Things to do in California: The Best Adventures & Experiences

  • Forest Lawn Memorial Park
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • The Weinstein Company
Things to do in California: The Best Adventures & Experiences

Each of these essential California adventures has been tried and tested by a Travel section staffer or contributor. To search the state by region, use the filter below.

Tell us what's on your California bucket list. Email [email protected] and put California Bucket List in the subject line.

Why: It’s amazing how few L.A.-area restaurants celebrate the outdoors. Geoffrey’s in Malibu does. There’s hardly a bad table in this special occasion venue, where the ocean is almost as close as your wine glass.

What: A little fancy, yet hardly stuffy, Geoffrey’s has long been a go-to Malibu restaurant for anniversaries, proposals, birthdays and wedding showers.

The patio restaurant is super busy in summer and over the holidays, making a warm November day an excellent time to go for a leisurely lunch – it stays open through the afternoon, with a brief pause from 3:30 to 4 p.m., as it resets for dinner. But linger at your table; this isn’t a place to rush you out.

At dinner, gas pits light up the night. On this cinematic stretch of the northern Malibu coastline, in the afterglow of a California sunset, with the fire dancing nearby, there’s hardly a more romantic getaway.

The cool Pacific chills the evening, so bring a jacket or sweater. If you forget, your server will offer a blanket. It makes the restaurant open to the elements and cozy at the same time.

What to order? Geoffrey’s offers a modest but interesting menu, served in satisfying portions: paella, steaks, seafood. The kitchen is quick, and scallops come out sizzling -- big and round as your coffee cup, on a bed of foie gras risotto. The crème brulee, big enough for two, arrives over a chocolate hazelnut base.

Where: 27400 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, Calif., about 35 miles west of downtown L.A.

How much: Lunches from about $15, but most $25-$30. Dinners from $28, but most entrees around $40.

Info: Geoffrey’s 

Why: If you need to be convinced that the delight is in the details, a visit to Casa del Herrero in Montecito will make a believer out of you. If you’re already a believer, you’ll be in your element.

What: Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith), a 1925 home designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009, lets you peek into California, Spanish and Moorish homes and history. George and Carrie Steedman (pronounced sted-man) of St. Louis decamped to build their Spanish Colonial Revival dream house on 11 acres. If its design looks familiar, it’s because architect George Washington Smith designed nearly six dozen homes and some commercial buildings in the area. Their collaboration was like genius squared.

The courtyard entrance, where a Spanish-tiled fountain gurgles, brings visitors to the front of a house that looks disappointingly plain. Not to worry. Open the door and you’re transported to southern Spain and its Moorish influences. The rooms reflect an Iberian shopping spree that filled the house with 13th and 17th century furnishings, tapestries and more.

Not all the objects could be used for their original purpose, so parchment pages from a 15th century Gregorian chant choir book became lampshades; a door designed for a sacristy in a small town outside of Seville, Spain, goes to a linen closet.

The living room adheres to the notions of entertaining not in the 1920s but in Spain: Chairs line the walls, and tables in the middle are used for refreshments. It is no wonder the Steedmans did much of their entertaining outside.

The gardens — the outdoor rooms, really — reflect a panoply of influences, some European, some Californian, some practical and some aesthetic, and they provided ample floral fodder for Carrie Steedman, whose more than 300 flower-designing ribbons hang in an area her husband set aside for her in his workshop.

George Steedman’s genius is most evident in that workshop, his version of a man cave. His fortune came from manufacture of munitions in World War I, and his abilities with metal translated into the creation of numerous touches, including finials he copied, then cast here; silver chargers used in table settings that he created and engraved; a barbecue grill that could be disassembled and reassembled for easy transport to the back grounds for a cookout. House of the Blacksmith indeed.

How much: $25 a person; children 10 and older are allowed. Tours by reservation (which can be done online)  at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Where: 1387 E. Valley Road, Montecito, about 95 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Info: Casa del Herrero  

Why: This is one of the grand cemeteries in the world -- in setting, in scope, in star power. Step inside Forest Lawn Glendale and honor the memories of Elizabeth Taylor, Walt Disney and Jimmy Stewart, among dozens of other famous names.

What: California in spirit, with wide lanes and sunny vistas, Forest Lawn Glendale is a far cry from the grim graveyards seen in most places.

