Home to some of the most beautiful cities in the USA, it is no wonder that so many of us are left California dreaming of a trip to America’s iconic Golden State. From San Francisco to Santa Barbara, the state is full of buzzing pockets of paradise that deliver the excitement of city life alongside the tranquillity of idyllic mountains and valleys.
Boasting 420 beaches, California is bursting with opportunities for riding the waves, exploring the waters and – of course – relaxing on the shoreline. With its stunning cities nestled in the most beautiful natural settings while also delivering exquisite art, music, culture and nightlife scenes, it comes as no surprise that California is one of the most popular states in the U.S.
You are also guaranteed to experience a sense of deja vu in this iconic state, with many of its cities featured in some of the biggest blockbuster movies. So, if you are planning to visit this spectacular American state but are not sure where to begin, check out this list of the 9 best cities to visit in California.
1. San Francisco
Of course, the star-studded city of San Francisco comes out on top of my list of recommendations! Nestled on and amongst hills that trickle down to the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is not only one of the best coastal cities in California but easily one of the most picturesque and beautiful in the whole of North America.
While visiting the area, do not miss out on paying a visit to the famous Golden Gate Bridge; the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the entire world.
You grab a quick break from the lively buzz of San Fran’s centre by heading down to its shores and relaxing on pristine sand or exploring the gorgeous waters of the Pacific Ocean. Also a big name in the culinary department, the city is also known for making the best sourdough, being home to Anchor Steam Beer (America’s first craft beer company) and top of the line restaurants of every cuisine.
Ideal for those craving a cultural city break with all of the delights of a seaside getaway, there is something for everyone in this stylish city.
2. Los Angeles
The glamorous media metropolis of Los Angeles is easily one of the best cities to visit in California. Located towards the south of the state, the thriving streets of L.A’s cityscape are adorned with the dramatic backdrop of the snow-capped Santa Monica Mountains, the San Gabriels and the Verdugos.
Truly offering the best of both worlds, Los Angeles delivers glamorous city life alongside rolling hills and valleys that make perfect places to escape for a regenerative hike across beautiful landscapes. As if this isn’t enough to have you booking your next flight to LAX, the city is also home to flawless sandy beaches with stunning turquoise waters.
Home to the famous Venice Beach, the sought-after shores of Santa Monica and countless other stunning spots, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing places to surf, sunbathe and swim in Los Angeles. On the other hand, if you fancy taking in some of the cultural sites in the city, you could hit up one of its many art galleries, theatres and museums.
3. San Diego
Perched on the southern end of California by the Pacific Ocean near the Mexican border, is the glorious city of San Diego. Recognised as the state’s second-largest city and the eighth largest in the USA, this amazing part of the world is also known for its iconic palm trees and flawless white-sand shorelines.
Easily one of the best cities to vacation in California, San Diego boasts 70 miles of stunning coastline with heavenly cobalt blue waters where you can embrace the city’s chilled-out vibe by trying your hand at becoming a California surfer. Alternatively, you can stick to the comfort of the sand and unwind by taking in some rays or walking along the beach.
However, the attraction of San Diego does not stop at its shoreline the city is also rich in historic sites to see, including its charming Old Town where you will find the Whaley House and Casa de Estudillo.
Nicknamed America’s finest city, a trip to San Diego would not be complete without a visit to the famous Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala; a beautiful church built in 1769 by Spanish priests which sheds a fascinating light on the city’s Catholic roots.
Definitely one of the best affordable cities in California, Sacramento is the capital of the state and a real cultural hub. Brimming with 28 museums and a plethora of galleries to explore, this is the place to go if you are looking for a stimulating trip. Make sure you stop by the Crocker Art Museum, which is recognised as the oldest art museum to the west of the Mississippi River.
A foodie’s paradise, Sacramento is bustling with farmers’ markets that serve up tasty, fresh and organic produce, as well as boasting plenty of fashionable restaurants and a thriving craft beer scene. Popular amongst the artsy-hipster types, there are also lots of trendy bars and nightclubs to hit up in the twilight hours where you can dance the night away while sipping on elegant cocktails.
During your trip, don’t miss out on paying a visit to the incredible Old Sacramento State Historic Park where you will find some amazing Gold Rush-era architecture, cobbled streets and even some traditional horse-drawn carriages – how quaint!
Nestled towards the southern tip of the Napa Valley Region, the city of Napa attracts many of society’s high flyers, from the Kardashians to Oprah. Its popularity comes as no surprise considering that it offers top-quality cuisine, fine art and, of course, exquisite wine curated from grapes of the beautiful surrounding vineyards. In my opinion, this alone is enough to make Napa worthy of being called one of the best cities to visit in Northern California.
