California is the third most populous US state and stretches over 163696 square miles of desert, mountains, lakes, glittering cities, and dreamy shoreline. So it’s no surprise that there are a huge number of hidden gems and unique places to visit in California. With countless unique attractions, California is the perfect destination if you want to get off the beaten track. Check out our guide to some of the most unique things to do in California.
Unusual places to visit in California for family fun
So, you’ve done the theme parks, spent the day at the beach, and ticked off California’s famous attractions. Or perhaps you’ve visited the state before on a family vacation, and want to put something new and different in the itinerary, lest the dreaded words ‘I’m bored’ drift from the mouths of your young travel companions. With these awesome unique California attractions, your family vacation is sure to be filled with surprise, wonder, and delight.
Play a round of Monopoly in the Park in San Jose
What better way to spend a vacation day than by testing the strength of family relationships with a round of everyone’s favorite rage-inducing, board-flipping, high-rolling game? One of the most unusual hidden gems in San Jose is a Monopoly Board in Discovery Meadow. But this isn’t your average Monopoly board, this is San Jose’s record-holding giant Monopoly board. The immense 30 x 30 sp ft board is in downtown San Jose. It is a great way to insert a little ‘friendly’ competition into a family vacation in California.
Stop for a magical photo at the Chamber of Secrets door in San Francisco
Enemies of the Heir, beware, because, in the middle of San Francisco, there is a magical door to another world. Near Lombard Street, renowned sculptor Steve Penetti has created a vast 8 ft tall recreation of the serpentine Chamber of Secrets door from the Harry Potter movies. If you’re looking for unique things to do in San Francisco, this is a rather magical option.
Made from metalwork and pipes, this free-to-visit attraction is a fun photo opportunity for families and Potterheads. Although there might not be a basilisk lurking behind it, you’ll still return home with some cool stories to tell.
Make feathery friends at OstrichLand USA, Solvang
Not far from the quaint and quirky town Solvang in southern California is Ostrichland USA. With over 100 ostriches and emus, this delightful education facility is a great place to learn about these awesome birds. It is one of the best things to do in Solvang for families.
You can do a guided or self-guided tour of the facility. Ostriches may look imposing, rather like the missing link between dinosaurs and birds, but there’s an easy way to win their friendship; food. Luckily, you can buy bowls of ostrich-friendly snacks to treat your newfound feathered friends. General admission to Ostrichland USA costs $7 for people aged 12 and over. Under 12s pay $3, and a bowl of bird food is $1 per person. Please note that on busy days, there are limits on how much food guests can buy to prevent the birds from overfeeding.
Spot the Space Invaders of San Diego
Embark on a retro treasure hunt in this quirky hidden gem in San Diego. Since 2010, downtown San Diego has been subject to an invasion of small tiles featuring Space Invaders, the pixelated menaces from the 1978 video game. There were originally 21 tiles in all, hidden on walls and buildings across the city.
Although some have now been defaced or removed, most are still in their original locations and make a great fun activity for kids (and big kids) to spot on a walking tour of San Diego. What began as a contemporary art installation has become one of the most unusual things to do in San Diego. Best of all, it is completely free and fun for all the family.
Marvel at the ancient wonder of Disneyland’s petrified tree
Delighting visitors since 1955, Disneyland Resort in Anaheim has been a favorite California attraction for a very long time. But even 66 years of joy pails into insignificance when put next to the oldest attraction at Disneyland. No, we’re not talking about the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, Peter Pan’s Flight, or even Jungle Cruise. At a truly ancient 50-77 million years old, Disneyland’s petrified tree is by far the oldest thing in the park. It’s also one of the most overlooked attractions, despite having a touching story.
The 10-foot stump of petrified wood was once a mighty sequoia or redwood tree. How it made its way to Disneyland California is up for debate, but there are 2 persistent theories. The most romantic tale goes that Walt Disney bought the tree for his wife, Lilian, on their 31st wedding anniversary. It was discovered later that it was too big for the mantle at home. So it found a new home in what is now Frontierland. It has remained there as a symbol of their love and devotion ever since.
The second story is rather less romantic and Disney movie-worthy. It claims that Walt bought the tree to go outside of an original Disneyland store that sold rocks and minerals, and it has remained there ever since. Whatever the reason for the tree’s presence, it’s a quirky thing to stop and appreciate on your next family outing to Disneyland, an unexpected place to find a California hidden gem.
Enjoy a musical interlude at Spreckels Organ Pavilion, San Diego
After a busy day exploring the streets and beaches of San Diego, gather the whole family for an unforgettable experience at Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The world’s largest outdoor instrument is not only an extraordinary feat of engineering but a magnificent setting for a concert. All shows and performances are free, and there is seating for up to 2500 at the venue, which is in Balboa Park in the heart of the city. What better way to spend a San Diego evening than by enjoying a picnic with the family, listening to the masterful playing of a grand instrument?
If you happen to be on vacation in San Diego in September or October, there’s a special treat for music fans – the annual Organ Festival. Free performances take place every night, with music from the likes of Bach, Rachmaninoff, rock music, and even Halloween movie performances. Watching a classic silent flick with a rollicking, booming organ accompaniment is certainly one of the most unique things to do in San Diego.
Get lost in your own reflection at Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, San Francisco
Hidden away on Pier 39 in San Francisco is a trippy, whimsical attraction that the whole family will reflect on with joy and wonder. Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze is a carnival hall of mirrors gone wild. Participants try to find their way through a labyrinth of mirrors, filled with laughter and glee as you, quite literally, meet yourself coming back the other way.
Admission is $10 per person, and the maze is a fantastic hidden gem in San Francisco, perfect for a rainy day activity for when the city’s notoriously unpredictable weather is not on your side.
Cause some mischief at the Dennis the Menace Park in Monterey
Named after the famous character created by local resident and writer extraordinaire Hank Ketcham, the Dennis the Menace playground is a wonderful place for family fun. Opened in 1956 in El Estero Park, Monterey, the playground has a designated toddler area with fun attractions for young ones, as well as slides and rides for older children to enjoy. Teens and adults will find fun in the other activities available in El Estero Park, including a skate zone, dance studio, and picnic area.
