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The Fall California List lettering illustration with animation of fall leaves
(Ana Gómez Bernaus / For The Times)

The 40 best California experiences: Fall edition

Well, that wasn’t much of a summer. And fall is a wild card. But there is this consolation: Despite the lingering pandemic and fires, dozens of California’s most comforting, energizing and thought-provoking destinations have reopened. And the deserts will be cooling soon. Maybe.

I hope my top 40 list of fall destinations will help sustain readers in these uncertain times. I’ve road-tested all of these places, which are listed alphabetically. Each, whether a rusty desert serpent or a lighthouse you reach at low tide, has an extra something that tempts me to return.

We have a mix of indoors and outdoors spots, but before heading out, check websites or call for an update on hours, occupancy limits, and vaccination and mask requirements.

If I’ve missed a great place for fall, please tell me where to go @mrcsreynolds (Twitter or Instagram), christopher.reynolds@latimes.com or tell us here. Sometimes the conversation is the best part of these things.

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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures exhibit displaying characters from "Black Panther," "Star Wars," and "Dark Crystal."
(Joshua White, JWPictures / ©Academy Museum Foundation)

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Miracle Mile Museum
This long-awaited institution should be the best showcase anywhere of all things cinematic, including films, props, posters, scripts and Hollywood history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the building and its contents. Timed tickets are on sale (adults $25; visitors younger than 17 are free).

The “Stories of Cinema” exhibition will dominate the second and third floors of the seven-level structure (once a department store), which adjoins a signature domed theater designed by Renzo Piano. Of course, there are a store, restaurant and cafe. A separate exhibition (with a separate $15 admission fee) is designed to simulate the sensation of stepping onstage during an Oscars night.

Pro tip: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, next door on Wilshire Boulevard, is half-open as work continues on its new main building, due to fully reopen in 2024.
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Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Desert Trail
Death Valley National Park‘s low point is also a traveler’s high point. Badwater, a crusty old lake bed between forbidding mountains, isn’t just Death Valley’s low point. It’s the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. Now that you’re this hot, dry and low, don’t miss the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Zabriskie Point, both sunrise favorites. If you’re ready to splurge, the Oasis at Death Valley resort’s Inn at Death Valley has an amazing spring-fed swimming pool that’s always 87 degrees.

Pro tip: If you’d rather rattle your bones on a rugged road, take a four-wheel-drive vehicle on the 26-mile journey to the Racetrack, a dry lake bed where wind and low temperatures scoot rocks across the vast, white plain.
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Aerial view of the Battery Point Lighthouse
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Battery Point Lighthouse

Crescent City Attraction
There are dozens of lighthouses and light stations in California, but my favorite is the state’s northernmost, which is the only one you can walk to at low tide. Battery Point Lighthouse, pride of Crescent City, presides over a little hill that’s an island at high tide. “It’s been here since 1856,” keeper Rhonda Reeves told me, “and you can’t beat the views.” This stubborn little building survived the tsunami of 1964, when an Alaska quake sent massive waves pummeling the shore, killing 11 people while the lighthouse keepers held tight as chaos swirled around them. You can tour the lighthouse interior daily April through September (tides permitting) and on weekends in colder months.

Pro tip: More lighthouse favorites are in Marin County: Point Reyes, where you climb down 313 steps (and then climb back up) while lashed by wicked winds, and Point Bonita, where the half-mile hike to the lighthouse includes a tunnel and a bridge above the surf smashing on black-rock headlands.
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"Beer Emporium" signage with many beer selections
(George Rose / Getty Images)

Bell Street, Los Alamos

Los Alamos Shopping
This tiny town between Buellton and Santa Maria gets less press than the rest of Santa Barbara County’s wine country. But Los Alamos (population 1,600) has an unpretentious, serious-about-food vibe and just enough going on to fill a pastoral weekend. (Much of the town is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)

Bell Street, the town’s main drag, has an Old West feel, several stylish restaurants, a handful of tasting rooms and a few antique shops. Bob’s Well Bread Bakery and Plenty on Bell are popular for breakfast and lunch; Full of Life Flatbread does big dinner business. The menu at Pico includes lamb tartare and uni tostadas. The Maker’s Son restaurant and event space began life in the 1920s as a garage and gas station.

You could stay at a trendy motel (Alamo Motel) or a Victorian bed-and-breakfast with elaborately themed rooms (Victorian Mansion). If you’re splurging, the Skyview Los Alamos may be the answer.

Pro tip: Several restaurants in town also rent cottages through Airbnb, including Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, Bodega and Pico.
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Art installation of several TVs
(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach Attraction
Stop worrying about the apocalypse. Instead, spend a sunset here, where the end of the world seems to have arrived already, leaving a ghostly collection of newly minted art, weather-beaten ruins and live-in trailers, tidy and otherwise. It’s Bodie meets Burning Man on the Salton Sea.

