Here’s your daily travel guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State. Each of these essential California adventures has been tried and tested by a Travel section staffer or contributor.
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Why: It’ll quicken your pulse, drop your jaw and demand your full attention. There’s no more dramatic passage from Central California’s blond hills to the Big Sur coast than this 24-mile route.
What: Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a winding, two-lane highway, begins in the Salinas Valley countryside north of Paso Robles, next to the often-overlooked Mission San Antonio de Padua and the Army’s Ft. Hunter-Liggett. From there it creeps through forest and chaparral to the crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains, about 2,800 feet above sea level. Then for 7 miles, via dozens of switchback turns, it wends its way down the western slopes to Big Sur.
It meets Highway 1 at Kirk Creek, about 4 miles south of Lucia and 10 miles north of Mud Creek, where landslide repairs have closed Highway 1.
Motorcyclists have loved Nacimiento-Fergusson Road for years, and traffic has been relatively thin. But with Highway 1 closed at Mud Creek until at least Sept. 30, this rugged detour is attracting some northbound drivers who’d rather not go all the way up to Carmel on Highway 101, then double back, just to reach Big Sur.
The road’s westernmost 7 miles, descending via multiple sharp turns to the coast road, are as spectacular as can be — and might start a three-alarm panic attack if you’re afraid of heights. (When a route is featured on www.dangerousroads.org, you know it’s special.)
Given the absence of lights or guard rails or cellphone reception, I’d never try it after dark. On my midday drive in December, I took care to ignore the views until I’d safely pulled into one of the many turnouts along the way. (For a tamer ride with similar scenery, take Highway 46 west from Paso Robles to Cambria.)
Where: To reach the eastern end of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, exit Highway 101 at Jolon Road, about 23 miles north of Paso Robles. Follow Jolon Road west, then turn left onto Mission Road, continue 4 miles, then turn left onto Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Because the road passes through the Army base, drivers may need to show license, registration and proof of insurance.
Give the drive at least two hours from the 101 to the 1. You don’t want to be in a hurry here.
How much: Free.
Why: Every real downtown has a park to serve as urban backyard, and Grand Park is more proof that L.A.'s downtown is getting realer by the day.
What: The 12-acre park connects the Music Center at the top of Bunker Hill with City Hall at the bottom. (Yes, you can go to City Hall's 27th floor observation deck and it's free). The park isn't really new -- there's been open space for decades on these blocks between government buildings. But a dramatic redesign in 2012 put a far better spin on the area, and it doesn't hurt that neighboring Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels arrived in 2002, Disney Hall in 2003 and the Broad Museum in 2015.
Besides its welcome green expanses and flanking playground and dog-run areas, Grand Park includes a fountain (with splash pad for kids), an adjacent Starbucks, plenty of places to sit and a busy schedule of holiday events and live shows. Picnicking is encouraged. Protesting is permitted. Food trucks come for lunch most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. There's midday yoga on many Wednesdays and Fridays. In October and November, the park hosts Día de los Muertos altars and art; in November and December, holiday lights.
And on New Year's Eve -- well, the 2016-17 party (free and alcohol-free) included three stages, DJs, live music, dancing, inflatable art, and light projections. Expect more of the same this time.
Where: between 200 N. Grand Ave. and 227 N. Spring St., at the core of downtown L.A.
How much: Free. It's easiest to arrive via Metro. But there's parking nearby in Lot 10 (entrances on Broadway and Hill Street between 1st and Temple streets), priced at $3.50 per 15 minutes up to a $20 maximum per weekday, $10 per day on weekends, evenings and special events.
Info: Grand Park
Why: McWay Falls, the splashiest attraction in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, roars down 80 feet from granite and redwoods to a creamy Big Sur beach and implausibly turquoise cove. It’s the cascade that other waterfalls want to be. It’s also a perfectly impossible California destination, because you can’t stand under these falls. There’s no safe way to the beach.
What: The hike is more of a stroll, really. It’s about half a mile, mostly flat. (And the rest of the park remains mostly closed because of mudslides and other damage done by the Soberanes Fire of 2016.) Once you’ve passed through a short tunnel under Highway 1 and made a right turn, you’ll soon be standing on a rocky perch where a house once stood, looking south to the beach and falls.
This is an invitation to chill. For one thing, the trail has ended. Also, like Yosemite Falls — which led off our California Bucket List project on Jan. 1 — McWay Falls is a sort of perpetuity made plain. The water keeps coming, even if it’s in short supply elsewhere. And the cell reception is so rotten that you’ll probably never get an Instagram photo posted from here.
