Traveling to California is popular for many reasons. It’s accessible, it’s diverse, and it’s sure to be an adventure no matter where you choose to take your California vacation. There is a never-ending list of possibilities when looking for California vacation ideas, but read on for some of our top picks and some lesser-known gems you won’t want to miss!
San Clemente Pier, San Clemente San Clemente Pier, San Clemente
Where Should I Vacation In California?
The long story short is: basically anywhere. California has everything from mountainous solitude to quaint towns on the beach to larger-than-life cities roaring with energy. Whether you’re looking for national parks in California or the best places to stay in California on a budget, we’ve got you covered.
“I have two favorite cities to visit. The SAN waterfront is an amazing place with great weather, food, and activities year-round. However my favorite and most common destination is San Francisco. The city is unique among US locations with its history as a melting pot with diverse neighborhoods and activities. Food is amazing from the Ferry Building, Chinatown, North Beach, the Wharf, Mission, everywhere is like visiting a new city by traveling a few blocks. Even within one block, there could be new high-rise developments next to mom and pop bodegas next to a gas station - totally eclectic mixture of life. Don’t forget to tour it by taking the moving landmark, the cable cars!" @DancingDavidE Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
Tips for Booking Your California Vacation
Want to get the best deals on your trip to California? Check out the Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar , which can help determine when you can get a great price on your airfare. You can also find hotel and airfare packages using the Southwest Vacations search engine.
Where Can I Go On A Relaxing Vacation In California?
California is chock full of relaxing vacation spots. From secluded hotels to hidden gems outside the big city, try unwinding at one of these locations on your next California vacation.
It’s like the OG American destination for meditation and relaxation culture. With its overarching love for yoga (they even have a dedicated yoga studio in the airport, in case of flight delay or immediate necessity of doing the downward dog), you can even find hotels that supply personal mats in each room. The city is full of top-notch yoga studios and spas, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge covered in fog is one of the most relaxing views there is.
The scenery may be dramatic, but this California vacation can be anything but. Check out the Post Ranch Inn for a luxurious and deeply relaxing stay. It’s a perfect romantic getaway (no televisions and no alarm clocks!) touting some of the most breathtaking views ranging from Pacific cliffside to mountainous hideaway. A southern California must!
This is a slow-your-pace-and-breathe-easy kind of California vacation. Just north of San Francisco, Bodega Bay (made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds ) is a tiny town full of fresh seafood, horseback riding, and whale watching. It’s easy to put your feet up here but if you get the urge, there’s plenty of hiking trails to enjoy as well.
What Are Some Cheap California Vacation Ideas?
Believe it or not, California vacations can be done on a budget. If you’re looking for a California vacation idea that won’t make your wallet sweat, try one of these sweet spots.
Joshua Tree National Park , fly into Ontario
With an inexpensive flight and a fun mini-road trip, you can hit up Joshua Tree National Park without breaking the bank. You can even camp in the park to save more on lodging and experience the unique landscape day and night.
Ventura , fly into L.A.
Just a quick drive from Los Angeles, Ventura gives you a more laid-back beach feel, without the hefty price tag of the city. Plus, you can entertain yourself for days exploring the beautiful botanical gardens and rent a bike for a leisurely ride along their extensive biking trail.
Eureka , fly into Sacramento
If your idea of the best California vacation means steering clear of the bigger crowds, head up to the northern coast where you’ll find some of the best seafood on the West Coast. You’ll get the small-town getaway feel on a budget, without having to feel like you’re pinching pennies.
What Is The Most Visited City In California?
It’s no surprise that the most popular California vacation idea is none other than Anaheim, home of the most magical place on earth. The city generally attracts around 48 million visitors annually, and for obvious reasons. But there are some funkier, lesser-known attractions near Anaheim if you’re headed to the magical city on your California vacation. (Fly into L.A.)
