30 reasons why California is America’s ultimate family playground

Santa Monica Pier at Sunset

© Tommaso Teloni via Unsplash

From its big city attractions to its jaw-dropping natural wonders, here’s why we think California is America’s ultimate family playground.

In California, every corner boasts a playground of enticing delights, from the first bite of an In-N-Out Burger and theme parks thrills to sun-kissed beaches and speeding down snow-covered slopes. Whether your family is yearning for the dazzle of city lights and Hollywood glamour or prefers to find their fun in nature, we’re sharing 30 destinations that prove that California is America’s perfect family playground, offering a little something for everyone.


1. Los Angeles


Los Angeles sunset

© Cedric Letsch via Unsplash

The closest entry point into America for visiting Aussies, LA’s many marvellous attractions promise an A-list experience for families. Tackle the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Warner Bros. Studio Tour for a backstage pass to movie-making magic. Or visit Griffith Observatory for stunning views and a chance to see stars of a different kind. Craving some beach fun? Splash in the canals at Venice Beach, or head to hidden beaches like El Matador for tidepooling treasures. And for something completely different, kids can unearth real dinosaur bones at the La Brea Tar Pits archaeological site. Foodies, like us can tantalise your taste buds at the Original Farmers Market, where exotic fruits, fresh-baked goodies, and global flavours await. BE sure to try the toffee at Littlejohn’s English Toffee House, which is so good I am still salivating over it. Cool off in Koreatown with a rainbow shaved snow cone. Unwind under the stars with a free movie night at Grand Park or immerse yourselves in art at the Getty Center, then enjoy its manicured gardens and epic views. And don’t miss the magic of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter ( read about Japan’s incarnation of the attraction here) and the cartoon capers of Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, an augmented reality dark ride located in the new Super Nintendo World section of Universal Studios Hollywood.


2. West Hollywood


Hollywood!

© Venti Views via Unsplash

West Hollywood, or WeHo, is a small city adjacent to Los Angeles known for its quirky and inclusive atmosphere. Teens will love the trek down Melrose Avenue to check out its trendy boutiques, vintage stores and high-end fashion brands. Learn about the history of film and television at the Museum of the Moving Image. And for stunning views of the city, take a hike to the iconic Hollywood Sign.


3. Santa Monica


Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Pier © Matthew Lejune via Unsplash

Build sandcastles and memories on Santa Monica Beach, letting the waves wash away your worries. Explore tide pools teeming with life at Point Dume State Beach and let imaginations soar at the whimsical Palisades Park, with its hand-carved, century-old carousel, playgrounds, and panoramic vistas. And no Santa Monica adventure is complete without a visit to the iconic Santa Monica Pier. Grab some sweet treats from the vendors lining the walkway – cotton candy clouds and refreshing ice cream cones providing sweet fuel for your evening as you enjoy a delightful mix of amusement park rides and a fascinating aquarium where you can get up close with marine life. Grab a burger and a beer at Big Dean’s Ocean Front Cafe. Then, as the sun dips below the horizon, cap off your day with a blissful ride on the Pacific Wheel as the sky turns vibrant shades of orange and pink.


4. Huntington Beach


Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach © Aleney de WInter

You can’t leave California without dipping your toes into the surf at Huntington Beach, Known affectionately as Surf City USA. While I doubt I’ll ever be able to top the experience of seeing Snoop Dog perform, just a couple of metres in front me (in Ugg boots no less) on the beach, or the contact high that resulted, it is one of my fave spots to revisit in California. Just to stroll the length of its magnificent pier under a brilliant blue sky, watch surfers do their thing and enjoy a sexy Cali sunset that signals it’s time to toast sticky s’mores over the fire pits along the beach.


5. Laguna Beach


Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach © Trac Vu via Unsplash

Experience the charm of small-town Southern California in Laguna Beach, nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego. Explore pristine oceanfront parks, cove beaches like Victoria and Crescent Bay, and larger favourites such as Crystal Cove State Park. Enjoy outdoor activities like mountain biking, skim boarding, and hiking, as well as the free trolley service along the scenic coastline.