So have a seat. Notice that there’s a great view to the north also. Think about all the writers and composers (beginning with James Joyce, Richard Wagner, Al Green and Teeny Hodges) who have chosen to start and end their works with running water. Or think about nothing.
Where: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, mile marker 35.8 in Big Sur, 37 miles south of Carmel, 286 miles northwest of downtown L.A. Highway 1 is expected to remained closed at Mud Creek (27 miles south of McWay Falls) through September 2018. That means travelers from the south have two options. One is to detour from Highway 101 north of Paso Robles via Jolon Road and the 24-mile, narrow, winding Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (a star on dangerousroads.org). The other choice is driving up to Salinas on the 101, cutting over to Carmel, then coming back south on Highway 1.
How much: $10.
Why: Simplicity and complexity meet in the Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, and the marriage is a harmonious celebration of architecture and intellect.
What: The 1895 Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, a national historic landmark in Pacific Heights, is an Arts and Crafts building designed by several architects, including Bernard Maybeck, who created the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 in San Francisco.
Inside the walls are rustic redwood, found often in Arts and Crafts buildings and consistent with the Swedenborgian appreciation of natural objects, according to the 1969 book “Here Today: San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage.” The chairs are maple, “made by hand, without the use of nails, and their seats were woven of tule rushes from the Sacramento River Delta,” the book says.
In the fireplace in the back, the andirons become small crosses, and the crackling fire (and recently installed radiant heat) make the church a warm and welcoming spot for quiet contemplation, especially on chilly San Francisco days (which is most of them).
It’s also a reminder of the man whose desire to understand Scripture caught fire when he was in his 50s. Emanuel Swedenborg was born Jesper Svedborg in 1688 in Stockholm. In “Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas,” author Gary Lachman describes Swedenborg as the “Scandinavian Da Vinci.” He was a scientist, poet, writer, mystic, statesman, inventor and biblical scholar.
After Swedenborg’s death in 1772 in London, societies took root that were devoted to contemplating his thoughts and works; the Bible is the center of these. These organizations made their way across the pond by the late 1780s, and the New Church (sometimes called New Jerusalem) began to spread in the United States.
Notable Swedenborgian churches include the Wayfarer’s Chapel in Palos Verdes, designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. The younger Wright was said to have taken his architectural inspiration for the chapel, dedicated in 1951, from Northern California’s redwoods.
Where: The Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, 2107 Lyon St , is about 385 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Cost: Free. Services are at 11 a.m. Sundays. Office hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; knock to gain entry to the church.
Why: If you’re intimidated by the word “spa,” Glen Ivy is the place for you. It feels accessible, not exclusive, meaning you can sit back and relax.
What: Which is what you want to do. There are 19 pools to try, including the mineral pools, the star attraction in the early days of the late 1800s when you could soak in them for 25 cents.
Today, you start by getting a locker for your street clothes and putting on your swim suit in a well-appointed area that includes changing rooms, showers and big, lighted mirrors where you’ll find hairdryers you’ll want later in the day.
Glen Ivy’s 12 acres include a float pool and a large pool if you want to exercise. But my new favorite features are the hot and cold plunge pools. (Try switching three times between them and stay in each pool for a minimum of 30 seconds. It doesn’t sound like long until you’re in the cold pool.)
The former Café Sole has been replaced by the new Ivy Kitchen, offering light but satisfying meals. (No starvation tactics here.)
And, of course, you can find the usual spa treatments (extra charge but no pressure; appointments advisable) including the underground Grotto, where skin hydration is the goal ($25 upcharge).
Save Club Mud for last. You paint yourself (and your hair) with “mud,” which is California red clay, then go bake in the sun. Before you turn into tandoori chicken, you brush it off and rinse or wash it off in the outdoor showers if you’ve used a tad too much. One note: Beware of bees, which are attracted to the mud. Make sure you you’re wearing your sandals.
The landscaping makes it all very pretty and it feels all very real, which is refreshing if you’re weary of L.A. artifice.
Where: 25000 Glen Ivy Road, Corona; (888) 453-6489, about 60 miles southeast of downtown L.A. (Set aside at least 90 minutes to get there.)
How much: Go on a weekday when it’s less expensive ($49 for the day Mondays-Fridays, averaging 300 guests). Saturdays, Sundays and holidays it’s $68 and about 700 people will be there. Through Feb. 28, hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. It’s open an hour later from March through May. Check on summer hours.
