Why: From the observation deck atop the clock tower, you can scan a panorama of Santa Barbara's many red-tiled roofs. In the mural room below, you'll see enormous, evocative depictions of early California history.
What: In a city full of mansions, the Andalusian-style Santa Barbara County Courthouse is among the prettiest buildings of all. It was completed in 1929, four years after an earthquake damaged much of downtown and set off a boom in Spanish-style construction.
Beginning in the second-floor mural room, docents give free, hourlong tours on weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., weekend days at 2 p.m. But you can climb the clock tower stairs on your own, and nose around the mural room too — if there isn't a wedding happening.
Why: You won't find another pier in California with cottages on it, and this pier stands along one of San Diego's most popular beaches.
What: The Crystal Pier Hotel & Cottages go back to the 1930s. Despite changes in owners (and many a dispute with city officials) in early decades, the operation has been run by the same family since 1961. The pier is wooden, with fishing at the end. The 31 units are painted white with blue trim and flower boxes. The beachfront promenade, Ocean Front Walk, is San Diego's answer to Venice -- a boisterous concentration of people, bikes and beach culture that runs three miles through the Pacific Beach and Mission Beach neighborhoods.
Where: 4500 Ocean Blvd., San Diego, 115 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
Why: Walking is good. History is good. Free is (pardon the grammar) good. Taken together on the rising and falling streets of San Francisco, they're a tourism hat trick.
What: San Francisco City Guides is a nonprofit group whose volunteers lead walking tours all over town. The regularly scheduled tours are free (although donations are welcome), and there are several every day. On some Saturdays, there are as many as 20 different walking tours offered, covering tea gardens, epic stairways, murals, mansions and old military posts. In Union Square and the Financial District alone, the group offers 21 different itineraries.
I did a custom walk on Montgomery Street with volunteer Joyce Kurtz and came away with a whole new way of seeing the Financial District. Now I understand that Montgomery Street was the waterfront in the old days. And that Mark Twain once worked in the building that was razed before the Transamerica Pyramid went up. (That's why the alley next door is named for him.)
Why: The Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa has the largest collection of "Peanuts" strips in the world. It explores the nuances and global reach of Schulz's work, and the impact of cartoonists generally.
What: Opened in 2002, the museum charts the career of Schulz, who drew "Peanuts" from 1950 to 2000 and died on the day before his last cartoon was published. (He lived in Santa Rosa.) Displays include a black-and-white tile mural with 3,588 "Peanuts" images, a re-creation of "Sparky's studio" (that was Schulz's nickname) and a doghouse wrapped in cloth by the artist Christo as an homage to Shulz.
The museum is neighbored by an ice rink, coffee shop ("the Warm Puppy Cafe"), gallery and gift shop, all built by Shulz, who lived in Sonoma County for more than 40 years.
Why: This is where Europe first glimpsed the California coast. Nowadays, it's where you can see Coronado and Tijuana from on high, and tidepools up close.
What: In 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to sight California from the sea when he spotted the Point Loma peninsula, then came ashore. Perched high on the point, Cabrillo National Monument has a visitor center explaining what Cabrillo’s sighting meant for Spain and the world. (The mysterious explorer died later on the same expedition.)
A short walk away on the monument grounds is the first Point Loma lighthouse, built in the 19th century. And if the history and the wide views aren't enough, you'll find dramatic sandstone formations and tidepooling opportunities along the water's edge.
Why: The No. 19 at Langer’s Deli is the Marilyn Monroe of pastrami sandwiches, a smoky, bombastic, love-at-first-bite Los Angeles legend. I think it’s the lean, hand-cut pastrami. Or maybe it’s the slab of slaw atop it. Come to think of it, the rye bread is probably what makes this sandwich such a hit. Tender in the middle, crunchy on the edges, the double-baked bread is the stage of this luscious sandwich. Then again, it might be the meat. Epic poems have been written over far less.
What:Langer’s Delicatessen opened in 1947, with about a dozen seats. Still in a struggling, working-class neighborhood across from MacArthur Park, it now draws huge crowds for breakfast and lunch.
The menu is a ferocious mix of deli standards: egg salad, matzo ball soup, cheese blintzes. Carved from the navel of a steer, and cured as you would corn beef, pastrami is by far the most-popular meat. The flavor comes from a combo of smoking and steaming that preserves the moisture.
Why: Welcome to the Los Angeles River, America's least likely recreational area. That L.A. has a navigable river at all surprises many folks. All they see are the empty concrete culverts poured decades ago to prevent mass flooding. But honestly, if someone blindfolded you and plopped you down here, you might think you're in Idaho.
What: There are stretches — a mile here, seven miles there — where the bottom is soft and the deep earth tones are a cinematographer's smeary dream. A wall of trees to your left. A wall of trees to your right. Dozens of species of chattering birds. Minnows doing button-hooks beneath a ribbon of urban drool. This water isn’t as pristine as it might look. It is sourced from storm drains and a treatment plant. Yet the water sparkles over rocks. Herons and hawks work the shorelines
It's the surprise of this setting — a tunnel of trees in the parched valley — that makes the unmasking of the L.A. River so alluring. It is also one more reminder, in this land of freeways and mini-malls, that nature and wildlife still manage not just to survive, but to thrive.
Why: Because the city of Orange's Old Towne Historic District is a funky yet family-oriented spot for strolling, dining and people-watching. The heart of the matter is the pedestrian-friendly traffic circle where Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street meet. Some people call it the Orange Circle, some call it Plaza Square.
What: This neighborhood, which sits in the middle of Orange County, has sustained a vibrant conglomeration of quaint cafes and restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, and specialty and curio stores since the late 19th century. It doesn't hurt that within a few blocks, you'll find a working train station and the campus of Chapman University.
Why: If I told you there are about 17 hotels on one side of this single street 1.5 miles long, you might want to run the other way. But it works here, probably because the other side of the street is a low bluff over a charming central California coastline of cypress trees and rocky outcroppings. All these lodgings are smallish enough to call themselves inns (once upon a time, they were motels). And you can stroll to a few casual restaurants such as Sea Chest (no credit cards, no reservations) and Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill (no reservations) along the same stretch.
What: Moonstone Beach Drive runs along the ocean side of Highway 1, and a pleasant boardwalk runs along the ocean side of Moonstone Beach Drive. Now and then, deer show up in the meadows. One lodging that's seen a lot of upgrading in the last year: Oceanpoint Ranch (previously known as the San Simeon Pines), with 61 rooms on 9 acres. But whether you sleep in the neighborhood or not, this is a great place for a walk, especially on foggy early morning.
Where: Moonstone Beach Drive, 8 miles south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, 238 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
Why: Where else in the world can you experience shoals of flopping fish on the shores of a moonlit beach?
What: Every March through August, small silvery fish called grunions (Leuresthes tenuis) show up on the sandy shores of California’s southern beaches to spawn. These fascinating creatures have attracted and entranced Californians since long before Europeans reached these shores. For a two-hour period late on the nights after the highest tides, grunions ride in on waves and flop onto the sand en masse to deposit their eggs. If you're fishing or catching and releasing, that's your cue to reach in and grab the grunion with bare hands. But it may be thrill enough just to watch the tide of fish under the night sky.
The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro offers an introduction to the spectacle. The museum opens its door at 8 p.m. for two scheduled nights in June and two more in July to offer a “Meet the Grunion” program that includes guided observation of grunions on the beach.