The Blind Rabbit, the Anaheim packing district
A regular hidden-in-plain-sight speakeasy
The Crystal Cathedral, just 3 miles outside Anaheim
A mind-blowing church constructed with over 10,000 glass panes
The Hass Avocado Mother Tree, 8 miles outside Anaheim
The great ancestor of 80 percent of all that Hass guac you’ve been eating
Old Town Orange, just a half-hour outside the city
THE place for picking up your California vacation souvenirs
What Are The Best Vacation Spots In California?
When looking for California vacation ideas, it’s easy to say anywhere is a good bet. But here are a few of the best vacation spots in California for the wine-lover, the beach bums, and the So-Cal newbies.
Napa Valley, fly into Sacramento
If you love wine, Michelin-star restaurants, and unbelievable beauty, Napa Valley may be your number one California vacation idea. Tour the vineyards, take a hot air balloon ride, or browse the many art galleries on your trip at this wildly popular California vacation destination.
San Clemente, fly into L.A.
One of the best places to vacation in California if you live for the surf. But after riding the waves, hop into town to enjoy the beautiful Spanish-style architecture and cultural center, shop the boutiques on Del Mar Street, or cozy up to a beach bonfire for some s’mores and more talk about surfing.
San Diego, fly into San Diego
One of the best places to vacation in southern California, San Diego has it all—ideal weather year-round, a trendy downtown district, the adventure of La Jolla Cove, and the laid-back vibes of the perfect California beach. You may never want to pack up and head home! (We won’t blame you.)
What Are The Best Beaches In California?
Santa Cruz, fly into San Jose
Oceanside campgrounds (S’mores!), family-friendly boardwalk, and the infamous Mystery Spot
Windansea Beach, fly into San Diego
Bursting with critical surf history and rife with competitive spirit for the more experienced riders
For Oceanfront Accommodations:
Newport Beach, fly into Orange County
Essentially every vacation rental has beachfront access for the beach lover in, well, all of us
What Are The Best National Parks In California?
If you’re looking for a unique California vacation idea, look no further than the Golden State’s many national parks. The best part is that no two parks are alike and you have your pick of some of the best national parks in the nation, all within California state lines.
Sequoia National Park Sequoia National Park
Channel Islands State Park, fly into L.A. or Burbank
These five beautiful islands are also known as America’s Galapagos, off the coast of Santa Barbara. This California vacation spot is perfect for wildlife lovers, with 150 different species completely unique to these islands alone! Plus, the turquoise waters will absolutely blow you away.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, fly into Sacramento
It’s sometimes hard to believe the diversity of the California landscape until you see some of these national treasures for yourself. Lassen Volcanic National Park is great for hiking and enjoying a summer picnic near the unreal blue of the melted ice pools at the base of the actual volcano—which you can also hike!
Redwood National Park, fly into Sacramento
You will never believe the enormity of these ancient trees until you stand at the base of one yourself. Worth every minute of the drive to northern California, this vacation will be impossible to forget for all the best reasons.
Yosemite National Park, fly into Sacramento or San Francisco
Known worldwide for its dramatic scenery and incredible hiking, you can’t go wrong with Yosemite. Perfect for the outdoor-loving family’s California vacation, you’ll find jaw-dropping waterfalls, unbelievable rock formations, and beautiful sequoias.
We weren’t kidding when we said basically every inch of the state is ripe with California vacation ideas. No matter your lifestyle, budget, or interests, the Golden State has you covered for the best vacation in the west.
Tell us! Leave a comment below telling us about your favorite California vacation spot! (We’re always looking for new ideas.)
Visit our Discussion Forums to talk to travelers like YOU—the forums are packed with advice, information, inspiration, and answers about all things travel related. Start with our section devoted exclusively to travel !
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California may be known for its incredible beaches and magical theme parks, but rest assured there is an amazing museum scene as well! Your California vacation can be packed with cultural learning and fun for everyone on the trip. Check out our Top 10 California Museum Guide (plus a few bonuses) to find the best museums the Golden State has to offer!
How Many Museums Are There In California?
