Things to do on the west coast of california: Explore Top Attractions

things to do on the west coast

Nestled between the endless Pacific Ocean and the grandeur of the coastal mountains, the West Coast of California is a tapestry of natural beauty and human innovation. Spanning from the sun-kissed beaches of San Diego to the fog-cloaked cliffs of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, this slice of the Pacific Coast is a mosaic of experiences waiting to be uncovered.

For the intrepid traveler seeking an unforgettable sojourn, or the local tourist yearning to unearth hideaways in their backyard, the West Coast of California is ripe with promises of adventure. This comprehensive guide uncovers the plethora of experiences, from iconic landmarks to lesser-known treasures, that make the West Coast a jewel in California’s crown.

The Majestic Pacific Highway 1: A Road Trip of a Lifetime

No guide to the West Coast of California would be complete without a dedicated section to the quintessential Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1. Renowned for its panoramic vistas, the road weaves along the rugged coastline, offering a sensory feast of crashing waves, salty sea breeze, and the redolence of wildflowers.

Each bend presents a new postcard-perfect scene — from the emerald serenity of Big Sur to the wild coves of Sonoma County — inviting travelers to indulge in spontaneous stops at vista points, historic sites, and exquisitely quaint towns.

Exploring the Highs and Lows of Big Sur

Big Sur is an evocative landscape of mythical proportions, where mountains plunge into the sea and the horizon is only broken by the ethereal pillars of Bixby Bridge. Travelers here will find diverse experiences, from the tranquil redwood groves of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to the artistic enclaves at Henry Miller Memorial Library. Don’t miss:

  • McWay Falls: Witness the mystical McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that cascades into the Pacific, creating a poetic scene that has inspired countless artists and dreamers.
  • Nepenthe: Stop for a meal or a sunset cocktail at Nepenthe, an iconic restaurant that has been a sanctuary for creatives since the 1940s.
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Explore this park’s dramatic landscapes and its most famous inhabitant, the ‘Grandmother’ tree, a towering coastal redwood that has watched over Big Sur for millennia.

The Charm of Carmel-by-The-Sea

The idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea is an alluring blend of European charm and California cool. Its storybook streets beckon with galleries, gourmet eateries, and charming inns. Here, you can:

  • Visit Fairy Tale Cottages: Meander through the streets to see the whimsical homes that look like they’ve leaped from a storybook.
  • Carmel Beach: Stroll along one of the most scenic beaches, where white sands meet turquoise waters and there’s a good chance you’ll spot dolphins or humpback whales.
  • Hog’s Breath Inn: Dine at this historic restaurant, once owned by Clint Eastwood, and experience the laid-back luxury that defines the town.

San Francisco, A City of Contrasts and Culture

San Francisco, the city by the bay, is a pulsing hub of innovation and cultural splendor. A haven for the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, it continues to be a melting pot of diversity, art, and technology. To truly experience the kaleidoscope of this city, immerse yourself in:

Iconic Sights and Sounds

  • Golden Gate Bridge: No trip is complete without a visit to this iconic crimson bridge. Capture the breathtaking view from Marin Headlands during the fabled fog that blankets the bay like a silent wraith.
  • Alcatraz Island: Take a boat to the former federal penitentiary, now a haunting museum that tells the stories of its notorious inmates and the barren life they led.
  • Chinatown and Mission District: Stroll through the bustling streets, inhale the scent of incense, and listen to the cacophony of languages that echo the district’s rich and complex history.

San Francisco’s Culinary Scene

  • The Ferry Building: A paradise for foodies, The Ferry Building Marketplace is home to some of the city’s best eats, featuring organic produce, artisan cheeses, and local specialties.
  • The Mission: This district boasts a diverse array of cuisines, from upscale eateries to the famous taquerias, where you can savor the region’s best Mission-style burritos.
  • North Beach: Experience the Italian flavor of San Francisco with its espresso cafes, array of Italian restaurants, and the atmospheric ‘il Laboratorio Del Gelato’ that will transport you to Rome.

The Enigmatic Bay Area

The Bay Area is a conglomeration of cities, each with their unique identity, yet all connected by the shimmering waters of the Pacific. Notable highlights include:

Oak Town Odyssey

  • Lake Merritt: This urban oasis is the oldest wildlife refuge in North America and a peaceful retreat in the heart of the city. You can rent a kayak or simply enjoy a lakeside picnic.
  • Jack London Square: Named after the famed author and journalist, the square is brimming with art, dining, and entertainment. Don’t miss the weekend farmers’ market or a jazz performance at night.