Info: Glen Ivy Hot Springs
Why: The Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad is novel and quirky – and proof that good things come in small packages.
What: The collection includes painstakingly crafted, remarkable miniatures, many with moving parts. There are cars, planes, engines of all sorts, ships, thumb-sized guns and knives, and much more. These are not the plastic model car kits from your childhood; for example, there's an eye-popping version of a 1932 Duesenberg SJ that has more than 6,000 custom-made parts and is said to have taken more than 10 years to finish. The folks who built these tiny wonders spent decades perfecting their craft.
There are hundreds of works from around the world on display, and docents to describe the intricacies and makers of each. Try to time your visit to coincide with a tour of the machine shop/engine room for a little extra oomph.
Although it’s not geared for the toddler crowd, the museum, a few miles east of Legoland, can be an inspiring second stop for families with kids who like to build things. And while you're in the neighborhood, you could make it a triple play with a bonus stop at the nearby Museum of Making Music, where visitors have the chance to play musical instruments.
Where: Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, 3190 Lionshead Ave., Carlsbad; 95 miles south of downtown L.A.
How much: Free. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Machine shop/engine room demos are at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.
Why: Like the Grand Canyon or the northern lights, the majestic Rose Parade needs to be seen in person to be really appreciated. On a bright SoCal morning, the colors, detail and craftsmanship come alive. And throughout December, there are some intriguing pre-parade opportunities for volunteers.
What: One of L.A.’s finest freebies, the Rose Parade steps off at 8 a.m. every New Year’s morning (unless the holiday falls on a Sunday, in which case it is bumped to Monday). We won’t even bother describing it, since like the “Wizard of Oz” or a Super Bowl, everyone has probably seen it on TV.
In person, though, the parade’s splendor, precision and pageantry make an early wake-up call worth it. It’s almost a rite of passage for Southern Californians, some of whom spend the night along the parade route.
The parade has more rules than the Vatican.
- Do not pass the blue “Honor Line” painted on the street.
- No tents, sofas or boxes.
- Unoccupied chairs are not allowed.
- No roping off public areas.
And that’s pretty much just the main stuff. Here’s a full list.
But don’t let them ruin your fun. The parade, after all, is one the best family-friendly events in the area, and they’re just protecting that.
To be a part of it all, join in on the float building in the days and weeks before the parade, when the flowers are being supplied and volunteer help is needed.
On parade day, get there before sunup to be sure of a place along the route.
Tickets in the grandstands are another option.
Be sure to dress in layers, because the temperatures will range from frosty to blistering as the day progresses.
Here’s a little insider’s trick that you won’t believe until you see it. If you wait till the 8 a.m. start time, the crowd will be in place on the route and there is virtually no traffic. Pay the $20 parking fee at a random gas station along Walnut and join the fun. You won’t be in the first row, or maybe even the first 10. But the floats are so high, you’ll be able to see them well. About an hour into the two-hour parade, the crowds will begin to relax and spots open up for even better viewing.
It’s a wonderful experience, hassle-free, and a great way to kick off a New Year.
Where: Pasadena, about 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
How much: Free
Info: Rose Parade
Why: The Mission Inn, which dates to the 1870s, stands in the middle of Riverside the way Bruce Springsteen stands in the middle of the E Street band. It fills a city block. And since the early 1990s, the hotel has been putting together an ever-more-lavish Festival of Lights. At last count, about 5 million lights.
What: For six weeks at Christmastime, the landmark hotel switches on all those lights and invites visitors to stroll through the property, including a tunnel where faux snow falls. (This year’s festival runs Nov. 24 through Jan. 6.)
The line to walk the property can get very long — and the traffic and parking situation in the blocks around the hotel can seem downright devilish. But most folks are in a good mood, and the festival includes live music, horse-drawn carriages, funnel cakes, Santa Claus photo ops and more. To see more lights and skip the line, book a dinner reservation at the Mission Inn Restaurant (one of several on the property) and you may land at a courtyard table, surrounded by Spanish Revival architecture that’s more ornate (and with more Tuscan influence) than you’ll see at any of California’s 21 actual missions.
And yes, there’s a reason the decorations seem to be in motion: Besides lights, the halls and walls have also been festooned with about 200 angels, gnomes, polar bears, many of which move, in the same halting, semi-spooky way that Honest Abe moves in Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” It’s a scene.
