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Things to Do in California

From southern California’s beachy San Diego and star-studded Los Angeles to history-steeped San Francisco and quieter towns in the north, the Golden State serves up an endless array of destinations and activities. Cruise out to Alcatraz, the famed former prison in the San Francisco Bay, or visit Catalina Island on a boat trip from Long Beach or Dana Point. Outdoor adventures in Yosemite National Park, skiing in Lake Tahoe, or a stroll down the Santa Monica Pier give a glimpse of the state’s majestic natural features. Visit LA to stroll on the Walk of Fame, hit the theme parks in Anaheim, or hike up to snap a photo in front of the Hollywood sign. Monterey and Carmel are home to miles of coastline, a wealth of marine life, and world-class golf facilities. Both the San Diego Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are considered the top wildlife facilities in their categories, home to an incredible array of animals and opportunities to learn about our non-human neighbors. California’s miles of farm country mean dining opportunities include farm-fresh, high-quality meat and produce. Foodies can dig into fish tacos in SoCal, munch sourdough bread in San Francisco, or hit the wine trail in Napa and Sonoma.
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Golden Gate Bridge
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Cinema buffs believe Alfred Hitchcock had it right: seen from below at Fort Point, the bridge induces a thrilling case of Vertigo. Fog aficionados prefer the lookout at Vista Point in Marin, on the north side of the bridge, to watch gusts rush through the bridge cables. Crissy Field is a key spot to appreciate the whole span, with windsurfers and kite-fliers to add action to your snapshots. Unlike the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge provides access to cyclists and pedestrians.

From the Golden Gate Bridge itself, you can see stunning vistas of San Francisco and Marin County, as well as Alcatraz, Angel Island, and oceangoing liners passing through the bridge’s tall red towers. Golden Gate Bridge connects the city of San Francisco with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Sausalito and the Muir Woods National Monument.

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Coronado
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Across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado is a pleasant escape from the jumble of the city and the buzz of the beaches. Follow the tree-lined, manicured median strip of Orange Avenue toward the commercial center, Coronado Village, around the landmark Hotel del Coronado. Then park your car; you won’t need it again until you leave.

Locals call Coronado an island, but it's connected to the mainland by the spectacular, 2.1 mile (3.4 kilometer) Coronado Bay Bridge, as well as by a long, narrow spit of sand known as the Silver Strand. The visitor center doubles as the Coronado Museum of History and Art. And then there’s the fabulous, easily recognizable Hotel del Coronado, the interior of which is filled with warm, polished wood, giving the hotel an old-fashioned feel of Panama hats and linen suits. Guests have included 10 presidents and world royalty. For a taste of the Del without the stay, have breakfast or lunch at the beach-view Sheerwater restaurant.

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Point Loma
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Both a seaside community and a top San Diego attraction, there’s a lot to be said for this little slip of a peninsula. Most easily recognized for its hilly views and the picturesque Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Point Loma is also famous for its historical significance (the first European settlers in California landed here, thus earning it the title “where California began”). People come to Point Loma to view these attractions, as well as to visit its naval base, the Cabrillo National Monument, and walk the hiking trails and take in the stunning views of the bay. With plenty to do and see, it’s no wonder Point Loma is one of San Diego’s most photographed spots.

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Cabrillo National Monument
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On the southern tip of Point Loma, at the top of hill, you'll find Cabrillo National Monument. The spot is San Diego’s finest locale for history and fine views across the bay to San Diego's downtown. It's also the best place in San Diego to see the gray whale migration (January to March) from land. After a few minutes here, you may forget you’re in a major metropolitan area.

The visitors center at Cabrillo National Monument has an excellent presentation on Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 voyage up the California coast, plus good exhibits on the native inhabitants and the area’s natural history. Also here is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is appointed with late-19th century pieces, including lamps and picture frames hand-covered with hundreds of shells. On the ocean side, you can drive or walk down to the tide pools (at low tide) to look for anemones, starfish, crabs, and limpets.

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Alcatraz
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For almost 150 years, Alcatraz has given the innocent chills and the guilty cold sweats. Over the years it's been the nation's first military prison, then a forbidding maximum-security penitentiary, now a National Park. No wonder that first step you take off the ferry and onto 'The Rock' seems to cue ominous music: dunh-dunh-dunnnnh!