6. San Diego


San Diego streetscape

© Sean Mullowney via Unsplash

California’s second-largest city, San Diego, offers big-city fun minus the traffic and crowds. The city entices with stunning beaches like Coronado and La Jolla Shores. Step into the historic heart of San Diego at Old Town to explore and enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine, visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, a museum-packed, urban cultural park, interactive explorations aboard the maritime masterpiece USS Midway and leap into loads of LEGO fun at LEGOLAND California Resort.


7. Disneyland Resort


DIsneyland Resort Anaheim

© Avel Chuklanov via Unsplash

One of the biggest reasons California is America’s ultimate family playground is Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort. Step through the castle gates to immerse yourself in a world where magic and adventure come alive, Mouse style! At Disneyland Park, the OG Disney park, we love timeless attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and all the character meet-and-greets. Seriously, that Mickey makes me swoon. And at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland Park, you can pilot the Millennium Falcon on a smuggling mission in the awesome Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run or join a battle between the Resistance and the First Order in the fabulously immersive Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (my fave). Disney California Adventure Park offers big thrills with rides like Pixar Pier’s high-speed Incredicoaster and Cars Land’s Radiator Springs Racers, which combines scenic storytelling with high-speed racing. Or assemble alongside heroes like Iron Man and Black Widow at Avengers Campus, and team up to fight evil on exhilarating rides like Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! Both parks feature dazzling parades, spectacular fireworks, and a variety of dining and shopping options, ensuring a magical experience for visitors of all ages.


8. Anaheim


Anaheim's Angel Stadium

© Kaleb Tapp via Unsplash

Anaheim offers a rich array of attractions beyond Disneyland. The Discovery Cube Orange County is a must-visit, featuring interactive STEM exhibits that spark creativity in both kids and adults. Nature lovers can explore Yorba Regional Park and the Oak Canyon Nature Center, which offer scenic trails and picnic spots. Thrill-seekers will enjoy Knott’s Berry Farm, known for its exciting roller coasters and family-friendly rides. The Packing District is perfect for food enthusiasts, offering diverse culinary options in a vibrant atmosphere. Cultural experiences can be found at the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center, which hosts a variety of art and history exhibitions. And sports fans can catch a game at Angel Stadium or the Honda Center, home to the Los Angeles Angels and Anaheim Ducks, respectively.


9. Pasadena


Pasadena

© Jennifer Pyle via Unsplash

Snuggled in the bosom of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena offers a cultural haven brimming with history and charm. Stroll along historic Colorado Boulevard, where turn-of-the-century buildings house art galleries, trendy boutiques, and delightful cafes. Immerse yourself in the world of art and literature at the renowned Huntington Library, home to exquisite gardens, rare books, and stunning art collections. Explore the Norton Simon Museum, a treasure trove of European and Asian masterpieces. For a dose of nature, wander through the tranquil Descanso Gardens, a 150-acre paradise boasting vibrant rose gardens, serene Japanese gardens, and calming lakes.


10. Palm Springs


Palm Sprngs

Palm Sprngs © Aleney de Winter

Oozing retro cool, Palm Springs is a mid-century modern oasis that’s as much about poolside lounging with a martini in hand as it is about outdoor adventures, bubbling springs, and legendary pool parties. The too-cool town caters to families in unexpected ways. Splash about in incredible resort pools, some featuring waterslides and swim-up bars, for an afternoon of splashy fun with the majestic San Jacinto Mountains as your backdrop and the ring-a-ding of the Rat Pack crooning gently in the background. Beyond the resorts, we loved exploring the legends of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla people amongst the dense stands of towering palms, trickling streams, and jittery, electric blue-tailed lizards in Indian Canyons. Take a quirky detour to the Cabazon Dinosaurs, larger-than-life prehistoric creatures that will have everyone giggling. For a touch of mountain magic, ascend to new heights with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This rotating tram whisks you up to the cool mountain air of Mount San Jacinto State Park, where breathtaking views, exciting hiking trails, and local wildlife await.


