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So You Think You Know California’s Urban Centers?

So You Think You Know California’s Urban Centers?

Even if you’ve visited these popular cities dozens of times, there are exciting new and hidden things to discover

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The state’s urban centers—San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—are constantly evolving and full of unexpected surprises. If you haven’t visited in a while, brace yourself for some mind-blowing new experiences. From a behind-the-scenes baseball tour in San Diego to a sophisticated beach house in Santa Monica and a unique pizza style in San Francisco, here are some wonderfully unanticipated spots to explore throughout California’s dynamic cities.

San Diego

Peel back the surprising layers of this laid-back beach city.

 

Butterfly Farms

Butterfly Farms
This Encinitas institution is the largest free-butterfly space in Southern California. Mellow out to the reggae soundtrack and enjoy the company of painted ladies, anise swallowtails, monarchs, and more. Open April through mid-November.

Stehly Farms Market
Want to enjoy a picnic in Balboa Park or elsewhere in San Diego County? Stop in this Kensington market to choose from produce grown at the Stehly family farm outside the city. Add pretzel-bread baguettes, cheeses, or breakfast turnovers, or order a local beer—available on tap right at the register.

Petco Park Pre-Game Tours

Downtown’s Petco Park is a visual stunner thanks to signature features such as its palm court, water walls, and the 1909 Western Metal Supply Building, which became part of the 2004 ballpark instead of being torn down. Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the park and you can experience the Padres Hall of Fame, the press box, and a private luxury suite, as well as the Cutwater Coronado Club, with its views of the Coronado Bridge. The Pre-Game Tours also offer something extra-special: a VIP spot to watch batting practice from the Templeton Rye Barrel Deck.

Serea

Perusing the menu at this sea-to-table restaurant at the Hotel del Coronado involves strolling past the raw bar of fresh catches, mounted on ice in the dining room. Part of the iconic resort’s recent renovations, Serea is helmed by chef JoJo Ruiz, twice recognized as a James Beard Smart Catch Leader​. That means the seafood—urchin, rock crab, Baja striped sea bass, and much more—is sustainably fished in local waters. Your chosen catch is typically flash-fried or cooked over a woodfire grill to delicious effect. Also spectacular: the ocean views you can drink in while dining.

Wreck Alley

The Canadian destroyer HMCS Yukon rests sideways on the ocean floor, roughly two miles off the shore from Mission Beach. It’s the biggest of eight vessels, most of which were intentionally sunk here over the years to create a 600-acre artificial reef. Explore the interiors and exteriors of the wrecks—now inhabited by anemones, eels, and all manner of fish—on a dive with operators such as Marissa Charters.

Mingei International Museum

Balboa Park’s acclaimed folk-art museum reopened in 2021 after a three-year renovation, and now boasts a new theater, café, and gift shop. Guests’ first impression will center on the dramatically reimagined spaces, including a Dale Chihuly glass chandelier hanging over the bell tower’s staircase. Explore the museum’s Commons level to see displays that exemplify the museum’s “art of the people” theme, such as Japanese ceramics (where the name mingei comes from), folk toys, and a colossal collection of beads from around the world.

Hamburger Hut

Nothing exudes the mellow surfer vibe of Encinitas quite like this new burger joint that seems to lounge along the side of Highway 101. Created by the folks behind nearby Moto Deli and Valentina Restaurant, the menu is pretty simple: smash-style burgers of Wagyu beef (which you can order as a double or triple), fries, and a spinach salad topped with beets, dates, and puffed quinoa. Pair it with one of the 12 local beers on tap or a glass of wine and pick your spot at the outdoor picnic tables surrounded by palm trees. 

Discover even more hidden urban gems at So You Think You Know San Diego?

Orange County

This Southern California region plays host to epic beaches, tremendous shopping, and (of course) theme parks—but it also has hidden perks in between.

 

Poppy & Seed, Anaheim

Poppy & Seed
Chef Michael Reed, an Oxnard native who earned many fans for his Los Angeles restaurant Poppy + Rose, has created a menu driven by his onsite greenhouse at the Anaheim Packing District. Enjoy creative spins on comfort foods—think duck-sausage pasta, baby back ribs with peach glaze, and Caesar-fried Brussels sprouts—from this lively restaurant.