Fall for the rustic charm of Cool Patch Pumpkins Corn Maze in Dixon
Is there anything that says ‘Fall’ more than a pumpkin patch? If you can’t get enough of autumnal squashes, head to the Cool Patch Pumpkins Maze in Dixon. Open during the Fall months, it’s a fantastic family destination for when you want a true countryside experience.
The big attraction is the record-breaking corn maze, a giant labyrinth with endless trails and pathways. There is also a mini-maze for younger kids, hayrides, and fun photo props to chronicle your family day at the farm. There is tasty food and drink available at the patch, and entry to the maze costs $18 per person. Under 5s get in for free.
Take a ride on a little piece of history on Angels Flight, Los Angeles
Not only is this little orange funicular an utterly charming part of Los Angeles history, but it’s also the world’s shortest railway. Built in 1901, Angels Flight in LA is one of the city’s most historic attractions. It’s also a fantastic thing for families to enjoy together.
Located in California Plaza, just across the street from the Grand Central Market, the 2ft 6in narrow-gauge railway runs guests on a quick 2-minute journey to Bunker Hill. It is operational from 6:45 am to 10 pm daily. It’s not only a convenient way to skip a few flights of stairs, but also a rare opportunity to experience a piece of living history. Tickets cost $1 each way, or $2 for a souvenir ticket if you want to have a unique LA memento to take home.
Take a trip on Lil’ Toot, Santa Barbara
Lil’ Toot is Santa Barbara’s happiest boat in the harbor. You can recognize it by its sunshine-yellow bow painted with a smiling face. On weekends, you can clamber aboard and enjoy a sightseeing cruise along Santa Barbara’s beautiful waterfront, on a 15-minute narrated ride.
The cruises run on weekends (weather permitting), leaving the harbor every 15 minutes. Tickets cost $5 for adults and $2 for kids on a one-way trip. You can also book Lil’ Toot for sunset rides, kid’s parties, and events, by visiting the official website.
Unique things to do in California for nature lovers
Nature is full of weird and wonderful things, and California is home to its fair share of unusual sites, landscapes, and creatures.
Meet the creatures of the past at the La Brea Tar Pits, LA
You don’t need a time machine to visit the past, you just need to take a trip to Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits Museum. An active dig site of immense paleontological importance, La Brea Tar Pits is a unique experience in Los Angeles, where budding Alan Grants can get their prehistoric fix.
The on-site museum has scores of fossil remains from the bubbling pits. Visitors can see skeletons of mighty mammoths, saber-tooth cats, and dire wolves. There is a 3D theatre and, of course, the active dig site. Paleontologists are still working every day to uncover the secrets of this remarkable location.
The La Brea Tar Pits are closed on Tuesdays, but otherwise open from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. Adult tickets cost $15, with seniors paying $12 and children $7. The 3D theatre is an additional $6 per ticket.
Discover an unexpected delight at Sunny Jim Cave Store, San Diego
Alongside the surf shacks and souvenir shops of La Jolla is something rather special. Behind the facade of Sunny Jim Cave Store, selling your usual San Diego fare of gifts and equipment rentals is a centuries-old bootlegger’s tunnel leading to a sea cave.
You can get tickets for a self-guided tour of the historic cave at the door. They cost $10 for adults and 6$ for kids. There are 154 stairs to negotiate each way, but the climbing and clambering are worth it. The view of the Pacific Ocean from the mouth of the cave, first discovered in 1903, is spectacular.
Visit Lupe the Mammoth, an Ice Age inhabitant of San Jose
In 2005, a dog walker was taking his pooch for a stroll in a flood channel to the north of San Jose Airport, when he stumbled across something unexpected. He found the enormous remains of a mammoth, its tusks sticking out of the marshy ground of the river bank.
The remains are now on display at the nearby Children’s Museum, but the discovery site also has something to see. A life-sized statue of Lupe the mammoth stands on the site. 78 layers of steel, bent into the shape of a Columbian Mammoth, form the huge structure.
Carry on the prehistoric adventure at the Mammoth Rubbing Rocks, Duncan Mills
In Duncan Mills, near Jenner, California, there are some rather curious rocks. These enormous boulders are impressive in size, but it’s something other than their impressive mass that makes them unique. About 10-14 feet off the ground, the normal rough, rocky surface gives way to a smooth, shiny texture, as if an enormous animal has rubbed itself repeatedly against it.
This is exactly what historians believe happened here, and the animals in question were mammoths. The smooth surface of the rocks is the result of the mighty beasts using them as a sort of prehistoric spa service. They covered themselves in mud, let it dry, and then used the rocks to scrape it off, leaving their thick woolly fur soft, clean, and conditioned. Nowadays, the rocks mostly attract climbers. Even if you don’t fancy a scramble, they’re one of the most unique things to do in California.
Walk among the wildflowers at Calla Lily Valley
If you’re in the Monterey area in early Spring, take a trip to Garrapata State Park. There, you will find glorious fields of fragrant wildflowers. Succulents and lilies bloom in late February and the Calla Valley Lily trail takes you on a magical walk through the heart of them.
You can continue the walk to the nearby beach, which is a great place for a sea-view picnic on the sand. Be aware that you need long pants and closed-toed shoes for exploring the Calla Lily Valley, as poison oak is another plant that inhabits the environment.
Feel like a superhero at Bronson Cave, LA
Holy movie location, Batman! Bronson Cave is Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills is a fantastic short hike with scenic views and a bit of television history thrown in for good measure. The cave is famous for being the film stand-in of the Batcave in the 1960s Batman television show.
The hike itself is a gentle ⅔ mile round trip. There are also bonus views of the Hollywood sign on the way back.
Get to know the plants of the desert at Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium, Palm Springs
Since opening in 1938, this privately owned garden in Palm Springs specializes in desert plants and relics. Moorten Botanical Garden is the world’s first cactarium. The owners coined this term to describe the more than 3,000 types of plants on display. There are also crystals, fossils, and relics of Palm Springs’ pioneer past.
