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.
Why: The Malibu Pier is just what you’d expect from this small, wealthy, health-conscious community: No cotton candy, no amusement rides. Instead, it offers first-rate food in a setting that lets the surfers and sunsets entertain you.
What: The pier’s history goes back to 1905, when it was used to ship hides and produce from the surrounding ranches. It’s been knocked around plenty in all the years since, but like a prize fighter it keeps bouncing back.
The landmark pier was closed as recently as the 1990s, and reopened relatively recently, in 2008. Repairs are ongoing.
Why: While you were stuck in traffic, Los Angeles passed its Peak Automotive moment. So if you're alert to where the L.A. Metro Rail system's subways and light-rail cars can take you, you're probably saving time, finding fun and recognizing the story of a great urban transformation. Take the Red Line from the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and miss the crunch on the 101. Take the Gold Line from Chinatown to Pasadena and miss the crunch on the 110. Take the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica and miss the crunch on the 10. Whatever route you take, you'll be joining a great urban transformation.
What: In 1993, the Metro people -- formally, the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- opened their first subway segment, a few miles of the Red Line between downtown and Hollywood. Now there are 93 light-rail and subway stations along 105 miles of track, including the beach-friendly Expo Line Santa Monica segment that opened in 2016. Bikes are allowed on Metro Rail trains any time (with a few rules, of course).
And there's more coming. Between now and 2024, the Purple Line is scheduled to reach 9 miles west from Hollywood to Westwood, making for easy access to LACMA and UCLA in a zone often plagued by dismal traffic.
Why: From the wilds of western Fallbrook to the shores of Oceanside, this is the biggest Marine base on the West Coast. And it's yours. As a civilian, you can bowl at Leatherneck Lanes, ride a horse from Stepp Stables, hunt, fish, golf and suit up for weekend paintball combat for ages 10 and up.
What: Camp Pendleton goes back to 1942. Most civilian Californians think of it as a vast forbidden zone that separates San Diego and Orange counties. And it does cover about 195 square miles of bush-covered coastal hills (and a few lakes). But with just a little advance planning, you can make parts of it your playground. What surprised me most was the chance to fight mock battles (using paintball gear) every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The paintball/Airsoft/Splatmaster territory covers more than 30 acres, including "two close-combat action houses with 15+ rooms, a village marketplace, and real military tanks and vehicles," according to a promotional website.
Why: The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a throwback to the days when amusement parks peppered the beaches of California. Now only a few are left, often in barely recognizable form (Belmont Park in San Diego, for instance). But Santa Cruz, whose first casino opened in 1904, still has some gritty magic going on.
What: The boardwalk's attractions include the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster (opened in 1924); about three dozen rides and attractions; assorted games; wacky snack food; and a carousel from 1911. It's all arrayed along a mile of sandy beachfront, with the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf (whose pilings are beloved by sea lions) about 1,000 feet to the west.
Some consider this boardwalk the oldest amusement part in the state. The coaster and carousel were declared national historic landmarks in 1987, the same year that the film "The Lost Boys" made splendid and disquieting use of the site as a venue for teenage vampires. These days the movie is a cult favorite; Visit Santa Cruz in 2017 published a "Lost Boys" locations map.
Why: You can almost hear the “MASH” choppers coming over the ridge at Malibu Creek State Park, which features hiking trails to the show’s outdoor site, shady canyons and plentiful creeks and ponds.
What:Malibu Creek State Park, in the Calabasas area north of Los Angeles, offers a vast selection of hiking options, including some that touch TV history and some ranch buildings once owned by Ronald Reagan.
With craggy cliffs, creeks and cool, dark ponds, it invites exploration, and probably appeals more to children than most trail systems do. Along the way, look for bundles of mistletoe hanging from the sycamores.
Why: The food, a spicy marriage of Korean and Mexican cuisine, tastes great. And the backstory is the stuff that contemporary California is made of: Young buddies hatch a scheme, rig up a truck, start tweeting and build an empire by fusing Korean, Mexican and web cultures. Now co-founder Roy Choi is one of the city's most famous chefs.
What: Born in 2008, the Kogi empire now includes three trucks (code names Roja, Verde and Naranja, which roam the coast, the valleys and Orange County); three taco stands; and three Chego! restaurants. The blackjack quesadilla is a potent introduction to the Kogi way: flour tortilla, pork bellies, Korean chili paste, cheddar cheese, Jalapenos and a host of supporting ingredients.
As Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold writes in his latest list of 101 favorite L.A. restaurants, Kogi "is cheap, unbelievably delicious and unmistakably from Los Angeles, food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it." Accordingly, in October when L.A.'s Eric Garcetti made the traditional mayoral World Series wager with his Houston counterpart, he offered up Kogi BBQ and Golden Road brew if the Astros should win.
Why: Because the Pechanga casino, by some measures the largest Indian gambling resort in California, will give you that Vegas sensation without requiring a drive into Nevada. Or because the Pechanga resort is a milestone in the long, dysfunctional relationship between California's native peoples and its colonizers.
What: You name a game, they offer it. They bring in performers such as Smokey Robinson, Ali Wong and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. They call bingo in a vast upstairs room full of blue and green fiber optic lights. It's Vegas -- except that you're in Riverside County, among the rock-studded hills, wine country and Temecula suburbs. And in the display windows along the casino walls, you see baskets, pots, bows, arrows, arrowheads and harsh old photos -- reminders that this is a reservation where life was hard.
You probably won't quintuple your money (as I did in 20 seconds at the slots). But you will be reminded just how much the world has changed since 1884, when Helen Hunt Jackson decried Indian suffering in her novel "Ramona;" and since 1987, when the nearby Cabazon and Morongo bands of Mission Indians won the U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively launched casino gaming on California tribal lands.
Why: Because who says pie isn’t a meal? Apparently many of us can eat pie all day long, especially when visiting the apple-centric and scenic hamlet of Julian.
What: This might be asmall spot in the mountains of San Diego County, but there’s a lot going on. You could explore mining history (gold was found here in the 1870s and Eagle Mining Co. offers tours); take an apple or pear orchard tour; hike and picnic amid the pines and manzanitas; or shop collectibles and crafts as you stroll past historic homes and old-time stores. But for some of us, Julian is fundamentally a chance for a dessert tour.
In the early 1900s, growers found Julian a fine place for apple trees. Today, it’s all about the products made with apples – especially the pie.