This was a mainstream vacation destination 70 years ago, when the sea was healthier. Now it’s a grid of 32 square blocks with perhaps 300 residents. It has a single bar/restaurant, the Ski Inn, a market and about a dozen Airbnb units, but not everyone will want to spend the night. It’s edgy.

Migrating birds love Bombay. As do some frugal retirees. And lately, so do a gaggle of artists: Don’t miss the plane standing on its nose (“Lodestar” by Randy Polumbo) at 1st and H or the painted televisions at 4th and H. Near sunset, cross the 5-foot berm between the community and the seashore (5th and E). From there you can behold assorted sculptures and installations, baking and crumbling amid the miles of gritty sand, salty water and empty sky. Drive through town again once the sun is down, because several installations are lighted after dark.

Pro tip: The evening I showed up, the Bombay Market had just closed (6 p.m.) and the Ski Inn was locked. In Bombay Beach, there are no givens.
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Head of metal dinosaur scukpture
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Borrego Springs Road

Borrego Springs Attraction
As you cruise along Borrego Springs Road, you’ll encounter the imagination of Ricardo Breceda. Breceda, a Southern California sheet metal sculptor commissioned by local philanthropist Dennis Avery, has placed more than 120 rusty works in the flatlands around the hamlet of Borrego Springs since 2008. The collection includes bighorn sheep, horses, dinosaurs, a lonely Spanish padre, a scorpion the size of a Subaru and an even bigger serpent, a 350-foot-long Loch Ness Monster of the sand. For a detailed map, stop by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. store near Christmas Circle. Before or after beast-hunting, lie low at Casa del Zorro, cruise along Palm Canyon Drive (Borrego Springs’ main drag) or get a cool beverage at Carlee’s.

Pro tip: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest, surrounds Borrego Springs. Its Palm Canyon hike, a 3.25-mile loop, has been a favorite for decades.
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Visitors ride a cable car in San Francisco
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Cable Cars

San Francisco Public transportation
Nothing says San Francisco more clearly than a cable car climbing a hill. Since August, they’ve been at it again. The cable cars cover three routes: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California Street. As a newbie, you want Powell-Hyde, beginning at Powell and Market streets, where there’s often a queue. Over hills and around corners you’ll ride to Fisherman’s Wharf. The brakes will squeal. Somebody over 50 will make a Rice-A-Roni joke.

On arrival, grab an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista or stroll two blocks to Ghirardelli Square. It has chocolate. Fare is $8 one way (in advance) or $13 for a one-day Muni Visitor Passport through the MuniMobile app. (For a mellower ride with more locals, try the California Street line.)

Pro tip: For maximum thrills, stand on the running board at the pole position on the right front of the car. Unless you give that spot to a bright-eyed kid.
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A room designed to evoke the mission's early years in the 1770s and 1780s
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Carmel Mission

Carmel Museum
Nobody has shaped California more profoundly than Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, now St. Junípero, who founded the first nine of California’s 21 missions and is buried at the Carmel Mission, officially Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. The site includes a basilica, museums and a cemetery where many Indigenous people are buried. Weigh the consequences of the cultural collision that happened here — how the Spanish missionaries brought Christianity, Mediterranean architecture and a new economy, and how the Indigenous were exploited, felled by illness and violently repressed throughout the system’s rise and fall.

Pro tip: The first mission (founded 1769) still functions in San Diego; the last (1823) is part of a state historic park in Sonoma. The most-visited one might be Orange County’s Mission San Juan Capistrano, which has ruins, gardens and its own Amtrak stop.
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Stonework at the César E. Chávez National Monument.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

César E. Chávez National Monument

Keene Attraction
In the busiest days of United Farm Workers leader César Chávez’s battles to gain rights for farmworkers in the Central Valley, he strategized with trusted aides in the Kern County hamlet of Keene. Years later, he was buried (1927-93) at the site, which is part of the César E. Chávez National Monument.

Chávez, who was born in Yuma, Ariz., might be the most influential labor leader in California history. The visitor center includes biographical videos, a re-creation of his office and exhibits detailing the many causes he pursued. Admission is free.

For breakfast or lunch, try the Keene Cafe half a mile west of the monument on Woodford-Tehachapi Road. Or pause in Tehachapi, about 11 miles southeast of the monument, for a stroll and a snack at Kohnen’s Authentic German Bakery.

