Everyone knows about Hollywood, Disneyland and the Golden Gate Bridge. Santa Monica pier is fun, but there are SO MANY other incredibly unique things to do in California that you probably had no idea exists in this state.
I didn’t grow up here. I hail from Wisconsin and moved out to San Francisco over 6 years ago. And boy have I fallen head over heels for all the weird, magical, unique stuff here in California. I’ve been all over the state and have compiled my top 50+ unique things to do for everyone looking to see the true California.
50+ Unique Things To Do In California
>> Got a question about California that you need answered quickly? DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll be happy to help!
Narrowing this list down was very hard! Heck, I feel like I could write a whole novel about all the fun, hidden gems in California. We’ve lived here for 6 years and I feel like I’ve done a good job at exploring the state, but I also know there are so many corners I haven’t touched yet.
And that’s coming from a local! I know when visitors come to California they really don’t know where to start. So I wanted to put together the ultimate list of unique things to do in California to help visitors (and locals!) discover all the magical parts of this state that truly make it special.
I mean, Disney is always magical but give me a snowball fight on the shores of Lake Tahoe any day.
Here’s how to use this list: I rounded up 50+ AWESOME things to do / places to visit in California. I have a blog post guide for every. single. thing. on this list, so if you are interested in learning more about a recommendation, just click “continue reading.”
47 Unique Things To Do In California (That Tourists Don't Know About)
Everyone knows about Hollywood, Disneyland and the Golden Gate Bridge. Santa Monica pier is super fun, but there are SO MANY other incredibly unique things to do in California that you probably had no idea exists in this state.
Hidden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are the Mammoth Lake Hot Springs, a cluster of natural hot springs that you can go soaking in! We went on a camping trip up here & waking up a sunrise with that stunning mountain view was pure magic.
Every spring, the Carlsbad Flower Fields opens its gates and allows the public to come visit their endless, stunning field of flowers. They have slower of every color of the rainbow hear, I swear. It's simply stunning if you are in the Southern California area!
YAS you read that correctly! There's a volcano in California and you can hike it! Up in Lassen Volcanic National Park is Cinder Cone, a dormant volcano with a trail leading right to the top of the crater.
Ok, so Half Dome Village isn't exactly true glamping (the tents have outlets and a heater.) Yosemite is my favorite of all the national parks. It's my happy place in the world and Half Dome Village is the best place to spend the night. Fall asleep under the stars and wake up with the valley all to yourself before the hoards of tourists arrive.
Hidden around the Palm Desert area is a truly unique art experience/scavenger hunt. It only happens for a few months every other year and then the art gets taken down. We lucked out by visiting at the right time. I had a blast finding a giant rainbow, a ghost palm, a red box in the desert and so many other whimsical pieces.
Cioppino is a tasty AF Italian-American fish stew originating in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. I think Sotto Mare does it best.
TRUST ME, it's worth it to get up early to go for a sunrise swim at McCloud Falls, a three-tier waterfall in Northern California near Mount Shasta. You'll have it all to yourself.
There are a LOT of famous wineries in Napa Valley but if you are looking for a truly unique wine tasting experience, head to Sterling. You have to ride a tram to the top of the mountain, where you can then wander the property in a self-guided tour. It all ends on a large patio with sweeping views of the valley below.
The Point Area Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse you can climb in California and BOY are the views from the top AMAZING.
Inside Joshua Tree National Park is a rock that looks like a skull! I recommend coming here at golden hour through sunset to watch the sky turn pink behind the skull rock.
Calistoga is a cute little wine town at the North of Napa Valley and other than wine, it's known for healing mudbaths. Spas around the city offer different experiences and I've done the classic mud baths (where you sit for 30 minutes in a giant tub of mud) and also a spa visit where you paint yourself with mud and dry in the sunshine. Both are super fun and unique things to do in California for sure!
I have a soft spot for Spanish missions around California and I absolutely adore the Santa Barbara Mission. It's small but feels like you stepped back in time... and also transported to Spain. Totally worth a visit for history buffs!
Palm Springs is known for mid-century modern architecture and many of the home owners take pride in painting their front doors bright, bold colors. One of my favorite things to do in Palm Springs is to grab a vintage cruiser and bike around door hunting! I even have a whole guide on the blog if you want to do this, too.
Of all the Redwood National Parks and places to soak in the glory of these towering trees, my favorite is the Avenue of the Giants drive. It's entirely self-guided with tons of trails for hiking and stops along the way to learn about the history of the area.
Or, take a ride on the famous Napa Valley Wine Train. There are a lot of wine tours out there but nothing is as unique as being transported from tasting room to tasting room in a cute AF train.
