Whether it is a hike, a restaurant, or just a collection of odd things, this list is dedicated specifically to the fun places to go in California
Traveling to a continent other than your own can be daunting. You don’t want to see the usual tourist traps, which is hard with zero references. Ultimately, you want to know about the fun places to go in California. That’s where we come in though; with a list of cities and unique things to do in Southern California.
A few years ago my girlfriend and I joined another couple to travel through California. Below you will find a collection of the places, areas and sights we ware particularly fond of. We also believe several of these spots are undervalued on other travelling websites.
But first off, stay away from Los Angeles! You will want to avoid ridiculous bills and other frustrations and besides, L.A. really isn’t all what it is cracked up to be. Just listen to the Red Hot Chili Pepper song ‘Californication’. When the Peppers say it’s a collection of plastic surgery, Hollywood drama and the Boulevard of Stars, you might as well take their advice.
L.A. really works best if you are alone, and you know a local who is well-connected. For family travellers or couples new to the city, expect all doors to be either pricey, closed, or both at the same time. Seeing that there are tons of free things to do in Southern California, I recommend doing a little planning beforehand. For instance, you will want to check out the swimming with leopard sharks in August. For other months, there are plenty of other seasonal attractions as well.
CALIFORNIA BEACHES – PISMO BEACH
California has a massive coastline that extends over 10,000 kilometres (6,600 miles), but two beaches in particular made our list. Not the most beautiful ones, but interesting for sure. Pismo Beach initially sparked my curiosity as it is mentioned in ‘The Big Lebowski’. And just writing this paragraph had me crack up again, as I can’t help to think of Jeff Bridges covered in ash, furious at John Goodman.
During our road trip a few years ago, we ended up on Pismo State Beach expecting very little. As it turned out, it is the essential calling card of America’s west coast beaches. Imagine long stretches of soft sand and great waves for surfing. Plus, for people who are not into watersports, there is plenty of wildlife under the surface to explore.
Since California likes its regulations, we had trouble finding a spot to set up an open fire later that day. Eventually though, we found the camping grounds at Avila. California is regulated but Avila accommodates fire pits. We had a similar issue with the giant Pismo Clams pictured above. I like seafood as much as the next guy, and I like to think your own catch always tastes best. In California however, this is regulated as well. Save yourself the hassle by buying your food and not catching it.
CALIFORNIA BEACHES – FORT BRAGG
That same road trip, I tried finding several places to visit in Northern California. Not always successful, we eventually stopped at Fort Bragg (not to be confused with the army base in North Carolina!). originally meant as a stopover for the night, my girlfriend and I ended up going to the beach for an hour. This beach is not what you call beautiful or scenic, but the ‘sand’ is highly unusual. And I happen to know someone obsessed with this type of thing.
This guy lives in Paris, but flies all over the world as a pilot. And whenever he arrives at a new beach, he always fills up a little vial of sand for his collection. You never really know how different sand can be until you get to compare samples side by side. And Fort Bragg ‘sand’ stands out from anything I have ever seen anywhere else.
Back around 1900, Americans simply dumped their trash on specific beaches to get rid of it. Since this was the pre-plastic era, pretty much everything deteriorated, including entire vehicles. But glass is different, as it breaks but doesn’t rot. Slowly eroding over time, a colourful type of sand known locally as ‘glass beach’ came to be.
Climb down the cliffs and look down to see what the incessant pounding of waves has done over time. Millions of bottles gradually turned into colourful grains of sand. And to this day, it is the strangest sand my friend currently has in his collection. Fort Bragg will never make my list of ‘best cities to visit in California’, but their glass beach and typical American food is something else. The beach is free and the huge quantities of food are honest.
As mentioned previously, this beach isn’t the prettiest. Cliffs also do not make it super accessible, but to me it was worth the walk. Conclude your visit with a trip to Jenny’s Giant Burger downtown and order the blue-cheese burger. Chances are you will hear your arteries clogging up during the digestion process. Next up, crawl back to your hotel room and sleep off the Itis (this is what Americans call food coma).
CALIFORNIA BEACHES – OCEANO BEACH
An honourable mention should also go out to Oceano Beach. Earlier on, I mentioned the regulations that California is so famous for. The vehicle emission laws are notorious, so I expected to get nowhere near a beach in our rental car. I didn’t even consider driving off-road through the dunes!
As it turned out a tiny village called Oceano is famous for just that. Since we rented a beat-up Jeep Wrangler, I was dying to see just how well it would perform off road. But the ODSVRA (Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area) gave us that exact opportunity.