And speaking of presidents, be sure to peek at the hotel’s Presidential Lounge and its portrait of Richard Nixon, who was a 27-year-old attorney when he married Pat Ryan at the hotel in 1940. (There’s also a tower, a rotunda, spa, all sorts of artworks and artifacts and a museum next door that traces the inn’s history through expansion, bankruptcy, renovations and resurgence.)
Where: 3649 Mission Ave., Riverside, 55 miles east of downtown L.A.
How much: It’s free to walk the hotel property during the Festival of Lights. Dinner main dishes at the Mission Inn Restaurant run $15-$42. (I can recommend the Italian sausage pasta and the pan-seared salmon.) Rooms for two start as low as $199 in slow months (like January), $329 or more in December.
Info: Mission Inn
Why: John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, Calif., a farming community that lacks the cachet of neighboring Carmel and Monterey. But, then, neither of those towns produced a man who went on to win a Pulitzer, a Nobel and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To be in in Steinbeck’s hometown is to be reminded that, as fellow author F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind.”
What: Steinbeck’s birthplace home and the National Steinbeck Center tell the tale of the man whose “Grapes of Wrath” is often thought to be the Great American Novel. The community of his youth — he was born here in 1902 — was this rich, rural farming area in the Salinas Valley, and his labors alongside migrant workers in the sugar beet fields of nearby Spreckels informed many of his works, including “Of Mice and Men.”
He attended Stanford but never graduated, and he struggled to establish himself, but in 1935, his book “Tortilla Flat” finally put him in the public eye. His subsequent books included “Cannery Row,” “Sea of Cortez” and “East of Eden” and, of course, “Grapes of Wrath,” about which he wrote, “It isn’t the great book I hoped it would be.” The story of the Joads, fleeing the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and arriving in not-quite-as-billed California, won the Pulitzer in 1940.
You can have lunch at the Steinbeck House, the Queen Anne style home where he grew up, then stroll the two blocks to the National Steinbeck Center, which somehow captures and conveys the challenges of his writing life.
One of the central pieces of the center is Rocinante, the 1960 GMC camper pickup he drove on a 10,000-mile road trip as he scoured the country seeking its essence. The resulting book, “Travels With Charley” (Charley was his poodle), chronicles what Steinbeck saw as a country in sometimes uncomfortable motion.
The center, which turns 20 in 2018, also does not shy away from the controversy that arose from the author’s portrayal of farm workers’ lot in life in “Grapes of Wrath.” His books infuriated growers — some places banned them — and he turned his back on his hometown.
But as if to prove you can go home again, Steinbeck, who died in 1968 in New York City at age 66, is buried in Salinas.
Where: The Steinbeck House is at 132 Central Ave.; lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; reservations at (831) 757-5806. The National Steinbeck Center is at 1 Main St., about 305 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
How much: $12.95 for adults; $9.95 for seniors, students, military, teachers and Monterey County residents; $6.95 for children 6-17; children 5 and younger admitted free.
Why: Because Wolfgang Puck, who likes to work the dining room, might stop by and personally sprinkle lemon juice on your perfectly grilled fish. “There, better?” he asks. Of course it is.
What: A meal at Spago is as L.A. as the Hollywood sign — and a tad tastier. The landmark restaurant is where Puck made great food fun again.
Originally on Sunset and now in Beverly Hills, Spago is synonymous with creative, attentive and amazing dining.
“At the original Spago on the Sunset Strip, [Puck] created what later became known as casual fine dining, a movement that 35 years later still dominates the restaurant world,” wrote Times restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold.
And thus, a nationwide food craze was born.
For food lovers, the menu itself is an adventure. Portions are generous, and the service is perfectly timed. And though the dining room is packed and buzzy, you can have a conversation here, unlike so many restaurants these days.
At lunch, the go-to standard is the house-cured smoked salmon pizza topped with dollops of caviar. Also pay attention to the veal wienerschnitzel, so tender you could cut it with your thumb. Grilled fish comes off the grill in that 10-second window when it is neither too swimmy nor too dry.
Just don’t forget the lemon.
Where: 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, about 13 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.
How much: How much you got? For most of us, this is a special occasion restaurant. Lunches for two start at around $100 and quickly reach $200. Dinners for two will run $150 and up, before wine or cocktails.
Why: Because two Bali Hais are better than one. Brush up on your Rogers and Hammerstein (“Bali Hai may call you / Any night, any day”), then come away to this San Diego tiki icon, the Bali Hai restaurant.