The 300-acre cemetery dates to 1917 when Hubert Eaton took it over in hopes of celebrating eternal life. It hosts funerals, art shows and weddings. Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman in one of its chapels.

Grab a map from the info booth as you enter the lush and hilly cemetery. Out of respect for privacy, the map will not guide you to the stars’ graves, but other resources offer maps.

Still, finding celebrity resting places in the expansive cemetery is a bit of a scavenger hunt.

From the front gate, follow signs to the wonderfully gothic Great Mausoleum, where Elizabeth Taylor is buried and honored by a giant angel at the end of the hallway. L. Frank Baum, of “Wizard of Oz,” fame is buried to the west of the Great Mausoleum, with a hefty tombstone.

Michael Jackson? He rests in a private section not open to the public.

But Jimmy and Gloria Stewart are marked by humble graves that are open to public viewing – though not easy to find.

As you face the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather chapel, they reside up the hill to your left: space 2, lot 8, small markers near the statue of a man holding an arrow.

Clustered at the Freedom Mausoleum, you’ll spot the graves of Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, George Burns and Nat "King" Cole.

Where: 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale, Calif., about 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, in Los Angeles County.

How much: Free

Info: Forest Lawn Glendale, (323) 254-3131

Why: If death is inevitable, capitalism is inexhaustible and Los Angeles is Los Angeles, it should be no surprise that the L.A. County coroner has a gift shop. And let's face it, you're curious.

What: The Skeletons in the Closet gift store opened in 1993 (at about the time homicides in the city were reaching historic highs). Nowadays the homicide rate is far lower, but the retail continues. Beach towels (with body outlines), barbecue aprons, mugs, office supplies, lanyards and more (see below) -- this shop has you covered, so to speak. The goods are gathered just off the lobby of the coroner's headquarters in Lincoln Heights, a 1909 red-brick building that once served as a hospital.

At least one other city has a coroner's gift shop. Still, this is a rare inventory in arguable taste. (For the weeks leading up to Halloween, body bags are offered.) For the record, the shop's management says the store exists "to promote how fragile life is and create awareness and responsibility toward one's actions." 

Speaking of which: On your way into and out of the shop, remember to be quiet and respectful: Many of the building's visitors are there in connection with the death of a family member.

Where: 1104 N. Mission Road, Los Angeles,  one block northwest of the L.A. County-USC Medical Center, 2 miles east of downtown L.A. Open Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.- 4 p.m.

How much: Baseball caps, $15. Mugs, $12.95-$15. Lunch coolers, $21. Beach towels, $35. Welcome mats, $30. License plate frames, $20. Key chains, $4-$5.  Lately, the shop has added anatomy models too -- "more educational stuff," said manager Edna Pereyda.

Info: L.A. County medical examiner-coroner

Why:   Vast meadows of orange poppies were once a common sight in the California springtime, inspiring Spanish conquistadors to call the San Gabriel foothills the "Land of Fire." The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is one of the last remaining places in the state to experience a large-scale—and predictably magnificent—display. Wildflower season at the reserve typically begins in mid-February and lasts until May. 

What: The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a beautiful showcase of the state’s beloved golden flower. In good years, bright orange covers the earth as far as the eye can see. Legends of these sunny blooms are woven into the myths of native tribes, Spanish conquistadors and 49ers.

Not surprisingly, the California poppy became a state flower in 1903. Around this time, residents cherished the springtime tradition of picnics among poppy fields, much like cherry blossom gazing in Japan. Today, the flowers have few open places to create such spectacles.  Peak bloom falls around California Poppy Day on April 6, but the timing, intensity, and duration of poppy blooms vary from season to season, depending on the season's temperatures and rainfall.

The park, which has 8 miles of gentle trails to explore, is open from sunrise to sunset. Be sure to call the wildflower hotline (661-724-1180) before you make the trek—not only are wildflower blooms difficult to predict, strong winds are common in the area, which can cause the blooms to close.

Where: 15101 Lancaster Road in Lancaster, 70 miles north of downtown L.A.  

How much: $10 per vehicle.

Info: Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

Why: With its oceanfront setting, gritty pedigree and a vibe like no other, this skate park rules—for shredder and spectator alike.