Silicon Valley and Beyond

  • Tech Tours: Explore the campuses of tech giants or join organized tours such as the Googleplex for insights into the digital revolution shaping the world.
  • Wineries of Wines by the Bay: Enjoy the picturesque scenery and award-winning vintages in wine regions like Livermore Valley, nestled in the mountains south-east of San Francisco.
  • Stanford University: Take a walk around this prestigious campus, with its stunning architecture, sculpture garden, and historic landmarks.

Southern California Sun and Surprises

Waves crashing on rocks at beach, West Coast.

The West Coast of California isn’t just a linear experience from north to south; it’s a multitude of climates, biomes, and cultures packed into one state. Down south, the vibe switches from the intellectual air of Silicon Valley to the laid-back ambiance of Southern California with its eternal summer and surf friendly beaches.

Marvelous in Los Angeles

  • Hollywood: Take a tour or conduct your self-guided adventure through this world-renowned district, and keep an eye out for iconic celebrities in ‘the walk of fame.’
  • Venice Beach: Enter a world of bohemian spirit and beach vibes. Don’t miss the vibrant scene of Muscle Beach, the winding canals, and the lively boardwalk.
  • The Getty Center: Art and architecture aficionados should make time for The Getty, a cultural landmark that houses an astonishing art collection and offers panoramic views of the sprawling city beneath.

San Diego’s Sun-Kissed Diversity

  • Balboa Park: This sprawling urban haven is more than just a park. Home to the zoo, numerous museums, and Arts and Architecture accredited buildings, Balboa is a cultural core.
  • The Gaslamp Quarter: The historic heart of San Diego nightlife offers a relentless fusion of dining, shopping, and Victorian charm.
  • La Jolla Cove: Witness sea lions basking in the sun and join them with a snorkel to see the vibrant underwater world in the protected marine reserve.

Hidden Gems Along the West Coast

While the guideposts of the Californian West Coast are undoubtedly famous, there’s a trove of less-traveled paths that harbor their own unique allure.

The Wonders of the Redwoods

  • Avenue of the Giants: A scenic spin-off from the coastal highways, this respite from the tourist-laden trails takes you on a serene route through the ancient guardians of the forest.
  • Fern Canyon: A verdant chasm in Prairie Creek State Park with walls cloaked in a tapestry of ferns that transport you to a primeval world.
  • The Pygmy Forest: Discover a unique ecosystem of stunted trees and rare shrubs, only a few yards tall, but many older than the towering Redwoods, existing nowhere else in the world.

The Salty Air of the Lighthouses

The West Coast’s myriad lighthouses stand as stoic sentinels of the sea, guiding ships and spirits through the often tempestuous Pacific. Each radiates a distinct personality and a story waiting to be heard.

  • Point Reyes Lighthouse: Perched atop a windswept cliff, its solitary beam reaches out to the shipping lanes, while the whale watching season offers sightings of migrating giants.
  • Pigeon Point Lighthouse: The tallest lighthouse on the West Coast provides an unparalleled view of the sea against a backdrop of the historic tower, picturesque and evocative.
  • Battery Point Lighthouse: Only accessible at low tide by a tidal isthmus, this lighthouse embodies the frontier heritage of rugged individualism, with each visit, a lesson in tides and time.

Organic Adventures in Wine Country

The West Coast of California is synonymous with the ‘vine-to-wine’ culture that makes wine tasting more than a hobby; it’s a quintessential activity.

The Vines of Sonoma and Napa Valleys

  • Sonoma City Plaza: The birthplace of California’s wine industry, Sonoma is rich in history and contemporary charm. Visit the square for boutiques, tasting rooms, and the Mission San Francisco Solano.
  • Napa Valley Wine Train: Board this vintage train for a culinary and oenological experience that traverses the vineyards and villages of Napa Valley, a sensory sightseeing delight.
  • Castello di Amorosa: A grand replica of a medieval Tuscan castle, this winery offers an immersive experience, including guided tours, tasting rooms, and even a dungeon.

Savoring the West Coast’s Culinary Kaleidoscope

The West Coast’s gastronomical offerings are as diverse as its landscapes – from the fertile central valleys that serve as America’s salad bowl to the ports that ensure the freshest seafood and the cultural capital that is Los Angeles.

The Bounty of the Pacific

  • Sushi in San Francisco: San Francisco’s proximity to the ocean and its large Japanese community make it a hotspot for some of the best sushi outside of Tokyo.
  • Farm-to-Table in Santa Cruz: Experience the organic movement in action, with restaurants sourcing their ingredients from local, sustainable farms and the Pacific sea.
  • Los Angeles Food Trucks: The city’s food trucks offer a microcosm of the world’s cuisines, serving up everything from Korean-Mexican fusion to artisan grilled cheese.