The trip to Alcatraz is popular and space is extremely limited. Purchase Alcatraz tickets as far in advance as possible, up to 90 days. The roster of Alcatraz inmates read like an America's Most Wanted list. A-list criminals doing time on Alcatraz included Chicago crime boss Al "Scarface" Capone, dapper kidnapper George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and hot-headed Harlem mafioso and sometime poet "Bumpy" Johnson. Though Alcatraz was considered escape-proof, in 1962 the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris floated away on a makeshift raft and were never seen again. A visit to Alcatraz is more than just seeing the inside of an old prison.

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San Francisco Bay
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Few waterways carry the prestige and iconographic status of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. From the first years of its European discovery the Golden Gate became known as a pivotal access point to the American West.

Trade and military strategy aside, The Bay is California’s most important ecological treasure. A natural nursery for crab, halibut, waterfowl, seals and sea lions, as well as endangered species, the San Francisco Bay provides a great ecological treasure to residents and visitors alike. Whale watching, ferrying out to Alcatraz and Marin, or simple sunset tours with the glistening Golden Gate Bridge are favorite pastimes, while residents simply feel assured looking out of their windows and knowing that its calm waters are there.

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USS Midway Museum
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Essentially a floating city, the U.S.S. Midway Museum is housed inside the namesake ship, formerly one of the U.S. Navy’s flagships from 1945 to 1991. Aboard the hulking vessel, visitors can explore more than 60 exhibits as well as peak inside the museum’s aircraft collection. Exhibits in the U.S.S. Midway Museum include the engine room, the ship’s brig, machine shops, and the crew’s sleeping quarters. You’ll walk along the narrow confines of the upper decks to the bridge, admiral’s war room, and the control tower. On the ship’s flight deck, you can walk right up to aircrafts, including an F-14 Tomcat, F-4 Phantom jet fighter, and an A-7 Corsair. Three flight simulators, music videos, films, interactive exhibits, and the Ejection Seat Theater round out this family-friendly experience.
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San Diego Zoo
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Packed into 40 hectares, the San Diego Zoo presents a stunning variety of nature's largest, smallest, noblest, oddest, and most endangered creatures. This famous zoo has more than 3,000 animals representing over 800 species.

Stop first at the San Diego Zoo visitor center to pick up a map. Highlights of the zoo include the Tiger River bioclimatic exhibit, which realistically recreates an Asian rainforest environment, and Gorilla Tropics, which does the same with an African rainforest. The koalas and the rare giant pandas are also popular.

The gardens at the San Diego Zoo are renowned and some of the plants are used for the specialized food requirements of particular animals. Especially for kids, the Children’s Zoo allows young ones to pet small critters; they will also enjoy the animal nursery, which shows off the zoo’s newest arrivals. For an aerial perspective on the park, take a ride on the Skyfari.

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Maritime Museum of San Diego
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For over 60 years, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most engaging and imagination-inspiring attractions in San Diego. A history lesson and an adventure in one, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has been repeatedly voted one of the best attractions in San Diego, and visitors from the world over come here to see the excellent collections of historic tall ships, including the world’s oldest active merchant ship, the Star of India, an 1863 iron hulled, triple-mast behemoth. Known the world over for excellence in restoring, maintaining, and operating these historic vessels, a trip to the Maritime Museum will have you exploring (and, on some occasions, even sailing) four different tall ships (the ones with the big masts and sails), two submarines, and several yachts and harbor boats. As you explore these amazing vessels, you’ll discover a sense of what it was like to work and live on these amazing ships.

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Pier 39
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One of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, Pier 39 is a fun-filled multilevel waterfront complex, complete with shops, restaurants, lively street performers, a video arcade, and stellar attractions. An added bonus is its setting on San Francisco Bay, where you can take in panoramic bay views, fresh sea air, and watch hundreds of sunbathing sea lions lounging along its neighboring docks. From here you can see Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Families will have plenty of fun here. At the Aquarium of the Bay, watch sharks circle overhead and manta rays skate by, as conveyor belts guide you through glass tubes. A chariot awaits you on the two-story San Francisco Carousel, then whisks you past the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, other hand-painted city landmarks. Also - don’t forget to watch the sea lions. The slips on the bay can hold as many as 1,300 of the marine mammals, mostly between January and July.