Tenaya Stone Spa
For the ultimate après-theme-park experience, book a session at this spa inside Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. The word “tenaya” means “dream” in the Yosemite Valley’s indigenous culture, and the 6,000-square-foot Anaheim spa offers treatments that employ river stones and red clay. The menu also includes affordable luxuries like a foot treatment designed for anyone who has made the most of exploring the parks.

Richard Nixon Presidential Library
Set on the former citrus farm where the 37th president was born, this Yorba Linda museum has changed a lot since it first opened in 1990. Beyond replicas of the Oval Office and the White House East Room, the museum today offers an unvarnished look at the political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It also highlights some of Nixon’s lesser-known accomplishments, including his creation of the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Main Street Magic Shop
When you arrive at Disneyland Park, you might be tempted to skip past Main Street USA and head straight to your favorite rides. Don’t make that mistake. The shops offer their own magic—sometimes literally. Main Street Magic Shop has its own Hidden Mickeys—look at the playing cards on the ceiling—as well as classic magician supplies and even impromptu shows (the store used to employ a young, magic-loving Steve Martin). Pick up the vintage phone next to the poster of Houdini and you’ll hear a recording of Harry Houdini himself.

Collage
Tucked away at one end of upscale South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Collage is a globally minded food hall with its own sense of style. Check out the wall of Chinese game tiles at Mah Jong’s by Chef Mike, then admire the sleek aesthetics at Paradise Dynasty, the hotly anticipated first U.S. location of the beloved Singaporean brand. Other temptations include the egg sandwiches of EGG LXIII and the Brazilian churros and gelato at Churriño.

Porch & Swing
In the business hub of Irvine, some of the best spots are tucked between office buildings. Consider Porch & Swing, a joint venture between Thomas Keller–trained chef Justin Werner and South Carolina transplant Andrew Parrish (who made his name in L.A. as “mixologist to the stars,” including Chelsea Handler). This elegant tribute to another coastline with exceptional cuisine—Charleston’s low country—features skillet cornbread, black tiger shrimp with andouille, and roasted pork jowl with grits and spicy pepper jam. Pair your meal with a cocktail such as the Whilsner: whiskey, amaro, and beer poured over a chunky ice cube.

Lyon Air Museum
Flying into Santa Ana’s John Wayne Airport? Check out this small aerospace museum on its west side, founded by the late Major General William Lyon, an Army pilot who then became an area homebuilder. Go on a docent-led group tour or just explore the hangar yourself to see military aircraft and other vehicles from the World War II era. Highlights include a Ford military jeep, a 1939 Mercedes-Benz used by Adolph Hitler, and a 1943 Rikuo sidecar motorcycle, one of the first motorcycles made in Japan.

LSXO
This speakeasy-style spot in Huntington Beach’s Pacific City is more about cuisine—and tea time—than traditional cocktails. Chef Tin Vuong created this restaurant-within-a-restaurant, hidden behind a nondescript door inside Bluegold, as a salute to his Vietnamese heritage. LSXO channels the ambience of the Chinatown section of Saigon. Its Southeast Asian cuisine—including noodle bowls and banh mi sandwiches—share the stage with some expat flourishes, including afternoon tea with French pastries.

Expand your Orange County horizons even more by reading about the region’s hub in So You Think You Know Anaheim?

Los Angeles

Alongside its greatest hits, L.A. is filled with new and exciting places to explore.

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
With the long-awaited opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Oscar has finally found a worthy home. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the museum combines Wilshire Boulevard’s iconic 1939 May Company department store building with a modern light-filled dome that’s an instant Los Angeles landmark. Come for screenings and to see such rare artifacts as the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and Gregory Peck’s annotated working script from To Kill a Mockingbird. And how’s this for a special effect: In the museum’s The Oscars Experience, you can create a video of yourself accepting an Academy Award.

SoFi Stadium
Home to the 2022 Super Bowl, $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium was pretty darn super even before it secured hosting privileges for the Big Game. With a gracefully curving polymer plastic roof canopy and a 120-yard-long videoboard, the indoor-outdoor stadium for the NFL’s Rams and Chargers may be the most advanced sports facility ever built. It seats up to 100,000 people, and the L.A.-centric culinary program is directed by James Beard Award–winning chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. Pro tip: Book a stadium tour to go behind the scenes.

