50 California Landmarks You Need to See Before You Bite the Dust
Apparently it's super easy to get historical landmark status in California, seeing as though we have more than ONE THOUSAND of them. Because there are so many, knowing which ones are actually worth seeing is kinda-sorta impossible... for people who don't read this story that will tell you exactly which ones you should put on your bucket list.
A sweet old lady began constructing walkways, shrines, and buildings out of recycled items and discarded bottles from the local landfill, and over the course of 25 years it grew to a “village” -- and an awe-inspiring example of California’s 20th-century folk art environments.
Originally operating as the Grand Union Hotel in the late 1880s, it’s now a museum and considered one of the state’s most haunted places. Several different ghost researchers and psychics corroborate the existence of three, yeah, THREE separate ghosts. OooooOOOOOooooooOOOOO.
3. Bodega HarbourBodega Bay
While originally used by Russian fur traders in the 1800s, this cool coastal inlet is best known as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.
As the oldest commercial winery in California, we can not only credit Agoston Haraszthy aka “The Count of Buena Vista” with pioneering the wine country in 1857, but he’s also known as the first to plant hops in Wisconsin, setting the scene for the American beer industry. A true American hero... even though he was born in Hungary.
Fun vineyard fact: this is the only winery in Sonoma to operate during Prohibition, making a small portion of sacramental and medicinal wine.
6. Sonoma PlazaSonoma
The largest plaza in California and home to the Bear Flag Revolt, which led to the Mexican-American War. It’s now a lovely spot to picnic and remains the center of Downtown Sonoma life.
7. Big Basin Redwoods State ParkSanta Cruz
Home to 10,800 acres of old-growth forest and the largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco, this awe-inspiring stretch of land is California’s oldest state park.
8. The Santa Cruz Beach BoardwalkSanta Cruz
Founded in 1907, the classic boardwalk is the state’s oldest amusement park, and still home to one of the two wooden roller coasters. (The other is in San Diego.)
Constructed in 1892 over the San Lorenzo River, this cool structure is the tallest covered bridge in the United States. It’s no longer accessible to cars, but pedestrians can walk on it during a nature hike in Santa Cruz.
10. Mission San Diego de AlcaláSan Diego
Founded on July 16, 1769 by Father Junipero Serra, this classic adobe is the first Franciscan mission in what would later become San Diego. Fun fact: the striking bell wall contains a bell that weighs 1,200lb.
11. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic ParkColoma
The site where James W. Marshall first discovered gold in 1848, sparking the Gold Rush. Today the state park is home to a monument of Marshall and a cool interactive museum featuring mining equipment, horse-drawn vehicles, and other Gold Rush memorabilia.
12. The Old Custom HouseMonterey
This humble building marks the site where US Commodore John Drake Sloat first raised the American flag and declared California part of the United States, making it the state’s first historical landmark.
13. Hearst CastleCentral Coast
During its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, this castle, designed by famous architect Julia Morgan for San Francisco newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, played host to the Hollywood and political elite. It also provided the inspiration for the "Xanadu" mansion in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Today, it’s one of NorCal’s coolest museums and home to the world’s largest private zoo where exotic animals still roam the grounds.
14. Jack London State Historic ParkGlen Ellen
Where Jack London lived and wrote his works, today the historic site is home to ruins, London’s home, and his and his wife’s graves.
15. Petrified ForestSonoma
A volcano eruption at Mount St. Helena 3.4 million years ago began the thousands-years process of creating a petrified forest, essentially freezing or preserving the trees in history and offering a rare glimpse into an ancient woodlands.
16. The HP GaragePalo Alto
Called the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley,” this humble garage was the setting for Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s first business meeting that would launch Hewlett-Packard and begin a long history of insanely smart nerds making it BIG in suburban garages.
17. Alcatraz IslandSan Francisco
One of the only major tourist attractions San Franciscans seem to agree is totally worth touring, even if you’re a local. Also see: the Rock.
18. Yosemite ValleyYosemite
Fun fact: President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill in 1864 designating Yosemite Valley "for public use, resort and recreation," marking the first time the federal government set aside land just for enjoyment for all people. Of course, the Native Americans who inhabited the land for 8,000 years before that would likely see this move as a little late to the party.
19. Governor's Mansion State Historic ParkSacramento
The 30-room, three-story Second Empire-Italianate Victorian mansion was built in 1877 and has housed 13 governors and their families. The 14th, Jerry Brown, is set to move in there at the end of the year.
This elaborate Victorian greenhouse home to rare and exotic plants was completed in 1878, making it the oldest building in Golden Gate Park.
21. The Bok Kai TempleMarysville
A traditional Chinese temple originally constructed to serve the immigrant population who flooded the area to work in gold mines. It still stands today and is occasionally used as a place of worship of Xuan Wu, the god of water, believed to control the rain.
22. Golden Gate BridgeSan Francisco
The international symbol for San Francisco and considered one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the beloved orange bridge connecting SF with Marin also holds the illustrious distinction of being one of the most Instagrammed places in the city.
23. Presidio of Santa BarbaraSanta Barbara
A former military base, the presidio is now a tourist attraction and museum. Cañedo Adobe and the two-room soldiers quarters, called El Cuartel, are the only original structures still standing.
24. Presidio of San FranciscoSan Francisco
With a rich history spanning back to the native Ohlone people, San Francisco’s presidio is one of the coolest parks to take in hiking, spectacular views, old army forts, bowling, a trampoline park, spires, golf courses, craft beers, and even a statue of Yoda. Read all about its secret spots!
