There are many reasons why so many tourists flock to the Golden State every year, such as California’s national parks, beaches, scenic coastline, mountainous regions, desert regions, and wine valleys. However, one cannot deny that California’s cities also attract visitors. California has some of the most fascinating cities in America. In this article, we will give you more information about cities in California, from the most famous and well-known ones to the smaller cities, and we’ll even throw in a few surprises, so that you can turn your vacation into something better than you had imagined. Let’s get started!
California’s Big Cities
The first cities in California to come to mind are Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. All three are located on the coast and draw tourists from all over the world.
Los Angeles is an immense and sprawling metropolis, where it is easy to get lost. From an aesthetic point of view, Los Angeles is at least one step below the other two, but the amount of attractions that it has to offer makes it a worthy destination for any road trip in California, such as the luxurious Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the fantasy world of Disneyland, the amazing Universal Studios, and Hollywood (while you’re there, inform yourself about things to do in Hollywood).
Then if you were to also take into account Greater LA, the extended metropolitan area around the city, the number of attractions multiplies. There are beaches and seaside resorts immortalized in the many movies, starting from Santa Monica, Malibu, and Venice and, if you want to go inland, there is also Pasadena.
Given the large size of this metropolitan area, we have created a travel guide to Los Angeles on our website where you will find all the information you need to organize your stay, including things to see, how to move, and where to stay in Los Angeles.
Of all California’s cities, San Francisco is probably the most enchanting. Why? It may be because of its innate eccentric tendencies, which has made it a sort of outpost of new trends and counterculture over the years. It could also be because of the charm of its streets, a succession of ups and downs, which offer continuous panoramic views over the bay, or because of its most symbolic monument, the Golden Gate Bridge. I strongly recommend that you cross the famous red bridge from one end to the other on a bicycle…
It is hard to pinpoint one reason why people come to San Francisco, but it is true that in this city you will have many things to do. As is also the case in Los Angeles, you shouldn’t only consider the attractions within the city limits, but also the surrounding area, where you can visit places of great natural beauty like Muir Woods, Yosemite National Park, the Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries (read the Napa Valley article about places to visit in Napa Valley to learn more about what it has to offer), and some quaint coastal towns like Sausalito, Monterey, and Carmel.
We have a section of the website where you will find a travel guide to San Francisco designed to help you plan a visit, with tips on the main attractions, tourist passes, excursions near the city and some tips for accommodations in San Francisco.
San Diego is certainly picturesque, and the reason why it receives fewer visitors than the other two cities is because it’s not as publicized or as famous. Like San Francisco and Los Angeles, it is located on the coast (over 68 miles) and its beaches are the most beautiful. The climate of San Diego is probably the best out of all American cities and the amusement parks of San Diego are only second to the major theme parks in Los Angeles.
You’ll find SeaWorld, California‘s most famous water park, the West Coast‘s renowned zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and Legoland. San Diego also boasts a quaint historic area and many interesting districts, some of which have a vibrant Mexican culture, as well as a number of interesting museums (art, naval, space, and more). You can use our travel guide to San Diego to organize your vacation:
Best California’s Small Towns
In addition to the main cities, there are also a number of smaller cities, both on the coast and inland that are very interesting to visit. Here are 3 that I recommend:
Santa Barbara is a typical seaside resort with palm trees and beautiful beaches, but it is also rich in history and interesting architecture (the many Spanish Colonial buildings give it a unique and peculiar character). These are the factors that make it a must-see destination during a California coast road trip. We wrote an article that talks about the things to see in Santa Barbara.
It’s not just its fortunate location that makes Monterey a staple of most typical California road trips. In fact, the city has more to offer than you would think. There is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the most important aquariums on the West Coast, and many historic buildings that characterize the Path of History, a route where you can see firsthand the traces of Spanish colonialism, an important part of the past of this city and of California.
Its location on the Monterey Peninsula makes Monterey an excellent stop to visit the surrounding area. You can drive along the scenic 17-Mile Drive, or the unique and luxurious Pebble Beach, as well as Lovers Point, the picturesque beach of Pacific Grove, and don’t forget Carmel, which we’ll talk about shortly. If you would like a detailed guide, read our article on the best things to do in Monterey.
Here we move away from the coast to venture into the middle of the desert. Palm Springs is an oasis nestled in the dunes of the Mojave Desert. This city has a decidedly unique charm and is characterized by one-story houses built in adobe with palm trees and swimming pools. Architecture lovers will find this city fascinating and will be able to admire the villas of the many VIPs of Hollywood, who, starting in the 40s, began to come to vacation in this city. For more information, I recommend our article on how to visit Palm Springs.
Recommended Landscapes and Ghost Towns
California is full of small towns and cities to discover. We will dedicate this last section of our guide about California’s cities to some original picturesque and unusual destinations.
Not far from Monterey you will find Carmel, a unique city that consists of a cluster of fairytale houses where street addresses, street lamps and mailboxes have been banned. It is a surreal small city, which also boasts one of the most beautiful missions in all of California, as well as a gorgeous beach with breathtaking views. For more information on how to plan a visit, take a look at our article about Carmel-by-the-Sea.
It is one of the best-preserved western towns in America. Now it is a ghost town, but it is still really interesting to visit. If you grew up with Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, you can’t miss the opportunity to visit this gem. Find all the necessary information in our article about Bodie.
Calico Ghost Town
Calico is another western town, but unlike Bodie, it is not authentic. Rather, it is a brilliant and very peculiar replica, where shootings and other events typical of cowboy life are reenacted. If you want to know more about Calico Ghost Town, take a look at our article about Calico Ghost Town.
Map of the Most Beautiful Cities in California
Below you can find an interactive map of the cities of California that are mentioned in this article. We hope it can be a helpful resource for you as you prepare your itinerary.