20 Amazing Cities in California

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Think of California and Hollywood often comes to mind as Los Angeles is, after all, the mecca of the film and TV industry. But there is much more to the state than film studios and famous faces. California stretches from the Mexican border northwards along the Pacific coast for almost 1448 km (900 miles) and has 58 counties, each with its own culture and geography.

This state has some of the best beaches in the country, nine National Parks, including Yosemite and Redwood, sweeping vineyards, and you’ll find no shortage of diverse cities in California packed full of culture and excellent food. Many cities are on the coast, so sunbathing and surfing are a way of life. There should be somewhere to please everyone, whether you are looking for history, wine tasting, beach life, or want a base to explore nearby National Parks.

Much of the state has a sub-tropical climate: summer is hot and dry, while winter is mild and rainy. Northern California and it snows in the high mountains in the winter, while the Colorado desert can reach 54C (130F) in the summer. It’s a large state and many cities in California are far from each other so if you want to explore different cities, you might want to hire a car. For example, the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco is 611.5 km (380 miles). Fortunately, Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains run between many of the cities. 

Cities in California

Top Tours

20 California Cities You’ll Love Exploring

1- Los Angeles

Downtown LA Los Angeles Skyline In California
Los Angeles is at the top of the list of most populated cities in California.

Los Angeles is the city in California with the largest population and warrants a longer stay than just a couple of days as there is so much to see and do.

Of course, Los Angeles attracts film and TV fans from all over the world.

Towering over Hollywood on the summit of Mount Lee, you will see the iconic Hollywood sign, featured in many films and TV shows.

You can take behind-the-scenes tours in many studios, such as Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers.

Take a trip to Hollywood Boulevard, where you can see the hand and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre and the terrazzo and brass stars on the sidewalk at The Walk of Fame.

The Grammy Museum is an interactive museum where you can learn about the Grammy Awards winners.

Los Angeles is more than just Tinseltown and Hollywood; if you are interested in art, the Getty Centre is worth visiting.

It has a brilliant collection of European paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, drawings, and manuscripts going back as far as the Middle Ages right to the early 20th century.

There are plenty of beaches in Los Angeles to suit all tastes.

On Venice Beach, you will find bodybuilders, folk artists and the famous boardwalk.

Zuma Beach is one of the longest beaches in the area and is sandy with good surfing conditions and clean water.

Los Angeles is heaven for shoppers, with plenty of choices like the South Coast Plaza, which has over 250 stores, many high-end and of course, there is the famous Rodeo Drive, where the stars shop.

You never know who you might spot.

Los Angeles is a top foodie destination where you will find anything from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants and everything in between.

There is a pick of cuisine from around the world, reflecting the melting pot of the different peoples in the city.

For more, check out:

  • The Grammy Museum is at 800 W Olympic Blvd 90015.
  • The Getty Centre is at 1200 Getty Centre Drive 90049.
  • Full-Day Iconic Sights – LA, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, beaches and more.

2- San Francisco

San Francisco City
San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in California.

San Francisco is one of the most photographed cities in California and it’s not difficult to see why.

Take the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, for example, which spans a massive 2.7 km (1.7 miles) and is featured in many films and TV shows.

The city is set on a peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, with lovely beaches to relax on.

The city’s tourist centre is Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll find Pier 39, home to great shops, restaurants, an aquarium, and street artists.

One of the best activities is a boat ride to Alcatraz to visit the prison and grounds but book ahead to ensure you don’t miss out.

If museums interest you, head to Union Square, where there are many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, which holds works by famous artists like Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, and Andy Warhol.

Chinatown is a great place to get an eclectic mix of Chinese food.

It is the birthplace of Americanised Chinese food, such as chop suey, while introducing dim sum to the American market.

To enjoy the outdoors, head to Golden Gate Park, which is 1000 acres (412 hectares) and where you can hike, bike, play golf, picnic, relax by one of the lakes, or even visit a museum.

The Museum of Modern Art is at 151 3rd St 94103. The Hop On Hop Off open-top bus will get you to most places.

3- Sacramento

Golden Gates Drawbridge In Sacramento at night
Sacramento is one of the best cities to live in California.