25. Telegraph HillSan Francisco
One of SF’s original seven hills. Those willing to hike up Coit Tower’s 378 stairs will be rewarded with 360-degree views of the Bay Area.
26. Treasure IslandSan Francisco
This man-made island is now best known for its flea market and yearly music festival. But there are also 12 other fun things to do on this little pocket of land in the middle of the Bay.
A must-stop for film buffs, this old barn was one of Hollywood’s first film studios and is now home to the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
28. Christmas Tree LaneAltadena
According to the association that runs this, this lane of just-under-a-mile of cedar trees has been lighting up every year since 1920 and claims it’s the largest Christmas lighting spectacle in the United States. It’s definitely one of the prettiest.
29. Union SquareSan Francisco
Considering Union Square was originally a sand dune, this bustling tourist destination complete with one of the highest concentrations of boutiques and department stores in the country has certainly come a long way since it was leveled to create one of SF’s first public parks in 1850.
Completed in 1931, this gorgeous Oakland theater is one of the state’s best examples of ornate Art Deco design -- and the best place in the Bay to take in everything from a symphony, to stand-up comedy, to a rock show, to a vintage movie.
31. Avila AdobeLos Angeles
Once home to a wealthy cattle rancher, this humble (by today’s LA standards) adobe home is the oldest standing building in all of LA.
32. Mark Hopkins HotelSan Francisco
A member of Historic Hotels of America and the oldest InterContinental hotel in the country, this skyscraper hotel on one of the highest peaks in SF is probably best known these days for its glass-encased penthouse bar. Top of the Mark is one of the bars you need to drink in before you die.
33. Lone MountainSan Francisco
University of San Francisco was once home to a cemetery, but in the 1920s the city voted to move its 47,000 inhabitants just south of the city in Colma. Thousands of crypts and mausoleums were unearthed and the granite was used to reinforce the seawalls along the shoreline. Some say the move amounted to vandalism and sacrilege -- let’s hope the 47,000 ghosts don’t agree.
34. Ebbetts PassSierras
This stunning valley among the Sierras was used by the Miwok and Washoe Indians to cross the mountains and was most likely the route taken by Jedediah Smith in 1827, who was the first non-native to cross the Sierra Nevada.
35. Angel IslandMarin
Angel Island fact: you used to be able to walk from San Francisco to Angel Island during low tide. Now it requires a ferry but is totally worth it for the hiking, stargazing, and camping at one of the coolest sites that affords SF skyline views.
36. Emigrant GapSierras
This scenic vista is visible on the way to Tahoe, offering a glimpse of the treacherous terrain crossed by pioneers in covered wagons for the first time in 1845.
37. State CapitolSacramento
If you’re thinking this grand building looks more DC than Sacramento that’s because the home to California’s government was designed to resemble the US Capitol building with huge granite archways and elaborate Corinthian columns.
38. Marin Civic CenterMarin
Not just an architectural marvel, serving as Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commission, but this Marin courthouse was also the inspiration for George Lucas’ Naboo in Star Wars.
39. California’s First TheatreMonterey
Located in the Monterey State Park, this adobe was originally constructed as a lodge and tavern for the state’s first sailors, and a source of entertainment for army officers stationed in Monterey.
As the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa and the first to offer tours after Prohibition was repealed, this gorgeous estate has the whole wine-tasting tours thing down. Definitely be sure to check out the caves when you go!
41. Cresta Blanca WineryLivermore
This Livermore winery’s first vintage in 1884 won grand prize at the 1889 Paris Exposition, becoming the first California wine to win a competition in France and ensuring the state’s wine industry would be respected throughout the world.
42. China Camp State ParkSan Rafael
One of Marin’s most underrated hiking, biking, and camping areas, this plot of land -- nestled in San Rafael on the shores of San Pablo Bay -- surrounds a historic Chinese-American shrimping village which thrived during the 1880s.
While now under the guidance of Robert Mondavi, history is well preserved at this Napa vineyard where the original owner Charles Krug is credited with introducing winemaking innovation, such as the use of a press and selecting specific roots and varietals -- a novel concept during the 19th century.
The closest you’ll get to France without leaving the state, this Calistoga winery is one of California’s premium brands for sparkling wine, largely because it mimics the famed French region in varietals and technique.
45. The Beach Boys Historic LandmarkLos Angeles
Music buffs pay homage to the plaque (inspired by the Surfer Girl album cover) which marks the childhood home of Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson.
46. Manhattan Beach PierLos Angeles
The pier is believed to be one of the first structures built when the community was established in the early 1900s. But mostly it’s just really, really good looking.
47. Joaquin Miller HouseOakland
Also known as The Abbey or The Highs, this classic Victorian was home to the poet Joaquin Miller from 1886 to 1913 (when he died).
48. Point Sur LighthousePoint Sur
After many ships and the Gold Rushing crews on board perished on this treacherous piece of coastline, the lighthouse was finally approved and established in 1889. It’s still in operation today and still a great place to snap a pic.
The longest continuously operating art museum in the West, it hosts one of the largest collections of Californian art.
50. Old Sacramento State Historic ParkSacramento
All the buildings in this old part of the state’s capital date back to the 19th century and look largely the same today as they did then.
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Amy Copperman is a regular contributor to Thrillist. Hit her up for a nerdy historic road trip through California on Twitter.