50 photos reveal why California’s attractions are unmissable

So-called ‘drip pricing’ can make it difficult to determine the total cost of airline tickets and vacation rentals.
Desoto is the place to go if you want to be surrounded by the natural beauty of Northeast Alabama. Set in and around Lookout Mountain, this state park sparkles each autumn as splashes of fall color mix with the soothing splish-splash from its gorgeous natural waterfalls.
Slide 1 of 51: As you’d expect from the third-largest state in the US, California brims with all manner of incredible attractions. From theme parks to natural wonders and ghost towns to castles, we've selected the top 50 spots in the Golden State that should be on your bucket list.
Slide 2 of 51: Disney doesn't do anything by halves and its gargantuan resort in Southern California is no exception. The resort consists of two theme parks: Disneyland Park, the older of the pair, and Disneyland California Adventure. Each are made up of whimsical 'lands', from Fantasyland, filled with fairy tale castles and characters, to glitzy Hollywood Land with its bright lights and red carpets. Pixar Pier, dedicated to animated characters such as WALL-E, is the latest addition.
Slide 3 of 51: Perhaps the Golden State's most lauded natural wonder, Half Dome rises from the Yosemite Valley at 5,000 feet. Thousands embark on the epic hike towards the monolith each year, finishing their trek by clambering up the rock face itself using the metal cables provided. Those happy to see the formation from a distance should make for Tunnel View, a popular spot that affords views of El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall too.
Slide 4 of 51: One of the most photographed sights in California, Golden Gate Bridge's mighty red span stretches 1.7 miles over the strait. But it's more than just a photo opportunity. Built in 1937, the structure is a remarkable feat of engineering and its near 750-foot towers and 7,000-foot-long cables were thought to be impossible when the initial design was proposed. However, some 81 years later, tourists and locals alike enjoy walking or biking along its great expanse.
Slide 5 of 51: Watching over the world's most sought-after neighborhood, the Hollywood sign has become a symbol of the glitz, glamor and excesses of Tinseltown. Perched on Mount Lee since 1923, the sign's 44-foot letters can be seen from across town. Get a good view of them from Mulholland Drive, before taking on the gentle hike to Mount Lee's summit where you can drink in the glittering sprawl of Hollywood while inspecting the famed sign up close.
Slide 6 of 51: Joshua Tree National Park spans the Mojave and the Colorado deserts, covering nearly 800,000 acres – so there's plenty to do. Scramble up to Keys View, the highest vantage point in Joshua Tree National Park, and take in the lunar-like landscapes of the Coachella Valley. Spot Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio looming above the land too. Beyond the views, horseback riding and hiking are favored activities.
Slide 7 of 51: With its bustling boardwalk and powder-white sands, Venice Beach has no trouble pulling in the crowds. Take in the street performers, roving artists and souvenir hawkers on the boardwalk, before settling on the sand, ice cream in hand. Once you've had your fill of the beach, head into Venice Beach town to soak up the bohemian vibe.
Slide 8 of 51: San Diego's zoo remains one of the world's most revered, both for its conservation and research, and the variety of species that call it home. The site is divided into a range of zones from 'Elephant Odyssey', where both African and Asian elephants reside, to 'Outback', where you can spot camels and koalas. Embark on an 'Inside Look Tour' so you can discover how handlers care for the species here and see some of them up close.
Slide 9 of 51: A famed stretch of the California coast, Big Sur, along Highway 1, wows with its rock-peppered sands and dizzying Bixby Bridge. Last year, extreme weather caused damage to the route and a portion of Highway 1 was closed for 16 months, only recently reopening. You'll find it difficult to keep your eyes on the road here, so stop at one of the many vantage points along the way. To really make the most of the area, pitch up at Big Sur Campground for the night.
Slide 10 of 51: Astronomy lovers should leave the stars of Tinseltown behind them and gaze up at the real thing at the Griffith Observatory. See the cosmos up-close with the site's state-of-the-art telescopes and hear a talk at the planetarium, before drinking in vistas of a glittering La-La Land. Regular exhibits include interactive galleries and photography.
Slide 11 of 51: Of all the glorious groves in Sequoia National Park, the Giant Forest is the biggest hitter. Amid the trunks is the enormous General Sherman Tree which, at 275 feet tall with a 36-foot diameter at its widest point, is the largest living tree on the planet. Wander within the woodland before heading to the Giant Forest Museum, where you can learn more about this fascinating portion of the park, from the trees themselves to the humans who have relied upon them throughout history.
Slide 12 of 51: For a sobering dose of history, head to Alcatraz Island. Originally built as a lighthouse, the ill-famed penitentiary operated from 1934 to 1963, housing some of America's most notorious felons. Al Capone and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud were both imprisoned here, and today guided tours allow a peek inside the famous cellhouse. Current exhibit 'Alcatraz: The Last Day' captures the day the prison finally closed its doors in black and white photography.