The capital of California lies where the Sacramento River and the American River meet.

If you are interested in the Gold Rush era, Old Sacramento is a great place to visit with its wooden pavements and wagon rides on offer.

The State Railroad Museum in this part of town tells you about the history of the transcontinental railroad.

Sacramento was a terminus for the Pony Express postal system, the first transcontinental railroad.

In the Old Sacramento State Historic Park, you can see buildings from that time, including the 1853 B. F. Hastings Building, which once housed the California Supreme Court.

Spend some time at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, which houses the oldest fort in the U.S where from time to time, locals dress up and re-enact times past.

If you fancy something a little faster-paced and enjoy water activities, head over to Raging Waters, the largest water park in Sacramento. There are 25 water activities to suit the whole family, whether you like speed slides, wave pools, or a lazy river.

A fun way to experience Sacramento is tp pedal, drink and bar hop through Sacramento on the 15-seat Beer Bike.

  • The California State Railroad Museum is at 1251 St. 95814.
  • Old Sacramento State Historic Park is at 111 1 St. 95814.
  • Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is at 2701 L. St. 95816.
  • Raging Waters is at 1600 Exposition Blvd. 95815.

4- San Diego

San Diego Skyline At Dusk Reflected In Sea
San Diego is one of the most relaxed coastal cities in California.

San Diego is California’s oldest city and the second largest.

Famed for beautiful beaches offering fantastic surfing, it’s one of the best whale-watching cities as these magnificent creatures migrate to and from Mexico.

Balboa Park covers a massive 1200 acres (485.6 hectares) and has 17 museums, beautiful gardens, walking paths, and the San Diego Zoo.

You could spend the entire day discovering places to eat in the park, whether you want fast food or full service.

Head to the harbour to the USS Midway Museum, the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the American fleet.

With interactive exhibits, it gives you a glimpse into life aboard a naval ship during WWII.

Belmont Park is the place to go if you enjoy the fun of the fair.

The highlight is a historic Giant Dipper roller coaster.

Tijuana is just a short drive away if you fancy a day in Mexico.

5- Santa Barbara

Balloon Over Mountains Beyond Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is one of the major cities in California.

Santa Barbara lives up to its nickname of the “American Riviera” because it has a beautiful setting between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains.

It has lovely beaches and a sunny climate.

In downtown Santa Barbara, you will find Mediterranean-style buildings with red roofs reminding you of the Spanish colonial heritage of the city.

Along State Street, there are high-end shops and restaurants.

Mission Santa Barbara is worth visiting. Founded in 1786, it is situated on a hill close to the city and is still home to Franciscan friars.

Here you can explore a museum, a beautiful flower garden and view centuries-old art.

Explore the area’s many vineyards and wine tasting in the wineries.

When dining out in a restaurant, ask for local wine. Book a Santa Barbara Electric Bike Tour to get out and about.

For more California ideas, see:

6- Santa Monica

Santa Monica is a laid-back beachfront city close to Los Angeles, offering relaxation after the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.

It was developed as a seaside resort in the early 20th century and has become popular for its long, sandy beachfront with opportunities to surf and play volleyball. Book a group surfing lesson here.

Santa Monica Pier is fun with an old-fashioned amusement park featuring a huge Ferris wheel.

Bergamot Station Arts Centre houses 20 private art galleries in the city and is worth visiting if you’re keen on art. 

Eating out is easy in Santa Monica as many restaurants and bars throughout the city cater to all budgets.

Bergamot Station Arts Centre is at 2525 Michigan Ave 90404.

7- Anaheim

Anaheim is famous for Disneyland, a massive complex of Disney-themed rides, hotels, and restaurants.

It is in Los Angeles’s metropolitan area.

However, there is more to this city than Disneyland.

In downtown Anaheim, you will find The Packing District, a two-storey upscale food court with local vendors and bars housed in a renovated 1919 citrus-packing house.

A short walk from The Packing District is the historical Centre St Promenade with artisan shops and interesting restaurants.

If you enjoy a glass of beer, Anaheim has many craft breweries where you can sample their outstanding brews.

Anaheim is a fantastic city in California to visit if you enjoy baseball or ice hockey, as the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are based here.