What: The Golden State is home to nearly 450 skateboard parks. Some are vast, like the 68,000-square foot Lake Cunningham Regional Skate Park in San Jose. Others offer monstrous terrain, like the eye-popping, stomach-dropping MegaRamp at Woodward West in Tehachapi. But for those seeking the soul of skateboarding: Venice.

This 18,000-square foot concrete playground, built on a rise of sand in the heart of Venice Beach, attracts skate-travelers from around the world. The park's compact design—including two bowls, a street area and a classic, 1970s-style snake run—offers something for every level.

But it's the spirit that sets this spot apart. Though the surrounding neighborhoods gave birth to some of skateboarding's most influential and aggressive scenes -- including the surf-styled Z-boys of the 1970s and the frenetic street skaters of the 1980s -- the skatepark has a welcoming, communal vibe. Local rippers patiently give way to wide-eyed newcomers.

Spectators are often an afterthought at skate parks. At Venice, they are part of the fun. (But stay behind the guardrail and keep alert for flying boards.) Established pros frequently put on a show, along with pint-sized rippers and their silver-haired counterparts. Wheelchair skaters often roll here as well, inspiring cheers and awe all around.

Where: 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, about 15 miles west of downtown L.A.

How much: Free. Donations to Venice Skatepark Foundation, which maintains the park, are appreciated.

Info: Venice Skate Park

Why: Consider the tyranny of too much clothing. Or study the topography of clouds. Rustic Rincon Beach invites such reflection. It also lures surfers near and far for long runs on legendary, well-formed waves.

What: Just off the 101, near Carpinteria, Rincon is a worthy escape whether you surf or not.

Don’t be put off by the gated community that’s front and center as you arrive. Take a right into Rincon Beach Park, which features well-kept picnic areas lining the bluff and a set of wooden stairs leading to the beach. Or hang a left instead to the spot where the surfers congregate at three subsections of Rincon: Indicator, Rivermouth and the Cove.

Rincon is scenic and secluded, with vistas, a surf hut and plentiful parking. Surfers tend to use the parking lot to the left, and picnickers and swimmers park in the right lot. (Except for bathrooms, there are no services here.) 

Beyond anything else, Rincon is a surfer destination, with world-class surf breaks so good they were mentioned in the Beach Boys classic “Surfin’ Safari.” From sunup to sunset, sleek waves deliver long rides on a consistent basis.

Of course, those kinds of conditions attract the masses and plenty of competition for the best waves. Come on a Tuesday when crowds are generally at their thinnest. 

Where: Rincon is three miles south of Carpinteria, 88 miles northwest of downtown L.A., on the Ventura/Santa Barbara county line. Take the Bates Road exit off the 101, and head west to the parking lots.

How much: Free

Info: Rincon Beach 

Why:  The museum and research center is the only memorial dedicated to Abraham Lincoln west of the Mississippi River.  

What: The shrine was presented to Redlands in 1932 by civic leader and philanthropist Robert Watchorn and his wife, Alma, as a tribute to Lincoln and a memorial to their son who had died years earlier from injuries suffered in World War I.

Step into the dimly lighted rotunda, where a handsome white marble bust of Lincoln will command your attention. Then gaze at the dome, which is adorned with allegorical figures — perhaps the “better angels of our nature” — painted on canvas. Under each is a word — Loyalty, Strength, Justice, Wisdom, Patience, Tolerance, Courage and Faith — attributes ascribed to Lincoln.

Two small galleries complete the shrine. One, to the left, contains exhibits on camp life, military prisons and other aspects of  the Civil War. The one to the right houses an exhibit on Lincoln’s life. This gallery also displays a 1945 painting by Norman Rockwell, “Thoughts on Peace on Lincoln’s Birthday,” which depicts a World War II veteran seeking guidance from a biography of Lincoln.  

The shrine’s core collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts, donated by Watchorn, has grown to include thousands of volumes on Lincoln and the Civil War. 

Where: 125 W. Vine St., Redlands, 63 miles east of downtown L.A.

How much: Free. Open 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Info: Lincoln Memorial Shrine

Why: Who’d have guessed that the future would be figured out at a strip mall? Yet here's Buck’s of Woodside. Elon Musk hangs out here, and PayPal was formed at that little booth in the corner. Think of it as an incubator of the digital future. It also serves a pretty mean omelet.

What: Buck’s benefits from its Silicon Valley location and address in the town of Woodside, a forested and hilly enclave where rich investors are plentiful.