The garden is open every day except Wednesdays and costs $5 per adult and $2 per child. Under 5s can enter for free. For fans of nature, plants, and desert history, Moorten Botanical Garden is one of the most interesting and unique things to do in Palm Springs.
Swing by Devil’s Golf Course for otherworldly views in Inyo
If you’re looking for a unique and surreal place to explore, the Devil’s Golf Course near Death Valley is a good place to start. Jagged, rippling chasms and shards litter the lunar landscape, in what is actually an enormous salt pan. The strange name comes from the 1934 National Park Service guidebook, which described the land as being so craggy, that ‘only the Devil could play’ golf there.
You can visit the Devil’s Golf Course on a trail near Death Valley, and see for yourself the large salt formations. If you listen carefully near the ground, you can even hear the pops and squeaks of the salt crystals expanding in the desert heat.
Experience sacred ground at Indian Canyons, Palm Springs
Not only do the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs boast some of the best hiking around, but they are also a site of huge importance as the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla people. They believe that the land is sacred. The echoes of a time long ago are visible in rock art, house pits, foundations, and infrastructure throughout the canyons.
The Indian Canyons consist of several areas, including Palm Canyon, Tahquitz Canyon, and Murray Canyon. Each one has unique charms and characteristics and makes for a fantastic day hike. As well as being unusual things to do in Palm Springs, the sites are also an unforgettable insight into the sacred power of this desert landscape.
Get the low-down at Badwater Basin, Death Valley
The landscape of Death Valley is one of the most unique and imposing on Earth. Known for extremely high temperatures in the summer and martian surfaces, it is one of California’s top sites for nature lovers and photographers. One of the most famous places in the park is Badwater Basin. At 86m below sea level, the lowest point in North America, a great salt flat covers nearly 200 sq miles of arid California desert. Badwater Basin was once the site of an ancient lake. Lake Manly evaporated in the relentless sun, leaving behind miles of salt and sediment. It is now home to some of the most jaw-dropping views in California, as well as an endemic species of snail found only in this location.
Visiting Badwater Basin is one of Death Valley’s easier hikes, although the walk is not advisable after 10 am in the summer months, due to the high temperatures. It is a 1-mile walk to the edge of the salt flat, over easy terrain. The round-trip takes about 40 minutes.
Hear the song of the sand at Eureka Dunes, Death Valley
The remote Eureka Valley, north of Death Valley National Park is one of California’s most otherworldly landscapes. At 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, the Eureka Sand Dunes are the tallest dunes in California, possibly in all of North America. The impressive mountains of shifting sand rise up out of the barren desert earth like a rolling ocean of gold. Seeing them feels like you have been transported to a distant planet or moon.
The Eureka Dunes have another fascinating feature, once you get over the sheer awe of the sight of them. They are known, occasionally, when conditions are just right, for singing sand. To be witness to this incredible phenomenon, you need a hefty dose of luck on your side for your visit to the Eureka Sand Dunes. Conditions need to be spot on to allow the sand to sing. Firstly, the sand grains must be perfectly round and have a diameter between 0.1 and 0.5 mm. It must contain silica and must meet exacting humidity requirements.
If all of these factors are right when you visit, you may experience the disquieting song of the sands. Even if Mother Nature is not smiling upon you, there is plenty to see in this awesome spot. The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are home to 5 endemic beetle species and 3 endemic plants. Add that to the sheer majesty of the landscape, and the site becomes a must-visit for nature lovers, photographers, and those looking for a unique experience in the California wilderness.
Journey beneath the Earth at the Black Chasm Caverna, Volcano
All caves are pretty cool, it must be said, and the chance to clamber into the darkest recesses of the Earth is something that tempts explorers across the world to don their headlamps and hiking boots. So what if we told you that California was home to a rare and wondrous type of cave? One that contains something only found in 5% of caves anywhere on Earth? We are talking about the Black Chasm Caverna in Volcano, CA. The first documented exploration of the cave occurred in 1854, although it’s highly likely that the local Miwok people knew of its wonders long before then. It was declared a National Landmark in 1976. This afforded the unique contents protection from human interference, ensuring their conservation for future generations. But what is it that makes Black Chasm Caverna so very special?
The cave contains a multitude of geological wonders. Look out for sparkling formations of crystals and an underground lake, so blue in color that it resembles an overeager Photoshop edit. More importantly than all of that, however, are the helictites. You know about stalactites and stalagmites, which are also abundant in the cavern, but it is this third formation that makes the place unique. Helictites are twisting, turning pillars of rock and crystal. They seem to defy gravity as they curl around rocks, over ledges, and up walls. Black Chasm Caverna contains millions of these curious protrusions. It is one of the best places on Earth to see them in all of their strange glory.
You can visit Black Chasm Caverna on a guided walking tour. Tours last for around 50 minutes and descend around 100 feet into the cave. Tours are on a first-come, first-served basis and are limited to 20 people. Experienced naturalists guide the tours. Tours cost $18.50 for adults and $10.00 for kids, with under 5’s allowed in for free. Discounts are also available for seniors and the military. The cavern is open year-round, but timings will change depending on the weather and seasonal conditions.
Get to grips with some weird geology at Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field, Calipatria
See the power of the Earth in action at this fascinating, sticky, squelchy attraction in Calipatria, California. 40 miles east of Palm Springs lies the Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field, a prehistoric-looking landscape of mud volcanoes and gryphons. The area has a whopping 50 mud volcanoes within a 2 square mile region. The magma zone lying approximately 1 mile below the surface of the Earth, causes this to happen. This boiling, fractious, shifting part of the Earth’s crust causes a large amount of CO2 to bubble to the surface. The gas then forces its way out of the ground as belching, bubbling mud volcanoes.
Once the mud has cooled, it hardens into a small earthen mound, like jagged canine teeth sticking up out of the earth. These mounds are called gryphons, and contribute to the all-around weirdness of this unique California landscape.