You may think you’d need to travel to Chicago, New York, or D.C. to find the best of the country’s art and culture scene, but California would beg to differ. Los Angeles county alone boasts over 840 museums and art galleries! So suffice it to say there are a LOT of museums in California. So many, in fact, you might want to see them ALL—so take a peek at Southwest Vacations to get a great deal on your flight and hotel package and start building your museum-centric itinerary today!
What Are The Top 10 Museums In California?
Listen, the state is huge and diverse, which means it’s tough to pick a mere 10 out of the California museum lineup. But keeping in mind a variety of interests, locations, and sheer awesomeness, we think we’ve narrowed it down to the TOP 10 MUSEUMS IN CALIFORNIA.
1. The Getty , fly into L.A.
Just the building itself is enough to visit and marvel at, but make sure to head inside where you’ll get mind-blowing panoramic ocean and valley views. Oh, and get to see an original Van Gogh...no big deal.
Central Garden at the Getty Center, Los Angeles
2. The Museum of Contemporary Art , fly into L.A.
May not be for the truly classic art lover, but it’s hip, modern (post-1940s art only), and a great way to hone your skills of interpretation.
3. The Broad , fly into L.A.
Everything from Andy Warhol to a very contemporary installation of infinity mirrors and an olive tree grove. This one is not to be missed. (Bonus: admission is free to one of the best museums in California!)
4. The Natural History Museum , fly into L.A.
Here’s where you can study everything from a 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton to native gemstones to the history of southern California’s people. There’s something for every guest, no matter age or interests.
5. Petersen Automotive Museum , fly into L.A.
An ode to the beauty of the automobile old and new, this car culture hub is high-tech and absolutely beautiful, with over 150 cars on display. Even if you’re not an engine enthusiast, this museum is sure to win over any patron wanting to visit a unique museum in California.
6. Legion of Honor , fly into San Francisco
This picturesque museum houses works by European artists from Rodin to Monet. This beautiful museum will transport you to another country, until you catch the lovely view of the Golden Gate Bridge and you’re happily reminded you’ve been in northern California all along.
7. Exploratorium , fly into San Francisco
The perfect combination of learning and entertainment, this San Francisco museum houses over 650 interactive exhibits—including the tactile dome where, in total darkness, you must rely on every sense but sight to guide you through. Definitely a must visit!
8. California State Railroad Museum , fly into Sacramento
You don’t have to be a train buff to catch the excitement of this historical treasure. This California railroad museum illustrates the development of travel in the West with beautifully restored rail cars and even real train rides!
9. Birch Aquarium at Scripps , fly into San Diego
After so much playing by the ocean, the kids will love learning about what’s going on beneath the waves. There are 60 different habitats to explore, plus hands-on experiments and outdoor tide pools overlooking La Jolla Shores beach.
10. USS Midway Museum , fly into San Diego
Climb aboard a historic aircraft carrier—built just after WWII—and experience the floating city that over 225,000 men lived on over decades of US military service. Plus, enjoy a chat with veterans on board to truly immortalize the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
USS Midway Museum, San Diego
What Is The Best Museum For Families In California?
Honestly, we can’t (and shouldn’t!) narrow it down to one best family museum in California. But here are the top few!
The New Children’s Museum , fly into San Diego
What better place to let go of some energy (and learn!) while on vacation in California? This museum encourages creative play as a way to learn and grow into the future’s leaders. Plus, they encourage jumping on the bed—who’s going to turn that down??
Monterey Bay Aquarium , fly into San Jose
Captivating, multi-level exhibits that will mesmerize every member of the family. Make sure to check out the jellies, octopuses, and the magnificent views of the bay. You may even spy some otters or whales in the wild!
Kelp Forest Tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
Los Angeles County Museum of Art , fly into L.A.
At over 20 acres, this is the biggest museum in the western United States and one of the best museums in California, hands down. You’d need at least a day to cover everything it has to offer, but don’t be afraid to pop in for one of the renowned rotating exhibits either. This is your multicultural hotspot in southern California and rivals some of the best museums in the rest of the world.