The diner draws clusters of visionaries for breakfast, lunch and dinner, though morning is prime time for digital deal-making.

Location is just part of its success. Its whimsical décor captures America’s pioneering spirit, and reminds us that invention is a form of child’s play.  

The walls and ceiling feature vintage Cracker Jack toys (dating to 1905), space suits, 11-foot airships and model cities built of Gummy Bears.

Owner/founder Jamis MacNiven’s displays give the place the feel of a children’s museum, and are a huge part of the reason his restaurant draws such a family crowd on weekends, when youth soccer teams can be seen using Buck’s as a relaxing post-game pit stop.

During the week, the restaurant draws more of a business crowd, often filling the roomy dining area by 8 a.m. Outside, hitching posts are provided to locals who arrive on horseback.

They come for the fresh and generous portions. But mostly, I think they come for ambience, lore and the sense that great things happen here.

Where: 3062 Woodside Road, Woodside, in San Mateo County, about 360 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

How much: Items start at about $8, but expect $15-$20 for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Info: Buck’s of Woodside 

Why: Best fish taco ever. Yes, ever.

What: OK, admittedly, I haven’t tried every fish taco stand in the state, or even Los Angeles, though I’ve tried. That’s a bucket list all its own.

But in Cayucos, just north of Morro Bay, rests a beloved little taco stand that elevates the art by smoking its fish, and serving it chilled with chunks of apple. Sure, you fish taco purists will scoff. Don’t knock it till you try it -- and try it and try it some more.

Ruddell’s Smokehouse keeps it simple. It offers albacore, ahi, salmon, shrimp, pork loin and chicken, all smoked, in tacos or sandwiches, out of a seaside shack just south of the pier. The tacos come on a tortilla so large it weighs about as much as a burrito, with the apple, red-leaf lettuce, celery, carrots and green onion.

There are several salads, but that’s pretty much the menu, though you can also purchase the smoked albacore and salmon by the pound, $18.99 and $20.99 respectively. A whole smoked chicken is a very reasonable $9.

Another memorable find in tiny and appealing Cayucos is the fine breakfast burrito ($7.99) at the Cayucos Deli, adjacent to the mini-mart gas station at the center of town. It too, is a local favorite, with good reason.

Where: Ruddell’s Smokehouse, 101 D St., Cayucos, San Luis Obispo County, about 210 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

How much: Smoked tacos from $5. Albacore is $6.

Info: Ruddell’s Smokehouse, (805) 995-5028

Why: Though technology has overtaken them, there is something romantic and reassuring about lighthouses. About 20 still dot the California coast. One of the most fetching is Pigeon Point's, a 115-foot tower that includes a hostel, on a thumb of land halfway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

What: Pigeon Point Light Station has been protecting ships since the 1870s. Though mostly for show in an era of satellite-guided navigation, it provides back-up beacons on dishwater-dark days and murky nights along this stretch of skyscraper seas and rocky coastline.

The hostel here makes it a terrific weekend escape that could include whale-watching or exploring and hiking along Highway 1. Accommodations include separate-sex or coed bunkrooms and private rooms for individuals, couples or families.

Or plan a long daytime stop on your road trip to the Bay Area. Gray, blue and humpback whales are all visible from the viewing area on the point (bring binoculars) and 50 species of migratory and native birds use this as their hostel too.

Tide pools are a short walk north from the complex, located on a series of jagged bluffs on this photogenic stretch of coastal highway.

Though the lighthouse itself is closed to tours, its original lens is on display at ground level. The Fresnel lens is like a giant piece of jewelry, with 1,008 brass-framed lenses and prisms that once beamed out the light to ships 24 miles away.

Where: 210 Pigeon Point Road, off Highway 1, in Pescadero, Calif., in San Mateo County, about 390 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

How much: The grounds are free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset. The hostel, run by Hostelling International, charges from $28 for bunks and $82 for double rooms, not including  membership fees ($28 annually and $3 daily). Reservations: (650) 879-0633

Info: Pigeon Point Light Station

Why: You want history? There used to be a caged monkey behind the bar. But forget history. Concentrate on that insanely large slab of beef they just snow-shoveled off the grill and rushed to your table at the famed Jocko’s, in no-frills Nipomo, Calif.  

