What is it that makes college towns so vibrant?
Whatever the magic qualities, Claremont, home to the highly respected Claremont Colleges, seems to have them in abundance, especially around its inviting tree-lined core known as the Village, a blend of interesting shops, historic buildings and diverse eateries.
The so-called “city of trees and PhDs” is an affluent and thickly academic community of 35,000, whose largest employer is the seven institutions that make up the Claremont Colleges. In 2016, Sunset Magazine named Claremont the best suburb in the West, describing it as a “small city that blends worldly sophistication with small-town appeal.” Cases in point: the private Webb Schools have their own Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, the only nationally accredited museum in the country located on a high school campus. And the furthest east outpost of the famous art house Laemmle Theaters is in Claremont Village.
The Village is just a block from the Metrolink station, which provides hour-long rides on the San Bernardino line from downtown L.A.'s Union Station seven days a week. If you prefer to drive, you’ll find plenty of free parking in lots and on the street.
Choose to visit on a Sunday because that’s when the Village hosts its colorful farmer’s market. There’s plenty to see and do. If you tire of walking around the village, take in a matinee at the Laemmle and then head to Viva Madrid, a cozy restaurant-bar that sounds and smells like a real Spanish tapas bar. Just wander down the hall at 225 Yale Ave. to the rustic wooden door with the bull’s-head knocker. Open daily at 5 p.m.
Start at the Crème Bakery at 116 Harvard Ave. for some caffeine and mouth-watering pastries, breads and sandwiches. (One local insists it makes the best croissants this side of Paris.) The shop is small but charming, with a looong comfy couch and tiny tables. Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays, closed on Mondays. Grab a little something to sustain you during your stroll through the farmers market.
10:15 a.m.: Amble a block north on Harvard Avenue to the Claremont Farmers & Artisans Market, between First Street and Bonita Avenue. This is a California Certified Farmers Market, where farmers have to show they actually grew the produce they are selling, and the selection is diverse, from garden seedlings and succulents to locally grown mushrooms and a vast array of fruits and vegetables, plus handicrafts from eight artisans who change every week. Open Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Time to seriously chow down at a favorite Claremont spot, Walter’s Restaurant, just two blocks from the north end of the market, at 310 Yale Ave. In nice weather, make a reservation to get one of the open air booths along the street. The extensive menu features a mashup of Middle Eastern and traditional American coffee shop dishes. Opens at 8 a.m. daily, weekend brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Note: Sundays are happy hour all day long.)
Take a short drive up Harvard Avenue to walk off brunch at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 1500 N. College Ave., which boasts the largest botanic garden devoted to California native plants. The easy-to-roam area is divided into multiple regions, from a fan palm oasis and wildflower meadow to redwood groves and desert scapes. Be sure to visit the massive, 250-year-old Majestic Oak, the largest and oldest in the garden’s oak woodlands. There are many sturdy benches that invite reflection, so if you skipped brunch, this would be a good place to eat a picnic sandwich. The website lists what’s currently in bloom, so you can get ideas about native plants for your yard. Admission is $10, $6 seniors and students with ID, $4 children ages 3-12. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Head back to the Village and park on Yale Street, where you can satisfy your retro music-video vibe. Rhino Records, 235 Yale Ave., is a 45-year-old haven for vinyl lovers, offering both old and new albums plus CDs, turntables, posters and T-shirts. Its sister store in the back, Video Paradiso, 330 W. Bonita Ave., offers 100s of videos and DVDs for rent or sale, allowing us to relive that “what videos should we rent this weekend” feeling of the 1990s.
And finally, explore the Folk Music Center Museum & Store across the street at 220 Yale Ave. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, closed on Mondays. Even if you can’t play a kazoo, the antique instruments are fun to see, and the many more modern instruments are a hoot to shake, strum or blow. This slice of Claremont history was founded in 1958 by Dorothy and Charles Chase, who created a popular niche with music lessons and instrument repair, and from 1961 to 1966 brought the nation’s top folk performers to perform at their now closed Golden Ring music cafe.
Before you leave, make one final stop at 21 Choices, 460 W. 1st St., for some spectacular frozen yogurt with combinations as tame or crazy as you choose (one even involves potato chips). Be sure to check out the root beer float mixture: Heaven!