40 Thrilling Things To Do In Northern California

Are you ready to visit and try some of the best things to do in Northern California? The top half of the Golden State is stunning and has so much for you to see, do, and explore. This beautiful part of the United States is known for its Redwoods and general natural beauty, foods such as artichokes, seafood, and fine wines, as well as being the home of San Fransisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Adventure travelers, history lovers, and foodies all will find enjoyment in Northern California. Whether you plan on camping, road-tripping, or having an exciting city escape, you are sure to have a great time during your visit.

Let’s get started!

mountain behind water

40 Thrilling Things To Do In Northern California

Old Fishermans Wharf

The Old Fishermans Wharf is located in the lovely seaside town of Monterey and is one of the best things to do in Northern California. The wharf has been around since the 1800’s and today it is one of the top things to do in Monterey. You will find restaurants, places to buy souvenirs, and sweet shops where you can buy fudge, candy, ice cream, and other snack foods like kettle corn.

When on the wharf you have beautiful views of the surrounding waters and boats that are anchored nearby. It’s also common to see sea lions, harbor seals, sea birds, and sea otters swimming around the wharf. If you don’t see them, walk to the end and you will definitely hear them barking from the pier in the distance. When it comes time for dinner, consider Palace Trattoria. They have amazing Italian food and it’s one of the best restaurants in Monterey, so it’s for sure worth checking out.

wharf with boats in water next to it

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is the third most visited park in the United States. Located in beautiful San Fransisco, the park is more than 1,000 acres and is full of fun attractions and points of interest. The park includes a small bison herd, the California Academy of Sciences, the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers, the de Young Museum, a Japanese Tea Garden, and more. You can rent bikes to drive through the park or just meander your way through the grounds and enjoy the surroundings.

white building and flowers in park

Drive The Pacific Coast Highway

The U.S. is an incredible place for breathtaking and memorable road trips. Arguably the most iconic of U.S. road trips is driving the Pacific Coast Highway. The highway was created with the goal of connecting Mexico to Canada through the United States. On a small, local scale the road was put together piece by piece and today it’s a well-known and otherworldly sight to behold. Driving across the Bixby Creek Bridge, seeing the blue water and crashing waves below is something you must experience for yourself.

CA coastline, pacific coast highway

Santa Cruz Wharf

The Santa Cruz Wharf extends a half of a mile into the Monterey Bay and is the best place to see sea lions in Northern California. Although you can see sea lions in many places in Northern California, you can always see them playing at the Santa Cruz Wharf. In fact, the sea lion population has tripled in the past forty years in Santa Cruz and they have built holes in the middle of the wharf as viewing stations for the sea lions that call the water beneath the wharf home.

You will find restaurants, shops, and sweets on the wharf. If you want to grab a bite to eat while you are there, our favorite is Filefish Grill. They have amazing food and the view from the large floor-to-ceiling windows is unmatched. Plus, when you visit the wharf you will be close to many other popular Santa Cruz attractions like the Boardwalk, making it one of the best things to do in Northern California.

wharf on coast
source: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

The Painted Ladies

The Painted Ladies are a highly photographed row of houses in San Francisco located at Hayes and Steiner Streets. You may recognize the iconic row from Full House. If you are planning on driving through SanFran, be sure to swing by the Painted Ladies. Or you can stay a little longer and set up a picnic in the grass in front of the houses. You can lay out a blanket and enjoy lunch with a view of the ladies and the skyline in the background.

painted houses in San Fran, skyline behind them

Mission San Juan Bautista

In San Juan Bautista, California, this Mission is a stunning landmark that has been around since 1797. The church as we know it today was completed in 1813. If you are big into history and the importance that sites like the Mission Jan Juan Bautista have had in the state of California, then visiting the grounds and taking a guided tour is the best way to connect with the history and learn about the role the mission played in forming the state into what it is today.

outside of a mission church

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is known for being one of the best things to do in Northern California, and for a good reason. The landscapes are out of this world and the national park offers amazing waterfalls, hikes, and sights. Some popular and short hikes in the national park include the 0.5 mile Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, the 1 mile Glacier Point Point Trail, and the 2.2 mile Lower Mariposa Grove Trail. If you get the opportunity to visit Yosemite, even if only for a day, be sure to check out some of the mind-boggling waterfalls in Yosemite.