And while we’re on the subject, there are over 300 hundred wineries in the area, offering you plenty of choices when it comes to selecting a tour and sampling some of the delicious local grape juice. Many budding wine connoisseurs also decide to pay a visit to the nearby city of Sonoma while in the area, as it is also full of amazing wineries. If you are thinking of doing so too, be sure to check out my guide on wine tasting in Sonoma, California.
The perfect place to relax and recuperate, Napa is brimming with opportunities to get involved in therapeutic activities such as horse riding, cruising along the water and hiking across stunning settings. For those craving a bit of adventure, you can also catch a hot air balloon ride across the incredible landscapes and vineyards in the area.
6. Palm Springs
A slice of paradise hidden away in the Southern Californian desert, Palm Springs is a gorgeous city that was once a prime spot for Hollywood stars in the 1950s. Nowadays, this remarkable place takes more of a laid back approach and is very popular amongst more senior holiday goers looking to chill out in the sun.
Palm Springs is surrounded by the magnificent landscapes of Coachella Valley, making it an ideal location for those looking to pull on their walking boots and go on a hiking adventure. There is lots to discover in the beautiful scenery around the city including hot springs where you can stop off to rejuvenate and refresh.
As the hub of Coachella Valley, some of the world’s most famous celebrities flock to Palm Springs every year en route to see some of the hottest acts in the music industry at the Coachella Music Festival.
Palm Springs holds a very unique charm – there is nowhere else quite like it! Delivering a taste of classic American elegance alongside tropical paradise, Palm Springs is definitely one of those places in California that is not to be missed out on.
7. Santa Cruz
The chilled-out atmosphere of Santa Cruz makes it an excellent place to visit, attracting many artistic characters looking for a laidback way of life. Although it might not be the first place that comes to mind when you are thinking of somewhere to hit the waves, it is actually one of the best beach cities in California.
Santa Cruz is home to some of America’s most well-renowned shorelines including the iconic Cowell Beach, which is known for being a prime surfing spot. After working up an appetite by the sea, you can venture to one of the city’s fabulous eateries and grab a bite, with every cuisine you can imagine up for grabs.
During your stay, make sure you take a stroll down the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; a buzzing amusement park by the water that is sure to entertain adults and children alike. Along with lots of exciting rides, there are also lots of places to grab a snack and some treats.
Tucked in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno is a relaxing oasis where you can go to take some time out and unwind in nature; easily one of the best cities in California for a vacation. Due to its location, there are plenty of hiking opportunities in the area including the landscapes of Woodward Park; the biggest in Fresno Country.
The grounds boast five miles of trails, playgrounds, dog-friendly areas where you can let your pooch run free and a stunning Shinzen Japanese Garden. With so much to see, it is worth setting aside a full day to explore all that the park has to offer.
Conveniently located in some of the most beautiful places in California, including Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park, Fresno makes the perfect base for those planning to explore these famous natural wonders. If you are looking to take a walk on California’s wild side of California, it is definitely worth taking a trip to these parks where you will find miles of unspoilt landscapes with spectacular waterfalls, deep valleys and, of course, giant sequoia trees.
9. Santa Barbara
Lastly, we have the picturesque Santa Barbara; a gorgeous coastal city beautifully wedged between the San Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean that makes an ideal vacation spot for both beach-lovers and thrill-seeking hikers.
With just two hours in the car taking you from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, this city is very popular amongst those from the bright lights looking for a tranquil getaway. You can relax and totally disconnect from day-to-day life on its waters by renting a paddleboard, going kayaking, swimming and even whale watching.
Santa Barbara also has lots to offer in the history department, with its iconic Spanish Colonial buildings a sight to see in themselves and plenty of fascinating museums to explore in the city centre. Attracting many wine enthusiasts, the area is also home to a generous supply of tasting rooms and wineries where you can stop off for a glass (or two) of delicious grape juice during your adventures in the city.
If you are something of a budding sommelier, be sure to check out our guide on the best time for California wine tours.
California is full of magical cities, each with its own unique quirks and charm that make visiting this part of the world such a special experience. The Golden State is bursting with amazing sights to see, from flawless white sand beaches with crystal clear waters, top-notch cuisine and wine, an iconic party scene and incredible natural scenes that you will be dying to get out and explore.
I hope you enjoyed reading this guide on the 9 Best Cities in California. You can check out more of my recommendations for this state in my California Travel Guide here.