Southern California recommendations for art/culture/history nerds
August 26, 2009 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Southern California recommendations for art/culture/history nerds in our late thirties/early forties?

My husband and I are planning a trip to San Diego at the end of October. I have to be in San Diego proper on October 28, but other than that, we're free for 7 full days around that date. Here are some things about us:

- Love history, art, culture, and nature; left-wing commie pinko former punks (prefer gritty SF Mission murals to opera)
- Indifferent/hostile to movie stars, theme parks, and overpriced tourist traps
- Independent, experienced world travelers
- Not surfers or beach people, but we enjoy a good view
- No kids
- Vegans
- Non-drinkers

We have been to San Francisco before, but nowhere else in CA. We're thinking it might be fun to do an open-jaws trip - fly into San Jose and drive south, then maybe see a little of LA before arriving in San Diego and flying out. Given our timeframe and quirks, where would you recommend we visit? Hotel recommendations, restaurants (with vegan options), and sights to see all welcome.

Here are the places currently on my list:
First night: Ragged Point Inn, followed by Hearst Castle/San Simeon the next day

Driving down the coast, stopping at...
San Luis Obispo?
Santa Barbara?
La Jolla Canyon (hike)

Los Angeles area:
Watts Towers
Getty Center
Santa Monica?
Catalina Island?

San Diego:Wild Animal Park, Balboa Park/San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp District

PS Some of these recommendations have come from the other CA travel threads, so thanks for all the previous comments!
posted by acridrabbit to Travel & Transportation around California (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In San Diego, last summer, we went on a limousine "ghost tour" around the city, and it was one of the most fun things I remember doing in a long time. (I linked to the Yelp review because the actual site has an embedded music file that pains my ears, so I wanted to pre-warn you to turn your speakers down or off before clicking the actual link.) My understanding was that the people who were there because of a genuine "ghost hunting" interest really had fun, and as skeptics with an interest in social history, we really enjoyed it too. I particularly liked being able to see some of the great historical buildings and spots around the Gaslamp area and the Hotel Del Coronado, as well as an old ship that was docked at a harbor. The tour guides were dressed in a vintage tuxedo and frilly dress in San Diego summer night weather and were quite the troopers, I thought. Anyway, this is a fairly kitschy niche-interest sort of thing, maybe, but I absolutely loved it.
posted by so_gracefully at 1:26 PM on August 26, 2009

If you hate tourist traps, avoid San Diego's Old Town (it's OK if you're trying to spend $ on artsy-craftsy type things, but Both the zoo and the wild animal park are great. Balboa Park has tons of other interesting places to check out, like the Old Globe.

Missions to visit include Santa Barbara Mission and Mission San Juan Capistrano.

I may be alone here, but I prefer the Getty Villa (which has all the antiquities) to the Getty Center. However, if you don't have much time to spend in the LA area, the Villa is probably too much of a commute. LACMA is a great museum, and right next to the tar pits. To combine art with nature, try the Huntington Library, which has extensive gardens in addition to the art galleries.

My memories of Catalina Island suggest that it's probably most enjoyable for, well, surfers and beach people, as well as the campers.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:35 PM on August 26, 2009

I'm a left-wing commie pinko type myself, and -- surprisingly, perhaps -- I always find Hearst Castle to be pretty interesting. I mean, you have to go into it with a healthy level of cynicism about the Hearst hagiography that you're going to be asked to swallow, but if you know that ahead of time (and are lucky enough to get one of the tour guides who's kind of in on the joke and won't make nasty comments about Orson Welles), it's a fascinating glimpse into a particular era.

This also gives you the excuse to spend some time in Big Sur (about an hour or so north on PCH), which is TOTALLY awesome and a great slice of California history in its own way. Big Sur is also home to the Henry Miller Library, which might be up your alley as well.
posted by scody at 1:36 PM on August 26, 2009

Oh good god, I somehow skipped over your first day's itinerary. Sorry. But do go to the Henry Miller Library!
posted by scody at 1:38 PM on August 26, 2009

Getty Center reminds me more of a mausoleum for art than an actual museum. Lots of bucks for not much bang.

Watts Towers . . . meh.

The on-campus UCLA Botanical Garden is pretty smallish, but nice nonetheless. Hiking up Runyon Canyon is something I've wanted to do for a while.