What: Tiki bars have been a Southern California phenomenon for generations, and San Diego — with its sunny days, palm trees, ocean views and strong Navy heritage — is a perfect fit for the kitschy fad, tiny umbrellas and all. Starting in the 1930s, faux-Polynesian themed bars and restaurants sprang up in the cross-border region from Tijuana to San Diego. The tiki scene started to dwindle in the 1960s, and despite a resurgence of sorts, most of the old cheeky palaces have faded away.
But not Bali Hai. At age 63, it’s still proudly shaking its hula skirt, aided by a waterfront location, fun ambiance and, yes, seriously powerful mai tais.
Ambiance first: As you approach the restaurant/bar, the first thing you’ll notice is “The Goof” on the roof, a playful tiki that stands guard over the domain below. At the front door, Mr. Bali Hai, a large wood sculpture, greets guests.
Inside, there are about a hundred Polynesian artifacts on display, including masks, weapons and tools. The large bar and dining room have dark wood columns, a wood-beam ceiling and large windows with great bay and city views.
The Pacific Rim-inspired menu features such items as Hawaiian tuna poke, chicken adobo steam buns, Spam carbonara, pork belly katsu and Chinese garlic noodles, and holdovers such as Huli Huli chicken and coconut shrimp.
But for my money, the experience isn’t complete without a rum-based cocktail. There are plenty to choose from, but my favorite is the “World Famous Bali Hai Mai Tai,” a potent drink that proudly has “No Juice Added” and mixes aged light and dark rums, Trader Vic’s orgeat syrup, a dash of Triple Sec and a splash of sweet and sour.
Where: 2230 Shelter Island Dr., on Shelter Island, about 5 miles west of downtown San Diego, 120 miles southeast of downtown L.A.
How much: Dinner main dishes from $19 to $30; Sunday brunch, $40. Classic cocktails are under $10.
Info: Bali Hai restaurant
Why: Since 1938, Lawry’s the Prime Rib has been the place for indulgence and celebration. It’s where people spend their birthdays, anniversaries, congrats-on-your-promotion dinners and holiday parties. And where football players competing in the Rose Bowl go for the Beef Bowl.
What: Walking through the heavy gold doors is like walking into a time machine. Through the other side is a magical place where people still dress up, spotless glasses sparkle on crisp white tablecloths and the plush booths make you feel like the most important person in the world.
The idea was to create a version of the English restaurant Simpson’s in the Strand, where cuts of meat fit for a giant are served from trolleys. But Lawry’s founders Lawrence Frank and brother-in-law Walter Van de Kamp (of the Van de Kamp bakery empire and Tam O’Shanter Inn) had grander plans for their restaurant, starting with the meat carts.
Lawrence designed the stainless steel carving carts the restaurant is known for — the ones that glide through the dining room carrying Flintstones-sized cuts of meat — to be, well, impressive. And they are. As are the meat carvers, who don medals showing they are part of the Royal Order of Carvers (a title that requires six months of training).
Each prime rib dinner comes with its own show of sorts: Servers wear the same style of “brown gown” uniforms they wore when the restaurant opened, and they pour dressing from up high into spinning metal bowls of salad tableside. When you order your prime rib, you do it directly from one of the shiny carts, and it’s sliced to order.
There are smaller cuts of meat, but treat yourself to the Diamond Jim Brady (16 ounces), named for millionaire Jim Brady, who was known for eating massive amounts of food. All of the prime rib dinners come with the spinning salad, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a ladleful of gravy and a wedge of Yorkshire pudding. If you don’t finish it all — you probably won’t finish it all — ask for a doggie bag. The restaurant claims to have initiated the idea, along with valet parking.
There are Lawry’s the Prime Rib locations in Las Vegas, Chicago and Asia. The original in Beverly Hills is home to a comfortable lounge and excellent bar snacks. This is where you can order a martini kissed with prime rib-stuffed olives and find complimentary “snacks” that could easily replace your dinner appetizers.
Arrive a little early for your reservation, grab a seat in one of the cushy lounge chairs, order a martini, then take turns filling your plate with cocktail meatballs and salty potato chips the size of drink coasters. Go for it. Indulging to your heart’s content is encouraged.
Where: 100 La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, located on Restaurant Row, about half a mile south of the Beverly Center, about 10 miles west of downtown L.A.
How much: Prime rib dinners start at $41, and you can add a lobster tail for $15. Dessert and starters are extra. Drinks in the bar/lounge area are $13 to $17. The restaurant is busier on the weekends, and reservations are recommended.
