As a resident of California, I am completely fascinated by the fact that life can be so different here from one city to the next. Even just in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live there is a lot of diversity in terms of socio-political views, urban vs. rural living, opportunities for work and education and other demographic details. Take into consideration that this state is so large that it takes up half the west coast and you can imagine just how many different ways of living there are in California.
I would almost say that it’s impossible to do a complete tour of California without taking a huge chunk of time to do it since each city here is so unique from the others. However, I do think that it’s possible to get a good sense of how many different ways of life there are in California by making a trip to each of the following ten cities in the state. If you manage to spend at least a little bit of time in each of them, you should have a good sense of what California could be about (and a much better idea of which part of California you wouldn’t like to live in if you wanted to make the move!)
Here are the ten cities that I would visit in California if I could only visit ten:
1. San Francisco. It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that San Francisco is at the top of my list since I not only live here but absolutely love living here. The architecture is beautiful, the people are creative and there is always something to see or do. It’s a geographically small city which means it’s easy to get around without a car but it’s an urban area with tons of activities of all kinds. It’s super-liberal and probably the city most like Europe that you’ll get to visit within the United States. It’s interesting and unique and filled with rich history. When you go here, check out the many different neighborhoods which are each like their own little microcosm of the world.
2. Los Angeles. It would be impossible to understand everything that there is to understand about California if you didn’t spend some time in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. It’s a massive city with many different things to see but it basically embodies the way of life that most people think of when they think of California. It has the glamour of Hollywood, the luxury of Rodeo Drive, the sunny beaches where blonde girls do their tanning … It also has a lot of interesting museums and cultural events and art galleries. It’s huge and that means that if there’s something you want to explore then it’s probably here. Plus Disneyland is nearby.
3. San Diego. This is another of the must-visit large cities in California. It’s a really interesting place because it’s got a combination of military influences and beach bum attitudes. The weather is terrific here and the beaches are the best reason to go. See San Diego Zoo and the park that it sits inside. Take advantage of the proximity to Mexico to learn more about the Mexican cultures. Explore the growing neighborhoods like the Gaslamp and the tourist neighborhoods like Old Town and Little Italy. But mostly, just enjoy the beach!
4. Sacramento. It is generally my belief that people trying to get a good sense of what any state is about should visit the state capital. California is kind of strange this way because the major cities and tourist attractions are those first three on the list so the capital city of the state gets overlooked a lot. It’s a good place to visit though and one that should be included on a California State Tour. You should check out Old Town Sacramento and explore historic landmarks and government buildings throughout the city.
5. San Luis Obispo. You have a few choices when you’re ready to visit small beach towns right on the coast of California. Most people will tell you to check out Monterrey but I would say to go a few hours south to San Luis Obispo. It’s a little bit quieter but it’s a college town so it’s got an interesting young scene with bars and a cool music-rich Farmer’s Market and some great little art galleries. It’s a small place and mostly good for a beach vacation but it’s got a lot of little nooks and crannies to see.
6. Arcata. If you’re more interested in the coast of Northern California then the most interesting town that you’re going to find along the way is Arcata which is way up north in Humboldt County. Anyone who is a fan of the hippie era, the Green Party, uber-liberalism and medical marijuana will be a fan of Arcata. And even if you’re not a fan, this is definitely a scene that’s integral to the overall make-up of the California mindset so you might want to give it a chance.
7. Redding. Inland from Arcata, in the center of the state but also up north is Redding. This is the largest city north of Sacramento and so it serves as a great hub for people who want to explore what Northern California is all about. It’s close to Mount Shasta so travelers that are interested in the outdoors will find a lot of things to do here.
8. Marysville. When you get to this tiny little place in central Northern California, you’re going to wonder how it managed to make it onto a list of top ten cities to see I the state. That’s because it’s a small place in an area that’s basically surrounded by military families and quiet Republicans. However, this is part of California too and it’s a part that most people miss. A lot of California really is just small towns with people living normal lives. It’s not all Hollywood and San Francisco. If you really want to know what California is like, you need to include a town like this. And this one is good because it’s got a cute little downtown area with a city lake and some great local shops.
9. Death Valley Junction. No trip to California is quite complete without at least seeing the vast desert that is Death Valley. Death Valley Junction is the city closest to the National Park and so is the place that you’ll want to put on your list for this part of the trip. There are a few historic sites here as well, mostly related to the railroad history of California.
