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Nature and culture merge in an art-fueled Victorian seaport

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The lively seaport town of Eureka—the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon—has split-personality charm. There’s a sense of history in the handsomely restored Victorian-era Old Town district, along with a still-working seaport where crusty fishing boats chug in and out of a protected harbor, and logging trucks that rumble through town. Eureka also has an eco-conscious college vibe, thanks to Cal Poly Humboldt, in the nearby town of Arcata.

Hundreds of ornate 19th-century homes reflect the prosperity of Eureka’s formative years, when lumber was king. One example: the Carson Mansion, a paragon of elaborate Queen Anne architecture, is now home to a private club at the end of Second Street. The entire city is a state historic landmark, a captivating mix of nature and culture with a small-town feel.

Start your visit along the waterfront, where a pretty esplanade provides nice views of the harbor and adjacent Humboldt Bay. Check out the small maritime museum, then board the MV Madaket, a snug ferryboat plying the bay since 1910, for a one-hour guided cruise. In adjacent Old Town, beeline to the outstanding Eureka Visitors Center, where you can ask for tips on nearby galleries, gift shops, and eateries, and book guided tours and adventures.

Kids love the Discovery Museum, where hands-on exhibits explore art, technology, and science. Five blocks east from there you’ll find the Morris Graves Museum of Art. Housed in the gorgeously appointed former Carnegie Free Library, the first free library in the state, the museum features exhibitions from artists both local and from around the world; about a seven-minute walk south on F Street from there, you’ll find the Clark Museum, which showcases the history of Northwestern California through exhibits and events. Blue Ox Millworks, which is featured in the TV series, The Craftsman, is a fully functioning Victorian wood shop that produces custom architectural millwork for historic homes and new construction projects. Blue Ox also functions as a school, historic park, and haven for craftsmen.

To get a closer look at one of the town’s defining industries in action, take a drive across the bridge to Woodley Island, home of the largest working marina in the area. Pay a visit to The Fisherman statue at the far western tip of the island, then stop in for a meal at Café Marina, where you can watch the boats come in with their catches of salmon, crab, and tuna while you dine on the same.

The city is also home to Sequoia Park Zoo, the oldest—and one of the smallest—zoos in the state. With animal residents that are on the smaller side—red pandas, river otters, and gibbons, to name just a few—the zoo is perfect for young children, and can be fully experienced in an hour or two (you can view a map of the zoo here). Don’t miss the Redwood Sky Walk, a network of suspended bridges connecting a stand of redwood trees within and outside the zoo’s border. While most of the Skywalk is about 60 feet above ground, one bridge is 100 feet from the forest floor, which is roughly a third of the way up the 250-foot-tall redwoods.

Before visiting, be sure to check out the town’s busy events calendar. Of all the goings-on throughout the year, the city is most famous for the annual Kinetic Grand Championship sculpture race, which pits artistic-minded engineers—or are they engineering-minded artists?—against each other in a 50-mile race over land, sand, water, and mud in strictly human-powered, homemade vehicles. Other seasonal and yearly celebrations include the Eureka Street Art Festival and Friday Night Markets every summer, and the Redwood Coast Music Festival in October.

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