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California's Top Performance Spaces

Striking, state-of-the-art venues for taking in world-class entertainment

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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 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. 

Here are 10 of California’s top performance spaces, listed north to south.

Mondavi Center

Davis

Clad in sandstone tiles, this eye-catching structure on the U.C. Davis campus is as grand and modern an arts venue as any in the state. Named for the center’s lead donors, the winemaking Mondavi family, the Mondavi Center presents a full calendar of performances, ranging from major artists, such as Elvis Costello and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 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.) Free guided tours (advance reservations required) shed light on the Mondavi Center’s advanced design features, including an orchestra shell that elevates on air casters. (read more)

Paramount Theatre

Oakland

The Paramount Theatre, one of Oakland’s premier venues since 1931, is celebrated as one of the finest art deco buildings not just in California, but in the country. Stand outside and marvel at the meticulously restored, towering mosaics on the building’s façade, then step inside to the head-swiveling display of golden reliefs and classic art deco patterns and symbols decorating the interior. Resident companies include the Oakland Ballet and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, but the Paramount can rock, too: Bruce Springsteen has played to a sold-out crowd from the house stage, and comedian Chris Rock has performed here several times. Learn more about the theatre’s amazing architecture on two-hour tours offered the first and third Saturday of the month (nominal fee for tour; check its website for details). (read more)

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco

It’s hard to believe that the Louise M Davies Symphony Hall, 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 hall’s design includes 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. Take a tour (offered Mondays; nominal fee charged) to learn about the venue’s unique features, including the individually tunable acrylic sound reflectors suspended above the orchestra pit. (read more)

Bing Concert Hall

Palo Alto

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, the dramatic, oval-shaped Bing Concert 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 consistently highbrow 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. (read more)

Warnors Center for the Performing Arts interior

Warnors Center For The Performing Arts

Fresno

Grand movie theaters have always been great gathering places for their cities, and that’s certainly true of the spectacular Warnors Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Fresno. Opened in 1928 as a Pantages Theater that staged vaudeville shows, the building went on to become the state’s second Warner’s Theatre, and it remained a movie mecca through the 1960s. In 1973 it changed hands, was renamed, and began its second act as a nonprofit. Architecturally, Moorish Revival, Spanish, and Italian Revival touches all add to the structure’s romantic, Old World look. Today, the 2,100-seat venue hosts an eclectic assortment of performances and community events. Come here for the center’s classic film series, or to listen to the historic pipe organ. Visitors can also take a free theater tour during select events; check its site for details. (read more)

Santa Barbara Bowl

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. It’s a relatively intimate setting to take in artists as big as Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and Khalid (all of them have performed here); the bowl’s capacity is below 5,000. Musicians play on a distinctive stage pavilion with cut-stone piers and a copper roof, and carefully tended drought-tolerant and California native species paint the hillside venue with seasonal color. On-site food choices include banh mi sandwiches at The Blue Owl or burritos from an outpost of Santa Barbara’s popular El Zarape. Insider tip: Rent bikes (with lights) and pedal to the Bowl; Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition will offer free, secure parking near the entry gate. (read more)

The Greek Theatre

Los Angeles

This outdoor amphitheater ensconced in the southern part of L.A.’s Griffith Park is so extraordinary that it’s become a tradition for first-time performers there to proudly proclaim “We played the Greek!” at show’s end. Chalk it up to the venue’s magical setting and great natural acoustics, not to mention its storied past. The 5,900-capacity theatre’s cornerstone was laid in 1928, and since then stars from Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen and Billie Eilish have graced its stage. There isn’t a bad seat in the house here, but know that the season only runs from spring to mid-fall (modeled after a Greek temple, the venue is still worth a look-see in the off-season). Insider tip: Consider preordering one of the picnic baskets for two, filled with Mediterranean-style noshes like hummus, charcuterie, baguettes, or Greek salad. (read more)

Hollywood Bowl

Hollywood Bowl

Since the summer of 1922, the Hollywood Bowl has drawn performers and fans to its iconic band shell framed by tall trees on the west side of Hollywood. As the largest natural amphitheater in Southern California, it pulls in the music’s brightest stars—The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Lady Gaga have all graced the stage. But it’s about more than high-profile shows: The summer concert series includes midweek classical performances by the LA Philharmonic, and cultural events, some designed for families, include the annual Mariachi USA Festival and Native American musical events. Whatever you come to hear, time your appetite top coincide; a pre-concert picnic is the perfect way to begin any summer Bowl concert, or enjoy one of the offerings from the venue’s array of food services. (read more)

Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts

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 center 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 musical performances 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 center’s exterior. (read more)

The Theatre at the Ace Hotel

Downtown Los Angeles

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 at this cathedral to the culture includes lectures, movie screenings, and shows by the likes of Katy Perry, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and 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). (read more)

Redlands Bowl

Flanked by cypress and palm trees, the 1923 Redlands Bowl—a treasured amphitheater 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. (read more)

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles

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. 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. (read more)

Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Segerstrom Center for The Arts 

Costa Mesa

With four performance halls and an outdoor arts plaza spread out over 14 acres, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa is like a one-stop shop for everything artistic and musical. Hear symphonies in the glass-faced 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 concerts, movies, and dance performances in the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. The 56,100-square-foot space features a café, outdoor picnic spaces, and two permanent stages that showcase free events on more than 30 weekends a year. 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 and plenty of historical insights (check the website for details). (read more)

Soka Performing Arts Center

Aliso Viejo

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 center’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 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. For a more intimate experience, check the calendar for performances in the center’s black-box venue, Maathai Hall. (read more)

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