The sunny skies of California have long attracted those in the U.S. and travelers around the world. It’s a state where modern cities mix with iconic national parks and famous coasts.
The incredible Highway 1 connects many of the best cities in California. It takes you on a journey through the old-world charm of San Francisco, down the Pacific Coast to the chilled-out city of San Diego. Along the way, the highway guides you through the star-swept city of Los Angeles and passes several quaint seaside towns.
Top Cities in California
After visiting California multiple times it is difficult to put these cities in any particular order. We love the laid-back feel of places like Monterey but we also love the beautiful and interesting Spanish influences on display in Santa Barbara and San Diego. There is a reason California is one of our favorite places to visit in the United States. So, without any further adieu here are our choices for the best cities in California.
The best California cities showcase both their modern sensibilities but also its distinct history. Uncover a world of Spanish architecture that combines effortlessly with California’s unrivaled scenery.
1. Los Angeles
The city of Angels, where people come from far and wide to seek fame and fortune under the warm western sky. It’s a city that blends new-world charm and modern skyscrapers with California’s cool and beach bum culture.
Los Angeles is the biggest of the California cities on our list. In fact, it’s the second-biggest metropolis in the US, based on population. It’s home to around 3.8 million people who combine to make L.A. a must-stop on your travels.
Travelers will find an endless list of things to do, from chasing celebrities through Hollywood and Beverly Hills to high-end shopping on Rodeo Drive. Add in the nearby beaches, epic food truck scene, plenty of live sport and entertainment, and your itinerary will fill up quickly.
2. San Francisco
As you venture out of Los Angeles, it can often feel like a sprawling suburbia. You won’t have that sensation in San Francisco. Its rolling hills simply won’t let you. Across the 50-square mile city, there are 40 tumbling hills, some so steep they become their own attractions. But they’re just one piece to explaining how beautiful the Golden State city is.
The city juts out into San Francisco Bay where you’ll find rows of early Victorian-era homes. They were first constructed with a nod to the homes in London Row and, combined with the skyscrapers, have created a splendid skyline. But it’s the local parks that lead to the water and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge that really showcase the city’s splendor.
From the Presidio of San Francisco, wander across the famous bridge for views of Alcatraz, San Pablo Bay and the Pacific.
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3. San Diego
San Diego is the younger brother that’s now all grown up. Once in the shadow of the two aforementioned cities, San Diego has stepped into the light. It’s slowly changed the once-solid tourist path that linked Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and the national parks.
With beautiful weather year-round, San Diego is able to show off its diverse personality without taking a breather. Its compact downtown area is teeming with exciting bars, a happening live music scene, and the charming Gaslamp Quarter. Plus, their Taco Tuesdays are the best in the state.
Heading out of the inner-city, you’ll have an embarrassment of local riches to choose from. For beaches, you’ve got Coronado, Mission, Pacific, and Ocean to choose from. The latter is home to the best post-surf burgers on the planet at Hodads.
4. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is tucked away on the Pacific Coast, ninety minutes north of Los Angeles. Known as the Queen of Missions, it just might be the most beautiful city in California.
The picturesque city was flatted after a major earthquake in 1925. It was painstakingly rebuilt with Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, heavily influenced by the city’s most iconic landmark, the Mission Santa Barbara.
Its Spanish connection is visible throughout the state, but perhaps no more than in Santa Barbara. The mission was first built in 1820 and has been a part of local life ever since. Mission-style architecture can be found throughout town, including throughout the palm-lined downtown streets.
Santa Barbara is an easy city to explore on foot, with each attraction seemingly no further than a brief stroll away. With its location on the West Coast, visitors will also find miles of elegant beaches to complement the gorgeous city.
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5. Palm Springs
Many of the best cities in California can be found along the coast. After all, when you picture the Golden State, the mind drifts to endless beaches and west-facing sunsets. But Palm Springs is not like any of the other cities.
In the center of Southern California, Palm Springs was once the playground for the rich and famous. But over the years it’s become the perfect winter escape for average Joe and Jane. Visitors will discover a town that effortlessly blends fashion and art with nature.
It’s a city that promises to surprise you as you can easily spend the day at a resort pool party before checking out one of the many high-end local galleries and museums. To stretch your legs, embark on captivating hikes, or simply take the Aerial Tramway to epic mountaintop views.