10. Salton Sea. This is a place that almost nobody knows about so it’s the bonus area to add to your itinerary if you want to feel like a California insider. There’s a big salt water lake here. A long time ago, this area was built up as a recreational area but then some problems occurred and the area was mostly deserted. Only a few people live here now so it’s almost a little bit like a California ghost town. It’s a strange place but it’s worth a stop as you’re exploring the rest of Southern California.
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Deborah Minter from U.S, California on December 28, 2018:
J Toporek on November 17, 2015:
Great informative piece save for one thing... Have you been to New Orleans, LA? I think most would agree it is more like Europe than San Francisco.
Nick on May 01, 2014:
Awesome list, I'm a California native and have seen it all.
I would have squeezed Lake Tahoe in there somewhere.
Very happy you mentioned slo.
Chris on March 06, 2013:
Doesn't anyone know about Bishop? It's an incredible place to live or just to visit!
mak on February 12, 2013:
i am looking place to live with best air, best water and beautiful city in california which is that?
i do not like snow places.
TanetuP. on November 19, 2012:
Very informative. I am planning to visit California before the year ends. I take your list for my visit.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on October 20, 2012:
Thanks for sharing. Going on emergency road trip tomorrow and this helped us with some planning.
Brent Curiel on August 03, 2012:
Wit the frik! Yosemite is the #1 place to go. People from all over the world goto see one of tge LAST forests in the world...
Phoua on April 16, 2012:
Im surprised Marysville made to your top 10cities. I appreciate You for making Marysville more respected. Its a small town and theres nothing much to do there. Im from there. Now living in Sacramento. Its not hollywood but truly part of California. But i appreciate you for acknowledging it.
Max Factor on March 26, 2012:
Here's my list in logistical order from south to north. Good trip for European and Japanese Tourists on a long stay.
1 San Diego
3 Catalina Island
4 Los Angeles, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Malibu Area
5 Santa Barbara/Solvang Area
6 Spend a few days driving north on Pacific Coast Highway from the central coast to the bay area
7 San Francisco
8 Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, Eastern Sierra Nevadas Region
9 Death Valley National Monument
10 Las Vegas Nevada Yes Nevada!
There you have it. The best that Cali has to offer.
DoctorRain on January 27, 2012:
I been living in Sacramento for 5 months and I even wrote a blog about what I think. Check it out since its a good read. My California experience revolves around this so far lets just say.
Jes on January 18, 2012:
What about Palo Alto? Its an awesome city!
Larry Horton from Greenwood, Arkansas on January 13, 2012:
Why would anyone want to go to the Salton Sea? A chemically poluted dead inland sea that smells of dead fish. You could have named a hundred other places... How bout Surf City USA - Huntington Beach! Salton Sea....OMG
Jay on January 12, 2012:
You forgot Sonoma/Napa!!! Most beautiful part of California without a doubt!
me on August 27, 2011:
You should rename this "List all of the major cities in California." No imagination whatsoever.
Stef on July 11, 2011:
Highway 395. Sequioa, Lake Tahoe,
Ca native here, seen it all.
Hennes on June 06, 2011:
I really Love La so much and i am single and need a sweet lady that will go with me and catch fun together and you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Travel Review on May 29, 2011:
i live in the different country. i wish someday i'll be in California to spend my holidays or even to be a resident there
The Outdoor Fire Pit Guy on May 26, 2011:
I also really like Santa Barbara, very classy place.
Peter Bruce Photo on May 22, 2011:
This is the best you can do in one of the BEST states in the world !!!!
WOW LA dam look around in Ca
Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on April 19, 2011:
I'm a native Californian who has visited all but four of your places -- Marysville, Death Valley, Arcata, and the Salton Sea. I have traveled Hwy 101 and 1 from south to north. I would be hard-pressed to choose only ten cities or communities. After seeing all the big cities on your list, I'm content to stay here in Templeton, a small town in wine country in San Luis Obispo County. I have written much about it on line and here on HubPages. I see I shall have to write more, since so many wonderful towns and cities aren't on the list. The two cities on your list I like best are San Diego and San Luis Obispo. I agree that Monterey is a must-see. I have spent a lot of time there, since my inlaws lived in Carmel Valley for many years. I love Carmel, except for the traffic getting there and back on Hwy 1. Paso Robles and this whole North SAn Luis Obispo County could keep you busy for a couple of weeks with its nearby beach areas, wineries, hiking, and festivals ranging from art to lavender. SAn Luis Obispo is only half and hour away. I'd also include Yreka -- a town I used to just drive through on the way to Oregon and Washington, until I was stranded there for a weekend. Too many lovely places! So little time
poki on February 17, 2011:
I grew up in California and traveled to most of the places you mentione.I would add some of the national parks like Joshua Padrk and Yosemite, other cities like Santa Cruz,Monterey Bay,Napa valley and Palms Springs are really beautiful and some of the gold rush ghost towns are really nice to visit like Jamestown,Strawberry and Murphey.