The House of Blues at the Anaheim Gardenwalk is worth visiting for music.

They have great music and delicious food.

  • The Packing House is at 440 s. Anaheim Blvd. 92805
  • The House of Blues is at 400 Disney Way 92802
  • Skip the line and buy your Disneyland Resort tickets here.

8- Pasadena

Pasadena City Hall Dome
Pasadena is one of the historic cities in northern California.

Northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Old Pasadena is an attractive area to stroll in.

There are many Victorian art-deco buildings apart from the modern Norton Simon Museum, which houses European and Asian art and has a lovely sculpture garden.

There are plenty of shops and eateries in the area as well.

For a touch of nature, head over to Eaton Canyon Nature Centre, which covers 190 acres (72.8 hectares) at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

It’s a wonderful place to hike as there are plenty of excellent hiking trails; organised walking tours and horse riding are available.

The visitors centre is worth a visit.

Here you will find live animals such as a great horned owl, Californian quail, and squirrels, and there are interactive exhibits relating to native plants and animal habitats.

Pasadena is famous for The Rose Bowl, a 90,000-seat stadium that hosts concerts, football games and a trendy flea market on the second Sunday of each month.

  • The Norton Simon Museum is at 411 W. Colorado Blvd, 91105.
  • Eaton Canyon Nature Centre is at 1750 N. Altadena Dr. 91107.
  • The Rose Bowl is at 1001 Rose Bowl Dr. 91103.

9- Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is one of the nicest cities in California for a beach vacation.

The heart of Santa Cruz is the beach.

It is a city just south of San Francisco on the northern shore of Monterey Bay.

There is a Bohemian and young atmosphere surrounding the beaches.

Water sports include surfing (if you’re a beginner, start with this surfing lesson), sailing and paddle boarding.

There is a lovely boardwalk with vintage rides, such as the 1911 Looff Carousel and the Giant Dipper roller coaster.

Downtown Santa Cruz is buzzing and is the place to shop and eat.

There are also art galleries and museums here, including the Museum of Art and History and the Surfing Museum.

If you enjoy walking, visit one of the two state parks nearby, Natural Bridges State Beach or the Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

You will be rewarded with spectacular scenery, such as the massive redwood trees in Big Basin Redwoods.

10- Carlsbad

The Carlsbad Closeup.
Carlsbad is one of the smaller seaside cities in California.

Carlsbad is close to San Diego and is famous for the Tamarack Surf Beach, which the Carlsbad Sea Wall backs.

Here you can walk, jog, rollerblade and cycle.

Children will love Legoland, which celebrates the Lego brand with rides, interactive attractions, buildings made from Lego, and the SEA LIFE aquarium.

If you are in Carlsbad between March 1st and Mother’s Day, visit The Flower Fields.

It covers 50 acres (20 hectares), with an amazing display of flowers, tractor rides, an orchid greenhouse, and a sweet pea maze.

Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park is a 19th-century hacienda and where you can have a picnic or visit well-preserved buildings from the 19th century.

There are some lovely peacocks wandering around the park as well.

11- Oakland

Oakland At Night aerial view
Oakland is one of the cities in southern California to check out.

Oakland is on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of the city is Jack London Square on the waterfront.

It is named after the famous author, Jack London, who wrote such books as The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

Look for his statue in the square, dedicated to the time he spent in the city.

The square is a great place to shop and eat.

Visit the historic Heinold’s First & Last Chance Saloon, built in 1883, and try delicious cocktails or craft beers in an Old West atmosphere.

Dive into the history of California at the Oakland Museum of California, which is close to Chinatown and dedicated to the state’s history, nature, and art.

Head uptown for great restaurants, bars, art galleries and the art Deco Fox and Paramount theatres.

The Oakland Museum is adjacent to Oak Street, 10th Street, and 11th Street.

Top tour: Black Food Tour of Downtown Oakland

12- Long Beach

Long Beach California Skyline From Palm Trees Of Port
Long Beach is one of the coastal cities in California.

Long Beach is a popular city in California, not far from Hollywood and has great nightlife.

One of the things to do from Long Beach is to cruise to Catalina Island, where you can enjoy water sports, golf, hiking, biking, art galleries, and museums.

