Why: Kid-friendly attractions abound at Exposition Park, on the southern lip of the USC campus, in the heart of Los Angeles. Dinosaurs, a space shuttle and room to run all make this an attractive place to kill the better part of a summer day. Rarely is soaking up culture this much fun.
What: Exposition Park contains museums and other attractions on a 160-acre expanse that was once a racetrack and fairgrounds. It is anchored by the Natural History Museum, home to sprawling dinosaur displays, and by the California Science Center, where the star attraction these days is the shuttle Endeavour. This ultra-popular exhibithonors the space shuttle program and its connection to California, where orbiters originated. (Reservations are required on weekends and between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays.) Pavilions devoted to butterflies and spiders are open seasonally, and the Get Dirty Zone lets kids take a close look at how plants grow.
The California African American Museum occupies a 44,000-square-foot facility with three galleries. There’s a swim stadium and recreation center that’s open to the public. An amazing Rose Garden is the urban oasis within an urban oasis. With beds of roses, around a central fountain, it is a popular site for weddings and commercial and movie shoots.
Why: Because it's good to sit a few hundred feet above Nob Hill, scan the skyline and sip something.
What: Set on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, the Top Of the Mark has been a popular spot since it opened in 1939. Especially around sunset. Big windows on all sides. Twinkling city lights. Creeping fog.
It's mostly a bar, but they also serve small dishes and brunch on Sundays. Whatever you get, cast your imagination back to the early 1940s, when legions of young servicemen came here on their last stateside nights out before shipping out to World War II service in the Pacific.
Why: Because these buildings go together like Boudin bread and Ghirardelli chocolate.
What: As an emblem of aggressive modernity, San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid made a lot of enemies when it rose from the Financial District in 1972, but now it's the 853-foot needle we count on seeing.
Its neighbor, clad in green copper, is the Sentinel Building (a.k.a. Coppola's Cupola, a.k.a. Columbus Tower), completed in 1907, bought in 1972 by filmmaker and wine guy Francis Ford Coppola. Stand in the right spot near Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue, the main drag of North Beach, and you can put them together in one architecturally potent picture. Can L.A. or San Diego match this spectacle?
Why: Before you give up on Fisherman's Wharf entirely, you should spend a few minutes playing the quaint old games in the Musée Mécanique. It's basically a dim, din-filled warehouse on Pier 45 that's packed full of arcade games, antique mechanical toys and musical instruments from decades past.
What: You could call this place an old arcade. But why not think of it as a mechanical memory rehabilitation tool? If your childhood happened any time before the Reagan administration, there's probably a game in here that will take you back to it. Some contraptions go back to the 19th century.
It is possible that you, or someone you love, would rather roam the souvenir shops of Jefferson Street or the tourist-oriented retailers and restaurateurs of Pier 39. But I'm betting somebody in your family would rather take refuge in the shadows of Pier 45 with a fistful of quarters.
Why: It's a pirate supply store. It's a charity. It's ... oh, just go inside and enjoy.
What: 826 Valencia sells itself as a pirate supply shop, complete with eye patches, handy jars of Scurvy Begone a retail showroom full of pillage-worthy merchandise. But the real business is in back. It's a nonprofit educational outfit that tutors kids (ages 6-18) in creative writing. The founders are author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari.
The enterprise, born in San Francisco in 2002, has now grown into a national organization with tentacles in several U.S. cities and implausible retail cover story in place for each. (L.A. has a time-travel shop, Boston a Bigfoot research institute.)
Why: It's a triple-threat atop Telegraph Hill. And that's not even counting the parrots.
What: Coit Tower went up in 1933. Even if the wraparound views from the top of the tower weren't spectacular (and they are), the recently restored murals on the ground floor are a witty, provocative window into the hard times and lefty politics of the 1930s, well worth the price of admission by themselves. And if you want some exercise, you can earn your views by starting at the foot of the Filbert Steps and climbing to the tower (which has an elevator).
On your way, stay alert for a dire, shrieking sound. That would be the parrots. They're famous, locally and beyond, for perching and conversing in the trees on and around Telegraph Hill.
