Four Hours: A beat-the-heat tour of historic Riverside and the Mission Inn

The International Rotunda was built in 1931 by architect G. Stanley Wilson inside the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Mission Inn in Riverside’s historic downtown has been a destination spot since it was built in 1902, when rich Easterners settled in for months to escape winter’s gloom. The town was founded in 1870 by a New York attorney John W. North, a teetotaling abolitionist who wanted to start a utopian community with fellow high-minded, clean-living folks. The surveyor he hired, C.C. Miller, built a 12-room boarding house on the city block he acquired, reportedly for $250. A few years later, his son Frank Miller took over the property and built his extraordinary resort, crammed with eclectic art, stained glass and mysterious passages.

It’s still a fabled destination today, especially during the holidays when the block-square, Mission-style resort is awash in lights and moving figures (mechanical and human). But why not visit in the summer, when the crowds are thinner and there’s plenty of other things to do in the morning, before the temps start to soar?

Riverside, California
Riverside, California Lou Spirito For The Times

Riverside is 55 miles east of downtown L.A., and eastbound traffic is light on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so feel virtuous and get an early start. Bonus: Parking is free on weekends on the street or in the city-owned lot on Market Street, just south of Mission Inn Avenue.

8 a.m.​​​​ The Mission Inn is surrounded by restaurants but if it’s a Saturday, locals flock to Simple Simon’s Bakery & Bistro at 3639 Main St., which offers a near-perfect choice of breakfast foods six days a week, from eggs with bacon, ham or homemade chicken apple sausage to homemade granola, French toast or omelets.

You have to stand in line to order, but the cheerful, heavily tattooed staff keep the line moving. Try to snag a table outside, on the Main Street pedestrian mall, and sample at least one of their drool-worthy pastries or breads. (The croissants are huge!) A word to the wise: breakfast stops at 11 a.m. sharp and then it’s lunch orders only, with a wide selection of sandwiches, soups and salads that are terrific too, until 4 p.m. closing. Unfortunately, they are closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly. One pleasing alternative is ProAbition’s brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at 3597 Main Street.

9 a.m. Another reason to visit on a Saturday: the Downtown Farmers Market, which runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Main Street between 6th and 5th streets. During the summer, expect a huge selection of mostly organic produce as well as micro greens, free-range meats and local cheeses. Stop at the Carol Gardens plant booth if you want herbs for your garden, and ask owner Tom Yost for a potting tutorial. Other popular stops include Mom’s Specialty Foods Mediterranean Appetizers (with homemade pita bread, pita chips, tabbouleh salads and bajillion hummus flavors) and the Old Town Baking Company booth, with an overwhelming selection of mouth-watering breads, such as the roasted garlic and rosemary sourdough.

10 a.m. Head south again on Main Street for your Mission Inn tour (be sure to call ahead for reservations — weekend times are 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30, 2:30 and 4 p.m.). Miller had an appetite for extraordinary collections, such as bells, doors and a pair of macaws, and you’ll see examples everywhere on the 75-minute tour. (Napoleon and Josephine, named after Miller’s original macaws, live noisily near the main entrance.) Other highlights include the vertigo-inducing rotunda with its 134 steps (you won’t have to climb them all) and the magnificent (but non-consecrated) chapel built to house the soaring, hammered-gold altar that Miller purchased for $5,000 from a Mexican tin-mine tycoon. Note: The Inn is a popular wedding spot, so the chapel is sometimes unavailable for tours, but even if it’s closed, the art and architecture of this National Historic Landmark are a feast for the eyes. Tours are $20 and start at the Mission Inn Museum, 3696 Main St. (worth a peek itself).

11:15 a.m. Keep your sense of wonder alive by walking across the Main Street Mall to Mrs. Tiggy-Winkles, established in 1974 by CeeAnn Thiel, who fills its two huge rooms with so many unique (and sometimes naughty) toys, kitchen goods, vintage-style clothes, candles, soaps, cards, purses, jewelry and holiday decorations that it’s impossible to take everything in. If you have any coin left, there are plenty more shops to browse along Main Street, including the Mission Galleria Antique Shoppe, 3700 Main St. — three floors overflowing with vintage and antique goods.