California is one of the United States’ most visited states, which make sense given the fact that it is absolutely massive. Given then the size of California, many visitors are left with no idea of how to even begin planning a California trip. Well, first and foremost, if it is your first time visiting and you want to see a lot of the state. I highly recommend going for a road trip along the Pacific Coastal Highway. You won’t regret it, and you can read about that here. Also, while reading this post, you might wonder “why do all of the California cities have Catholic names?” You can read the answer to that one here. This post will lay out my picks of the best cities to visit in California in order to give you a little head start while planning your trip.
You can check out our five minute video of roadtripping the whole coast of California where we visited almost all of these cities.
5. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is easily the smallest city on this list, but that doesn’t take away from its might! This little city is located just a few hours north of Los Angeles along the Pacific coast, and there is so much to do here. It is a charming little city in comparison to places like L.A. and San Francisco, but it is very unique and filled with trendy places to visit.
Santa Barbara doesn’t deserve a trip of its own, in my opinion, as it is small and in many ways a boujee college town. Still, it is one of the coolest cities to visit in California, and it is filled with great shopping, adorable boutiques, fantastic restaurants, and has a great harbor. Of everywhere on this list, I think Santa Barbara is the most peaceful, tranquil city.
Sacramento is a city that many people neglect. People tend to think of California’s cities that are along the coats, and Sacramento is simply not that – it is several hours inland. You need to keep in mind that California is absolutely massive, and Northern, Central, and Southern California are all very different places. Sacramento is even more unique, being out halfway to the Nevada border and not really in the middle of anything. Its central location within the state makes a ton of sense, as this is California’s capital city, after all!
From most of the major cities on this list, Sacramento would seem to be out of the way. This is a wrong way to look at things though, as really Sacramento is one of the best springboards in the state for several of California’s coolest things to do. Lake Tahoe, the biggest alpine lake in the world, is just a couple of hours to the east. Napa Valley, one of the best wine-growing regions in the world, is just a couple of hours to the northwest. Yosemite National Park, one of the most esteemed and gorgeous parks in the country, is only a few hours to the southeast. This might sound far, but in a state like California, a few hours is nothing! For a city that acts as a great base for day trips, it’s hard to beat Sacramento.
3. San Francisco
If you want to go to a massive city that doesn’t quite have the noise and party level of Los Angeles, San Francisco is your obvious best bet. This Northern California city has been known over the years for many things, from rock bands to abandoned prisons to being part of the Silicon Valley boom. San Francisco has a ton of really awesome things to do, and a visit here is sure to be a busy one filled with a lot of great pictures.
Visitors flock to places like the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, which are both fantastic places. There is also Alcatraz, the previously-used high-security prison on an island out in the bay. On top of that, San Francisco is just a stone’s throw away from California’s two most premier wine areas – Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley – which both make for a fantastic day out of the city. If you’re visiting San Francisco, be sure to pack for the weather, as even a trip in mid-July can be met with wet weather in the 40’s or 50’s.
2. Los Angeles
Los Angeles is the second-biggest city in the United States and is one of the most visited cities in the whole country. This bustling, massive city has literally everything any visitor could want. From a laundry list of sports teams, to popular tourist destinations like Hollywood, to ritzy areas like Beverly Hills, Los Angeles is a place that you could spend an entire week exploring and still have more to see.
One of the most popular parts about Los Angeles is its uniqueness. L.A. has always been a very open minded city, and as one of the main cultural cities in the United States there is a ton of freedom of expression exercised here. From really unique fashion to simply people keeping up on the hottest trends, L.A. might be the one city in the country that stays on the “up and up” the most.
1. San Diego
For me, putting San Diego at the top of this list was an easy call. While all of the other cities on this list are verifiably great in their own way, San Diego is the full package. It comes with most of the advantages of the other cities on this list, with the added bonus of removing some of the drawbacks. San Diego is a visitor’s dream, filled with great food, cafes, craft beer for days, a navigable grid, and really unique things to do and see.
The U.S.S. Midway Navy ship/museum is docked here, which is usually regarded as one of the best things to do in San Diego. There’s also sea lions in La Jolla, tons to do in Balboa Park, a beautiful downtown, and a really unique historic quarter as well. On top of that, you can hop down to Tijuana for a day with ease, as long as you have a passport! When it comes down to it, San Diego is the best city to visit in California and it isn’t even close. For anything else you want to know about visiting San Diego, be sure to read my San Diego travel guide HERE.
Thanks for reading my post on the top 5 best cities to visit in California. Hopefully this list helps you plan the best places to visit on your next trip to this massive American state. If you have any questions about visiting California at all, don’t hesitate to reach out by commenting below – we’ve got you covered.