Why: Life is full of mysteries, misunderstandings and bald-faced lies. This place too. Its dim rooms, sober tone and perplexing exhibits are designed to mess with your head while reveling in the weird things that happen when we try to explain or collect nature or culture. Confused? Don't worry. Have a cup of tea upstairs and commune with the doves in the tiny courtyard.
What: This museum is designed to test your credulity and make you gasp. Enjoy the microscopic sculptures, the mice on toast (a cure for bed-wetting?), the trailer-park dioramas, the short films that screen hourly upstairs. Also don't miss the Soviet space-dog portraits. In awarding museum curator David Wilson one of its "genius" grants in 2001, the MacArthur Foundation called the museum "a provocative commentary on how we organize and archive cultural artifacts," noting that "fact and fiction are displayed with equal precision and diligence."
And next door you'll find a sort of cousin institution — the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which examines human effects on the landscape using keen wit, deadpan tone and extensive photography. CLUI's current show, unveiled Sept. 22 with seven high-resolution monitors in a single bright room, is "Engaging Scale: The Railroad Landscape as an Analog Macroscope." It's about model railroads, real ones and the scenery they inhabit.
Why: There’s a wonderful cognitive dissonance in feeling as though you’re in the tropics and knowing you’re in San Francisco. That's daily life in Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers, where temperatures average 75 to 80 degrees during the day, coupled with a humidity of 70% to 80%. Plus you get a little helping of history with your heat and humidity.
What: Greenhouses once were the playhouses of the rich; this glass-and-wood beauty was supposed to become part of a Santa Clara estate belonging to wealthy businessman James Lick. His death in 1876 ended the idea of a grand greenhouse, and it sat until a group of San Franciscans, including Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, bought it and donated it to the city. It opened in 1879.
Its life has been no bed of roses. At least one explosion, a fire and a windstorm have damaged it, sometimes closing it for long stretches, although oddly enough, it survived the 1906 earthquake unscathed. Still, in the 1990s, it landed on the World Monuments Fund's list of endangered sites. But it was saved, once again, by a fundraising effort.
Why: Magic Mountain packs in more screams per hour than all of Southern California’s other theme parks combined.
What: Six Flags Magic Mountain delivers what Disneyland can’t: thrills. It has more coasters than any other amusement park in the world.
The fourth-dimension X2 coaster with rotating seats makes your pulse quicken and palms sweat. Twisted Colossus combines the classic feel of a wooden coaster with the looping thrills of modern steel beasts. Soar like a bird with nothing between you and the ground on the gravity-defying, terrain-hugging Tatsu flying coaster.
Why: Because it's an irreproduciblethrill to balance a board on a rolling wave. Because it's an excuse to get in the water. And because surfing underpins so much of California popular culture.
What: Blame the three Hawaiian princes who introduced surfing to California in the 1880s. Or blame the Beach Boys for deciding to sing about it in the early 1960s. Either way, the word got out about this sport, which can be fatal or, in the best of circumstances, not so hard.
I admired it from afar until the other day, when I signed on for a 90-minute, one-on-one lesson at beginner-friendly Mission Beach in San Diego. Instructor Adam Wiegand took me through the basics, launched me into a few waves, then went ashore and hollered instructions at me, the 56-year-old rookie. It wasn't pretty, but I got up a few times and spent some precious seconds gliding with the tide. This means it's not that hard.
Why: The California Tower, built to conjure Spanish Colonial daydreams for a world expo in 1915, was closed to visitors in 1935. But it reopened in 2015 and as you surmount its 157 steps, you'll hear how Balboa Park has grown from a temporary fairground into one of the nation's foremost urban parks. You'll also get a bird's-eye view of the signature tiled dome that's also part of the California Tower.
What: The tower and dome are both part of the Museum of Man, one of 17 cultural organizations in the park. If you sign up to climb the tower, your guide will remind you how the 1,200-acre park began as a venue for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, San Diego's underdog effort to compete with San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition the same year. San Francisco's expo was fancier, but when those parties were over, San Diego set aside more acreage, preserved more buildings and may have reaped more long-term benefits.
Anyway, the tour lasts about 40 minutes. It's fun to climb the narrow spiral staircase (and a tad disappointing to learn that the highest levels of the tower are off-limits). The observation deck, about 100 feet above the ground floor, looks out on the redwood lattice of the Botanical Building; the not-so-native trees shading the not-so-native animals of the zoo; the curlicued Spanish Colonial Revival facades of the Prado; the roofs of the Old Globe; and the Cabrillo Bridge, also built for the long-ago expo.