Pro tip: From a roadside overlook on a hill 3.2 miles east of Keene, you can see the Tehachapi Loop, a 3,800-foot section of railroad track built by Southern Pacific engineers and Chinese immigrant laborers in the 1870s and still used by freight trains. The loop draws rail fans from around the world with its bridges, tunnels and elegant spiral as it climbs at a 2.2% grade. Any train 4,000 feet long will briefly pass over its rear cars in the tunnel 77 feet below.
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Night view of Coit Tower lit up in blue
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Coit Tower

San Francisco Attraction
Coit Tower went up atop Telegraph Hill in 1933. Besides the city and bay views from the top of the 210-foot tower, the murals on its ground floor (free to see) are a witty, provocative window into the hard times and lefty politics of the ‘30s. Ask one of the guides for a story or two about Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the quirky, firefighter-loving philanthropist who donated the money that built that tower. And if you hear a shrieking sound? That’s probably one of the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill, subject of local lore for more than a century.

Pro tip: For a good workout, preface your visit by climbing the Filbert Steps, which start at Levi’s Plaza along the Embarcadero.
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A woman organizes products at the farmers' market
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Crenshaw Farmers’ Market

Leimert Park Farmers' market
The Crenshaw Farmers’ Market happens 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, attracting a mostly local crowd of shoppers. It’s not the biggest market in town, but it is among the most diverse. On selected Saturdays, the market is joined by the Nothing But B.L.K. Flea, which features crafts made by Black artisans. After tasting the tamales at Me Gusta or the peach cobbler at the Original Mommie Helen’s Bakery, head half a mile to Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park, a Black cultural hub, and check out Eso Won Books, whose Afrocentric inventory includes kid lit and current events (open noon-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays).

Pro tip: There’s more to come. Scheduled for completion in fall 2022, the nearby Destination Crenshaw redevelopment project aims to upgrade a 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard (48th to 60th streets) with pocket parks, new trees, and more than 100 works commissioned from local and far-flung Black artists. The project parallels the 8.5-mile, street-level Crenshaw/LAX Metro rail line, expected to open this year.
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People sample wine at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Downtown City Park, Paso Robles

Paso Robles Park
Harvest is exciting in wine country. But before heading for the wineries and tasting rooms in and around Paso Robles, make time for downtown Paso, beginning with Downtown City Park and the restaurants and shops that surround it. You’ll find farmers markets on Saturday and Tuesday mornings, along with a 1908 Carnegie library that now houses the Paso Robles History Museum. Just across Spring Street stands the landmark Paso Robles Inn, which dates to 1889. Several tasting rooms (and even more restaurants) are scattered between the park and 15th Street to the north.

The park hosts events throughout the year, including car shows, Pioneer Day (Oct. 9 this year) and wine festival tastings. This year’s Harvest Wine Weekend is Oct. 15-17. Make tasting reservations ahead (pandemic measures have reduced capacity and spontaneity).
Tin City
Info: pasoroblesdowntown.org

Pro tip: About six blocks north of the park, check out Paso Market Walk, a fledgling food hall. Four miles south, in an industrial zone you’d never encounter by accident, 20-acre Tin City is filled with makers of wine, beer, spirits and other consumable delights, including, Barrelhouse Brewing Co. and the Etto Pastificio pasta factory.
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Exposition Park Rose Garden
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Exposition Park

Exposition Park Park
Think of this USC-adjacent compound as a sampler, with all the culture, science and beauty you can absorb in the space of a few hours. Start with the California African American Museum, which wins praise for thoughtful, lively shows. On display through Jan. 17 is a survey of work by artist April Bey exploring “Black Americans’ historical embrace of space travel and extraterrestrial visioning.” Just a few steps away, the California Science Center awaits, with its kid-captivating display of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. There’s also the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, which (besides its skeletons, dioramas and butterfly pavilion) offers you spooky closeup views of spiky, hairy, shiny insects through April 1.

Pro tip: More than 300 Kobe Bryant murals have sprung up throughout Southern California since the 2020 helicopter crash that killed him and his daughter Gianna. Check out this mural map and you’ll find that Exposition Park is surrounded by them.
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The view of the city from the Getty Museum
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Getty Center

Brentwood Museum
It’s young as museums go, but the Getty is the world’s wealthiest art institution, with holdings that include this 110-acre campus of bright, spare buildings and a $7.3-billion endowment. The most admired works here include Van Gogh’s “Irises,” Cézanne’s “Still Life With Apples” and David Hockney’s “Pearblossom Highway” photo-collage. Admission is free — but parking isn’t — and you must reserve a timed-entry spot.

Take the tram up the hill and head for the West Pavilion, which houses photography and Impressionists. Also check out the cactus garden that seems to float in the sky. Closed Mondays.