What Are Some Fun and Unusual Museums In California?
Let’s face it, we’re not all art history buffs! And some of the best museums in California cater to those looking for things outside the realm of—shall we say—“normal” gallery content. If so, then these are for you.
The Bunny Museum, fly into Burbank or L.A.
Packed with around 30,000 (you read that right) items related to…you guessed it…bunnies. Yeah, and did we mention this is a personal collection? Got to see it to believe it, friends.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology, fly into L.A.
This is not your typical museum! Eclectic, bizarre, fascinating, creepy, beautiful—this museum is all of the above and more. And it’s up to you to decide what’s real among the mysterious contents!
Museum of Death , fly into L.A.
Hello, serial killer art! Yes, morbid, but also incredibly fascinating and totally on-trend with today’s obsession over true crime dramas. Not for the light-hearted!
Pez Memorabilia Museum, fly into San Francisco
Hands down, the best museum in northern California, with over 1,000 Pez dispensers (every model ever sold) on display for the collectible candy lover! Excellent California vacation souvenirs!
What Museums In California Are Free?
Who doesn’t love a free museum? Here are a few top California museums to hit, especially if you’re traveling on a budget!
The California Science Center , fly into L.A.
400,000 square feet of awe-inspiring, hands-on, interactive science experiences, plus an IMAX theater. Perfect for kids and adults, and totally free.
Griffith Observatory , fly into L.A.
Known as Southern California’s gateway to the cosmos, this Los Angeles space museum offers free telescopes and incredible views of the Hollywood sign, valley, and the Pacific Ocean. For a small added fee, you can purchase tickets to see a show in the planetarium!
Musée Mécanique, fly into San Francisco
For the historic gamer in us all! It’s easily located on Fisherman’s Wharf and is full of hundreds of old pinball machines, a 1950s jukebox, and other classic games. Just bring quarters if you want to get in on the fun! Easily one of the best museums in San Francisco!
Do you have a favorite California museum to share? Tell us in the comments!
Looking for more travel ideas? Visit our Discussion Forum for a little inspiration !
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It’s safe to say that California is on every family’s vacation bucket list. And for good reason! The Golden State is bursting with vacation spots for families of every stripe—from idyllic California beaches to all-inclusive vacation destinations, California is the perfect place for your family to plan your best vacation yet. Read on for some of our best California family vacations, including destinations, attractions, and budget-friendly tips!
What Are The Best Weekend Getaways In Southern California?
Obviously, right? It’s the quintessential southern California vacation spot. You may think of it as a hotspot for a younger crowd but there is a lot that will make this a great California family vacation, too. You’ll have to hit up iconic highlights like the Santa Monica Pier and the Hollywood Walk of Fame while you’re there, but don’t forget about lesser-known gems like the Shakespeare Bridge or old Griffith Park Zoo.
Here’s where you’ll get the most bang for your weekend getaway: the legendary San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, the beach—San Diego gives you everything your California family vacation is looking for and more. But look out…you may never want to leave this incredible weather oasis.
“Legoland in Carlsbad is really great for Lego loving kids. Skip the usual crowded and expensive theme parks and check out Legoland. Spend one or two days there with one whole day at the theme park and the second split between the aquarium and the water park. I highly recommend renting a cabana at the water park so you have a home base with shade and drinks to hang out in when you need a break. You can get to Carlsbad on Southwest from either SAN or SNA.” @TheMiddleSeat Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
This little European-esque getaway is just a couple hours from the Burbank airport, and well worth the beautiful drive! It’s modeled after a quaint Danish town, complete with windmills, wineries, and aebleskivers (a heavenly donut hole/pancake hybrid) practically on every corner! Solvang has all the charm of a trans-Atlantic adventure with all the convenience of its perfect California locale.
Where Can Families Go For Spring Break In California?
Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear
Just a quick drive east from Ontario International you’ll find the alps of southern California. While it’s a hot spot for the winter sports enthusiasts, this one is perfect for your California family vacation during spring break. The weather is unbelievable and you won’t have the winter crowds as you enjoy the lakeside activities like hiking and horseback riding.
Just north of San Diego, Carlsbad is the less expensive version of some of the bigger hot spots. You can still get your amusement park fix at Legoland, plus enjoy the beauty of the Flower Fields in bloom and hop over to the beach for some surfing or fishing! All the attractions a California family vacation needs.
Flying into L.A. or Burbank, hop on the beautiful coastal highway until you hit Oxnard—the perfect hub for whale watchers, museum lovers, and outdoor enthusiasts (read: beaches with volleyball courts and plenty of running and biking trails). The perfect place to enjoy southern California travel without all the major bustle of L.A.
What Are The Best Family Beaches In California?
Santa Cruz , fly into San Jose
Oceanside campgrounds (S’mores!!), family-friendly boardwalk, and the infamous Mystery Spot
Crissy Field, fly into San Francisco
Kite-flying, dog-friendly, iconic Golden Gate Bridge views
La Jolla, fly into San Diego
Basically the all-inclusive family beach of California complete with playgrounds, kayaking, snorkeling with leopard sharks, the Children’s Pool beach, seals, an aquarium…the list could go on.
What Is The Safest Beach In California?
Manhattan Beach, fly into L.A.
Notoriously clean, low crime in the city, relaxing
Crystal Cove State Park, fly into Orange County/Santa Ana
Less crowded, geared toward outdoor enthusiasts, great hiking and views
Seal Beach, fly into Orange County/Santa Ana
Small town feel, less crowded, right by a police station
Coronado Beach, fly into San Diego
Quiet, kid-friendly, lifeguards
What Are Some Cheap Vacation Ideas?
Despite California being rumored as an expensive travel destination, there are plenty of places and attractions fit for a California family vacation on a budget! Check out some of these less expensive California vacation spots and activities.
When you’ve decided where you want to go, check out Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar , which can help determine when you can get a great price on your airfare. You can also find hotel and airfare packages using the Southwest Vacations search engine.
Fly into San Jose to enjoy inexpensive camping at Big Sur. Take in breathtaking McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge inside the State Park.
Fly into San Diego and hit Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve and explore Balboa Park. A California family vacation that breathes easy!
Fly into L.A. to participate in live TV show tapings, hike Runyon Canyon and hope for a celeb-sighting, enjoy ocean-front biking trails, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame–all for free!
Fly into San Francisco to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, climb Lombard Street, peer at Alcatraz from the Pier, or catch a baseball game often as low as $15!
If your California family vacation takes you north, head to Eureka, Klamath, and the Redwood National Forest for HUGE sites you won’t want to miss!
Tips for Booking Your California Family Vacation
When you’re considering what airport to fly in and out of for your Disneyland vacation, Orange County is a great option. This will allow you to shorten your commute between the airport and the resort so you can get to The Happiest Place on Earth that much faster!
Want to get the best deals on your trip? Check out the Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar , which can help determine when you can get a great price on your airfare. You can also find hotel and airfare packages using the Southwest Vacations search engine.
“When our kids were young we would buy them multiple inexpensive toys and their snacks for the plane. Then we’d wrap everything individually in wrapping paper. Multiple layers of wrapping paper. Maye a layer of foil for good measure. And tape, lots of tape. Each child would carry their own backpack through the airport with their wrapped surprises and they couldn’t touch a thing until we were in the air. Every hour they could open a new surprise.
The most important thing to do with this is to bring a trash bag to collect all of the debris.
Our grown son, now married and living overseas, says he still gets excited to fly because he feels like he’s going to get special treats.” @SWDigits, Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
Do you have a favorite family vacation spot in California? Share it in the comments! (We’re always looking for great ideas!)
You can also swing over to the Discussion Forums for more advice and answers from other travelers like you—there’s a section devoted to Family Travel that is packed with information!
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