Slide 13 of 51: Kitsch and colorful, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk dates back to 1865, when John Leibrandt built a bathhouse here. Amusements and refreshment stands soon began to surround the baths and gradually (with the help of then-mayor Fred W. Swanton) the boardwalk morphed into the pleasure park we see today. The chintzy carousel is a crowd-pleaser, as are the secret-recipe corn dogs.
Slide 14 of 51: Built in the 18th century, Santa Barbara's mission remains the city's top attraction. A beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture, the sand, white and terracotta building has earned itself the moniker the “Queen of the Missions". It was established in 1786, and today remains an active church, with a complementing museum. Visitors can also explore the carefully-kept grounds, which stretch for 12 acres, and take advantage of the guided tours that leave five times per week.
Slide 15 of 51: At almost 300 feet below sea level, this is the lowest point in North America. You'll find these vast salt flats at the southern end of Death Valley National Park, a 20-minute drive from Furnace Creek with its popular visitor center and resort. Beware of visiting Death Valley in the summertime though, when the heat of the day can be intense, and opt instead for the more moderate shoulder seasons.
Slide 16 of 51: While often overlooked in favor of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Sacramento is California's capital and it has bags to offer. The capitol building itself is the major highlight. Admire its Greek-influenced Neoclassical façade, before ducking into the museum where you'll discover the state's history in one fell swoop. Daily tours leave on the hour, and a Kids Zone means the little ones will be entertained too.
Slide 17 of 51: Perched at the ocean's edge, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most popular in the States. The center cares for species from turtles to sea otters and the daily feeding shows are a winner with kids. Their conservation work is also celebrated with efforts including programs to tackle plastic in the ocean and bids to implement sustainable fishing policies. Guided tours are available for a small fee, although you can wander between tanks independently, or arrange a sleepover for the family.
Slide 18 of 51: The smell of sulfur hangs in the air at Bumpass Hell with 16 acres of bubbling, belching mud pots and steaming hot pools within Lassen Volcanic National Park. The geothermal area is named after Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, an early explorer whose leg was seared as he stumbled across the site. Today a wooden boardwalk transports visitors across the volcanic landscapes and you'll finish up at a vantage point with stunning views of Mount Tehama.
Slide 19 of 51: A theme park and a working film studio, Universal Studios Hollywood is larger than life on every account. Highlights include the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which brings the magic of J K Rowling's stories to life and The Simpsons Ride, a looping, lurching zip through Springfield. Don't miss the 'Studio Tour' for a behind-the-scenes view of some of the world's biggest blockbusters.
Slide 20 of 51: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area protects more than 82,000 acres and Muir Woods remains one of the most popular spots. The primeval redwood forest is a joy to wander, sewn with six miles of hiking trails often opening out into sun-dappled glades. A reservation system is now in place here, so you'll need to plan ahead.
Slide 21 of 51: One of the finest art institutions in the state, the Getty was founded by entrepreneur J. Paul Getty in the early 50s. Some 70 years later, the Getty Center holds an impressive collection of ancient antiquities, European fine art and world photography. Admission is free, and it's worth spending some time in the ornamental Central Garden too.
Slide 22 of 51: A National Natural Landmark since 1969, it's not difficult to see how this park earned its name thanks to the fir-tree framed sapphire lake. There are a couple of campsites should you want to overnight here and keen divers can discover the shipwrecks of times gone by beneath the water. Make time to visit Vikingsholm Castle, a 20th-century mansion of Scandinavian design, built for philanthropist Lora Josephine Knight.
Slide 23 of 51: Huntington Beach is affectionately known as 'Surf City', and this particular strand is home to several surf competitions each year including the Vans US Open of Surfing, the largest in the States. For those who prefer to stay on land, there are plenty of volleyball courts and fire pits to keep warm in the evening breeze. The photogenic Huntington Beach Pier juts nearly 2,000 feet into the ocean and is best snapped when silhouetted against a dramatic sunset.
Slide 24 of 51: The USS Midway Museum is home to around 30 restored aircraft, from naval helicopters deployed in the Vietnam War to jet airplanes used in the Cold War. Exhibits also give visitors a glimpse into the life of the crew who worked below deck on navy and other ships, plus opportunities to see inside recreated captains' and admirals' cabins. The museum is open year round and the admission fee includes an audio device for a self-guided tour.
Slide 25 of 51: A bizarre sight, the Devils Postpile National Monument is thought to be the remnants of lava that flowed through the Reds Meadow Valley and cooled into this curious shape. Once presumed to have been created many millennia ago, more recent studies indicate the Devils Postpile was born in the last 100,000 years. A gentle hike of less than half a mile leads visitors to the base of the monument. Then those with a head for heights can tackle the last 15 minutes to the summit.