See a river of fire at Horsetail Falls, Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is not short of incredible sites, and, on certain evenings in late winter, it is home to a rare and precious spectacle. Horsetail Falls, on the eastern edge of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, is a small, slim waterfall that shimmers down the cliffside during the winter months. However, in mid-late February, this little waterfall puts on quite a show. It displays what has become known as the Horsetail Falls Firefall.
In the early evening, when the setting sun hits it just right on a clear day, the water is backlit. It glows a fierce orange color, appearing as if fire is falling down the steep rock face. It is a spectacular sight, possible because of the coincidence of everything lining up perfectly at this time of year. To view the Horsetail Falls Firefall, you need to take a hike through the wonderful scenery of Yosemite. Park at the Yosemite Falls parking area, and then walk 1.5 miles to the El Capitan viewing area. There are restrictions in place limiting footfall in February around the Firefall, to prevent too much disturbance to the environment.
Get up close and personal with the Catalina Island bison herd
When traveling around California, the last thing you might expect to see is an island full of bison, but that’s exactly what you get on Catalina Island. The Catalina Island bison herd has inhabited the region since 1924. Filmmaker Zane Grey ferried a herd of them for his movies The Vanishing American or The Thundering Herd. The bright lights of Hollywood were not ready for the bovine stars. Their part ended up on the cutting room floor, and the filmmakers were then left with a problem; they had no way of transferring the animals back to the mainland. So, there they have stayed ever since. It’s not quite Tinsel Town, but it’s not a bad place for a bison to live.
Nowadays, more than 150 animals thrive on this protected island haven, which is a fantastic day out not just for bison enthusiasts, but lovers of the great outdoors. Driving, hiking, and cycling are just a few of the activities keen naturalists can enjoy on Catalina Island. It’s just 22 miles off of the coast of Los Angeles, making for an ideal break away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. The easiest way to reach Catalina Island from LA is via ferry. Ferries leave from four ports in and around the city; Dana Port, Newport Beach, Long Beach, and San Pedro. Long Beach and San Pedro are the two most central ports to Los Angeles. From either the crossing takes around an hour.
Witness one of nature’s greatest migrations at Monarch Grove Sanctuary, Pacific Grove
Every year, California hosts one of nature’s most spectacular migrations. Thousands of Monarch Butterflies make a 2000-mile journey to the Golden State, their russet wings blazing orange as they fly up to 10000 ft high. The reason for this immense journey is that the butterflies are tropical by nature. They cannot withstand freezing temperatures, so seek warmer climates to overwinter. Those that live east of the Rockies spend the winter in Mexico, while those to the west of the Rocky Mountains head to the balmy shores of California.
You can see this incredible natural wonder in Pacific Grove, Monterey County. Between November and February, visit the Monarch Grove Sanctuary to see butterflies clustered in Eucalyptus trees. They are easy to spot as basketball-sized clumps on the ends of branches. To catch the insects taking flight, you need to time your visit just right. They won’t take to the wing if the temperatures are too high or too low. Mid-morning is the best time to see them active. Admission to the Pacific Grove Monarch Grove Sanctuary is free and remains open on a donation basis. You can take guided tours with knowledgeable docents to learn more about these incredible insects.
See a species brought back from the brink with the Elephant Seals of California
On Ano Nuevo Beach in Pescadero, Sacramento lives the largest elephant seal colony in California. These big, barking, blubbery beasts have fought their way back from the brink of extinction. They can now be seen in all their glory as a testament to the power of conversation, protection, and respect for wildlife. The elephant seal rookery is only open to visitors on a guided tour through the Reserve California website. For the protection of the animals and the visitors, tours with docents run from December 15th through March 31st. Outside of this time, walks are self-guided.
Tours are helmed by dedicated and knowledgeable docents. They lead groups of up to 12 on a 2.5-hour hike of 3-4 miles. There are also accessible tours available for guests who cannot manage the full walk. Guided tours cost $7.00 plus a $3.99 reservation fee, although under 4’s can enter for free.
See the flight of a quarter of a million bats, at Yolo Causeway, Davis
On the subject of great migrations, each year in Davis, just west of Sacramento, some flying critters of a furry variety make Yolo Causeway their summer home. Up to a quarter of a million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats roost in the safety and shade of the great bridge that spans the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. Remarkably, they have been returning to the spot since 1970 to breed.
At sundown, visitors can enjoy the remarkable sight of as many as 250000 bats taking to the dusky skies above Davis, swooping and swirling through the rosy-hued sky in columns and twisting ‘batnadoes’. The Yolo Basin Foundation offers ‘Bat Talk and Walk’ events for the whole family between June and September. The educational sessions last for 3 hours and include fascinating insights into the behavior of the bats, as well as the chance to see them leave the shadow of the bridge for their evening hunt.
Experience the strange glowing millipedes of Sequoia National Park
Another creature of the night inhabits California, at the otherworldly landscape of Sequoia National Park. Instead of craning your neck skyward to the mighty trees stretching towards the heavens, you’ll need to look a bit closer to the ground to see our next California animal attraction. The park is home to 60-legged Motyzia Millipedes, scuttling around in the undergrowth and leaf litter. If you visit during the day, these brown-colored creepy crawlies don’t seem all that special. After the sun sets, however, they do something quite remarkable.
The millipedes are bioluminescent, meaning that they glow an alien shade of blue-green in the darkness. Glowing millipedes are endemic to California, meaning that you can’t find them anywhere else on Earth. The reason for their unique glow is to put off potential predators who fancy slurping down a millipede for supper. They produce a strong and deadly toxin, so the glow serves as a warning of danger. For this reason, it’s very important not to handle a millipede if you come across one.
Seeing the bugs in all their glowing glory is not complicated, it just takes a bit of planning. First, you need to visit the park at night, preferably in the summer and after rain. Millipedes particularly like damp, warm conditions. You will need to turn off your flashlight and allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then, you will begin to see the star-like shine of the insects as they go about their nocturnal business.
Unusual science and space attractions in California
You don’t have to venture to the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt to find some otherworldly oddities; California’s got a few right here on Earth!
