369 posts
(AFP/Getty Images)

Why: Because you won’t find this in your local dinner theater. This series of comedy skits and wrestling bouts features slightly plump men in leotards and the saucy women who stalk them. The dancers, meanwhile, are like Venn diagrams of what saloon girls used to look like: lots of leg and eyelashes like a rake. No, wait, that girl's a dude.

What: Lucha VaVoom stages a half-dozen L.A. shows each year. Developed 15 years ago by Liz Fairbairn and Rita D'Albert, its hybrid of masked Mexican wrestling, burlesque and campy humor draws raucous twentysomethings as well as middle-aged couples tired of the usual multiplex dreck.

(AFP/Getty Images)

"I thought I'd be a millionaire by now," confesses D'Albert, given the way sold-out audiences respond to the shows in the old Mayan Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This is the brown stucco doughnut seen 'round the world.

What: Randy's Donut's is big largely because its doughnut is. That 32-foot-high doughnut, perched since 1953 on the roof of a busy little shop near LAX, has shown up in countless photos and movie clips (including about one second of the original Randy Newman "I Love L.A." video back in 1983). In person, I found the doughnuts good, not great. But I liked the price, especially compared with the amounts being charged in Beverly Hills and elsewhere. "You will never see a $5 doughnut at our shop," says Randy's website. It's open around the clock, and the shop has a drive-through window, which is good because the parking lot is often full (even on days when Snoop Dogg isn't DJing) and there's frequently a line of folks waiting at the twin windows in front.

By the way, there are other big doughnuts around, and there's been talk of Randy's adding another outlet in Century City, but this is the icon.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Christina House / For The Times)

Why: This "outsider" landmark, built by compulsion by an unschooled Italian American and surrounded by a blue-collar community that's mostly Latino and African American, has become one of the most emblematic artworks in the state.

What: Simon Rodia, an immigrant from Italy, spent 33 years putting up these 99-foot-tall towers in his backyard, using rebar, concrete, cast-off tiles, bottle caps and bits of colored glass (including the old blue Phillips' Milk of Magnesia bottles). Then, in 1954, he walked away. Yet he built so well, and with such conviction, that his work survived and now anchors an arts center.  For the gritty details — such as the work's maritime influences or the day somebody broke a crane trying to pull down the towers — take a tour. And don't miss the contemporary works in the neighboring gallery space. Tours are offered every half-hour, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays through Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

For maximum sensory impact, visit on Day of the Drum, Sept. 30, 2017, when percussionists from multiple cultures gather. Or come the day after, when the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival takes place.

Filmmakers Richard Dewey, left, and Timothy Marrinan at "Urban Light."
Filmmakers Richard Dewey, left, and Timothy Marrinan at "Urban Light." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If you had to rely on one museum in California to lead you through all of art history from a Western perspective, you'd almost certainly wind up at the doors of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And your teenager (who gets in free) wouldn't want to leave without a selfie amid the lampposts of Chris Burden's "Urban Light" at the museum's Wilshire Boulevard entrance.

What: Never mind that it's the biggest encyclopedic art museum in the West. LACMA is also a linchpin of Wilshire Boulevard, drawing casual visitors with "Urban Light" out front and Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" (a boulder above a walkway) out back. You might not be wild about the museum buildings' jarring juxtaposition of architecture from different decades, but you can spend hours roaming inside  — and hours more with the museum's neighbors.

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Next door is the kid-friendly La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, fronted by a dozen food trucks on most days. On the south side of the street, wrapped in stainless-steel ribbons, is the Petersen Automotive Museum. And almost directly across the street from "Urban Light" are several chunks of the Berlin Wall, provocatively painted.

  • Family-friendly
  • Deserts
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because it's wet and it's not a mirage. In the middle of Death Valley, that's enough.

What: From the 1920s until recently, this place was known as the Inn at Furnace Creek and its pool (fed by underwater springs) was the most glamorous body of water for miles around. It was the fanciest lodging in Death Valley National Park, but it would close down in summer because the valley gets so beastly hot. In June, however, management announced a $50-million facelift and name change: The Furnace Creek Resort area (which includes the 66-room inn and a more casual 224-room "ranch") is getting a big upgrade and a new set of names.

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Beginning this summer, the area will collectively be called the Oasis at Death Valley. The inn with this fancy pool (formerly the Inn at Furnace Creek) is now The Inn at Death Valley. It's closed for the summer and will reopen Nov. 2 as a year-round lodging. The more affordable Furnace Creek Ranch (which also has a pool) is now the Ranch at Death Valley. It remains open through the summer, though parts will close as renovations go on.