What: Jocko’s is a Central Coast institution with cinderblock walls and local ranch brands burned into the paneling. Yep, this is farm country all right, a little dusty and proudly working class.

“Come in an monkey ’round,” the sign outside says, a nod to its former mascot.

The restaurant is named for Ralph “Jocko” Knotts, one of the original owner’s sons.

“Jocko was the second licensed driver in Nipomo, he was also ‘Justice of the Peace,’” a history of the restaurant states.

Now you understand Nipomo.

Over the years, the restaurant has changed locations and names, but for decades has drawn substantial crowds to its Santa Maria-style steakhouse, particularly on weekends.

Still colorful, and with customers lining up early – expect a short wait, even with a reservation – Jocko’s is renowned for its top-line beef charred over red oak.

Lunches and dinners come with salad and sides, on plates dominated by your steak, with just the right amount of fire applied to the outside, as if branded. For an additional $10, you can have your steak cut extra thick.

Request a table by the window if you can, overlooking the fire pits, and order the Spencer, a specialty rib-eye on the bone ($32). On Wednesday, don’t discount the roast turkey special, a local favorite.

Whatever you order, be prepared for a first-rate meal served at country prices, by a waitress who actually fusses over you a bit.

Where: 125 N. Thompson Ave., Nipomo, in San Luis Obispo County, 177 miles northwest of downtown L.A. on the 101.

How much: Complete dinners range from $20 to $33

Info: Jocko’s 

Why: The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is an icon of family entertainment in Los Angeles, beloved for its charming retro performances. As the longest-running puppet theater of its kind in the U.S., the venue has stood the test of time.  

What: Founded by Bob Baker and Alton Wood in 1963, the theater is housed in an unassuming building on the edge of downtown L.A. Not much has changed in the last 50 years. Coffee-can stage lights illuminate handmade puppets that dance and sing to a vintage soundtrack on a carpeted stage. Catch a seasonal production — “Halloween Spooktacular" is playing through Nov. 5 — to witness the company's unique brand of whimsy, complete with vampire lovebirds, dancing skeletons and a glow-in-the-dark alien takeover. After the show, join the cast in the adjoining salon for complimentary ice cream.

Baker served as a puppeteer and animator for hundreds of Hollywood movies and TV productions. He also made puppets for clients around the globe and was a rare mentor in a fading profession.

In 2009, the theater was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark. Though the troupe and building faced uncertainty after Baker's death in 2014 at 90, the puppeteers have reorganized as a nonprofit venture, and a capital campaign is underway to renovate the theater. After remodeling begins, probably in late December, the company plans to perform throughout 2018 at other venues around Los Angeles.

Where: 1345 W. 1st St. in downtown Los Angeles.

How much: Show tickets are $15. Children under 2 are free. 

Info: Bob Baker Marionette Theater

Why: Admit it. Sometimes you don’t want to be around other people. All you crave is a country road and an epic piece of pie. For all that, come to Duarte’s Tavern in tiny Pescadero, near Half Moon Bay, for a simple yet memorable dinner and a frosty drink. Make this rustic jewel your hamlet, your hideout, your Walden Pond.

What: Duarte’s (pronounced Doo-arts) has been serving up generous plates of no-nonsense, straight-from-the-garden food for almost 125 years. Since 1894, when the founder tapped a keg of cheap whisky to today, when it serves up to 10,000 customers a month, this farm country landmark has delivered memorable meals at affordable prices.

The glow-stick exterior dominates the little town of Pescadero, in rolling, sparsely populated farm country two miles from the coast. Inside, you’ll realize that the Duarte family was ahead of their time, with a reliance on locally sourced vegetables, beef and fish.

There’s no ego to the dishes: Pork chops and fresh applesauce is a headliner, as is the snapper and chips. The soups arrive robust and steamy, hours from the restaurant’s own garden out back.

The tavern/restaurant is still run by the fourth generation of the Portuguese family that founded it. In 2003, it won a James Beard Award for its faithfulness to classic country cooking and a body of work that spans three centuries.

Oh, and there’s pie. Good Lord, is there pie. The olallieberry is the best known, but I’m a sucker for the difficult-to-find rhubarb-strawberry. Best piece of pie I’ve ever had.

In fact, I’d recommend you and your date order the cream of artichoke soup, split a steak or crab melt and then treat yourself  to one of these decadent desserts, ala mode, and spilling off the plate.