Pro tip: If antiquities boost your pulse, spend a day at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which specializes in ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. Closed Tuesdays.
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Guests wait in line outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Grand Avenue

Downtown L.A. Attraction
Downtown Los Angeles has slumbered, awakened, stumbled and now staggers toward prosperity (and full occupancy), but when it comes to culture, Grand Avenue leads the way. Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic, shimmers. Catch a concert beginning Oct. 9 or do a self-guided tour. The Broad museum looms like a great white hive of contemporary art. (Admission is free but you must book in advance; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.)

Other arts organizations are close at hand, including the Music Center and Center Theatre Group, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Colburn School (a performing arts school). Across the street from Disney Hall, a pair of mixed-used skyscrapers are rising and are expected to bring more foot traffic with a hotel, apartments, retail and restaurants opening in 2022.

Pro tip: Recharge at Grand Park, a 12-acre green space that flows down Bunker Hill with a fountain near the top and City Hall at the bottom. For Día de los Muertos, the park is partnering with Self Help Graphics and artist Ofelia Esparza to present altars and activities Oct. 22- Nov. 2.
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Long exposure photo of people at Grand Central Market
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Grand Central Market

Downtown L.A. Food market
Grand Central Market, which dates back more than a century, gives you a quicker, slicker view of L.A. diversity than just about any address in town. Gentrified in recent years, the space offers quick food from around the world and gives visitors a chance to rub elbows with downtown denizens, some of whom mourn the loss of the market’s grit. Still, it’s a happy place, with about 40 food stalls and several craft vendors in the less-trafficked bazaar downstairs.

Pro tip: Across Hill Street, you’ll find the Angels Flight Railway, a funicular that dates to 1901. Its two orange cars charge $1 for a short, steep ride (298 feet) to California Plaza atop Bunker Hill.
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Clouds surround the super flower moon rising above rocks and Joshua Trees at night
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Park
Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park draws climbers, boulderers, desert campers and geology geeks from all over. The park includes about 500 campsites. Hidden Valley has 44 campsites and no water — but those rocks! And they look even more amazing when reflected in the water at nearby Barker Dam. There’s also prime stargazing and edgy art around the fringes of the park, courtesy of the late Noah Purifoy, High Desert Test Sites and others.

Pro tip: If you don’t know much about singer-songwriter Gram Parsons’ life and death, you could book the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons spent his last night in Room 8.
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The classic martini at Musso and Frank Grill
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Attraction
Hollywood Boulevard still houses more blight and desperation than any visitor or resident wants to see. Yet there is showbiz history here, and if you pick spots carefully, the boulevard is doable and rewarding for grownups and kids alike. The kid-friendliest address on the boulevard is El Capitan Theatre, built for live theater in 1926 and revived in the 1990s by Disney, which opens many new films here. Just across the street are the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly known as Grauman’s); the Dolby Theatre (home to the Academy Awards and daily tours); and the mall at Hollywood & Highland (now being renovated and rebranded as Ovation Hollywood). Underfoot you’ll find stars from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Grownup explorers might want to start a quarter-mile east of the El Capitan by savoring a steak or cocktail in the atmospheric Musso & Frank Grill (open since 1919), followed by a show in the Art Deco splendor of the Pantages Theater. (“Hamilton” is back through Jan. 2). Take a moment to admire the cool neon sign of the Frolic Room next door.

Pro tip: For a deeper dive into stage and cinema history, step into Larry Edmunds Bookshop (founded 1938) across the street from Musso & Frank. And if you want to strike a blow against misery on the boulevard, local efforts include My Friend’s Place, which serves homeless youths, and the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic.
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A woman with face paint at Hollywood Forever Cemetery for Dia de Los Muertos
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Hollywood Attraction
This studio-adjacent graveyard combines film screenings and other pop-culture programming — including popular Día de Los Muertos presentations — with a long roster of show-business gravesites.

Mel Blanc, Cecil B. DeMille, Judy Garland, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Rudolph Valentino, Burt Reynolds and many others repose here. So can you, either long term or on a more temporary basis. Management hosts yoga classes (pay by donation) six mornings per week.

Pro tip: The cemetery’s Day of the Dead celebrationa spectacle for more than 20 years, usually featuring costumed visitors and altars honoring the dead — takes place Oct. 30.
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Lake at the Chinese Garden at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Huntington Library

San Marino Museum
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is a cultural triple threat. Pandemic measures limit access to the library and museum, so for many the gardens stand foremost. Depending on where you roam, they evoke the desert, the jungle, China, Japan and a dozen other themes on 120 acres. Starting Nov. 20, the museum’s American galleries will present a new permanent collection installation, “Borderlands,” that shows how dozens of artists, many contemporary, address political, social, linguistic and personal boundaries. Among the works: an 8-foot-square watercolor by Sandy Rodriguez that uses locally sourced pigments and colorants.

