Travel Guide to California


Surprising Cities

California's smaller towns offer big attractions

By David Armstrong


Arrive Hotel, above, fits right in with the Uptown Design District in the heart of Palm Springs. This popular neighborhood features designer boutiques, vintage shops, open-air restaurants and lively lounges all set against a backdrop of mountains.

California’s golden cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego—are celebrated around the world, and rightly so. But the Golden State boasts an engaging range of things to see and do in less well-known locales, as well. In cities ranging in size from 3,000 inhabitants to 181,000, a surprising eclectic menu of food and drink, art and architecture, history and sports is available to visitors.

PALM SPRINGS: Art, Design & Hipster Chic

This desert resort community of 45,000 has been a party town since Hollywood luminaries discovered it in the 1940s. In recent years, Palm Springs has added hipster chic—think cutting-edge clothing and design shops, rooftop hotel fire pits, craft cocktails and zinc-topped bars and you get the picture. The Hollywood connection is still strong—the Palm Springs International Film Festival organizes screenings and throws star-studded parties every January. The city’s signature mid-century modern architecture, all glass and steel and angular lines, is a major attraction. Every February, Modernism Week features house tours and more. The Palm Springs Art Museum showcases modern and contemporary art, architectural design art as well as Native American art. If you tire of poolside lounging, the Agua Caliente Native American band oversees 60-plus miles of hiking trails in nearby Indian Canyons. For 360–degree views of the Coachella Valley, check out the rotating cars of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. 

PASADENA: Rose Bowl & Bungalows

Located 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles at the foot of the imposing San Gabriel Mountains, this pretty city of 139,000 is best-known for the Granddaddy of ’em All, the annual Rose Bowl football game, as well as the ever-popular Rose Parade and a delightful parody, the whimsical Doo Dah Parade. Some 800 restored early 20th-century Arts & Crafts wooden bungalows, clustered in the Bungalow Heaven historic district, give Pasadena its defining architectural look. Shopping and dining are abundant along pedestrian-friendly South Lake Avenue and in revived 22-block Old Pasadena. Don’t miss the landmark 1925 Pasadena Playhouse, California’s official state theater. In nearby San Marino, the Huntington combines a distinguished library, a priceless fine-art collection and an extensive botanical garden.

NAPA: More Than Wine

Napa is three places: city, valley and county. Time was when Napa city was a place visitors stopped only for gasoline. Now the city brims with fine dining, new hotels, happening bars, a handsome promenade downtown along the Napa River, and foodie favorite Oxbow Public Market with its locally sourced seasonal bounty. The Napa Valley Wine Train rumbles north and south on two hour, three hour or full day excursions, offering full meals on wheels, and, of course, California wines. Michelin-starred La Toque in the Westin Verasa Hotel highlights refined in-city dining. First Street showcases a cluster of art galleries and eye-catching public art pieces. Napa’s restored Uptown Theatre presents a variety of fine music and comedy shows, while the spruced-up 1880 Napa Valley Opera House is a jewel-box venue for music and performances. Moreover, center-city Napa is speckled with lovely bed and breakfast places in artfully restored Victorian dwellings of turrets, stained-glass and burnished wood.

BERKELEY: The Arts & More

Long-famed for its commitment to brainiac inquiry and social activism, Berkeley, on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay, doubles as a richly diverse travel destination. The college town of 117,000 boasts unique shops and restaurants along Fourth Street in west Berkeley, and shopping, theater, music and movie-going downtown on and off south Shattuck Avenue. The expansive University of California campus includes first-rate entertainment venues and athletic contests ranging from intercollegiate football and basketball to niche passions such as men’s and women’s rugby, played at Witter Field. The Gourmet Ghetto, with classic California-American restaurant Chez Panisse, the original 1966 Peet’s Coffee & Tea shop and many more, is located on and near north Shattuck Avenue. The cross-town Elmwood neighborhood on College Avenue offers a relaxed village ambiance.

ONTARIO: Family Fun and a California Flare

Located 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles where Interstates 10 and 15 meet, this San Bernardino County city of nearly 178,000 residents features the dry, hot climate and palm-lined landscaping that characterize Southern California. Incorporated in 1891 and named for the Canadian province of Ontario, it was once home to citrus orchards and health retreats promoting the benefits of the dry climate. Today’s city economy is driven by super-shippers FedEx and United Parcel Service. But Ontario isn’t all about business. It emphasizes family fun, epitomized by the annual Car Show and Community Event in May, and the nearly century-old Christmas on Euclid (Avenue), with its Christmas-in-the-desert decorations, holiday snacks, live music and traditional nativity scenes. The NBA’s G League Ontario Clippers take to the basketball hardwoods in the 11,000-seat Toyota Arena. 

MAMMOTH LAKES: Adventure Year Round

Forty miles from Yosemite National Park at 7,880 feet above sea level, the alpine community of Mammoth Lakes is a prime place to enjoy year-round recreation in the eastern Sierra Nevada. In summer, you can go horseback riding in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Taking to the lake waters to enjoy paddle boarding in the gorgeous Mammoth Lakes Basin is another popular must-do, as is walking in alpine meadows speckled with wildflowers. In the fastness of winter, skiing comes into its own; indeed, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, averaging 300 inches of snowfall a year, boasts some of the West’s best skiing and snowboarding. If taking it easy amid outdoor splendors is more to your liking, take in 360-degree views of the eastern Sierra from a gondola on your way to the 11,053-foot summit of Mammoth Mountain. For a community of just 7,200 residents, Mammoth Lakes offers plenty of urban pleasures, too. Among them, listening to blues music and showcasing more than 90 breweries pouring over 200 craft beers at the annual summer Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza. 

EUREKA: Redwoods & Victorians

Tucked into the northwestern corner of California, 270 miles north of San Francisco on Humboldt Bay, Eureka has the largest deep-water port between San Francisco Bay and Washington’s Puget Sound. The city of 26,000 also serves as the unofficial capital of the state’s Redwood Empire. Once famed for its timber, mines and fisheries, today’s Eureka is a leading West Coast purveyor of succulent farmed oysters. Most significantly for visitors, Eureka nurtures an attractive preserve of Victorian architecture such as the grand 1886 Carson Mansion at 2nd and M streets. Shops, restaurants and B&Bs occupy some of the staggering 1,500 Eureka buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One million-acre Six Rivers National Forest is a near neighbor. Tall conifers grow in the forest’s mountainous terrain. The Trinity, Klamath and Smith rivers, among others, offer whitewater rafting, fishing and kayaking. Camping is available, usually by reservation, on terra firma.

GILROY: Garlic, Outlet Shopping & a Historic Paseo

Billing itself as the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy celebrates every imaginable edible aspect of the “stinking rose,” from garlic-flavored ice cream and wine to irresistible garlic-speckled fries. Gilroy, a city of 58,100 residents is situated at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley. It honors the valley’s agricultural roots and offers visitors a wide range of sites and outdoor activities, including a wine trail and a taco trail that features authentic Mexican food at affordable prices. Gilroy Premium Outlets, 1.6 miles north of downtown on the east side of US Route 101, hosts 145 factory outlet stores selling famous brands at steeply discounted prices. City-owned Gilroy Gardens combines well-kept landscaping with water features and charmingly old-school theme park rides such as paddleboats and a carousel on 530 engaging acres. Downtown Gilroy is the city’s traditional core with the Gilroy Historic Paseo pathway that  connects the shops and restaurants on Monterey Street as you stroll by historic murals and interpretative panels to learn more about the city’s storied past.

PHOTO: Gourmet Alley at the Gilroy Garlic Festival




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