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9 Historic Town Squares

Check out these pieces of California history—complete with great restaurants, shops, and wine tasting rooms

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Walk around Civic Center Park, in the town of Hanford, past the grand auditorium built in 1924, a movie theater from 1929, and an ice cream parlor from that decade too, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d time-machined to the 1920s. That’s because town squares are of another era. Today, these central areas serve as a window into California’s early years. Yet they’re more than historical relics. A number of California town squares remain true to their intended origin as community gathering places, and today host farmers markets, festivals, and art shows while providing visitors with must-see destinations.

Read on to learn about 9 of the best places to discover California’s town-square past.

1. Arcata Plaza, Arcata

This Humboldt County college town may be nicknamed “Hippie Haven,” but its official name was a more somber “Union” when it was settled in 1850. Check out the legacy of one of those pioneers, August Jacoby, at the restored Jacoby’s Storehouse, home to several restaurants and shops. Have dinner on the 3rd floor at Plaza Grill. You can stay at the Hotel Arcata, though prices have gone up since its 1915 rate of $1/night. Even if you don’t stay there, be sure to check out the lobby’s cool historic decor. Then mix past and present: Catch the latest Hollywood releases at the restored 1914 Minor Theatre. (more)

2. City Plaza, Chico

Chico’s City Plaza is still a hub of activity, and the Butte County town, located in the Shasta Cascade region not quite 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, has held on to much of its architectural past. The Plaza area offers some fun activities that are historic in their own way: the National Yo-Yo Museum, and the Janet Turner Print Museum, with a collection of more than 3,500 fine-art prints. To surround yourself with history, stay at the Hotel Diamond, which has been around since 1904. (more)

3. Railroad Square District, Santa Rosa

In the 1870s, when trains started arriving in Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa, it soon became clear that the train depot should be positioned to act as the town square. And that’s exactly what happened. The depot opened in 1904—an impressive basalt structure built by four Italian stonemasons. Stay at the district’s Hotel La Rose, and don’t miss dinner at the hotel’s Bistro 1907. Theater lovers should check out what’s on at the nearby 6th Street Playhouse. And to get here and away, take advantage of the updated train service, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART). (more)

4. Sonoma Plaza, Sonoma

Sonoma’s eight-acre Sonoma Plaza—the state’s largest—was designed 150 years ago by Mariano Vallejo, a military commander and politician who helped transition the Mexican territory of Alta California to the U.S. state we know today. Today, as the birthplace of California wine, you’ll find tasting rooms galore—but there’s more to do than sip. Relive a bygone era in a different way with retro toys, games, and candies at Tiddle E. Winks Vintage 5 & Dime. And stay at the Ledson Hotel, built by a fifth-generation Sonoma farmer and winemaker. (more)

Aerial view of Courthouse Square in Sonora, California

5. Courthouse Square, Sonora

Some 40 miles northwest of the entrance to Yosemite National Park is Tuolumne County, home to the town of Sonora and incorporated in 1850 as one of California’s original 27 counties. The “new” courthouse (which replaced the 1853 original) in the Spanish Revival style was completed in 1900 and is the stately focal point of the leafy square. Visitors can learn more about the area’s Gold Rush history at the Tuolumne County Museum, then live it by staying at the Bradford Place Inn. (more)

6. Civic Center Park, Hanford

Practically smack-dab in the center of the state, the Central Valley’s Hanford holds plenty of ties to California’s past. Start at the Romanesque Hanford Carnegie Museum, which opened in 1905 as a Carnegie Library; today it’s also a tourist information center. Keep following the history trail at the grand Civic Center Auditorium (said to be haunted), the Hanford Fox Theater, and the Superior Dairy ice cream shop, which all date to the 1920s. For a historical stay, head to the Irwin Street Inn—a mash-up of four Victorian homes. (more)

7. Downtown City Park, Paso Robles

The town of Paso Robles, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the Central Coast region, has some impressive architectural history in and around Downtown City Park. One example: the Carnegie Library, a Classical Revival building that opened in 1908 and today plays host to the Historical Society. Stay in the Spanish mission–style Paso Robles Inn, where the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Clark Gable have stayed. Or opt for the 16-room luxury Hotel Cheval. Need something to drink? You’ll find more than 15 tasting rooms here; the red-focused Pianetta Winery is close to the park. (more)

8. Plaza Square Park, Old Towne Orange

In Orange’s town square, known as Old Towne, it’s hard to take a step without stumbling upon history, beginning with the plaza’s 1937 fountain. You’ll find more than 1,300 homes and buildings here; many of them are originals that date back to the 1870s. Watson Drugs and Soda Fountain still serves customers today; for more formal dining—with a view, to boot—head to Orange Hill, which, true to its name, sits atop the hills of Orange and offers sweeping panoramas out to Catalina. (more)

Arched gate entrance to Old Town Temecula, California

9. Old Town Temecula

Many of the buildings in Old Town Temecula’s horseshoe-shaped town square went up around 1883, the year the Southern California Railroad arrived in Temecula Valley. One of those structures, the Hotel Temecula, rebuilt in 1891, is still operational today. You can also still see the town’s first church building, St. Catherine’s, which dates to 1917. Your culinary checklist for the day includes: locally sourced dishes at EAT Marketplace, a pizza at The Goat and Vine, and Mexican at Old Town’s original bank, which is now a restaurant called, fittingly, The Bank. If the kids need a break from all this history, bring ’em to Pennypickle’s Workshop, Temecula’s children’s museum. (more)

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An ocean shore

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