The LACMA and La Brea Tar pits are cool.

Of the places to stop and walk, Carmel and Laguna Beach are rather nice, if a bit hoighty-toighty.

Crystal Cove State Park is like the nicest beach in LA I've seen yet.

Not sure about Catalina. I went there in '91 for scuba dive and the place reminded me of the community featured in The Prisoner, but hey. Laguna Beach offers a similar experience without the hourlong boat ride.
posted by @troy at 1:40 PM on August 26, 2009

Oops, forgot about Pacific Grove and Point Lobos, which bracket Carmel. Great places to pack lunch and watch the surf & sky.
posted by @troy at 1:43 PM on August 26, 2009

I can't give you cultural recs, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is absolutely amazing and since you were considering the SD Wild Animal Park, you might also be interested in the aquarium.
posted by clerestory at 1:49 PM on August 26, 2009

Ditch the Getty Center and head to the Norton Simon in Pasadena.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:50 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: My most favorite vegan restaurant, Native Foods, has several Southern California locations (but none in San Diego). In San Diego, you absolutely must eat at one of several vegan-friendly Mexican food places: El Zarape, Pokez, and/or Rancho's. Actually, there's quite a lot of great vegan food in San Diego, but you know, Mexican food. Yum.

Torrey Pines State Beach in La Jolla has some nice hikes too, and it's one of the most scenic parts of San Diego.

Balboa Park is a must-see, and some of the museums are pretty nice and reasonably priced. There are a lot of restaurants near Balboa Park that are good and vegan-friendly. With the Wild Animal Park, you'll have a bit more of a problem. The food at both the zoo and the Wild Animal Parks isn't great, and isn't very vegan-friendly at all (this has long been a source of irritation for me). I'd strongly suggest packing some sandwiches or eating a big breakfast before going to the park and not planning to eat much a meal there. After the Park though, pay a visit to the Stone Bistro. I know you're non-drinkers, so going to a brewery might be weird, but their vegan shepard's pie is actually really tasty, and it's a beautiful outdoor garden setting.

For any other vegan dining recommendations, feel free to email me. I'm afraid I can't help with any of your other questions, except to say that Sequoias National Park is absolutely gorgeous, but that appears to be a bit further inland than your proposed itinerary is taking you (although really, it's worth spending a few days just there, if you can spend the time and love giant amazing trees).
posted by booknerd at 1:57 PM on August 26, 2009

I'll second the Huntington library/museum/gardens. From everything in your question I think it's a good fit.
posted by madmethods at 2:20 PM on August 26, 2009

Seconding the Huntington Library -- I suspect you'll probably love it.

Yeah -- you probably want to skip Catalina. Not a lot to do there that you can't also find on the mainland.

The Birch Aquarium in La Jolla is much smaller than the Monterey Bay Aquarium but also worth a visit if you're interested in sea life.

I've always wanted to go kayaking at the La Jolla Caves (as I mention in every San Diego thread).

I like meat, but I apparently I also like vegetarian boys, and I've had a couple of them take me (or try) to Sipz. It's not my thing, so I'd trust booknerd's recommendations over mine any day.
posted by natabat at 2:20 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: October is the best time to visit the Central Coast, it can remarkably warm and fog free, compared to the summer.

- 2nd on the rec for Point Lobos, just south of Carmel, it is amazing

- It's a long drive down to San Simeon from San Jose on 1 and if it was me I'd skip the Ragged point inn(bit too touristy for my taste), and stay at a cabin in Big Sur (big sur lodge or big sur river inn), then you can really take in Big Sur rather than just drive through. We've had great meals at the Big Sur Bakery and Deetjen's (tho' we're not vegan), and the view at Nepenthe is not to be missed

- on your way to san simeon, be sure to stop in and see the elephant seals just north of San Simeon. Robins in Cambria is a wonderful veggie/vegan friendly institution.

If you like hot springs there are cool ones at Sycamore Mineral Springs in Avila (just north of Pismo Beach) - you rent a hot tub out in the woods.

if you haven't tired of rugged coastal views by the time you hit San Luis Obispo, check out Montana D'Oro (morro bay). SLO's a college town, so there's plenty of food options, Big Sky Cafe or Natural Cafe are a couple that come to mind as a couple that might be vegan friendly.
posted by snowymorninblues at 2:28 PM on August 26, 2009

Huntington Library: awesome.