6. San Jose
Many people may connect San Francisco with Silicon Valley. However, San Jose is the heart of the world’s tech capital.
San Jose is at the southern end of the Bay Area and connects the local community to an abundance of nearby outdoor adventures. A few minutes from town and you’ll find yourself in Castle Rock State Park. After getting about on foot, freshen up and explore the local vineyard scene, which is a quiet rival to the famous Napa Valley.
Back in San Jose, check out the Historic Downtown District with old Italianate and Spanish architecture. Admire the beguiling facades before experiencing the eclectic international food scene. With dinner done, stick around for San Jose’s burgeoning nightlife.
Once the capital of Spanish California, Monterey is now a historic seaside city. It grew to become the center of the cannery industry, best described in Joseph Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row. Today, the row has been revitalized to become the center of Monterey’s mouthwatering dining scene along the city’s beautiful waterfront.
Monterey is a wonderful destination for families. You’ll find a wide range of activities to pursue, from the outdoors and beaches to fascinating museums and the beloved aquarium.
Cannery Row, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and 17-Mile Drive combine to make the scenic city incredibly romantic. You and your partner can spend the day kayaking around the bay before returning to the waterfront for golden hour with Monterey’s twinkling lights splashing against the Pacific.
Northeast of San Francisco is Sacramento, the capital of California. You may not have the beautiful west coast beaches. But what you will discover is a city teeming with history and culture.
The city is placed at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. The latter stemming from nearby lakes and the Sierras. They combine to offer visitors some fun outdoor adventures, including kayaking and rafting. While a day at the lake, is the perfect way to relax and escape the bustling downtown.
Speaking of, Sacramento’s inner city is packed with museums and renowned art galleries. But not to be missed is Old Sacramento, with several captivating buildings from the mid-1800s. Come for the sights and stay for the vibrant food scene.
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9. San Luis Obispo
With a local population of under 50,000, San Luis Obispo may be small, but it remains one of the best cities in California. So come and discover why it’s known as the happiest city in America.
It’s a place where residents are as welcoming as the eternal blue sky. The charming, leafy downtown streets are a pleasure to explore on foot. They lead you along rows of old Spanish architecture from the 19th century now home to modern restaurants. None better than those on Higuera Street, which traverses San Luis Obispo’s beautiful waterfront.
Each weekend, you’ll come across local markets that bring everyone together. While you’re less than 30 minutes from the coast to one side and the mountains on the other.
10. Long Beach
Long Beach is one of the most famous cities in the state. Here, residents get to enjoy the big city life while having all the benefits of a small beach town. No wonder it’s called the beach with benefits.
Thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles, it’s easy to get to Long Beach. But don’t worry about hiring a car as you can use the city’s Passport bus service for a free way to get to the best local attractions. These include nature centers, Japanese gardens, multiple art museums, and the iconic ocean liner, Queen Mary.
This is all complemented by the fabulous waterfront and seemingly endless balmy weather. Go for a swim or sunbathe before checking out the happening nightlife. Read more about the 24 Of The Best Beaches in California
On the other side of San Francisco Bay is Oakland. The city has followed a similar path to New York’s Brooklyn and is the perfect complement to the high-brow city of San Francisco.
Hip and up-and-coming, it’s a city with a genuine soul. Something you can sense as you wander around the city teeming with repurposed districts now packed with boutiques, restaurants, and artisanal wares.
Oakland has always been a melting pot. Its history plays out in its dining scene, where you’ll find authentic dishes from a range of international cuisine. But as the city rises into a modern metropolis, its festival and events calendar continues to fill up. Visitors will find an exciting range of street fairs and community festivals that showcase the local culture.
Oakland and San Fran are gateways to one of the US’ top wine regions. Napa is the chief city within the Napa Valley region, home to renowned vineyards that are equally pleasant on the eyes.
Napa’s downtown has seen a resurgence over the last decade as more people move out of the major cities. Split by the beautiful Napa River, enjoy the local food scene, public markets, or even take a romantic gondola ride down the river.
Of course, the main attraction is the wineries. The Napa Valley has over 300 spread throughout Sonoma County. Take the Napa Valley Wine Train to experience the best local wines and gourmet food. All within a century-old railcar.
