Spanning from Mexico up to Oregon, California is one long stretch of state. 1,040 miles long and 560 miles at its widest point, California holds majestic mountain ranges, rocky coastline, barren deserts, tropical beaches, fertile valleys, and iconic cities. And that’s just topography.
First explored in 1542, California is a state entrenched in history.
Historical stops in California are so plentiful and widely varied that it would be impossible to list them all.
Instead, we’re mapping out a some can’t-miss historic California stops that everyone should check out at least once.
1. Old Sacramento Riverfront
Established in 1850
A National Historic Landmark that has withstood the test of time, the recently rebranded Old Sacramento Waterfront in California’s state capital provides a window into Sacramento’s beginnings as a gold rush town.
25 years after the California mission expansion came to an end, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill.
And two years later, Sacramento was established as the thriving gold town and the main hub for providing goods to the rush of hopeful prospective miners flooding the area from all over.
Downstream from Coloma, where the first nugget of gold was discovered, the riverfront in Sacramento was the hub for trade and transportation between the heart of gold rush country and the thriving San Francisco Bay.
The ability to bring in merchandise and food was of paramount importance for the gold rush to become the booming economy that it was. While mining for gold was highly profitable for some, the true economic boom from the gold rush was felt by those who had the foresight to become merchants and traders.
Old Sacramento was at the heart of this merchant economy in gold rush era California. Boasting saloons, grocers, merchants, and entertainment, prospectors flooded the streets of Old Sac.
While there are many shops and restaurants to enjoy, the area is teeming with historical diversions that are both educational and entertaining.
You won’t want to miss the California Railroad Museum, the California Museum, the restored Delta King riverboat, or the nearby Crocker Art Museum.
The Old Sacramento Waterfront is poised for an update that will align with its longtime goal to remain historically preserved while adding to it’s modern day enjoyability.
Sacramento City Council members voted unanimously to allocate an estimated $42 million in hotel tax money toward the Old Sacramento Waterfront revitalization.
New attractions will include:
- a waterfront park with a lawn for festivals and concerts
- an interactive fountain and “Calliope” playground experience for children and adults
- a roof deck for the Sacramento History Museum
- a two-story “Front Street Landing” with a colonnade that would be open to the river on the bottom and feature food and drink venues on the second floor.
- a floating terrace in the river
These features – coupled with the historic draw that already brings 3.3 visitors annually – will make this an even more exciting historic stop.
Bonus: the riverfront revitalization will also include the state-of-the-art Powerhouse Science Center as well as The Railyards infill development project which will effectively double the size of Downtown Sacramento, bringing with it entertainment that you won’t want to miss.
Sacramento Invests in Waterfront Makeover
Sacramento is investing in waterfront projects. Discover the waterfront makeover coming to Old Sacramento and other river-adjacent projects underway.
2. Golden Gate Bridge
Completed in 1937
Definitely among the most iconic landmarks in the world – and certainly the most recognizable symbol of California innovation and spirit – the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937.
The Golden Gate Bridge joined Marin County with San Francisco, connecting two sides of the bay that – up to that point – had to be traveled to by ferry.
For almost three decades, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. In 1985 the billionth car crossed the bridge and in 1987 the 50 year anniversary of the bridge welcomed over 300K pedestrians, whose weight caused the bridge to sag 7 feet.
Open to vehicle and pedestrian traffic, you can choose to take a cruise over the iconic, Art Deco style suspension bridge or – if you’re feeling daring – take the somewhat daunting 1.7-mile walk across it, looking down 220 feet to the water below.
Whether you decide to drive it, walk it, or enjoy the view from afar, the Golden Gate Bridge is a California historic stop you won’t want to miss.
Bonus: for a gorgeous view of the bridge with San Francisco as a backdrop, drive, bike, or climb in the Marin Headlands to multiple vista points that will leave you ooooing and awwwing over the city by the bay.
3. Gold Country
Established in 1849
Transport yourself back to the Gold Rush days with a trip to Gold Country in Northern California. The Gold Country region, also known as the Sierra Foothills and Mother Lode Country, is a historic region famed for the gold mines that attracted miners seeking their fortunes during the Gold Rush.
In Gold Country, this gold rush history is celebrated and entrenched in modern day culture. Visit historic towns with Old West architecture, pan for gold like a 49-er, marvel at the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevadas, and enjoy the outstanding wineries, farm-to-table restaurants, charming B&Bs, and one-of-a-kind shops you’ll find in Gold Country.
Where to Start?
Take a road trip along Historic CA Highway 49.
Start your Gold Country road trip in Old Town Auburn. Old Town Auburn isn’t just a stop on the way up to the Sierra Foothills - it’s a destination. The historic district still boasts many of the historic features and buildings from the Gold Rush days, plus an array of can’t-miss locally owned shops, breweries, restaurants, tap rooms and other stop-worthy merchants.
On Saturdays, you can visit the farmers market held in the parking lot of the historic courthouse.
From Old Town Auburn, head out on historic Highway 49 up to Coloma, home of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and Sutter’s Mill, then up to Placerville - known as “Old Hangtown” for its Wild West-style of justice.
End your trip in Amador Wine Country, where you can tour wine caves, enjoy the views, and walk to downtown Sutter Creek.
Find more exciting ways to enjoy Gold Country at VisitCalifornia.
The Gold Rush was one of the most historically significant events of the 19th century - not just in California, but throughout the entire nation. Today, the Gold Rush is over but Gold Country remains a can’t-miss destination full of beauty and history in Northern California.
4. California Missions
Built from 1769 -1833
Travel from the South to Central Coast of California, and you’ll find California's missions. The missions were built in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Spanish for the purposes of converting Native Americans to Christianity while establishing a foothold along the frontier of west coast North America.
Twenty-one missions were built in all – from San Diego to Sonoma – and still stand today.
Each mission has unique architecture and landscaping, along with its own place along the coast and within California’s history.
This missions, from south to north, include:
While sharing a common moment in California history, every mission has its own unique story and aesthetic.
With so many historically significant, beautiful missions scattered along the south to central coast of California, if you are traveling anywhere through the region you are not far from one.
Bonus: the Old Mission San Juan Bautista is located right along the San Andreas fault line, which – while it sounds a little intimidating – is actually pretty cool.
From the grounds of the mission, you can overlook the fault and distinctly see where it cuts through the land. You might be at risk of feeling some shakes but it comes with a unique view of California topography that is a sure thing.
These historical stops can bring you adventure while also introducing you to important moments in California’s vast and varied history.
California is full of breathtakingly beautiful and historically significant destinations. Which can’t-miss historical stops are at the top of your list to see in California?