Pro tip: From Oct. 2 through Jan. 3, Thomas Gainsborough’s emblematic portrait of a rich kid, nicknamed the Blue Boy, will share gallery space with a large new portrait, so far unseen but painted in response to Blue Boy by American artist Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is best known for painting Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait.
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In-N-Out sign in Baldwin Park
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In-N-Out Burger

Baldwin Park Fast food
For certain carnivorous Californians, a visit to this burger chain is like church, but with more flexible hours. At the flagship location in Baldwin Park, you can drive through, as most customers do. But you can also eat inside, then browse mountains of merch at the company store and perhaps matriculate at In-N-Out University, where managers train.

If you’re selfie-hungry, you’ll head to the nearby replica of the chain’s first tiny, red-and-white burger shack, open for photo ops 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays at 13752 Francisquito Ave., Baldwin Park.

Harry and Esther Snyder founded the first In-N-Out burger shack in 1948, which put them among the first to try a drive-through restaurant. To taste what the fuss is all about, order a “double-double, animal-style” — a double cheeseburger with the works, basically — which has fueled the company’s growth to more than 300 outlets.

Pro tip: About that Bible verse on the bottom of your cup: The In-N-Out chain is owned by its founders’ granddaughter, Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson, an evangelical Christian.
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Integraton sound chamber
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Integratron

Landers Attraction
Are you sonically unclean? Maybe, right? Well, at the Integratron, sound baths are a way of life, and the acoustics are amazing. It’s a domed, bright-white building on the fringe of Landers about 20 miles north of Joshua Tree National Park. In the 1950s, it was supposed to be about time travel, geomagnetism and extraterrestrial life. Its creator, George Van Tassel, said he was influenced by Moses’ tabernacle, the work of Nikola Tesla and a visitor from Venus in 1953.

But times and ownership change. Now family-owned, the Integratron is mostly about sound baths, offered to private and public groups by appointment only. A typical group bath starts with your host chatting for a few minutes about Van Tassel. Then he starts tapping with mallets at 20-quartz crystal “singing bowls” that can sound like church bells, elegant feedback or a planetary dial tone.

The Integratron offers group sound baths Thursdays-Sundays at $50 per person (age 14 and older). Private sound baths are $1,200 and up.

Pro tip: No soap, water or disrobing is involved, but you do have to take off your shoes and turn off your phone.
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Colorful trees at Silver Lake, located along the June Lake Loop
(George Rose / Getty Images)

June Lake Loop, Eastern Sierra

June Lake Scenic drive
Yes, California has fall color, but this year’s fires have blackened many areas and forced cautionary closures of many forests. Happily, the June Lake Loop (a.k.a. California 158), part of the Inyo National Forest just outside Mammoth Lakes, remains a sweet spot for scenery. Though the area was closed Sept. 1-15 to reduce wildfire risks, it’s open again to drivers, hikers, anglers and campers.

The loop’s 16 miles take you past June Lake (about 7,650 feet), Gull Lake, Silver Lake and Grant Lake, offering cottonwoods, willows, quaking aspens and their reflections. There are rustic lodgings and restaurants, including the cabins of 105-year-old Silver Lake Resort and Double Eagle Resort.

Snow typically closes much of the June Lake Loop, usually December through April.

Pro tip: You’ll find ideas and helpful info for chasing fall colors statewide at CaliforniaFallColor.com.
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A magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling reflects books at the Last Bookstore
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Last Bookstore

Downtown L.A. Bookstore
Bookseller Josh Spencer has taken a dead bank building on an iffy downtown block and turned it into a readers’ realm of hope and discovery. The Last Bookstore opened in 2005 as booksellers were faltering, then defied conventional wisdom a second time by moving to a far larger space. It beckons readers with a ground floor of new and used books, including graphic novels and an art and rare-book annex. Upstairs, there’s the Horror Vault, the Labyrinth and several artists’ studios. In that warren of irregularly shaped rooms, used books are arranged by subject but also arrayed sculpturally. The store also buys, sells and trades used vinyl, CDs and DVDs.

