A California vacation can take you from Disneyland to Alcatraz to a redwood forest. A big state, California's vacation opportunities are as varied as its terrain assuring that families on a jaunt, or couples planning a romantic weekend can find a getaway that's just right.
Continue reading to discover some of the best family vacation spots in California. Use our profiles to select the sights and attractions that you won't want to miss, mapping out your vacation to this kid-friendly state. Here's some information about California's best family vacation highlights:
Walt Disney's dream of a park where kids and adults alike could enjoy the wonders of childhood is still a favorite today, more than 50 years after its creation. This must-see family vacation spot features parades, life-size characters strolling through the grounds, amusement park rides, and fun exhibits where you might even learn a thing or two.
Get away from the rat race and enjoy the natural beauty of Santa Catalina Island. Twenty-two miles from Los Angeles, this island is the perfect spot for outdoor family activities such as boating, hiking, and snorkeling.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
See the breathtaking wonder of the giant sequoias at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. These parks are home to the 2,500-year-old General Sherman, an enormous sequoia that's the largest living organism in the world at 36 feet in diameter. The parks' diverse landscape is great for hiking among majestic trees and waterfalls.
Ansel Adams was inspired by the unique landscape at Yosemite National Park, taking many of his most famous photographs there. You, too, can observe natural formations such as Half Dome and El Capitan -- or, if you'd rather, you can hike or bike among these stunning rocks.
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, children can dive right in to the hands-on exhibits, including touch pools and steerable underwater cameras. Penguins and sharks are favorites at the aquarium, but you won't want to miss the ever-popular Splash Zone.
When you visit SeaWorld in San Diego, Shamu's show is a must-see highlight -- but watch out for the Soak Zone! SeaWorld remains a family vacation favorite because of its amazing marine life and its gut-wrenching rides, such as the Wild Arctic simulated helicopter ride.
Your first stop at the San Diego Zoo should be the Giant Panda Research Station, where you can see the black-and-white charmers and their antics. The zoo is home to nearly 4,000 animals from all across the globe. Don't miss the Children's Zoo, where visitors can interact with owls, spider monkeys, and wombats.
Ring in the New Year with Pasadena's Tournament of Roses Parade, a California tradition since 1890. Every January 1, the streets are filled with lavish and elaborate floats that celebrate that most beloved of flowers.
California State Railroad Museum
Kids and trains go together like peanut butter and jelly. At the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, the whole family can learn about the history of the railroad and how it shaped California and the West. Hands-on exhibits include Thomas the Tank Engine trains to delight even the youngest visitors.
Just a mile off shore from San Francisco, Alcatraz Island is home to one of the country's most infamous prisons. After a boat trip from Pier 39, stroll about the grounds of this imposing fortress and learn the history of some of its hardened inhabitants, including Al Capone. Be sure to get the audio tour.
San Francisco's Exploratorium is a kid's dream come true -- this museum's more than 650 exhibits are all hands-on. Favorite exhibits include Shadow Box, the Tactile Dome, and the Wave Organ, a musical instrument powered by the tides.
Experience what it's like to live in the lap of luxury at this lavish castle in San Simeon. William Randolph Hearst's former home -- and its treasures -- are on display for the public's viewing pleasure. Tours of the home feature the enormous main entry hall, the indoor Roman Pool, and a private theater.
Santa Barbara is graced with a temperate climate year-round, making this Spanish-style beach town a lovely place to get away from it all. Enjoy the town's zoo and botanical gardens, or take advantage of the weather and visit Santa Barbara's many parks and playgrounds.
Every kid loves those interlocking blocks -- now they can see the grand structures and fanciful rides at Legoland in Carlsbad. Many of the park's exhibits are aimed at toddlers and preschoolers, but older kids will enjoy the roller coasters and the Knights' Tournament ride.
Where the water meets the land, the Big Sur coastline features stunning cliffs and breathtaking beaches. Enjoy the natural beauty of this stretch of coastline by taking advantage of its hiking trails -- if you're lucky, you might spot sea otters and even migrating grey whales.
A trip to the Getty Center starts with a train ride to a scenic hilltop with stunning views of Los Angeles. Once you're there, the whole family can enjoy spacious galleries filled with priceless European paintings and sculpture. The outdoor gardens and patios are a perfect place to roam on a sunny day.
Los Angeles' murky underworld is exposed in this fossil-rich patch of land. More than 1,000 fossil samples are found here each year. Visitors can see and experience prehistoric L.A., and see the creatures that lived here in the pre-Hollywood days.
About 50 miles north of San Francisco, Napa Valley Vineyards is home to about 100,000 people, five incorporated cities, and at least 300 wineries. Visitors come for the fresh air, the good food, and, of course, the great wine.
Chinatown and the Chinese New Year
San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Chinatown on the continent, and it pulls out all the stops for the annual festivities. The Chinese New Year Parade (a San Francisco tradition since just after the 1849 Gold Rush) is now the biggest illuminated nighttime parade in North America. In fact, it's the largest event of its kind on any continent except Asia.
Winchester Mystery House, home of the late Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle Company, has 160 rooms designed to ward off the evil spirits that she believed plagued her every move. Several tours of the mansion are available.
Hollywood Hills, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the famous Hollywood Sign, and the most popular cinema in the world are just a few attractions families can enjoy in the place where dreams come true.
Venice Beach features unusual artists and street performers, funky shops, cool eateries, and of course, swimming, sunbathing and surfing. No trip to Southern California is complete without a visit to Venice Beach.
You can't take the kids to California without a visit to Disneyland, a quintessential family vacation highlight. Keep reading to learn all about visiting the home of Mickey Mouse and Tomorrowland.
To learn more about family vacation destinations, see:
- Family Vacations: Learn about hundreds of family vacations in destinations all over North America.
- Los Angeles City Guide: Explore the City of Angels -- Los Angeles is brimming with restaurants, shops, attractions, and the occasional celebrity hotspot.
- San Francisco City Guide: Find out where to stay, what to do, and where to eat when you visit San Francisco.
- California State Guide: From north to south, California encompasses mountains, deserts, beaches, and vineyards. Learn about it all in our guide to California.
- Scenic Drives: For those who think getting there is half the fun, we have compiled more than 100 of the most scenic drives throughout the country.