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top things to do in california

California is one of the few places in the world where you can go skiing and surfing in the same day, which shows you just how diverse the state is! From cities to national parks, beaches to mountain ranges and everything in-between; you’re spoilt for choice of things to do in California. Take a look through some of our favourites:

WALK ACROSS GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE

One of the most iconic structures in California is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. With the 2 towers standing at over 225 metres tall, the bridge really is a spectacular sight to behold. If you haven’t worn yourself out exploring the rest of San Francisco then walking is really the best way to experience Golden Gate Bridge. At around 2.7kms long, it’s a nice walk if the weather is clear but just remember if you’re parked at one end, the further you walk in one direction the further you have to walk back! Alternatively you can also rent bikes nearby, or drive across of course!

The south end of the bridge is home to a visitor’s centre where you can learn more about the construction and history of the bridge.

Top tips:

  • Check the weather before you visit the bridge because if it’s a foggy day you won’t see much at all!
  • There is limited parking at either end of the bridge with public toilets and water fountains available – handy after a long walk!

VISIT VENICE & SANTA MONICA PIER

Venice beach is one of the most famous in the world and for good reason too! There are many things to see along the waterfront including local shops and pop up stalls, street performers, muscle beach – an outdoor gym, and a skate park where you can watch people showing off their amazing tricks. Why not walk, cycle or even roller blade along the Venice beach boardwalk? Equipment rental centres are easy to find all along the coast.

If you’ve got some time to spare why not make a day of it and visit Santa Monica Pier? It’s around an hours walk from Venice to Santa Monica Pier so you could take in the sights along the boardwalk, and reward your efforts with some clam chowder or an ice cream on the pier.

Top tips:

  • The Venice area has a bohemian feel and the people here enjoy an easy pace of life and locally sourced food, meaning you’ll find some great restaurants but don’t expect to be served in a hurry!
  • When visiting the boardwalk make sure you bring some dollar bills to tip the street performers when you’ve finished watching them.

SPOT CELEBRITIES IN HOLLYWOOD

World renowned as being the home of western cinema and the land of the rich and famous, Hollywood is a thriving tourist destination for anyone wanting a taste of the good life. Take a stroll along the famous Hollywood Boulevard and you’ll come across many of Hollywood’s most famous landmarks including Capitol Records, Madame Tussauds and the Chinese theatre. Don’t spend all your time looking up however as you’ll be passing along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Look out for your favourite celebrities of past and present - with over 2,000 stars you’re bound to recognise a few of them.

Top tip:

  • If you’re hoping to see the Hollywood sign from Hollywood Boulevard, the best place to go is the Hollywood and Highland Centre Mall. The sign is a good distance away from here however so get the zoom on your camera ready!

EXPLORE GOLDEN GATE PARK

Golden Gate Park can be explored by foot, bicycle, rollerblade or Segway (available to rent locally). A stunning location in the heart of the city, it’s home to miles of lawns, lakes, trees and flowers. The park is free to enter and explore however some attractions such as museums have admission costs. One of the most intriguing spots in the park is the Japanese Tea Garden, a 5 acre area with pagodas, bridges and a 1.5 ton Buddha. You can even enjoy traditional tea and fortune cookies in the Tea House. A short stroll away is Stow Lake where you can rent rowing boats to explore the lake, or stop for a spot of lunch. Look closely at the water because, if you’re lucky, you might spot a turtle swimming by!

TAKE A DRIVE THROUGH DEATH VALLEY

While its name might suggest that Death Valley is a desolate and lifeless place, this National Park is actually home to many fascinating geological formations and a variety of plants and animals. On a drive through Death Valley you’ll come across many points of interest including Badwater, the lowest point in the United States at over 80m below sea level, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and Tea Kettle Junction. Tea Kettle Junction is a fork in the road where previous travellers have left their kettles along with notes of their travels. Take a moment here to enjoy the glorious landscape around you, and maybe leave your own kettle for other people to find. Death Valley is mostly located in California, with a part of it extending into Nevada which could tick another state off your list if you’re trying to visit them all! So don’t let the name put you off, go and take a drive through Death Valley and be amazed at the sights you come across. Please note that it’s not permitted to take motorhomes into Death Valley in the peak summer months as the weather is just too hot.

