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370 posts
  • L.A. County
Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Parking is free, and so are summer rehearsals for the L.A. Phil and other groups. After the Hollywood sign, the Bowl is probably L.A.’s greatest landmark, and this is a great way to see it in action.

The County of Los Angeles, which operates the Bowl, opens it to the public for summer Philharmonic rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Rehearsals on other days are also open, but only at the discretion of the scheduled artist. The lineups are released on Mondays, and you can call in for schedules. The practices start at 9:30 a.m. and go to noon or later. After surfing, a morning spent listening to the city’s best musicians play Brahms might be the best free activity in L.A.

What: Rehearsals at the Hollywood Bowl.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Orange County
The Ferris wheel at Balboa Fun Zone.
The Ferris wheel at Balboa Fun Zone. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because it’s a bit of a time machine, a low-key throwback to the sorts of simple amusement parks that used to dot the California coast in the pre-Disney days. The Fun Zone has been a part of SoCal summers for 75 years and has stayed charming and affordable through the decades.

What: The Fun Zone is a great place to spend a half day, or use as a launch point for Catalina trips, whale watching or harbor cruises. A ride on the vintage Ferris wheel goes forever, it seems, and offers stunning views of the island and peninsula. There are other more contemporary rides that will appeal to teens and young adults, and a simple merry-go-round for youngsters.

Arcades, shops and county fair food are seemingly everywhere, including New York-style pizza and some pretty respectable gyros, at New York Pizza, on the corner of East Bay Avenue and Palm Street. 

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  • Central Coast
Arcade, Ojai.
Arcade, Ojai. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Why: They're just sunsets, really. But in artsy, spiritually inclined Ojai, locals like to call them pink moments. And Ojai is a fine place for unplugging from city life. Good for oranges and classical music, too.

What: The pink sunsets have something to do with the way the light filters down into Ojai (population: about 7,600) through the surrounding Topatopa mountains. (The Ojai Valley runs east-west, which is unusual in these parts.) Stroll the arcade shops on Ojai Avenue, pedal the 9-mile Ojai Valley Trail, frolic in Libbey Park (home to the Ojai Music Festival every June). Browse Bart's Books. Mention to your friend that the town was named Nordhoff until 1917 when locals redubbed it Ojai. (Much of the town's Spanish Revival architecture dates to that year, too -- there'd been a fire, and there was a lot of rebuilding.) Pick up some fruit from Friend's Ranch. Get spa treatments at the Ojai Valley Inn. Book into a boutique hotel.

Or, to double down on the peace and quiet, you might prefer the Krishnamurti Foundation's 11-acre Pepper Tree Retreat, where guests can rent 10 rooms and suites in an updated 1910 farmhouse. The foundation's history stems from J. Krishnamurti, the philosopher who lived in Ojai from the 1920s to the 1980s, receiving visitors who were said to include Aldous Huxley, John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Dr. Jonas Salk, D.H. Lawrence, Jackson Pollock and Igor Stravinsky.

  • S.F. Bay Area
The Golden Spike, a.k.a. the Last Spike.
The Golden Spike, a.k.a. the Last Spike. (Cantor Arts Center / Stanford University)

Why: This is the spike that commemorates completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, insuring a prosperous future for California and knitting the U.S. together in a new way after the carnage of the Civil War.

What: Railroad magnate Leland Stanford is said to have driven this symbolic spike at Utah's Promontory Summit (not Promontory Point, the National Park Service insists) on May 10, 1869. That act connected the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad with those of the Union Pacific Railroad, easing westward migration and cross-country commerce.

Once the ceremony was done, somebody dug up the spike and rushed it back to California, where Stanford opened his university in 1891. (This spike is sometimes called the Last Spike. A second copy that's just as old, sometimes known as the Lost Spike, is on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.)

  • L.A. County
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Why: The Magic Castle is the worst kept secret in Hollywood -- a private club in a tricked-out house that's devoted to magic. And if you really want to get in, it's not that hard.

What: The castle, clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts, was built as a private home in 1908. But by the time it opened as a magic haven in 1963, it had undergone a thorough transformation to make it fit for tricks and performances. Since then, it has survived waxing and waning popularity, not to mention a fire in 2011. (The flames flare on the night of Halloween.) Roam room to room and you encounter all manner of deceptions and marvels. Card tricks. Seances. Sleight of hand. Secret passages. And a fancy dinner.

In theory, to attend you must be invited or accompanied by a member of the Academy of Magical Arts. In practice, there are at least two pretty easy ways in. It's not so hard (though the admission charge and dinner and drinks usually add up to a pricey night). If you spend a night at the adjacent Magic Castle Hotel & Suites, you're entitled to go to the club. Or you can email one of the magicians soon to appear and ask for an invite. (More ideas here.) 

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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Where else are you going to see 200 wolf jaws, the long, curved teeth of a snarling saber-toothed cat and the skeleton of a mastodon — all on the property where they were found?

What: It was 1875 when the Hancock family presented an old cat's tooth, found on their property, to a visiting academic named William Denton. In the years since Denton realized he had something special on his hands, scientists have found that the tar pits hold animal remains dating back 11,000 years. 

More than 600 species of animals and plants — bison, camel, sloth and smilodon included — have been recovered and identified since excavations began in 1901.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Smashing waves, hanging fog, beguiling rocks, sea creatures, birds, birders, hikers, painters, photographers and haunting trees -- all flourish here. And the Old Veteran might be the most haunting tree of all.

What: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, three miles south of Carmel, covers just under 400 acres. Within a few years of the Gold Rush of 1849, dozens of Chinese immigrant fishing families arrived to gather abalone, urchin and other species. Whalers made this a base camp. Japanese and Portuguese immigrants too. 

An abalone cannery operated until 1928. And believe it or not, there was also coal mining nearby. But since 1933, it's been a state-owned reserve. 

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because even if the trees are sort of homely, they are rare. And coastal views they frame are rugged and spectacular.

What: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve covers 2,000 raw acres just north of La Jolla. Unless you've been here or the adjacent Torrey Pines State Beach, you're probably never seen a Torrey pine.

It's the world's rarest pine tree. I'm not saying they look great. In fact, they look kind of bedraggled, but there's something special about these sandstone cliffs, the panorama of the Pacific, and the way a sunset turns the trees and hikers into clifftop silhouettes.

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Morro Rock in the early morning.
Morro Rock in the early morning. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Morro Rock looms lovably over Morro Bay. Usually it's a dark landmark in a sunny landscape. But not at sunrise.

What: More than 570 feet tall and 23 million years old, the rock is one of nine sisters -- nine volcanic peaks in San Luis Obispo County. Some can be climbed for nice views (including Black Hill and Cerro Cabrillo in Morro Bay State Park) -- but not this sister. You can't even walk all the way around her.  

Admire this great, rounded rock, preferably at dawn, from the nearby Morro Bay embarcadero. Or the beach. Or the dunes. Or a kayak. 

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)
Upstairs, City Lights
Upstairs, City Lights (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles)

Why: This is the Beat haven that brought us Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island" (1958), both poetry classics.

Ferlinghetti — whose 99th birthday is March 24, 2018 — is the guy who co-founded the City Lights bookshop in 1953, later took it all over, built City Lights as a publisher and kept the whole enterprise stark-raving solvent through the decades.

What: Ferlinghetti has built a literary destination with as much soul as North Beach has pasta. Plenty of people love Ferlinghetti for that, but not that many have read him. Here's your chance. The poetry room is upstairs. (You can hear him here.)