Sounds strange but it's the best flavor of ice cream in the world, and you can only get it in Mendocino or Fort Bragg. I look forward to a cone (or three) every time we visit.
No, Jurassic Pak was not filmed here, but it easily could have been. Fern Canyon is tucked up on The Lost Coast in Northern California and it's a challenge to get to due to the one road leading in frequently getting washed out by storms. But if you make it, you'll be rewarded with a canyon full of towering fern walls. It's magical.
San Diego is my favorite Southern California city & La Jolla is my favorite neighborhood for kicking it back. La Jolla Cove is SUCH a fun place to go snorkeling. There's hundreds of these tiny little red crab (harmless) and fish, along with sea lions on the rocks above constantly barking. Put this on your California bucket list!
Next time you're visiting Joshua Tree, set aside a half-day to visit Pioneertown, aka an old west town that was used to film movies in the 60's. It really feels like you stepped back in time here! (PS looking for more desert things to do? Head a few hours East to Death Valley National Park!)
There are a LOT of places to spot the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco but I think Kirby Cove is on of the more unique lookout spots. It's a hidden beach that requires a hike to get to, and is usually always empty. If you're lucky, there will be a rope swing on the beach to snap IG-worthy photos with!
Of all the cool things to do in California, the swimming holes and hot springs will always be my favorite unique gems. Hidden up in Auburn, a small town outside Sacramento, is the auburn confluence swimming hole. It's not really a hole, rather a part of the American River that slows down under a bridge over pass, making it safe & delightful to swim in on a hot day. We went up here during one of those nasty heat waves in the city (nobody has AC here) and it was the most unique way to cool off!
Hidden on the edge of San Francisco is a secret labyrinth. This is one of my favorite places to take visitors, plus Robin and I hike here all the time, especially on nice days when you can see the Golden Gate Bridge poking out in the distance. (PS-If you're looking for unique things to do in California with kids, take them here!)
On your way to Palm Springs, you may drive past the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Pullover! It's a totally free park filled with giant dino statues (and palm trees) for truly one of the most whimsical attractions in California. Fun for kids and kids at heart
Simply, you can't come to Northern California and NOT drive through a Redwood tree. It's like, the thing to do. There are a few trees but I think the Kalamath Thru Tree is the best one (only $5!)
The Claremont Hotel in Berkeley doesn't advertise being haunted, but it's over 100 years old and has tons of ghost stories surrounding it. It's also a stunning hotel, with a pool, beautiful gardens and a fantastic resturant with Bay views.
Growing up in Wisconsin meant every fall we could go apple picking and I missed that after we moved to San Francisco. BUT, then I discovered Apple Hill outside of Placerville, which is a fun apple-growing region that is the picture-perfect place to visit during the fall season. Think: apples, hayrides, pies, fall leaves, even wine tasting for the grown-ups.
Way up north, I'm talking almost to the border of Oregon, is the Smith River, which is a popular place for locals to swim during the summer. Robin and I found a super secret swimming spot that we had entirely to ourselves during our van trip and I'm convinced every adventurer needs to visit here, too.
One of the best things to do in California that's so different compared to Wisconsin are the miles and miles of sunflower fields each summer! I ADORE visiting with friends to see them IRL. Sunflowers are my favorite flower!
Man am I a sucker for color!! The Chromatic Gate in Santa Barbara is one of the most unique California sights in my opinion. It just sums up California so well in one single art piece. Color. Strenght. A Little Whimsy. Best views early morning or sunset.
A bit like a German Christmas Market meets the Charles Dickens Fair. The Victorian Christmas in Nevada City is a super fun and unique California things to do. Many people dress up in traditional outfits, the whole town shuts down to party Victorian style, and there's mulled wine. Lots of it!
Fall colors are hard to catch at the right time in California. I've been chasing them for years, they are so fleeting. BUT, June Lake Loop has some of the best. And, it's still warm enough in the fall to go kayaking!
It's not exactly unique, as Alfred's Tea coined this famous line that took over Instagram, but I personally think it's a fun place to stop by when you're in West Hollywood. So very LA!
The Golden Gate Park in San Francisco has so many hidden gems. One of them is the Japanese Tea Garden, which even has a little tea house. Come for a cup of tea (with a green tea cheesecake, you can thank me later) and then wander this stunning garden. Really makes you feel like you just flew to Japan!
Raise your hand if road tripping down the West Coast in a van is on your bucket list? ME TOO! That's why we did it last summer. We drove all over Oregon & Northern California in this van and it was AMAZING. Keep reading for tons of van life tips to get you started.
For our 1 year wedding anniversary, Robin and I went camping at Ventana in Big Sur. Just look at this photo - the light rays really look like this!! I had such a relaxing time hanging out under Redwood trees each evening, hiking around Big Sur during the day and disconnecting.