Slide 26 of 51: If you're looking for something a little more small-scale than the parks of Disney or Universal, Knott's Berry Farm is a fine family alternative. It has no shortage of thrill rides, from the red and yellow loops of the Silver Bullet coaster to the newly-opened HangTime, touted as the only dive coaster in the state. There's also Soak City, the onsite waterpark, plus plenty of tamer rides for pint-sized adrenalin junkies.
Slide 27 of 51: Glass Beach is a little different to California's usual champagne-colored sandy stretches, but it's beautiful nonetheless. Lovely as it may look today, the beach is actually the product of years of trash, rounded down by the ocean then spat out onto the shore. Be sure to pay the Sea Glass Museum a visit to find out more about this fascinating phenomenon and remember not to remove any stones from the beach.
Slide 28 of 51: Mount Shasta soars from the Cascades to 14,179 feet and these head-spinning heights remain the reserve of the most daring climbers. The volcano last erupted in 1786 and it's still one of the most active in the range. If heights aren't your bag, you can get a mighty fine view of the peak from ground level. Take the road from Mount Shasta City to gaze up at the monolith or, come wintertime, go skiing at Mount Shasta Ski Park.
Slide 29 of 51: A huge store of Californian art sits alongside European masterpieces at this Sacramento institution. The collection began as a private one, gathered by the Crocker family and Margaret Crocker (the widow of California notable Judge Edwin B Crocker) and presented to the state in 1885. Today the core collection is complemented by a range of temporary exhibitions, which range from striking contemporary displays to interactive exhibits aimed at the kids.
Slide 30 of 51: There's something about an American ghost town that stirs the imagination and Bodie, to the east of the state near the border with Nevada, is no exception. After William S. Bodey, the first inhabitant, discovered gold nearby in 1859, the town grew rapidly, with 10,000 people calling Bodie home by 1880. Today however, the only visitors are tourists and park officials and it's best to call ahead to double-check opening times before your trip.
Slide 31 of 51: Pier 39 was first constructed back in 1977 and since then has been a cornerstone of the San Franciscan waterfront, attracting tourists with its much-loved sea lions and loud, proud attractions. You'll find the Aquarium of the Bay here, home to 20,000 sea species, plus the Sea Lion Center, where you can learn more about Pier 39's most famous residents. Once you've had your fill of the attractions, there are plenty of restaurants and bars to round off a day's exploration.
Slide 32 of 51: America has only a few fairy tale castles, and Hearst is one of the most enchanting. Along with architect Julia Morgan, media mogul William Randolph Hearst set about creating the estate in the first half of the 20th century, eventually abandoning the project due to poor health. Today, visitors can explore the castle and its surrounds, including the Neptune Pool and the theater, on guided tours. (Discover more of America's most beautiful castles with our pick of the best.)
Slide 33 of 51: Redwood National Park has a lot going for it. Home to some of the tallest trees in the world, it's fringed by 40 miles of California coastline and has more than 200 miles of backcountry trails. The best spot to soak up the sea views is from High Bluff Overlook, along Coastal Drive, which offers panoramas across the windswept Pacific coast. There are also 12 campsites, of varied ruggedness, across the park.
Slide 34 of 51: Napa Valley is an oenophile's dream, home to upwards of 400 wineries. One of the most unique spots here is Castello di Amorosa, a Tuscan-inspired castle offering tours and tastings of their award-winning wines. A favorite is the 'Food and Wine Tour', where you'll explore the Castello before sampling a range of Italian-style reds and whites and feasting on artisan cheese.
Slide 35 of 51: San Diego's rambling Balboa Park has a long list of treasures, the San Diego Zoo included. But Centro Cultural de la Raza is something special. Covered with murals and filled with fascinating exhibits, the center is housed in a former water tower and is dedicated to showcasing Mexican, Latino, Chicano and indigenous cultures. Expect art displays, musical performances and theater and dance shows.
Slide 36 of 51: Laguna Beach's sun-kissed strands are the stuff of legend and Main Beach is the cream of the crop. Revered for its clear waters and champagne sands, the beach is prime sunbathing territory, with plenty of volleyball courts if you fancy getting active. Easy access from the beach to a slew of restaurants means you can comfortably make a day of it.
Slide 37 of 51: All sandy crescents and yacht-choked bays, Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles south-west of Los Angeles, moves at a slower pace than much of California. The Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens are the key attraction with the 38-acre site filled with plants native to the state. Go in search of the dramatic Wrigley Memorial: a concrete sculpture dedicated to William Wrigley Jr, the chewing gum entrepreneur who had a huge impact on the island throughout his life.
Slide 38 of 51: This white-washed building is the first of California's 21 Spanish missions, intended to convert the area’s population to Christianity. Established by Majorcan Father Junípero Serra, who arrived in what is now San Diego in 1769, this mission was named after 15th-century saint Didacus of Alcalá. Five years afterwards, drought forced the mission to move and all that remains of its original structure on Presidio Hill is a cross built from the ruins. However, you can visit the mission’s second iteration in its picturesque spot overlooking the San Diego River. It remains a working church, and it can be explored by guided tour.
