California has the largest population of any state in the US. Its diverse range of cities serve as cultural, economic, and technological hubs. From the world-famous metropolises of Los Angeles and San Francisco to the innovative heart of Silicon Valley in San Jose, each city offers unique experiences and opportunities.
As we journey through the Golden State, we’ll uncover what makes these urban centers so appealing to residents and visitors alike. We will also explore the history, culture, and industries that have shaped their growth and development.
Here are the ten biggest cities in California, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles, commonly known as L.A., and infrequently called La La Land, is the largest city in California with a population of 3,849,297 as of 2020. Founded in 1781 and sprawled over an area of 503 square miles, Los Angeles is renowned for its diverse culture, spirited arts scene, and world-famous entertainment industry.
Hollywood is the global epicenter of film and television production, attracting aspiring artists, actors, and filmmakers from around the world. The city hosts iconic landmarks such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Griffith Observatory, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Its beautiful coastline features picturesque beaches like Santa Monica and Venice Beach, while the nearby Santa Monica Mountains offer stunning hiking trails.
Los Angeles is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, which is reflected in its eclectic food options, from authentic Mexican cuisine to gourmet food trucks. The city is also known for its notorious traffic congestion and expansive freeway system, but efforts to improve public transportation options like the Metro Rail continue to evolve.
San Diego, CA
San Diego is located in Southern California near the Mexico border and boasts a population of 1.385 million in 2020. Established in 1769, it spans over 350 square miles and is known for its mild year-round climate, stunning coastline, and natural beauty.
Its picturesque beaches — such as La Jolla and Mission Beach — provide fun in the sun for both visitors and locals. The diverse landscape offers opportunities for all outdoor activities, from surfing to hiking. The city is also home to Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre urban cultural park that features 17 museums, beautiful gardens, and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.
The city has a strong military presence, with major U.S. Navy and Marine Corps bases situated in the region. San Diego is also recognized for its thriving biotech and telecommunications industries, as well as its startup scene.
The city’s rich cultural diversity is showcased in its varied culinary offerings. From traditional Mexican cuisine to fresh seafood, the cuisine reflects the city’s coastal location. With a strong focus on arts, culture, and history, San Diego offers a unique blend of laid-back California charm and cosmopolitan appeal.
San Jose, CA
San Jose is located in the heart of Silicon Valley and had a population just over 1 million residents in 2020. Famed for its high concentration of tech companies and startups, its economy is driven by the technology industry. Major corporations like Adobe, Cisco, and eBay are headquartered here.
The city celebrates a vibrant culture, featuring museums, galleries, and performance venues. The Tech Interactive, San Jose Museum of Art, and the Center for the Performing Arts host year-round events.
San Jose State University contributes to the city’s dynamic atmosphere, and the annual Cinequest Film Festival highlights international cinema. The mild year-round climate makes it an appealing destination for outdoor enthusiasts. San Jose’s diverse population provides a cultural melting pot, offering a wide range of dining and entertainment options for all.
San Francisco, CA
A picturesque city on California’s northern coast, San Francisco is renowned for its iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, and steep hills. Its range of neighborhoods, including Chinatown, the Castro, and Haight-Ashbury, was home to a population of 873,959 residents in 2020.
San Francisco serves as a hub for technology, finance, and culture. The city boasts a thriving culinary scene and a lively arts community that includes institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum. Tourist attractions such as Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Pier 39 draw visitors from around the world.
The city’s mild climate and waterfront location provide ample opportunities for outdoor activities, with Golden Gate Park and the Presidio being popular green spaces for recreation. San Francisco is also a gateway to nearby spectacles like Muir Woods, Napa Valley, and the Point Reyes National Seashore, making it an appealing destination for both tourists and locals.
Situated in California’s Central Valley, Fresno serves as an important economic hub for the region’s thriving agricultural industry. A population of over 540,000 residents contributes to its rich cultural tapestry.
As a gateway to the Sierra Nevada mountains, Fresno provides easy access to a range of outdoor activities, like hiking, skiing, and snowboarding. Exploring nearby national parks like Yosemite and Kings Canyon is also an option.
The city’s revitalized downtown area offers an array of attractions, including the Fresno Art Museum, Tower Theatre, and Warnors Theatre. A growing culinary scene features diverse dining options. Fresno State University adds a youthful and academic vibe to the city, and the annual Big Fresno Fair showcases local talent, entertainment, and agricultural displays.
The city is home to the Forestiere Underground Gardens, a unique subterranean network of gardens and grottoes. Fresno’s blend of urban amenities and proximity to natural wonders make it an appealing tourist destination.