Started this list with a hot spring and ending it with one, too. I told you I'm obsessed! The Travertine Hot Springs are usually less crowded than Wild Willy's at Mammoth Lakes. Stop by next time you drive through Bridgeport!
If you love food, you simply can't miss out on the shuck your own oyster tables at Hog Island. I've been here a few times because it's THAT cool. Here's how it works: You can rent a picnic table with a grill at the Hog Island Oyster Company, which overlooks Tamales Bay. Order yourself at least 40 oysters, shuck them, grill them, eat them!!
The Cyprus Tree Tunnel in Point Reyes low-key looks just like the tunnel in Northern Ireland that Game of Thrones was filmed in (which is why it's popular!) I think it's a beautiful spot to visit while in Point Reyes, especially on a sunny day when the light streaming through the trees shimmers.
There are lot of things to do in Los Angeles but have you considered nerding out and finding The Office locations? Seriously! My friends and I just came back from a trip to LA where we hunted down all the locations from the show (Dunder Mifflin, Pam and Jim's house, etc.) We've all been to LA a few times and when thinking of what to do in LA that's different, we came up with this self guided fan girl tour and it was AMAZING.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, there is a treehouse in the middle of a vineyard that you can rent out to sleep in. Yes, it's magical. Yes it makes you feel like a kid. 10/10 recommend.
Up north near Redding and Mount Shasta is a secret waterfall that you can only access by walking on train tracks (though a proper trail is currently being built for safety reasons.) Come during October to be surrounded by stunning fall foliage as you hike!
Half Moon Bay is famous for pumpkins. They hold a pumpkin festival each fall and there are TONS of pumpkin patches all around town you can visit (and the prices are super affordable, too!) Come down for a day trip, pick pumpkins, have some coffee in town and explore this little seaside village!
Not going to lie, Lake Tahoe is stunning during all 4 seasons. I personally prefer fall (so many colorful leaves!) but you simply must experience Lake Tahoe in the winter at least once. It's like a whole cultural thing in Northern California (weekend trip to Tahoe!) I don't ski or snowboard, and you don't have to. There's a lot of fun things to do on the lake!
Yes, the rocks really look like this at Glass Beach! It's named well. If you're looking for cool things to do in the Fort Bragg / Mendocino area, head to Glass Beach and see how many different colors you can find there.
Just a little south of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a tiny town called Capitola that has this row of rainbow houses on the beach. If it's a hot day, come here for a colorful beach day on the water! Or, stop by after wine tasting in the Santa Cruz mountains.
I ADORE this little seaside town across the Bay from San Francisco. Sausalito looks like a seaside East Coast town and Positano had a baby. They are most famous for their houseboats. Grab an ice cream cone and stroll the piers looking at the boats!
This always makes my top list of fun things to do in LA! Rent a vintage cruiser bike in Venice and bike the beach boardwalk up to Santa Monica (and back down!) for a fun afternoon. See if you can find the rainbow lifeguard sign (so cute) and don't forget to wear sunscreen!
In the hills behind San Diego is this rock that looks EXACTLY like a Potato Chip when you look at it from the right angle. It's a hard hike but a rewarding one.
Pismo Beach is probably one of the most underrated California beach towns. It has giant sand dunes (looks like the desert), sea caves, a bangin' food scene, wine tasting and so much more.
Driving across (or rather, taking photos of) Bixby Bridge has always been one of the most popular places to visit in California on the coast but it became even more popular after the tv show Big Little Lies. Pull over on the East Side of the bridge to get this icon shot!
Sequoia National Park is home to one of the largest Giant Sequoia trees in the WORLD. I can't express how small I felt when standing at the base of General Sherman!
Bonus points for visit in the winter -- seeing him covered in snow is magic!
I hope this helps you find amazing, fun, unique things to do in California. The Golden State is my favorite of all the United States and I’m so happy I get to call this place home. I’m also so excited to keep exploring. I’m sure there’s so many other fun hidden gems I have yet to discover!
There’s a few places on my California bucket list I just haven’t been able to hit up yet:
- Bodie State Historic Park (an abandoned ghost town in the mountains!)
- Death Valley National Park (tried to go in March 2020… well, you know what happened.)
- Trinidad (a cute coastal town in Northern California I drove through on my van trip but didn’t get a chance to explore!)
- Winchester Mystery House (a haunted house in San Jose).
- Catalina Island (off the coast of Southern California near San Diego)
- Paso Robles (a wine tasting region in Central California)
If you have suggestions to add to this list, leave a comment below so everyone can see!! If you have questions about any of the things on the list, leave a comment or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll be happy to help!
Looking for more California attractions and ideas cool things to see in California? Head over to my “California” category to find more posts!
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