Collin on February 11, 2011:
Santa Barbara/ Solvang/ Santa maria should be on this list
craigmissuea from USA on January 10, 2011:
I always wish to visit San Francisco. Your description of it has made me now more eager.
will on December 22, 2010:
GO SAN LUIS OBISPO!!!!!!!!!!!!
Top10Places.com on December 08, 2010:
I like travelling very much,sometimes, I don't know where to go so I often browse some newspapers about Tourist attractions.Recently, I found a web site called Top10Places(http://top10places.com/).This is a great website.It can tell me where should I go to travel.I can Simply navigate to my destination.
Yani on December 04, 2010:
I love Newport beach !!! So good to me
hi on November 16, 2010:
i live in sacramento and it SUCKS!!!!!!!!!! i hate it here so much. theres absolutely nothing sacramento has to offer :P
John R Wilsdon from Superior, Arizona on November 12, 2010:
For another nice and quiet little central valley California town, head to Gustine. 45 minutes or so south of Modesto. Takes you back 40 or 50 years. Lots of cows too! Thanks for the tour.
Used Acoustic Gui from New Zealand on November 11, 2010:
Love San Fran! Looking forward to going back for another visit!
cloudhardy from United State on November 09, 2010:
Selection is the most difficult task, specifically in the case of traveling, therefore the description of Californian and the most traversed places such as San Francisco,Los Angeles,San Diego,Sacramento,San Luis Obispo,Arcata,Redding,Marysville,Death Valley Junction and Salton Sea is really awesome. Thanks a lot for sharing such a wonderful peace of text.
R. J. Lefebvre on October 14, 2010:
Your city choices are interesting. I don't mind visiting large cities for short periods to satify cultural interests, but I would never want to live in any of them. Smaller communities seem to be more sociable and endearing.
Jaynie2000 on October 13, 2010:
Great hub with a few cities I've never been to, but would like to see. I would have included Santa Barbara.
Isabel on August 02, 2010:
California is the best. These are all places people shouldn't miss, especially San Francisco. How can you not love a city with an opera season? For those visiting from outside the US, another good thing to think about is visitors insurance.
Art of legend india.com on July 30, 2010:
I am enjoying your hub. it is a very nice collection about California.I love San Francisco.
Jane@CM on July 28, 2010:
It was so nice when I googled Northern CA cities to find a Hub on it! We recently moved to the Sacto area and I wanted to find some artsy type towns for my daughter and I to explore. Good hub.
lender3212000 from Beverly Hills, CA on July 08, 2010:
Those are some excellent suggestions. San Diego has always been a favorite of mine although I am starting to explore a bit more when I travel to California so I'm starting to discover a few new things.
jeanie.stecher from Seattle on June 24, 2010:
NiCe places you have mentioned here in your hub! I have gone to almost all of those and indeed you speak the truth. I love California since it has good weather and not to mention LA lakers! hehehe
ferma on June 18, 2010:
i wish to visit morocco and to the city which is marrakech
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Nick on June 16, 2010:
I live in Marysville and wow, i was shocked to see it on a list among San Diego, San Fran and LA. However, after reading our authors thoughts, i feel that her purpose was just. And ya, there are so many republicans you'd puke.
Metalhobbit7 on May 13, 2010:
What about Monterey?! San Franscisco is my favorite place too, (no way would i live there though) but Monterey is a great place, shoulda been in the list.
carmellowyoshi on May 05, 2010:
Nice, i used to live in California, it was so nice! And i agree with Michelle Smith, don't forget Santa Cruz! I used to live there, and i loved it so much. Outstanding hub, nicely done.
louise on May 04, 2010:
i would love to live there im from ireland and i hate it its so boring over here
Michelle Smith on May 03, 2010:
Don't forget Santa Cruz, next time you update your site!!!