Why: About 20 minutes ago, it seems, this was a derelict industrial zone with a few brave bohemians squatting in old factories along the railroad tracks — the kind of place where Quentin Tarantino would film a squalid murder. Then more artists and architects arrived. Then the entrepreneurs and developers. In another 20 minutes, it’ll be Soho West.
What: The Arts District, a big chunk of downtown between the Los Angeles River and South Alameda Street, has actually been gaining momentum for about three decades. Now is the time to swoop in and enjoy how bright, shiny and tasty it has become. (And spare a minute to mourn the long-ago passing of Al’s Bar, once the life of the neighborhood.)
On East Third Street now, you can confront edgy and expensive contemporary art; browse a bookshop or boutique; settle into a leisurely lunch at Manuela; or bring a brown bag and have a seat in the courtyard next to the kitchen garden and chicken coop. And that’s just inside the Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles gallery complex that opened in 2016.
Nearby on Traction Avenue and neighboring streets (where’s there still ample grit), you can can check out an event at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (which was built from the bones of a 1907 Santa Fe freight depot), hoist a beer at Angel City Brewery, and get sausage at Wurstkuche, a burger at Umami, dessert at Piehole or Salt & Straw — more than two dozen options, in addition to the lofts, studios and galleries that give the neighborhood its industrial-bohemian bearing.
What you can’t do is park. Every time I’ve tried, it’s been a nightmare. So now I walk. The Metro Gold Line’s Little Tokyo/Arts District station is fairly handy on Alameda between Temple and First streets.
Where: In many ways, E. 3rd Avenue and Traction Avenue is the neighborhood crossroads. It’s right downtown, less than a mile south of Los Angeles City Hall.
How much: A basic sausage at Wurstkuche costs $7. A tasty plate of persimmon, ham and burrata cheese at Manuela goes for $14. Lofts routinely fetch $1 million or more.
Info: Arts District
Why: If Big Sur is a temple to the beauty of the California coast, then the Henry Miller Memorial Library is one of its most endearing altars, a respite from the rigors of navigating the twists and turns of Highway 1 and rubber-necking the vertiginous coastline. Beneath stately redwoods is a quiet repository of wisdom, irreverence and charm. Its proprietors say that it is the place “where nothing happens,” and yet it is where everything seems to converge.
What: Henry Valentine Miller came to Big Sur in the 1940s after nearly a decade in Paris. He was, by then, author of “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” which were banned as obscene in America until 1961. Naturally they sold well, and Miller soon became a hero of renegade literature, a model for William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After Miller’s death in Pacific Palisades in 1980, a friend, Emil White, opened a memorial library that bore Miller’s name. With the help of the Big Sur Land Trust, the library has become a nonprofit cultural space, art gallery, performance space, bookshop and destination for artists, writers, musicians and students.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a reminder of the pleasures afforded by a curated bookstore. It is a place to celebrate the macho and feminist, the consensual and the iconoclastic through the pages of its eclectic collection of books. Psychedelic cumbias from Peru or the twanging guitar of the Del Tones might be your accompaniment as you browse the tables set with Edward Abbey, Joseph Heller, William Faulkner, John Fante, David Foster Wallace, Jon Stewart, Robert Pirsig and William Least Heat Moon.
Strings of paper money from around the world – offerings from international visitors – dangle from the ceiling. Posters celebrate the notable musical performances that have taken place outdoors, including Philip Glass and Patti Smith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Arcade Fire. Outside, an upright piano falls to ruin off the path from the highway. A typewriter gathers rust on a tree stump, and an effigy made of extension cords is crucified on a cross of computer monitors.
In other words, where nothing is sacred, everything is sacred.
Where: 48603 Highway 1 in Big Sur, which is 10 minutes south of Nepenthe, 10 minutes north of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. Also 290 miles northwest of downtown L.A., 152 miles south of downtown San Francisco. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays, closed Tuesdays.
How much: It’s free to browse. Donations eagerly accepted. Books for sale. Tickets prices vary for performances and programs.
Why: Architects usually keep their daydreams to themselves. But among these hills on the back side of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, some students have allowed their boldest notions to romp free. And horses romp with them.
What: Cal Poly is routinely ranked among the nation’s top schools of architecture, and its students and professors started testing ideas in this canyon as early as the 1960s. Lately, there’s a spring Design Village event (April 20-22 in 2018) that brings students out to test temporary structures and sometimes sleep in them. Luckily for the rest of us, those nine acres and the rest of the canyon are generally open to the public, including dogs and mountain bikes (on the dirt road). It’s a hike of about 2.5 miles from campus to the farthest structure, but your mileage (and elevation gain) will depend on how tempted your are to probe the structures and stalk the horses.