Go starry-eyed at Palomar Observatory
In the Cleveland National Forest on the lofty Palomar Mountain sits California’s gateway to the universe; Palomar Observatory. It is owned by Caltech, thus is private property, but is open to the public year-round, drawing thousands of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the universe.
There is an on-site museum to visit, as well as an expert-guided tour of the observatory, in which you can see the impressive 200-inch Hale Telescope. For a long time, this was the largest telescope in operation and has contributed to many important and exciting astronomical discoveries over the years, including a better understanding of stellar evolution and quasars. The Hale Telescope is at an altitude of 1702 meters and is at the mercy of the elements. So, if visiting in winter, it is worth checking the website for updates on whether it is open.
Watch sparks fly at Griffith Observatory’s Tesla Coil
Is there anything more symbolic of the weird and wonderful world of scientific discovery than a Tesla Coil? Images of frizzy-haired scientists in dusty lab coats probably aren’t far from the mind’s eye when thinking about a Tesla Coil, confined as they usually are to textbooks and sci-fi movies. But at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, you have the chance to see a working Tesla Coil for yourself, one of the few open for public observation in the world.
The Tesla Coil is named after the eccentric but ingenious Nikola Tesla, the Serbian inventor who first created it. The first Tesla Coil was displayed in 1891. It was designed with the aim of transmission of electricity through the air, negating the need for wires. It works by converting low-voltage alternating current to a very high voltage and increasing the frequency. At the observatory, you can see this remarkable scientific achievement for yourself, in what is one the most unique things to do in LA. It hums and buzzes as it shoots out arcing sparks of electricity, pulsing through the air like a miniature lightning storm. Demonstrations take place several times a day whenever the Griffith Observatory is open, and are free to attend.
Boldly go and see the Space Shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles
Get up close and personal with a piece of space history at the California Science Center. The majestic Space Shuttle Endeavour completed 25 missions. It serviced the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station, before retiring to the California Science Center in 2011. This is where it has since remained, entrancing visitors and bringing a little bit of the cosmos to Los Angeles.
You can see the Space Shuttle Endeavour on a day trip to the California Science Center. Timed entry reservations are currently required and can be booked on the official website. Adult tickets cost $29.95 for a day pass, and for children, the cost is $19.50. There are also ticket upgrades available to include Imax movie screenings and special events. The Endeavour is in the Samuel Oschin Pavilion and is accompanied by an exhibit gallery exploring its legacy.
Marvel at Monterey’s Moon Tree
It may look like an ordinary tree, but the Monterey Moon Tree has roots going far further than the Earth’s soil. This grand Redwood in Friendly Plaza was gifted to Monterey in 1976 when it was just a humble sapling. What made this young tree so special was that it had already achieved in its short time, something which remains out-of-reach for most except in the wistful synapses of our imaginations; when it was but a seed, this sapling went to space.
It was one of the passengers on Apollo 14, the eighth crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third to land on the Moon. That this seed has boldly gone where no seed had been before makes it an extremely special specimen, one which the people of Monterey are proud of to this day.
Dare to believe at Coyote’s Flying Saucers Retrievals and Repairs, Ocotillo
In the desert landscape is a hidden gem of Southern California; an out-of-this-world curiosity. Coyote’s Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs in dusty Ocotillo is, believe it or not, a roadside UFO repair shop. Run by a passionate fan of all things alien named Coyote, this quirky attraction offers daytime tours of the facility. Whether you believe its providence to be really interstellar or not, it’s hard not to be swept up with Coyote’s enthusiasm and joy for the subject.
You can also attend nighttime movie screenings, with classic sci-fi movies beamed onto a vast boulder out the back of the shop. If you’re looking for fun, unusual, and unique things to do in California, there can be little better than reveling in some classic sci-fi under an inky black desert sky studded with glittering stars.
Be delighted by Phantasma Gloria, LA
In the heart of a residential area is one of the true hidden gems of Los Angeles. A curious installation, which is part art and part science. In pretty Echo Park, a gentleman resident has turned his garden into a technicolor wonderland. Randyland, also called Phantasma Gloria, is an immense sculpture made of colorful glass bottles and water, which refracts the sun into shards of vivid light.
Randyland is open on weekends by appointment only. You can also see the sculpture easily from the road outside of the property.
Explore the wonders of the universe, at Sky’s The Limit Observatory, Twentynine Palms
If your family is space-mad, the Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center in Twentynine Palms is a cosmic day out. This non-profit organization is all about hands-on learning and exploration, cultivating the spirit of discovery that propelled man to the Moon all those years ago.
The campus is full of fun things to do, from wilderness trails, a meditation garden, and an orrery to explore. The observatory also hosts an annual Night Sky Festival in September. Visitors can view the astonishing night sky of Joshua Tree through on-site telescopes and learn about the visible wonders of the universe.
Unusual museums and historical sites in California
Nothing defines the individuality of a place like its history. California’s story is a fascinating one, with twists and turns akin to any great movie. Explore some of these historical unique places to visit in California.
Explore California’s Mexican past at Monterey’s Custom House
History buffs will relish the opportunity to visit the Custom House in Monterey, the oldest building on the West Coast. It is a fascinating living museum, with historic objects and tales of the region’s past, from when Monterey was the only Mexican port of entry on the California coast. It was built by the Mexican government to collect import taxes on goods crossing the border.
The building has been in this spot since the 1820s. That means that there are nearly 200 years of stories within its walls. More impressively, Monterey’s Custom House appears today as it would have done then, filled with period-appropriate furnishings and details. A visit to Custom House is historically one of the most unique things to do in California.
Step into a storybook at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, Solvang
Tucked away on the second floor of The Book Loft store in whimsical Solvang is this charming little museum dedicated to the life and works of beloved Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson. The building itself looks like it has teleported straight from the Black Forest setting of Andersen’s fairy tales, all dark beams, and sloping roof tiles. If you’re a literature, history, or fantasy fan wondering what to do in Solvang, this museum should be at the top of your list.
The museum features many beautiful original paper cuttings done by the man himself. Part of his creative process involved cutting delicate patterns and images into long reams of paper, to be folded out at the end to reveal a scene from one of his stories. It is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 am to 5 pm, and Friday and Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm.