Santa Monica: a fine place, but "art/culture/history" are pretty much the last three things I'd associate with it.

A little off the beaten tourist path: Barnsdall Art Park. Great views of the city, Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood sign, and it also contains the city's only Frank Lloyd Wright house open to the public, the Hollyhock house.

Oh and the Observatory itself is open again. You should go up there, you won't be disappointed.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:31 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Watts Towers . . . meh.

You gotta be kidding me! The Watts Towers is a really unique art piece that is *so* worth seeing - nothing like it anywhere else, that's for sure. And it's the antithesis of the overpriced tourist trap. You'll love it.
posted by chez shoes at 2:33 PM on August 26, 2009

Uh, more to the point on the Watts Towers—it's still closed for renovations.

The Getty Center is different from the Getty Villa. I haven't been to the villa, but the center is nice.

As far as vegan food, there are two places in LA I'd recommend without qualification: Real Food Daily and Pure Luck. RFD is more of a dine, Pure Luck is for funky jackfruit tacos (which are pretty damn tasty). RFD just got a license, so you can get beer there now (which is why I used to recommend against it).

If you want total weirdness, try the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
posted by klangklangston at 2:56 PM on August 26, 2009

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is unlike anywhere else and incredible. Hollywood Forever Cemetery is also kind of fun if you're into cemeteries and kitsch - a few Ramones are there among the stars of yore.

Not quite gutterpunk but incredibly fascinating for anyone interested in aesthetics or architecture is the Gamble House in Pasadena. I always found it to be an exquisite example of form and function elegantly married together, as well as snapshot of the arts and crafts movement. If you're already out that way to check out the Huntington Gardens, I'd say this is worth a stop. There are also several Wright homes in the vicinity (I believe) so you could do a driving tour.

I'll second the Hollyhock House but was there about two years ago and it was quite run down--it is owned and operated by the City of LA, whereas the Gamble is a joint venture btwn. the city of Pasadena and USC, go figure.
posted by thenewbrunette at 3:27 PM on August 26, 2009

The highlights of my last trip to LA were Pure Luck (vegan jackfruit carnitas and fried pickles!) and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. So nthing those suggestions.

I also loved Scoops, an ice cream shop that has incredible crazy flavors, some vegan. I got 6 flavors and ended up eating nearly an entire pint of ice cream. It's across the street from Pure Luck.
posted by soleiluna at 5:02 PM on August 26, 2009

If you like paintings (or Asian art), check out the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 5:20 PM on August 26, 2009

Response by poster: I've marked a couple of best answers so far, but all the answers are awesome! Please keep 'em coming!

The stretch between San Simeon and La Jolla Canyon is the biggest unknown at present -- any recommendations for places we shouldn't miss?
posted by acridrabbit at 7:57 PM on August 26, 2009

Best answer: Mostly the area between San Simeon/San Luis Obipso and LA is about ejoying the drive/taking in the nature/savoring great fresh local food/ ag tourism (hundreds of wineries, + lavender/flower farms, olive farms, etc..) Lots of hiking and beach walking, biking type activities. I'm having troubling thinking of specific cultural things not to miss other than the prev mentioned missions (Santa Barbara, SLO, San Miguel).

San Luis Obispo - great place to stay or eat, little boutiques, etc.
Pismo/Shell Beach - classic So Cal beach town, not much here beyond the beach
There's not a lot between Pismo and the Solvang/Santa Ynez area. The drive through Santa Ynez is scenic and there are several cute little restaurants, but it's big "industry" is wine. I'm not sure you'd enjoy Solvang all that much, I went with my mom this spring and we had a fun couple of hours, but I think my husband would hate it. Sort of fun to see, but touristy.

SLO to Santa Barbara is about a 90 minute drive, if that. I would get off in SB to take in the spanish architecture and harbor. South of SB, I thought downtown Ventura's seemed interesting the brief afternoon I was there waiting for my car to be repaired.

If you're going to Santa Monica from SB definitely get back on the the Pacific Coast Hwy and avoid the traffic on 101

not sure if this was helpful - Feel free to email me directly if I can answer and ?
posted by snowymorninblues at 9:54 PM on August 26, 2009

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