Long Island has many beautiful beaches for a day lazing in the sun or having fun in the water.

On the waterfront, you will find the Aquarium of the Pacific, which has touch tanks and a shark lagoon.

Moored in Queensway Bay, you will find RMS Queen Mary, a retired British ship now converted into a luxury hotel and museum.

Head to 2nd Street for great bars and restaurants and 4th Street for vintage and roller skate shops.

Modern works are housed in the Museum of Latin American Art if art interests you.

Top experiences:

13- Irvine

night Trails And City Lights
Irvine is one of the safest cities in California.

Irvine, which is in Orange County, is a shopper’s paradise.

The Irvine Spectrum Centre is the place to go for shopping, great restaurants, and entertainment.

There is a 21-screen cinema here and plenty of museums in town, including The Irvine Museum, where Californian Impressionist art is displayed.

Children will love the Pretend City Children’s Museum, where they can get involved with 17 interactive exhibits designed as a small, interconnected city or the Irvine Escape Room.

Irvine Great Park offers some great trails, an ancient carousel, and a giant helium balloon where you can go for rides.

  • The Irvine Museum is at 18881 Von Karman Avenue, Suite 100 92612.
  • The Pretend City Children’s Museum is at 29 Hubble 92618.
  • Irvine Great Park is at 8000 Great Park Blvd. 92618.

14- Fresno

Fresno is almost as large as Los Angeles and is located in San Joaquin Valley in central California.

Here you will find the amazing Forestiere Underground Gardens, built in the early 20th century.

They are a series of catacombs built in ancient Roman style and have subterranean passages and courtyards.

Take your children to Fresno Chaffee Zoo, which houses 190 species on 39 acres (15,7 hectares).

There are many exciting attractions, such as Stingray Bay, Sea Lion Cove, and the African Experience.

If you enjoy nature, visit Woodward Regional Park, which covers 300 acres (121.4 hectares) and has interesting trails and the stunning Shinzen Japanese Garden.

  • Forestiere Underground Gardens are at 5021 W Shaw Ave. 93722.
  • Fresno Chaffee Zoo is at 894 W. Belmont Ave. 93728.
  • Woodward Regional Park is at 7775 N. Priant Rd. 93720.

15- Palm Springs

Scenic Coachella Valley with lights of Palm Springs at night
Palm Springs may not be one of the largest cities in California but it sure has a cool vibe.

Palm Springs is popular with Hollywood stars wanting an escape from Los Angeles.

It is known for beautiful mid-20th-century architecture, hot springs, luxury hotels, golf courses, and spas.

The scenery throughout the city is spectacular, with its towering palm trees and a backdrop of the So Cal mountains.

Head to Palm Canyon to shop until you drop, where you’ll find vintage boutiques, interior design shops, and some stylish restaurants.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a must if you’re not scared of heights.

It is the world’s largest rotating tram car travelling over 4 km (2.5 miles) along the cliffs of Chino Canyon.

There are many museums in town to visit, including the Palm Springs Air Museum, which exhibits and educates visitors about WWII combat aircraft.

The Colorado desert is nearby, so you can hike, although I advise you to avoid the heat of the summer months.

The Palm Springs Air Museum is at Parking Lot 745 N. Gene Autry Trail 92262.

16- Berkeley

Birds Eye View Of Historic And Modern Buildings Of UC Berkeley Campus
Berkeley is one of the best cities to visit in California for its campus and young vibe.

Berkeley is east of San Francisco Bay and is home to the University of California, where the 1960s Free Speech Movement was born.

Climb the 1914 Sather Tower for views of the campus and the bay.

The University houses beautiful botanical gardens with an extraordinary collection of around 10,000 varieties and covers 34 acres (13.7 hectares).

Look for a summer concert in The Mather Redwood Grove and Amphitheatre on the university grounds.

South of the university, you will find plenty of cafes, shops, and music stores.

Fans of art should head to the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, which has around 17.500 videos and films, as well as over 23,000 works of art.

They host performances, films, and lectures as well.