Slide 39 of 51: The red and yellow Ferris wheel is the star of the show at the Santa Monica Pier. A true family playground, you'll find an aquarium, a classic games arcade and all manner of rides here. History buffs should join one of the free historical walking tours that run on Saturdays and Sundays.
Slide 40 of 51: Open to the public since 1932, this museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the culture of the native peoples of the Great Basin. You'll find the museum tucked in the stark Mojave Desert, with a 3,000-strong collection of objects and artworks and a peaceful picnic area. Keep an eye out for the special events here too including the Annual American Indian Celebration each October, complete with traditional music, food and art.
Slide 41 of 51: One of California's most underrated attractions, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway sweeps over the dramatic Chino Canyon and is the world's largest rotating tram car. Your ascent will peak at 8,516 feet, when you'll be dropped at the Mountain Station. Here you'll find incredible vantage points, a pair of restaurants and the backcountry hiking trails of Mount San Jacinto State Park.
Slide 42 of 51: You'd be hard pushed to find a museum that delves deeper into the state of California than this one. Exploring the Golden State's natural and human history, the museum holds more than 1.9 million objects of relevance to California. Displays include significant artworks, historical antiquities and natural phenomena. A highlight is the Gallery of the Natural Sciences, which educates visitors about Yosemite, the Coachella Valley and beyond.
Slide 43 of 51: One of the most beautiful wildflower reserves in the country, Antelope Valley's poppy fields stretch for 1,700 acres. Eight miles of trails lace the valley (check California State Parks website for updates on blooming times), and you can explore the visitor center to learn more about the flora. However tempting, make sure you don't pick the poppies – it's illegal to do so on state-owned property.
Slide 44 of 51: A picturesque pocket of the California coast, Natural Bridges State Beach is a great place to spy some local wildlife. Keep an eye out for sea birds, seals and even whales. Beyond the fauna, the Natural Bridge, a huge rock arch lapped by the tide, is the beach's defining feature. The Seymour Marine Discovery Center, a 15-minute walk away, is a good place to learn about the area's species too.
Slide 45 of 51: Every state has its kooky roadside attractions, and California's offerings are particular head turners. Here since 1975, Dinny the Dinosaur is the biggest of the bunch, an apatosaurus that's 150 feet in length. Once you've taken in the mammoth models, duck into the museum to learn about the real-life Prehistoric creatures and try fossil panning for yourself.
Slide 46 of 51: Part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, this beach is called 'Surfrider' for a reason. One of the best spots in the country, catch a wave or take a dip before relaxing with a picnic on the sand. Come evening time, the Malibu Pier is a lovely spot for a sunset stroll.
Slide 47 of 51: One of two LEGOLAND parks in the States, the California site is always adding attractions to its already impressive line-up. The latest is LEGO City: Deep Sea Adventure, a submarine ride alongside real-life creatures of the deep, including sharks and stingrays. There's also the LEGOLAND Water Park, with its slides and rapids, and a whole host of family-friendly coasters.
Slide 48 of 51: General Grant Tree is the major celebrity in this swathe of Kings Canyon National Park. Christened 'the Nation's Christmas Tree' by President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, the tree is the center of the festive celebrations in the park each year. It's an impressive sight as the base has a circumference of 107 feet and it reaches 268 feet in height. You can take in its great expanse on a range of hiking trails, including the scenic Dead Giant Loop Trail.
Slide 49 of 51: One of the most famous cruise ships in the world, the Queen Mary has a long history. Her maiden voyage was from Southampton, England in 1936 and her lavish restaurants and bars, pools and a grand ballroom set new standards for sea travel. Having made her name as the premier luxury liner, Queen Mary also served time during the Second World War, operating as a troopship. Her final voyage was in 1967 and today the ship is a museum and hotel with fascinating exhibitions and fine restaurants.
Slide 50 of 51: A cutting-edge art gallery in San Francisco, the de Young Museum describes itself as a place where "objects illuminate the past, speak of the present, and shape the future". It opened back in 1895, undergoing something of a facelift in 2005, and has remained the arts center of the city ever since. The collection includes centuries' worth of photography and American and world art, plus the institution is also committed to the conservation of historic works and artifacts.
Slide 51 of 51: Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Anacapa. Explore the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center in Ventura before venturing out by boat to the islands. Anacapa is one of the most charming and, at just five miles long and half a mile wide, it's home to several endemic species, including the cute-as-a-button Anacapa deer mouse. Look out for the shell middens left behind by the island's native inhabitants too. Check out our list of the top 50 things to do in Florida.

