000 a year living in the region of California, USA, you will be taxed $29,959. That means that your net pay will be $70,041 per year, or $5,837 per month. Your average tax rate is 30.0% and your marginal tax rate is 42.6%.

How much is enough to retire in California? ›

You will need a few sources of income coming in monthly to pay for these costs: Social Security Income: A couple would bring in an average of $3,086 per month. Level Income Annuity: $360,000 in retirement savings would generate an additional $1,540.00 monthly.

How much does a single person making $50000 get taxed in California? ›

If you make $50,000 a year living in the region of California, USA, you will be taxed $7,917. Your average tax rate is 8.59% and your marginal tax rate is 12%.

What state has the lowest cost of living? ›

Mississippi

Coming in as the cheapest state to live in in the United States is Mississippi with a cost of living index score of 83.3. It also has the lowest average housing costs in the nation at 33.7% below the national average.

How much should a single person spend on groceries in a month? ›

The average cost of food per month for one person ranges from $150 to $300, depending on age. However, these national averages vary based on where you live and the quality of your food purchases. Here's a monthly grocery budget for the average family.

What is a wealthy salary in California? ›

To be financially comfortable in Southern California, you'd need a net worth of $1.3 million. Here's what it takes to be considered wealthy in 2022 by city ans ranked by net worth thresholds: San Francisco: $5.1 million. Southern California (includes Los Angeles and San Diego): $3.9 million. New York City: $3.4 million.

What is a livable salary in California? ›

Living Wage Calculation for California
1 ADULT2 ADULTS (BOTH WORKING)
0 Children2 Children
Living Wage$21.82$30.54
Poverty Wage$6.19$6.37
Minimum Wage$15.00$15.00

What is a good salary for a single person in California? ›

A survey from Purdue University and GoBankingRates.com found that you need a minimum annual salary of $149,310 to be happy in California, citing "California's notoriously high cost of living."

What do I need to know before going to California? ›

What to Know for Visiting California
  • You'll have connectivity everywhere. ...
  • You'll pay for shopping bags. ...
  • Beat your credit card fees. ...
  • Plan for day trips. ...
  • You'll want a car. ...
  • Check the weather. ...
  • There are special-needs-friendly attractions. ...
  • Stop and enjoy the wine.
28 Feb 2020

What are 5 things California is known for? ›

One of the most popular destinations in all of North America, California is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, and Hollywood. Other things unique to California are Coachella, the Wine Country, Silicon Valley, and Surf Culture, in addition to less obvious sights and cultural aspects.

What do you miss about California? ›

Fresh seafood, stunning coastal views, and a natural regulator for a mild climate. Having the Pacific as your neighbor has endless benefits. It isn't until you leave the coast and are in a landlocked state that you realize how much you miss the salty ocean breeze and being able to drive down the PCH at sunset.

What should I avoid in LA? ›

12 Things Not to Do in LA
  • DON'T VISIT RODEO DRIVE! ...
  • DON'T DO A STARS' HOUSES TOUR! ...
  • DON'T GET YOUR PRONUNCIATION OF LA PLACE NAMES WRONG! ...
  • DON'T ASK LOCALS WHERE YOU CAN FIND MOVIE-STARS! ...
  • DON'T BELIEVE THAT LA IS A CRIME-RIDDEN POST-APOCALYPTIC MESS. ...
  • DON'T BOTHER TRYING TO FIND AN OUTLET STORE!

What should I bring on my trip to California? ›

What to Pack for California
  • 1. California Guidebook. ...
  • Sunglasses. ...
  • Sunscreen. ...
  • Flats (or Sneakers) ...
  • Boots. ...
  • Reusable Bags. ...
  • Water Bottle. ...
  • Light Jacket or Rain Shell.
22 Feb 2021

Do you need PCR test to enter California? ›

Are COVID-19 tests required to travel to California? COVID test is not required when arriving in the US. All arrivals to California, including citizens and residents, are recommended to present a negative PCR test upon arrival. Vaccinated arrivals from any country can enter as tourists.

What is the most important event in California history? ›

The Gold Rush

Just prior to California becoming a state in the union, the most well known and impactful event in the history of California took place: the discovery of gold in 1848.

Can you wear red in Los Angeles? ›

Can I wear red and blue clothes in Los Angeles? You should better not wear clothes in red and blue colors. Although people in Los Angeles can also wear clothes with these colors. They just need to avoid having any interaction with the gangs or walk into these gangs' areas.

What is the roughest part of LA? ›

Los Angeles' most dangerous neighborhoods
  • South Los Angeles. South LA is a dangerous area due to drug trafficking and gang violence. ...
  • west adams. ...
  • Watts. ...
  • Skid Row. ...
  • Chinese district. ...
  • Compton - Dangerous town South of LA.

Where Should tourists avoid in LA? ›

Most of L.A. is safe, but there are a few neighborhoods that are dangerous at any time of the day. Skid Row, Lincoln Heights, Watts, Crenshaw, Chinatown, Park Mesa Heights, and West Adams. Also, it's very easy to just wander into a bad neighborhood. Areas can change in a block or two, so don't explore if you're lost.

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