Originally founded as a seaport in the 1850s, the well-preserved town of Eureka remains much as it was. Its Old Town is now on the National Register of Historic Places with rows of 19th-century buildings. Here you’ll discover opulent Victorian mansions once home to rich lumber merchants. Some have even been transformed into adorable bed and breakfasts.
Wander along the historic streets admiring the exquisite facades now harboring cafes, galleries, and restaurants. From there, head to the Waterfront and explore the seaside boardwalk.
Eureka is a brief trip from the Oregon border in Northern California. This places the city in redwood country with beautiful forests enveloping the city to the east. While the quaint northern beaches are just a short walk away.
14. Palo Alto
Between San Fran and San Jose, Palo Alto is an innovative city home to one of California’s leading universities. Palo Alto is a mix of old and new. It’s home to historic buildings that have stood the test of time while being at the center of the modern world.
Some of these historic buildings are home to must-see attractions such as the Cantor Arts Center and the Museum of American Heritage. While exploring the Stanford University campus will give you a great example of Palo Alto’s split personality.
The tree-lined downtown streets lead to over 30 public parks, none better than Rinconada Park. The city’s pleasant year-round weather means there’s no bad time to enjoy a picnic. From there, enjoy the great dining scene fueled by local students before exploring the Baylands Nature Preserve.
Home to the fifth largest population in California, Fresno is the gateway to some of the state’s best national parks. But the city itself is well worth a visit. It’s a family-friendly destination with plenty of attractions to keep young and old entertained.
Fresno features a number of wonderful parks to enjoy, including Roeding and Woodward parks. The former is home to the city’s Chaffee Zoo and features a sprawling lake within its 90 acres. Woodward Park is on the San Joaquin River and is home to the annual Shakespeare Festival.
You’ll find live sporting events, including regular baseball and basketball, in town. But the real action lies east where you’ll find Yosemite and the Sierra National Forest. Read more: Where to Stay in Yosemite
Healdsburg is another city within Sonoma County that should be on your radar. The rolling hills and glistening lakes lead you to the charming town, a popular weekend destination for those in San Francisco.
Because of this, you’ll find plenty of elegant bed and breakfasts. Plus cozy cafes and cute bakeries all within the heart of wine country. Healdsburg is bucolic but far from a sleepy small town. Just steps away from award-winning wineries, Healdsburg shares Napa Valley’s love of great wine and mouthwatering food.
Food and drink aside, you’ll find plenty of adventure on the local trails that take you into deep valleys and preserves. You can also paddle down the Russian River jumping between nearby beaches as you go.
When is the best time to visit California?
California’s exceptional weather makes it a true year-round destination. The two major factors that will determine what time is best are your goals and your budget.
If your dream is to spend your days on the sand at Long Beach, then late spring, summer, and fall will be perfect. Although it doesn’t get cold in the winter, the Pacific Ocean is famously chilly in California. But if you’re looking to go on a road trip and tick of all the cities on this list, visit in the shoulder seasons to avoid large summer crowds.
To save money, visiting in the winter and early spring will help you avoid expensive room rates. This may limit your beach days, but you’ll still have pleasant sunny days and fantastic hiking conditions.
What are the largest cities in California by population?
The largest city by population is Los Angeles. By some margin too, it has more than twice the number of people than second place, San Diego.
You may be surprised to hear that San Francisco is not higher up. However, the popular city is broken into several sections, including Oakland.
What city in California should I visit first?
Los Angeles can polarize a lot of travelers. Some love the glitz and glamor of the famous city, but others find it’s too easy to fall into the tourist traps.
If you’re flying into California, then L.A. is likely to be your first destination. Put it at the top of the itinerary, giving you plenty of time to amend your plans if you love or loathe it.
What is the most beautiful city in California?
So many cities in this state feature Spanish Revival architecture and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Two things I’m admittedly biased towards. These qualities help make places like Monterrey and Santa Barbara so beautiful.
Monterrey has its own unique qualities such as Cannery Row and the amazing 17-Mile Drive, which helps put it at the top of the list of beautiful California cities.
What are the most popular cities to visit in California?
For sheer popularity, you can’t pass Los Angeles. The world-famous city is only behind New York as the top U.S. destination. The battle for second place after New York goes to San Francisco. It’s an exciting city to explore, punctuated by the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.