I wandered around on a December day when the hills were the color of straw, and at first I wasn’t so happy about all the horse turds. But once the horses themselves showed up, that changed everything. They sidled up to a water tower, then struck heroic poses on the ridge line while I prowled around assorted unconventional houses and bridges, including a geodesic dome. Yes, there was some graffiti and vandalism, but many structures have been reconditioned in more recent years. (The university calls it an “experimental construction laboratory.”)
I’d call it a great spot for photo experimentation as well. There are about 20 projects, and plenty of tree shade in the lowlands along Brizzolara Creek. After a rain, I’ll bet those grassy slopes light up neon green.
Where: The Cal Poly campus is 195 miles northwest of downtown L.A. Enter the campus via Grand Avenue (and beware of dorm construction near the entrance). Follow the campus map to the corner of Village Drive and Poly Canyon Road, then walk northeast on Poly Canyon Road, which is a gate dirt rout that follows Brizzolara Creek. After about 3/4 of a mile, you’ll see a stone arch. Step through and the canyon will open before you.
How much: On weekends, parking is free at lot H4 at Village Drive and Perimeter Road. On weekdays, it’s $5 for a parking pass at the checkpoint at the campus entrance. (I showed up on a weekday and parked at lot K-1.)
Why: You’ll never see another holiday display quite like it. And it sits on 4 acres in the middle of an upscale Palm Springs neighborhood.
What: The Coachella Valley, with its 80-degree December days, is a quirky place to celebrate winter holidays to begin with. And the quirks multiply once you enter Palm Springs’ Movie Colony neighborhood and approach the Irwin house, about two blocks from the old Frank Sinatra Estate. Since at least 32 years ago, when he was 12, Kenny Irwin has been driven to create epic displays from cast-off items — dreamscapes that suggest robots, space aliens and more obscure spectacles that defy description. With his father’s support (and a corps of seasonal workers to handle logistics and crowd control), Irwin’s compulsion has grown into Robolights, a seasonal landmark that combines Santa Clauses, reindeer, sleighs and gingerbread houses with little green men, skulls, dolls, hybrid creatures, reclaimed consumer electronics, half-melted toys and at least one coffin. At Robolights there are no clear lines between Halloween, Christmas and science fiction.
From Nov. 22 through Jan. 8, the scene is lighted by thousands of bulbs and visitors are ushered along a path that leads from the front yard through a forest of fantasy in the back, then out again. A thousand visitors in a night is not uncommon. On my visit in early December, Irwin was out and about, a soft-spoken man with a skullcap, caftan, long beard and gentle smile. (Did I mention that the artist converted to Islam many years ago?)
“I’ll bet the hardware store totally loves him,” I heard one visitor say. “This is insane,” said another. Many families pose for pictures amid the luminous chaos.
Where: 1077 E. Granvia Valmonte, Palm Springs, 107 miles east of downtown L.A. But while the Robolights are lighted, the city bans nonresident parking on many streets nearby, so you’ll need to park a few blocks away. Try Ruth Hardy Park. And be careful as you walk — there isn’t a lot of streetlight illumination in the neighborhood.
How much: Free. But there’s a receptacle for donations at the entrance. From 4 to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Why: Beach yoga is good for the bod, and the spirit, in ways that no cramped, sweaty studio can match.
What: All sorts of beach yoga classes are held up and down the California coast, but few are as affordable and easy as Beach Yoga With Brad and Friends in Santa Monica. No reservations required. Just drop in with $15 and a beach towel (or a yoga mat if you prefer).
Instructor/owner Brad Keimach is a Juilliard-trained classical music conductor who moonlights – or sunlights – with these yoga classes every Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 till noon. He also holds Wednesday sunset classes starting at 3:45 p.m. and lasting an hour. When the days are longer and the clocks change, he adds more weekday sunset classes.
For almost 10 years, his beach-based classes have appealed to first-timers as well as advanced yoga buffs. They are held on the water side of Guard Tower 29, roughly on the border between Venice and Santa Monica. Paid parking is plentiful at the public lots at the end of Ocean Park or on Main Street.
Like many yoga instructors, Keimach emphasizes breathing as well as the moves and poses. He also incorporates the setting, sending students to get their toes wet at one point for a bit of spiritual spritzing.
The classes pass quickly, without pain, and without Keimach putting his hands all over the students (a too-common yoga studio experience). Looking out over the sparkly Pacific, his classes combine ocean breezes, a relaxing pace and Keimach’s soothing instructions, at a venue where space is never an issue.
