Hollywood, of course, is the focal point of California’s storied TV and film industry, but nearly every corner of the state has served as a prized film location over the years. That includes the dense redwoods of the North Coast, the small towns dotting Highway One, and dozens of evocative desert settings immortalized by everything from independent films to classic westerns.
Under ordinary circumstances, visiting these sites is an essential aspect of many Golden State itineraries. Now, with travel nearly impossible and most tourist spots closed, California offers another advantage: You can traverse the state vicariously through the many movies set and produced here.
Of course, plenty of films that don’t take place in California were shot in California. The forest of Endor in Return of the Jedi? That’s Redwood National & State Park. The Wisconsin woods of The Great Outdoors? That’s Bass Lake, near Yosemite. And that most iconic of New York movies, Mean Streets, was shot in, yep, Los Angeles.
Here’s a list of movies and TV shows that both take place and were shot here, taking advantage of the state’s astounding natural, architectural, and social diversity. Note: streaming options are subject to change and were current at time of publication.
Alpha Dog (iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu)
The events that inspired this real-life teen murder thriller took place in Santa Barbara, but the film relocates the story to Palm Springs, making maximum use of the eccentric midcentury architecture of the area, including the retro, tiki-inspired Caliente Tropics Hotel.
American Graffiti (Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu)
George Lucas was born and raised in Modesto, and his Oscar-nominated movie is set in this Central Valley town—but it was not filmed there. In fact, Petaluma, in Sonoma County, and San Rafael, in Marin County, stood in for Modesto, providing a vivid architectural backdrop for this nostalgic look back at early 1960s car culture.
Bagdad Cafe (iTunes, Amazon Prime)
A German tourist breaks up with her husband in the middle of the Mojave Desert and lugs her stuff to a remote desert diner, where she befriends an eclectic mix of free spirits. This exquisitely produced German-American film later inspired a CBS sitcom as well.
Big Little Lies (Hulu, HBO Now, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube)
The star-studded show about a group of well-to-do Monterey women who find rivalry, solidarity, and murder together offers a marvelous tour of this corner of the Central Coast, with striking use of exterior cinematography.
The Big Trees (YouTube, Amazon Prime)
This offbeat 1952 Western stars Kirk Douglas as a ruthless lumber baron in Northern California struggling with a religious group for control of sequoia redwoods (don’t worry, he joins the good guys before it’s all over). It features remarkable set pieces shot in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The Birds (Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller about flocks of birds suddenly turning on humans isn’t exactly a relaxing watch, but it offers evocative use of the picturesque area around Bodega Bay (even if many of the interiors were shot on Hollywood soundstages, as was typical at the time).
Collateral (Sling TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
This action drama about an assassin who forces a Los Angeles cabbie to drive him to various parts of the city as he runs down his kill list was originally supposed to be set in New York City. But director Michael Mann changed the location to L.A. and used hi-tech video cameras to capture the vivid nocturnal cityscape, as the characters drop by various nightclubs—playing jazz, country, and techno—all leading to a stunning finale on an empty metro train at the break of dawn.
East of Eden (iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
John Steinbeck was the great literary chronicler of Salinas and Monterey County, and this adaptation of his most ambitious novel was quite a publicity event in Salinas at the time. Parts were also shot in Mendocino County.
Entourage (Hulu, HBO Now, Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube)
This HBO series about the antics of a young movie star and his trio of loyal pals was a lightly satirical look at Hollywood, but its documentary-style approach—as well as many cameos from both celebrities and celebrity homes—makes it the TV equivalent of the world’s greatest Star Maps tour.
Erin Brockovich (Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
In this rousing, Oscar-winning drama, Julia Roberts plays the sassy real-life legal clerk who brings a case against environmental polluters in and around the desert town of Hinkley. A grim premise, certainly, but the crowd-pleasing film is suffused with a love for the dramatic landscape and quirky people of this area.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
Scriptwriter Cameron Crowe famously conducted research for this film by hanging out with students at Clairemont High School in San Diego during the 1979-80 school year. But the outrageous teen comedy—which features Sean Penn’s breakout performance as Jeff Spicoli—was filmed in and around Los Angeles, with the Sherman Oaks Galleria serving as the interior of the Ridgemont mall.