Top tip:

  • Death Valley is one of the hottest places on the planet, so make sure you take extra precautions to protect yourself from the sun and drink plenty of water.

SAIL TO ALCATRAZ “THE ROCK”

Once home to famous prisoners including Al Capone and George Machine Gun Kelly, it’s easy to see why this has become a major tourist attraction. Used as a place to send the most troublesome criminals, the prison opened in 1933 and closed in 1963 because it became too expensive to run. Just 1.5 miles from the San Francisco coast, there were no confirmed prisoner escapes during the time of operation – although many tried to brave the cold water and strong currents. Take a tour of the island and discover its fascinating history, including how they over fed the prisoners to deter them from escaping, the Battle of Alcatraz and the Indian occupation of the island.

Top tips:

  • Book your ticket to Alcatraz as far in advance as possible because they often sell out.
  • If you forget to book your ticket or there weren’t any left online you can get a ticket on the day from the ticket office. There are only a limited number available however and you have to get in the queue early (around 4am) to get one!
  • There aren’t any shops on the island so bring your own drinks/snacks.

WATCH A BASEBALL GAME

California is home to many famous sports teams including the Oakland Raiders, LA Galaxy and the San Francisco Giants, the last of which call AT&T Park their home. The Major League Baseball season runs from the start of April until the start of October, so make sure you visit during those months if you want to catch a game at AT&T Park. If you’re not able to get tickets however then don’t worry – you can turn up and watch it for free. The Giants have created a small area where 75 fans at a time can stand and watch 3 innings for free – great if you don’t have the time or the budget to watch a full game.

Top tip:

  • Turn up early to ensure you get a space in line for the free viewing area.

CHASE WATERFALLS IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Sequoia tree trunks bigger than a bus, incredible rock formations and the tallest waterfall in North America; these are just a few reasons to visit Yosemite National Park. At over 3,000km in size, you’ll almost certainly have to choose certain areas you want to explore. Glaciers have carved incredible formations into this landscape, none more famous than the Half Dome. If you’re feeling fit enough you can climb the 5,000 feet to the top of the Half Dome and be rewarded with the most spectacular vantage point. If you’d rather stay at ground level why not explore Yosemite Valley? Head to Tunnel View where you’ll have a remarkable view through the valley, all the way to the Half Dome.

Top tips:

  • Spring is the best time to visit if you want to see spectacular waterfalls, because they will be in full flow due to the melting snow.
  • Winter visitors to Yosemite should visit Horsetail Fall where the water looks like fire due to the reflection of the setting sun.

RIDE THE SAN FRANSISCO CABLE CARS

Before the cable cars were installed, horse drawn carriages were a common sight in San Francisco. Andrew Smith Hallidie decided there needed to be an alternative mode of transport when he saw a horse slip on wet cobble stones, causing the horses pulling the carriage to fall to their death. Soon after the first cable car was put into operation, and today is used by commuters and tourists alike. You can visit many San Franciscan attractions on the cable car including China Town, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, and Union Square (a great shopping centre). Single rides cost around $7, souvenir tickets available, and you’ll be grateful of the ride not only for the experience but to save your legs from the notoriously steep San Francisco hills.

Top tip:

  • If you’re in San Francisco for several days consider buying a multi-day pass for the cable cars so you can cover a lot more ground.

DISCOVER THE HISTORY OF HEARST CASTLE

From swimming pools to stunning works of art; there’s a lot to discover at Hearst Castle. There are a variety of tours of the Castle available, so you can choose whether you want to explore the grand rooms, upstairs suites or the cottages and kitchens. There is even an art specific tour which describes the history of how the Castle's key pieces were acquired. If you can’t choose which route to take, you can even book some tours back to back. Hearst Castle is as stunning inside as it is out. Its ornately decorated rooms give the place an air of grandeur, and the views from the windows out to the Pacific Ocean are breath taking. According to its many previous visitors, the 4 hour drive to Hearst Castle from either San Francisco or Los Angeles is well worth the trip.