Yosemite Valley and waterfall at sunset

Grab Lunch From Chubby Noodle

When it’s time for lunch in the NorCal area, consider stopping at the Chubby Noodle. This is an Asian fusion restaurant on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco where you can find Korean pork tacos, spicy garlic noodles, papaya salad, steamed pork buns, and more. If you need vegetarian or gluten-free options, the Chubby Noodle is an option for you.

bowl of asian food

Sacramento Discovery Park

If you are looking for a way to stay active on your travels, the Sacramento Discovery Park makes that possible for you. The park has 302 acres of land where you can enjoy the 32-mile bike trail, picnic sites, and fishing opportunities. For those travelers who like to step off the beaten path and away from the overcrowded tourist hot spots, the Sacramento Discovery Park is right up your alley.

bridge over river

Alcatraz

The famous prison sits 1.25 miles offshore in the San Francisco Bay. It has played such an interesting role in the history of California and it is beyond fascinating. Did you know that the famous gangster Al Capone played banjo in the prison band at Alcatraz? Yup. Alcatraz originally was used for holding military prisoners, was once occupied by more than a hundred Native American activists and was the home to the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.

Despite Alcatraz’s reputation as being a rough and tough place to be incarcerated, this wasn’t exactly so. In fact, prisoners often requested to be transferred to Alcatraz as they had a one prisoner per cell rule which cut down on fights amongst prisoners. Today, you can view Alcatraz Island from the Golden Gate Bridge and from various viewpoints around the bridge. However, if you want to get a closer look, you can hop on the ferry and take a tour of the historic prison.

Alcatraz island in bay

Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay is one of the best things to do in Northern California as it is a part of the stunning Lake Tahoe. The hiking enthusiasts will love Emerald Bay. There are a variety of hiking trails at different difficulty levels that give you views of the bay and the forests. If you need a short trail, you can stick to the Eagle Falls vista Point Loop which is ranked as easy and is only 0.6 miles. Or, the 1.7-mile Vikingsholm Trail and the 4.4 mile Emerald Point Trail may be more your speed as they are both longer, ranked as moderate in difficulty, and offer stunning views of the bay.

bay surrounded by woods

Point Arena Lighthouse

In Point Arena, California, you will find the Point Arena Lighthouse. This lovely lighthouse stands at 115 feet tall, approximately 130 miles north of San Francisco. This light has been standing for more than 150 years and although visitors can no longer climb the lighthouse due to COVID, perhaps one day in the future that will be a possibility again. Even though climbing the lighthouse isn’t an option at the moment, you can still visit the museum, gift shop, and rocky coastline that the lighthouse sits on.

lighthouse on coastline

Mattole Beach in King Range National Conservation Area

You will find Mattole beach in the town of Petrolia. It is a grayish/black sand beach at the mouth of the Mattole River. If crowded beaches near boardwalks, wharfs, and piers are not your thing, you will probably love Mattole Beach. Shining black rocks sticking up from the sands, driftwood laying on the surface, and small grassy mountains are all staples of this beach. Even better yet, this beach has campsites with picnic tables as well. There are so many great places to camp in Northern California and if you enjoy beach camping, it doesn’t get much better than the sites on Mattole Beach.

bridge with driftwood

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the must-see attractions in Northern California. There are many places in San Francisco and surrounding areas where you can get views of the bridge. Baker Beach gives you views of the bridge, Marin Headlands, and the Golden Gate Strait. Some other bridge viewpoints include the Fort Point National Historic Site, Battery East Vista, Crissy Field, Golden Gate Overlook, and the Point Bonita Lighthouse area.

Golden Gate Bridge over water

Breakwater Lighthouse

For budget travelers, be sure to check out the Breakwater Lighthouse as it is one of the best free things to do in Northern California. Also called the Walton Lighthouse, it sets at the end of a jetty in Santa Cruz, California. Santa Cruz is an amazing town known for its surfing history, boardwalk, and beautiful location on the northern central coast of the state. When visiting the lighthouse you will be nearby to Seabright Beach, Cliff drive Vista Point, and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natura History.

lighthouse on end of jetty

Lava Beds National Monument

Visiting the Lava Beds National Monument is one of the top things to do in Northern California. This unique site shows a story of the past that is full of turmoil, both historically and geologically. This site is home to lava beds, Native American rock art sites, and historic battlefields. How many sites have all of this for visitors to learn about and see? You can learn about the area, go camping, go hiking, see bats, take a cave tour, and more during your visit.

trail through lava bed

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Another volcanic site in Northern California is the Lassen Volcanic National Park. This national park has super pretty hikes and natural features for you to enjoy. The easy 1.9 mile Manzanita Lake Loop Trail is perfect for those traveling with young kids as it typically takes people less than an hour to hike. Then again, if you aren’t big on hiking or you are traveling with very young children, you may be looking for something even shorter. The Sulphur Works Trail is only 0.4 miles and is ranked as easy in difficulty. This trail gives you access to many active and beautiful natural sites. You can see the trail in the photo below.

geological features in woods

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Whether you are traveling with kids or not, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best things to do in Northern California. The aquarium is world-renowned and simply one of the most stunning aquariums in the world. Said to have inspired the “Jewel of Morro Bay, California” in the movie Finding Dory, this aquarium has two levels that include touch pools, a nature center, an outdoor tide pool area, a wharf exhibit, and so much more.