Go bananas at the International Banana Museum in Mecca
If you fancy some fruity fun, this is just the place for you! In sunny Mecca, not far from Coachella Valley, is a museum completely and entirely about bananas. This is a haven for lovers of the curvy yellow fruit, with a record-breaking collection of banana-themed paraphernalia on display. There are over 25000 items and images at the International Banana Museum. If that isn’t appealing enough, there’s also a bar selling snacks and drinks, including ice cream and milkshakes. All banana flavored, naturally.
There is also the opportunity to go a little bit bananas yourself. You can dress up in suitably themed attire and pose in front of the museum’s enormous banana statue. The museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 pm to 9 pm and costs $1 to enter. It is unarguably one of the most unique things to do in California.
Embrace a taste of Tuscany at the Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga
Fancy a taste of Tuscany in the middle of California? The Castle Castello di Amorosa is an authentically styled 13th-century Italian castle in the heart of the state’s famed Napa Valley wine region. Castello di Amorosa, which translates as ‘The Castle of Love’ is the result of a lifelong passion project by fourth-generation winemaker Dario Sattui. He wanted to transplant a little of his Italian heritage into the California countryside. After a lot of painstaking planning and 15 years of building, the castle opened to the public in 2007. It has captivated imaginations ever since. It is a masterpiece of architectural achievement, with authentic features including a moat, a drawbridge, ramparts, and an armory amongst its 107 unique rooms.
The castle is open for tours and tastings by reservation only, which can be booked on the website. Guests can choose from mouth-watering experiences such as antipasti and wine pairing, cheese, charcuterie, and wine sampling, estate tours, and seated wine tasting.
Feel the love at the Unconditional Surrender statue of San Diego
Serving as a monument to the ecstasy of the end of World War II, the ‘Unconditional Surrender’ statue on San Diego’s waterfront has become a symbol of the city since its arrival in 2007. The original statue, created from foam by artist J. Seward Johnson, and based upon the famous photograph of the kissing couple in Times Square on V.J Day, was only meant to be temporary. But the people of San Diego fell in love with the installation. Once the foam incarnation had had its moment in the sun and sea air, money was raised to replace it with a permanent bronze statue.
The new statue was unveiled in 2013 at the Greatest Generation Walk at the Port of San Diego. The imposing USS Midway serves as guardian and backdrop to the statue, which attracts visitors all year round. Look out for love-struck couples mirroring the iconic pose beneath the statue itself. To find the statue, head to Tuna Harbor Park, which opens at 6 am and shuts at 10:30 pm. There is also much more wonderful public art along the Greatest Generation Walk to enjoy.
Quirky places to eat and drink in California
Often, a vacation is remembered for the food you eat and the culinary experiences that you have. Ensure that you wine and dine in a memorable way at these unique and unusual California restaurants.
Serve up a slice of history at The Steinbeck House Restaurant in Salinas
For a delicious meal with a side order of literary history, stop by the Steinbeck House in Salinas. This impressive Victorian property was the birthplace and boyhood home of famed author John Steinbeck. It now serves as a restaurant and event venue. You can visit for a hearty meal of classic American dishes. Menu highlights include Philly Cheesesteaks, Cobb Salads, and a hearty selection of homemade cakes and sandwiches. There is also an extensive plant-based menu. The Steinbeck Restaurant is part of the Monterey County Blue Zone Project, which aims to make healthy eating easy.
The Steinbeck House is also an event venue and hosts entertaining themed meals throughout the year. The most popular event happens at the end of February. What would have been John Steinbeck’s birthday is marked with an interactive murder mystery dinner. Those wishing to attend need to buy tickets in advance, which cost $100 per person.
Tickle your tastebuds at Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, LA
It’s thirsty work finding all of California’s hidden gems, so why not incorporate a pop stop into your itinerary? Galco’s Soda Pop Stop on York Boulevard, Los Angeles, is the place to go for any type and flavor of soda you could dream of, and some that you probably can’t. Over 400 varieties are available on stacked shelves, a multi-color wonderland of bubbling beverages.
From common fruity flavors, classic colas, alcoholic offerings, unusual imports, and weird and wacky combos (a bottle of Leninade, anyone? Or how about sangria-flavored pop from Mexico?) the options are endless. If somehow, you can’t find anything to your liking on the shelves, you can also mix up your own concoction of syrup and soda water, creating something unique for you or your traveling companions.
Enjoy a ‘fragrant’ meal at The Stinking Rose, Beverly Hills Los Angeles
Vampires, beware – The Stinking Rose is not the place for you! This unique restaurant in LA champions all things garlic and boasts a menu stacked with stinky suppers and sides.
Choose from appetizers such as ‘Garlic Soaking In A Hot Tub’, mains including meat and pasta dishes with a garlicky twist, and even the restaurant’s famous garlic ice cream. The allium reverence doesn’t end there, however, as each room of the restaurant is themed around the star ingredient. You can dine in The Michaelangelo Room, complete with an updated version of the renowned artist’s Creation Of Adam, featuring a garlic bulb (of course), or Dracula’s Grotto, a medieval-themed gothic hideaway. You can also purchase a plethora of garlic memorabilia to remember your evening by. Just don’t forget to pack some breath mints!
Unique things to do in California for fans of movies, art, and culture
It wouldn’t be a list of unique places to visit in California without mentioning the movies! The Golden State is home to the epicenter of movies, Los Angeles. With such a storied history in the arts, it makes sense that there are lots of awesome unique cultural attractions to visit.
Feel the Force at the Yoda fountain in San Francisco
Perhaps you’re in need of a little spiritual guidance on your quest for California’s hidden gems. If so, stop by San Francisco for a visit to the wrinkly green guru of the Jedi arts, Master Yoda.
In San Francisco, the home of Lucasfilm, you can visit a stunning Yoda fountain and other cool Star Wars memorabilia at the Presidio, the offices of the filmmaking company. The building has a gate, but security will allow fans to see the statue. The lobby also opens for visitors to view the other impressive memorabilia on display. Entry is free, and it’s a fun and unusual San Francisco attraction for wannabee Jedis, Sith, or rebels. It is also near the stunning Palace of Fine Arts, worth a visit on any tour of San Francisco.