Sacramento is the Golden State’s capital, located in the state’s Central Valley at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. The city had 524,924 people in 2020 and played a significant role in the California Gold Rush, with the well-preserved Old Sacramento district reflecting this era through its historic buildings and landmarks.
Visit the California State Capitol building, along with numerous theaters, galleries, and museums such as the Crocker Art Museum and the California State Railroad Museum. The city’s extensive park system — including the Capitol Park and the American River Parkway — supplies ample green spaces and recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.
Sacramento is renowned for its farm-to-fork dining, which emphasizes fresh, locally-sourced ingredients from the surrounding agricultural region. A diverse and growing population contributes to the city’s cultural vibrancy, and its central location allows for easy access to nearby destinations like Lake Tahoe, Napa Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Long Beach, CA
Long Beach lies along the coast of Southern California outside L.A. and is known for its waterfront attractions, scenic beauty, and intermingled cultures. The 2020 census estimated 466,775 residents adding to the Greater Los Angeles Metro population of over 12 million people amongst all its suburbs.
The historic Queen Mary ocean liner, now permanently docked and serving as a hotel and museum, is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. It’s also home to the impressive Aquarium of the Pacific, which showcases marine life from the Pacific Ocean and beyond.
Miles of sandy beaches — combined with a bustling downtown area featuring shopping, dining, and entertainment options — make Long Beach an attractive destination for tourists and locals. The city contains a thriving arts district, with venues like the Museum of Latin American Art and the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
As an important international trade hub, Long Beach houses one of the world’s largest shipping ports, the Port of Long Beach. The city’s extensive waterfront, parks, and bike-friendly streets provide numerous outdoor activities, adding to its appeal as a lively coastal community.
Situated on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, Oakland is a diverse and vibrant city with a strong sense of community. Known for its thriving arts scene, with numerous galleries, theaters, and street art installations. There are long-standing cultural institutions like the Oakland Museum of California and the Fox Theater. The city provides a home to 440,660 residents as of the 2020 census.
Oakland’s various neighborhoods, each with its unique character, range from the bustling downtown area to the serene waterfront and hillside districts. The revitalized downtown features dynamic dining and entertainment, while the annual Art + Soul festival showcases local artists and musicians.
Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the city’s waterfront location and proximity to Redwood Regional Park and Lake Merritt, which offer an array of recreational activities. Oakland’s large, diverse population and commitment to fostering individual expression make it an appealing destination for those seeking a lively urban experience with a strong sense of community.
Another big city n California’s Central Valley, Bakersfield is a growing city known for its rich agricultural industry and strong oil production. With an eclectic population of 404,440 (in 2020), it offers a unique blend of cultural experiences. This includes a thriving music scene rooted in the “Bakersfield Sound”, a genre of country music that originated in the area during the 1950s and 1960s.
The city is home to attractions like the Bakersfield Museum of Art, the Kern County Museum, and the Fox Theater. These venues host various exhibitions, performances, and events throughout the year. Bakersfield’s blend of urban amenities and proximity to nature make it an appealing destination for both residents and visitors.
Bakersfield’s culinary options are characterized by a variety of restaurants, with an emphasis on Basque cuisine, reflecting the influence of early Basque settlers. The city’s location provides easy access to outdoor recreational opportunities, such as hiking in the nearby Sequoia National Forest, exploring the natural beauty of the Kern River, and sightseeing throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
The bustling Orange County city is known for its world-famous attractions, cultural diversity, and thriving business community. As the Southern California home of Disneyland Resort, Anaheim draws millions of visitors each year. The city also hosts the Anaheim Convention Center, the largest convention center on the West Coast, which hosts numerous events and conferences.
Sports enthusiasts can enjoy games at Angel Stadium, home to the Los Angeles Angels MLB team, or at the Honda Center, home to the Anaheim Ducks NHL team. The city’s large population of 346,825 in 2020 contribute to a rich choice of cultural experiences, with a variety of dining and entertainment options.
The revitalized downtown area is known as the Anaheim Packing District and features a unique blend of historic architecture and modern amenities, including eclectic shops, restaurants, and the restored Anaheim Packing House. The city’s location offers easy access to nearby beaches, mountains, and attractions like Knott’s Berry Farm, making Anaheim a versatile destination for tourists and locals.
California’s diverse and thriving cities, with their unique histories and cultures, have contributed to the state’s status as the most populous in the nation. The dynamic urban centers each offer their own distinct character and appeal. As the Golden State continues to grow and evolve, the allure of its largest cities will draw in residents and visitors from around the globe.
Whether it’s the innovation of Silicon Valley, the iconic landmarks of San Francisco, or the rich agricultural heritage of Fresno, these large cities continue to shape the state’s growth and development.