Note, if you ever go here, make sure your rental contract covers off-road use. Because inexperienced drivers racing up a dune can flip a car effortlessly. Of course our insurance didn’t cover anything like this, but you only live once, right? Also, deflate the tires for more grip in the dunes. It will allow you to get more traction and you will be less likely to get stuck somewhere.
I can honestly say driving here is the most fun I ever had driving slow. And say what you want about American cars, they sure know how to make an off-roader. The Jeep drove over everything, confident and with ease. For people traveling with a regular car, don’t despair! There are rental dune buggies available all over town.
For people less interested in vehicular kicks, the Oceano Dunes accommodate hikers, campers and surfers as well. For a regulated state, Oceano has one liberal recreational area. We saw several service trucks selling firewood, water and some delicious local food.
We did not expect anything like this, and neither did the locals. They told us repeatedly how few tourists they get to see in ‘their’ dunes. To hikers and for people ‘in touch’ with nature, Oceano is one of the best cities to visit in California.
SAN FRANCISCO – GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
While making your way up to San Francisco, make sure you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s iconic, and only by driving on it can you actually appreciate how big it is. So marvel at its imposing architecture, and keep in mind this span was constructed in 1937. Follow up by hanging out at the Golden Gate National Recreation area, where you can do anything from hiking and camping, up to biking.
Close to the Golden Gate Bridge, but on the city side you will find Presidio, or Presidio Park. This area is full of lush green hills and features a high number of unusual sights. While most tourists will undoubtedly go for the Walt Disney Family Museum, nerds will have to go to the Yoda Fountain.
Ironically, my beloved Yoda is now part of the Disney empire as well, since they bought Lucasfilm back in 2012. Another very cool thing to see in Presidio is the Wave Organ in the Exploratorium. It is a little hard to find, and once you walk out there on the pier, it seems to be nothing but some marble and pipes. The wave organ is a wave-activated sound sculpture though.
The organ sounds best at high tides, and mostly looks like an ancient ruin. Built from recycled curbstones and even graves, I think this is one of the more romantic places to visit in northern California. At the very least, the soundscape allows you to relax and enjoy the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Bring a cover or something to lay down on for some quality dozing.
SAN FRANCISCO – OAKLAND
Alternatively, turn right around after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Drive back into San Francisco and make a left. Find the Oakland Bay Bridge, and drive up to Treasure Island for a host of different activities. This man-made island hosts a flea market and several nice little restaurants and bars.
It’s also halfway to Oakland, the city on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. Unlike San Francisco, Oakland doesn’t have a high-tech community or a disproportionate amount of vegans. Oakland is a lot grittier and down-to-earth. Originally a port town, gentrification is gradually catching up though. All over the Oakland, old storage facilities house craft breweries and workshops. Creativity is high and it is another great city to spend some time.
SAN FRANCISCO – SAN FRANCISCO ZOO
What makes the San Francisco Zoo stand out, is the unobstructed view of the animals. To make sure the animals don’t get bored, there is a regular rotation of the cages where possible. I’ve never been a big fan of confined animals, but I like this Zoo. The trees inside the compound are massive, and the animals have a lot of space to roam.
I had never seen capybara in reality, as it is an Amazonian animal and I am a European after all. Essentially giant rodents, they look bigger than most of the dogs in my condominium. And unlike the dogs I see every day, these animals have a natural arrogant look to them that is funny to look at.
For a bit more of a freak show, make sure to head over to the insect exhibit. Note that at this spot, there is a lot of staff eagerly sharing their knowledge with the visitors. Its one of those great little details that make this zoo one of the places to visit in northern California.
You may not have some immediate questions, but their hissing cockroaches, tarantulas, scorpions and velvet ants will raise some eyebrows. The displays are informative and if you have a kid, you will notice how they insist on reading each single one. All in all, this is one of the best places to visit in northern California if you are here with your family.
CONCLUSION – Go California!
So there you have it. A fair share of southern Californian destinations and some strange and wonderful places in northern California as well. When you finish reading this article, I hope you got inspired for your next trip to California. And perhaps you made a mental note to see one of the places I mentioned here?
America is massive, and unless you are prepared to deal with Greyhound busses, I recommend getting a rental car. The land of the free is best enjoyed on four wheels, with your own hands on the steering wheel and an iPod full of your songs. Or the songs of your loved one…
Melissa is a passionate foodie, travel writer, and editor working in media internationally and in the USA. She has lived in Bangkok since 2004 and has a background in the travel industry. Melissa’s writing has been published globally in many prestigious online and print magazines for over a decade. Her motto for life is “You cannot live or love well if you have not wined and dined well!”