Where: 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, Calif., in San Mateo County,  375 miles from Los Angeles.  

How much: Burgers and sandwiches start at $8; entrees are around $20. 

Info: Duarte’s Tavern   

Why: It's sleek. It's vintage. And if you're arriving via the San Gorgonio Pass like most Angelenos, it's the beginning of Palm Springs.

What: When architects Albert Frey and  Robson Chambers designed this building in 1965, the streamlined mid-century look was so big that even gas stations were doing it. Indeed, the Tramway Gas Station sat under this great tilting zooming top for decades, until (like a lot of Palm Springs) the building fell into idleness and blight in the 1970s and 1980s.

Then a few mavens of Desert Modernism effected a rescue — a story repeated on properties all over the Coachella Valley over the last 25 years. Now this hyperbolic paraboloid roof (apparently that's the technical term) looks sharp enough to poke a hole in the Jolly Green Giant, and this corner is site of the Palm Springs Visitors Center. It's a fine spot to stop, collect brochures, learn more about Modernism Week, cadge restaurant recommendations and plot details of your weekend.

Where: 2901 N. Palm Canyon Drive (a.k.a. Highway 111), Palm Springs, 109 miles east of downtown L.A.

How much: Free.

Info: Palm Springs Visitors Center

Why: No matter which way you travel, California begins and ends with a Cape Cod-style lighthouse from the 1850s. One is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego. The other, about 900 miles to the north, is the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City. And because the building stands 200 feet offshore on a tiny island, you can only get there at low tide.

What: The Battery Point Lighthouse (now also a museum) turned its light on in 1856, two years after California's first lighthouse opened at Alcatraz. It was automated in 1953 and survived the 1964 tsunami that devastated Crescent City. It's now managed by the Del Norte County Historical Society.

When the tide is low (consult the web or call [707] 464-3089 to check), you can walk to the lighthouse across the sand, rocks and a cement driveway. The building is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily from April through September, weekends only the rest of the year. Inside, don't miss the banjo-shaped clock. "It's still working and it's original," said volunteer lighthouse keeper Harvey Lee. "We have to wind it once a week."

(By the way, there is another lonely old lighthouse built on a rock six miles offshore, a few miles north of Crescent City -- the St. George Reef Light. For a while there were helicopter tours, but state officials banned those trips.)

Where: About 200 feet south of the corner of Battery Street and Lighthouse Way, Crescent City, 777 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, 373 miles north of San Francisco, 21 miles south of the Oregon border.

How much: Recommended donation $5.

Info: Battery Point Lighthouse

Why: This is the world's wealthiest art institution, with a 110-acre campus overlooking the Pacific and a $6.3-billion endowment. Because it's young as museums go, it doesn't have the world's greatest collection yet. But every year the curators spend tens of millions more, adding European paintings, sculptures, photographs and other marvels to this hilltop haven of shiny white buildings. 

What: The Getty Center, backed by billions from late oil man J. Paul Getty, was born as a museum in 1954, but didn't move to this location until 1997. Once you've parked or been dropped off, take the monorail up the hill and head for the West Pavilion, which houses photography below and Impressionists above.

Many visitors head straight for the center's Impressionist standout, Van Gogh's "Irises," and you should get there eventually. But don't miss newer works — especially the vast Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA project (which explores Latin American and Latino art with local connections, through January 2018) and the David Hockney show (up through Nov. 26, 2017). The photography holdings are remarkable too.

Also, be sure to check out the cactus garden that seems to float in the sky with the coast of Santa Monica in the distance. Kids will love rolling around on the sloping lawns. Eventually, you'll want to eat. Unpack a picnic lunch on the lawn near the Central Garden, buy a bite at one of the center's two cafes or splurge on lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch upstairs at The Restaurant.

(If antiquities are what speeds your pulse, set aside another day to head north to the other Getty location, the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which specializes in Greek, Roman and Etruscan art from 6500 BC to A.D. 400.)

Where: Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, 16 miles west of downtown L.A.

How much: Admission is free. Parking is $15, or $10 after 3 p.m. Museum closed Mondays.

Info: Getty Center

Why: Some buildings have gravitas. This one has that, plus magic. Maybe it's the filigree of the ironwork, the skylight over the five-story atrium, the terra cotta walls. Maybe it's the supposed occult influences on the designer.