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on April 06, 2010:
I've hit your top five. . . .and three of them last month. I'm a proud Texan, but California is one hell of a beautiful place!
I agree with the fellow who commented above about Santa Cruz/Monterrey Bay. I stayed in Seaside for six weeks, and that area is awesome.
fiona_33 from UK on March 31, 2010:
Terrific hub. Really useful information. I've been to California twice and would love to go back again.
Jay on March 25, 2010:
I think San Jose should be in the list.
Live here for 20 years, and this city
looks beautiful. Came and see it ,
and a bet you stay for ever..
LDC2010 from Canada on March 21, 2010:
i wish ill visit california one day.. i have heard so much beautiful things about that place.
sexysara on March 11, 2010:
i didn't read all of it but what i did read i liked doing research on cali thanks alot
lizy22 on March 03, 2010:
I personally enjoy your post, its very interesting and informative. Thanks
JC Martin from USA on January 16, 2010:
My bro has been living in San Diego for a few years now and he loves it. I also took a trip there last Summer to give the kids a nice vacation at Sea World and Legoland. We had a blast.
Twenty One Days on December 26, 2009:
misses `frisco. `specially north bay.
red woods, coastline, rocky inlets...
jennafaw on December 15, 2009:
Don't forget your casinos like San Manuel, Morongo, and Fantasy. Big Bear is really lovely too, but I have never been to Lake Arrowhead. However there is this place called Lytle Creek with a beautiful waterful [from what I've heard]. When I do get the chance to visit there, I'll definitely post up pictures.
Norwegian Pearl Cruises on November 10, 2009:
Very cool list, I have spent quite a bit of time in Arcata, definitly a great place to run into some hippies.
natalie on October 09, 2009:
I WENT HERE!!
jimmy on September 26, 2009:
stockton should be on top ten
MikeNV from Henderson, NV on September 25, 2009:
I've been to 7 of the cities listed. California is very different from North to South. And the inland deserts are not very pleasant... but I'm one to talk. I love the Bay Area... and then OC the most.
c. mattingly on September 19, 2009:
I really enjoyed your hub! I think Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake should definetly be added to these amazing cities!
Target Visibility on September 07, 2009:
hey if you want to find out more about US cities, visit okbravo.com. Its a really good travel site that will help you plan your holiday in the US. Thanks for the info - this is a great hub Kathryn!
J. Kumm from Washington on August 01, 2009:
Santa Cruz/Monterey should really be on this list! =)
Private Jet Prices on July 21, 2009:
Great list of cities, I have been to everone at least once. San Diego is probably my favorite though. So beautiful and so much to do, great weather and friendly people.
Best Hot Tub Prices on July 13, 2009:
I have spent some time in Humbolt County, the hippie generation is definitly alive and well there. Some very nice country though.
mwaky on July 09, 2009:
Ozark Trail Tents on July 09, 2009:
I grew up on the Oregon Coast right on the Oregon/California border. I have spent quite a bit of time in all the places you talk about and they all have their qualities that make them each unique. Great post.
Pierre van Eck on June 08, 2009:
Congratulations on a fine and very informative Hub. Many thanks for sharing your take on the top destinations in California - its been a great read!
Jennifer Maurer from Chicago, IL on May 18, 2009:
Nice hub! I lived in California for about 10 years, from North to South. I liked your list very much. My personal favorite was Carmel/Big Sur. Also liked Man"happenin" Beach! I always love to hear from a native. One thing I observed while living out there was that most Californians don't bother to travel around their great state. I think I saw more of it than the average native. Glad to see you enjoy and appreciate it there, and share with all of us. Thanks!
cfangerow from United Kingdom on March 30, 2009:
I am also from California but have been abroad for most of the last five years. Your hub reminded me that there are so many interesting places to see back home!
Francisco on March 28, 2009:
I would add Davis to that list. it is really interesting and has lots of things to do.
irene.trel on March 17, 2009:
Those cities you have cited in California is very much looking forward to visit. You publish a great travel information which gives me an idea on how much and which city I prefer to visit.
David from San Antonio, Texas on March 07, 2009:
Bonus area? I'll have to remember that one if I ever end up in Cali.
Triplet Mom from West Coast on March 05, 2009:
Nice choices! I would have added Solvang and Santa Barbara but like the ones you chose too. Too many choices when you talk about California.
St.James from Lurking Around Florida on March 05, 2009:
What no Oxnard?! or Weed?!
Great city choices!