Why: With a faux waterfall, rally monkeys and a family-friendly vibe, Angel Stadium feels of a piece with nearby Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. The most G-rated sports venue in Southern California, the Big A earns additional points for allowing tailgating in the parking lot before games -- no alcohol or charcoal but propane grills are OK. Once inside, fans get a chance to cheer Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and (as of 2018) Shohei Ohtani, three of the best the game has every seen.
What: Angel Stadium has been home to the Angels since 1966, after they moved from Los Angeles. The stadium has served many purposes, including as home to the NFL Rams, but now is configured as a baseball-specific venue. Darkly handsome and well maintained, the stadium invites exploration and whimsy. In particular, the outfield area behind the rocks has an assortment of comfort foods and craft beers as well as picnic area open to all fans.
As ballpark experiences go, Angel Stadium doesn’t have the history or cathedral-like reverence of Fenway and Wrigley. What it does offer is a good value, a bouncy audience and a cheerful staff that, unlike some other SoCal sports venues, is personable and professional. For pre- and postgame celebrations, a series of familiar restaurants is within walking distance.
Why: Sometimes, it’s like looking out at the North Sea. Montañade Oro State Park is misty 1,400-foot bluffs, crashing waves and wildlife. If you’re looking to hike California's craggy jawline, or for a moody place to paint, pack your favorite old sweater and head off to this dramatic beach campground.
What:Montaña de Oro State Park is a half day’s drive north of Los Angeles, near Morro Bay. The park's main, 50-site campground offers primitive sites with picnic tables, fire pits, toilets and nearby drinking water for car campers. The park's hike-in environmental sites have pit toilets and picnic tables but no water. Spooner's Cove is the most popular beach, right across from the campground. Dogs are permitted in campsites and on park roads and must be on a leash no longer than six feet. Except for Spooner’s Cove, dogs are not allowed on the trails or beaches.
Be sure to bring your own firewood or buy at the camp host site (campsite 22). Campsites 18, 19, 20 are closest to the beach; 40, 41 and 42 offer a little more privacy. Interested in having an RV delivered to your site? Paso Robles RV Rentals is the approved vendor: (888) 898-2267
Why: Though some describeL.A.’s architectural aesthetic as “diseased,” there are pockets of taste and splendor. The Central Library, born in 1926, is such an oasis. It’s the sort of marbled cultural sanctuary where Aristotle might’ve wandered at will. You should too.
What: The original Central Library is an early example of Art Deco, a popular style of architecture from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. It was designed by Bertram Goodhue, in the last project of a career that included the Nebraska Capitol. He died unexpectedly in 1924, and Carleton Winslow took over and completed the project in 1926. After a long renovation, the Central Library was reopened in 1993, with the landmark Goodhue Building restored and a new wing named for former Mayor Tom Bradley. During the renovation, most of the library’s collection was moved to the new Tom Bradley Wing, and the original library building is now given over primarily to exhibitions, reader services and administration.
Adding life and beauty to the facility is a series of sculptures, paintings, historical murals and a magnificent rotunda featuring the Zodiac Chandelier. The adjacent Maguire Gardens are one of downtown’s top outdoor spaces -- shady and thick with fountains.
Why: Feeling blue? Head to Lake Tahoe, where that color has so many shades -- from dark Levi to pale baby blanket – that it is sure to cheer you. Better yet, rent a kayak or a canoe and dip your toes in one of the most lovely lakes in the world. Amazing beaches ring the lake, but at some point head south to Emerald Bay, to my mind the most dazzling freshwater cove in California.
What: Lake Tahoe is a large Sierra lake resting between California and Nevada. The north shore is anchored by Tahoe City, a bustling resort town with an array of restaurants, inns and a launch point for Truckee River float trips. It also features marinas with boat rentals, some pretty pricey. But boat rental shops dot the lake. A wonderful pit stop for food and drink is the deck at Sunnyside Resort, on the west side of the lake.
On the southwest shore, Emerald Bay State Park contains the 1929 Nordic-style mansion Vikingsholm, and the "Tea House" on Fannette Island, the only island to be found in all of Lake Tahoe.