  • Book your chosen tour(s) online in advance so you don’t miss out if you happen to visit on a busy day.

ENJOY THE VIEW AT GRIFFITH PARK

If you’ve dreamed of getting up close and personal with the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park is as close as you’re going to get. The sign is built on the side of a mountain and it is illegal to climb to the letters themselves – so Griffith Park is the next best thing. There’s more to the park than just the sign however, it’s home to Los Angeles Zoo, Botanical Gardens, the Greek Theatre (an outdoor concert venue), a ranch and mile after mile of hiking trails.

The park itself is so big that you won’t be able to cover it all and, if you only have time to do one thing in the park, you shouldn’t miss Griffith Observatory. Marvel at the sheer size of Los Angeles from the Observatory – it’s an incredible sight you’ll never forget.

VISIT THE SEA LIONS ON PIER 39

San Francisco is home to many piers but the most famous of those is Pier 39. The pier is home to many restaurants, shops, an aquarium and of course the sea lions that call the place home. Sea lions have always been present in the San Francisco bay, but for some reason they liked Pier 39 the best, so it was decided to remove the boats moored there and make way for the mammals. You can watch the sea lions for free from the pier as they relax and play together – make sure you don’t miss the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the distance.

Pier 39 is part of the Fisherman’s Wharf district and a short walk away, is Fisherman’s Wharf itself. Here you can enjoy some clam chowder which is renowned for being delicious in this area. While in the area you also shouldn’t miss a visit to Ghirardelli Square. This pretty square has an Italian feel and is home to several shops, restaurants and, of course, lots of Ghirardelli ice cream and chocolate!

Top tip:

  • The Ghirardelli chocolate shop often gives out free samples, so keep an eye out for people walking around with trays!

GO WINE TASTING IN NAPA VALLEY

When visiting the Napa Valley you’re never too far from a vineyard, as California is the leading wine producer in the United States of America. Delicious wine paired with stunning scenery across the vineyards is the reason why so many people visit here every year. You could sample the region's wines as part of a group or, for a more intimate affair, take a private tour and enjoy the variety of wines on offer. Some vineyards have restaurants on site and others put on events where you can see the vineyards' animals at work – there’s something for everyone wanting to experience the Napa Valley.

INDULGE YOUR INNER CHILD AT THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California is around 30 minutes’ drive from Los Angeles Airport. The Resort is split across two parks; Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. The entrances to each park are opposite each other, so you can visit both parks in the same day as long as you don’t get stuck in too many lines! As well as the fantastic rides, we recommend checking out some of the events too. There’s the parade with all of your favourite Disney characters, a magnificent firework display and the World of Colour fountain and light show which is so magical it might bring a tear to your eye.

Top tips:

  • Check out a map of the parks before you visit so you can plan a route around the rides you want to go on – this will save your legs from walking any unnecessary distance.
  • You can get Fastpasses for many rides in the parks which schedule you in for shorter queues at certain times of the day. Choose wisely though as you can only have one active Fastpass at a time.

GO ON SAFARI IN BALBOA PARK

Balboa Park is located close to downtown San Diego and, in a similar way to Golden Gate Park, is home to many beautiful gardens and museums. Take a ride on the old fashioned carousel then stroll through the Spanish Village before arriving at the Botanical Building. Depending on how many museums you want to visit, you could spend a day or more exploring the Park.

Balboa Park is also home to San Diego Zoo which is home to thousands of animals including the rare Giant Panda which are bred there. The Zoo tries to showcase animals in the most realistic environment possible, and even offer safari style tours so you can make your experience even more special.

Top tip:

  • Animal lovers staying in San Diego should also pay a visit to La Jolla Cove where you can see wild seals and sea lions relaxing along the shore.

So there you have it, our favourite activities to keep you entertained on a visit to California. If you’d like our Travel Specialists to plan a route around some of these attractions for you, please make an enquiry and we’d be happy to help.