Angeleno Wine Company
Sourcing grapes from organic and sustainable vineyards in Los Angeles County, downtown’s Angeleno Wine Company has resurrected the local winemaking tradition that dates to 1833. While 200 wineries once operated in and around L.A., Angeleno is the first new one to open since Prohibition. Come here to discover such unique Spanish varietals as Graciano, Alicante Bouschet, and Verdejo, which all reflect Los Angeles County’s surprisingly diverse terroir. Along the way, vintners Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig Viste can fill you in on L.A.’s unique place in American winemaking.

Annenberg Community Beach House
If you’ve ever longed for your own Southern California beach house, head to this Santa Monica property for a taste of the luxe life. Built in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst for his paramour, Marion Davies, the five-acre estate lets you experience sophisticated living. Hang by the pool, take yoga, or maybe test your beach volleyball skills. There’s also an art gallery, and docents lead tours of the Marion Davies Guest House.

The Ford
While almost everyone knows the fabled Hollywood Bowl, there’s another outdoor venue that even many longtime Angelenos have never visited. During its long history, The Ford, an intimate 1,200-seat theater tucked into the Hollywood Hills, has hosted everyone from violinist Jascha Heifetz to The Ramones. That diverse tradition continues today with an innovative calendar that recently featured Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Patti Smith, Japanese taiko drumming, and Mexican folk dance.

 

Lake Hollywood, California

 

Lake Hollywood Park
The most distinctive view of the Hollywood Sign isn’t necessarily the closest. Nor does it particularly resemble Hollywood. Instead, follow the 3.5-mile walking trail around Lake Hollywood to the landmark 1924 Mulholland Dam and you’ll look out across the reservoir to a wooded shoreline and the sign high up on Mount Lee. Expect your friends to ask you how you found this angle. And as a bonus, the view from the dam overlooking the city is almost as spectacular.

Mount Wilson Observatory
High above Pasadena, the Mount Wilson Observatory looks out over L.A. and into the universe. Self-guided tours explore this complex that opened in 1904, and docents lead in-depth weekend tours. Astronomers also lead sessions that allow visitors to gaze into the cosmos through the observatory’s 60- and 100-inch telescopes—the largest ones in the world that are available for public use.

Vasquez Rocks Natural Area
Back in the Old West, if you needed to hide out, these dramatic sandstone formations—about 20 miles northeast of Santa Clarita—would have looked inviting. In fact, legendary desperado Tiburcio Vasquez, for whom the rocks are named, did escape the law here. These days, it’s a popular filming location and a great place to explore trails or scramble up the outcroppings for a panorama.

Morrison Hotel Gallery
Home to such landmarks as The Troubadour and The Roxy, West Hollywood has been the epicenter of Southern California’s music scene for generations. If you’re looking for a piece of rock history, stop into the Morrison Hotel Gallery for vintage images of legends from Bruce Springsteen to Buffalo Springfield. It’s located inside the Sunset Marquis hotel, which displays music-themed photos curated by the gallery.

Modernist House Tours
Get an intimate look at a mid-century modern masterpiece: The Eames House in Pacific Palisades offers self-guided exterior tours as well as private visits of the ground floor. Docents are available to provide details about the glass-and-steel 1949 house and its iconic designers, Charles and Ray Eames, who lived here for decades. You’ll also be able to peek through the windows to see the house’s Eames-designed furniture.

Park to Playa Trail
After years of planning, the Park to Playa Trail now lets bicyclists and hikers travel between the Baldwin Hills and Pacific Ocean in a nearly traffic-free environment. This 13-mile trail network travels through rolling hills and traverses a new bridge across La Cienega Boulevard. Highlights include the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, the perfect place to photograph the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains rising behind downtown. The final stretch follows Ballona Creek to a big payoff: the ocean at Playa del Rey.

LA Cha Cha Chá
LA Cha Cha Chá, a stylish new rooftop Arts District restaurant, brings the modern cuisine of Mexico City to downtown Los Angeles. Gaze out at the city skyline from the restaurant’s verdant, tropical setting while savoring such creative starters as the Monumento (an octopus tostada) and hongos taco (layered with maitake and bunapi mushrooms). The tender pork shoulder confit carnitas are outstanding, and lovers of classic cocktails should try the tangy cantarito with tequila blanco.