Or maybe it's that movie. For several fraught moments in the first "Blade Runner" film (1982), Harrison Ford ducks and scuttles through this building as spotlights rake the atrium. In an enduring cinematic vision of L.A. as dystopia, this was some of the spookiest stuff.

What: The Bradbury Building, completed in 1893 and dramatically restored about 100 years later, seems to be the oldest remaining commercial building in downtown L.A. The Bradbury rents out office space (several private investigators are tenants), and film shoots and other events have been frequent through the years. Last December, the Da Camera Society brought in the Boston Camerata for two chamber music performances.

Some people credit architect Sumner Hunt for the building's glories; others say it's because construction supervisor George H. Wyman was inspired by an 1888 science fiction novel. Either way, if you're walking on Broadway near Grand Central Market, you'd be a fool not to step into the Bradbury lobby. The guard won't let you walk more than a few steps up the stairs or ride the cage elevators, but it's still a thrill.

On your way out, don't miss the towering Anthony Quinn mural across 3rd Street. See the floor tiles beneath Quinn's feet? They match those inside the Bradbury Building.

Where: 304 S. Broadway, downtown L.A.

How much: Free to stroll through. For a cup of fancy joe in the building's Blue Bottle Coffee shop, it's $3.75 and up.

Info: Bradbury Building

Why: If the light has faded from your holidays, Descanso Gardens' Enchanted: Forest of Light, an emerging annual tradition, may flip the switch back on.

What: In the evenings from Nov. 19-Jan. 7, you can take a mile-long stroll through the gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, where different kinds of lighting bring a new dimension to the 160-acre grounds.

The event debuted in 2016. It’s easy to call Enchanted a holiday light display, but that’s not quite right. There are no symbols of the season, no elves, no jolly St. Nicks. It’s more the suggestion of the ethereal that charms.

As you walk the pathways (wear comfortable shoes, please), you may begin to wonder: Do the giant redwoods shimmer blue and green because they’re illuminated that way or because they’ve been drenched with a kind of liquid fairy dust? Do the maples in the Japanese garden glow red because their natural charm has been enhanced by electrical means or because they’ve perpetually donned their autumnal best for the occasion?

You can fortify yourself before with an on-site dinner of American fare at Maple restaurant. (You’ll need Enchanted tickets to eat at Maple during the run of the show.) Then spend at least an hour wandering, letting yourself succumb to the illusion--and remembering the pleasure of those days when you believed that “magic” was always a plausible answer.

Where: 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, 13 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles

How much: Tickets, which are timed and go on sale to the public Oct. 16 at 10 a.m., cost $28-$30. (Descanso members, for whom tickets were available beginning Oct. 2, pay $23-25.) Children younger than 2 are admitted free but must have a ticket.

Info: Enchanted: Forest of Light

Why: Frank Lloyd Wright, the cantankerous genius architect best known for his buildings in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Tokyo and beyond, did some interesting things in California, too. This hilltop home -- officially, the Aline Barnsdall Hollyhock House -- is one of them. And unlike many Wright homes, it's open for tours.

What: The house, Wright's first Los Angeles commission, was completed in 1921 for an artsy oil heiress named Aline Barnsdall. Wright called the style "California Romanza," but it looks a lot like a Mayan mansion with a prime view of the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. Inspect that view closely, and you'll notice, 1.4 miles due north, the patterned concrete blocks of another Wright project, the Ennis House, now privately owned.

In any event, Wright's client didn't care for it much. In 1927 she donated 11 acres, including the home and some neighboring structures, to the City of Los Angeles. Today the compound serves as Barnsdall Art Park, busy with classes for youths and adults (and Friday-night wine-tasting in summer months). Hollyhock House, reopened in 2015 after years of fundraising and restoration, is neighbored by an art gallery, studio and theater space, the slopes planted with olive trees. The home's former garage now serves a visitor center and gift shop.

The home is open for self-guided tours on Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Last ticket sold at 3:30 p.m.) It is wheelchair-accessible, but there's no air-conditioning, so when interior temperatures reach 90 degrees, they close. 

Where: Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., five miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

How much: Tickets are $7 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, free for children under 12 with a paying adult at the visitor center (Visa and Mastercard only). No advance reservations and no photography inside. For $70, you can get a private, docent-led tour on certain mornings.

Info: Barnsdall Art Park

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