11. Joshua Tree National Park


Joshua Tree's in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Trees © Aleney de Winter

Two desert ecosystems—the high Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert—collide at at weird and wonderful Joshua Tree National Park, a surreal landscape of rolling hills carpeted with wildflowers, towering palms, and kooky cacti. One of my favourite spots in all of the United States, the park’s dramatic vistas span mesas, mountains, and valleys, but its star attraction is undoubtedly the Joshua trees themselves. Resembling something out of a Dr. Seuss tale, these peculiar trees add a surreal charm to the desert landscape. Speaking of surreal, the town of Joshua Tree complements the park’s natural wonders with its bohemian spirit and artistic flair. Visitors can explore eclectic art galleries, cosy cafes, and boutique shops housed in rustic desert-style buildings. Not far from Joshua Tree, Pioneertown is a quirky community of artists and eccentrics that was built in the 1940s as a movie set. Most recently seen in Apple TV’s High Desert, Western fans are more likely to recognise the town from the cinematic likes of The Cisco Kid. Little visitors will enjoy the high camp gunfights that erupt in front of its rustic, faux frontier buildings and a highlight of any visit, at least for this hungry traveller, is dining at Pappy + Harriet’s, a legendary restaurant and music venue known for its classic American barbecue and live music.


12. Calico Ghost Town


Old school house at Calico Ghost Town

© Ilse Orsel via Unsplash

Boo! Surrounded by rugged terrain, Calico Ghost Town offers families a glimpse into the Old West’s vibrant past. Founded after a major silver strike in 1881, this once-thriving mining town boasted hundreds of mines and bustling saloons before falling into decline. Restored in the 1950s by Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, Calico now preserves its 1880s charm with activities like riding the Calico Odessa Railroad, exploring historic mines, and trying gold panning. Families can enjoy old-school treats and camping under the stars, while older kids can join spooky night tours to uncover tales of the town’s ghostly inhabitants.


13. Salton Sea


Salton Sea

© Greg Bulla via Unsplash

This fascinating yet sometimes overlooked destination, located in California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys, Salton Sea was formed accidentally in 1905 when a Colorado River flood created California’s largest inland lake. Today, it’s an ecological marvel with a complex history. Families can explore its shores for birdwatching, fishing, and hiking, amidst remnants of abandoned resorts from its heydey as a recreational hotspot in the mid-20th century. Learn about its unique ecosystem and ongoing conservation efforts, or simply enjoy its surreal, desert-enclosed beauty, making it an offbeat yet intriguing destination for adventurous families.


14. San Francisco


Trolleys in San Francisco

Daniel © Abadia via Unsplash

Renowned for its steep hills, cable cars, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco offers families diverse experiences beyond its landmarks. Explore the rugged beauty of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or journey to the former fort and prison, Alcatraz Island, for history and stunning views. Or dive into interactive learning at the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are bustling with attractions like sea lion sightings, souvenir shops, and street performers, while nearby Ghirardelli Square is famous for its chocolate factory tours and delicious treats. North Beach offers a taste of San Francisco’s Italian heritage with cafes and gelato shops. while unique spots like Lombard Street, known as the “Crookedest Street in the World,” and Coit Tower, with their panoramic city views, offer iconic city perspectives.


15. Oakland


Lake Merritt Oakland

Lake Merritt Oakland © Priyanka Sethy via Unsplash

Just across the bay from San Francisco lies Oakland, a city that bursts with energy and caters perfectly to families with parks, playgrounds, and a unique personality that blends outdoor adventures with urban adventures. Get up close and personal with amazing creatures at the Oakland Zoo, or step into a world of wonder at Children’s Fairyland, where storybook characters come to life with rides, shows, and attractions. Explore the scenic shores of Lake Merritt, where you can rent paddleboats for a unique perspective or simply relax by the water with a picnic. And for a dose of science, blast off to the Chabot Space & Science Center for interactive exhibits and planetarium shows.


16. Paso Roble


Field of light Paso Robles

Field of light Paso Robles © Jainam Sheth via Unsplash

With more than 200 wineries nestled amid rolling hills between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Paso Roble is a wine lover’s haven offering not just world-class wines but also inviting hot springs, hiking trails, and the mesmerising Field of Light art installation at Sensorio, which is sure to entrance children and adults alike. What’s not to love?