The aquarium is one of the best things to do in Monterey. They do incredible work in championing sustainable seafood and the protection of the oceans. They have rallied support from many famous Americans, including the lovable Betty White who upon her death asked for donations to the aquarium. A trip to NoCal just wouldn’t be complete without checking out this iconic attraction.

outside of Monterey aquarium on waters edge

Eat Inventive Ice Cream at Milkbomb

Milkbomb in San Francisco has some of the most imaginative and tasty ice cream and sweet treats that you can find in the United States. This small little shop on 17th Street will blow your mind! They are famous for their Milkbomb sandwiches which are donuts stuffed with ice cream. You can top your creations with things like torched marshmallows, popular cereals, spicy honey, and other interesting toppings.

ice cream cone

Redwoods National Park

The iconic California Redwoods can be found and enjoyed in Redwoods National Park. Around half of the old-growth Redwoods that are remaining are in the Redwoods park system. This includes many giant trees that are taller than the Statue of Liberty. A couple of short and leisurely trails in the park that you may like are the Lady Bird Johnson Grover Trail and the Klamath Overlook Trail.

trail through redwoods

Tahoe National Forest

Tahoe National Forest is a super beautiful part of California. You can enjoy overlooks, camping, hiking, and historic sites in the forest. Two of the most popular sites in the national forest include the Baca Historic townsite Interpretive Trail and the Donner Camp Picnic Site and Interpretive Trail. There are also large Sequoia trees as well as a wild and scenic river in the forest as well.

water in woods

California Museum

Visiting the California Museum is one of the best things to do in Northern California with family. You’ll find this museum in the capital city of Sacramento. It is dedicated to the history and stories of the state of California. The museum is highly interactive, making it a good option for travelers of all ages and abilities.

outside of California Museum
source: Cassiohabib / Shutterstock.com

Chow Down On Loaded Lobster Nachos At Lalla Grille Oceanside

The lovely Lalla Grille in Monterey has one of the best coastal dishes in the state. Seafood is without a doubt one of the staple foods in California and trying the loaded lobster nachos at Lalla is a great way to experience the uber-fresh seafood for yourself. Other than the delicious food, you are also given breathtaking views of the Monterey Bay from the large windows in the dining room. The windows are frequently open allowing the warm ocean breeze to stroll into the restaurant.

Fresno Flats Historical Village & Park

Located in Oakhurst, the Fresno Flats Historical Village & Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California for those who like historical sites and educational experiences. Fresno Flats is a representation of what life was like in the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains in the 19th century. You can tour the log house, barn, church, jail, and other buildings and sites during your visit.

old log building in park

Sonoma Coast State Park

The picturesque Sonoma Coast is characterized by a rocky coast, long sandy beaches, natural rock arches, and hidden coves. Basically, Sonoma Coast State Park is the textbook image of what the California coastline looks like. If this unique coastline is something you are wanting to see for yourself, it doesn’t get much better than the Sonoma Coast State Park.

california coasline

Carmel Mission Basillica

In the southernmost part of Northern California, you will find the most beautifully and carefully restored Roman Catholic Mission Church in Carmel-By-The-Sea. The mission was founded by Padre Junipero Serra in 1771, a year after he landed ship in Monterey, California. The mission has a small admittance fee and it is well worth the cost as the architecture, history, and importance of the mission is something worth experiencing.

Mono Lake

For bird watchers, hikers, and photographers, Mono Lake is a paradise. You can go kayaking, take interpretive trails, and generally enjoy the peace and serenity of Mono Lake while you are there. If you are primarily interested in bird watching or hiking, the South Tufa Area of Mono Lake is the place to be. The Boardwalk Trail and the South Tufa Loop are both short and easy trails that allow you and your little ones to enjoy the lake and natural beauty of the area.

ale with unique rocks structures

Black Chasm Cavern National Natural Landmark

When it comes to fun things to do in Northern California, Black Chasm Cavern National Landmark is a must-do. This cavern is home to helictites. Most travelers are familiar with stalactites and stalagmites, but have you heard of helictites? Around 5% of caves on Earth have helictites and in the Black Chasm, you can see these rare natural features for yourself.

Old Faithful Geyser of California

If you’re looking for unique things to do in Northern California, head to the Old Faithful Geyser of California. Did you know there was an Olf Faithful Geyser in California? It’s true, traveling to Wyoming isn’t necessary. California’s version is located in Napa County in Calistoga and is a bit smaller than the Wyoming version. It has a pretty backdrop of palm trees and mountains and you are able to buy locally made products in the shop on site.

tall geyser spraying into the air

Gateway Science Museum

For an educational experience, the Gateway Science Museum delivers. The museum is a kid-oriented attraction with hands-on science exhibits and activities. You will find this exciting museum in the town of Chico where your little ones will enjoy seeing fossils, dinosaur bones, and brightly colored displays. The Gateway Science Museum is one of the best things to do in Northern California with kids.