Pro tip: This isn’t really the last bookstore downtown. Hennessey + Ingalls specializes in art books in the Arts District, and Kinokuniya sells books (mostly Japanese) in Little Tokyo. Also, the Last Bookstore has a new sibling in Montrose, Lost Books (2233 Honolulu Ave.), which peddles used books and plants.
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A giraffe stands on the green hillsides at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Living Desert

Palm Desert Zoo
There are more critters creeping (and flying and even swimming) in the world’s deserts than you realize, and this preserve proves the point. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, opened in 1970, is a 1,200-acre zoo and botanical garden devoted to life in the world’s deserts. Animals include a tortoise, python, bobcats, foxes, Gila monsters and (due Nov. 12) a black rhino. There’s a reptile show, and there are jaguar, leopard and cheetah chats. You might spot an elusive bighorn sheep on the neighboring slopes. And you’ll see the model railroad. It’s not flora or fauna, but it’s epic, with more than 3,300 feet of track running through miniature historic scenes.

Pro tip: You can feed a giraffe for $8 October through May (warning: long tongue).
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Quarter horses graze in their corral located next to the Madonna Inn
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Madonna Inn

San Luis Obispo Hotel
For my money, the Madonna Inn remains the kitsch kapital of California, with 110 rooms, no two alike, a preponderance of pink and newlyweds aplenty. Maybe you’ve heard of the waterfall in its men’s room or the plastic flowers in the dining room. Roadside design expert John Margolies called the inn “the grandest motel of them all.” But it has a practical appeal too. It’s almost precisely halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Rooms for two typically start at about $219.

Pro tip: Don’t just spend a night and blast down the freeway. Give handsome, collegiate San Luis Obispo a few hours. Maybe you’ll try the Thursday night Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers Market or hike beyond the Cal Poly campus to Poly Canyon, where architecture students erect experimental structures.
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Monument marble at Manzanar National Historic Site,
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Manzanar National Historic Site

Independence Museum
On this barren, windblown patch of the Owens Valley at the foot of the Eastern Sierra, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans endured mass incarceration at the hands of the U.S. government during World War II. Walk through the two reconstructed barracks and mess hall. You’ll learn about mess hall menu debates and the fruit crates that families converted into furniture. Drive the periphery and pause at the tall monument etched with Japanese characters.

Because of pandemic precautions, hours at the visitor center’s museum and bookshop have been reduced, and rangers have stopped screening the 22-minute National Park Service documentary telling the site’s story (watchable on YouTube), but the barracks and mess hall are open daily at no charge.

Pro tip: Exhibits include a 1988 news clip of President Reagan declaring the camps “a mistake” and offering compensation to survivors. No person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States was convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during the war, the NPS says.
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Visitors watch divers clean the kelp forest habitat at the Monterey Aquarium
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Aquarium
Since opening in 1984, this has been the state’s foremost aquarium, with tanks that open on to Monterey Bay. Give your family several hours here among the sharks, otters, penguins, tuna and seabirds. This once-gritty neighborhood, now ultra-touristy, was the home and lab of Ed Ricketts, celebrated marine biologist and friend of John Steinbeck, who is featured in the author’s nonfiction “The Log From the Sea of Cortez” and fictionalized in “Cannery Row.”

Pro tip: Rent a bike from Adventures by the Sea and pedal along Ocean View Boulevard toward Lovers Point and Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove.
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Visitors wait in front of a portrait of former President Nixon at the Nixon Library
(Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

Yorba Linda Museum
In 1968, Richard M. Nixon became the first Californian elected president. Six years later, he resigned. America has been profoundly shaped by the events in between that went right and wrong, and that story is told here in fascinating detail. As dozens of exhibits show on the 9-acre site of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, he negotiated the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, created the Environmental Protection Agency and made diplomatic breakthroughs with China. But operatives of his campaign were caught breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters (in the Watergate office complex), and then Nixon and top aides were caught trying to cover it up. His own secret tapes sealed his fate. He resigned in 1974, the only U.S. president to do so.

Pro tip: Nixon and his wife, Pat, are buried here next to the modest home where Nixon was born, which is now part of the library grounds. She died in 1993; he died in 1994.
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Exterior of City Lights bookstore
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

North Beach

San Francisco Attraction
North Beach harbors Italian flavors and bohemian memories the way Monterey Bay harbors sea life. You could start with City Lights, the bookshop, publisher and Beat Generation haven that brought us Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958), both poetry classics. Ferlinghetti, the bookshop’s co-founder in 1953, died in February at 101. Drop into Vesuvio saloon next door, as Jack Kerouac and company often did.

When hunger strikes, get a big, messy sandwich at Molinari Delicatessen (established 1896) and eat it on a bench in Washington Square. Linger over coffee at Caffe Trieste (since 1956) or dig into prizeworthy pies at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on Stockton Street.

