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12 Architectural Treasures

Even if you don’t know the difference between a California bungalow and a Bauhaus box, you’ll get a kick out of visiting some of California’s most unforgettable bridges, buildings, and other structures. Cross an iconic span (Instagramming the whole way, of course), walk through an opulent castle, and see hipster 1950s chic. Tour these impressive sites, like the State Capitol in Sacramento, and you’ll be tossing off phrases like “double-domed rotunda” in no time.

Kodiak Greenwood

Sundial Bridge

Sundial Bridge
Stroll a futuristic bridge across the Sacramento River

A functional work of art, the remarkable bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, spans the tree-lined, trout-filled Sacramento River in Redding’s Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The 700-foot/213-meter-long span is undeniably striking, with its glass block walkway and soaring white tower and suspension cables forming a functioning sundial—a nod to human creativity and ingenuity, both important themes of the 300-acre park.

Before you cross the bridge, explore the park near the interpretive center with a stroll through Paul Bunyan's Forest Camp, modeled after an old-time logging camp. Cool off in the mist-sprayed butterfly house and wait for colorful residents to flit by, then step inside the center to see some of Calatrava's initial sketches for the bridge.

"Cool off in the mist-sprayed butterfly house and wait for colorful residents to flit by, then step inside the center to see some of Calatrava's initial sketches for the bridge."

On the north side of the bridge, on the other side of the river, relax in Mediterranean-climate display gardens highlighting native plants at the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, or rent bikes to follow paved paths along the waterfront. An inviting network of mountain bike trails explores surrounding open space, with broad views of the Sacramento River and beyond.

Thomas H. Story/ Sunset Publishing

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge
See one of the world’s most famous landmarks, spanning an elegant bay

With towers soaring 746 feet/227 meters into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted bright red-orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.

It’s pretty easy (and free) to walk across the bridge itself, or to explore the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, which offers a colorful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 12-foot stainless-steel “test tower” used in 1933.

You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called “Golden Gate” is in fact orange. It’s generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay—the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for “Golden Gate”) by early explorer John C. Fremont. (Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or “Golden Horn.”) So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson color? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the color be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint color.

"The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing."

Technically, that color is “International Orange,” but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking, or pedaling across the 1.7-mile/2.7-kilometer span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the span, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers, and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike rental companies abound (two favorites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.)

There’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns, and impressive cables.

Richie Trimble's Stoopid Tall Bike
Dreams are never stupid, but as Richie Trimble proved on the streets of San Francisco, sometimes they are Stoopid Tall. Watch him ride his 15-foot bike across the Golden Gate Bridge!
Courtesy of Elvis Presley Estate

Mid-Century Modern Design

Mid-Century Modern Design
Swing into Sinatra cool in Palm Springs

Filled with distinctive post-World War II buildings designed by leading architects of the time, Palm Springs is America’s Mid-century Modern mecca. From the moment you arrive in town via State Highway 111, the soaring roofline of the Tramway Gas Station (designed in 1965 by Mid-century master Albert Frey and now the Palm Springs Visitors Center), it’s clear that mod dominates the local landscape. Even Palm Springs City Hall, all sharp angles, bold cut-outs, and circles, has distinctive Mid-century Modern styling.

At the visitor center, pick up a Map of Modern Palm Springs; it points out worthwhile architectural sites, including structures designed by influential architects John Lautner and Richard Neutra. For a one-stop destination, visit the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, housed in a 1961 bank building designed by E. Stewart

"Imagine women in pinched-waist dresses reclining on pink sunloungers, watching the desert sunset over very dry martinis."

Williams. Sometimes it helps to have an expert lead the way, and both Palm Springs Modern Tours and The Modern Tour offer guided tours. Also open for touring is Sunnylands, the classic Rancho Mirage estate designed by A. Quincy Jones for publishing magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore. It’s a Mad-Men-fan’s delight, where you can imagine women in pinched-waist dresses reclining on pink sunloungers, watching the desert sunset over very dry martinis.

If you catch the modern bug, the Backstreet Art District is the place to find vintage treasures at numerous design stores. Or immerse yourself in the retro world during Palm Springs annual Modernism Week, which offers architectural tours and sales featuring leading decorative and fine arts dealers. And to really live the mod life, stay in the Saguaro, the Ace, or other restored Mid-century hotels and motels with period furnishings and swanky pools. Or splurge on an overnight stay at Sinatra’s legendary Twin Palms estate, complete with piano-shaped pool.

Courtesy of Sunnylands

Sunnylands

Sunnylands
Tour a mid-century modern masterpiece

Sunnylands, the 200-acre/90-hectare former residence of publishing magnate and UK ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife Lenore, lets you peek into a lifestyle of the über-rich and infamous. The couples’ glass-walled 25,000-square-foot home is a mid-century modern masterpiece that showcases a world-class art collection of Impressionist art. Though many of the Annenberg’s original pieces are now on display in museums, outstanding replicas let you get a sense of how dizzyingly fabulous is—you’ll find works by Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and other masters. The artistic style unfolds in Sunnylands’ extensive gardens too—many are landscaped in sweeping bands of color to evoke Impressionist art.

While you can stroll through the gardens for free, you must sign up well in advance to purchase a ticket for a guided tour of the house. (It’s worth the wait.) In addition to the artworks, look for familiar faces—presidents, celebrities, royalty—in the some of the rooms, a glimpse at the lofty lifestyle that the Annenberg’s lived. In fact, the property, nicknamed the “West Coast Camp David,” still serves as a meeting place for global leaders. A museum, a theater and an indoor/outdoor cafe (with stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains) are also housed in soaring glass buildings. Note: Both the house and gardens are closed in August.

The Getty Center

The Getty Center

The Getty Center
Escape to L.A.’s modern-day Acropolis for art masterpieces and commanding views

Perched in the hills above West Los Angeles, The Getty Center looks like a modernist city on a hill, a collection of dramatic buildings housing galleries filled with modern masterpieces. To reach this complex designed by renowned architect Richard Meier, ride a tram from the parking lot up to the snow-white Getty campus, with buildings clad in travertine mined from a quarry outside Rome. Inside the galleries, see European masterpieces, decorative art, and photography. And it’s all free—a gift from philanthropist J. Paul Getty. (There is, however, a fee for parking.) For all of its art, the Getty is equally stunning outside. Broad courtyards with fountains, leafy bowers and the grand Central Garden created by Robert Irwin is a living work of art, with outstanding views stretching from Mount Baldy to Santa Catalina Island. Watch the sunset from elegant The Restaurant at The Getty for a memorable splurge. A variety of free self-guided and guided tours enrich your visits, and spirited family programs—like jousting workshops—can turn your kids onto art too.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Visit a building that’s every bit as beautiful as the sounds inside

With its soaring stainless-steel panels, the exterior of Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall has been likened to everything from a clipper ship to a blooming flower to origami. Some people say the experience of hearing a performance in its main hall wrapped by undulating walls and billowing ceilings made of Douglas fir, is like being inside a cello or violin. That means performances by the resident Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a calendar-ful of other outstanding musicians are sensory feasts for not just the ears but the eyes too, with features including the striking central organ, nicknamed the “French fries.” Outside, take a self-guided or guided tour, including a stop at the third-level garden for city views and the rose-shaped Lillian Disney Fountain, made from crushed Delft porcelain and a meant as a tribute to the woman who made the concert hall possible. 

State Capitol

State Capitol
Catch a glimpse of government in action

With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, California’s State Capitol building looks like a mini replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history. In the Capitol Museum, check out the collection of cool flags—including those carried by California soldiers during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, as well as artwork by former legislators and government staffers. Kids can download puzzles and coloring sheets that feature fun Golden State facts. (Quick: Which city is the Raisin Capital of the world?)

This is very much a working capitol building, and, if legislators are in session, ask about access to public galleries to watch bills being debated or votes being cast. Outside, stroll through the adjacent 40-acre Capitol Park, where you can admire trees from around the world, and visit the sweetly scented International World Peace Rose Garden. Take note of the Civil War Memorial Grove—in 1897, saplings from famous Civil War battlefields were planted here.

The Fabulous Forties

The Fabulous Forties
Classical architecture, elegant homes

Tudor, Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, California Bungalow—premier examples of these classic architectural styles keep your head spinning in this elegant collection of streets (numbered streets in the 40s) in East Sacramento. Long considered one of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods, it makes for a delightful stroll with hints of a bygone era of elegance and privilege. Here, homeowners relax on broad front porches; squint and you can almost imagine them in crisp linen suits and frilly lace dresses, sipping cool lemonades on a sultry August afternoon. Kids ride bikes on wide streets—reminder that streetcars used to run through the area, and needed plenty of room to at turnaround points. During the holidays, the area takes on special glow when several houses get lavishly gussied up, then welcome the public during special home tours.

Courtesy of Santa Catalina Island Company

Catalina Casino

Catalina Casino
See art, views, and performances at an iconic waterfront masterpiece

From its regal setting at the north end of Avalon Harbor, this dramatic circular building has stood as a welcoming sentinel since just before the Great Depression. The impressive Art Deco building was the dream of by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who bought controlling interest of Catalina Island in 1919. Wrigley saw the casino as a way of casting a magical spell on all who arrived—a way of seeming to say, “look, here is beauty, relaxation, and fun,” and a way to—for at least a little while—escape the country’s troubled times.

"Wrigley saw the casino as a way of casting a magical spell on all who arrived"

Inside, Wrigley hosted lavish dances and performances. Today, the tradition continues, and annual events guests (many dressed in period attire) still twirl in the casino’s grand ballroom, or watch first-run movies in the elaborately painted theater on the lower level. (On Friday and Saturday evenings, arrive an hour before show time for a live performance on the theater’s spectacular pipe organ.) Guided walking tours are also a must, shedding light on Avalon’s history and Hollywood connection. The Behind-the-Scenes Tour lets you peek into dressing rooms that had been closed for 70 years, and to walk on the stage where famed musicians like Benny Goodman played to adoring fans. 

Mendocino's Historic Architecture

Mendocino's Historic Architecture
Take a guided tour to learn more about Mendocino’s National Historic Preservation District

You don’t have to know the history behind Mendocino’s charming Victorian-era buildings to appreciate them, but the backstories can enrich any visit. Get oriented at Kelley House Museum, which shares details on how, in the late 1800s, lumberman first moved here and started building homes out of the region’s magnificent coast redwoods. The house itself, built by William Kelley for his family in 1861, contains a rich collection of 19-century furnishings. Dozens of early photographs capture life in the little town as it began to boom. In the house’s garden, visit the pond that Kelley kept well-stocked so local children could toss in a line and nab a fish.

To explore the rest of the town, much of it protected as a National Historic Preservation District, join a 2-hour guided walking tour (offered on weekends by Kelley House Musuem); docents share insights on pioneer homes, meeting places, and early businesses (self-guided audio walking tours are also available for Android users).

Alex Farnum

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge
Cross one of the country’s most admired bridges

Welcome to Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate—and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Big Sur coastline. And rightly so. Pull over at numerous turnouts to get amazing views, particularly from the bridge’s south end at sunset. Note: Due to recent road closures, you can currently only reach Bixby from the north.

Completed in 1932 for just over $200,000, the concrete span, one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, soars 260 feet/79 meters above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. One look at the canyon’s steep and crumbling cliffs, and it’s obvious that building the bridge wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. First, a massive wooden framework had to be built, with materials brought by truck on what was then a narrow, one-way road riddled with hairpin turns. A staggering 45,000 individual sacks of cement had to be hauled up the framework—and this is before heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Each bag was transported via a system of platforms and slings suspended by cables 300 feet/91 meters above the creek. Ironically, the span was completed before the road, and it would be five more years before the route linking Carmel to San Luis Obispo would even be opened.