Burney Falls

By far amongst the coolest waterfalls in California, Burney Falls is located in Cassell and is super easy to get to in comparison to other California waterfalls. A short one-mile loop trail that is ranked as easy in difficulty and is appropriate for family travelers with young kids. This waterfall is super unique and looks like it is something out of a fantasy movie; it’s something that you will be glad you saw for yourself.

large waterfall in woods

Empire Mine State Park

The Empire Mine State Park is located in Sierra Nevada Mountains in Grass Valley. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a California Historical Landmark as well. If you are looking for cheap things to do in Northern California, Empire Mine State Park fits the bill. Adults are $5 and children five and under get free admittance. The mine is one of the oldest, richest, and deepest gold mines in the state. You can see the mine, enjoy the walking trails and picnic areas, as well as enjoy the beautiful grounds while you are there.

rock building at mine state park

Grab a Latte From Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters

When in Sacramento, stopping by the Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters is a must. They roast their own coffee in small batches and have lovely outdoor and indoor cafe seating. Grab yourself an espresso or tea to accompany your cake or pastry and enjoy the Sacramento surroundings.

coffee being poured

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

This site is for all of you nature lovers out there. Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is home to waterfalls, camping, hiking, and opportunities for swimming, fishing, and paddling. You can take a ranger-led kayak or paddleboard tours of the water to learn about the history and ecosystem of Whiskeytown as well. For those who aren’t traveling with their own paddle watercraft, taking a tour allows you access to the water all while learning about the area at the same time.

water and forest

Sundial Bridge

The Sundial Bridge is a super unique bridge located in Redding, California. It is a pedestrian-only bridge that crosses over the Sacramento River. Part of the bridge that you have to walk over is made of frosted glass creating a beautiful and memorable walk across the Sacramento. Right next to the bridge is the Turtle Bay Museum and Sundial Cafe which really adds to your experience in the area.

large bridge over river

Coast Guard Pier

One of the most well-known animals in Northern California is the sealion. In Monterey, you can find hundreds of them swimming in the waters around the Coast Guard Pier as well as lounging on the rocks around the pier. Although you can see them any time of year, they are congregated in larger numbers in the summer as the warm rocks next to the pier are perfect locations for sunbathing.

Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark

When talking about the best things to do in Northern California, we must talk about Lake Shasta Caverns National Landmark. They offer cavern tours and a visit to this site will put you in a fantastic location to see the McCloud arm of the beautiful Shasta Lake. If you’re traveling with kids two years old or younger, they will receive free admission to the landmark.

sign to lake Shasta caverns
source: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com

Bridge From “Stand By Me”

Seeing film locations for our favorite movies is one of the coolest things to do while traveling. You can see the famous bridge from Stand By Me in Shasta County. If you are planning on visiting other sites like the Lake Shasta Caverns and Whiskeytown Recreation Area in the area, you should add the bridge from Stand By Me to your itinerary.

wooden bridge over river

Point Lobos State Park

Without a doubt, Point Lobos State Park is one of the top must-see locations in all of California. It was the first marine reserve created in the United States and more than 47 movies have been filmed in the park! For scuba divers, it doesn’t get much better than Point Lobos. There are viewpoints and trails all throughout the park that showcase the stunning landscape.

The Whalers Cove area is one of the most popular and beautiful areas in the park, so if you have limited time to spend at Point Lobos, make this area your first stop. You will want to keep in mind that the park is highly visited and as such the parking lot frequently fills to capacity in the morning hours. You’ll need to arrive at the park early to ensure you get a parking spot in the area that you wish to be in. Normally, after the parking lot fills up, you can park on the side of the road outside the park, but you may end up having to walk quite far to get into the park if you choose to park this way.

rock stairs by ocean

McCloud Falls

The McCloud River has three waterfalls and if you take the McCloud river Trail you will pass all three of these stunning waterfalls. The trail is a total of four miles and gains around 500 feet in elevation. It’s open year-round and is ranked easy to moderate in difficulty. McCloud Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in California and definitely worth a stop during your time traveling through the Northern part of the state.

waterfall in woods

As you can see, you will not be at a loss for things to do in Northern California during your travels. From the prettiest lakes and natural water features to the cuisine, shopping, and family fun, you can find so much fun and create memories that will last a lifetime when traveling in this part of the Golden State. So, tell us, where will you go first?

Things To Do In Southern California

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