Imbibing the Cultural Elixirs of the West Coast

Beyond the sunny beaches and serene forests, the West Coast is a teeming treasure trove of arts, history, and current cultural waves.

Beholding Art and Architecture

  • The Walt Disney Concert Hall: A stainless steel symphony designed by architect Frank Gehry, the Hall is an allegory for the multi-faceted offerings of Los Angeles’ creative world.
  • The Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles: Explore works that range from abstract expressionism to contemporary multimedia installations, reflecting the soul of not just California, but the world.
  • Street Art in San Francisco: Walk the Mission District for vibrant murals that speak to the city’s dynamism, diversity, and political engagement.

Engaging with Outdoor Pursuits and Sports

The West Coast’s temperate climate and diverse terrain make it a haven for outdoor enthusiasts year-round.

Surf’s Up and More

  • Malibu for Surfing: The Malibu coastline offers some of the most consistent and beginner-friendly waves, with iconic breaks like Zuma Beach and Surfrider Beach.
  • Yosemite National Park for Climbing: Ascend to the heights of Half Dome or El Capitan, rock formations that have become icons of outdoor prowess.
  • The Pacific Crest Trail: Channel your inner ‘Wild’ and explore this 2,653-mile trail that runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, and where wilderness and self-discovery meet.

The West Coast’s Contribution to Wellness and Relaxation

The legacy of the West Coast as a pioneer in holistic health and relaxation is echoed across its spas and retreats.

Mindfulness on the Coast

  • Esalen Institute: Nestled on the cliffs of Big Sur, Esalen is not just an institute but a spiritual retreat that leads in the field of humanistic and transpersonal psychology.
  • Harbin Hot Springs: Set among aromatic redwood forests, Harbin is a refuge for mineral baths, meditation, and conscious living amidst nature.
  • Ojai, the Valley of the Moon: This idyllic valley has long been a sanctuary for those seeking a connection with nature and their inner selves, with a culture of health and wellness woven into its DNA.

The West Coast Nightlife and Entertainment

From indie gigs to televised extravaganzas, the West Coast’s nightlife scene is as varied as the citizens it entertains.

Dizzying in the Dark

  • Los Angeles Clubs and Bars: Be it the renowned Viper Room or the hidden gem good times at Thirsty Crow, LA’s nightlife is an eclectic mosaic of cultures and genres.
  • The San Francisco Music Scene: With an indie music history as rich as its underground beats, San Francisco is home to the storied Slim’s, as well as a plethora of up-and-coming venues.
  • San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter: After the sun sets, this historic district lights up with choices, from laid-back gastropubs to wild nightclubs to chic rooftop bars.

Pedaling Through Paradise: Bike Trip Discoveries on the West Coast of California

  • A Biosphere of Breathtaking Landscapes: Embarking on a bike trip along the West Coast of California, cyclists are treated to an astounding variety of terrains within a relatively short distance. From the rugged coasts of Big Sur, where the Pacific Ocean relentlessly shapes the shoreline, to the serene beauty of the Redwood forests, home to some of the planet’s oldest and tallest trees, riders experience an unmatched ecological diversity.
  • Eco-Conscious Communities Along the Way: The West Coast is not just about breathtaking landscapes; it’s also home to some of the most environmentally conscious communities in the country. Travellers by bike will find an abundance of eco-friendly accommodations, from sustainable bed and breakfasts to green hostels, as well as local eateries that prioritize farm-to-table dining and organic ingredients, reflecting the region’s commitment to environmental stewardship.
  • Rich Historical Tapestry: Beyond its natural wonders, California’s West Coast offers a deep historical vein for cyclists to explore. From Spanish missions that dot the coastline, providing a glimpse into the state’s colonial past, to historic mining towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush, and the vibrant, multicultural neighborhoods of cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles that narrate the diverse immigrant influences, each pedal brings cyclists closer to understanding the multifaceted history of the region.


The West Coast of California is a veritable treasure chest of experiences for any traveler. From the nostalgic freedom of a Pacific Coast road trip, to the vibrant streets of San Francisco and the cultural mecca of Los Angeles, from the fertile vines of Napa Valley to the towering giants of the Redwood Forest, this region stands as an ode to the beauty and diversity of our natural and human landscapes. Whether you’re seeking adventure, rest, culinary delights, cultural immersion, or simply a soul-stirring connection to nature, the West Coast offers something for every kind of traveler. Pack your bags, set your spirit free, and begin your odyssey along the shores of the Pacific.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *