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Micaela Blondet/Flickr

California's Top Performance Spaces

From historic landmarks to contemporary masterpieces, California’s elegant and beautiful settings for live performances are as big a part of the concert-going experience as the productions staged there. Some locations offer self-guided or guided walks or behind the scenes tours, a great way to visit even if you are not catching a show. Some sites even let you do some stargazing while you are entertained. Classic open-air venues dot the state, making for memorable evenings especially on pleasant summer nights. 

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Walt Disney Concert Hall

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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. 

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Margaret Napier/Flickr

Hollywood Bowl

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Hollywood Bowl
Stars on the stage, stars in the sky

Imagine a concert at dusk, outdoors under the stars, and you will likely think of a place that looks much like this iconic band shell framed by tall trees at the west side of Hollywood. With its stacked layer of arches framing an ample stage, big enough to house the Los Angeles Philharmonic and charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel during its annual summer concert series—this is the largest natural amphitheatre in the U.S., and an unbeatable place to enjoy entertainment Southern California style. While classical music does get a big play here (the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra trades off with the L.A. Philharmonic), it is not meant to be highbrow: the Tuesday and Thursday night classical concerts are designed for everyone, classical music fan or not, so it is hard to go wrong. Wednesdays in summer find jazz legends like Herbie Hancock and the Count Basie Orchestra swinging on the stage. Big names get plenty of stage time at “the Bowl” too, with top draws including Bruno Mars, Onerepublic, and Kings of Leon. Cultural events, some designed for families, include the annual Mariachi Festival and Native American musical events. Picnic tables on the surrounding slopes make for perfect al fresco dining (table seating is first come, first serve).

Learn more about the museum, even if you don’t have tickets to a show, at the Hollywood Bowl Museum, admission is free. It is a great stop for families, parents can reminisce with exhibits on the Beatles’ historic visit in 1965, and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s remarkable jazz concert in 1956. Children friendly exhibits are ultra-hands-on, with computers, earphones slide shows, films, TV shows, and cartoons featuring the Hollywood Bowl. 

Insider’s tip: On most summer mornings, you are welcome to bring well-behaved children into the Bowl to listen to a rehearsal.

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Mark Krynsky/Flickr

Santa Barbara Bowl

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Santa Barbara Bowl
A historic amphitheater hosts top performers

Built in 1936 as part of the federal Works Project Administration and extensively renovated with modern upgrades, the Santa Barbara Bowl is one of California’s most appealing outdoor venues. The bowl originally hosted events for Santa Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta; these days it headlines with leading performers—from Bob Dylan to Phish.

Compared to a massive stadium, it’s an intimate musical experience; even for shows with standing-room ticket sales, the bowl’s capacity is below 5,000. Musicians play on a distinctive stage pavilion with cut-stone piers and a copper roof, with carefully tended drought-tolerant and California native species painting the hillside venue with seasonal color. On-site food choices are a big notch above usual stadium far: Dine on banh mi sandwiches at The Blue Owl or burritos from an outpost of Santa Barbara’s popular El Zarape.

Insider’s tip: Rent bikes (with lights) and pedal to the Bowl; Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition will offer free, secure parking near the entry gate.

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Bob Aronson/Flickr

William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre

William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre
Contemporary performers in a classic setting

Based on the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, the “The Greek” as it’s called by locals lets you enjoy concerts in an elegant, open-air setting at the base of the Berkeley Hills, on the edge of the U.C. Berkeley campus. A gift from its namesake, millionaire publisher and arts-minded William Randolph Hearst, the theatre opened in September of 1903—but even before it official opened it was hit, with President Theodore Roosevelt addressing young graduates earlier that year as part of the U.C. Berkeley commencement celebration, as the finishing touches were still being put on the theatre.

Graduation ceremonies still take place here each year, along with performances by headliners such as James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Cheryl Crow, and the local boys of Green Day. Take it from Jeff Tweedy, frontman for the alt-rock band Wilco, who called The Greek the most beautiful concert venue in the world.

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Cris Costea/Flickr

Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Segerstrom Center for the Arts
A dazzling arts complex hosts the best

With four performance halls and an outdoor arts plaza spread out over 14 acres/5.7 hectares, this outstanding complex in Costa Mesa is like a one-stop shop for everything artistic and musical. Hear symphonies in the glass-faced Cesar Pelli-designed Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and see plays at the home-base stage of the Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory. Also on tap throughout the year are free concerts, movies, and dance performances in the outdoor plaza, which features a towering work by renowned sculptor Richard Serra. Make it a night with dinner at Mastro’s Steakhouse, or dress up for a night out at Leatherby’s Café Rouge. To find out more about the impressive complex, join a free, docent-led tour for behind-the-scenes peeks backstage and plenty of historical insights (offered Wednesdays and Saturdays).

Insider’s tip: Recharge in California Scenario, sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s tranquil sculpture garden, with installations inspired by the state’s landcapes.

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Ross Doering/Flickr

Soka Performing Arts Center

Soka Performing Arts Center
An intimate, world-class space for great music

Attend performances by leading musicians in a facility that combines advanced design with sustainability at the Soka Performing Arts Center, part of Soka University in southern Orange County. The roughly 1,000-seat venue is one of the you-can-hear-a-pin-drop venues with acoustics crafted by world-renowned Yasuhisa Toyota, who also worked on Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Toyota incorporated Alaskan white cedar into the hall’s design to enhance the acoustics. The centre’s sustainable measures, including a living roof and the use of solar power, earned the facility gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Ledership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. For a more intimate experience, check the calendar for performances in the centre’s black-box venue, Maathai Hall.

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Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
A cultural hub for Beverly Hills

Experience a unique combination of the classic and modern at the stunning Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The centre incorporates the city’s landmark 1933 Italian Renaissance post office into a contemporary complex with a boldly striking building housing the main theatre. Enter through the post office building and view the marble lobby’s eight murals, created as part of the federal Works Project Administration, that portray Depression-era scenes. Then descend a grand staircase into the Bram Goldsmith Theater, where the design creates an intimate setting for performances by such artists as Tony Award-winner Patti Lupone, as well as theatre and dance productions. The beautiful space features a sculptural American walnut wood interior.

Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the sunken Jamie Tisch Sculpture Garden, which displays works by celebrated artists and offers a good look at the centre’s exterior.

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Nathan Hughes Hamilton/Flickr

Bing Concert Hall

Bing Concert Hall
High-tech haven for music in the Silicon Valley

It’s really no surprise that one of the world’s finest universities, especially one that is situated smack-dab in the middle of the idea-and-innovation hub of the Silicon Valley, would be home to a venue with such an advanced design. Created for Stanford University by the architect/acoustician dream team of Richard Olcott and Yasuhisa Toyota, the dramatic oval hall has a “vineyard” design, with 842 terraced seats ringing the stage. Settle in for a concert and you’ll find yourself incredibly close to leading musicians—a truly thrilling experience when the likes of the Emerson String Quartet or pianist Lang Lang perform. Make a high-brow day of it by also visiting the outdoor Rodin Sculpture Garden and the adjacent Cantor Arts Center; together they display 200 bronze works—the largest collection of Rodin pieces in the world.

Insider’s tip: Make a classy day of it by also visiting the outdoor Rodin Sculpture Garden and the adjacent Cantor Arts Center; together they display 200 bronze works—one of the largest collection of Rodin pieces in the world.

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Tiffany Silva/Flickr

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall
Spectacular home of the San Francisco Symphony

It’s hard to believe that this dramatic performance venue, with its ultra-modern-looking white-and-glass façade, opened all the way back in 1980. Somehow its bold, curving lines and standout placement in the city’s Civic Center area make it appear fresh and new, even after decades of use. The still-eye-catching looks were created by Italian-American architect Pietro Belluschi, who crafted a massive do-over of the city’s original symphony hall. His design included a brilliant building-within-a-building design, allowing for an exterior shell to insulate against city noise and vibration. Come for a performance of the world-renowned San Francisco Symphony, and you’ll appreciate every note. During intermission, step into the lobby to take in views of San Francisco’s ornately embellished City Hall and sleek new high rises beyond. Within-strolling-distance hot spots for dining before or after a show include classy Jardiniere and ever-popular Zuni Café. Find more cafes and hip boutiques in the nearby Hayes Valley neighbourhood.

Insider’s tip: Take a tour (offered Mondays; nominal fee charged) to learn about the hall’s unique features, including the individually tunable acrylic sound reflectors suspended above the orchestra pit.

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Sonny Lazzeri/Flickr

Mondavi Center

Mondavi Center
An arts showcase rises from the fields

Clad in sandstone tiles and with a lobby that looks out across surrounding agricultural lands through a wall of glass, this eye-catching multi-story structure on the U.C. Davis campus is a grand, modern arts venue for the region. Formally known as the Robert and Magrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts (the winemaking Mondavis were lead donors for the project, completed in 2002), the venue presents a full calendar of events, ranging from major artists, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Elvis Costello, to concerts by the U.C. Davis Symphony and other more home-grown events. The main 1,801-seat Jackson Hall is a visual stunner, paneled from floor-to-ceiling in virgin Douglas fir originally logged in the 1800s. (The wood was reclaimed from the bottom of a lake in Canada, and some of the sections may actually be 500 years old.)

Insider’s tip: Free guided tours shed light on the Mondavi Center’s advanced design features, including an orchestra shell that elevates on air casters. Tours are free but require advance reservations.

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Don Graham/Flickr

Redlands Bowl

Redlands Bowl
Summer concerts in a historic citrus town

Flanked by cypress and palm trees, this graceful, 1923 amphitheatre—a treasured structure in this surprisingly elegant city—stands out as one of the most appealing venues in the region. With its arched, red-tiled bandstand (known locally as “The Prosellis”), the site hosts the country’s oldest continuous free concert series, offered every summer since Redlands Bowl first opened. You’ll hear everything from classical music to foot-thumping bluegrass bands—all free. Bring a blanket and pack a picnic to enjoy on the bowl’s sloping lawns (there are benches too, if you’re not feeling quite so kickback.) Summer evenings don’t get much more California-classy than this.

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Daniel Pouliot/Flickr

The Theatre at the Ace Hotel

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The Theatre at the Ace Hotel
Hip meets historic at a hotel’s movie palace

Stay at the über-cool Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and, without even leaving the premises, you can go to cultural events in one of the country’s most lavish and historic movie palaces. The hotel sits atop the 1927 United Artists Theatre. And it has reinvented this Spanish Gothic landmark as a state-of-the-art performance space: the Theatre at the Ace Hotel.

The big line-up of events includes lectures, movie screenings, and shows by the likes of Patti Smith. Walk inside to design inspired by a 16th-century cathedral in Segovia, Spain. Elaborate features include the ornate proscenium and vintage murals depicting film legends (Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were among the founders of the studio that built the theater). Look up to see a vaulted ceiling glittering with thousands of tiny, glimmering mirrors.

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Tai Power Seeff

Paramount Theatre

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Paramount Theatre
The East Bay’s Art Deco palace

This national historic landmark stands out as one of the finest Art Deco buildings not just in California, but in the country. Designed by famed San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger in 1931, the Paramount incorporates the works of leading muralists, sculptors, and painters. After its early heyday, the theatre entered a long period of neglect before it was restored to its original, gold-gilted splendour. Stand outside and marvel at the meticulously restored, towering mosaics on the building’s façade, then step inside to the head-swivelling display of golden reliefs and classic Art Deco patterns and symbols decorating the interior.

The Oakland Ballet and the Oakland East Bay Symphony are resident companies at the Paramount. But this is a theatre that can rock, too: Bruce Springsteen has pranced across the Paramount’s stage, and comedian Chris Rock has performed here several times.

Insider’s tip: Learn more about the Paramount’s amazing architecture on 2-hour tours offered the first and third Saturday of the month (nominal fee for tour).

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David Prasad/Flickr

Warnors Center for the Performing Arts

Warnors Center for the Performing Arts
A historic theatre's second act

Grand movie theatres have always been gathering places, and that’s certainly true at the spectacular Warnors Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Fresno. Originally a Pantages Theatre, this 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival landmark (it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places) now hosts an eclectic assortment of performances and community events, all housed on one of the most visually stunning spaces throughout the Central Valley.

Events include a classic film series, some including performances on the centre’s enormous, booming pipe organ, as well as interior light shows that paint the elaborate interior with colour. Concerts are also regularly scheduled; past performers have included shows by Fresno’s own Tony-award winner, Audra Mcdonald. Even if you can’t catch a show, swing by to check out local art and books at the All Things Fresno shop, on the centre’s street level.

Insider’s tip: Take a free theatre tour during Arthop events in downtown Fresno, the first and third Thursday each month.