7 Vibrant California Cities Worth Visiting
Though California sees millions of visitors each year, much of this vast and diverse state goes under-explored by the tourists who flock to major destinations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, or to the National Parks. Unfolding in no particular order, this list highlights fun cities and towns up and down the Golden State that are worth a second look for the discerning tourist.
Starting things off at #1, San Luis Obispo lies halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on California's famous Highway 1. Founded in 1772, the city is built around a preserved Spanish Mission and has a rich winemaking history. With a Mediterranean climate that is temperate year-round, boosters boast that the town is characterized by a laid-back, relaxed lifestyle.
Attractions include the Madonna Inn, a well-preserved and kooky mid-century motel, that houses restaurants and a spa. One of the city's strangest, yet most popular landmarks is Bubblegum Alley, a narrow path in the heart of Downtown filled with chewed bubblegum graffiti. Elsewhere, the SLO Botanical Garden is a serene and relaxing spot for the whole family.
In the #2 position, Dana Point is located in Orange County, equidistant from San Diego and Los Angeles. A seaside town with more than six miles of coastline, the area is known for its surf culture and for year-round whale and dolphin watching, considered among the best in the world. Tour boats leave daily from its large and busy marina.
Dana Point also offers a wide array of other ocean-oriented activities, from sunset wine cruises to kayaking and paddleboard rentals to deep sea fishing. A lively food and restaurant scene provides local flavor, while the city's downtown features a blend of independent specialty shops, unique stores, and upscale boutiques.
#3 is the city of Beverly Hills, a famously tony section of Los Angeles County. Shopping is a major draw for visitors, whether at upscale retailers on the world-renowned Rodeo Drive, or at classic stores such as Saks and Neiman Marcus, located on the portion of Wilshire Boulevard known as Department Store Row.
Beverly Hills also presents many opportunities for eating and drinking. There are restaurants serving dishes from celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Curtis Stone, and Nobu Matsuhisa. The city also houses notable bakeries and sweet shops, including options for cupcakes, French macarons, and decadent milkshakes.
For #4, we have Vacaville. Located in the hills just west of Sacramento Valley, the Northern California town offers a number of outdoor activities, among them hiking and fishing. In a region known for agriculture, Vacaville features numerous produce stands and farmers markets, as well as purveyors of local honey, olive oil, and other foodstuffs.
Vacaville's Nut Tree Plaza opened in 1921 as a modest roadside stop, and now features more than fifty shops, as well as restaurants, a carousel, and a railroad connecting to the local airport. The city's historic Downtown hosts a number of vintage markets and stores, in addition to seasonal craft fairs.
The #5 spot is held by Berkeley, world-famous for its university, lively arts scene, and progressive political culture. Like the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole, the city is also known for its culinary tradition, boasting restaurants such as Chez Panisse, a pioneer in the local, sustainable, and organic food movement.
The city also contains family-friendly kid activities, including the Adventure Playground and the Habitot Children's Discovery Museum. Berkeley's bustling Telegraph Avenue is lined with quirky small businesses, and record stores like Rasputin Music and Movies. One can also visit the historic People's Park, site of some of the defining moments of the 1960s.
On the list at #6, Costa Mesa is part of Southern California's Orange County. Minutes from the beach and home to numerous parks, the city provides visitors access to a host of different outdoor opportunities. Golfing is a favorite pastime, with plenty of nearby country clubs and public courses.
Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center For The Arts is a world-class concert venue; it has hosted performers including Tony Bennett, Yo-Yo Ma, and The New York City Opera. The city is also the destination for the annual OC Fair, one of the largest such events in the United States, drawing more than two million visitors.
Rounding things out at #7 is Pasadena, in Los Angeles County. Situated at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, it mixes a historic downtown, significant residential architecture, and stunning landscapes. Among its many notable cultural institutions is the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
There's also Rose Bowl Stadium, a National Historic Landmark home to the yearly Tournament of Roses college football game, as well as other major events and a flea market. On South Lake Avenue, visitors will find a stretch of boutiques, restaurants, and sellers of beauty and wellness items.