Get your geek on at Rancho Obi-Wan, Petaluma
Another one for those who wish they could vacation in a galaxy far, far away. Rancho Obi-Wan houses the world’s largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia. Located in Petaluma in Sonoma Country California, Rancho Obi-Wan started as a collection by a dedicated fan and Lucasfilm employee, Steve Sansweet. What began as a small personal collection has grown into a bounty that Boba Fett would be proud of.
You can tour the collections of Rancho Obi-Wan, one of the unique things to do in California for Star Wars fans. Even if you can’t tell the difference between X-Wings and Tie Fighters, or don’t know if these, in fact, are the droids you’re looking for, knowledgeable, passionate docents will guide you through the stash. Even the most casual fan will come out knowing all there is to know about the world of Star Wars.
Visit a place of literary royalty at Mark Twain’s Cabin, Sonora
Samuel Langhorne Clemens is one of America’s most beloved and acclaimed writers of all time, better known today by his pen name; Mark Twain. It was at this very cabin, a ramshackle old thing on the side of Jackass Hill Road in Sonora, California, that he began his writing career. ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County’ was his first popular work, and he wrote it right here. That first leap into the world of fiction would lead Twain down the path to literary stardom. Masterworks such as The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and The Prince And The Pauper would soon follow.
Fans of the author’s humorous and witty writing can visit Mark Twain’s Cabin. The majority of the building is now a replica of the original hut, but the chimney and fireplace are still original. There is a small stone plaque outside, identifying it as a place of significant importance to American literary history.
Go on the Last Crusade to Imagination Park in San Anselmo
If you’re a movie fan in the neighborhood of San Anselmo, take a quick detour to Imagination Park. Donated by George Lucas to commemorate the birthplace of two of his biggest and most impactful movie franchises, it’s a fun place for movie buffs to come face-to-face with some of cinema’s most famous characters. It was in the charming San Anselmo that Lucas drafted his first stories for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It is therefore statues of the eponymous explorer, along with Master Yoda, who greet visitors to Imagination Park.
Lucas donated the statues in 2013, foreseeing the park as a place for people to enjoy peace and the spirit of creativity in a beautiful outdoor setting. Imagination Park is a favorite place for locals to gather for picnics, games, and relaxation, under the watchful gaze of two of pop culture’s most beloved characters.
‘Haunted’ buildings and spooky attractions
Search for the ‘Squatch at the China Flat Museum, Willow Creek
When asked about California’s most famous residents, you might name some high-flying movie star or big-shot director. But has anyone managed to gain as far-reaching infamy and notoriety as the subject of the Willow Creek China Flat Museum? We are, of course, talking about everyone’s favorite mystery cryptid; Bigfoot. The mighty ape/man/creature was famously spotted lumbering around the dense woodland of Willow Creek. This fun and fascinating museum covers every inch of the spooky story.
Founded in 1988, the China Flat Museum has an entire wing dedicated to uncovering the truth about their friendly neighborhood Sasquatch, as well as more general exhibits about the history of the area. It’s free to visit, although donations to the Bigfoot cause are greatly appreciated.
Be bamboozled by the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot
In a forest just outside Santa Cruz, is a scientific anomaly so confounding, it attracts visitors from far and wide just to experience the weirdness for themselves. The Santa Cruz Mystery Spot was first discovered in 1939 by a group of surveyors. Ever since that moment, has defied our knowledge of physics. A small circular area of about 50 feet in diameter contains unique variations in gravity, perspective, and height. The topsy-turvey attraction has stunned and delighted visitors for decades.
The reason for the strange behavior of space and time in this spot is unknown. Theories range from blaming a hole in the Ozone Layer, Carbon Dioxide, a magma vortex, and a buried alien spacecraft. Whatever the reason, the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot is a fun, mind-bending, and unforgettable experience in California. You can take a guided tour of the spot, as well as enjoy beautiful hiking trails through the forest. Tours cost from $8 per person, with an additional parking charge of $5.
Brave the Beverly Hills Bermuda Triangle
The Beverly Hills Bermuda Triangle might not be home to any cryptids, demons, or restless spirits, but it is definitely a spooky place nonetheless. In a small area between North Linden Drive and North Whittier Drive, there is a section of land that has been described as ‘cursed’. There has been a long and tragic list of accidents, incidents, and crimes in this small section of the glamorous LA suburb. The first was in 1946 when experienced aviator Howard Hughes crashed his plane into the street for no apparent reason. Although Hughes survived the crash, he was badly injured. This turned out to be just the first of many unexplained incidents. This unexplainable anomaly has led to this part of Beverly Hills gaining its unwholesome reputation.
Several paranormal investigators have visited the curious site over the years. Many have sensed so-called ‘negative energy, despair and pain’. Whether or not this is truly the case, the Bermuda Triangle of Beverly Hills is a strange and unsettling place in the shining hills of Hollywood. You can visit the spot independently, or take part in a supernatural or ghost tour of LA, most of which visit the site.
Have a spirited time at Whaley House San Diego
For a bit of spooky history in Old Town San Diego, Whaley House needs to be at the top of your list. Holding the ‘accolade’ of the most haunted house in America, the house has a dark and storied history, interwoven with tales of ghostly happenings and paranormal mysteries.
Even before Whaley House stood on the site, the land had garnered a reputation amongst locals in San Diego. It was the execution spot of the infamous ‘Yankee Jim’, and people say that his restless, malevolent spirit still wanders nearby. But that is just the first of many shadowy spirits residing in the walls of this handsome historic house. Many members of the Whaley family, who built the home and lived in it, are said to roam the halls. Visitors on evening tours often report unexplained feelings, sounds, and events taking place.