For more:

  • Best of North Berkeley Food Tour
  • The Botanical Gardens are at 2001 Gayley Rd. 94720.
  • The Mather Redwood Grove & Amphitheatre are at 200 Centennial Drive.
  • The Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is at 2155 Centre Street, 94720.

17- Napa

street in napa
Napa is one of the smaller cities in California and the gateway to the state’s finest wine.

The city of Napa is in the heart of the Napa Valley wine region, which has 200 wineries, and the Napa Valley Wine Train visits wineries in vintage Pullman cars.

Downtown is a wonderful place to hang out as there’s a riverfront promenade with shops and restaurants.

The art scene of Napa is prevalent here, with different entertainment venues such as the Napa Valley Opera House.

Also, in downtown Napa, you will find The Oxbow Public Market, a gathering place for locals with good food and wine.

Throughout Napa, you will find many gourmet restaurants, bistros, and award-winning spas for rest and relaxation.

Napa is surrounded by beautiful countryside where you can hike, ride horseback, and take a hot air balloon flight for amazing views.

The Oxbow Public Market is at 610 1st St. 94559.

Top tour: Napa and Sonoma Wine Country Full-Day Tour from San Francisco.

18- Monterey

Monterey is a coastal city at the mid-point of the California coast famous for Cannery Row, which used to be the hub of the sardine-packing industry and was the setting in the book of the same name by John Steinbeck.

The factories here have been converted into shops, seafood restaurants and bars.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is well worth visiting, especially if you have children.

It houses thousands of marine animals and plants and there are interactive exhibits.

Monterey State Historic Park is the place to learn about the city’s history.

Here you will find a set of buildings with historical significance, some dating back to the 19th century.

Fisherman’s Wharf used to be a fish market in the 1960s but now has an exciting range of seafood restaurants to suit every budget.

You can enjoy your food with beautiful views of the bays.

Monterey is also a premier destination to see whales all year long, so be sure to book a whale-watching cruise.

Tickets and tours:

  • Monterey, Carmel and 17-Mile Drive – Full Day Tour from San Francisco
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium is at 886 Cannery Row 93940.
  • Monterey Historic Park is at 20 Custom House Plaza 93940.

19- San Bernardino

San Bernardino is in a beautiful setting at the foot of the San Bernardino National Forest, and it’s also one of the best cities in California for authentic Mexican food.

There are plenty of interesting and, sometimes, unusual places to visit in San Bernardino.

The very first McDonald’s was opened here, and it’s now a state historic site and a museum with all sorts of memorabilia from the fast-food chain’s history.

There are museums in San Bernardino that are well worth visiting.

Go to the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum, which displays ancient Egyptian relics and the San Bernardino History & Railroad Museum of Art to discover the history of the railroad and see some period vehicles.

  • The Robert & Frances Fullerton Museum of Art is at 5.500 University Plaza 92407.
  • The San Bernardino History & Railroad Museum is at 1170 W. 3rd 92410.

20- Bakersfield

Bakersfield is on the Kern River just north of Los Angeles.

This California city has plenty of museums, including the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History, which has geology, palaeontology, and anthropology exhibits.

If you are interested in animal welfare, head to the California Living Museum.

It houses 80 species but only keeps animals that can’t be released or rehabilitated into the wild.

If you enjoy walking or jogging, the Rover Parkway Nature Preserve is the place to go. And you’ll find trails for horseback riding and cycling too.

Bakersfield is famous for its Basque food scene, so if you are a meat-lover, you will enjoy the food in many restaurants and you will be pleased to know that most serve large portions.

The California Living Museum is at 10500 Alfred Harrell Hwy 93306.

Top tour: Bakersfield Puzzling Adventure.

Looking for the best cities in North America? Check them out here:

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Irena Nieslony was born in Windsor, England but now lives on the island of Crete, Greece, in a small village called Modi near the city of Chania. She has visited 32 countries in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa. Her favourite country is Tanzania as she loves wildlife and was lucky enough to see ‘The Big Five”. She also loves Egypt, as ancient history intrigues her, the southern states of the US and the cities of Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans for music. She has a B.A. Honours degree in English and Drama from Westfield College, University of London. She has been writing for over 13 years and has 13 novels, 7 short stories and thousands of articles published.