Pro tip: Columbus Avenue is North Beach’s main drag, but many of the best discoveries await in the alleys and side streets, including Green Street, where Sodini’s, Sotto Mare and other eateries have added outdoor dining.
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Norton Simon Museum's Garden Pond
(Norton Simon Museum)

Norton Simon Museum

Pasadena Museum
For a small museum, the Norton Simon packs in a lot of great art by the Impressionists and the Mexican master Diego Rivera. The European and Asian collections get most of the attention, but don’t overlook Rivera’s “The Flower Vendor,” a 1941 oil painting of a girl with her arms around a big bunch of lilies. (Actor Cary Grant gave it to the museum in 1980.) Or, if you prefer a moody fall scene, behold the earthen tones of Georges Lacombe’s “Autumn: The Chestnut Gatherers.”

Don’t miss the sculpture garden, where the lilies are real. The plantings and reflecting pool were designed to echo France’s Giverny gardens that inspired many of Claude Monet’s works. Adult admission: $15.

Pro tip: Even if you’ve never set foot in Pasadena, odds are good that you’ve seen this museum’s brown-tiled exterior. That’s because it stands at the corner of Colorado and Orange Grove boulevards, the prime turn (and TV camera location) along the route of the Rose Parade.
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A man works with leather inside his shop
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Olvera Street

Downtown L.A. Attraction
Olvera Street is an origin story well-suited to Los Angeles. It really was one of the first streets created in the city’s early years. Then, after falling into disrepair in the early 20th century, it was converted into a sort of cartoon version of itself. Nowadays the cartoon, the commerce, the desperation and the legitimate history mingle like flavors in a long-simmering stew.

If you’re hungry or need a souvenir, start with Olvera itself, which is a pedestrian alley of casual restaurants and curio vendors. The pandemic has closed at least one eatery and slowed demand for hats, masks, toys, plates, leather and little guitars. But restaurants El Paseo, Cielito Lindo and Luz del Dia are hanging in there, as is Olverita’s Village, which sells clothes, crafts, art and cookware.

For a more skeptical look at colonial history, climb the stairs (halfway down the west side of the street; limited hours) to see “América Tropical,” a David Siqueiros mural whitewashed by authorities, then later restored. (Yes, that’s a crucified Indigenous laborer in the center of the composition.)

There’s more history across Main Street in LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which includes a two-story history and art museum. (Of Los Angeles’ 44 founders, the museum display notes, 26 had at least some African roots.)

Pro tip: Olvera Street owes its part-real, part-fake character to civic activist Christine Sterling, who may have never been to Mexico but led the campaign to gussy up the area in the 1920s and ‘30s. One of her key boosters was Harry Chandler, then publisher of The Times.
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Visitors sitting and eating at The Original Farmer's Market
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Original Farmers Market

Fairfax Food market
The Original Farmers Market, founded in 1934, is old-school Los Angeles, a place that holds its charm through daily tides of tourists from all over. It includes more than 100 eateries, markets and shops and just as many screenwriters schmoozing in its patios, or so it seems some days.

Hungry? For all things French, try Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market. For tacos, Trejo’s. And for pie, Du-par’s (since 1938) is open around the clock. If you’re traveling with teens, they’ll probably head next door to the Grove, an upscale mall that opened in 2002 with about a dozen restaurants, 14 movie screens, a dancing fountain and occasional live music.

Pro tip: For more old/new contrasts, wander among the teen-seeking streetwear shops on Fairfax Avenue between Beverly Boulevard and Melrose Avenue — the Hundreds and Solestage, for instance — and you’ll find they’re neighbored by older kosher markets and restaurants, mostly notably Canter’s, which is open all hours and a few years older than the Farmers Market.
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A woman picks up cheese at the Oxbow Public Market
(San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Oxbow Public Market

Napa Food market
This market and food hall, set above a bend in the Napa River, is a short stroll from downtown Napa. This foodie acre is a healthy reminder that this wine country does more than make wine. The Oxbow Public Market, opened in 2007, offers rotisserie duck tacos (C Casa), American comfort food (Gott’s Roadside), local seafood (Hog Island Oyster Co.) and organic local produce (Hudson Greens & Goods).

Pro tip: The market is about two blocks southeast of the start of the Napa Valley Wine Train and two blocks southwest of the CIA at Copia, which is not a spy shop but a dining-and-education venture of the Culinary Institute of America.
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A table at Pappy & Harriet's with two customers and a waitress standing nearby
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Pappy & Harriet's

Pioneertown Restaurant
Pappy and Harriet don’t live here anymore. (New owners arrived early this year.) But no desert roadhouse can beat Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown for live music, comfort food, frontier feel and a world-class license plate collection. The joint, about 15 miles west of Joshua Tree National Park’s west entrance, was built as a movie-set cantina in 1946 and has operated under its current name since 1982. But it feels as native as a creosote bush.

Steaks are cooked on an outdoor grill, beer is served in Mason jars and all meal service (hearty portions) is first-come, first served — so expect lines on weekends. For now, most live music happens on the venue’s outdoor stage (and guests must show proof of either a full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test result). Lucinda Williams and Colter Wall are expected in October. Pappy’s is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Pro tip: You’ll want time to nose around the rest of Pioneertown, all of which was built as a movie set. It’s edging its way back toward becoming a true Western town with a motel, saloon and six-lane bowling alley reopening Oct. 26.
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Students view a large piece of the Berlin Wall at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

Simi Valley Museum
The last time a Californian ran the country, it was this man. Perched on the hills of Simi Valley, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum is filled with White House artifacts and reminders of Reagan’s days as California governor (1967-75) and U.S. president (1981-89), as well as his career as an actor. Board Air Force 1 (which carried seven presidents from 1973 to 2001) and seize the photo opportunity at the door. Admire the replica Oval Office, the notecards bearing Reagan’s small, backward-leaning handwriting and the museum’s many multimedia features. He and his wife, Nancy, are buried on the grounds.

Pro tip: Before you admire the museum’s big chunk of the Berlin Wall, read Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall” speech, delivered in Berlin on June 12, 1987.
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Rainy intersection of Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Rodeo Drive

Beverly Hills Shopping
This might be the conspicuous consumption capital of California. Yet the Rodeo Drive shopping experience boils down to about three blocks. Start at Beverly Gardens Park at Rodeo Drive and South Santa Monica Boulevard. Make your way southwest on Rodeo so that you can browse (or window-shop) Cartier, Gucci, Harry Winston, Prada, Burberry, Fendi and friends. Don’t miss Via Rodeo (a.k.a. Two Rodeo), a pedestrian alley that includes Jimmy Choo and the 208 Rodeo restaurant, with prime people-watching on the patio. Once you reach Wilshire Boulevard, you’ll face the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Warren Beatty once lived, Esther Williams taught 14-year-old Elizabeth Taylor how to swim and Richard Gere brought Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

Pro tip: Parking can be as tough as making that first $5 million. Street spots are metered at $2 per hour, with multiple structures nearby.
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The exterior of Sutter's Fort, Sacramento
(Lisa Nottingham )

Sutter's Fort

Sacramento Attraction
If you’re in Sacramento, the state capital, with a kid, here’s a way to look at California, complete with covered wagons and historical artifacts.

John Sutter’s Fort, built by a Swiss immigrant when Mexico owned California, is now a state historic park teeming with costumed docents and student groups. Rangers aim to portray the fort as it was in 1846 with parked covered wagons and a blacksmith on the job. It was a Sutter employee, James Marshall, who found gold in early 1848 just as the U.S. was completing its campaign to grab California and neighboring territories from Mexico. In the ensuing gold rush, California lurched into a new era and Sutter went bankrupt.

Pro tip: There’s more of the 19th century close at hand. The eight-block Old Sacramento State Historic Park is a riverside district full of wooden sidewalks, touristy shops and 1850s architecture, with an adjacent California State Railroad Museum (closed for now) and a riverboat hotel, the Delta King, docked next door.
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Photo taken from the floor looking up at the hand-painted ceiling at Union Station
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Union Station

Downtown L.A. Public transportation
Union Station is a masterpiece, the last of the grand American train stations, a rare marriage of Mission Revival and Steamline Moderne styles that has been a landmark since its 1939 opening.

You could catch a train, get a drink at Traxx or a taco to go at Cilantro, or just gawk at the high ceiling, the grand arches and the stately chairs in the waiting area. Note that many wooden features are concrete in disguise. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which bought the station in 2011, has added a lot of energy (including the 2021 Oscars ceremony) and a full calendar of artsy “happenings.”

Pro tip: Root for the reopening of the complex’s old Harvey House restaurant site, where the enormous Imperial Western Beer Co. and the Streamliner cocktail bar have been closed since July 2020.
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A sculpture beside the USS Midway Museum
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

USS Midway Museum

San Diego Museum
Who hasn’t wondered how it feels to stand on the deck of an aircraft carrier? The USS Midway Museum, a retired aircraft carrier, answers that question as it rests along San Diego’s waterfront, showcasing Navy history. This was home to more than 200,000 sailors between 1945 and 1992. Since opening as a floating museum in 2004, it has assembled a collection of more than 20 aircraft on the flight deck, many with accessible cockpits. Below deck, you’ll find flight simulators, roving docents and historical exhibits.

Pro tip: Just a mile south of the Midway, San Diego’s port and symphony officials in August inaugurated the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, an outdoor music venue that’s already hosting classical, pop and jazz performances. The sloped grass seating area is said to accommodate 10,000 people.
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