Explore more of the city’s secret shops, restaurants, and natural landscapes in So You Think You Know Los Angeles?

San Francisco

These unsung attractions will make you fall in love with the city by the bay all over again

Cold Drinks Bar
Semi-hidden up a stairway inside Chinatown’s China Live complex, with entry behind a discreet door emblazoned with bats, this scotch-focused bar cultivates a glitzy, old-Shanghai vibe with creative libations and white tuxedo–clad bartenders. It also features a menu from the exceptional Eight Tables by George Chen kitchen.

 

Audium, San Francisco

 

Audium
This state-of-the-art “theater of sound” is a custom-built space that specializes in spatial sound art, opened in 1967 near Nob Hill. The main auditorium, enveloped in darkness, deploys 176 speakers, sloping walls, a floating floor, and a suspended ceiling to create effects that cannot be achieved anywhere else.

Mount Sutro Forest
The 900-foot hill and underappreciated park in the Inner Sunset neighborhood is home to an 80-acre eucalyptus forest that is more than 100 years old. Hikers climbing to the top often see the fog rolling in off the Pacific, which clings to the 100- to 200-foot treetops.

Sunset Squares Pizza
Think you’ve tried every iteration of pizza? Think again. Chef Dennis Lee, known for popular Korean restaurant Namu Stonepot, made a pandemic pivot to pizza and offers a unique approach. The dough is made using a three-day cold fermentation process, the sourdough starter is fed with kimchi juice, and toppings include mapo tofu, bonito flakes, and bulgogi beef.

Chocolate Covered
Owner Jack Epstein cheerfully presides over this sliver of a store sitting discreetly along Noe Valley’s commercial corridor. He cultivates San Francisco’s most diverse and delicious array of gourmet chocolate from around the world, including bean-to-bar companies both notable and obscure. Epstein will help you find just the right cacao creation to fit your fancy, and his operation also specializes in custom gift boxes.

La Cocina Municipal Marketplace
This food hall opened in the funky Tenderloin neighborhood in April 2021. It is one of the biggest endeavors yet from La Cocina, a nonprofit culinary incubator for women of color and immigrant women that has produced some of the Bay Area’s buzziest restaurants in the last decade. Options include Senegalese stews, Creole po-boys, Salvadoran pupusas, and North African-inspired soups and sandwiches.

Kabuki Springs and Spa
San Franciscans have pampered themselves at this traditional Japanese-style bathhouse in Japantown for 50 years, soaking and steaming with dips in the 55-degree cold-plunge pool in between. A meditative atmosphere is carefully cultivated—staff strike a gong to remind any guests whose volume rises above a whisper—and other spa treatments are available. Check the schedule—there are designated women’s, men’s, and co-ed days.

POPOS
San Francisco’s Privately Owned Public Open Spaces are a unique collection of plazas, rooftop terraces, and small parks that are open to the public but tucked inside private developments. The majority are around downtown, and several can be seen in a half-day. Some offer works from renowned sculptors (555 Mission St.), others sport stunning city views (23 Geary St.), and many are great spots to enjoy lunch and people watch (101 California St.). With a subtle street-level plaque marking their existence, most fly well under the radar.

Trouble Coffee
A few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, this small coffee shop in Outer Sunset is known for launching the gourmet toast trend with its thick, buttery slices of cinnamon toast. Owner Giulietta Carrelli was merely recreating a beloved treat from her 1980s childhood, and now—boom!—$15 avocado toast is everywhere. She might even share the story with you as you enjoy your brew or a refreshing young coconut she serves with a straw and a spoon for digging out the meat.

Dogpatch Neighborhood
This industrial neighborhood on the city’s east side has recently been getting its due thanks to an influx of foodie and arts destinations. Spanning three warehouses, the Minnesota Street Project hosts 13 permanent galleries as well as a handful of pop-ups. A few blocks away, Neighbor Bakehouse whips up everything-bagel croissants and ginger monkey bread that sell out before noon. Venture over to Harmonic Brewing’s taproom to try a Prague Rock Pilsner.

Learn about more lesser-known attractions in So You Think You Know San Francisco?

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