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More Things to Do in California

Hollywood Sign

Hollywood Sign

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One of LA's most distinguishing icons, the famous HOLLYWOOD sign proudly stands on the hillside of the Hollywood Hills, overlooking its namesake city and the movie industry it has come to symbolize.

LA's most famous landmark first appeared on its hillside perch in 1923, as a advertising gimmick for a real-estate development called Hollywoodland. Each letter stands 50 feet (15 m) tall and is made of sheet metal painted white.

Once aglow with 4,000 light bulbs, the sign even had its own caretaker, who lived behind the letter L until 1939. The last four letters were lopped off in the 1940s as the sign started to crumble along with the rest of Hollywood. In the late 1970s, Alice Cooper and Hugh Hefner joined forces with fans and other celebrities to save the famous symbol.

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Bay Bridge

Bay Bridge

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Though it doesn’t often get the attention of its famous sibling, the Golden Gate, the San Francisco Bay Bridge is spectacular in its own right. Once the largest and most expensive bridge of its time, in 75 years the Bay Bridge has proved critics wrong – the dream of connecting San Francisco to Oakland would not be stopped by anything. Logistics, cost, and politics couldn’t stop the expansion, and now the Bay Bridge has made history yet again my becoming the world’s largest self -anchored suspension bridge. Safely transporting the 280,000 automobiles that transverse its roads every day, the Bay Bridge connects San Francisco to Oakland, with a little stop at Yerba Buena Island along the way.

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Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood Walk of Fame

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Marilyn Monroe? 6774 Hollywood Blvd. James Dean? 1719 Vine St. Elvis Presley? 6777 Hollywood Blvd. No, not last known addresses, just the exact spot for the brass star honoring these celebrities on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

These stars and many others are sought out, worshiped, photographed, and stepped on day after day long this stretch of sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard. Since 1960 more than 2,000 performers - from legends to long-forgotten bit-part players - have been honored with a pink-marble, five-pointed sidewalk star.

Follow this celestial sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard between La Brea Avenue and Gower Street, and along Vine Street between Yucca Street and Sunset Boulevard.

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Vikingsholm Castle

Vikingsholm Castle

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Vikingsholm Castle is a historic mansion and architectural highlight of Lake Tahoe. Located in beautiful Emerald Bay State Park, the majestic home overlooks the lake’s scenic Emerald Bay and Fannette Island. Blending seamlessly with its surrounding natural environment, Vikingsholm is considered to be one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the western hemisphere.
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Seaport Village

Seaport Village

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Seaport Village is San Diego’s preeminent shopping and dining complex. A slice of independence in busy San Diego, the Seaport Village is beautiful and relaxing escape in an otherwise busy world. Come here to window shop the boutiques, sit on a park bench and stare into the ocean, grab a bite to eat, or to simply have a glass of wine and catch some outdoor entertainment. Just a short walk from the Gaslamp Quarter and plenty of boutique and big name shopping, Seaport Village is a popular hang-out for tourists and locals alike.

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Angel Island State Park

Angel Island State Park

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Proving that getting away from the city doesn’t have to be an ordeal, Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, is a quick ferry ride away and seemingly miles away from the ordinary. Small but beautiful, Angel Island has some of the best views of the surrounding San Francisco Bay area. Climb to the top of Mt. Livermore to snap some pictures of spectacular panoramic views of the entire Bay, or head down to the paved walkway to see some of Angel Island’s beautiful coves. All five Bay Area bridges can be seen from the island point, including the imposing and illustrious Golden Gate.

Visitors to this small island enjoy miles of superb hiking trails, a cove café and oyster bar, and many forms of transportation fun (segway, tram, and electric scooter). Here you can explore this natural treasure in leisure and at your own pace.

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Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts

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Like a fossilized party favor, this romantic, Greco-Roman ruin is the memento San Francisco decided to keep from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Indeed, the Palace is a favorite wedding photo location for many couples in the San Francisco Bay area. But many come just to simply gaze up at the rotunda relief and glimpse "Art Under Attack by Materialists, with Idealists Leaping to her Rescue".

The exhibition hall, which originally housed Impressionist paintings during the exposition, was once home to the Exploratorium, a state of the art interactive science museum that moved in Spring 2013 to Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. Now the venue hosts occasional concerts and events but is not generally open to the public. The inside is not the main attraction after all.

The nearby lagoon, fringed with Australian eucalyptus trees, was intended to echo those found in classical settings in Europe, where water serves as a mirror to reflect the grand buildings.