Why: This is the place to see grown men and women jump off a perfectly good cliff, then rise on the updraft.
What: The Torrey Pines Gliderport sits between the UCSD campus and the sea, sending skyward a steady stream of paraglider pilots and the occasional model airplane. And just down the road you find another set of planes -- the stark, symmetrical, concrete surfaces of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, designed by Louis I. Kahn in 1965 and hailed in a 2017 survey of architects as one of California's 25 must-see buildings. (There are weekday tours.)
Of course the Pacific view is great from around here. (That's Black's Beach below.) Grab lunch at the Cliffhanger Cafe, settle in at a picnic table and watch the action.
Why: Because the California shoreline where the U.S. and Mexico meet is like no place else. A tall fence runs into the ocean and shore birds perch on it. A second fence runs parallel. Border Patrol agents circulate in SUVs and on ATVs, making sure nobody climbs over or swims around. Antennas reach skyward. Cellphones lose bearings. Through the fence, you might glimpse Mexican families romping on the beach.
What: Border Field State Park's 418 acres include the beach, views of a few rocky offshore islands and Monument Mesa, which has shaded picnic tables and a broad view of the wetlands, scrub and several horse stables on the U.S. side. The Mexican side features a bull ring, a lighthouse and several hillside developments. Authorities don't recommend swimming on the U.S. side (no lifeguard; low water quality after rains). But you can ride horses, which is rare on California beaches.
In dry weather between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., the flood-prone road into the park is usually open, allowing you to drive almost all the way to the beach. When the road's gate is closed, it's about a 1.5-mile walk to the beach and a few yards farther to the mesa, which includes Friendship Park.
Why: After eight decades as the unsung older sibling to the Golden Gate, San Francisco's Bay Bridge stands every night in a spotlight of its own. Some 25,000 of them, in fact. Admire it after dark, from land or sea.
What: The Bay Bridge, opened in 1936 and largely renewed after years of still-ongoing seismic retrofitting and replacements, now offers LED light displays nightly. Artist Leo Villareal, who conceived the twinkling spectacle, calls it The Bay Lights. The work was first displayed from 2013 to 2015, then returned as a permanent feature in January 2016. About 25,000 programmed white lights are involved — but you can't see them from the bridge itself.
Instead, you can see them from across the water — perhaps the Ferry Building, or almost anywhere along the Embarcadero (including the long boardwalk of Pier 7). Or you could admire them from aboard a ferry.
Why: This handsome beach, which neighbors the Montage Resort, includes sandstone cliffs and a prime parking area that fills up fast.
What: Treasure Island isn't an island. But it is a beach and city park in Laguna Beach. It's sometimes overlooked because it wraps around the exclusive Montage resort (most rooms cost $800 a night or more). But Treasure Island has a shaded parking structure (whose roughly 30 spaces fill up early ever day), a pleasant bluff-top path alongside the resort's immaculate landscaping, public benches, picnic spots with 180-degree ocean views, tide pools and white-sand shores that include a dramatic sandstone arch.
About the name: In the 1930s, this beach was used as shooting location for a movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel "Treasure Island." Later, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used the spot in their 1954 vacation road-trip movie, "The Long, Long Trailer." The Montage site once held a trailer park.
Why: Boot camp becomes a playground. What's not to like?
What: Built as a Navy training center in the 1920s, shut down in 1997 and converted to civilian uses, Liberty Station's stately, sprawling Spanish Colonial Revival grounds now house dozens of restaurants, shops and many sports and arts groups, with acres of lawn to boot. While Old Town and Balboa Park grab tourists in vast numbers, Liberty Station draws more locals. (It's got grocery and hardware stores.) And it underlines the Navy's strong role in the local history and economy. The compound's Public Market is a modest food hall, neighbored by the immodestly large indoor-outdoor space of Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, which has taken over the old mess hall.
If you'd rather consume culture than ale, IPA or Imperial Stout, the complex's Arts District houses dozens of art and dance studios, a few galleries and minor museums, and sundry special events, including free outdoor movies on summer Saturday nights. The complex also includes a Courtyard by Marriott, a Homewood Suites by Hilton and the nine-hole Sail Ho golf course, also known as the Loma Club.