Where: Lifeguard Tower 29, Santa Monica, 16 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.
How much: $15
Why: Sometimes you just want to shop in a strange city. Not in the middle of a grand scene like Union Square or the Ferry Building, but along a street that feels like a neighborhood just a bit beyond your means. With Victorian mansions here and there. Hello, Union Street.
What: Union Street has had its great-shopping reputation since the 1950s. The eight-block stretch between Van Ness Avenue and Steiner Street, surrounded by the Marina and Cow Hollow residential neighborhoods, is the prime retail portion.
Many of the shops (which tilt toward apparel and beauty products) and restaurants are housed in Victorian mansions that survived the quake of 1906. One even older mansion, the pale blue Octagon House at Gough and Union, went up in 1861 and has been preserved in its residential state by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (so it would be wrong to knock on the door and ask if this is the weed dispensary you’ve heard so much about). The society opens the house a few days a month for tours.
Among the restaurants, I can vouch for the Belgian food and beer at Belga (on Union near Buchanon Street). But there are more than two dozen. And there’s plenty to peruse at Chronicle Books (on Union between Octavia and Laguna streets).
Where: The corner of Van Ness and Union is a good place to start. It’s 1.5 miles northwest of Union Square, 383 miles northwest of downtown L.A.
How much: Free to browse, of course. Oysters at Belga, $3 each. Median home price in Cow Hollow and the Marina: about $1.8 million.
Info: Union Street
Why: Where else can you spend an hour and feel like you’ve been on a soul-replenishing spiritual retreat? At the Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens in Encinitas, you can be fully present in the moment and get in touch with your inner yogi – and do it surrounded by gorgeous gardens on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
What: The goal of the Meditation Gardens, part of a large complex at the southern end of downtown Encinitas dedicated to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, is to “inspire you to a greater realization of the Divine Presence that lies within.” Walking up the stone steps into the lush, eclectic gardens imparts an instant feeling of serenity.
There are koi ponds and many quiet nooks with benches where you can sit. At the top of the ocean bluff is a plaque that marks the location of the Golden Lotus Temple. The temple, built in 1937 to take advantage of the incredible views, only stood for five years before the ground gave way and it had to be dismantled. Wander past the old, empty swimming pool up the tree-shrouded path to the “dry” area featuring native plants and succulents overlooking the famed surf spot Swami’s. (The beach’s name was a nod to Yogananda.) Some visitors pray, others meditate. I like to watch the surfers below and imagine them praying for good waves.
And don’t miss the Hermitage at the opposite end of the gardens, where Yogananda spent many years writing and teaching. The Hermitage, preserved as a shrine, draws followers from around the world; it is open on the first and third Sundays of the month. It was moving to see the study where he wrote his most famous work, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” which has been translated into dozens of languages.
Where: 215 W. K St., Encinitas, 100 miles southeast of downtown L.A. (Look for the three large “golden lotus towers” as you come down South Coast Highway 101.)
How much: Free.
Why: John Wooden was the Elvis of college basketball, a mythic, once-in-three-lifetimes figure. Pauley Pavilion was his Graceland. Along with Lambeau Field and Fenway Park, it belongs on any sports fan’s must-see list.
What: Updated and comfortable, Pauley sits on the sweeping and shady UCLA campus in Westwood. It is one of the easiest L.A. sports venues to park near ($12) and navigate.
Reopened in 2012 after a two-year renovation, the stadium now offers modern concessions, more room to roam and 1,000 more seats. Most significantly, it added a concourse, improving comfort and flow. Be ready for a lot of blue. After Dodger Stadium, this is L.A.’s second blue heaven.
But you’re here for the lore, in a place that has produced 38 All-Americans. Wooden started it all, taking over as head basketball coach at UCLA in 1948 and leading the Bruins to a record 10 national championships.
Renowned for his disciplined, values-driven approach, he created a basketball dynasty that won seven straight championships in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including 98 successive victories at Pauley.
Wooden, who died in 2010, is the first person to be inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and a coach.
Though he resembled a gentleman banker more than a rock star, Wooden’s legacy lives on in the stadium he made famous. The corridors are lined with photos, timelines and a version of Wooden’s "Pyramid of Success,” a set of principles formed to help students and teams reach their potential.
Where: Pauley Pavilion, on the UCLA campus, 15 miles west of downtown L.A.
How much: Prices vary. Seats generally start at $8 for less-attractive games and $25 for popular ones.