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Madonna Estate Winery

Madonna Estate Winery

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Located in the world-renowned Carneros region, Madonna Estates is a unique winemaker utilizing dry-farming production and organic grapes. The vineyard is family owned and operated using a combination of traditional and modern winemaking techniques. As one of the oldest vineyards in Napa Valley, Madonna Estates is working to ensure the historic winemaking traditions of the past live on. It was one of the few original vineyards that survived the Prohibition era.

The idea behind their wines is minimal intervention and as much natural growth as possible. Mild fog, wild, and cool temperatures create a unique microclimate in this area, fed with coastal air. Madonna Estates produces ten varietals including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. The tasting room is decorated in Italian Pompeii style to reflect the family’s heritage, and the reserve room serves their highest quality vintages.

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Sunset Strip

Sunset Strip

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This legendary 1.5-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood extends east-west from Beverly Hills to Hollywood, laid end to end with music venues, comedy clubs, boutiques, restaurants and hotels that attract music, TV, film and fashion celebrities. An assault to the senses in terms of both traffic and visuals, the Sunset Strip is studded with a trademark array of huge, colorful advertising billboards.

First developed as a haven for Prohibition-flouting bars and casinos in the 1920s, rising to prominence in the 1930s and '40s for its glamorous nightclubs full of Hollywood glitterati, and eventually becoming a magnet for the hippie counterculture in the 1960s, the Strip hit its most lasting stride in the 1970s and early '80s, when the drug and fashion excesses of disco, glam metal, rock'n'roll and stand-up comedy made the area both famous and infamous.

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Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf

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Where once Italian fisherman in Genoese feluccas trapped unsuspecting sealife, San Francisco has expertly created one of the most popular tourist attractions in America. Fisherman’s Wharf is filled with shops, restaurants, and a pirate’s booty of attractions.

Sea lions laze the day away sunbathing and posing for photo ops on Pier 39, where the Aquarium of the Bay, carousel, and carnival-style attractions keep little kids wide-eyed. At Pier 45, the Hyde Street Pier Historic Ships Collection give navel-gazers a chance to check out tall ships, submarines and WWII warships. Bring your quarters to consult the spooky mechanical fortune tellers and save the world from space invaders at Musée Mécanique.

And if it’s raining, head to the Wax Museum and wander among the 250-plus life-like celebrities and former presidents. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, with its kaleidoscope tunnel, video displays, and illusions is also a curiously exciting diversion.

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Presidio

Presidio

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Once a military base, The Presidio is now a huge public park on the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. The Spanish established a military fortress on the site in 1776, and it was later turned over to Mexico, and then to the United States in 1848. The original name was the Royal Fortress of Saint Francis, fortress being a translation of “presidio,” and the area remained an active base for military operation until 1995. Since 1996, The Presidio has been a park. It's part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, but is operated by a private trust.

Among the many outdoor recreational opportunities within The Presidio are hiking, mountain biking, and golfing. The waters just off the park's beaches are great places to go kite surfing or sailing, not to mention fishing. There's also one camping facility inside the park that's open from April-October, as well as one lodge in a former US Army residence hall.

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Marina District

Marina District

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Walking down San Francisco’s beautiful Marina District it’s hard to believe that the area was once a marshy swampland. Dredged, developed, and beautified for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, after decades of renewal, today the Marina itself is full of joggers, bicyclists, and chic young 20-somethings either out at the numerous bars and restaurants or window shopping the upscale waterfront boutiques.

Struck hard by an earthquake in 1989, the urban renewal in years since has left the Marina with an upscale trendy feel. Combine that with great ocean views and some of the nicest parks and walkways in San Francisco and you’ve got a neighborhood with just about everything – and the price tag to match.

For sunny days, head to Crissy Field or Fort Mason and the Presidio for scenic strolling and some of the best views of the Golden Gate. For a fun night-time bar scene, head to “The Triangle” at Fillmore and Greenwich, but be prepared for a crowd.

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San Francisco Zoo

San Francisco Zoo

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Enjoy a day at the San Francisco Zoo, home to hundreds of animals from around the world. Highlights include the African Savanna exhibit, dual-level Primate Discovery Center, and boundary-free South American Tropical Rainforest. Kids can pet animals in the Children’s Zoo, and kids of all ages like the daily Keeper Talks and animal feedings.
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