Gleaming the Cube (Amazon Prime)
This 1989 teen thriller—with scenes shot in Irvine, Newport Beach, and John Wayne Airport, among others—is a fascinating deep dive into California’s skating subculture, featuring cameos and stunts from key figures in that world. It’s also a time capsule of many locations in Orange County as they were thirty-some years ago.
High Sierra (iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
One of Humphrey Bogart’s greatest performances came as the conflicted ex-con on the run in this moody, desperate film noir set in the mountains of Sierra Nevada, featuring too many spellbinding vistas to count.
La La Land (iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
From Griffith Park to Angels Flight to the Hermosa Beach Pier to the Smoke House Restaurant, Damien Chazelle’s 2016 musical is an unabashed valentine to Los Angeles’ artistic spirit. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance their way through so many compelling locations it’s hard to keep track of them all—but Discover Los Angeles has done a good job of it here.
Lady Bird (Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
In this Oscar-nominated coming-of-age comedy, a precocious Sacramento high schooler longs to leave for the supposedly more cultured environs of New York, but grows to appreciate the modest pleasures of life in her hometown.
The Lost Boys (iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
This beloved, stylish teenage biker vampire movie, featuring a whole host of young actors who were up-and-coming stars in 1987, takes place in the fictional California town of Santa Carla, which is mostly represented by the real-life boardwalks, parks, and mountains of Santa Cruz.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Hulu, Starz, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
To call Quentin Tarantino’s recent Oscar-winning hit a love letter to Los Angeles would be to understate the matter. The film not only posits an alternate universe where the Manson murders turned out differently, but it also offers a loving recreation of 1960s Hollywood, with its drive-ins, pool parties, backlots, watering holes, and hippie hangouts.
One-Eyed Jacks (Tubi, Amazon Prime, Vudu)
Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort, this epic Western about an outlaw’s attempt to take revenge on the partner who betrayed him wasn’t much of a hit when it first came out, but it’s developed a cult reputation over the years, thanks partly to the stunning, Oscar-nominated location photography in Monterey and Death Valley. Brando made exceptional use of a rich visual palette—pine forests, beaches, sweeping desert vistas, you name it. The Hollywood legend so fell in love with Death Valley that years later, some of his ashes would be scattered there.
Point Break (Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play)
The adrenaline-pumping surf-cop action classic—about a rookie Fed played by Keanu Reeves going undercover to take down big wave rider and amateur Zen poet (Patrick Swayze) and his gang of bank robbers—is suffused with the atmosphere of Malibu, Manhattan Beach, and Venice. The film also includes several real-life surfer hang-outs. (Parts of the film were also shot in Utah, Oregon, and Hawaii.)
Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix)
Yes, it’s a screwball horror-comedy about zombies, but hey, these zombies happen to be married, suburban real estate agents, too—so this acclaimed show (which ran for three seasons) is filled with lovely houses and locales amid the surreal, undead antics.
Sideways (Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu)
This charming indie comedy about a frustrated San Diego writer and his soap opera actor pal taking an eventful trip through the Santa Ynez Valley is both a tribute and a send-up of wine country subculture, as well as a lively look at fragile male egos and the value of friendship.
Vertigo (Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu)
This Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece is so closely associated with San Francisco that many visitors to the city treat themselves to organized Vertigo tours. These might incorporate the Mission Dolores, Fort Point, the Legion of Honor art museum, and a variety of other locations that have become iconic in part thanks to the Master of Suspense’s dreamy thriller about a traumatized ex-cop who becomes obsessed with a melancholy woman and follows her around the city and its environs.
Looking for even more movie ideas? Check out Discover Los Angeles' 100 Hours of Amazing Los Angeles list of 50 films.