Why: It's a handsome, green island in San Francisco Bay, popular with sailors, cyclists and hikers, just south of high-toned Tiburon. And from 1910 through 1940, it was something like a western Ellis Island, processing about half a million immigrants, including most of the 175,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived during those years. But those were not happy years.
What: While immigration agents at Ellis Island were admitting most European arrivals within a few hours, the objective on Angel Island was "to exclude new arrivals." Especially the Chinese, who were routinely held for weeks or months in crowded, dirty conditions. Historians say most eventually gained admission by claiming family connections to U.S. citizens -- but only after lengthy interrogations and often denials and later appeals.
The old Immigration Station barracks, a mile's hike from Angel Island's main dock, joined the state park system in 1963 and was bolstered by a restoration and upgrade in 2009. If you arrive during the 20-22 hours per week that the Immigration Station is open, rangers can point you to the poetry etched (in Chinese characters) on the wooden barracks walls by immigrants as they waited in dire conditions, sleeping three deep on bunk beds. More than 120 poems were carved into the walls.
Why: Newcomb’s Ranch belongs in any roadhouse hall of fame. It's a rough-hewn old place dating to 1939 that has survived rock slides, arson fires and snows that reached to the roof. That it still exists is a bit of a miracle. That this mountain hangout is only an hour or so from downtown L.A. is also a dash of good fortune. It might be the quickest way to feel a million miles away.
What: On weekends, Newcomb’s Ranch is more than a restaurant/bar, it’s a showroom of L.A.’s best and most dazzling motorcycles. Most of the action takes place in the parking lot, where the owners of the heavy metal — bikes and sports cars — line up their trophies. The vibe is casual and family-friendly.
Inside, you’ll find a restaurant that is better that it has to be, given the lack of any competition on this remote, wiggly highway in the Angeles National Forest.
Why: In an Italian American neighborhood full of dim, old bars and moody Italian cafes, this might be the most stylish of them all. If you're a cocktail person, order the House Cappuccino, watch the barkeeper make it in the gleaming silver espresso machine up front, and prepare for a pleasant little jolt.
What: That warm jolt is bourbon, Armagnac, chocolate ganache and assorted secret ingredients. Like the atmosphere in deep, dark Tosca, the House Cappuccino goes back some decades. The place opened in 1919. My bartender told me the house used to quietly spike drinks for North Beach regulars during Prohibition, when Tosca had to pretend it was just a cafe.
In any event, this space has changed and it hasn't. New owners brought in celebrated chef April Bloomfield — and built her new a new kitchen — in 2013 and reintroduced Tosca to the world as a place for great food to match its noir charm. The floor is still checkerboard. The juke box still includes Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and the "Anvil Chorus" from "Il Trovatore.") On the menu is wild Italian arugula, grilled polenta and Berkshire pork chops.
Why: Telegraph Avenue might not be tidy. And the sign that says "Drug Free Zone" is not especially convincing. But this neighborhood next to the UC Berkeley campus is knee-deep in revolutionary memories and recycled pop culture riches — especially used books and old records.
What: You could start by browsing Moe's, the bookshop at 2476 Telegraph Ave. founded in 1959 by the late Moe Moskowitz and his wife, Barbara. It's got new, used and rare books on four levels — the rarest are locked up on the top level.
Why: For more than a century, and with mixed results, Southern California developers have been trying to create versions of Venice, Italy. In Long Beach, it has actually worked. Year-round, singing gondoliers guide their vessels through the upscale Naples neighborhood. Late in the year, the scene becomes a holiday mirror of water and lights.
What: GondolaGetaway operates one-hour voyages out of the Belmont Shore area seven days a week. Some of the gondoliers sing, others bring along recorded music. Either way, it is a romantic escape, and popular for birthdays and anniversaries. Groups and couples get separate boats, meaning they won’t be placed with strangers.
The gondolas are not pushed with a pole, as many assume. The vessels are rowed, using techniques learned in Italy.
