Top 20 Things to Do in California for First-Timers

Visiting the Golden State for the first time? Start your trip with these 20 exciting things to do in California. If you still have time, explore a few hidden gems in Malibu and San Diego after that.

Last updated: January 19, 2022

The Top 20 Things to Do in California_
The best things to do in California during your first visit: June Lake

The Best Things to Do in California during Your First Visit

What is the most visited state in the USA? Even if you haven’t been to the country, the answer slips of your tongue. California! For some people, the Golden State is all they want to see during their first visit to the USA. There is nothing surprising about it.

Boasting some of the most diverse landscapes and the biggest attractions, the sunny state is the epitome of the ultimate American vacation. From Hollywood to Disneyland and national parks, beaches, deserts, and lakes, California has something for every visitor. So, if you’re planning your first trip to the USA, these 20 things to do in California should definitely be on your itinerary.


1. Have Fun at Universal Studios Hollywood

The Universal Studios Hollywood theme park is one of the most famous attractions in California. Located in Los Angeles, the place is packed with exclusive rides, fun entertainment, and endless crowds. If you’re interested in behind the scenes of some of the famous Hollywood movies, make sure to take the Studio Tour. This signature ride attraction will take you into a working movie studio with different film sets on its lot.

2. Hollywood Walk of Fame

Seeing pictures of celebrities posing in front of pink stars with their names engraved on them is one thing. But walking down an alley, exploring and taking pictures of these stars by yourself is a completely different experience. If this is one of your top things to do in California, then the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a place you can’t miss.

Hollywood -
First-timer’s guide to the best things to do in California: Hollywood Walk of Fame

3. Hollywood Sign

You can’t really brag about your visit to California without seeing the Hollywood Sign. Furthermore, the chances are that the first thing your friends and family members will ask for upon your return back home is a picture of this famous California landmark.

So, make sure not to disappoint them. You can see the Hollywood Sign from many places in Los Angeles. Hiking to the large white letters is, however, the best way to see the famous attraction up-close.

A day in Hollywood, the Busiest Neighborhood of Los Angeles -
The best things to do in California: Peering at the Hollywood Sign for the first time

4. Disneyland

Disneyland is one of the top things to do in California with kids. From fairy-tale characters to various rides and attractions, your little travelers will never forget their California vacation.

5. Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the top things to do in the San Francisco area in Northern California. The bridge is nothing short of “celebrity” itself. Thanks to its splendid look and 746-foot-tall towers, the Golden Gate Bridge has been featured in many Hollywood movies.

Golden Gate Bridge is an absolute must in San Francisco in 24 hours - Roads and Destinations
Top things to see and do during your first visit to the Golden State: Golden Gate Bridge

6. Chase Waterfall in Yosemite National Park

One of the most beautiful national parks in California, Yosemite National Park attracts millions of visitors each year. Its stunning waterfalls, numerous scenic hiking trails, and towering mountains are the main reasons for such popularity.

National Parks Perfect for a Day Trip from Los Angeles -
Visiting California for the first time: Yosemite National Park

7. Watch Seals in La Jolla

La Jolla is one of the must-do things in Southern California and the first place you should visit when in San Diego. This small seaside area is famous for its rugged coastline, sandstone canyons, and pods of soaking up the sun seals.

One Day in La Jolla - Roads and Destinations.
Seals in La Jolla

8. Slide down Snowy Slopes in Mammoth Mountain

If your first visit to California falls on winter or spring, be sure to devote some time to skiing in the massive Mammoth Mountain area. While the ski season usually starts at the beginning of November, it may last until early June. So your chances of enjoying a snowy winter wonderland in California are pretty high.

The Top 20 Things to Do in California -
Your first visit to California can include both sunny beaches and snowy mountain peaks

9. Visit Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

California is a state of contrasts. Along with the sweeping mountains and dense forests, it boasts a few deserts. And while the majority of them have distinguishing California look – barren land with Joshua trees and other desert plants – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley drastically differs. Furthermore, on top of epic desert views, these white sand dunes are perfect for sandboarding.

The Top 20 Things to Do in California,
Things to do in California during the first visit: Visiting Death Valley

10. General Sherman in Sequoia National Park

If you’re looking for “the world’s best, tallest, and biggest”, then California is surely at your service. While road-tripping through the state for the first time, make sure to stop at Sequoia National Park and see the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world, measured by volume.

National Parks Perfect for a Day Trip from Los Angeles,
Things to do in California for first-timers: Admire General Sherman

11. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is among the top things to do in California for quite some reasons. First, it’s a vast area that consists of two deserts with their unique ecosystems. Second, the park is home to huge boulders and rock formations that provide plenty of opportunities for rock climbing. Third, it’s a place where Joshua trees thrive, which is definitely an unusual sight for a desert.

National Parks Perfect for a Day Trip from Los Angeles;
Joshua Tree National Park

12. Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park includes five islands off the coast of California. You can boat or fly here and spend a day hiking, kayaking, and wildlife watching.

Channel Islands,
Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park

13. Enjoy Poppies Bloom in Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

If you visit California in mid-March or April, be sure to add Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve to your list of the top things to do here. During this time, the typically barren hills turn into an orange flowery sea, a sight you don’t want to miss.

READ MORE: The 15 Most Beautiful Flower Fields and Orchards in California

Wildflowers near Los Angeles - Roads and Destinations
Flowery idyll in the Golden State you can’t miss during your first visit

14. Admire Nature in Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay State Park is a crown jewel of the Lake Tahoe area. Its evergreen trees, turquoise and blue waters with the majestic mountains in the background speak for themselves. Adding Emerald Bay to your list of the best things to do in California is not optional. It’s a mandatory pursuit for every nature lover.

The Top 20 Things to Do in California -
Fannette Island in Lake Tahoe

15. Visit Santa Monica

Santa Monica in Southern California is a definition of the state’s carefree, summer-all-year-long lifestyle. With its beautiful beaches, delicious food, a profusion of trendy and authentic shops, Santa Monica is a must-visit place any time of the year.

Santa Monica Pier, Roads and Destinations
Santa Monica Pier

16. Venice Beach

Just a short drive or bike ride away from Santa Monica is located your next best thing to do in California. Venice Beach has a controversial reputation, though. A place that gathers all kinds of people, this neighborhood is famous for its hippie culture and gorgeous sunsets.

The Venice Beach Boardwalk,

17. Watch Sunset at Mono Lake

Mono Lake is one of the most protected landmarks of the state. This saline soda lake features remarkable tufa rocks that look absolutely stunning during the sunset.

The Top 20 Things to Do in California.
The best things to do in California for first-timers: Exploring Mono Lake – South Tufa Area

18. Twin Lakes

For those who look for a piece of the Alps in California, Twin Lakes are your place to be. Along with the incredible scenery, the area offers plenty of fishing, boating, and camping opportunities. Hiking is another way to experience nature in and near Twin Lakes.

The Top 20 Things to Do in California,
First visit to California: Twin Lakes

19. Alcatraz Island

Who doesn’t know about the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz Island so vividly portrayed in the Hollywood movie “The Rock”? Luckily, you don’t need to be a criminal to explore the mysteries of Alcatraz. The island is open to all visitors. Yet make sure to book your trip way ahead of time. Often, tickets are sold out months in advance.

San Francisco - Roads and Destinations

20. Take a Scenic Ride through the Big Sur Area

Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California Central Coast. Known for its scenic views, redwood forests, and beaches, it attracts almost as many visitors and Yosemite National Park.

The Top 20 Things to Do in California,
Top things to do in California for the first-time visitors: Road-tripping through Big Sur

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