  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
Fourth-graders mustering at Fort Ross.
Fourth-graders mustering at Fort Ross. (Allen Holder / Kansas City Star)

Why: It's easy to forget that Russia once had a good shot at taking over California, but that was the case in the 18th century. Fort Ross is a reminder of those days: a state historic park where Russian traders used to operate, even after Spain and then Mexico seized control of this region.

What: The park includes more than 3,000 acres of rugged coastline, including the wooden-walled rectangle that was for three decades the center of Russian culture in California. The Russians arrived in 1809 and bailed out in 1841, seven years before the U.S. grabbed California from Mexico. This may be where California's first windmill went up, and where its first shipbuilding took place. Half a dozen weathered wood buildings remain (once there were 50), including the Rotchev House, Kuskov House, a chapel and fur warehouse. 

Also, if you're headed north, add another dose of Russia with a stop to eat or sleep 29 miles up the coast highway at St. Orres, a fanciful Gualala inn and restaurant that was crafted to echo Russian influences. Onion domes, elaborate woodwork and some rooms are under $100 nightly.

  • L.A. County
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because oil helped make Southern California and American society what they are today. Besides coastal panoramas, this hilltop, surrounded by a blue-collar community, gives you petroleum perspective.

What: Signal Hill's Hilltop Park is what it sounds like — 3.2 acres of high ground on a founded hill that rises about 365 feet above the nearby sea, adorned by a semi-circle of palms. Stand there around sunset and you see not only the sun sinking into the Pacific but the the profile of many a pumpjack — those birdlike, seesawing metal contraptions that coax oil out of the ground. Ninety years ago, the view from here would have been thick with pumpjacks, and the municipality of Signal Hill only has its independence from surrounding Long Beach because of oil-business maneuvering.

Between the 1920s and the 1980s, Signal Hill's oil wells produced more than a billion barrels, making this one of the richest oil fields on Earth. Even now, there are many pumpjacks, some bobbing next door to single-family homes. (Elsewhere around Los Angeles, people have tried all sorts of disguises to conceal their oil infrastructure. Not so much here.)

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Los Angeles Times)

Why: Little plastic, interlocking bricks. They're hard to resist, especially when deployed to mimic the White House or the Golden Gate Bridge. Especially when you're 8, but sometimes when you're 48.

What: Legoland California, in Carlsbad, is at once homegrown and exotic, a theme park that wouldn't exist if some guy in Denmark hadn't started stamping out colorful, connectable plastic bits in 1949. Now there are Lego movies, clothing, books and so on.

The Carlsbad park, opened in 1999, is one of six worldwide. It includes an adjacent 250-room hotel (very kid-friendly), about 60 rides, shows and attractions ("Star Wars" figures? Check. Bust of William Shakespeare? Check.). It's also got a next-door aquarium and water park; a new Surfers Bay is expected to open this summer. And don't forget the beach, which is a mile to the west and free. Perhaps because most of its rides won't upset your stomach or raise your blood pressure, Legoland has a reputation for appealing to younger kids more than older ones. (It officially targets families with kids ages 2-12.)

Ninjago. (Sandy Huffaker / Legoland)
  • Family-friendly
  • Orange County
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Why: It's elementary. Homo sapiens like sitting on sand, watching water lap the shore while a bonfire crackles in a light breeze.

What: Bolsa Chica State Beach is a prime beach bonfire destination, 3 miles long, with 200 fire rings available nightly (first come, first served) from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. And that's an increasingly rare distinction. Authorities have banned fires in many coastal areas, focusing increased attention on those that remain.

Bolsa Chica, a long, flat beach, is also known for its surf fishing and grunion runs. Just inland you have the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a 1,300-acre estuary and wetlands area that attracts about 200 species of birds (and almost as many sub-species of birders). There are various beach concessions nearby. (Farther north in Los Angeles County, Dockweiler State Beach is another fire-ring destination.)

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: waves, people-watching, landscape. 

What: To appreciate the Steamer Lane surf break, you need not get wet. You don't even have to duck into the little red brick lighthouse, which was converted into the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum in 1986. (But it would be silly not to.)

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Just scoping out the swells from that cliff top, looking down on one of the state's best-loved surf spots is enough to bring you closer to the soul of Santa Cruz, which must be related somehow to the soul of California. Moreover, the elevation gives you a great angle for photography, and Lighthouse Field State Beach is right next door. (One more thing: This patch of land, Lighthouse Point, marks the northern boundary of Monterey Bay.)