17. Napa Valley


Hot Air Balloon Napa valley

© James Besser via Unsplash

California’s Napa Valley wine region is fun for all, with wineries offering tours and tastings specifically designed for families, offering grape stomping, scavenger hunts, and mocktail making for kids while their adults enjoy the grown up grape juice. Visit the interactive Napa Valley Children’s Museum, take a gondola ride up to Castello di Amorosa, a replica of a 13th-century Italian castle, splash into Lake Hennessey, hike the Silverado Trail or take to the sky in a hot air balloon.


18. Sonoma County


Sonoma County Vineyards

Sonoma County Vineyards © Trent Erwin via Unsplash

At the risk of sounding like I’m obsessed with wine (Spoiler alert: I am) we’re going to hit up another wine region. Beyond its vineyards and coastal beauty, Sonoma County beckons arty and adventurous families alike. Unleash imaginations at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, play pretend at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, or take an art class at the Art Museum at Sonoma. Or hike amongst towering redwoods, kayak peaceful waters, ride coasters and slides at Scandia Fun Center, and race go-karts at K1 Speed. While I drink wine.


19. Sacramento


Sacramento

© Leo Visions via Unsplash

Sacramento, California’s capital city, boasts family-friendly museums like the California State Railroad Museum and the Sacramento Zoo. Take a river cruise, explore Old Sacramento State Historic Park, travel back in time to the Gold Rush era at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, the birthplace of California’s gold fever, and catch a game at the Sacramento River Cats baseball stadium.


20. San Jose


SanJose

Timo Wielink via Unsplash

Sunny San Jose is the crown jewel of Silicon Valley and is packed with family fun. Explore the Children’s Discovery Museum or The Tech Interactive for science and technology; hike in waterfall-filled canyons; take a ride on a historic trolley; cheer on the San Jose Sharks ice hockey team; or get your thrills at California’s Great America theme park and Raging Waters water park. San Jose also begs the eternal question… Do you know the way?


21. San Luis Obispo


San Luis Obispo

Kenzo Yokoyama via Unsplash

Situated on California’s Central Coast, the town of San Luis Obispo boasts a rich history dating back to its founding in 1772 with the establishment of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, one of America’s many intriguing Spanish missions that still stand as testament to America’s Spanish colonial past. Families can explore the mission grounds and nearby museums to learn about the area’s Native American heritage and its evolution into a vibrant community known for its preserved Spanish architecture, lively cultural events, and markets. Add scenic outdoor fun along scenic trails in the surrounding hills and surfing and sunbathing on its nearby beaches, and you have the perfect recipe for family fun.


22. Santa Barbara


SAnta Barbara

© Yifan Ma via Unsplash

Discover sun-kissed beaches, charming Spanish architecture, and endless family fun in Santa Barbara. Build sandcastles on picture-perfect beaches, kayak amongst playful dolphins, and hike scenic trails with breathtaking ocean views. Explore the enchanting Santa Barbara Zoo and revel in the botanical wonders of Lotusland. Spark imaginations at MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Then unwind at Stearns Wharf, with its lively atmosphere and fresh seafood at the farmers’ market.


23. Big Sur


Big Sur

© Spencer Davis via Unsplash

A dramatic coastline where towering redwoods meet the crashing Pacific, Big Sur is the place for outdoor-loving families. At Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, kids can spy playful otters from the iconic Bixby Bridge, and families can embark on waterfall hikes or enjoy picnics overlooking the Pacific. Or just build sandcastles on hidden beaches, kayak alongside playful dolphins, or camp out to enjoy the starry night sky, free from light pollution.


24. Carmel-by-the-Sea


Point Lobos, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Nestled on California’s Monterey Peninsula, the small community of Carmel-by-the-Sea enchants with its fairytale charm. Quaint cottages, art galleries, and boutique shops line wooded streets, creating a storybook atmosphere. Carmel Beach beckons with its pristine white sands, while the historic Carmel Mission, dating back to 1770, adds a touch of cultural richness in this celebrity-studded enclave (which used to boast Clint Eastwood as Mayor).


25. Yosemite National Park


aniket-deole-T-tOgjWZ0fQ-unsplash

© Aniket Deole via Unsplash

Promising majestic scenery and abundant wildlife. Yosemite National Park spans 303,514 hectares of breathtaking granite peaks, cascading waterfalls, and lush evergreen landscapes. Behold Yosemite National Park’s majestic El Capitan and the thundering Yosemite Falls. Trek family-friendly trails under towering sequoias and savour awe-inspiring views from Glacier Point. Families can also immerse themselves in ranger-led programs that delve into the park’s natural and cultural history. Scenic picnics amongst stunning backdrops provide tranquil moments, and accommodation ranges from cosy park cabins to campsites nestled in nature’s embrace.


26. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks


Giant redwood

© Zachary Tan via Unsplash

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, nestled in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, showcases the awe-inspiring beauty of ancient sequoia trees, including the largest tree on Earth, General Sherman. These towering giants, some standing for millennia, create a serene backdrop for diverse wildlife, from deer to bears, thriving in their natural habitat. Families can immerse themselves in a range of outdoor activities, from fishing in pristine lakes to hiking trails that wind through breathtaking landscapes. Camping under the starry skies and rock climbing among granite cliffs further enrich the park’s offerings, promising unforgettable adventures amidst nature’s grandeur.


27. Redwood National and State Parks


Redwood State Park

© Rini Susan via Unsplash

Explore the wonders of Redwood National and State Parks, situated north of San Francisco. Trek through majestic redwood forests, paddle beneath towering trees in a kayak, and discover vibrant tide pools brimming with diverse marine life. Consisting of five distinct parks—protecting more than 56,000 hectares of old-growth forest, coastline, and prairie—activities abound, from hiking scenic trails to camping under starlit skies.


28. Lake Tahoe


Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe © Tim Peterson via Unsplash

Nestled on the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a stunning alpine lake framed by majestic pine-clad peaks, inviting outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers to play. The crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe beckon visitors to indulge in a variety of water sports, from kayaking and paddleboarding to sailing and fishing. Scenic drives along the 115-kilometre Lake Tahoe Loop provide breathtaking vistas of the lake and towering Sierra Nevada mountains. Explore the diverse attractions along the lake’s perimeter, including picturesque state parks like Emerald Bay State Park with its stunning vistas and historical Vikingsholm Castle. Delve into the region’s rich history and culture at museums showcasing Native American heritage and the area’s pioneering past. After a day of adventure, unwind in various accommodations, from resorts to peaceful cabins nestled in serene forest settings.


29. Big Bear


Big Bear

John Amarillas via Unsplash

Big Bear Lake, is a favourite family destination of ours. Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains it offers a perfect blend of outdoor excitement and scenic beauty year-round. In the summer, families can explore an array of activities, such as hiking scenic trails that offer breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Adventurers can also enjoy thrilling mountain biking trails, and water enthusiasts can indulge in various water activities on Big Bear Lake, including paddleboarding and fishing. For added thrills, visitors can experience attractions like the Alpine Slide, a thrilling ride down concrete tracks, and zip-lining adventures that offer exhilarating views of the forest canopy. In winter, the picture book pretty town transforms into a winter wonderland known for its world class skiing and snowboarding with  38 lifts and over 87 runs spread across Snow Valley, Snow Summit, and Bear Mountain.


30. Mammoth Lakes


Mammoth

© Robson Hhatsukami Morgan via Unsplash

Nestled among the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains, Mammoth Lakes offers a year-round blend of adventure and relaxation. Summer days are filled with horseback rides along scenic trails, invigorating hikes to breathtaking vistas, thrilling mountain bike excursions, and tranquil moments fishing in crystal-clear lakes. Boating and swimming in the shimmering waters add a refreshing touch to warm days. Or relax in natural hot springs, soak in sweeping mountain views from scenic gondola rides, and savour local flavours at charming eateries and shops. Then, when winter blankets the landscape in white, Mammoth Mountain becomes a super snowy playground. It’s a paradise for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts, offering expansive slopes and pristine powder. For those seeking quieter pursuits, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing through serene forests provide a peaceful escape. And who can resist the charm of gliding across ice on an outdoor skating rink? Not me…..


 

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ABOUT US

Hey, I’m Aleney! A mum, award-winning travel writer, magazine editor and gallivanting glutton. He’s Raff, the “boy” in boyeatsworld, and a fearless foodie, adventurer and eco-warrior. Along with his all-singing, all-dancing, all-adventurous sister, Sugarpuff, we’re exploring the world’s colour, culture and cuisine on a food safari for the junior set.

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