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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why: Because two Bali Hais are better than one. Brush up on your Rodgers 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.
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.
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.