368 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Hotel del Coronado.
Hotel del Coronado. (Don Tormey / Los Angeles Times)

Why: When the 20th century began, there were dozens of grand hotels like this across the country, built mostly of wood. But a bunch of them burned. This resort is a rare survivor, California's most regal Victorian.

What: The Del, as locals call it, was completed in 1888, a white-walled, red-roofed wonderland alongside a broad beach of creamy white sand. Just the 33-foot-tall sugar pine rafters of its vast Crown Room are enough to stop you in your tracks.

It's no surprise that frequent guest L. Frank Baum, author of the "Wizard of Oz" books, was inspired to do a lot of writing here in the 1900s. Or that movie producers seized upon the resort as a setting for "Some Like it Hot" (1959; Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon) and "The Stunt Man" (1980; Peter O'Toole).

But which one is Mother?
But which one is Mother? (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: It's a college town surrounded by farmers and winemakers, and on Thursday nights, they shut down the main drag so that people can eat, drink and listen to music.

What: The San Luis Obispo Farmers Market, which runs 6:10-9 p.m. every Thursday, dates back decades. These days it fills five blocks and includes fruits and vegetables from 37 local farms.

There's usually some live music, along with chicken, ribs, pulled pork, corn on the cob and that particular crescent-shaped bit of beef, best when grilled over red oak, that's known as tri-tip. Because, to paraphrase Norman Maclean, along the Central Coast there is no clear line between religion and tri-tip. 

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

Why: For nearly 30 years, the island by the Golden Gate was our nation's most dramatically sited penitentiary. For more than 40 years now, it's been a top tourist draw and prison-movie inspiration. And still, kids, parents and skeptics of all ages often find themselves fascinated on arrival.

What: The island is 22 acres, now run by the National Park Service, accessible only by a ferry run by Alcatraz Cruises, the park concessionaire.

Once aboard, impress your friend by pointing out that alcatraz means pelican in archaic Spanish.

Tadich Grill, between lunch and dinner.
Tadich Grill, between lunch and dinner. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This might be the oldest restaurant in the state. And even if it isn't, the atmosphere is wonderfully old school and the seafood is tasty.

What: The Tadich Grill, a fixture along the California Street cable car line in San Francisco's Financial District, has a long counter in the middle, a series of private booths down the sides of the dining room and a team of white-coated waiters whose tenure dates back decades.

The house specialty is seafood and the most popular dish is cioppino (a hearty fish stew that seems to have been invented by Italians in San Francisco's North Beach in the 19th century). The sand dabs do well too.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Crystal Cove State Park's much-coveted cottages stand as a beloved throwback, reminding many visitors of carefree beach days in decades past in Laguna Beach. That's one layer of history here. Another layer (not so pleasant to recall) is the farmers who were here in the 1930s and early '40s, and what happened to them.

What: Perched along a 3.2-mile beach and bluff overlooking it, the 46 cottages of Crystal Cove (now owned by the state) seem an ideal setting for a carefree summer days in, say, 1950.

In fact, local leaders and the state park system have been working for years to achieve basically that effect. Now about two dozen of the cottages are in high demand as rentals. (If you've seen the 1988 Bette Midler movie "Beaches," you've seen these cottages.)

  • Family-friendly
  • Gold Country
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento.
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Why: For the Pony Express, this was the end of the line. And for Sacramento, it was a beginning.

What: Sacramento grew like mad amid the Gold Rush, and its oldest neighborhood — now an eight-block state historic park and tourist attraction — is a riverside district full of wooden sidewalks and 1850s architecture, with riverboat hotel the Delta King docked next door, paddle wheel and all.

One of its oldest structures is the B.F. Hastings Building at 2nd and J streets, the final station for westbound Pony Express riders in 1860-61 and now the site of a snug little Wells Fargo History Museum. Find it among the restaurants, curio shops and tattoo parlors (were tattoos a thing in the 1850s?) and step inside.

  • S.F. Bay Area
The Campanile, a.k.a. Sather Tower, looms over the campus at UC Berkeley.
The Campanile, a.k.a. Sather Tower, looms over the campus at UC Berkeley. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This is where the University of California began, where anti-war protests challenged then-Gov. Reagan in the '60s, and where you can get a fine view, whether you're red or blue, from the landmark that some people call the Campanile and some call Sather Tower.

What: For the view from the 307-foot tower, ride the elevator up, take 38 more steps and there you are, with the Bay Area spread at your feet.

Next to the Campanile is South Hall, the campus' first building, erected in 1873. (Since then, the UC system has grown to 10 campuses.)

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because from here, you can see city lights, scan distant stars and check your weight on Mars.

What: It was 1935 when city leaders unveiled this observatory high in the Griffith Park part of the Hollywood Hills. Now it's one of our most familiar landmarks -- "the hood ornament of Los Angeles," in the words of observatory director Edwin C. Krupp.

Inside, three levels of exhibits introduce you and your children to the cosmos, the history of astronomy, the varying gravity on different planets and many cool visual effects. The two lowest levels were added when the observatory expanded underground in 2006.

(Ben Whitefield / For The Times)

Why: Because you can’t really envision a  man-made mountain, covered in layers of colorful paint and biblical verse, until you see it in person.

What: Salvation Mountain is a one-man project that was decades in the making. The late Leonard Knight (1931-2014) made this colorful mound of inspirational messages, using the desert as his canvas, relying on donations and cobbling together cement, hay bales and many, many layers of bright paint until he had a spectacle several stories tall.  

If you’re 20-ish, you may know it from the video game "Grand Theft Auto V" (where it's called "Hippietown") or one of those PBS documentaries they show in high schools. If you’re older, you may remember the Salvation Mountain scene in Sean Penn’s 2007 movie  “Into the Wild,” or maybe you've just heard stories about a loner in the desert, forever painting Bible quotations on the earth.

  • Central Coast
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Why: This is the only stretch of California beach that you can still drive on.

What: The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (formerly Pismo Dunes SVRA) is a 1,500-acre zone of engine-roaring, sand-churning fun ... if you're into that sort of thing.

If you're not, it's where shorebirds, including the California least tern and snowy plover, contend with a lot of loud company.