Top 5 tourist places in California

1. The San Francisco Bay Area

When the afternoon sun shines on the hillsides or the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean over the Golden Gate Bridge, this eclectic city has a mystical beauty. Visitors are awed by San Francisco's picture-perfect scenery, from the curves of Lombard Street to the elegant Victorian houses. The city also delights tourists with its walkable (albeit steep) streets, thrilling cable car rides, marvelous bay views, and historic neighborhoods: Chinatown, a bustling area of shops and authentic Chinese restaurants; North Beach (Little Italy); and Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco's most touristy area.

As an article of Planet Ware, today, San Francisco is California's most sophisticated city, a place to enjoy world-class opera and ballet, a wide range of theater performances, and gourmet dining. The city has an impressive assortment of top-rated restaurants offering local, as well as global cuisine and trendsetting menus. The hip and edgy Mission district is the place to try up-and-coming restaurants or sample ethnic cuisine, relax in a coffee shop, and browse unique shops. The stylish Hayes Valley neighborhood is renowned for its restaurants, as well as fancy retail boutiques.

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The San Francisco Bay Area. Photo: Planet Ware

Nature lovers can drive 30 miles south of San Francisco (via the scenic Highway One) to Half Moon Bay. Tucked away behind rolling hills, this oceanfront town fronts a stretch of wild, rugged Pacific coastline. It's a great place for walking along the beach, hiking, golfing, fishing and bird-watching, or to enjoy a seafood meal by the harbor. About 17 miles farther south is Pescadero, a rural community with many small farms, a bird sanctuary at the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, and a goat dairy (Harley Farms) that hosts candlelit dinners in a restored Victorian hayloft.

2. Disneyland

Disneyland, located in Anaheim, is California's premier family destination and has been for decades. This massive amusement park is home to all kinds of rides, games, shows, and entertainment, complete with restaurants and hotels.

The park is a combination of theme rides and recreated worlds and cultures. You can find shows and other entertainment designed for both children and adults. Long line ups and wait times have been reduced somewhat by the invention of passes, which give you a "return time" to various attractions. However, when kids are out of school, either for the summer, Christmas, spring break, or any other holiday, you can be sure that the park will be very busy.

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Disneyland. Photo: Planet Ware

Keep in mind there is more to Disneyland than just the parks. The entire Disneyland resort experience features hotels, dining, shopping at the Downtown Disney District, and the Disney Adventure Park. Although the parks are definitely what the children are here to see, there is something for everyone in the family.

3. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park in Northern California is one of the United States' most scenic and most visited national parks. The mountains, valleys, rivers, and spectacular waterfalls have drawn tourists, artists, and athletes here for decades. Most of the key sights and things to do in Yosemite National Park are in Yosemite Valley. Carved by glaciers during the last ice age, the granite walls and huge waterfalls are some of the most outstanding features in the park. This is where you'll find the big name attractions, like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Beyond the Valley are the Tioga Road and the Glacier Point Road, both of which offer access to alpine areas, lookout points, and incredible views. Sometimes overlooked by tourists but also definitely worth seeing are the giant sequoias. The largest stand is located in Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of the park.

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Yosemite National Park. Photo: Planet Ware

One of the best ways to explore Yosemite is to get right out into the landscape on some of the incredible hiking trails. These range from easy walks along streams and lakes to life-altering trails that will take you to the tops of mountain peaks and to famous landmark sites. If you are spending a few nights and want to set up here for a while, you'll also find a number of outstanding campgrounds in Yosemite and the surrounding area.

4. Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Pasadena

Los Angeles epitomizes the seductive image of sunny Southern California with its wide, palm-fringed boulevards; exclusive designer boutiques; and see-and-be-seen beaches. This sprawling urban center was founded in 1781 and built up during the film industry boom of the 1920s and 30s. The city is still synonymous with the glamour of Hollywood, the famous neighborhood that is full of iconic sights and tinged with Tinseltown glitz. Hollywood is also a go-to spot for people-watching and celebrity sightings.

Those intrigued by the idea of spotting Hollywood stars should head to their stomping grounds on Rodeo Drive, lined with haute couture boutiques; the exclusive Beverly Hills and Bel Air neighborhoods; the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard; and Franklin Village in Hollywood. An absolute must-see attraction in Hollywood is the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, lined with star plaques honoring prominent movie directors, actors, and musicians.

Favorite beaches are the eclectic Venice Beach, a fun-loving scene of rollerbladers, cyclists, joggers, and street performers, and the 3.5-mile Santa Monica State Beach (15 miles from Los Angeles, accessible by the Expo Metro line), which has an iconic pier with a Ferric wheel and a beachfront path for walking and cycling. The chic seaside city of Santa Monica is brimming with unique locally owned stores and upscale boutiques, as well as trendy restaurants. Many of Santa Monica's restaurants near the pier and on Ocean Avenue offer fantastic beach views.

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Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Pasadena. Photo: Planet Ware

For culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Walt Disney Concert Hall (classical music performances), and the Hollywood Bowl (pop music concerts) are top attractions. Near the pleasant small town of Pasadena (11 miles from Los Angeles) is the Huntington Botanical Gardens, filled with 16 different themed gardens, including a Desert Garden, an authentic Japanese Garden, and a Shakespeare Garden featuring plants cultivated in Renaissance England. This exceptional site includes the Huntington Library that boasts a collection of rare books, including a manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and a 13th-century copy of the Magna Carta.

5. San Diego: Sunshine, Beaches, and Spanish Architecture

With its balmy year-round climate, San Diego is the place to experience California's laid-back lifestyle of sun-drenched days at the beach and fun-loving outdoor adventures. Besides the expansive shoreline of beautiful sandy beaches, the main tourist attractions in San Diego proper are Balboa Park, a lovely green space with distinctive gardens and several museums; the historic Gaslamp Quarter, which is full of boutiques, art galleries, and good restaurants; and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where museums, retail shops, and restaurants occupy the old adobe buildings.

Families with young children will enjoy the city's kid-friendly attractions, as well as the family-friendly resorts that are perfectly designed for a relaxing vacation. The top things to do in San Diego with kids include visiting San Diego Zoo, home to panda bears and other exotic animals; watching the dolphin and whale shows at SeaWorld theme park; exploring the playgrounds at Balboa Park; admiring colorful sea life at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, and spending time at the New Children's Museum.

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San Diego: Sunshine, Beaches, and Spanish Architecture. Photo: Planet Ware

As the oldest city in California, San Diego has the original Spanish mission. Founded in 1769, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá was the birthplace of Christianity in California. Registered as a National Historic Landmark, the mission buildings were crafted from adobe in a quadrangle formation with a striking white-painted facade. Distinguishing features are the cbell wall on the left side of the Mission Church and the meditation garden blooming with flowers. Tours are offered Monday through Friday, and Mass is celebrated daily at the Mission Church.

Several nearby destinations are good day trips from San Diego. For sunbathing and shopping, La Jolla (14 miles north of San Diego's downtown) is prized for its sandy beaches, as well as its quaint downtown full of gourmet restaurants, art museums, performing arts, and antiques shops. Another worthwhile excursion from San Diego is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, in a tranquil setting 66 miles north. For the taste of a different culture, travelers can visit Tijuana in Mexico, just 20 miles south of San Diego.

Slightly farther away (within two hours of San Diego) are many wonderful weekend getaway destinations such as the dreamy Catalina Island and the mountain resort of Idyllwild.

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