Top attractions in the Golden State

Disneyland Resort, Anaheim

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park

Venice Beach, Los Angeles

San Diego Zoo, San Diego

Big Sur, Central California

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz

Old Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

State Capitol, Sacramento

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey

Perched at the ocean’s edge, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the most popular in the States. The center cares for species from turtles to sea otters and the daily feeding shows are a winner with kids. Their conservation work is also celebrated with efforts including programs to tackle plastic in the ocean and bids to implement sustainable fishing policies. Guided tours are available for a small fee, although you can wander between tanks independently, or arrange a sleepover for the family.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Universal Studios Hollywood, San Fernando Valley

Muir Woods National Monument, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Getty Center, Los Angeles

Emerald Bay State Park, Lake Tahoe

Huntington City Beach, Huntington Beach

USS Midway Museum, San Diego

Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes

Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

Mount Shasta, Cascade Range

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

Bodie State Historic Park, Bodie Hills

Pier 39, San Francisco

Hearst Castle, San Simeon

America has only a few fairy tale castles, and Hearst is one of the most enchanting. Along with architect Julia Morgan, media mogul William Randolph Hearst set about creating the estate in the first half of the 20th century, eventually abandoning the project due to poor health. Today, visitors can explore the castle and its surrounds, including the Neptune Pool and the theater, on guided tours. (Discover more of America’s most beautiful castles with our pick of the best.)

High Bluff Overlook, Redwood National Park

Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga, Napa Valley

Centro Cultural de la Raza, Balboa Park, San Diego

Main Beach, Laguna Beach, Orange County

Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, Santa Catalina Island

Mission San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego

This white-washed building is the first of California’s 21 Spanish missions, intended to convert the area’s population to Christianity. Established by Majorcan Father Junípero Serra, who arrived in what is now San Diego in 1769, this mission was named after 15th-century saint Didacus of Alcalá. Five years afterwards, drought forced the mission to move and all that remains of its original structure on Presidio Hill is a cross built from the ruins. However, you can visit the mission’s second iteration in its picturesque spot overlooking the San Diego River. It remains a working church, and it can be explored by guided tour.

Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica

Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park, Lancaster

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Palm Springs

Oakland Museum of California, Oakland

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, Lancaster

One of the most beautiful wildflower reserves in the country, Antelope Valley’s poppy fields stretch for 1,700 acres. Eight miles of trails lace the valley (check California State Parks website for updates on blooming times), and you can explore the visitor center to learn more about the flora. However tempting, make sure you don’t pick the poppies – it’s illegal to do so on state-owned property.

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

Cabazon Dinosaurs, Cabazon

Surfrider Beach, Malibu

Legoland California, Carlsbad

Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park

Queen Mary, Long Beach

One of the most famous cruise ships in the world, the Queen Mary has a long history. Her maiden voyage was from Southampton, England in 1936 and her lavish restaurants and bars, pools and a grand ballroom set new standards for sea travel. Having made her name as the premier luxury liner, Queen Mary also served time during the Second World War, operating as a troopship. Her final voyage was in 1967 and today the ship is a museum and hotel with fascinating exhibitions and fine restaurants.

de Young Museum, San Francisco

Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Anacapa. Explore the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center in Ventura before venturing out by boat to the islands. Anacapa is one of the most charming and, at just five miles long and half a mile wide, it’s home to several endemic species, including the cute-as-a-button Anacapa deer mouse. Look out for the shell middens left behind by the island’s native inhabitants too. Check out our list of the top 50 things to do in Florida.

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