Fancy yourself a ghost hunter? You can book yourself a spot on one of the evening tours at Whaley House. Tours last around 30 minutes. You will be led around the echoing halls and through creaking doors in search of the home’s ghostly inhabitants. You’ll hear tales of history and mystery from throughout the years, and perhaps even encounter something unexplainable. Tickets for an evening tour cost $18 and might be unsuitable for under 13s. If you want to experience the history of Whaley House in the safe, bright light of day, you can also take a day tour to learn more about the fascinating and unique San Diego icon. You can buy tickets for both day and evening tours on the Whaley House website.
Weird and wonderful attractions in California
Rub shoulders with Chicken Boy, LA
Giza has the Pyramids. London has Big Ben. Sydney has the Opera House. And Los Angeles has Chicken Boy. This 22-foot tall fiberglass chimera looms over LA from its perch atop the Future Studio Gallery on North Figueroa Street on historic Route 66. Part man, part fowl, all fun, this quirky resident has become fondly known as LA’s Statue of Liberty.
How Chicken Boy came to be the poster child of LA’s weird side is a twisting, turning tale. He was once the mascot of a chicken restaurant, tempting hungry diners in for a tasty piece of fried poultry. When the restaurant shut its doors for the final time in 1984, the feathery fiend’s future looked uncertain; the scrapheap beckoned, and Chicken Boy looked to be destined to be but a footnote in Los Angeles’ star-studded history books.
But a reprieve came thanks to the efforts of a plucky (or should that be clucky) artist named Amy Inouye. Chicken Boy was duly adopted into her care, where he has remained ever since. He stayed in storage for a couple of decades, until he was at last unleashed upon Los Angeles once more, making a (hopefully) permanent roost on the aforementioned Future Studio Gallery. Swing by to see this hidden gem in LA, an icon of the city in all his bonkers glory, looming large over the city.
Feel the heat at the World’s Largest Thermometer, Baker
Death Valley gets seriously hot in the summertime. So hot, in fact, that it recorded the hottest temperature ever, in July 1913. To mark the mercury reaching blistering heights of 134 degrees Fahrenheit, how else to mark the spot than with a literal representation of the world’s highest temperature? That’s what the world’s largest thermometer in Baker, California signifies.
The thermometer has a long history, dating back to 1991 when it was originally a restaurant advertisement. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long in the job. Strong winds blew it over, hastening a speedy rebuild in stronger materials. It then changed hands several times throughout the years, finally arriving in its current spot in July 2014, just in time for the 101st anniversary of that record-breaking day in 1913.
Go green at the world’s largest artichoke statue in Castroville
Not content with just one record-breaking oddity, California is also home to the world’s largest artichoke. The farming town of Castroville in Monterey County is renowned for producing these scaly green globes. Residents have decided that when it comes to pedaling your veg, bigger is definitely better. Residing out front of a restaurant and vegetable stall named, unsurprisingly, ‘Giant Artichoke’, is the world’s biggest statue of the vegetable in question. The concrete structure stands 20 feet high in the car park of the restaurant, tempting passers-by for a photoshoot and snack in the ‘Artichoke Centre of the World.’
Castroville also holds an annual artichoke festival, celebrating the bountiful, year-round harvest that has come to define the town. While artichokes and Hollywood might not go hand-in-hand, the festival does have a rather glamorous connection. None other than Marilyn Monroe was crowned Castroville’s first artichoke queen in 1948.
Beep your horn at the big metal roadrunner in La Quinta
Is there a more iconic desert creature than the speedy roadrunner? The unusual avian inhabitant of North America zoomed into the hearts of kids and adults alike as the cheeky foil of Wil E Coyote in Looney Tunes cartoons. Now, a big metal incarnation has made a nest on a traffic circle in La Quinta.
The big metal roadrunner started out as an installation at the Coachella Music Festival in 2014. It welcomed music lovers at the entrance to the rocking desert event. It’s here that the mayor of La Quinta fell for the mighty statue. Once the festival was over, she struck a deal for the roadrunner to find a new role overseeing the traffic flow on La Quinta’s Jefferson Street.
Illuminate your senses at Urban Light, Los Angeles
At the entrance of LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), is this startling installation. An almost-grid of lamp posts from the 1930s and 1940s sourced from around California, set in rows and columns. They illuminate the LA sky with the warm glow of hundreds of white lamps.
Consisting of 202 marble-white lamps, Urban Light has been described as looking both like a modern performance piece and an ancient temple. It invites visitors to lose themselves amongst the maze of poles and dazzling lights. The display is a great place for unique photography opportunities, as well as having an incredible ambiance.
Visit the Valley Of The Names in Winterhaven
An arid, sandy landscape in Winterhaven, California is home to one of the most unexpected and touching sites in the state. The Valley of the Names, a 1200-acre site, is a monument from World War II. Soldiers training in the area used the barren landscape as a blank canvas. They placed black lava rocks on the ground in patterns that spelled out the names of their loved ones, in the hope that, if they should not return from battle, their messages of love would live on. Live on they did, for the messages still remain in Winterhaven today.
In fact, the collection continues to grow, as anyone can leave a rocky message in the sand. Each person brings rocks from outside the desert, as the land is so sparse. To find the Valley of the Names, you need a four-wheel drive. Prepare for a tricky drive across the rolling desert terrain, over hills, valleys, and shifting sands until you reach your destination. Once there, it’s hard not to be impressed and moved by the monument; a permanent memorial to the permanence of love amongst the shifting sands of time.
Hop over to Bunny Henge at Newport Beach
Stretching over 16 acres, with miles of walking trails, bridges, viewing platforms, and a dog park, Civic Center Park at Newport Beach, California is a fantastic outdoor space to while away a few hours with the family. What makes the park unique and unusual is its curious artwork. One of the most unusual sculptures is ‘Bunny Henge’.
Bunny Henge is a collection of 14 huge white concrete rabbits, arranged in a circle, looking inwards. They might look like they are part of some sort of strange summoning ritual, but the bunnies are really to encourage kids to clamber, climb and sit on them, in a bid to provoke play and flights of imagination. The bunnies are a well-established part of Civic Center Park. Although they have generated controversy amongst some because of their initial cost, it seems as though the whimsical creatures are there to stay.
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