Why: This is a fresh, sleek building in the city’s long-gritty, lately gentrifying Hayes Valley neighborhood, and it's devoted to jazz appreciation and education, with two performance spaces. The SFJAZZ Center opened in 2013 and calls itself "the first stand-alone structure in the country built specifically for jazz."
What: Forty years ago, San Francisco had plenty of jazz haunts. Now many have closed (though these remain). So it’s fortunate that SFJazz has come along.
It’s got a 700-seat space (the Robert S. Miner Auditorium) and a 100-seat space (the sidewalk-adjacent Joe Henderson Lab, where I recently saw the Benny Green Trio swing with precision through a night of piano-based bebop). It also presents shows elsewhere around town and gets performers such as Kurt Elling, Christian McBride, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau.
Why: Big trees, long walks, granite rocks and scampering marmots are fine any time. But a dusting of snow -- and the challenge of hiking in snowshoes -- gives the landscape a new feel.
What: You never know with the weather these days, but Sequoia, 5,000 to 8,200 feet above sea level, has gotten plenty of snow over the years. Rangers lead 1-mile snowshoeing walks in the Giant Forest area on weekends when conditions are right. (They'll even provide free snow shoes -- the old-fashioned kind, made of wood and sinew.)
At some point, odds are good you'll be reminded that the sequoias all around you are generally thicker than the tall redwoods on the coast. So even if the redwoods are taller, the sequoias can still lay claim to the title "world's largest trees." You can't beat a hike at their feet with snow all around.
Why: Long before any show starts in this Art Deco gem, the drama begins.
What: The Hollywood Pantages Theatre opened on Hollywood Boulevard in 1930. Through the decades it has hosted movies, vaudeville shows, the Academy Awards (in the 1950s) and, for the last 40 years, live theater. "The Lion King," "Wicked," "The Book of Mormon," "Hamilton" — all played here.
Since its last major renovation, in 2000, the 2,703-seat venue has been steeped in Art Deco details. The lobby alone is almost worth the price of admission, with grand chandeliers, star patterns in the ceiling and dramatic stairways at either end.
Why: High-end shoppers, scruffy buskers, baristas on break, kids, codgers, cops, robbers, jaywalkers and fast-talkers -- everybody shows up in Union Square sooner or later. Bring a hot drink, find a comfortable seat and drink it all in.
What: Union Square, which fills a single square block, is the epicenter of San Francisco tourism. It's surrounded by a shopping district in which Macy's vies with five other department stores (and dominates them all when it comes to holiday displays); the Westin St. Francis Hotel tends to high-dollar travelers and the Kimpton Sir Frances Drake tends to only-slightly-less-high-dollar travelers.
The square's 2.6 acres (once a site of sand dunes) were set aside in about 1850, and its name came from the pro-Union demonstrators who massed there during the Civil War. After various updates through the years, the space has less grass than it once did, but more heart-shaped artworks (one at each corner) and more seats. and there's a pricey parking garage underneath.
Why: The people at Dong Phuong Tofu know their way around the soybean. In their headquarters in Westminster — a.k.a. Orange County's Little Saigon — they make and sell a wide variety of tofu products, which play a starring role in Vietnamese cuisine. The inventory is so fresh that items are often warm on the shelves.
What: Dong Phuong's top man, Tony Dang, started making tofu at the age of 7 in his native Vietnam. In 1991, he opened Dong Phuong Tofu in Westminster, selling to stores and restaurants across the Southland. Today the reach is nationwide — but thanks to the small grocery outlet next to the tofu-making facility, locals can still get the goods straight from the factory floor.
Besides the company's own products, the store offers other specialty Asian items. Lining the shelves are Dong Phuong soy milk, tofu pudding and white tofu cake (in plain, mushroom onion and lemongrass chili varieties), packaged and ready to take home. Or try the tofu cake fried up and offered cafeteria style in the store. The tofu pudding, served with fresh ginger syrup or coconut milk, is especially alluring.